Sunday, September 14, 2014

On the Psycho-theatrics of Beheadings

NPR just now broadcast an interview with a “media ethicist”, re whether the media should display (any, or all of) an ISIL video depicting the beheading of a Western hostage:  Since it is intended as propaganda, propagating it further might be playing their game.
We should instantly note that that kind of reasoning is ‘too powerful’, hitting the bull’s-eye only at the expense of a vast scattering of collateral damage.  For it applies to anything an adversary says:   If he says it, it is because he calculates that his saying it, and our hearing it, is to his benefit;  that doesn’t mean we would be wise to stop our ears up with wax.
The broadcast naturally did not pause to notice that logical nicety, but still we may ask:  What is their game here?  The answer is not obvious.

Our media ethicist opined that it was to spread “fear and terror” (or words to that effect;  the NPR Web-site doesn’t make it easy to find the story to double-check).  But actually … I don’t think so.

Trigger Warning
What follows contains images and quotations from actual Reality.

We must distinguish between the Western, non-Muslim audience, and the indigenous Muslim audience.
When ISIL mounts severed heads on metal spikes in the center of the town of Raqqah, or when AQAP (and ISIL) choose public crucifixion (of all things) to punish their enemies, then the cowing of the local population is indeed the intent (though there may be other, murkier undercurrents as well)[** vide infra].  But Americans and Britons, comfortably ensconsced in their Lay-Z-Boyz, washing down the popcorn with Diet Sprite ™, are unlikely to be personally terrified -- horrified, perhaps, but not terrified -- :  not because of any stalwart composition, but simply because the scenario is so remote.  The three recently slain hostages were Western men who had ventured professionally into denied territory, knowing the risks.   That particular drama is unlikely to happen to your average Kansan unless you go looking for it.   Thus, disasters abroad with much higher death-tolls -- from tsunamis, mining accidents, or Bhopal-style devastation -- garner little lasting media coverage and less public memory;  we only sit up and take notice if we can imagine it happening to us -- as, most prominently, plane crashes.  That prospect has a quite visceral grip upon the Western middle class, even when (more narrowly examined) the circumstances are rather atypical (memo to holiday-makers:  Don’t go flying over Ukrainian war-zones).  Ferry accidents in Asia, by contrast, which sometimes have even higher death-tolls than your average place-crash, are not a hot item.
The most telling recent example of this  was the Shabaab attack on the Nairobi mall.   That one got a lot of airplay;  but, as though to justify paying any attention to it, our media continually emphasized that it was an “upscale mall” -- the sort we ourselves might frequent (next time we’re on safari in Kenya).

That point is so basic, it seems unlikely that the media-savvy ISIL could be unaware of it.  So what was really going on, with this Theatre of Cruelty?

A key point is that, unlike any of the other ISIL propaganda videos, these feature a Briton, speaking English.   Accordingly, the whole set-up has a scent of the Oedipal.

Mein Kleiner, das sollst du doch nur im Traume machen

That surmise is strengthened somewhat by the sordid deathbed epiplexis by both the Israeli-American hostage and the British hostage, respectively blaming President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron for their plight. 
And that in turn does serve a propaganda purpose:  but it is not aimed at terrifying ISIL’s enemies safely far abroad.  Rather, it reaches out to their potential foreign friends, for recruitment purposes.   See?  Back in Briton, I was just a pimply nobody who couldn’t get a girlfriend;  whereas now, as Jihadi John, I bid spectacular defiance to the whole Western world!

[** Footnote] Similarly, the ancient Romans used to decorate the Appian Way with tasteful arrangements of crucified rebel slaves, to widespread audience applause.

The ancient Israelites also had a thing for decapitation, e.g. Judith beheading Holofernes.

David, with a portion of Goliath

Likewise, re the decoration of fence-pikes with the fruit of the headsman’s axe, cf. this, from 14th-century London

John Ball and other leaders were executed, and their severed heads  displayed on London Bridge.
-- Morris Bishop, The Middle Ages (1968), p. 300

(By rights that should be caricature;  yet a perverse aesthetic element is plainly visible in several of the ISIL’s displays:  cf.  Jihadi ikebana. It is the polar inverse of the Western taboo upon the parading of military corpses or prisoners.)


