Beheading as Symbolic Warfare

Dawn Perlmutter is the Director of the Symbol Intelligence Group and one of the leading subject matter experts (SME) in symbols, symbolic methodologies, unfamiliar customs and ritualistic crimes. She designed and developed Jihad-ID, a symbolic database of the signs, symbols and identifiers of global jihad.


bnThe videotaped beheading of American journalist James Foley on Tuesday August 19th has shocked the American public even though there has been thousands of beheadings by Islamist jihadists around the world. Last week at the Annual International Association for Identification (Crime Scene) Conference I presented a three hour lecture titled Beheading Epidemic and it was not nearly enough time to cover the forensic and investigation aspects of this widespread global phenomenon.

The videotaped murder of James Foley demonstrates the evolution of beheading as a jihadist tactic made popular by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor group of the Islamic State Army. The similarities and differences are significant. James Foley’s execution involved the classic Al Qaeda forensic signature. Similar to the dozens of Iraqi and foreign hostages that were beheaded by Al Qaeda in Iraq, James Foley had his hands cuffed behind his back, was kneeling in front of his captor and was dressed in the orange clothing symbolic of the type worn by detainees in U.S. prisons and Guantanamo Bay.

Al-Zarqawi’s videotaped ritual beheadings typically included a reading of offenses, confession, judgment, last words, execution, and a verbal statement of demands. The executioner was dressed in military type uniform consisting of black clothing, including ski mask covering his face and prominently displaying the murder weapon, his knife. The ritual pattern typically began with a statement from the executioner reciting the reason for the death sentence, which alluded to current political events, usually teeming with religious language justifying the violence, praise for Allah and often containing future threats. The victim then had the opportunity for last words; sometimes he confessed to being a spy or whatever the group had coerced him into confessing, or pleaded with the audience to acquiesce to the kidnappers’ demands and secure his release. At that point the head was cut off with a small knife by the leader, held in the air and then placed on the victim’s back.

Differences in the ISIS beheading video of James Foley include the high production value, outdoor scenic space and slick editing. Instead of an interior space decorated with terrorist group banners, it is a stark outdoor scene with just blue sky and desert as background placing all focus on the two men and the message to America. Instead of a flag hanging on the wall behind several terrorists, the ISIS black flag emblem is flying in the top left corner occasionally displaying the al-furqan media emblem underneath. Instead of nasheeds playing in the background, the quiet emphasizes both Foley’s scripted speech and the Jihadists threat to kill more Americans. Significantly the sound of screaming, the image of blood gushing out of the wound and the praising of Allah has been edited out. The only bloody graphic is a quick screen shot of the head placed on the center of the back of Foley’s body, proof of death and the classic Islamist Jihadist forensic signature. The impact of the film immediately cutting to and ending with the image of Steven Sotloff, another American journalist dressed in the same orange jumpsuit, the obvious next victim if President Obama does not meet their demands, is exceedingly powerful.

The most significant difference in the James Foley beheading video is the absence of religious language, particularly praising Allah during the execution. There should be no doubt that Allah was praised while cutting Foleys throat and that detail of the murder was deliberately edited out. Praising Allah ritualizes the murder and justifies the violence in the name of Islam. It is extremely atypical that the executioner and other participants during beheadings would not shout the phrase Allahu Akbar. The editing demonstrates that the focus of this propaganda video was political. The message to the American public was that Foleys death was not the result of Islamist ideology but that his death was the consequence of America getting involved in the war against ISIS. This message will most likely resonate with many Americans and illustrates the media savvy of ISIS.

Other than the ritual execution the most disturbing aspect of the murder is that the terrorist is speaking with a British accent. This high production beheading video served several purposes. One was to pressure the American public to stay out of Iraq and Syria and it also functions as a recruitment video for more Westerners to join ISIS. The British jihadist earned his stripes by murdering Foley and he will become a rock star among other radicalized Westerners.

Although beheading is an ancient method of warfare, the use of cell phones and video cameras to film and document ritual executions is a contemporary phenomenon that has evolved into a new tactic of war. Beheading videos are inherently symbolic, in fact they are the personification of symbolic warfare, they function as both strategic and psychological operations and have been extremely successful in radicalizing Western Muslims into fighting in the global jihad. They have particular appeal to young Muslim men who view the violence as vengeance against perceived oppression and offenses of Islam and to young Muslim men living in Western countries who feel marginalized. The warrior ethos appeals to vulnerable men who find a sense of purpose by identifying themselves as Mujahideen soldiers fighting for a heroic cause. Many of these young men have become desensitized to violence through videogames which often involve graphic decapitation of enemies.

