ISIS: The Logic Behind the Beheading

In recent months, ISIS has reemerged as an active organization and has since published several graphic videos to the Internet in which they behead foreign journalists. This seemingly meaningless violence actually contains a very specific meaning to the organization, as it serves as a way to establish and maintain order. Understanding this meaning can help us to strategize the best ways to deal with ISIS and other nonstate organizations.

Anthropologist Christian Hammons analyzes the motivation and meaning behind the beheading videos in his article “Beheaded: An Anthropology”. He classifies beheading generally as a “long-standing practice of statecraft” since it is commonly combined with “the founding of a new social order”. So by beheading the foreign journalists, ISIS is characterizing them as “others” and marking them as undesirable to the new social order that they are attempting to establish. Hammons also observes that the target audience for these videos isn’t western governments since they could anticipate that the U.S. would want revenge for the beheadings, but rather “existing and potential members of the subject population of the Islamic State”. So these videos function as a method of letting their members know that a new movement is beginning, with the victims of the video, in this case American journalists, serving the role of “the enemy.” By creating animosity towards the west, ISIS is establishing a common enemy to unite against and, in a way, also creating what they perceive as “order” in their organization.

Since ISIS relies on beheading to create and maintain order, it makes sense that in response to a disturbance of order, they would result to more beheadings. Therefore, this information is extremely relevant as the U.S. continues its attempt to dismantle ISIS. Assuming that our goal is to prevent more of these beheading videos from surfacing, the U.S. will have to tread carefully in its fight with ISIS and be careful not to cause too much disorder, lest that disorder results in more frequent and graphic beheading videos. This knowledge of how the beheading videos function within ISIS allows us to better understand the consequences of fighting the organization.

Looking at the conflict with ISIS through an anthropological lens allows us to see the reasoning behind an act that seems like nothing more than meaningless violence. Assigning these beheading videos logic helps us to understand how ISIS will respond to U.S. intervention and, generally, how to deal with organizations like ISIS.

While we may not agree with ISIS’s methods of creating order, their method does have a purpose in that it creates a common enemy and, therefore, unites members of the Islamic State against the west.