One of the oddest scenes in the Vice News video of ISIL rule in Raqqah ( was of a town square in which people were milling about, going about their business, while propped up against a public fountain  was a crucified man.   It recalled that eerie scene in the movie “Sid and Nancy”, where a woman (a dominatrix) is calmly chatting with a visitor, while a bound man dangles behind her.   Like New Yorkers stepping over the recumbent forms of winos to proceed to the boutique;  guess you can get used to anything.

Beheading has always featured a theatrical quality.   That is why America, having gone weak at the knees over the death penalty, and having adopted lethal injection as the most antiseptic no-drama method of dispatching an unpleasant task, though tying itself in knots every time something is botched and the condemned temporarily suffers -- has never considered the swift and foolproof method of the guillotine.   As a symbol it rises unique in horror against a reddish evening sky -- though in historical fact the contraption was invented as a kindness relative to other less certain, messier methods.

[Update 18 September 2014]  As we suggested above, the point of the beheading videos, when directed, not at Muslims already under ISIL control, but at Western converts, is as a recruitment tool.  Here are the first fruits, this very morning:

The largest counter-terrorism operation in Australian history,
Police allege the suspects were planning to snatch and behead a random member of the public, then drape them in the flag of Islamic State.

Australian Mohammad Baryalei:
Part-time actor and Kings Cross bouncer
who recruits young men to fight for the ISIL   

In the specifically Australian run-up to this:

A Sydney money transfer business owned by the sister and brother-in-law of convicted terrorist Khaled Sharrouf, an ISIS fighter, had its license suspended this week on suspicion it had been sending 1 million Australian dollars ($900,000 US) a month to the Middle East to finance terrorism.
Sharrouf gained international notoriety this year after he posted online a photograph of his seven-year-old son in Syria holding the severed head of a Syrian soldier.


The reference above to the “Theatre of Cruelty”, was just a stray metaphor;  but further reflection suggests  that it may go to the heart of the matter.   Another loose term for what is going on: Schrecklichkeit.

Théâtre de la Cruauté


Disclaimer:   While we regret the macabre tone which any discussion of these events must evince, analysis is essential if we are judiciously to evaluate the adversary.   Thus, consider that stunning example of theatricalized Schecklichkeit -- the notorious Night of the Long Knives (Nacht der langen Messer, 1934), in which  Hitler … “decapitated” the Sturmabteilung, which thitherto had been the NSDAP’s brawny right arm.   In his contemporary diary entry, the perceptive on-site observer William Shirer wrote:  “The French are pleased.  They think this is the beginning of the end for the Nazis.”   By any normal, logical calculus, that would be the case (rather as though the Republicans were to assassinate all the leading members of the Tea Party; it would probably impact their poll numbers among swing voters).   But there were deeper currents at work here, than the Daladiers or the Chamberlains understood.   Failure to appreciate the “demonstration-effect”, street-theatre aspects to such seemingly insensate moves as mass decapitations or (for Muslims, even more momentous) the sudden unilateral declaration of ISIL as a Caliphate, figuring that they are simply crazy and will inevitably before long self-destruct, would be to underestimate them, and to miscalculate their next moves.

Thus, consider the following demurral concerning the latest reports from Australia, from the same folks who brought you that excellent video on the Islamic State:

"It just isn't consistent with any ISIS operations, strategies or tactics," a senior international security analyst working on the Syrian crisis, who spoke to VICE on condition of anonymity, said from Lebanon. "ISIS's philosophy and organization is based on quite traditional ideas of force and warfare, they aim to seize and hold territory in Iraq and Syria. Western countries are still seen as key recruitment grounds and sources of finance, but I don't believe the organization would order a random homicide in a country like Australia."