Beheading videos have taken on a life of their own significantly contributing to the recruitment of young American and European Muslims into violent jihadists. This was evident in the case of Mohammed Merah, the 23-year-old French citizen who killed seven people in a series of three gun attacks targeting French soldiers and Jewish civilians in the cities of Montauban and Toulouse, France in March 2012. Two years prior to the shootings, Merah attempted to recruit other Muslim boys for jihad by showing them beheading videos. Merah was so impressed with jihadist beheading videos that he filmed all of his killings with a camera strapped to his body, edited the film of his murders into a video and sent the video to al Jazeera to ensure that he would receive proper recognition. Beheading videos played a significant role in inspiring him to commit the killings, he not only starred in but directed his own propaganda film so he could achieve notoriety and live in infamy as a heroic jihadist warrior in Islamist cyberspace.

The influence of beheading videos as a propaganda tool is also apparent in the arrests of failed terrorists in Europe and the United States. Beheading videos were discovered in the homes of six men who attempted to bomb the London Underground and a bus on July 21, 2005 and in the home of two of the men who plotted a terrorist attack against Fort Dix, U.S. Army base in New Jersey. An alarming examples of the effect of beheading videos was made public on January 31, 2007, when nine British Pakistanis were arrested in Birmingham England for planning to kidnap and behead a British Muslim soldier. They planned to videotape the beheading of the soldier in the same manner as the beheading of hostages in Iraq. Several beheading videos were found in a raid on their house. This plot was a prelude to the actual murder of Lee Rigby, a British soldier who was beheaded in broad daylight on a London street on May 22, 2013 by a British jihadist who gave public interviews with the bloody knife in his hand.

In a July 2012 incident police found beheading videos and bomb-making materials in the home of a British Muslim couple who were convicted for plotting to bomb Jewish targets in Manchester. In 2008 there was a disturbing report of a 12-year-old non-Muslim British boy who had a collection of beheading videos on his mobile phone. The videos were found by teachers who reported the child to police after he sent clips to his classmates. To a twelve-year-old beheading videos are the perfect combination of horror films and videogames both of which desensitize them to the reality of violence. Al Qaeda and ISIS exploit those addicted to video violence by supplying them with an ideology, weapons, training and real life targets so they can fulfill their heroic violent fantasies. James Foley’s executioner was one of their successful recruits. A trail of beheading videos may lead to his identity.

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  • Damaris Tighe

    These are not death sentences as we understand them. They’re a return to pagan human sacrifice – to a ‘god’ who shouldn’t be confused with the God of the Christians & the Jews.

    • Ginger Li

      IMO, there’s a case that could be made that Islam is the evil belief in the anti God/Christ written of in the Bible. And who do you suppose would that be?

  • l2oc

    excellent interpretation, thank you

    • ObamaYoMoma

      Yeah right! If like the writer, you don’t have the first clue.

      • l2oc

        I believe in your dissertation above you missed the entire point of the article, which was to explain how ISIS is using these videos as propaganda to recruit more extreme muslims to their cause. You are so angry you can’t see the forest through the trees, I believe we are on the same side.

        • ObamaYoMoma

          Actually, it is obvious that like the writer you also don’t have the first clue.

          • l2oc

            Yes, name calling and nasty attitudes gets your point across clearly. Magnificent response. HA!

          • ObamaYoMoma

            Name calling? Had I known you were an adolescent I wouldn’t have bothered to respond.

          • l2oc

            Yet you keep responding… Ha! Can’t help yourself, so angry. Yes, you should not have responded when clearly you cannot see the point of the article. Forest through the trees…Hello…. Keep that in mind next time you pick apart an article. I’m done here. No need to respond, again. I actually have real work to do.

          • IslamDownpressesHumanity

            Moslems are all part of the same ugly, intolerant, totalitarian, Jew hating forest, as proven practically every day, by the actions of moslems all over the world.

    • nightspore

      I agree. This explains the statement Foley made before the beheading, which was so oddly like left-wing tosh. They know the audience they’re playing to.

      • Moa

        Foley was pro-jihad. The “Left-wing tosh” was all over this Twit posts.

        But perhaps Fooley finally got it, that the people he’d been promoting and defending were actually the worst nightmare to plague the World. As Empire Palatine says in the Empire Strikes Back, “Only now, at the end, do you understand”.

        Although, some Leftists never, ever get it. They continue to blame the West rather than the people sawing their head off – and the Jews and gays of America are the worst for this self-delusion. They refuse to see the reality.

        • nightspore

          If the Foleys of the world had been successful during WWIII, Orwell’s vision might have been realized.
          —–
          It’s strange how in this conflict the jihadists are demonstrating what it takes to shut these yoyos up.

