Preliminary thoughts on foreign fighters and ‘repertoires’

Recently, a photograph of a foreign fighter from the Netherlands affiliated with ISIS, circulated on social media. The individual is shown posing with 5 heads. This is not the first time that foreign fighters from Europe have been associated with beheadings in Syria. The emmejihad blog reported in mid-February 2014: “There is new evidence that implicates Syria fighters from Belgium in horrific atrocities, the Belgian newspaper ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’ reports today. Last weekend, images of a mass grave surfaced from the spot their militia had to abandon, and in the town where they have fled to, four beheadings occurred shortly after they arrived. It isn’t sure the Belgians participated in those crimes, but at least they did picture them.” During a recent trial in France, three would-be French foreign fighters talking about their preparations for traveling to Syria, were recorded discussing purchasing a knife, and one of them stated that the knife was not sharp enough for ‘cutting heads’. Other social media imagery from the same milieus shows a young man in combat dress posing with a large knife. Is beheading a part of the foreign fighter ‘repertoire’?

Beheading is not exclusively a foreign fighter phenomenon and it has also been used by terrorists in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia as well as local insurgents in Afghanistan. It is difficult to know how many times foreign fighters have been involved in decapitations as terrorist databases like the Global Terrorism Database GTD or RAND do not code acts by terrorist or insurgent groups using the term ‘beheading’ or ‘decapitation’; text searches return a limited results set. RAND has a record for 23 incidents between 2000 and 2008and the GTD database 29 incidents between 1988 and 2012. Campbell in, ‘The Use of Beheadings by Fundamentalist Islam’, provides data for the period 2002 to 2006 estimating some 102 beheadings by Sunni extremist groups; 60 in Iraq alone and 42 elsewhere (13 Afghanistan, 11 in Thailand and 7 in Pakistan, 5 in India, 1 in Bangladesh, Somalia, Chechnya, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines and 1 unknown).  Gary LaFree argues for a phenomenon of “burstiness”, stating that “terrorist incidents tend to be highly concentrated in time and space. They are rarely isolated in nature and tend to occur in small, self-repeating clusters or “bursts”. They echo, in short, the “near-repeat” phenomena seen in criminal activity.” This would seem to be the case with some terrorist tactics which appear in bursts before subsiding for a time.

The involvement of foreign fighters in decapitations has been documented since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan where Tomsen, in the ‘The Wars of Afghanistan’, writes that “Khalis’s commanders hosted Arab revolutionaries. One commander, Engineer Mahmood in Shinwari country east of the Khyber pass, turned about 20 regime defectors over to his Arab allies for execution during the battle of Jalalabad. Afghans in the area reported the Mahmood had charged the Arabs $10,000 per head. The Arabs showed no mercy. They sat the bound prisoners in a row and, one after another, beheaded them with knives. One of Sayyaf’s commanders also turned defectors over to Arab extremists who tortured and executed them.” (p.308) Thomsen also relates another incident involving Sayyaf and Arab foreign fighters in May and June 1992,  “A senior Wahdat leader, Ustad Khalili, accused Sayyaf’s Afghan and Arab Wahhabis of beheading over 100 Shia.” (p.494)

The Final Trial Brief, in  the ICTY case against Enver Hadzihhasanovic and Amir Kuburadescribes the beheading of a detainee by foreign fighters. “A few days after arriving in the Orasac camp, Popovic, Fisic, Adzaip and Pobric were led by the guards across the village to a nearby meadow or clearing where approximately 50 to 100 uniformed men formed a semi-circle in front of a grave. A uniformed Arab was there, conducting a ritual while the soldiers shouted, “Alahu Akbar” and “Tegbir” and while this was occurring, an all terrain vehicle with dark windows arrived. The detainees were forced to kneel in front of the grave and Popovic was thrown to the ground, while the uniformed Arab called for Hasan LNU, who approached Popovic and slit his throat, in an attempt to behead him. Following this partially successful attempt, a second, “sturdy and heavy-built man” approached Popovic and completely severed his head, which was then carried over to the remaining detainees, who were forced to “kiss the head on the mouth-on the lips and on the front”….” (p.155)

Kohlman citing a UN document writes that in 1992, Saudi foreign fighters were reported to have beheaded 3 members of a Serb defence unit and placed their heads on poles (p.30), he also writes that in 1995 foreign fighters produced and distributed videos of beheadings (pp.130, 135). A German-Egyptian is reported to have filmed some of these beheadings and the same individual is now reported to have traveled to Syria and is present with foreign fighters. The description of the beheadings – decapitation and kissing of severed heads -  is similar to the event in the ICTY case.

The most frequent and visible use of beheading was in Iraq where a large number became notorious due to diffusion via the internet. Campbell estimates that there were 60 beheadings in Iraq between 2004 and 2006. The majority (34) occurred in 2004, with a near 50% drop to 18 in 2005, and only 8 in 2006. Her data directly attributes 12 incidents to AQI or Tawhid wa Jihad, 12 to Ansar al-Sunna, 13 to ‘jihadists, Islamic militants, or mujahideen’ and 16 incidents where the perpetrator is unknown. Abdelasiem el Difraoui refers to a ‘few dozen movies’ made of the executions in Iraq (p.203). The frequency and manner in which the beheadings were diffused drew criticism from al-Zawahiri, less for the use of beheading and more for unwanted publicity the act was attracting. The rationale used was that it was harmful to the propaganda efforts of al-Qaeda and could potentially dissuade potential supporters.

