BANGALORE - The beheading of Kim Sun-il, a
33-year-old Korean working in Iraq, by an Islamist group
with links to al-Qaeda is the latest in a spate of
incidents where Islamic militants have kidnapped and
then decapitated their hostages.
hostage-taking is itself not a new tactic, its use with
modern communication technologies has given militants a
new deadly weapon in their arsenal.
kidnapped two days after another al-Qaeda-linked group
decapitated an American hostage, Paul Johnson, in Saudi
Arabia. A month ago, Nick Berg, an American working in
Iraq, was kidnapped and then beheaded.
growing incidence of hostage-taking in Iraq, Afghanistan
and Saudi Arabia indicates that militants in these
countries are increasingly opting for targeted attacks
rather than engaging in indiscriminate violence. While
the nature of each of the insurgencies in these three
countries is quite distinct and cannot be lumped
together, a common thread can be discerned in the
tactics that militants are adopting here.
Iraq, while militants continue to carry out suicide bomb
blasts aimed at driving out the occupation forces and
weakening the US-appointed interim government in the
runup to the June 30 handover of sovereignty,
hostage-taking appears to be the main tactic that the
militants are adopting to chip away at the will of the
allies of the Americans.
Security analysts are
drawing attention to the increasing adoption of precise
assaults by militants in preference to spectacular and
random attacks. In Saudi Arabia, for instance, the past
couple of weeks have seen a sharp surge in targeted
attacks - specific individuals singled out for either
assassination, as was the BBC crew and two Americans,
Kenneth Scroggs and Robert Jacobs or, as in the case of
Paul Johnson, for kidnapping.
This is a
significant departure from the suicide attacks that
rocked residential complexes in Riyadh in May and
November last year. Scores were killed in these attacks;
many of them were Muslims, causing deep outrage among
Muslims in Saudi Arabia and outside. This resulted in
many Saudis, including those in the Najd region from
which many of the militants hail, cooperating with the
Saudi authorities to root out militant cells. That is
said to have led to a big leap in Saudi intelligence on
the militant network in the country.
militants in Saudi Arabia appear to have learnt lessons
from their attacks last year, one of which is the
dangers of alienating Muslim opinion. In more recent
terrorist attacks, Saudi militants have taken care to
avoid killing Muslims. At the Oasis complex in the oil
city of al-Khobar, militants went door-to-door, seeking
out Westerners for execution. They were careful to
separate out Muslims and anyone of Middle Eastern
origin. For instance, a Christian woman was allowed to
go free after proving she was Lebanese, and an Iraqi
American managed to survive by proving he was a follower
Similarly, in the attack at the
petrochemical complex at Yanbu, where five Westerners
were shot dead, a militant passed by a Filipino, saying
that he was not what they were looking for. As important
as the military operations against the enemy is the
battle for the hearts and minds of the Muslim people.
The targeted attacks on Westerners must be seen in this
context. Although many Arabs are horrified by the
beheading of hostages and condemn such actions carried
out in the name of Islam, they justify attacks on
Westerners as inevitable responses to US/Israeli
occupation of Arab lands.
increasingly resorting to hostage-taking as part of
their larger strategy of targeted attacks. Hostage
taking is known to have a far more devastating impact on
the psyche of an enemy, as the violence plays out slowly
and sometimes, as in recent incidents of hostage-taking,
in front of video cameras. While having their demands
met is one goal of the hostage-takers, often it is with
the aim of terrorizing the population from which
individual Westerners have been kidnapped.
taking of a hostage and his beheading in the event of
the demands not being met, as was the case with Paul
Johnson, has resulted in thousands of expatriate
families in Saudi fleeing the country. Despite the
efforts of the British and American governments to stem
the exodus of their citizens working in the kingdom - a
flight of foreign workers critical to the Saudi economy
could trigger deep instability and result in the
collapse of the regime - at least 30,000 expatriates
have left following Johnson's gruesome execution.
So frequent and widespread is the practice of
hostage-taking in Iraq in recent months that American
analysts are describing it as a "cottage industry" in
that country. Drawing attention to the immense impact
that hostage-taking has on American opinion, analysts
are recalling the impact that the taking of hostages in
the American embassy in Iran in 1979 had on the
presidential elections the following year. President
Jimmy Carter was defeated in the elections after efforts
to secure the release of the American hostages failed.
Militants seem to have achieved a sophisticated
understanding of how violence, the media and public
opinion can interact. The Bush administration's skillful
manipulation of the American media might have been
successful in getting American public opinion to back
the invasion of Iraq. But the present phase of the war,
especially the psychological war that the militants are
waging in Saudi Arabia and Iraq, might well go in favor
of the militants.
Not only is the taking of a
single Western hostage far easier than breaching the
security cordon around a tightly guarded military
installation, but also by using the full array of modern
media like video production and websites, militants are
able to batter Western morale to a greater extent. Like
suicide attacks, hostage-taking and beheading appear to
be a low-cost, high-yield terror tactic.
more, it does not need even the coordination and
planning that a suicide attack requires. Besides, by
specific targeting, Islamic militants are avoiding
Muslim casualties, ensuring in the process that Muslim
opinion would not turn against them.
security around Western embassies and military
installations in Saudi Arabia tightened post-September
11, militants shifted to striking at "soft targets" like
expatriate-dominated residential complexes and offices.
Security at the oil offices in Yanbu and the housing
compound at al-Khobar was easier to breach. In-depth
pre-operation surveillance enabled the assailants to
choose their targets.
The taking of individual
hostages is even easier. By targeting non-Muslim
residents and workers in Saudi Arabia, the militants
have heightened the government's dilemma. On the one
hand, the government is under immense pressure from the
US and others to crack down on the vast militant network
in the kingdom. However, the killing of Westerners by
militants is not unpopular in Saudi as the masses resent
the West's exploitation of their country. A crackdown on
militants could therefore heighten anger with the
government. The Saudi government will have to do some
tough tightrope walking.
But some tightrope
walking is required of the Islamic militants as well.
The killing of Westerners might have some support among
sections in Saudi Arabia, but grisly executions in the
name of Islam are viewed with some distaste in the
broader Muslim world.
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