Comprehending the Woolwich atrocity involves understanding the Psychology of Terrorist Beheadings
Raj Persaud and Peter Bruggen
The brutal murder of drummer and British soldier Lee Rigby, appears to have involved a possible attempted beheading; in February 2007 UK authorities uncovered a terrorist cell based in the UK plotting to behead British Muslim soldiers who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, intending to broadcast the ﬁlmed executions through jihadist websites.
The parallels with the Woolwich murder clarifies why the two perpetrators remained on the scene and allowed themselves to be filmed by shocked bystanders, perhaps even encouraging the recordings. Certainly their statements to stunned pedestrians became headline news across the world.
Michael Adebolajo, a British born Muslim convert now being held over the Woolwich incident, appears to have argued that he was within his rights to urge people to ‘behead those who insult Islam’ (according to the Daily Telegraph Newspaper) as he was arrested at the Old Bailey in 2006 for fighting with police and photographers at the trial of a fanatic, who had called for British soldiers to be killed.
Pete Lentini and Muhammad Bakashmar from the Global Terrorism Research Centre and Department of Politics at Monash University, in Australia, have published the most recent and definitive academic survey of terrorist beheadings. Their study entitled ‘Jihadist Beheading: A Convergence of Technology, Theology, and Teleology?’ contends that press coverage of the subject frequently misses the psychology of what is really going on, a crucial dimension when beheading is used in terrorism.
For example, they point out that with the 2007 plot to behead British Muslim soldiers, journalists described the intended beheadings and their dissemination as “Iraq-style.” While jihadist beheading became widely known from the Iraq conﬂict, beheadings there were largely used to recruit future jihadists and demonstrate strength to the global Muslim community. In contrast, Lentini and Bakashmar argue, the alleged UK 2007 beheading plot was in fact aimed at striking terror into Muslims living in the UK. It was to discourage them from supporting or serving their government.
According to Lentini and Bakashmar, while the Iraq beheadings were intended to persuade, the UK plot was intended to dissuade.
Of course terrorism is used to exert a psychological impact on the population, and this is often achieved through mass casualties. However, as Lentini and Bakashmar point out, terrorists probably want more people watching than dead. Beheading achieves this end with much smaller casualties. Its high shock value brings multiple audiences.
Lentini and Bakashmar contend in their study, published in the academic journal ‘Studies in Conflict & Terrorism’, that this explains why Islamist terrorists beheaded Wall Street Journal columnist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan in early 2002, and why Chechen terrorists and criminals have beheaded ethnic Russians, Chechens, and foreign citizens.
The Abu Sayyaf Group in the Philippines has also beheaded hostages, as have various Algerian groups and the Taliban. Beheadings and dismembering victims of political crimes have not been conﬁned to jihadists, point out Lentini and Bakashmar. The murderers of former IRA bomber and Sinn Fein ofﬁcial turned British spy Dennis Donaldson, did some of this. They mutilated his body by chopping off his right hand before they shot him in April 2006.
The fact that such a terrible mutilatory act was performed in a non-Islamic context indicates that part of the psychology of beheading is also about communicating to a wider audience a level of commitment not normally found in combatants. This is meant to intimidate opponents, giving them pause for thought in engaging in conflict with such formidable adversaries. Indeed if an enemy doesn’t have access to superior military technology, one of the few weapons they have is psychology. They use it forcefully.
Some Chechen groups used beheadings of single or poorer individuals captured in groups, so that the others with wealthier families, would be more inclined to pay higher ransoms.
While Lentini and Bakashmar contend that beheadings are spreading as military strategy, it is the special significance within religion, which has particularly ominous implications for the barbarity to come.
Religious terrorists, answer to non-earthly authorities and so they may feel neither restricted, nor judged by, human standards. This legitimises the use of atrocities which cannot be comprehended by an audience not driven by such religious zeal. Taking the life of an enemy may be a step closer to fulﬁlling a divine mission in a cosmic war.
Lentini and Bakashmar argue that this mentality derives from ill-informed and selective readings of ‘sacred’ texts, exploited by terrorist leaders in order to gain converts to the cause. Lentini and Bakashmar contend that the Prophet Muhammad is reported to have said instead, “War prisoners are your brothers. Allah has put them in your hands; so whosoever has his brother in his hands, let him give food to eat out of what he himself eats and let him give him clothes to wear out of what he himself wears, and do not impose on them a work they are not able to do themselves. If at all you give them such work, help them to carry it out.” Also in that interpretation, not only is it prohibited for the Muslim soldiers to kill their captives, they are also required to treat them in a fair and just manner.
If one of the alleged perpetrators of the attack yesterday could have publicly threatened beheading to those who insulted Islam as far back as 2006, this indicates how far this strategy has penetrated the psyche of some.
Lentini and Bakashmar argue beheading and use of ‘low-tech’ attacks now fits into the post-2005 strategy of decentralized, small-scale and individual jihad. Individuals in the West cannot travel as easily to places where they can train or fight against Western militaries, and terrorism central command often cannot fund operations as easily.
Therefore, terrorist leaders want to stress that individuals and groups have to do it on their own, and that all efforts contributing to the broader cause are welcome. This self-directed, autonomous attack style has been used by far right, environmental and animal rights militants as well.
Another striking element to the atrocity in Woolwich was the way the perpetrators waited for the police to arrive – this is part of a new form of ‘no-escape attack’ which has marked out terrorism of the modern era, in marked contrast to what came before.
In religious terrorism, dying in a spiritual struggle is seen as not the end of existence, but the beginning of eternal life. The holy warriors are promised the rewards of martyrdom. In these circumstances, the lives of both the terrorist and victim are no longer meaningful. Beheading is a natural development of “cosmic war”.
Lentini and Bakashmar explain this could have reversed the old saying among terrorism analysts; that terrorists want more people watching than dead.
Now they might want more dead than watching.