During the four-day siege in Kenya’s Westgate shopping Mall, al-Shabaab jihadists raped, tortured, beheaded, dismembered, castrated, gouged out eyes, amputated fingers and hung hostages on hooks from the roof. According to a forensic medical doctor, “They [the al-Shabaab attackers] removed eyes, ears, noses. Fingers are cut by pliers, noses ripped by pliers”… “Those are not allegations. Those are f****** truths,”… “They removed balls, eyes, ears, nose. They get your hand and sharpen it like a pencil then they tell you to write your name with the blood. They drive knives inside a child’s body. Actually, if you look at all the bodies, unless those ones that were escaping, fingers are cut by pliers, the noses are ripped by pliers.” There were also reports that hostages were beheaded and their heads thrown out of the windows.
This inexplicable savage violence is typically attributed to psychological warfare, military tactics or individual acts of brutality but for Jihadists they are justifiable sacred acts against the enemies of Islam. They are ritual murders that are consistent with a growing global Jihadist method of operation [MO]. Similar acts of torture, rape, beheading and mutilation regularly occur in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt, Syria and other countries. The Westgate Mall massacre is comparable to the mass murder of 166 people by members of the Islamist Jihadist group Lashkar-e-Taiba, in ten coordinated shooting and bombing attacks across Mumbai, India on November 26 -29, 2008. During their siege operation the LeT Jihadists also took the time to sexually humiliate, torture and mutilate some of the victims before shooting them dead.
The Jihadist M.O. is also evident in murders, honor killings and war crimes. On June 20, 2006 in al-Yusufiyah outside of Baghdad, Iraq, the bodies of American soldiers Pfc. Kristian Menchaca, 23, and Pfc. Thomas L. Tucker, 25, members of the 101st Airborne division, were found mutilated beyond recognition. Like the hostages in the Westgate shopping Mall there were reports that their eyes were gouged out, they were castrated, their ears and noses were cut off and they were beheaded. Jihadist murders that involved throat slashing, multiple stabbings and body desecration also occurred in London and in Waltham, Massachusetts. On May 22, 2013 on the streets of London two jihadists used meat cleavers to publicly behead and disembowel a British soldier while shouting “Allahu Akbar”. On September 11, 2011 in Waltham, MA the suspects in the Boston Bombings and their Chechen friend are suspected of ritually murdering three men by slitting their throats from ear to ear with such force that they were nearly decapitated and of desecrating their mutilated corpses. [Read the entire case at Prelude to the Boston Bombing]. These are just a few examples of dozens of Islamist ritual murders that involve torture, dismemberment and mutilation.
Islamist mutilation entails a specific kind of ritualistic crime; a collective, provocative and incendiary desecration of the enemy. Mujahideen throughout the world expend extra effort brutalizing the enemies of Islam including women and children. To understand the significance of these violent ritualistic acts they have to be analyzed in the context of Islamist honor and shame. The primary motivations of Islamist atrocity is an irrepressible impulse to alleviate shame and a sacred duty to restore honor, serve vengeance, preserve purity, maintain tradition and save face. For Islamists honor is signified by stereotypical male characteristics such as courage, bravery, heroism, power, virility, and strength; dishonor is signified by stereotypical female characteristics such as weakness, vulnerability, helplessness and submissiveness.
Honor is what defines Islamists as men and psychologically is experienced as dignity and pride; conversely dishonor is indicated by female traits of weakness experienced as humiliation and shame. Islamists are in a constant struggle with fear of disgrace and maintaining manhood particularly those that are living in countries that they consider to be occupied or run by ‘un-Islamic regimes’. Emotions of weakness, helplessness, shame are always just below the surface triggered by a hypersensitivity to any real or perceived act of humiliation. Even a sideways glance can be misinterpreted as a questioning of manhood. Islamist recruitment and indoctrination functions to cultivate the honor shame paradigm so that boys will grow to be ruthless soldiers that require blood vengeance to restore honor and maintain power.
