Americans are finding nothing clears the head quite like a beheading. This weekend as we learn more about the perpetrator, the nation is reaching a new clarity regarding the threat of jihadist ideology following the shocking beheading of a woman in Oklahoma.
My first invitation to a beheading came in Riyadh. Desperate to fill austere weekends in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, my expat colleagues were drawn to Riyadh’s public executions. A decade later, my next such invitation was in New York City, when attorney and security expert Richard Horowitz suggested I “understand what we are up against.” By then, I had witnessed 9-11 from Riyadh, had written a book about the Saudi Kingdom, and was confronting radical Islamism in my journalism. I knew I had to see these brutal acts conducted in the name of my faith, images which will remain with me until the end.
I remember the beheading like yesterday. Lain to the ground, he was belly down, his head extended, his chin jutting out. A vigorous boy leapt to the task. Grabbing the man’s beard, he began to lever the makeshift handle to his head. Ten maybe twelve, the boy brandished a kitchen knife. Like the boy, it wasn’t particularly big.
A crowd began to cheer as he made the first astonishing incision. ‘Allah hu-Akbar! Allah hu-Akbar!’ Legs astride, the boy straddled his prey. Out-of-the-box-new sneakers gleamed in the noon sun. He hadn’t quite grown into them. Barehanded, the boy-man began to slice through the front of the victim’s throat. He had chosen the level of the larynx at which to begin cutting.
Broadening his incision, the initiate sliced open the jugular veins and the massive carotid arteries that course directly, diagonally in front of them. Blood emptied out of the man. Jihadi poetry mounted to a crescendo as his life force seeped away.
Well into the cutting — the spinal cord was still intact — the victim would still have some awareness. A few frames later, he began asphyxiating on the blood pouring into his windpipe. As the frenzy rose around the boy, he became increasingly emboldened, beginning the grim work of separating the head from the trunk, surprised to find it quite such a task, unaware of the fibrous ligaments, sturdy strap muscles and immense vertebrae which anchor the head to the body.
It was full minutes before the beheading was over, at which point the small boy began waving the trophy of the man’s head. The boy grinned, showing a full set of permanent teeth for his Kodak moment. In a final desecration, he took the long, bloody blade of the knife, and wiped it through the matted hair of the cadaver’s head, treasuring the implement which had brought him induction into the special world of madness among these men.
I needed to know more, so soon after I traveled to meet similar child jihadists in Malakand, Northwest Pakistan. There in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, boys speaking in unschooled, broken Urdu shyly told me their tales. Groomed to be suicide bombers, Taliban operatives and Taliban informers, boys who might have been at beheadings like the ones I had seen described their paths to jihadism, journeys I recounted later on Capitol Hill when I testified on Muslim radicalization.
Today, Americans are reeling from ISIS’ brutal tactics, the macabre hallmark of which has become beheadings. Equally troubling is the alacrity which which commentators have equated decapitation with Islam, ignoring both man’s millennia-long practice of decapitation predating any monotheism and the very heterogeneous practice of Islam by its 1.56 billion followers.
Capital punishment originally referred to death by beheading — so named from the Latin for head, “caput.” Beheading is the intentional separation of head from torso. Decapitation, in contrast, is a forensic term- it may be accidental (as in motor vehicle accidents, or hangings), or intentional — the dismemberment of a head from the body after death.
ISIS is in fact decapitating civilians. After severing the major vessels in the neck, and the airway, they kill by exsanguination and asphyxiation. Death results before beheading – exactly like the executions I had seen. ISIS therefore not only murders the innocent victim but also desecrates their corpse — dual crimes, a third, as they record the deed in a pornographic human document for dissemination.
In seeking an audience, Islamists are hardly original. Capital punishments have long been about making a public spectacle. ISIS uses decapitation videos to terrorize communities, including hostages (as in the recently freed Turks) and pressure whole governments. Modern day Islamists prize an audience of both intimidated westerners and luridly fascinated would-be jihadists.
But the lethal impact on terrorized communities, or the desecration of the beliefs of 1.56 billion aside, ISIS’ appetite for extreme violence, including decapitations, renders a false veneer of moderation to other radical Islamist ideologies, veiling them further into legitimacy. This to me, is perhaps the most dangerous impact of their bestiality.
Don’t be seduced by the absence of ISIS-like violence. Some may say Hamas doesn’t decapitate like ISIS, unaware of Hamas’ hardcore Islamist foundations. Reading the Hamas charter reveals they are far from moderates. No one understands this better than Israel. Israel has been combating a rising tide of radical Islamism, as executive director of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism Dr. Boaz Ganor describes in a recent position paper.
For decades, Israel has been single-handedly combating Islamism, most recently confronting Hamas this summer and in 2012 and previously in 2006 when Israel battled Hezbollah. These wars may appear territorial but are very much ideological. Hamas seeks not the liberation of the Palestinians but the elimination of all Jews consistent with article 22 of the Hamas charter.
This same tide of radical Islamism has been awash across Syria and is now encroaching upon Iraq. Parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan have been similarly submerged without relief for the better part of a decade. And if we fail to contain it with every means possible — diplomatic, military, economic, political and ideological — we will can see similar atrocities, with their attendant recruitment power, much closer to home. Investigators studying the events in Oklahoma are fearing just this. The British learned this one afternoon last spring in the broad daylight decapitation of British solider Lee Rigby in London. Now they are documenting the steady flow of young middle class radicalized Muslim jihad tourists, many of them women, into Syria. At some stage they will be returning to their countries of origin ready to perpetuate Islamist war on their host societies.
We will learn more of the Oklahoma beheading as events unfold. In the meantime, we must avoid oversimplification. Equating authentic Islam with decapitation further masks Islamism with the trappings of Islam, instead of recognizing that rampant decapitations and other atrocities are in fact the hallmark of Islamism, an imposter totalitarian ideology based on a fictional Islam.
Rendering non-ISIS Islamists false credence as moderates, when they are just as ideologically lethal as violent Islamists, may be even more lethal, as it aids the Islamists in their own fatal decapitation of the fountainhead of all Muslims: noble Islam itself.