The Magazine

War Againstthe Infidels

The message behind the beheadings.

Jul 5, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 41 • By PAUL MARSHALL
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THE BEHEADING of American Paul Johnson in Saudi Arabia was terrible enough in itself, but for me it struck strangely close to home.

Johnson's full name was Paul Marshall Johnson. When he was kidnapped, some media outlets, and the terrorists, referred to him as "Paul Marshall (Johnson)," with the surname in parentheses. The first I knew of the abduction was a phone call to my office from a network evening news reporter who thought that, since I have written on the Saudis and terrorism and was planning to return to the Middle East, I must be the one who had been kidnapped.

Then on Friday, June 18, al Qaeda announced Johnson's death with the words, "In answer to what we promised . . . to kill the hostage Paul Marshall (Johnson) . . . the infidel got his fair treatment," prompting more calls from friends and reporters.

Happily, of course, I could reassure them. But the episode underlined the fact that all of us are potential targets--and not just as Americans. Certainly, al Qaeda wants to kill Americans and drive them from the Arabian Peninsula, not least to cripple Saudi oil production. But the extremists, who beheaded a South Korean last week, have many more enemies than this and much larger goals.

The statement announcing Johnson's death referred to him as an "infidel"--in Arabic kufr, unbeliever--rather than as an American. This is entirely consistent with al Qaeda's religiously based worldview and its recent actions.

A few weeks before Johnson's death, the man believed to be his murderer, al Qaeda operative Abdelaziz al-Muqrin (himself reportedly killed on June 18 by Saudi security forces), had claimed credit for the May 29 massacre of 22 people at Khobar, Saudi Arabia. His statement on that occasion vowed, "We renew our determination to repel the crusader forces and their arrogance, to liberate the land of Muslims, to apply sharia [Islamic law] and cleanse the Arabian Peninsula of infidels." The Khobar attacks, too, were directed at "infidels" in general rather than just Americans.

But to understand indelibly who al Qaeda thinks its enemies are, it is advisable to read an even more chilling document. It is a long interview with another Saudi terrorist, one of al-Muqrin's followers, published on the al Qaeda-linked website Sawt Al-Jihad and translated from Arabic by the Middle East Media Research Institute. Although only brief excerpts can be given here, lengthy excerpts are available on MEMRI's website. The speaker, Fawwaz bin Muhammad Al-Nashami, commanded the Al-Quds [Jerusalem] Brigade, which took responsibility for the Khobar killings. In the interview he describes the murderous rampage (except where indicated, bracketed inserts are the translator's):

We tied the infidel [a Briton] by one leg [behind the car]. . . . Everyone watched the infidel being dragged. . . . The infidel's clothing was torn to shreds, and he was naked in the street. The street was full of people, as this was during work hours, and everyone watched the infidel being dragged, praise and gratitude be to Allah. . . .

We entered one of the companies' [offices], and found there an American infidel who looked like a director of one of the companies. I went into his office and called him. When he turned to me, I shot him in the head, and his head exploded. We entered another office and found one infidel from South Africa, and our brother Hussein slit his throat. We asked Allah to accept [these acts of devotion] from us, and from him. This was the South African infidel.

We went out from the company [offices] and found our brother, Nimr the hero, standing at the entrance to the company and guarding us, drinking a little water as though he were on a hike. [He acted this way] because of his great courage--may Allah have mercy on him. . . .

At the same time, we found a Swedish infidel. Brother Nimr cut off his head, and put it at the gate so that it would be seen by all those entering and exiting. We continued in the search for the infidels, and we slit the throats of those we found among them. . . .

We found Filipino Christians. We cut their throats and dedicated them to our brothers the Mujahideen in the Philippines. [Likewise], we found Hindu engineers and we cut their throats too, Allah be praised. That same day, we purged Muhammad's land of many Christians and polytheists. . . .

Afterwards, we turned to the hotel. We entered and found a restaurant, where we ate breakfast and rested a while. Then we went up to the next floor, found several Hindu dogs, and cut their throats. . . .

The Indian Muslims told us that their manager was a vile Hindu who did not permit them to pray, and that he would arrive shortly. When [the manager] arrived, we verified his religion by means of his identifying documents, and we kept him with us for a short time [before killing him--PM].

. . . brother Hussein was on the stairs and noticed an Italian infidel. He aimed his gun at him and told him to come closer. The infidel came closer. We saw his identifying documents . . . afterwards we would cut his throat and dedicate him to the Italians who were fighting our brothers in Iraq and to the idiotic Italian president who wants to confront the lions of Islam.

Consistently, these Wahhabis describe their enemies, whatever their country or race or politics, as "infidels" or "polytheists." They are particularly joyful at the killing of an Italian, a Briton, and, on June 22, the South Korean Kim Sun-il, whose countries are participants in the coalition in Iraq. But they also kill a Swede and a South African, whose countries took no part in the invasion, and their greatest frisson seems to come from killing Hindus, who, as purported polytheists, are even further down al Qaeda's religious scale than "people of the book" such as Christians and Jews.

The pattern is consistent. It was discernible in the Riyadh massacres of November 8, 2003, when the target was Lebanese Christians. It's why, when BBC correspondent Frank Gardner lay bleeding in the street after being shot by terrorists in Riyadh earlier this month, he could buttress his claim for help by calling out in Arabic, "I'm a Muslim, help me, I'm a Muslim, help me."

Americans, to be sure, are perceived to be the greatest power among the infidels. But at Khobar, after debating the matter, the terrorists spared one American because he was a Muslim, and even apologized to him for getting blood on his carpet. Meanwhile, they happily killed Filipino, Swedish, British, Italian, and South African Christians and Indian Hindus--just as their allies in Thailand are killing Buddhists like the 63-year-old rubber-tapper Sieng Patkaoe, beheaded in late May. Muslims who do not share the extremists' vision are not spared. Al Qaeda's Algerian ally, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, has for several years been beheading Muslims it regards as apostates. Meanwhile Sudan's National Islamic Front, formerly called the Muslim Brotherhood and, like Hamas, an offshoot of the Egyptian group of the same name, is attempting to starve to death hundreds of thousands of Muslims in Darfur who do not share its vision.

These killings are not about the Abu Ghraib prison scandal or American actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, though those are grievances. They are not about Israel, though that is another grievance. In fact, most of the Islamist terrorists' victims worldwide are not Americans or even Westerners, but Asian and Middle Eastern Christians, Muslims, and Hindus. For the extremists, the justification for the slaughter is not current foreign policy but rather--as the religious exaltation, even ecstasy, in Al-Nashami's interview shows--an apocalyptic war to purge the world of all but their version of Islam.

Spaniards will not be spared because Spanish troops are gone from Iraq. Europe cannot make its way into the terrorists' good graces by distancing itself from America, any more than the United States can mollify the Islamists by acting through the United Nations or wooing "world opinion." These are fantasies.

Al Qaeda's enemy is anyone who opposes its program for the restoration of a unified Muslim ummah, ruled by a new Caliphate, governed by reactionary Islamic sharia law, and organized to wage jihad on the rest of the world. The lesson of Riyadh, Khobar, and Paul Marshall Johnson is that we can resist this program, in which case, tragically, we may well see more videos of beheadings. Or we can acquiesce to this program and see a great many more beheadings. These are the choices. We are in a war we must win. Everything else is wishful thinking.

Paul Marshall is a senior fellow at Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom and the author of Islam at the Crossroads.