Tag Archives: beheading

The Symbolic Nature of Terrorist Beheadings

In recent days we have horrifically witnessed the murder of Lee Rigby, a UK British soldier who served in Afghanistan–with many reporting that his murderer either attempted to, or actually beheaded him. In that case the murderer who stood around with his bloodied hands and machete admitted to his act and stated, “I am fed up with people killing Muslims in Afghanistan” and added that his motivations were revenge—“because Muslims are dying everyday.”

The same style of ritualized killing was attempted by Mohammed Bouyeri, the Dutch second generation Moroccan immigrant who murdered Theo van Gogh—the celebrated filmmaker who had participated in the film Submission critical of Islam’s treatment of women with Ayaan Hirsi Ali.  Bouyeri stabbed van Gogh eight times before cutting his throat, nearly decapitating him.  He then pinned a five-page letter to van Gogh’s chest with his knife. Bouyeri wanted revenge for van Gogh’s critical comments about radical Islamists who van Gogh had referred to as “goat-fuckers” and was outraged over the film “Submission”, in which a Muslim woman is shown half naked with Islamic verses written across her lash-marked back and under her breasts shown under a see-through veil. 

Weeks earlier, when Dzhokar Tsarnaev admitted that it was he and his brother Tamerlan who had set off the bombs killing and maiming many at the Boston Marathon, a brutal triple murder case was reopened to investigate if Tamerlan was involved.  In that case Brendan Mess, Tamerlan’s “best friend” and two of Brendan’s (Jewish) roommates—Erik Weissman and Raphael Teken had also been nearly beheaded.  Their murder took place on 9-11, 2011 and appears highly symbolic in that there was no forced entry, the date of the murder was the anniversary of the 9-11 attacks and no money was taken and drugs were sprinkled across the nearly beheaded victims’ bodies. As the FBI tracked clues into the case and questioned Ibragim Todashev, a friend of Tamerlan’s about his involvement in the murders, Ibragim lethally attacked the agents leading them to shoot their suspect before the truth could be revealed 

A spate of beheading videos also date back to the time of journalist Daniel Pearl’s murder, allegedly at the hands of al Qaeda’s mastermind, Khalid Sheik Mohammed.  Likewise Chechen groups had been conducting beheadings long before this.  Such practices also proliferated during the Iraq invasion with hostages dressed in Gitmo orange filmed as they were beheaded in a horrific manner with demands made to release the Guantanamo prisoners.  Likewise a Muslim man in Buffalo, New York was accused of beheading his wife in 2009 and other such murders have also been reported.

Is there a symbolism to beheading that runs across all of these incidents? 

Looking to history and religious writings one finds that two verses in the Quran refer to smiting at the necks of one’s enemies but these are both commonly understood as referring to using deadly force in war.  Historically both Arabs and Christians beheaded their dead enemies on the battlefield as a symbolic act of victory.  And decapitation, as a form of criminal punishment was also used by both—occurring as late as 1977 in France and is still used in Saudi Arabia.

Terrorists who behead, due so to strike terror into civilian populations and into any who might oppose them and hope to use terror to try to force the political process to move in their favor.  Parviz Kahn who planned to kidnap a British Muslim soldier on leave in 2007 savored the idea of making him “squeal like a pig” and planned to film the innocent soldier’s beheading to cause panic among the general population and inhibit military recruitment. 

When these revenge attacks are carried out, it seems the idea is to slaughter a person much in the manner of cutting the throat of a sacrificial animal—perhaps unconsciously representing a rite of purification for the alleged “sins” of the victim or the group the victim represents.  Terrorists often refer to their victim as killing a “pig” which is of course an unclean animal for Muslims.  In any case the practice does incite terror and appears to be a type of ritualized murder by those who believe that through acts of terror they can cleanse the world of the “sins” of western governments’ actions—including military actions—that do in fact at times harm innocent civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq.  But of course these beheadings are only adding to the killing of innocents and doing little to change the course of politics.

The Militant Jihadi Ideology as a Short-Term Psychological Fix—Examining the Woolwich Murder of a British Soldier

When I made interviews with extremists and their supporters four and five years ago—in London, Birmingham and Leeds—I found many young immigrant descent Muslims expressed similar concerns to the recent murderer of a British soldier, Michael Abedolajo.  Many told me that they had distant relatives in Pakistan and Afghanistan and were deeply disturbed about them potentially being harmed by the British military.  While most did not endorse attacking their own country nor resorting to terrorist “solutions” on UK soil—many said they would feel compelled to aid Muslims under attack in Iraq or Afghanistan—even if it meant working against their own military.  And some told me that if push came to shove, they might even aid in an Afghani or Iraqi attack on British soldiers or a military installation inside the UK.  It seems the nightmare they foretold has now occurred only days ago.  The plot however is not completely new.

In 2007, four British Pakistani men living in Birmingham were imprisoned over a militant jihadi plot to kidnap and kill a British Muslim soldier home on leave.  Their plan was to film him in a blindfolded and handcuffed state—force him to demand the withdrawal of troops from Iraq—and then brutally behead him.  The objective was to terrorize British society and deter Muslims from joining the British army. 

In 2013, another British militant jihadi plot directed at serving soldiers was foiled by security services when three British-born men were also imprisoned for a plotting to explode bombs in Royal Wooton Bassett, a town where UK troops frequently parade after returning from service in Afghanistan. 

Now, this Wednesday—May 22, 2013 the loosely knit extremists who share a common al Qaeda referenced ideology got their wish. 

