France Beheading: Jihad, or Personal Issues?

A distinction without a difference.

Yassin Salhi, who beheaded his boss and tried to blow up the chemical plant where he worked, is likely to face terrorism charges – yet despite a considerable amount of evidence to the contrary, he denies that he was motivated by jihad terror at all. 

Reuters reported Monday that Salhi “told investigators he was not a jihadist and repeated earlier statements that he committed the act outside the southeast city of Lyon on Friday after a row with his wife the day before and his boss a few days earlier.” In response to these “personal difficulties,” he sawed off the head of Herve Cornara, his boss at the American company Air Products in Grenoble, and then hung it on a fence outside the plant, with black flags inscribed with the Islamic profession of faith on either side.

That’s the black flag of jihad. Reuters also reported, “examination of one of Salhi’s phones revealed he had taken a picture of himself with the severed head before his arrest and sent the image to a number belonging to a French national last traced to the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa in Syria.” 

But never mind – despite all this, Salhi assures that this was all about personal issues. According to the Guardian, “the TV news channel iTele said Salhi had told police he had wanted to kill himself and stage a media coup by dressing it up as a terrorist act.”

French authorities took these declarations seriously. “We don’t know whether we’re dealing with a fundamentalist who flipped or a real terrorist,” said a Reuters source. “Investigators are wondering whether this isn’t just a simple criminal act.”

Yet it isn’t at all clear that this is a distinction with a difference. It may indeed be true that Salhi “had wanted to kill himself and stage a media coup by dressing it up as a terrorist act,” but whatever the truth may be, clearly jihad terror was part of his frame of reference. If he was really just angry with his boss and wanting to commit suicide, he could have just shot Cornara and then turned the gun on himself. Instead, he beheaded the boss, in accord with the Qur’an’s command, “When you meet the unbelievers, strike the necks” (47:4), placed his head between flags that proclaimed the Islamic profession of faith, and tried to destroy the factory altogether: “he was overpowered by a firefighter as he was trying to prise open a bottle of acetone in an apparent suicidal bid to destroy the factory.”

Even if all this was precipitated by his personal crisis and was just all about his anger toward Cornara and his wife, to express this anger, Salhi turned to jihad. The larger problem that the West refuses to face is that Muslims who are leading perfectly ordinary lives can in times of crisis or difficulty opt to turn to jihad, and the beliefs underlying jihad violence are not being taught against in mosques or Islamic schools in the West.

The idea that it is good and pleasing to Allah to behead infidels and blow up their installations is something to which Muslims such as Yassin Salhi can always have recourse in times of difficulty in their lives. It’s a common human impulse to turn to religion in times of personal crisis; when one’s religion teaches that there is nothing greater than jihad, it can be especially tempting for a Muslim in crisis to pursue, so as to wash away the misdeeds of his past life. According to a hadith, a man once asked Muhammad: “Instruct me as to such a deed as equals Jihad (in reward).” Muhammad replied, “I do not find such a deed.” (Bukhari 4.52.44). 

Since jihad has the greatest reward, it outweighs all the sins one may have committed — and to someone such as Yassin Salhi, experiencing overwhelming frustration in his life, that can be an extraordinarily potent appeal. Salhi’s was indeed a criminal act – but it was also a terrorist one. Embroiled in strife with his boss and his spouse, Salhi probably believed, as his knife began to cut through Herve Cornara’s neck, that he was finally turning his life around and doing something worthwhile. 

Herve Cornara, of course, would probably have a different perspective.