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The Grisly Tradition of Beheading

The act of beheading has been used as a means for execution and retribution for millennia. The guillotine, which was originally welcomed as more humane, was used in France until 1977 (capital punishment was outlawed there in 1981). Sharia law in many Islamic countries determines the punishments for crimes, of which beheading is one. Saudi Arabia, for example, still imposes beheading for such crimes as murder and drug trafficking and is often done publicly.  Terrorist groups have also resorted to beheading as a grisly way of gaining attention.  In 2002, for example, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was abducted by a Pakistani militant group and decapitated by al Qaeda member Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Paul Marshall Johnson, Jr. was an American engineer living in Saudi Arabia who was abducted by militants tied to al Qaeda. Despite American and Saudi attempts to deal with the situation diplomatically, Johnson was beheaded on June 18, 2004.  Three other Americans were also beheaded in 2004, this time in Iraq by militant Islamists in response to the torture at the Abu Ghraib prison. Recent beheadings of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff by ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) have brought back painful memories of these events. 

Parker T. Hart was the Ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 1961 to 1965. William A. Stoltzfus, Jr. held positions throughout the Middle East culminating as the Ambassador to Kuwait from 1972 to 1976.  Dayton S. Mak served in the Middle East from 1948 to 1970. Alice A. Dress worked as an Economic Counselor in Riyadh from 2000 to 2002 and from 2003 to 2004.  Holding positions in the Middle East and South Asia, Albert A. Thibault, Jr. discusses the environment in Pakistan around the time of the beheading of Daniel Pearl.


“The real problem with the Hanbalite school is the punishments”

Parker T. Hart
Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, 1961 to 1965


HART: Crown Prince Saud assumed the Saudi throne in 1953.  Saud was not a well-educated man and didn’t have as good judgment as his half-brother, Faisal….

Faisal (at left) continued what his elder brother had started, which was aid the royalists. That meant money and weapons as he could get them. At the very beginning I don’t think he could have had very much in the way of weaponry to hand over, but he was going to give them some help and he did. So the issue was joined between Faisal and Nasser over Yemen. King Hussein of Jordan joined Saudi Arabia in sending modest aid to the Yemeni royalists.

Faisal, however, didn’t neglect the home front or his desire to have reforms which he had pledged to President Kennedy. One of his very first acts was to issue a proclamation abolishing slavery. This had never happened before. It had always been fudged. The King’s position in the past had always been that slavery really wasn’t in existence in Saudi Arabia. Some Saudis just had special arrangements to employ servants. But now came a flat statement from Faisal that slavery was abolished. I can’t remember the exact words but it was definite, and it was clear. Anybody having slaves was going to be in trouble.  This rang a good bell back in Washington and opportunely because things were clouding up pretty fast in this Yemen situation.

Faisal also appointed a committee to study the judiciary and determine how it should be modernized, not to the derogation of the basic principles of Hanbalite Shari’a [Sunni Muslim jurisprudence], which is followed in Saudi Arabia under the banner called “Wahhabism.”

The Hanbalite school of law was founded in the 9th century of our era by Ahmed ibn Hanbal and is one of the most strict and orthodox in the Islamic codes. Only Qatar, apart from Saudi Arabia, follows it. For us and for Saudi Arabia’s image, the real problem with the Hanbalite school is the punishments:  mutilation, beheading, stoning, things of that kind which are practiced.

I would say that Faisal, whose parentage gave him a very special position, was stronger than any other person could be to put a clamp on some of these practices. His mother was of the family of the Al al-Sheikh which means “the family of the Sheikh”, meaning Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab of the 18th century, who made a treaty of alliance with Muhammad ibn Saud. That alliance continues to this day. So Faisal had the prestige of being a very devout Muslim, and having a lineage which couldn’t be improved upon. In fact, Saud had no such lineage nor had any of the other wives of Abd al-Aziz.


“The authorities would make it known that a beheading was about to take place and you were expected to go and watch”

William A. Stoltzfus, Jr.
Ambassador to Kuwait, 1972 to 1976


STOLTZFUS: One of my most vivid memories when I was assigned to Yemen was the sound of chains. It was commonplace to see somebody who had committed a misdemeanor clanking along in public with chains on his legs.

Q: What were the crimes?

