Why Was Kassig’s Death Different?

Yesterday, ISIS released a video showing that they had beheaded 26-year-old American aid worker Abdul-Rahman (né Peter) Kassig:

In the clip released early Sunday, the Islamic State displays the head of Mr. Kassig, 26, at the feet of a man with a British accent who appeared in the previous beheading videos and has been nicknamed Jihadi John by the British news media. Unlike the earlier videos, which were staged with multiple cameras from different vantage points, and which show the hostages kneeling, then uttering their last words, the footage of Mr. Kassig’s death is curtailed — showing only the final scene.

One possible explanation is that Kassig, a former Army Ranger, resisted his captors at the end. We may never know what happened for sure. One thing that is for sure, however, is that Kassig’s embrace of Islam during his captivity didn’t spare his life.

As Terrence McCoy notes, other captives of Islamist militant groups who converted, such as James Foley, didn’t reap any benefit from doing so either. Fawaz Gerges stresses that killing a convert “is an extremely serious violation of the well-established consensus in the Islamic community on the sacredness of life for converts to the religion”. He sees Kassig’s sloppy killing as a sign that the group is on the defensive:

Abu Muhammed al-Maqdsi, a mentor to many al Qaeda leaders, had called for mercy — not only because Kassig was a convert to Islam, but because he had given up so much to move to Syria and help victims of the war. Militant Islamists in the country also went public with a request for mercy. They said Kassig, a trained medic, had treated them when they were injured in battles against Syrian government forces.

It was inevitable that these calls would fall on deaf ears. Beheading Western hostages is one of the only tools ISIS has at its disposal to retaliate against the American-led airstrikes that are beginning to land serious blows on the group. … While it is difficult to keep track of the latest developments on the ground, what we do know is this: The momentum, at least in Iraq, is shifting. The group’s leaders are being hunted down, and they’re feeling the pain.

Now, according to Shane Harris, the jihadists hold just one American prisoner: a young woman, the same age as Kassig, who also went to Syria as an aid worker and was kidnapped in August 2013:

U.S. officials and the woman’s family have requested that her name not be made public, fearing that further attention will put her in greater jeopardy. No news organization has published her name. But the general circumstances of her capture and captivity have been known and widely reported for more than a year now. ISIS’s intentions for its remaining American prisoner are unclear. But current and former U.S. officials told The Daily Beast that it was notable she doesn’t appear at the end of a video, released Sunday, that shows the aftermath of Kassig’s beheading. That breaks with ISIS’s pattern of showing the next hostage it intends to kill.

Reflecting on better days when he could interview Taliban leaders without fearing for his neck, Goldblog worries about these beheadings prompting journalists (and, one might add, humanitarians like Kassig) to think twice before heading to war zones:

Why have some groups rejected the notion of journalistic neutrality? For one thing, the extremists have become more extreme. Look at the fractious relationship between al-Qaeda and ISIS, which is an offshoot of al-Qaeda but which has rejected criticism from Qaeda leaders about its particularly baroque application of violence. Another, more important, reason relates to the mechanisms of publicity itself. The extremists don’t need us anymore. Fourteen years ago, while I was staying at the Taliban madrasa, its administrators were launching a Web site. I remember being amused by this. I shouldn’t have been. There is no need for a middleman now. Journalists have been replaced by YouTube and Twitter. And when there is no need for us, we become targets. …

Today, even places that shouldn’t be dangerous for journalists are dangerous. Whole stretches of Muslim countries are becoming off-limits. This is a minor facet of a much larger calamity, but it has consequences: the problems of Afghanistan and Pakistan and Syria and Iraq are not going away; our ability to see these problems, however, is becoming progressively more circumscribed.