        • Americana

          Foley was not pro-Islamist jihadists. He was there to cover the opposing side in the conflict against the Assad regime. Other reporters would cover the conflict from the Assad regime’s side. End of story. When you would discover his real feelings about the events in Syria and Iraq viz ISIS would be after the revolution was over and regardless of whichever side “won.” He was there as a documentarian and to provide context and explanations in the free press of Western countries of what he witnessed in the Syrian forces he was accompanying.

          • Moa

            FALSE.

            “James Foley Went Looking to Support Terrorists in Syria, Instead They Cut Off His Head”

            http://www.frontpagemag.com/2014/dgreenfield/james-foley-went-looking-to-support-terrorists-in-syria-instead-they-cut-off-his-head/

            Your current reading sources are misleading you, and as a result you draw the incorrect conclusions.

            Furthermore, consider the Iranian or Egyptian Revolution that started with students and ended up the Islamic totalitarians in power. The first thing the Iranians did was kill ‘useful idiots’ similar to Foley. Just as the Bolsheviks did in Russia, and the North Vietnamese, etc etc.

            They say, “Revolutions eat their children” (meaning, the revolutionaries become a threat to the new government and are killed by the very government they helped to install). Foley is NO different, if you read his tweets.

            And this Democrat Administration is also NO different. They are so cowardly and delusional they think that by helping the “moderate” (lol, that is madness) Muslim Brotherhood they will befriend jihadis and keep the US safe.

            So, I suggest you get up to speed on what the jihadis intend to do to apologists like you once they get into power.

            When you would discover his real feelings about the events in Syria and Iraq viz ISIS would be after the revolution was over and regardless of whichever side “won.”

            Rubbish, In the mean time he already hurt US and Israeli interests with his tweets. And after the revolution he’d be dead, killed by the jihadis who answer only to their bloodythirsty satanic deity, and do not recognize friend from foe once they have the dominance they seek.

            He was there as a documentarian and to provide context and explanations in the free press of Western countries of what he witnessed in the Syrian forces he was accompanying.

            His tweets aided and abetted jihadis (please go and read them before commenting again). He was no impartial documentarian, so please stop making him into something he wasn’t. He was a jihad sympathizer who was killed because of his ethnicity (America is the ‘Great Satan’ to evil Islam), and because his brother defends America.

            But hey, if you want to make apologists for the pro-jihadi crowd please be my guest. When the new Nuremberg Trials are convened you might have some explaining to do, however.

  • ObamaYoMoma

    The videotaped murder of James Foley demonstrates the evolution of beheading as a jihadist tactic made popular by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor group of the Islamic State Army.

    Actually, it was the holy prophet himself, Muhammad, who first made the tactic famous, as Muslims have been doing it ever since in emulation of the greatest Muslim to have ever lived.

    Other than the ritual execution the most disturbing aspect of the murder is that the terrorist is speaking with a British accent

    Uhm…Muslims are not terrorists. They don’t kill innocent civilian infidels in cold-blood because they are terrorists. That is a very false analogy. Instead, Muslims are jihadists, i.e., mujahideen (holy warriors), waging jihad, which is a holy war waged by ALL MUSLIMS against ALL INFIDELS in the cause of Allah to ultimately make Islam and its followers supreme throughout the world, as every Muslim in the world is a jihadists, either of the violent variety or the non-violent variety. Otherwise they are executed for apostasy, blasphemy, or both per the dictates of Islam, as all Muslims are the slave of Allah.

    Now jihadists of the violent variety primarily target innocent civilian infidels because it is proscribed for them to use only “total war” tactics per the dictates of Sharia and because murdering innocent civilian infidels in cold-blood is the weak underbelly of infidel society.

    Moreover, Muslim immigrants in the UK are non-violent stealth and deceptive jihadists that are waging jihad non-violently and via stealth and deception, as waging jihad violently in the UK would be exceedingly counterproductive since it would cause them and their non-violent stealth and deceptive jihad to be cast out of the UK. Thus, I’m not particularly worried about returning jihadists back from Iraq perpetrating violent jihad in the UK once they return, because that would be incredibly counterproductive to their cause. Muslim jihadists may be a lot of things, but stupid isn’t one of them.

    The British jihadist earned his stripes by murdering Foley and he will become a rock star among other radicalized Westerners.

    The notion that so-called moderate Muslims have to somehow be radicalized to turn into vicious terrorists is a political correct myth of gargantuan proportions. I hate to rain on this writer’s exceedingly naïve parade, but all Muslims in the world are jihadists in some fashion or another, either of the violent variety or the non-violent variety. Otherwise, they are executed for blasphemy, apostasy, or both per the dictates of Islam.

