NYT: Obama Calls Islamic State’s Latest Beheading "Pure Evil"

Originally posted at The New York Times.

Islamic State militants released a chilling videotape on Sunday showing they had beheaded a fifth Western hostage, an American aid worker the group had threatened to kill in retaliation for airstrikes carried out by the United States in Iraq and Syria.

President Obama on Sunday confirmed the death of the aid worker, Peter Kassig, a former Army Ranger who disappeared more than a year ago at a checkpoint in northeastern Syria while delivering medical supplies.

Mr. Kassig “was taken from us in an act of pure evil by a terrorist group,” Mr. Obama said in a statement from aboard Air Force One that was read to the news media in Washington.

In recent days, American intelligence agencies received strong indications that the Islamic State had killed Mr. Kassig, the group’s third American victim. The president’s announcement was the first official confirmation of his death.

“Today we offer our prayers and condolences to the parents and family of Abdul-Rahman Kassig, also known to us as Peter,” Mr. Obama’s statement said. The president used the Muslim name that Mr. Kassig adopted after his capture, making the point that the Islamic State had killed a fellow Muslim. He acknowledged the “anguish at this painful time” felt by Mr. Kassig’s family.

The footage in the video released Sunday was of poorer quality than some of the group’s previous, slickly produced execution videos.

The video shows a black-robed executioner standing over the severed head of Mr. Kassig. Though the end result of the footage was grimly familiar, it was strikingly different from the executions of four other Western hostages, whose recorded deaths were carefully choreographed.

In the clip released early Sunday, the Islamic State displays the head of Mr. Kassig, 26, at the feet of a man with a British accent who appeared in the previous beheading videos and has been nicknamed Jihadi John by the British news media. Unlike the earlier videos, which were staged with multiple cameras from different vantage points, and which show the hostages kneeling, then uttering their last words, the footage of Mr. Kassig’s death is curtailed — showing only the final scene.

“This is Peter Edward Kassig, a U.S. citizen of your country. Peter, who fought against the Muslims in Iraq while serving as a soldier under the American Army, doesn’t have much to say. His previous cellmates have already spoken on his behalf,” the fighter with a British accent says in the video. “You claim to have withdrawn from Iraq four years ago. We said to you then that you are liars.”

Analysts said that the change in the videos suggested that something may have gone wrong as the militants, who have been under sustained attack from a United States-led military coalition and have faced a series of setbacks in recent weeks, carried out the killing.

“The most obvious difference is in the beheading itself — the previous videos all showed the beheading on camera,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, in Washington, and a former director of the Center for the Study of Terrorist Radicalization. “This one just shows the severed head itself. I don’t think this was the Islamic State’s choice.” He added, “The likeliest possibility is that something went wrong when they were beheading him.”

Among the things that could have gone wrong, analysts surmise, is that the extremists did not have as much time outdoors as they did when they killed the others. The United States announced soon after the first beheading in August that they would send surveillance aircraft over Syria and residents contacted on social media have reported seeing objects in the sky that they believe are drones.

The first four beheadings were carried out in the open air, with a cinematic precision that suggests multiple takes, filmed over an extended period of time. Carrying out a similar level of production as surveillance planes crisscrossed the skies above would result in extended exposure — heightening risk.

Another possibility, Mr. Gartenstein-Ross said, is that Mr. Kassig resisted, depriving the militants of the ability to stage the killing as they wanted.

“We know that this is a very media-savvy organization, and they know that you only have one take to get the beheading right,” he said.

An Indianapolis native, Mr. Kassig turned to humanitarian work after a tour as an Army Ranger in Iraq in 2007. He was certified as an emergency technician, and by 2012 he returned to the battlefield, this time helping bandage the victims of Syria’s civil war who were flooding into Lebanon. He moved to Lebanon’s capital, Beirut, where he founded a small aid group and initially used his savings to buy supplies, like diapers, which he distributed to the Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

He disappeared on Oct. 1, 2013, when the ambulance he and a colleague were driving was stopped at a checkpoint on the road to Deir al-Zour, Syria. He was transferred late last year to a prison beneath the basement of the Children’s Hospital in Aleppo, and then to a network of jails in Raqqa, the capital of the extremist group’s self-declared caliphate, where he became one of at least 23 Western hostages held by the group.

His cellmates included two American journalists, James Foley and Steven J. Sotloff, as well as two British aid workers, David Haines and Alan Henning, who were beheaded in roughly two-week intervals starting in August. Mr. Kassig was shown in the video released in October that showed the decapitation of Mr. Henning.

The previous videos of beheadings produced by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, appeared to be filmed in the same location, identified by analysts using geo-mapping as a bald hill outside Raqqa. Each video was relatively short — under five minutes on average — and included a speech by the hostage, in which he is forced to accuse his government of crimes against Muslims, while the masked killer stands by holding the knife.

By contrast, Mr. Kassig’s death appears in the final segment of a nearly 16-minute video, which traces the history of the Islamic State, from its origins as a unit under the control of Osama bin Laden to its modern incarnation in the region straddling Iraq and Syria. In one extended sequence, a mass beheading of captured Syrian soldiers is shown, filmed with long close-ups of details, like the shining blade of the executioner’s knife, mirroring the high production quality of the first four beheading videos.

The part showing Mr. Kassig’s body is amateurish compared with both the footage of the soldiers being killed and previous executions of Westerners.

“The final Kassig execution section is definitely different from previous videos,” said Jarret Brachman, a counterterrorism expert who advises the United States intelligence community. The “message to President Obama from Jihadi John is sloppy, jumbled and redundant. His joke about Kassig having nothing to say seems like a defensive way of covering up the fact that they don’t have a video of his actual beheading or weren’t able to make one.”

In the months leading up to his death, Mr. Kassig seemed to know the end was near.

In a letter to his parents smuggled out this summer, he described his fear: “I am obviously pretty scared to die but the hardest part is not knowing, wondering, hoping, and wondering if I should even hope at all,” he wrote. “Just know I’m with you. Every stream, every lake, every field and river. In the woods and in the hills, in all the places you showed me. I love you.”

Read more at The New York Times.


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One Comment

  • Lori says:

    November 20, 2014 at 3:30 PM

    The latest westerner was an American– and a Muslim. I wonder if that’s why Obama is finally mad?