By Polly Mosendz
Two more lives are at risk in the Philippines after Abu Sayyaf, an al Qaeda-linked terrorist organization, threatened to behead hostages captured earlier this year. The captives, two Germans who were sailing in the South China Sea from the Palawan Island to Sabah, Malaysia, are to be executed by beheading on October 17 if the terrorists’ demands are not met.
Beheading has become the preferred method of execution since the Islamic State published a video ofAmerican journalist James Foley’s murder. ISIS has also executed journalist Steven Sotloff and aid worker David Haines, and most recently threatened the life of aid volunteer Alan Henning. Last week in Algeria the Caliphate Soldiers executed an innocent French mountaineer by beheading, publicly distributing the video, after demanding airstrikes be stopped. Several days ago, the Taliban beheaded12 civilians in Afghanistan. Amnesty International has also noted a recent “surge” in death by beheading in Saudi Arabia.
The death of reporter Daniel Pearl by al-Qaeda in 2002 was one of the first mainstream beheadings, garnering the world’s attention. However, beheading in the name of Islam is certainly not a new development in the terrorist world. Islamic experts have long debated if the Koran alludes to an acceptance of beheading, as some organizations like the Tawhid wal Jihad have pointed to one particular passage to justify this act:
When you encounter the unbelievers on the battlefield, strike off their heads until you have crushed them completely; then bind the prisoners tightly.
Timothy R. Furnish, a doctorate scholar in Islamic history with the University of Ohio, noted in theMiddle East Quarterly that some organizations point to the historic acts of their founder to justify the killing. “Ibn Ishaq (d. 768 C.E.), the earliest biographer of Muhammad, is recorded as saying that the Prophet ordered the execution by decapitation of 700 men of the Jewish Banu Qurayza tribe in Medina for allegedly plotting against him,” he writes.
While terrorist organizations pull from ancient texts and events, modern Muslim leaders have widely denounced the act. Ulema and mushaikh (high-level Islamic leaders) in Pakistan came to the conclusion that both beheadings and suicide attacks are “un-Islamic.” The American Muslim Organization has repeatedly condemned the act and North American Imam Syed Soharwardy has said, “Any attack by foreign elements should also be considered a direct affront to the 10 million Muslims who call either Canada or the United States home.”
Nonetheless, the attacks are continuing with increased popularity and more widespread distribution. When threatening a captive with beheading, terrorists generally demand an impossible ransom. In return for its two German hostages, Abu Sayyaf has demanded $5.6 million and for Germany to cease support of airstrikes against ISIS in Syria. (The German military is not directly involved in these strikes.) ISIS demanded $132.5 million for James Foley. The Caliphate Soldiers demanded France cease military motions against ISIS immediately.
Experts believe the spread of this tactic may be due to recruitment efforts. Beheading videos, especially those with the most graphic content removed, are used to recruit new soldiers to the organization. The terrorists distribute the videos through their media, targeting young men in their area.
Once the terrorists decide the hostage is worth more in a beheading video than alive, an impossible demand is placed. “That’s a tactic on their part, to ask for a ridiculous amount of money so they can look like they tried to negotiate, but our side was unreasonable,” explained former FBI hostage negotiator Christopher Voss, “It is a ruse. It is an intentionally nonsubstantive demand. It’s a bit of the equivalent of al-Qaeda in Iraq asking for all U.S. forces to get out. They intentionally ask for something that won’t happen.”
Voss notes that the increase in hostage-taking itself, not just beheading, stems from how terrorist organizations have splintered over time. Former FBI hostage negotiator Gary Noesner believes this splintering explains the spread and evolution of beheading through different organizations. For some organizations, like al-Qaeda, the hostages became worth more alive than dead, as they were seeking funds, not recruits. Smaller, greener groups like ISIS, the Caliphate Soldiers, and this Philippine division of Abu Sayyaf are looking to build an army, turning instead to the graphic death and accompanying video to prove themselves in the terrorist world.