IS-style Beheadings in Southeast Asia

Commentary by Rohan Gunaratna
160426_GUNARATNA_BEHEADINGS_620.jpg Muhammad Basri, center, a Santoso follower suspected of involvement in beheadings in Sulawesi in 2005, talks with a fellow detainee in a Jakarta jail cell, Nov. 7, 2007.

On April 25, the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) carried out its latest beheading in the southern Philippines, making good on its threat 10 days earlier to kill hostages if ransom demands were not met. Canadian John Ridsdel, 68, was killed and his head was dumped in a plastic bag near City Hall in Jolo, Sulu province.

Ridsdel had been taken hostage with Canadian Robert Hall, Norwegian, Kjartan Sekkingstad, and Filipina Marites Flor from a tourist resort in Samal Island, Davao, in September 2015. Those three remain with the ASG, along with at least 18 other hostages, among them 14 Indonesians and four Malaysians.

Threat groups in Southeast Asia carried out beheadings before the advent of the so-called Islamic State. But as groups in the region affiliate with IS, they are emulating IS-style beheadings.

With the declaration of a Wilayat in the southern Philippines, the region is likely to witness more IS rulings, codes and practices. Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Totoni Hapilon – based in Basilan, an island-province that lies off Mindanao – has been appointed leader of an IS branch in the Philippines.

Other IS and IS support groups and groupings in southern Philippines are as follows: in northern Mindanao, The Islamic State of Lanao (ISL); in Southern Mindanao, Ansar Khilafah Mindanao (AKM); and in Western Mindanao, Al Harakatul al Islamiyah, Basilan (IS Philippines). All three groups engage in beheadings, and all three have pledged allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.


In the contemporary period, ASG founder Abdurrajak Janjalani introduced beheadings to Southeast Asia, after being educated in Saudi Arabia and Libya. The ASG rank and file was instructed on the Battle of Badr (March 13, 624), where 70 prisoners were captured and two were executed upon the order of Prophet Muhammad.

Although the execution of the two captives is disputed and the prisoners were well treated, ASG literature ignored this aspect and took out of context the following two Quranic verses, highlighting them to justify beheadings.

Chapter 8 verse 12: “Remember when your Lord inspired to the Angels, I am with you, so strengthen those who have believed. I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieved, so strike upon their necks and strike from them every fingertip.”

Chapter 47 verse 4: “When you meet the disbelievers in battle, strike them in the neck, and once they’re defeated, bind any captives firmly – later you can release them by grace or by ransom – until the toils of war have ended.”

Before and after the formation of ASG in 1992, Janjalani’s Majlis Shura (consultative council) ordered the beheading of spies in 1991 and 1992. Subsequently, when the military was encircling the group, the ASG took hostages and beheaded several Christians.

In 2001, as ASG deputy leader, Isnilon Hapilon supervised the beheading of Guillermo Sobero, the first foreigner beheaded in Southeast Asia in the contemporary period. Sobero was kidnapped together with fellow U.S. citizens Martin and Gracia Burnham from Dos Palmas in Palawan province.


Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) was the first threat group to carry out beheadings in contemporary Indonesia, in 2005. The JI team responsible had returned from a training course in the Philippines and wanted to seek revenge on the Christian community for killings and counter-killings under way at that time in Central Sulawesi.

The operational leader Hasanuddin planned the beheading as an “act of Muslim charity” to coincide with Lebaran (Idul Fitri), the festival that ends with the holy month of Ramadan.

At 6:30 a.m. Oct. 29, 2005, six attackers approached Theresia Morangke, 15, Alfita Poliwo, 17, and Yarni Sambue, 17, walking through a cocoa plantation in Gebong Rejo on their way to the Central Sulawesi Christian Church High School. Clad in black masks, they beheaded the girls with machetes. Noviana Malewa, 15, who suffered an injury to the neck and face, ran and shared the ordeal with the authorities.

One of the heads was left outside a newly built church. Two others were delivered to their village with the note: “Wanted: 100 more heads, teenaged or adult, male or female; blood shall be answered with blood, soul with soul, head with head.”

Hasanuddin eventually was sentenced to 20 years in prison; two other men were sentenced to 14 years each. Others implicated in the act fled.

Hasanuddin’s associate, Santoso, later recruited some of the attackers in the beheading. They now form the rank and file of the Poso-based Eastern Indonesia Mujahideen (MIT), which conducted half a dozen beheadings after Santoso pledged allegiance to the IS leader.


Insurgents in Pattani in Southern Thailand have beheaded about a dozen civilians, both men and women. However, the beheadings in Thailand are post-mortem. That is, after the enemy is killed, he or she is beheaded. In a number of cases the body is either burned or mutilated.

Although Islam explicitly forbids the mutilation of the dead, it is practiced by the threat groups both in Thailand and the Philippines.

Crafting a Response

The state and societal response to this scourge should be two pronged. Militarily, IS groups and support groups in Southeast Asia should be contained, isolated, and eliminated. Ideologically, Muslim leaders, teachers and other influencers in the region should defend their faith and protect the faithful to counter IS practices from taking root. Already, some Muslims believe that IS is propagating authentic Islam and beheading is in accordance with Islamic jurisprudence.

To counter IS beheadings, clerics can develop the content from the Quran and classical books of jurisprudence.

Surah Muhammad, 47:4:    NOW WHEN you meet [in war] those who are bent on denying the truth, smite their necks until you overcome them fully, and then tighten their bonds; but thereafter [set them free,] either by an act of grace or against ransom, so that the burden of war may be lifted: thus [shall it be].

The Prophet of Islam guided Muslims to treat their prisoners well. In “The Life of Mahomet,” William Muir wrote:  “In pursuance of Mahomet’s commands, the citizens of Medina, and such of the refugees as possessed houses, received the prisoners, and treated them with much consideration. ‘Blessings be on the men of Medina!’ said one of these prisoners in later days; ‘they made us ride, while they themselves walked: they gave us wheaten bread to eat when there was little of it, contenting themselves with dates.’ It is not surprising that when, sometime afterwards, their friends came to ransom them, several of the prisoners who had been thus received declared themselves adherents of Islam. ... Their kindly treatment was thus prolonged, and left a favorable impression on the minds even of those who did not at once go over to Islam.”

The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and not of BenarNews.


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