The purported Islamic State agent who ordered the attack is Mohammad Ali Baryalei, an immigrant from Afghanistan who formerly made a living as a nightclub bouncer in Sydney's party district, Kings Cross. He is alleged by authorities to have recruited up 60 people in Australia, to travel to Syria and fight for the Islamic State. One of his recruits, Khaled Sharrouf, is now famous for tweeting a photo of his 7-year-old son holding a decapitated head in the conflict zone. Sharrouf turned to radical Islam after LSD and amphetamine use brought on mental illness.

"Most of the beheadings that ISIS have committed, have been internal, almost religious sacrifices" explained the security source "the only cases of beheadings that were committed with external, political, propaganda purposes were two journalists and an aid worker who had been held for up to 18 months - meaning, they were in no rush. This sounds to me like it is more likely someone attempting to emulate what they think ISIS is, rather than someone within ISIS."

Now, we heartily welcome this hold-your-horses-and-take-a-good-look approach, as opposed to taking every breaking news story at face value.   But once again (as in the case of the “media ethicist”), we must disagree with the quoted expert.

First:  It is not really the case that “ISIS's philosophy and organization is based on quite traditional ideas of force and warfare”;  if that were the case, they would have hooked up with the Al-Nustrah Front (as AQ head al-Zawahiri had been urging), and al-Assad might have been overthrown by now.   Instead, after digging in a bit and winning some combat creds, they turned on ANF, and indeed savagely attacked every single other opposition group, with the ultimatum:  Join us or die.   If, shortly after entering WWII, the United States had postponed the ultimate reckoning with Hitler and initially turned on the British instead, it would have been seen as folly and rank treachery, not an instantiation of “quite traditional ideas”.

Second:  After the ISIL seized Mosul, the near-universal expectation (among those who think in terms of “traditional ideas of force and warfare”) was that they would march on Baghdad.  That did not happen.   We ourselves predicted it would not (see our earlier essay “ISIS vs. ISIL”), though what we did predict -- namely, that the al-Baghdadi group would move swiftly to put the “L” into “ISIL"  by making it clear that they really did mean the Levant and not just (French-created, lesser) Syria, by attacking Jordan and perhaps Lebanon (or even Palestine) -- did not happen either, apart from a relatively minor incursion into Lebanon, kidnapping and decapitating as they went.   What they did do had no inherent military value whatsoever:  Namely, breaking his long occultation (and I use the term with an allusion to the Mahdist sense), al-Khalifah Ibrahim suddenly appeared in all his robed splendor, on the minbar of the great mosque of Mosul, to deliver a solemn sermon, utterly religious in content and delivery, rather than martial or political.
What they’re doing, is keeping us guessing.

Third:  Now, here this kind of analysis becomes crucial.   A matter of (literally) life and death.
This Sunday, the Pope is scheduled to visit Albania, and later Turkey, riding the public streets in an open car.   ISIL threats against the pontiff’s life were reported a few weeks ago (after he denounced their persecution of Christians in Iraq), and warnings have just recently been renewed.  The Vatican has dismissed the concerns.

When I first read the reports in the press, I was incredulous, even when [redacted].   Such an absurd deviation and distraction from every possible military, social and religious objective, in the near or medium term!   But consider:

(1)  The hostage-beheading videos  likely served no military purpose, but were an entirely needless provocation.  But for these, ISIL might not have rallied Obama and Cameron so strongly against them.  Why poke the bear?  (It is as though Japan, after bombing Pearl Harbor, had unloaded a few on the Soviet Union, just for good measure.) They truly seem to be saying (to quote another cocky military figure), "Bring it on!"
(2)  Consider more carefully the pontiff’s itinerary.  Albania and Turkey are both majority Sunni Muslim states.    This visit could well be considered a “Crusader” provocation -- indeed, it is difficult to construe otherwise.   As such, it could well evoke an extraordinarily violent response. Shades of Sarajevo?
(3)  When push comes to shove, people choose sides -- however reluctantly -- even if they had been non-partisan before.  (Heck, I chose sides, when the planes hit the towers.)   And there are a great many Muslims in the world, most of whom (Indonesians) have been far from the battlefields.  Al-Qaeda itself recently tried to up the ante by declaring a new franchise, “Al-Qaeda in the Indian Sub-Continent”, with its stated AOR extending as far as the beleaguered Rohingya of Burma.  At the time, this comment was met with incredulity by seasoned observers:  it seemed like a comparative irrelevance, a weak bleat by a marginalized al-Zawahiri,  in riposte to ISIL’s publicity triumphs.  But indeed, numerically, most Muslims are not Arabs.  So what happens when ISIL does something utterly irrevocable, absolutely polarizing?