The fear of even the appearance of weakness or vulnerability provides one explanation for the torture of men, women and children. For Mujahideen mercy, compassion, sympathy and kindness symbolize weakness; cruelty, brutality, violence and atrocity symbolize strength. This explains incomprehensible cruel violent acts. Jihadists want to evince their strength and alleviate feelings of shame. Through murder and mutilation these Islamist jihadists experience relief from a sense of humiliation. Psychologically they equate their relief with violent atrocity. Symbolically blood cleanses their impurity. Culturally the violence is sanctioned and they are viewed as heroic. It becomes natural and moral to punish disrespect with torture, mutilation and ritual murder. Strategically it sends a message that there is no mercy for infidel unbelievers.
From a Western behavioral science perspective torture, murder and mutilation are categorized as pathological acts of violence. However, from the jihadist worldview these seemingly inexplicable acts of violence are neither random nor pathological. Atrocity has historical and theological precedents in Islam, is a socially acceptable punishment for infidels and significantly is a projection of cultural taboos. For Islamists the blood of enemies washes away dishonor, disrespect and the Western impurities that have polluted Islam. A symbolic analysis of the types of mutilation reveals jihadists motivations. Mutilating the body is a deliberate act of defilement, impurity and stigmatization. Islamists torture hostages to humiliate and shame them. Cutting off fingers, hacking off noses, cutting out tongues, castration, and dismemberment represent power and control of the body at the moment of death. The slow destruction of the body prevents the person from having any dignity in death.
Rape and gang rapes are a common form of Islamist punishment including men raping other men. The symbolic meaning of male on male rape is that the victims are being turned into women, which in a machismo and homophobia culture is one of the worst forms of humiliation. Similar to prison culture the victims become their bitch. For the same reason castration is the archetypal sign of dishonor and signifies that the victim is no longer a man. Another common form of Jihadist mutilation is gouging out eyes and/or chopping off parts of a person’s face such as lips, ears and most often the nose. It was reported that all of these atrocities were inflicted on the hostages in the Westgate Mall. Disfigurement has historical, symbolic and theological meaning in the context of Islamism. In fact mutilation is a form of judicial corporal punishment that occurs in many Islamic countries and includes among other things amputations, floggings, beheadings and stoning to death. In Saudi Arabia and Iran eye gouging is considered a legitimate judicial punishment. Surgically removing one or both eyes is based on the literal interpretation of lex talionis, the law of retaliation or best known from the formulation “an eye for an eye”. There are hundreds of women in Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Turkey and other countries who are mutilated for dishonoring their families and men accused of being traitors, spies or simply designated as infidel unbelievers who are victims of similar atrocities.
Victims of torture and mutilations are always potential witnesses to jihadists unspoken and often imagined shame. The Somali jihadists had to gouge out the hostages eyes so they could not mock them, cut out their tongues so they could not talk about them and cut off their ears so they could not hear of their offenses. They were indoctrinated to believe that non-Muslims disregard them and think of them as less than. This imagined disrespect is experienced as shame that originates and resides in the eyes of the innocent people who unfortunately went to the mall that day. Killing the hostages kills shame, without witnesses shame no longer exists. Honor, purity and respect is restored. Torture felt good.
Simply shooting the hostages would have demonstrated weakness and sympathy. Similar to gang initiations and narco cults the Somali jihadists earned their status by brutalizing victims. Dismemberment, eye gouging, castration, beheadings, and body desecration are marks of jihad, what genteel people use to refer to as unspeakable acts. The members of al Shabaab were able to torture and mutilate because Sharia law sanctions atrocities committed against infidel enemies of Islam. Ritualizing violence legitimizes it as acceptable punishment allowing the Somali jihadists to murder in the name of Islam. According to Sharia Law mutilation is not a barbaric act, the violence is prescribed so brutality is transformed into a sacred ritual that cleanses impurities through bloodshed. For the al Shabaab jihadists torture and murder was not immoral but righteous blood vengeance that restored honor to Somali Muslims. Through murder and mutilation the jihadists acquire strength, alleviate dishonor and achieve heroic status as ruthless Mujahideen warriors. Torturing and killing the hostages transformed them from men ashamed of their status in life into badass Mujahideen, soldiers of Allah, respected by Islamists all over the world.
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Dawn Perlmutter, Director and founder of Symbol & Ritual Intelligence and Associate Fellow at the Middle East Forum, is considered one of the leading subject matter experts (SME) in the areas of symbols, unfamiliar customs, ritual murder and religious violence.