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

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

Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application Developer

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Service Engineers - Doncaster / Hull

£27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Service Only Engineers are requ...

Recruitment Genius: Employability / Recruitment Adviser

£23600 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Employability Service withi...

Day In a Page

Read Next

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
Queen Elizabeth II with members of the Order of Merit  

Either the Queen thinks that only one in 24 Britons are women, or her Order of Merit is appallingly backward

Janet Street-Porter
Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

The secret CIA Starbucks

The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

One million Britons using food banks

Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

How to run a restaurant

As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Usher, Mary J Blige and to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

Mary J Blige and to give free concert

The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
10 best tote bags

Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

Paul Scholes column

I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...