Unfortunately, we already have an early answer to that.
After the wee-hours raid this Thursday morning in New South Wales, and the revelation of an absolutely astounding scheme (among plotters whom ASIO had been following closely for some time, and then were forced to move because of the threat’s imminence) to kidnap some random Australian off the streets, chop his head off, and wrap him in the ISIL flag,  the local Muslim community… what … Begged forgiveness?   Denounced the ultras who are bringing shame upon Islam’s good name?  Retired in embarrassment and confusion to the interiors of their homes, drawing down the blinds?

You would think;  but you’d be wrong.
They hit the streets of Lakemba in Sidney in protest  against the raids.

Fanaticism is never having to say you're sorry

Also, recall that there is already precedent for a Muslim attempting to assassinate the Pope, and almost succeeding:

(Hate to “rake up old coals”, but the global, strategic, clash-of-civilizations aspect of recent developments  is perhaps not being taken with sufficient gravity.  It’s really not just about the IS pressing on to Damascus, or our getting Mosul and Raqqa back.)


Exhausted by all this, I took a break, and circumambulated the Lake with my wife.   I recounted how, at a time of extraordinary world tensions in Eastern Europe and the world of Islam, the Pope is about to set out to the most chaotic and crime-ridden country of Eastern Europe, Sunni Muslim majority to boot, in an open car;  and asked her if it reminded her of any event from history.
She answered immediately.  “JFK!”
I was taken aback, then answered, “You’re right.  He was riding into Dallas, which is Denied Territory. -- I’d actually been thinking of Sarajevo.”
[For a fantasy-post covering Dealey Plaza, the Pope, Neville Chamberlain, and dark doings in Eastern Europe  all in one, try this:
                                                  The Umbrella Man ]

Commercial Break
A private detective  confronts the uncanny;
but must call upon the power of the Church:

If, God forbid, there were to be another Sarajevo, whether in Tirana, or Ankara, or Rome, then once again the Clash of Civilizations might come to a head, in the form of a World War.   And by an odd coincidence, the Pope has recently been discussing this very subject:

With the prospect of papal peril before our eyes, it is difficult to focus on anything else.  Still, there’s nothing more I can do about it right now;  so I might as well type up some miscellaneous notes from earlier today.

*  We welcomed the musings of the anonymous “senior international security analyst” cited by Vice News above, in the spirit of debate, of give-and-take.   Actually the analysis was (as we attempted to show) so shallow and off-the-mark, that one wonders whether the anonymous pundit might not have been Fred over by the water-cooler.  Mais passons.   A less charitable take on the Nameless One’s contribution, would be that it is on the relatively moderate/empirical end of the spectrum of anti-government knee-jerk skepticism-à-outrance reactions, brought to a summit by the Apollo-denialists, the 9/11-denialists, and the Birthers.  One Canadian reader of the story on the Australian Decapitation Plot  wrote:

This is another false flag operation to once again take more & more of our rights away from us and turn the western civilized world into a police state.

(Or, in the older terminology, to steal our Precious Bodily Fluids.)