STOLTZFUS: Either theft or some insult to somebody. There would be some reason that they would be locked up. Then of course they had public beheadings too. I never felt the urge to go and watch one but that was just the normal procedure for treason or murder – those ultimate crimes. The authorities would make it known throughout the area that a beheading was about to take place and you were expected to go and watch.

Q: How did they spread the word about the beheadings? 

STOLTZFUS: Well, you just knew. It’s like small communities with no radio, no electricity, no TV, no nothing. You just know. You’d have a public crier go through town maybe. That is the normal way to do it. He would just go through town calling out the fact that such and such was going to take place at such and such a time. Ours was a very small community and all of us foreigners knew each other intimately. We were always at each other’s houses….

Sheikh Abduallah al Ahmad was what we would call head of Interior Affairs. He commanded the police and ran the prison. Public beheadings, unlike Yemen or Saudi Arabia, were rare, but public beatings, often for fast violations during Ramadan, were common. The victim would be stripped to the waist and tied to a post or scaffold.

Abdullah al Ahmad would light a cigarette, the signal for the beating to begin. The flogging ended when the Sheikh put the cigarette out.


“The punishment for murder was beheading”

Dayton S. Mak
Third Secretary, Jeddah, 1949-50


MAK: The laws of Saudi Arabia were religious laws and were strictly enforced by religious police. No radio or phonograph music was allowed, either in public or in private. “Entertainment” at a government social function often consisted of the sung recitation of Koranic verses by a highly revered blind cleric, whose talent was greatly admired. Muslim women were strictly prohibited from driving; although foreign, non-Muslim women were permitted do so.

While women were required to be completely covered when in public, Bedouin women from the desert and non-Muslim foreigners were exceptions to the law. The women from the desert walked freely through the streets unveiled, wearing their brightly colored garments festooned with gold bangles and coins. At the hours of prayer, the religious police were on the streets of the market area of the city enforcing the law requiring all Saudis to proceed immediately to daily prayers.

No religious service other than Muslim was permitted in the Kingdom. The only Christian service during my stay in Saudi Arabia was held aboard an American naval vessel on an official naval visit to the port of Jeddah. At Christmastime private celebrations were held in foreign Christian homes, and the British Ambassador organized a caroling group, which visited foreign Christian residences and establishments on Christmas Eve.

Security was not a problem in Jeddah. The punishment for theft was the loss of a hand. The punishment for murder was beheading. My first visit to a local bank was a case in point. Entering the bank shortly after my arrival in Jeddah I found the floor literally covered with gold sovereigns. These hundreds of coins had been flown to Jeddah in small barrels from Cairo and were emptied onto the floor of the bank to be counted by its employees. Though customers walked in and out of the bank, stepping cautiously through the coins, no apparent precautions were being taken to make sure that none of them “disappeared”. The employees went calmly about their business of collecting and stacking the coins into counting boards.

Saudi punishment for crimes was severe. The punishment for murder was beheading. One day as I was showing a newly arrived staff member to his quarters in a building in the center of the city, we heard shouting coming from the open square below. Rushing out onto the balcony we saw a large crowd of shouting men encircling a blind-folded and bound man, crouched on his knees before a shallow trench.

Suddenly a soldier standing behind the man jabbed the man in the back with his sword causing him to straighten and in one stroke swiftly severed his head. The crowd roared its approval and then quietly dispersed. We learned that the slain man had been convicted of murder. Public stoning was the punishment for a woman convicted of adultery….


“When I left post, I was very tired and very stressed”

Alice A. Dress
Economic Counselor in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 2000 to 2004


DRESS: I left New Delhi in the summer of 2000 for Saudi Arabia. I really enjoy economic work and all of my overseas posts have been interesting. I especially liked working in an embassy because it’s a small operation with less bureaucracy compared to the Treasury or State Departments in Washington.

But I must say that my years in Saudi Arabia were the hardest of my career. The working conditions were tough. After dealing with the Indian bureaucracy you would have thought that the Saudis couldn’t have been that much more difficult but they were. The U.S.-Saudi relationship is longstanding and reasonably close. But the Bedouin culture is closed and secretive; strangers are kept outside the tent and only a few people at the top can make decisions. So talking to anybody below the King and his royal brothers doesn’t really get you anywhere.

