WASHINGTON — U.S. military officials tell NBC News the kidnapping and killing of the two American soldiers has all the earmarks of an al-Qaida operation.
The unspeakable brutality of al-Qaida has taken many forms in Iraq, but none as horrific as the on-camera beheadings of hostages.
In a purported claim of responsibility on the Internet, al-Qaida said the two U.S. soldiers had been "slaughtered" and their "throats slit" — language used to describe beheadings in previous hostage murders.
U.S. military officials report the bodies were so badly mutilated they were tentatively identified by tattoos and known scars.
The Internet posting also claimed the two American soldiers were killed by al-Qaida's new leader in Iraq, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, who experts believe was out to prove he's just as ruthless as his predecessor, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, killed in a U.S. air strike two weeks ago.
"This is just simple, pure brutality that is intended to demoralize, that is intended to frighten, and intended to send the message that Zarqawi's brutality is still alive," says Shibley Telhami, an expert on Middle Eastern affairs at the University of Maryland.
If true, this week's slayings of the two American soldiers would follow a particularly barbaric pattern by al-Qaida leaders.
Two years ago, Zarqawi personally carried out the killing of American hostage Nick Berg in Iraq.
Al-Qaida's No. 3, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, beheaded Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was taken hostage in Pakistan in 2002.
At the same time, experts believe the torture and execution of the two U.S. soldiers was also in retaliation for the U.S. military's killing of Zarqawi.
"They needed to demonstrate after Zarqawi was killed that they were not mortally wounded themselves," says NBC terrorism expert Steve Emerson. "And what better way than to brutalize and torture American soldiers?"
U.S. military officials also fear that if the execution of the American soldiers follows the usual pattern, they expect to see a propaganda video of the killings posted on the Internet within days.