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Middle East: Extremists Opting For Beheading As Weapon Of Choice In Terror War

Kim Sun-il's family grieves his death In a little more than a month, three hostages have been decapitated in Iraq and Saudi Arabia. The almost identical pattern of the murders suggests that some extremist groups see beheading as a new weapon of choice in their war of terror against Washington and its allies. But why do they choose this particularly gruesome method?

Prague, 24 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The new script for extremist groups capturing and killing foreigners in the Persian Gulf region is becoming chillingly familiar.

First, the kidnappers make a videotape of their hostage pleading with his government to comply with their urgent political demands.

Kim Sun-il, the South Korean killed this week, begged his government to withdraw its troops from Iraq. Next -- after such demands are rejected -- the captors bring their hostage again before the video camera.

The prisoner is dressed in an orange jumpsuit like the ones issued to detainees in U.S.-run prisons in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Then, an executioner saws off the hostage's head and holds it up to the camera.

Kim, who worked for a South Korean company supplying the U.S. military in Iraq, is the third hostage to be killed this way in the region in a little more than a month. The two others were American helicopter technician Paul Johnson in Saudi Arabia and American entrepreneur Nicholas Berg in Iraq.

A group with links to Al-Qaeda, headed by Jordanian-born militant Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, has claimed responsibility for both of the killings in Iraq. Members of an Al-Qaeda cell claimed responsibility for the killing in Saudi Arabia and were later killed or arrested in a police operation.

The repeated use of decapitation suggests that some extremist groups see beheading as a potent new weapon in their war of terror against the U.S. and its allies.

Terrorism experts say the groups behead their captives -- rather than shoot or hang them -- because they hope to engender maximum horror through the executions. They hope that will rivet public attention on the group's political message.

But are the beheadings having that effect?

Marc Sageman is a forensic psychiatrist at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the book "Understanding Terror Networks." He says that, in Saudi Arabia, the brutality of the beheadings has revolted the public.

"Whereas other terrorist operations that involved martyrdom were seen, widely perceived by Saudi society, as acts of courage, this is not seen that way. This is just seen as horror and something to be avoided. So I think they lost some of their following by doing this," Sageman said.

Regional public opinion has long become accustomed to car bombings and suicide attacks by Palestinian militants, but the videotaped beheadings appear to exceed the public's threshold for political violence.

Arabic-language satellite television channels have refused to broadcast the execution videotapes beyond showing the victim while he is still alive before his captors.

The Qatar-based Al-Jazeera channel said this week it refused to air tape of Kim's beheading because it could be "highly distressing to our audiences."

Photographs of executioners holding up the decapitated heads of their victims have appeared in the daily press in some Mideastern countries, but have been banned in others. Outside the region, editors have mostly ruled out publishing the decapitation photos. However, the execution videotapes have appeared on extremist websites on the Internet.

The fact that the beheadings have been carried out by extremist Islamic groups claiming to wage a holy struggle, or jihad, against the West and its allies has sparked some media debate over whether beheading or other mutilation of captives is sanctioned by Islam.

Inayat Bunglawala is the media director for the Muslim Council of Britain in London, an organization working to promote understanding of Islam in Great Britain. He says the beheadings have no religious justification.

"The killing of Nick Berg and the Korean gentleman by means of beheading is clearly outside the Islamic rules of war,” he says. “These two were not combatants. They were not involved in any war in Iraq. They had come to work in Iraq. And to murder -- which is what happened -- to murder people in this manner is wholly unacceptable."

The media debate has largely centered on the fact that some radical clerics have issued fatwas justifying the killing of hostages and the mutilation of enemies' bodies as retaliatory acts in time of war. But mainstream Islamic scholars have condemned such behavior.

Bunglawala says that conflicts tend to generate extreme behavior, and the Iraq crisis is no exception. And he notes that when people engage in extreme behavior, they tend to claim justification from their religious faith -- whether or not there is basis to do so.

"One of the unfortunate aspects of the whole Iraq war is that it has led to an increased radicalization among a section of Muslims, as well [as other people], and the pictures that we saw coming out of the Abu Ghrayb prison [in Baghdad] has only contributed to that phenomenon. And when people are radicalized, they will go to various extremes, and they will commit extreme actions seeking justification from their [religious] faith," Bunglawala says.

Many commentators observe that decapitation is hardly a new phenomenon as a tool of terror.

They note beheadings have long been used in societies around the world to instill fear in publics. Historically, beheadings have most often been at the behest of rulers and performed in public to encourage obedience to laws.

John Daniszewski, a commentator for the "Los Angeles Times," recently noted that "since ancient times, decapitation has been widely used for executions, not only in the Arab world, but elsewhere -- for instance, in Japan and in some European countries up to the 20th century."

Daniszewski notes, "Saudi Arabia, despite much criticism from Amnesty International and other human rights groups, still beheads scores of people in public each year for crimes including murder, rape, armed robbery, and drug trafficking."

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