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Terrorist Beheadings: Cultural and Strategic Implications

Authored by Mr. Ronald H. Jones. | June 2005

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Taking hostages and ritually beheading them has emerged as a popular terrorist tactic for radical groups. Using camcorders and the Internet, any group can mount an international media event at the tactical level that has tremendous strategic impact. Terrorists hope to strike fear into the populace and weaken the resolve of those who might support the global war on terrorism. The terrorists? actions also have tremendous cultural and symbolic significance for their audience. Killing hostages is not new, but the growing trend of the graphic murder of noncombatants impels us to study this tactic.

This paper defines terrorism; reviews the history of ritual murder, human sacrifice, and terrorism as a tactic used by religious groups; and focuses on the cultural significance, motivations, and objectives of these groups. Historical trends in hostage taking and American foreign policy are examined. Terrorist beheadings in Iraq are described and analyzed, and political rituals in democracies and the Middle East are discussed. Finally, the paper provides policy recommendations for strategic leaders and planners to utilize as they assess and develop effective defensive and offensive countermeasures to this tactic.