Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Why Beheading?

From Jeff Jacoby, at the Boston Globe:
ISLAMIC STATE has made the beheading of victims a key element in its campaign of terror and conquest. Most conspicuous in recent weeks have been the murders of Westerners James Foley, Steven Sotloff, and David Haines, whose severed heads and decapitated bodies have been shown in threatening videos produced by the jihadists. In the years since 9/11, other Islamist terrorist groups have circulated equally ghastly beheading videos. Among the earlier victims were journalist Daniel Pearl, businessman Nicholas Berg, and construction contractors Jack Hensley and Eugene Armstrong — all Americans beheaded by Al Qaeda.

Last week, meanwhile, Australian police arrested 15 suspects allegedly linked to Islamic State; they are accused of plotting to publicly behead a victim abducted at random.

Clearly the terrorists relish the horror beheading evokes in America and other Western democracies, as well as the fear it inspires among Kurds, Shiites, or other local forces standing in the path of their juggernaut. Psychological warfare is an essential element in Islamic State’s military strategy, writes Shashank Joshi, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London. Even when heavily outnumbered, Islamic State has been able to leverage its reputation for implacable brutality “to dissuade Iraqi forces from ever seeking battle.” And by killing American and British hostages with such sadistic relish, it aims to intensify the desire of many in the West to wash their hands of involvement in Iraq once and for all.

But there are other ways to terrorize, other gruesome means of mass murder — suicide bombings, poison gas, hijackings. Why the emphasis on beheading?

No doubt part of the explanation is that beheadings tend to draw more attention than suicide bombings and exploding cars. Deadly though they are, car bombs and shootings have lost much of their shock value in Western eyes. It takes an unusually high death toll for a bombing in Iraq to attract as much media attention as the decapitation of a single hostage by an English-speaking Islamist wielding a knife. Terrorists crave attention, more now in the digital age, perhaps, than ever before. Islamic State and other jihadist groups have many ways to commit mass murder. But for generating a spectacle that will be noticed — and shuddered at — the world over, sawing off the head of an American journalist or a European relief worker, then uploading the video to the Internet, is hard to beat...

RELATED: At LAT, "Islamic State's soft weapon of choice: social media."