“ Among the things which the feelings of the Muslim populace who love and support you will never find palatable - also- are the scenes of slaughtering the hostages. You shouldn't be deceived by the praise of some of the zealous young men and their description of you as the shaykh of the slaughterers, etc. […] However this does not change the reality at all, which is that the general opinion of our supporter does not comprehend that, and that this general opinion falls under a campaign by the malicious, perfidious, and fallacious campaign by the deceptive and fabricated media. And we would spare the people from the effect of questions about the usefulness of our actions in the hearts and minds of the general opinion that is essentially sympathetic to us.”

In el Difraoui's assessment, the execution videos contributed to AQI losing the propaganda battle as they alienated not only the wider public but also parts of the jihadist movement, including  historic figures in al-Qaeda like Zawahiri (pp.232-233).

Given the negative role of the executions and their media diffusion it is interesting to note the re-emergence of the use of beheading in Syria by entities associated with foreign fighters. It is tempting to treat beheading as a tactic premised only on religious beliefs and (mis)interpretation of the Quranic verses, "When you encounter the unbelievers on the battlefield, strike off their heads until you have crushed them completely; then bind the prisoners tightly." (Sura 47:3) or "I will cast dread into the hearts of the unbelievers. Strike off their heads, then, and strike off all of their fingertips." (Sura 8:12). This line of argument would suggest, that Sunni foreign fighters practice beheading or decapitation to comply with religious injunctions, no matter, the adverse messaging that might arise from this act. However, reading foreign fighter and foreign fighter supporter twitter accounts, it would appear that their perspective on the use of beheadings is broad, and not necessarily religious. Their comments suggest beheading is about vengeance, instilling fear, violent voyeurism and even ‘merciful’

  • Iraq: UK soldiers implicated in 1000 torture cases; 200 unlawful killings, and they ask us why we behead their POW
  • ISIS strategy to scare army. Government will contact checkpoint, no answer, then send people and they will find heads…
  • dont forget to behead those western soldiers and send the pics through email to their families, I love to see the reactions.
  • to be honest..beheading is merciful..not like torture and rape done by our enemies

Perhaps from an analytical perspective it is more helpful to think about the use of beheading as a ‘repetoire’ to borrow a term from the social movement literature. Tarrow in Power in Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics, writes  that “Repetoires of contention” can be thought of  ‘as ways that people act together in pursuit of shared interests’…‘the word repertoire helps describe what happens by identifying a limited set of routines that are learned, shared, and acted out through a relatively deliberate process of choice’ […] The repertoire is at once a structural and cultural concept, involving not only what people do when they are engaged in conflict with others but what they know how to do and what others expect them to do. Charles Tilly in Regimes and Repetoires adds that, “Once we look at collective claim-making, we can see that particular instances improvise on shared scripts. Presenting petition, taking a hostage, or mounting a demonstration constitutes a performance linking at least two actors, a claimant and an object of claims. […] Performances clump into repetoires of claim-making routines that apply to the same claimant-object pairs. […] Repetoires vary from place to place, time to time, and pair to pair. But on the whole, when people make collective action claims they innovate within limits set by the repertoire already established for their time, place and pair.”

The use of beheading is not only based on compliance with a religious law but is part of a constructed ‘repetoire of contention’ deployed by foreign fighters in the conflict zone. To view it, exclusively, through the lens of religion and argue that is carried out only or primarily as part of a religious injunction misses the complexity of motivations and does not see the act as part of a performance, however, grisly and distasteful. The performance aspect can be seen in the example from Bosnia, where there is a large crowd present to watch the act, and in the passing of the head to the three remaining prisoners for them to kiss. In the case of Iraq, the performance was purposely arranged and conceived as macabre theatre with the use of the orange jumpsuit.

Where did the use of beheading originate and how was this behavior diffused among foreign fighters community, was it learned from older foreign fighters or through having seen material from Bosnia, Chechnya or Iraq? Tilly comments that “Repetoires draw on the identities, social ties, and organizational forms that constitute everyday social life. From these…emerge both the collective claims that people make and the means they have for making them. In the course of contending or watching others contend, people learn the interactions that can make a political difference as well as the locally shared meanings of those interactions…” would suggest that the repetition of the act across conflict zones and generations of foreign fighters creates a known ‘repetoire’ and a ‘shared script’.

Tilly suggests that innovation within a ‘repetoire’ is limited and in relation to beheading, it appears to be less about the act of beheading itself and more about the capturing of the act by video or photo and its diffusion to a wider community. Foreign fighters in Bosnia took photos or video; al-Zarqawi, filmed beheadings, and adapting somewhat, clothed the victim in an orange jumpsuit; now European foreign fighters are displaying photographs of beheadings on their Facebook pages or on their Twitter accounts. The ‘repetoire of contention’ remains relatively constant but the transmission of its performance adapts.  Beheading while, not exclusively, an act of foreign fighters, is a ‘repetoire’ common to their presence in a conflict zone, that is performed locally and increasingly diffused globally. It will likely remain part of the foreign fighter ‘repetoire’ and to appear in ‘bursts’ in conflict zones in which Sunni foreign fighters are engaged.

This article is a guest post, written by Timothy Holman, his excellent blog can be found here.