Why ISIS Brought Back Beheadings

by Dish Staff

Videos of masked militants beheading captive Westerners were a common feature of jihadist propaganda in the early years of the last decade, but such videos had scarcely been seen in a decade when the video of James Foley’s murder came to light this week. Katie Zavadski explains why:

According to University of Massachusetts, Lowell, professor Mia Bloom, the videos faded because they were frowned upon by higher-ups in organizations like Al Qaeda. Although Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a high-ranking Al Qaeda in Iraq operative, was said to have personally executed Americans Nicholas Berg and Eugene Armstrong, Bloom says superiors, including Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, looked down on the practice. “AQI got into a lot of trouble for those public beheadings,” she says, because they did more to alienate potential supporters than to recruit them.

“What’s interesting is that you saw a drop-off of these videos because they provoked somewhat of a backlash,” agrees SUNY Albany professor Victor Asal. While everyone knew these groups were doing horrible things, including beheadings, there was something particularly distasteful about videotaping their executions. By returning to these videos, ISIS is saying, “We will do what we want, how we want,” Asal says. “Be very, very scared of us.”

Adam Taylor explores ISIS’s macabre devotion to this particularly bloody method of murder:

The Islamic State may justify its beheadings with theology and history, but the use of the tactic is probably driven by more immediate factors. “I don’t think there’s anything inherently Islamist to these beheadings,” Max Abrahms, a Northeastern professor who studies jihadist groups, told The Post. “It’s important to recognize where Islamic State is coming from historically, in order to understand why it is beheading people — and why it’s using social media to broadcast it.”

In particular, Abrahms argues, the Islamic State may be seeking to differentiate itself from al-Qaeda in Iraq, a group he notes was “widely seen, even among jihadists, as a failure.” With high-profile beheadings, the Islamic State could be attempting to link itself to Khalid Sheik Mohammed, a Guantanamo Bay detainee and alleged Sept. 11 mastermind who is now thought to have killed Pearl.