There was also an access problem. It was difficult to get in to see people and once you did it was very hard to find anyone who would do anything but refer the issue up the line to someone at the top who could make a decision. So it took forever to move an issue forward.

When people asked if it was hard working in Saudi Arabia because I was I woman, I always said, “No, my male colleagues had the same difficulties.” Professionally being a woman was not a handicap for me. But the real problem was that a woman couldn’t go out and do anything without the risk of being harassed. Saudi women are not supposed to leave home, go anywhere or do anything unless they have a male relative (a “mahram” in Arabic) with them. Men and women who are not related by blood are strictly segregated in public. Restaurants, even fast food restaurants, had different sections for men on one side and for men and their families on the other.

Saudi Arabia has this institution called the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice or the religious police (“mutaween” in Arabic, at left). The mutaween made sure that all businesses closed for prayer, that men went to the mosque and that women were modestly dressed. Since prayers were called five times a day you had to plan your life around them, which wasn’t easy because the time for prayers varied slightly every day. On weekends, which were Thursday and Friday, you had to time your shopping and your errands around prayer times to avoid getting locked in or locked out of stores. During the workweek you had to plan your appointments so they wouldn’t conflict with prayer call.

My third year in Saudi Arabia was really tough. Following the May 2003 bombing in Riyadh by al Qaeda, spouses and children were sent home and staff was reduced. We were on lock down for months at a time, restricted to the diplomatic quarter except for business.

I was acting DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission] in July and August of 2004 when al Qaeda kidnapped three Americans and beheaded one of them.

The FBI sent out an investigation team. We were dealing with the Saudi security services, we were dealing with distraught family members back in Washington, and we had to lock down the embassy and tell people they couldn’t go off the diplomatic compound so it was extremely stressful and difficult. When I left post, I was very tired and very stressed.


“Fundamentalism has taken strong root”

Albert A. Thibault, Jr.
Political Counselor/DCM in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia


THIBAULT: The Pakistan relationship of course starts with Kashmir and that’s been the case now for fifty or more years. There was a lot of ferment in Kashmir itself. There had been an insurgency that had continued for many years, beginning in the late Eighties and starting in the early Nineties that led to tens of thousands of people being killed. The evidence was very clear that the source of this was in Pakistan itself, in which militants would have refuge on the Pakistani side of the Line of Control, on the Pakistani side in Kashmir and elsewhere in Pakistan, and with direct encouragement by the government of Pakistan, who would arm and equip them and then send them across the border to conduct mayhem. The Indians found that very difficult to counter. Part of it was because of some sympathy with the militants on the part of the Kashmiri population but also because of the nature of the terrain, which is very rugged, and then also because of the nature of the tactics that would be used to deal with them.

9/11 cast all of this in an entirely different light. Instead of talking about militants and insurgents, we talked about terrorists. 9/11 did several things. With the collapse of the Taliban and the attack on them and on al Qaeda, of course the Pakistani bases of support for al Qaeda became a major concern for the U.S. government.

That in turn led to serious questions in Washington, which continue to this day, about what is going on in Pakistani society, in which fundamentalism has taken strong root and in which you have groups responsible for the murder of Daniel Pearl of the Wall Street Journal, for several attacks on President Musharraf attempting to assassinate him, an attack on an international church in which a number of Americans were killed in Islamabad, attacks on the U.S. consulate in Karachi, car bomb attacks, attacks on a group of French engineers, ten of whom were killed in Karachi also, frequent and deadly sectarian bombings. In other words, terrorism was a continuing phenomenon around the country.

Then you have these groups operating in Kashmir and it became clear to us that they were part of the sub-culture of terrorism entrenched in Pakistan which made the use of terrorism an acceptable political tool. What was hard to accept was that the intelligence agencies in Pakistan that were targeting domestic terror groups and al-Qaeda, in response to U.S. pressure and in self-defense it has to be admitted, were at the same time supporting the terrorist groups operating in Kashmir, whom they typically equipped and trained. The Islamic justification against infidels which motivated a lot of these young men was directed against India as much as against the U.S. and Saudi Arabia and other countries. So, as I say, 9/11 really gave us a different kind of insights into what was going on there.