Isis isn’t the first group to use the butcher’s knife as an instrument of policy. Nor will it be the last

Not since the Nazis have we had culprits documenting their war crimes on such a scale


Chopping off someone’s head or sawing it off or slicing it off is about gore. Blood. Pain. Grotesquerie. Death by the blade is about shame, suffering in an animal slaughterhouse. It’s the most repulsive theatre, understood by the Romans, the Tudors, the French revolutionaries, the austerest guardians of Wahhabism. Colour it bright red.

To be hanged, drawn and quartered was about fear, terror – a word liberally used in Paris after 1789 – and obedience. It still is. The most judicious, accurate and gruesome description I have ever read of such executions – those of a nervous disposition need read no further – came from an expatriate Irishman who chanced upon the “judicial” beheading of three Saudis in Jeddah in 1997.

“Standing to the left of the first prisoner, and a little behind him, the executioner focused upon his quarry. I watched as the sword was drawn back with the right hand. A one-handed back swing of a golf club came to mind … The down-swing begins. How can he do it from that angle? … The blade met the neck and cut through it like…a heavy cleaver cutting through a melon … a crisp, moist smack. The head fell and rolled a little. The torso slumped neatly. I see now Why they tied wrists to feet … the brain had no time to tell the heart to stop, and the final beat pumped a gush of blood out of the headless torso on to the plinth.”

Oddly, back then – in the days when decapitation was regarded as a mundane if unpleasant ritual in Wahhabi Saudi society – this description, in The Irish Times of all places, elicited not the slightest response. No one worried about the sins of the three poor wretches, nor the “trial” they underwent, nor the pain they must have endured. It was all part of a timeless tradition. You know, these warrior chaps, always chopping off bits of one another. Decapitations, amputations, you name it.

Now that the habit has stretched across the deserts to Iraq and Syria, however, and embraced the good, the bad, the ugly and the truly innocent, we’re all talking about genocide, apocalypse and the end of the world. Isis, the latest Middle Eastern plague we have to fear and loathe – remember Khomeini’s hangmen, Saddam’s torturers and Assad’s executioners? – has quite deliberately turned to the butcher’s knife as an instrument of policy. Debate, discussion, objections have no place in the polity of this Salafist lot.


It’s rule by fear, Ghengis Khan-style, Tamerlane the victorious – is it not passing brave to ride in triumph through Mosul? – in which power (and revenge) is imposed through the knife. Shia Iraqi soldiers? Shoot them in the back of the head by the battalion. Christians? Convert or die. Syrian recruits? Strip them and slice their throats. And videotape the whole gruesome business. Not since the Wehrmacht took tourist snapshots of their massacres of the Jews of the Soviet Union have we had culprits documenting their own war crimes on such a scale. Indeed, the mobile phone video, the blog and the internet have become the new purveyors of earthly terror.

There’s no point in searching for the dark inspiration behind decapitation. Almost every ancient text can be used to justify judicial murder, ethnic cleansing or genocide. The Bible is packed with the stuff. But the unique element about Isis – true to the bleak 18th-century philosophy of Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab himself, so harsh and intolerant that the people of Basra threw him out of their city after his brief visit to what is now Iraq – is the idea of a return to the origins of Islam, to purity. Which means pre-schism Islam, before the great Shia divide. And purity is about absolutes, absolute right and absolute wrong, which is why the flag of Isis is black and white – as was the flag of al-Qa’ida.

Of course, the original al-Qa’ida favoured the men who would create this monster. When Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Qa’ida’s man in Iraq, was killed in a US air raid in 2006, Osama bin Laden described him as “a lion of jihad”. But via his successor Abu Abdullah al-Rashid al-Baghdadi and now Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, this particular al-Qa’ida clone moved out of control. Far from claiming to represent all Muslims, al-Qa’ida’s local affiliates espoused Sunni – even tribal – aspirations. Thus a letter written – probably by Bin Laden himself, less than a year before his assassination by the Americans – complains that some of his “brothers” had become “totally absorbed in fighting our local enemies” and using other Muslims as human shields (Bin Laden called this the “barricade argument”).

Addressing one of his advisers, Bin Laden specifically questioned the actions of “our brother Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi”, demanding that “several sources” be questioned about him – as well as about his Islamic State lieutenant al-Nasir li-Din Allah. “In these efforts,” Bin Laden wrote, “there should be a special message directed to our brothers there that stresses the importance of unity and collectiveness and that they maintain a basic foundation of the religion so it must get precedence over names, titles or entities if they obstruct the achievement of that great duty.” In other words, the al-Qa’ida leader was having grave doubts about Isis, its leadership and its role.

The last critical paragraph of this letter, which passed through the hands of the Americans who found it in Bin Laden’s compound in 2011 after they killed him in Abbottabad – so there’s a red light over the sourcing – begins: “We must avoid the stigma of being a one-dimensional sect [sic], opposed to all others. We are Muslims following the teachings of Islam and we are not the owners of the Salafist way … It is important to have a memorandum … clarifying the issues of penitence … and the virtue of patience; refraining from accusing and judging without being qualified to judge.” Bin Laden even wanted al-Qa’ida to apologise when Muslims were wrongly killed by al-Qa’ida surrogates.

If only we had captured this man and put him on trial for al-Qa’ida’s crimes against humanity – rather than murdered him, which we did – perhaps due process would have allowed us to hear more of Bin Laden’s argument. But of course, we liquidated him. And now America’s military bosses are talking hysterically about apocalypse and their President admits he doesn’t “have a strategy yet”, at least not until he can “cobble together the kind of coalition we need …” And so the blood-dimmed tide is loosed.

The Isis threat must be confronted with clarity and determination
David Cameron is exploiting our fears so that he can take away our freedom  

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Travel Consultant

£20000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in London, Manches...

Recruitment Genius: Stock Broker / Trainee Broker / Closer - OTE £250,000

£30000 - £250000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Stock Broker/ Trainee FX, Stoc...

Guru Careers: Software Developer / Web Developer (PHP / MYSQL)

£30 - 40k + Benefits & Bonus: Guru Careers: A Software / Web Developer (PHP / ...

Recruitment Genius: ICT Operations Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company is the single governing and regul...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Hillary Clinton peers over a podium while addressing an audience on the campaign trail in North Charleston.  

The rise of Donald Trump is saving Hillary Clinton from the American Jeremy Corbyn

John Rentoul
A stock investor sits in front of an electronic screen showing the stock composite index at a brokerage house in Beijing, China, 27 August 2015.  

China’s fall hasn’t changed everything – it’s really just noise

Hamish McRae
A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

Britain's Atlantis

Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

David Starkey's assessment
Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

'An enormous privilege and adventure'

Oliver Sacks writing about his life
'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'
Britain is still addicted to 'dirty coal'

Britain still addicted to 'dirty' coal

Biggest energy suppliers are more dependent on fossil fuel than a decade ago
Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

Orthorexia nervosa

How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

Set a pest to catch a pest

Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests
Mexico: A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life

The dark side of Mexico

A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life
Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde. Don't tell other victims it was theirs

Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde

Please don't tell other victims it was theirs
A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

A nap a day could save your life

A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

If men are so obsessed by sex...

...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

Rolling in the deep

The bathing machine is back but with a difference
Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935