    Beheading videos are inherently symbolic, in fact they are the personification of symbolic warfare, they function as both strategic and psychological operations and have been extremely successful in radicalizing Western Muslims into fighting in the global jihad.

    Uhm…again the writer demonstrates the fact that she doesn’t have the first clue what she is writing about by suggesting once again that so-called moderate Muslims have to first be radicalized to turn into vicious foaming at the mouth terrorists, and that is totally absurd. Again, all Muslims in the world are jihadists in one form or another, either of the violent variety such as the members of ISIS, or the non-violent variety such as the millions of non-violent stealth and deceptive jihadists that have migrated to the infidel world for the strategic purposes of mass Muslim infiltration of our societies and for eventual demographic conquest. Otherwise, again they are executed per the dictates of Islam for apostasy, blasphemy, or both.

    They have particular appeal to young Muslim men who view the violence as vengeance against perceived oppression and offenses of Islam and to young Muslim men living in Western countries who feel marginalized.

    Perhaps if this writer understood that Muslims are jihadists instead as opposed to being terrorists, she’d understand that they aren’t terrorists striking out because of perceived western injustices, but instead because the sole fundamental purpose of mainstream orthodox Islam, which is the only kind, by the way, is the subjugation of all infidels and all religions into Islamic totalitarianism, i.e., harsh and degrading dhimmitude, through both violent and non-violent stealth and deceptive jihad and the eventual imposition of Sharia, which is Islamic totalitarian law, to ultimately make Islam and its followers supreme throughout the world. Indeed, all Muslims, including the women and children, are obligated to wage jihad in one fashion or another. Thus, all Muslims in the world are jihadists in one fashion or another. Otherwise again they are executed according to the dictates of Islam for blasphemy, apostasy, or both.

    The warrior ethos appeals to vulnerable men who find a sense of purpose by identifying themselves as Mujahideen soldiers fighting for a heroic cause. Many of these young men have become desensitized to violence through videogames which often involve graphic decapitation of enemies.

    This writer has obviously been watching too many movies and playing too many video games. And this is where I stop reading before I suffer anymore undue brain damage.

    • Ginger Li

      Excellent analysis! To use the word ‘terrorist’ is to differentiate Muslims into the ‘radicals’ and the ‘peaceful’ when they’re really of the same stripe. You don’t hear the ‘peaceful’ Muslims condemning the ‘radical’ Muslims hardly anywhere except the propagandizing apologists. They are all practicing Jihad of one form or another. For example, demographic Jihadis are serving the Caliphate simply by living like parasites off of liberal Western societies and having their breeding subsidized by their social welfare programs. All Muslims are potentially ‘radical’ when and if the right moment arrives.

      Terrorism is simply one of the tools Jihadis use to achieve their goals which is to overwhelm the world with Islam i.e. establish the Caliphate. I agree: this author really doesn’t understand the subject of which she writes. She postulates like it’s all about psychology and other liberal drivel. What a fool.

  • Digli

    So let me get this straight………..
    If you cut someone’s head off that makes him more dead then if you hang him or shoot him or poison him?

    • Sintram

      Are you stupid, or what?

      Shooting a person is certainly less painful than cutting off his head with a knife

      • Digli

        Maybe I’m “Or what”.
        You didn’t answer the question.
        Does cutting off his head make him more dead than shooting him?
        How do you know that getting your head cut off is more painful than getting shot?
        Have you ever experienced either?
        I love the way you say these things like you know.
        Hey ….I’ll take your word for anything you say. Douchebag

  • Digli

    I can see some guy driving across the desert in Iraq and he says:
    “What’s that in the road ahead?

  • Walter Sieruk

    The murderous thugs of ISIS with many other evils that they commit such a rape, kidnapping torturing by crucifying is more then brutal, vicious malicious and wicked .It evil to the extreme. It could even go so far down that the ruthless and malice fulled murderers of ISIS are so warped and deluded that they might actually think the in all their heinous violence that are doing as something they might call “good.” Or “For the greater good” To such a evil, deluded and warped way of thinking the Bible reads “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil.” Isaiah 5:20.Furthermore, such fiends who make up ISIS in their evil and mad mindset could be described in the Bible .For in Ecclesiastes 9:3. it teaches “The hearts of men are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live, and afterwards they join the dead.” [N.I.V.]

  • Walter Sieruk

    The members of ISIS are such terrible men of violence that the curse that is found in the Bible might apply to them. For Psalm 140:4. reads “May disaster hunt down men of violence.” [N.I.V.]