*  On Schrecklichkeit.
The U.S. has indulged in that as well, both as official policy (Dresden fire-bombing; Nagasaki) and unofficial (My Lai, and more recent bavures).  In the Dubya-Cheney Iraq war, that was the whole idea going in;  they called it “Shock and Awe”.   And it worked pretty well for starters -- there was only pitiful opposition from the Iraqi Army.
Later, we tried to Make Nice, so as to Win Hearts and Minds, only it didn’t work so good, because nobody else wanted to make nice back.
If we get dragged in again, to that wretched land, this time it won’t be (Bush-style) Nation Building, but Nation Taming.  Like:  If you do this, then we do that; work it out amongst yourselves.

(In fairness to the Wilsonian idea of nation-building -- which actually was deployed to good effect under Truman, with the Marshall plan in Europe, and in Japan:  the Bushies’ policy in Iraq was not precisely nation-building, but putting up lots of (later abandoned) buildings in the nation, with fat contracts to Halliburton and other war profiteers.)

That is not what I meant!

* Another look at the “Night of the Long Knives”.
ISIL has been doing this, directly by the ‘lateral jihad’ against other opposition groups in Syria, and less directly by their slaughter of Sunni soldiers in Iraq [update 19 Sept: and, as of the past few days, of Sunni Kurds in northern Syria].   In this, they resemble al-Qaeda not at all, nor any other of the better-known Muslim groups.  Indeed, to find a precedent from that milieu, we need to go back to the strange saga of Abu-Nidal, well-told by Patrick Seale.

There is also a partial parallel in the career of the ISI patron saint (or patron demon), Abu-Mus`ab al-Zarqawi (the original jihadi beheader of Americans) who, in the midst of the US occupation of Iraq, and against the pleadings of UBL, swiveled the focus of the IQ affiliate towards massacring fellow-Muslims, namely Shiites (after first declaring, takfiri-fashion, that these were No True Muslims at all).

Still comin' atcha ... from beyond the grave

* Another classic analogue is the Stalinist purges.  The exact analogue of the Sturm-Abteilung bloodbath  is Stalin’s purging of his senior military leadership, on the eve of what would be World War II;  he prevailed in that conflict anyway.   And the Stalinist purges were like the ISIL media blitz, in emphasizing the theatrics of the thing:  not for nothing do people refer to the Moscow “show trials” of the 1930s:  they were the hottest ticket in town.  And -- like the ISIL videos -- brilliantly staged.


Well, this is turning into a longish essay.  And if you’re still with me, chances are you are interested in what-all I have to say.   So while I go get dinner and refresh the inner man,  you can nourish your hunger for further WDJ insights, here:

That, along with the more historico-linguistic essay “ISIS vs ISIL”, is our basic foundation essay on this fascinating group;  this “beheading” thing was supposed to be just a minor psychological sidelight, but then they had to go do that thing in Sidney.

And if, after all that, you still desire another helping from the pen of old Dr J, there's always this:

And now, off to the modest repast.


[Post-prandial update]
Let us cast another glance  at that anonymous-expert contribution from Vice News,

"Most of the beheadings that ISIS have committed, have been internal, almost religious sacrifices."

Not quite sure what that means.  Neither Islam, nor even the pre-Islamic peoples of Arabia, had traditions of human sacrifice;  and indeed ritual sacrifice of any sort is looked down on by Sunnis as pagan.   In the published videos of manacled prisoners-of-war from Iraq, the typical scenario was:  Swear allegiance to us or die.  Then, Bang.  That’s not a ‘sacrifice’.

The phrase did, however, put me in mind  of a passage read recently, this time from the ill-fated Balkans:

During the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913, a Greek bishop in Macedonia  ordered the assassination of a Bulgarian politician,  and then had the severed head  brought back to the church to be photographed.
-- Robert D. Kaplan, Balkan Ghosts (1993), p. xxvii


The banned French comedian Dieudonné  had a recent riff on ISIL beheadings, transparently satirical (and alluding to such cases as that cited immediately above), but which was deliberately misinterpreted by his many ill-wishers  as an endorsement of their barbarism.  Check it out here:


This narrative of intransigence combined with ultraviolence, is a subset of the effects of intransigence generally.   In the simplest case, known inflexibility gives a player the advantage in the (deadly) ‘game’ of Chicken.  For additional analysis, with especial reference to the curious rise of Ted Cruz, click here:


ISIL  as Grand Guignol.
Back in 1966, avec mes dis-sept ans, residing in Paris, I took in a performance of the play “Marat-Sade” (in a French version).   Not something I would care to see again, but for a pimpled adolescent, it was heady stuff.
An even stronger mixture along the same lines was a superb production of Dostoyevsky’s “L’Idiot”, with a splendid spluttering Charles Denner as Rogogine.  It was all sound and fury; but yet furious, and at bottom sound.

