Nearly a decade ago, Ayman al-Zawahiri — the man who would go on to become the head of al Qaeda — wrote a letter to his deputy in Iraq, scolding him for beheading hostages and posting videos of their execution online, the New York Times reports.
According to the report, he explained that although he was in favor of killing the enemy and agreed with the principle of sowing terror, the scenes of slaughter risked turning public opinion against their organization. His advice was to be more discreet: “Kill the captives by bullet.”
The letter — written in 2005 and recovered by American forces in Iraq — was addressed to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of the group that would become the Islamic State, which split off from the Qaeda network earlier this year.
On Monday, Dec 8, al Qaeda came out publicly against the practice of beheading in a strongly worded interview with one of its field commanders, making clear that the organization founded by Osama bin Laden was more pragmatic and as a result less extreme than its jihadist rival in Syria — which has turned the act of decapitation into a signature of its brutality.
In a 43-minute video, Nasr bin Ali al-Ansi, a military strategist and official of Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, is asked whether he condones recent beheadings. He says that although some Qaeda members may have carried out such acts, the organization does not sanction the practice.
“No doubt, some of our brothers were affected by seeing scenes of beheadings that were spread recently. We do not accept — and we strongly reject them,” al-Ansi says, according to a transcript provided by SITE Intelligence, an organization that tracks jihadist propaganda. “Recording such acts and spreading them among the people in the name of religion and jihad, we see as a big mistake. It is not acceptable, no matter the justification.”
He makes clear that the position he is articulating is not just his own, or even that of al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen known as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, but rather is the guidance of the group’s most senior current leaders — and reflected the wishes of Osama bin Laden himself. “Therefore, I assert that whoever does such actions,” he says, “he has violated the command of Sheikh Osama.”
A veteran of al Qaeda, al-Ansi moved to Afghanistan in the 1990s to train in the group’s elite camps. He was dispatched by bin Laden to the Philippines in 2001 to help guide jihadists there, including by teaching them the principles of Shariah law, as well as military tactics.
According to the NYT, he says in Monday’s video that bin Laden specifically asked him to stress to the cell in the Philippines that recording scenes of brutality was forbidden.
The Islamic State cemented its place as one of the world’s most brutal terror organizations this August, when it began recording the beheadings of its American hostages, starting with the 40-year-old freelance journalist James Foley.
Last month, in one of its most horrific videos, the group posted a lengthy, cinematic production showing the decapitation of dozens of Syrian soldiers — with the camera panning over each of their faces in the moment before they are killed. As if to draw out the horror, the screen goes to black just before they are executed and the viewer hears the panicked breathing of the victims waiting to have their throats slit.
As if to underscore the centrality of beheading, the Islamic State also posted photographs showing children decapitating their dolls.
Al Qaeda’s prohibition against beheading does not mean it is necessarily less murderous, NYT says. Over the weekend, Qaeda fighters in Yemen shot the American hostage Luke Somers, moments before SEAL Team 6 commandos reached the compound where he was being held captive.
And last week, the group’s affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front, posted a photograph of a Lebanese hostage being executed. Tellingly, the image shows the man kneeling as a fighter aims a gun at his head. Though the moment of death is not shown, the clear implication is that he was — in keeping with the advice of senior leaders — killed by bullet.