Two British men armed with machetes and meat cleavers brutally murdered Lee Rigby, a British soldier outside his base at the Royal Artillery Barracks in Woolwich. Perhaps even more horrifying than the murder itself—in which Rigby was beheaded—was that upon its completion the murderers, rather than fleeing the scene—stood calmly by as one of the murderers—twenty-eight year-old Muslim convert Michael Adebolajo asked witnesses to film his statements in which he attempted to justify their horrific crime.  As reported by the BBC, he told a female onlooker that he knew that his victim was a British soldier, “he wanted to start a war in London” and that he was “fed up” over British soldiers killing “Muslims over there”…“in Iraq and Afghanistan”.  

In this way Adebolajo mouthed the common al Qaeda narrative in which murderous actions are supposedly justified as righteous retribution for western military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Apparently the two also shared the militant jihadi belief in the rewards of “martyrdom”—as they were clearly unafraid of dying and hung around to make statements after brutally butchering Rigby.  Neither assailant did die—or become “martyrs”.  The police arrived, shot and wounded the assailants in attempts to subdue them, arrested them, and they now lie recovering in hospital.

The second attacker is still unidentified, so only Abedolajo’s details are known.  According to the BBC, he was the son of Nigerian immigrants, raised in a devout Christian home and was described by friends as normal and even intelligent—but his life took a bad turn after he got involved in drugs during his teens —smoking “weed” and dealing drugs.  According to those who knew him, Abedolajo’s descent into drugs led him also into violent street crimes after which he apparently found answers in the virulent militant jihadi ideology—and converted to what he called—but many would not recognize as—Islam. 

Like many lost second generation immigrants in Europe who have gone before him, Abedolajo—who was first alienated, addicted to drugs and confused about foreign policy—appears to have found a short-term psychological fix to his derailed life and its accompanying psychic pain in the militant jihadi ideology.  As I have discovered in my over four hundred research interviews with terrorists and their supporters around the world—the militant jihadi ideology has this power to deliver psychological “first aid”—albeit offering only a short-lived solution to those in pain—as it often ends in their own death.  In Abedolajo’s case it apparently delivered to him, a strait laced code to live by that does have the power to rid one of drug addiction, alongside a new family of “brothers” to bolster his new world view—while at the same time also providing an almost euphoric belief in attaining the rewards of “martyrdom” for attacking the so called “enemies of Islam”.

Most likely Abedolajo’s derailed life was going nowhere and he confused his passionate care for civilian victims in Afghanistan and Iraq—a concern that many Muslims and non Muslims alike share—with the distorted al Qaeda claim that demanded he give his life and take part in terrorist violence to somehow wage—or has he put it “start a war”—in their behalf.   The Telegraph reports that he was believed to have already tried to join al-Shabaab in Somalia but was forced to return to Britain.  Apparently Abedolajo couldn’t find a way to self-actualize. For a young man who had little else going for him other than an apparent passion and identification with the wounds other Muslims around the world suffer—the euphoric high of “martyrdom” apparently became his new drug of choice.

The area he lived in—Woolwich, an area in south London was likewise derailed.  Formerly a thriving military and industrial town—home to the Woolwich Dockyard, Royal Arsenal, Royal Military Academy and Royal Horse Artillery—it has in recent years suffered considerable decline becoming an area where Somali and Nigerian drug gangs frequently clash with neo-Nazi skinheads. Indeed, Woolwich was already showing signs of trouble in July 2011, when riots and looting occurred, several buildings were attacked and destroyed, and fires caused serious damage.

Deranged enough in his beliefs to proudly proclaim his murderous actions as just—Abedolajo appears to have been convinced by terrorist instigators (Anjem Choudary and Omar Bakri Mohammed claim to be among them) that giving his life, while taking the lives of others would somehow lead to correcting the international grievances that concerned him.  What his terrorist ideologues failed to tell him—that attacking civilians or non-deployed military members on the streets of London or anywhere else—could never be justified according to any religion—nor bring about the hoped for political remedies he may have dreamed of.  The militant jihad could clean up his drug addiction, his newfound “brothers” could help him turn from a life of crime and provide a sense of meaning, camaraderie and false heroism. But at their core his instigators were not interested in anything other than sacrificing him to their cause—believing like him—that by enacting “martyrdom” he could exit this life to earn the rewards of paradise in the next.

While I spoke to extremists in London, I also had the pleasure during the same time period, of taking part in a retreat held for the thousand Muslim soldiers who were at the time serving in the British military—an event hosted by the learned Armed Forces Senior Imam Asim Hafiz.  While less than a hundred soldiers were in country and on leave to attend, I was impressed to meet so many extremely professional UK soldiers—all Muslim and most of immigrant descent—who expressed no qualms about the righteousness of their service in the British military. 

Instead they expressed concerns over the normal challenges of military service similar to soldiers of other religions and nationalities.  The only differences, from their non-Muslim counterparts that I recall witnessing during that weekend was that they refrained from drink, heartily partook of halal food, prayed in a lovely way together—even inviting me to take part if I wished, and the most fun of all—they taught me (an American) to play cricket!

I was struck, however by one essential difference from their non-Muslim counterparts.  A fair number admitted that they kept their military service secret from their family and community members.  When asked why, they said they had no moral misgivings over their service but feared facing social and religious condemnation, or even danger from their communities who would not accept their decision to enter the military.  So instead, they lived undercover and made up stories about being international businessmen with a frequent need for travel. 

Sadly, if terrorist instigators continue to infect lost young men like Michael Adebolajo convincing them that taking part in terrorist murders is a just way to champion any cause, even more UK soldiers are likely to chose to hide their profession and sadly more may fall prey to murders of this type.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry in the Georgetown University Medical School and author of Talking to Terrorists: Understanding the Psycho-Social Motivations of Militant Jihadi Terrorists, Mass Hostage Takers, Suicide Bombers & “Martyrs” In the last decade she interviewed over four hundred terrorists, suicide bombers, terrorist supporters, family members, close associates and hostages.