A decade later, in Berkeley, hanging out with a varied crowd of largely Marxists, there was one woman in particular, from a peculiar coign of the milieu (more NCLC than SL or PL, let alone CPUSA), who candidly confessed that she felt a visceral -- or more accurately, intercrural -- attraction to les blonds bêtes de la mouvance brune -- all that gleaming leather …

The glittering emerald eyes, of that same basic snake, peer out from many an otherwise incomparable ideology…

[Update 26 September 2014]  More on the beheading-ethic (we would venture to say: the beheading-aesthetic), from essayist and Mideast hand David Ignatius, reviewing دارة التوحش :

(Actually more like:  Dein Kampf.)



Okay, this is weird:  The excellent writer and thinker  Steven Pinker  is asked in the upcoming NYTimes Book Review, what books are on his nightstand.  He replies:

“Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found,” by Frances Larson.

Presumably he is looking into the matter for the same reason I have been -- namely, the sudden arising of a beheading-aesthetic as a recruitment trademark for ISIL.  


Des aspects médiatiques:

Die Enthauptungen sind massenmedial perfekt inszeniert. «Von Irrsinn geprägt ist das Ziel; die Methode jedoch ist rational, weil perfekt auf ein Maximum an Wirkung ausgelegt»,


Hmmmm.... Beheading is spreading ....  Coming soon to a cubicle near you:

The perpetrator, BEFORE seeing the light of takfir …
… and after.

"Nolen had been fired from Vaughan Foods shortly before the attack. Witnesses told officers that Nolen had recently been trying to convert several employees to Islam..."

Quite apart from the politics of it all ... this decapitation fetish  did not use to be the thing.
What     is      going                 on    .........................


[Updat 27 Sept 2014]
A fair question is:  What  if anything  does his case have to do with actual Islam, as opposed to the mere opportunistic adoption of that label  by a violent individual, as a self-inflation and an excuse.

That his acquaintance with Islam may have been, let us say, superficial, is suggest by a little linguistic detail.  For although Wikipedia (with uncharacteristic lack of Fleiss) reports that

Prison records show that Nolen has a tattoo reading "Assalamu Alaikum", an Arabic greeting that translates to "Peace be with you".

other sources specify the wording “As-salaamu Ataikum”, which is gibberish, though presumably a stab (pardon the verb in this context) at spelling what, to any Muslim, and to many of the rest of us as well, is an extremely familiar phrase (you’ll find it in the Merriam-Webster Collegiate dictionary, for example).  This latter is the lectio difficilior (in the phrase used by stemmatologists) and is inherently more credible.   Additional evidence that our budding Islamist may have been Arabistically and orthographically challenged, is provided by an alternate spelling he uses in one of his Facebook posts:


Well, let us set that guy aside;  a disturbed individual,  from which nothing can necessarily be drawn, without further knowing in what way he may have been representative of present trends.

However, glancing for a moment for the “coworker” angle (which is what has really given this story legs),  there seems to be indeed a quite unsettling precedent, from an Islamic.  The Saudi Shaykh Saleh al-Fawzan has reportedly  issued a fatwa saying its okay to kill coworkers who don’t pray.   (And no, your prayers don’t count;  it has to be the right kind.)

Discussion of this fatwa, in a mainstream Arabic-language publication, can be viewed here:

مواقع انترنت تتداول فتوى للفوزان تجيز قتل زميل العمل الذي لا يصلي
وكان يرد فيها الشيخ الفوزان على سؤال حول طريقة التعامل مع الموظف مع زميله في العمل الذي لا يصلي.

