It was called “Operation Baghdad” and, to be sure, the headless bodies of the three police officers recalled the violence in that city. But these attacks happened in Haiti, not in Iraq.
Beheadings are on the rise around the world, as militants in other causes take note of the shock and publicity the brutal tactic has generated in Iraq.
Thailand and the Netherlands are two other countries where suspected extremists recently beheaded or slit the throats of their victims in what appear to be copycat attacks.
Rime Allaf, associate fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, said beheadings are increasing because the practice “has so horrified us in the West.”
“It achieves results and it makes the headlines,” Allaf added. “People are talking about groups that we’ve never heard about before.”
The horrifying tactic has spread as far as the Caribbean island nation of Haiti, where loyalists of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide seized on the Iraqi beheadings as a symbol of strength and intimidation.
The headless bodies of three police officers were found in Port-au-Prince early last month, and authorities said the militants had launched a terror campaign called “Operation Baghdad.”
Nobody claimed responsibility for the decapitations, but Aristide supporters echoed that thought.
“We’ll be in the streets until death or Aristide comes back,” protester Milo Fenelon said a few days later. “We won’t stop. If they come in here, we’re going to cut off their heads. It’s going to be just like Baghdad.”
In Thailand this week, a Buddhist village leader was beheaded after being shot in the chest. A note was left on his body saying his slaying was to avenge the killing of Muslim rioters by government forces.
And in Amsterdam, a suspected Islamic extremist shot and killed Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, then slit his throat. A note was left impaled by a knife on his body quoting from the Quran and threatening more killings.
“It’s an ideal terrorist tool,” said Jonathan Stevenson, senior fellow for counterterrorism at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Washington. “It is a horrifying image and I would say it is disproportionately frightening.”
Berg killing resonates
The first beheading by Islamic militants in Iraq was the slaying in May of American civilian Nicholas Berg. The killers posted a video on the Internet showing them pushing a bound Berg to his side, putting a large knife to his neck and cutting off his head as a scream sounded and the killers shouted “Allahu akbar!” — “God is great!”
A month later, an al-Qaida-linked Saudi group beheaded an American engineer in Saudi Arabia. The group did not mention Iraq but the executioners called themselves the “Fallujah Brigade” after the city in Iraq that U.S. forces had been besieging.
Since then, at least 12 foreigners, including three other Americans, have been beheaded in Iraq as part of a wave of kidnappings. Videos and the Internet were used to distribute the horrifying images across the world, compounding the shock value.
“I think the initial reason for the beheadings was true shock and awe,” Allaf said. “These people are extremely media savvy.”
The first beheading of a foreigner touted by Islamic militants was that of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, slain in Pakistan in 2002.
Decapitations had previously occurred in Algeria, Kashmir, Chechnya and the Muslim-dominated southern Philippines but had rarely been used in past militant attacks in the Middle East.
Tarnishing a faith
The high-profile killings have inspired some revulsion from Muslims and in recent days there has been a heated debate on Web sites as to whether Islam endorses beheadings.
Mainstream scholars and intellectuals also have spoken out against beheadings, with some saying that the bloody practice is tarnishing the name of Muslims across the world.
“Beheadings and (the) mutilation of bodies stand against Islam,” said Egypt’s foremost religious leader, Mohammed Sayed Tantawi.
The shock value also has been decreasing with so many beheadings in Iraq, experts say, and newspapers and television stations are devoting less time and space to the killings.
“The benefit of these spectacular kidnappings and beheadings is going down and down,” said Michael Radu, a terrorism analyst at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.
“Sooner rather than later terrorists will have a problem in that killing innocents is not bringing them what they want and what they want is spectacular media coverage,” he said. “Terrorism is part theater. When the theater part of it is cut off, then it doesn’t make sense to kill or kidnap people.”