Beheading as Symbolic Warfare
By Dawn Perlmutter
Danish translation: Halshugning som symbolsk krigsførelse
Source:, August 22, 2014
Published on September 3, 2014

The videotaped beheading of American journalist James Foley on Tuesday August 19th has shocked the American public even though there has been thousands of beheadings by Islamist jihadists around the world. Last week at the Annual International Association for Identification (Crime Scene) Conference I presented a three hour lecture titled Beheading Epidemic and it was not nearly enough time to cover the forensic and investigation aspects of this widespread global phenomenon.

The videotaped murder of James Foley demonstrates the evolution of beheading as a jihadist tactic made popular by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor group of the Islamic State Army. The similarities and differences are significant. James Foley’s execution involved the classic Al Qaeda forensic signature. Similar to the dozens of Iraqi and foreign hostages that were beheaded by Al Qaeda in Iraq, James Foley had his hands cuffed behind his back, was kneeling in front of his captor and was dressed in the orange clothing symbolic of the type worn by detainees in U.S. prisons and Guantanamo Bay.

Al-Zarqawi’s videotaped ritual beheadings typically included a reading of offenses, confession, judgment, last words, execution, and a verbal statement of demands. The executioner was dressed in military type uniform consisting of black clothing, including ski mask covering his face and prominently displaying the murder weapon, his knife. The ritual pattern typically began with a statement from the executioner reciting the reason for the death sentence, which alluded to current political events, usually teeming with religious language justifying the violence, praise for Allah and often containing future threats. The victim then had the opportunity for last words; sometimes he confessed to being a spy or whatever the group had coerced him into confessing, or pleaded with the audience to acquiesce to the kidnappers’ demands and secure his release. At that point the head was cut off with a small knife by the leader, held in the air and then placed on the victim’s back.

Differences in the ISIS beheading video of James Foley include the high production value, outdoor scenic space and slick editing. Instead of an interior space decorated with terrorist group banners, it is a stark outdoor scene with just blue sky and desert as background placing all focus on the two men and the message to America. Instead of a flag hanging on the wall behind several terrorists, the ISIS black flag emblem is flying in the top left corner occasionally displaying the al-furqan media emblem underneath. Instead of nasheeds playing in the background, the quiet emphasizes both Foley’s scripted speech and the Jihadists threat to kill more Americans. Significantly the sound of screaming, the image of blood gushing out of the wound and the praising of Allah has been edited out. The only bloody graphic is a quick screen shot of the head placed on the center of the back of Foley’s body, proof of death and the classic Islamist Jihadist forensic signature. The impact of the film immediately cutting to and ending with the image of Steven Sotloff, another American journalist dressed in the same orange jumpsuit, the obvious next victim if President Obama does not meet their demands, is exceedingly powerful.

The most significant difference in the James Foley beheading video is the absence of religious language, particularly praising Allah during the execution. There should be no doubt that Allah was praised while cutting Foleys throat and that detail of the murder was deliberately edited out. Praising Allah ritualizes the murder and justifies the violence in the name of Islam. It is extremely atypical that the executioner and other participants during beheadings would not shout the phrase Allahu Akbar. The editing demonstrates that the focus of this propaganda video was political. The message to the American public was that Foleys death was not the result of Islamist ideology but that his death was the consequence of America getting involved in the war against ISIS. This message will most likely resonate with many Americans and illustrates the media savvy of ISIS.

Other than the ritual execution the most disturbing aspect of the murder is that the terrorist is speaking with a British accent. This high production beheading video served several purposes. One was to pressure the American public to stay out of Iraq and Syria and it also functions as a recruitment video for more Westerners to join ISIS. The British jihadist earned his stripes by murdering Foley and he will become a rock star among other radicalized Westerners.

Although beheading is an ancient method of warfare, the use of cell phones and video cameras to film and document ritual executions is a contemporary phenomenon that has evolved into a new tactic of war. Beheading videos are inherently symbolic, in fact they are the personification of symbolic warfare, they function as both strategic and psychological operations and have been extremely successful in radicalizing Western Muslims into fighting in the global jihad. They have particular appeal to young Muslim men who view the violence as vengeance against perceived oppression and offenses of Islam and to young Muslim men living in Western countries who feel marginalized. The warrior ethos appeals to vulnerable men who find a sense of purpose by identifying themselves as Mujahideen soldiers fighting for a heroic cause. Many of these young men have become desensitized to violence through videogames which often involve graphic decapitation of enemies.

Beheading videos have taken on a life of their own significantly contributing to the recruitment of young American and European Muslims into violent jihadists. This was evident in the case of Mohammed Merah, the 23-year-old French citizen who killed seven people in a series of three gun attacks targeting French soldiers and Jewish civilians in the cities of Montauban and Toulouse, France in March 2012. Two years prior to the shootings, Merah attempted to recruit other Muslim boys for jihad by showing them beheading videos. Merah was so impressed with jihadist beheading videos that he filmed all of his killings with a camera strapped to his body, edited the film of his murders into a video and sent the video to al Jazeera to ensure that he would receive proper recognition. Beheading videos played a significant role in inspiring him to commit the killings, he not only starred in but directed his own propaganda film so he could achieve notoriety and live in infamy as a heroic jihadist warrior in Islamist cyberspace.

The influence of beheading videos as a propaganda tool is also apparent in the arrests of failed terrorists in Europe and the United States. Beheading videos were discovered in the homes of six men who attempted to bomb the London Underground and a bus on July 21, 2005 and in the home of two of the men who plotted a terrorist attack against Fort Dix, U.S. Army base in New Jersey. An alarming example of the effect of beheading videos was made public on January 31, 2007, when nine British Pakistanis were arrested in Birmingham England for planning to kidnap and behead a British Muslim soldier. They planned to videotape the beheading of the soldier in the same manner as the beheading of hostages in Iraq. Several beheading videos were found in a raid on their house. This plot was a prelude to the actual murder of Lee Rigby, a British soldier who was beheaded in broad daylight on a London street on May 22, 2013 by a British jihadist who gave public interviews with the bloody knife in his hand.

In a July 2012 incident police found beheading videos and bomb-making materials in the home of a British Muslim couple who were convicted for plotting to bomb Jewish targets in Manchester. In 2008 there was a disturbing report of a 12-year-old non-Muslim British boy who had a collection of beheading videos on his mobile phone. The videos were found by teachers who reported the child to police after he sent clips to his classmates. To a twelve-year-old beheading videos are the perfect combination of horror films and videogames both of which desensitize them to the reality of violence. Al Qaeda and ISIS exploit those addicted to video violence by supplying them with an ideology, weapons, training and real life targets so they can fulfill their heroic violent fantasies. James Foley’s executioner was one of their successful recruits. A trail of beheading videos may lead to his identity.