وجاء رد الشيخ: "الذي لا يصلي ليس بمسلم لقوله صلى الله عليه وسم بين العبد والكفر ترك الصلاة.. والأدلة من الكتاب والسنة على كفر تارك الصلاة كثيرة"، وتابع في معرض رده حول الواجب فعله ضد تارك الصلاة: "يجب عزله بل يجب قتله إن لم يتب إلى الله ويحافظ على الصلاة.. فهو يستتاب وإن لم يتب وأصر على ترك الصلاة فإنه يقتل". ويضيف: "من الأصل توظيف هذا الشخص خطأ لأنه لا يوجد تولية الكفار أمور المسلمين لأنه سيكون قدوة لغيره".

(Merci Umm-Tumas pour l’alerte.)

Note that the fatwa doesn’t say merely that killing a recreant coworker is permissible;  he states that it is obligatory (yajibu l-qatl).
One wonders whether the perp will adduce this interesting legal opinion in defense at his trial.
Whether Shaykh al-Fawzan is well-suited to be a particular favorite of black American Muslims, may  however  be doubted.  One of his most widely reported judgments was this:

Slavery is a part of Islam ... Slavery is part of jihad, and jihad will remain as long there is Islam.” As for the modernist interpretation that Islam totally abolished slavery, he dismissed its exponents saying, “They are ignorant, not scholars. ... Whoever says such things is an infidel.”

[Update 28 September 2014]  Beheading still spreading -- it’s like a meme.

The four men knelt in the sand, hands bound and heads bowed. And in what has become a grisly Middle Eastern trope, a video camera's merciless eye recorded their scripted confessions — swiftly followed by their beheadings.
At least nine such executions have taken place since August in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula.
… The best-known such case was a privileged young man named Islam Yaken, who grew up in an affluent district of the Egyptian capital, spoke fluent English and studied law at Cairo University. From Syria, he posted photos and videos of his new life with Islamic State, including some that featured him posing with severed heads.

Sort of like getting your photo taken with Mickey at Disneyland.  Decapitation porn.

Le Penseur,
contemplant  sa décollation

[Update 17 November 2014]   The latest mass-beheading video from ISIS is the talk of Franch, owing to the participation of a Frenchman.  But, unlike the majority who dismiss this as mere savagery -- like an outburst by some forcené on the street --  a thoughtful reader points out the voulu, guignol aspect of the performance:

La France et l'Occident en général aurait tord de prendre l'État Islamique uniquement pour des fous furieux sanguinaires incapables d e réfléchir.
Ce genre de vidéo n'est pas uniquement une de ces horribles exécutions faites au hasard de combat. Il s'agit la de véritables mises en scène macabres ou l'on a clairement pris le temps de réfléchir sur la manière de mettre en scène la décapitation simultanée de presque 20 militaires syriens
C'est de la propagande très bien faite ( même si le contenu est véritablement monstrueux ), qui a plusieurs objectifs : intimider ceux qui les combattent déjà, encourager d'autres a les rejoindre et surtout faire voir aux puissances occidentales si besoin est, qu'il y a a la tête de l'État Islamique des gens qui voient loin.

[Psycholinguistic footnote:  There is a misspelling in the comment, which I have reproduced tel quel :  tord should really be tort.   I left it because it just might be one of those Freudian slips :  in this case, from the phrase  tord le cou ‘wring someone’s neck’.]

[Update 18 January 2015]  As further illustration, that ISIL is not simply implementing shariah, including in those aspects which are quite punitive, but are playing to the media -- to the Société du spectacle -- consider their latest innovation as regards punishing practicing homosexuals.   Shooting, beheading, scourging, lapidation, crucifiction -- naah, been there done that.  What to do for an encore? -- Aha!  Why not throw them off a roof, while an expectant crowd with upturned faces  looks on from below!

Anything to maintain their ratings!

