The Spread of Beheadings as a Modern-Day Militant Tactic
Indonesian police continue to search for suspects involved in the gruesome deaths of three schoolgirls whose beheaded bodies were found near the town of Poso in Sulawesi province Oct. 29. The attackers, armed with machetes, descended on the girls from nearby hills as they walked through a cocoa plantation on their way to a private Christian school. In a particularly brazen move, the perpetrators left two of the bodies near a local police station and one of the girls’ heads outside a church.
Central Sulawesi is the scene of sporadic violence between the island’s Muslim majority and Christian minority populations, and the area around Poso is known to be particularly violent. The sectarian strife began in late 1998, but reached its height between 2000 and 2001, when more than 1,000 people lost their lives in sectarian conflicts. Despite a government-brokered peace deal in December 2001, tensions have remained high and isolated attacks against Christians continue. Beheadings, however, are uncommon, as most sectarian violence takes the form of bombings or shootings.
This attack, then, could indicate an escalation in anti-Christian violence in Poso. Whether this was a one-off incident is too soon to say, but the beheadings do indicate that the attackers either adopted a tactic used by militants in other parts of the world or are, in fact, militant or criminal elements from elsewhere, possibly Malaysia or the Philippines, were Abu Sayyaf operates. Abu Sayyaf, a Muslim separatist group-turned criminal gang, has strong ties to the al Qaeda-linked jihadist group Jemmah Islamiyah (JI), and it is possible that Abu Sayyaf members linked up with JI elements in Indonesia. It also is possible that the beheadings were the work of a small cell of local militants out to gain quick notoriety or establish a reputation for ruthlessness within a larger group.
In any case, the killings are testament to the spread of beheadings as a modern-day militant tactic. The latest wave appears to have begun in the late 1980s, when some of the death threats against British writer Salman Rushdie, author of the controversial book The Satanic Verses, specifically mentioned beheading. In the 1990s, foreign jihadists fighting in Bosnia were known to behead Serbian and Croatian prisoners. In June 2001, Abu Sayyaf beheaded two hostages in Indonesia’s southern island of Mindanao.
In the aftermath of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraqi, videotaped beheadings by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s jihadist network al Qaeda in Iraq shocked the world. Among the most infamous of these were the beheadings of U.S. contractor Nicholas Berg in April 2004 and a Japanese traveler in October 2004. Since late 2004, al-Zarqawi has refrained from beheading foreign hostages, but beheadings still occur frequently in Iraq as part of sectarian or inter-tribal feuds between Iraqis. In June 2004, jihadists beheaded U.S. contractor Paul Johnson, Jr., that time in Saudi Arabia. In southern Thailand, ethnic violence involving beheadings occurs frequently between Muslims and Buddhists. In the Netherlands, Mohammed Bouyeri, the confessed killer of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, attempted to behead his victim after shooting and stabbing him.
The phenomenon of beheading as an element of sectarian violence continues to spread, as indicated by the recent attack in Indonesia. Unless the perpetrators of the Oct. 29 attack are identified and arrested, there is no reason not to expect more beheadings in Sulawesi.