  • Hotdogger71

    There was a Book, written over 1900 years ago that indicated there would be a world wide system that would behead those that didn’t worship it, would have a Mideast confederation of nations that would coalesce around a very bad leader, would have a horde of fighters possessed of demons, and would persecute Jews & Christians, specifically, BEHEADING THEM.

    That book also indicated the system would rise, remain for a time, go away (like a mortal head wound) and be revived at the end. The system is the Islamic caliphate. It conquered the Roman Empire’s capitol of Constantinople & it lasted until the 1920′s. Why? So Israel could be planted back in the land. It’s just been a matter of stage setting in the few decades since ’67.

    In fact, John was told to write what he saw. One of the things was the mark of the beast. The Greek characters for 600, 60, & 6 are identical to the bismalah characters in Arabic which means “in the name of allah”:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fpl_CwiTL3E

    This item is worn on jihadi’s head as a headband and/or the arm.

    If you have the time, you might really find this interesting:
    http://youtu.be/uY20IFaWlsQ?t=18s

    It shows the linkage between mystery Babylon and Islam (the moon and star on the minarets go all the way back to Babylonian worship of the moon and stars). Quite fascinating actually. Islam didn’t exist when John wrote what he saw in Revelation, but it describes Mecca (a city on 7 hills), the mother of this blood thirsty religion to a T. Even that the world is drunk on the oil that comes from her.

    .

    Some Christians that honestly believe an end time beast government is going to be made up of the EU/Catholic church are not facing facts or looking in the wrong direction. Which is more realistic? That the EU/Church is going to suddenly start beheading believers or that a demonic horde of Islamists, who have no regard for basic human decency & are bent on a global religion that denies Christ’s deity are the beast? EU states have a cow over parental spanking for goodness sake.

    “…yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service.” John 16:2

    • Waiting

      True. And more people need to be aware. Revelation 13 reads like it was written in this day, so clearly does it show what is happening regarding the beast that people are forced to worship or be killed.

  • Ginger Li

    It seems to me that this author’s purpose is to preserve the notion that there is a ‘good’ Muslim and a ‘bad’ Muslim in order to preserve and continue the leftist supported and enabled Islamic invasion of Western societies, thereby allowing them to be overwhelmed, undermined and eventually conquered by Islam. The Christian/Judaic societies of past centuries at least understood that Islam is not compatible with them since it seeks to destroy Christianity/Judaism. The liberal fascist menace, which is essentially allied with Islam in this purpose, has effectively dulled this general perception via mendacious and pernicious propaganda.

    As such, IMHO, the thesis of this article is diametrically opposed to the political stance of this site’s general authorship. FPM should reconsider allowing any further contributions from this particular deluded, convoluted and misinforming Islamic apologist.

  • Giles Blyzzard

    Man, if this video will inspire more westerners to join the jihad we do indeed live in a sick world.

    • knowshistory

      they are talking about western muslims. the important word there is muslims, not western. muslims is muslims. if we want to live a life of slavery, bowing to worship an evil god, and lorded over by our mullas and imams, then all we have to do is continue the course set out for us by our treasonous media and government. if we wish to be free, all we have to do is fight back, and the first thing we should do is the one thing muslims fear the most–kick them out of our countries. send our evil muslims to some lovely Islamic eden–I propose Somalia–and watch them howl in helpless rage. or we could continue to import muslims, feed them, shelter them, make sure they are able to breed like bacteria, while parasitizing our infidel populations, and hope that they change into nice wonderful lovely people who have forgotten 14 centuries of Islamic dogma and decided to love infidels instead of rape and murder them.

  • IslamDownpressesHumanity

    Videogames are responsible for violent jihad? Moslems were slaughtering unbelievers before computers even existed much less videogames. There was violence in movies long before any videogames had any graphic violence.

  • kevinstroup

    It is navel gazing articles like this that sicken me. Hidden meaning? Really? Beheading clear states : I want you dead. What part of this is so hard to understand?

  • Eric Peterson

    The beheading was fake

    • Americana

      The decapitation was not fake.

      • nobullhere

        Nor is Eric Peterson’s stupidity either. And that is a warning as to what will happen everywhere if Islam triumphs worldwide, as you would like.

      • IslamDownpressesHumanity

        Neither was mohammud’s beheading of 900 Jews at the Battle of the Trench sharmuta bint.

  • Damaris Tighe

    Couldn’t agree more. Why else would Mo & his followers have such a visceral objection to the cross & feel the need to rewrite the Easter story so that no death, & hence redemption, occurred?