[Historiographic footnote]  Actually, in being cast from a high place, the inverts have been granted by ISIL  a mode of dispatch  previously reserved for an emperor.   A historian writes, re the capture of Constantinople in 1204:

The emperor, regarded as a wicked usurper, was taken to the top of a high marble column  and pushed off, “because it was fitting that such a signal act of justice  should be seen by everyone.”
-- Morris Bishop, The Middle Ages (1968), p. 104

[27 January 2015]   It really is a matter of branding.
With ISIL, it’s heads;  for the central-African Lord’s Resistance Army (now back in the headlines), their signature excision is lips & noses.

[Update Ash Wednesday]
An article by Hussein Ibish, along much the same lines:


[Update 11 March 2015]  Desperate to maintain their lead in the atrocity sweepstakes, ISIL has now given the starring role of executioner  to a kid who looks like a choirboy:

Coming soon to a Theatre (of Cruelty) near you:

            * Execution by a little girl in pigtails
            * Execution by a chimp

ISIL:  the Cable Television of Jihadi entertainment.

[Update 21 Nov 2015]

The Washington Post as well  offers a well-informed inside glimpse into those who make ISIL’s société du spectacle  possible:

What they described resembles a medieval reality show …

And:  Coming soon 2 a Cineplex near U !

The Islamic State’s most notorious videos — including those showing the beheadings of Western hostages and the burning of a caged Jordanian fighter pilot — were shown over and over, he said, long after their audiences beyond the caliphate dissipated.

Abu Hourraira said he attended one screening on a street near the University of Mosul that attracted about 160 people, including at least 10 women and 15 children. One of the videos showed an execution by Emwazi, who is believed to have been killed this month in a U.S. drone strike.

“The kids, they are not looking away — they are fascinated by it,” Abu Hourraira said. Jihadi John became a subject of such fascination that some children started to mimic his uniform, he said, wearing all “black and a belt with a little knife.”

Owing to the extraordinary appeal of this offering among the tots, the Islamic State has specially revised the rating of this video  from PG-13 to PG.

[Update Jan 2016]

Historical precdents:

A historian quotes a memoir from Japanese-occupied Manchuria during WWII:

As part of their education, my mother and her classmateshad to watch newsreels of Japan’s progress in the war.  Far from being ashamed of their brutality, the Japanese vaunted it  as a way to inculcate fear.  The films showed Japanese soldiers cuting people in half, and prisoners tied to stakes being torn to pieces by dogs.  There were lingering close-ups of the victims’ terror-stricken eyes  as their attackers came at them.
The Japanese watched the eleven- and twelve-year-old schoolgirls  to make sure they did not shut their eyes, or try to stick a handkerchief in their mouths to stile their screams.
-- Martin Gilbert, A History of the Twentieth Century, vol. II (1998), p. 443

Note that the point here, is not that the Japanese committed atrocities, but that (unlike, for instance, the Nazis, for the most part, or Stalin) they boasted about it, publicized it.

In the case of ISIL (we have argued), the beheadings are aimed at more (much more) than terrorizing the enemy:  they have a demonstration effect on their own ranks. 
Ditto for the Japanese;  re the year 1937 (when the Japs were already up & active, well before Pearl Harbor):

The Japanese company commander, Tominaga Shogo, later explained how, after decapitating a Chinese prisoner with his sword, “I felt something change inside me.  I don’t know how to describe it, but I gained strength somewhere in my gut.”
-- Martin Gilbert, A History of the Twentieth Century, vol. II (1998), p. 165

That wasn’t done to “inculcate fear”;  it may well have been done out of sight.  Psychologically, it is more comparable to cannibals eating the warriors they have slain, to incorporate the mojo.

These were not isolated, private acts.  From 1942:

On Singapore Island, 5,000 Chinese civilians  … were rounded up and … killed:  first their hands were tied behind their backs, and then their heads cut off with a sword.
-- Martin Gilbert, A History of the Twentieth Century, vol. II (1998), p. 165

That, note, is likewise ISIL’s favored posture for decapitation.

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