Until Sunday, Islamic State hostage execution videos followed a macabre formula: the condemned appears in an orange jumpsuit, reads a scripted message next to a British-accented militant and then appears lifeless and decapitated in a final scene.
But the video announcement of the death of Peter Kassig, a 26-year-old former Army Ranger who was kidnapped in Syria in 2013, was different in style and content from the previous depictions.
This time, there was no scripted statement from the hostage and no images of him kneeling before his executioner. Instead, Kassig’s death is referenced only at the end of a 16-minute video devoted primarily to grisly footage of the beheadings of a dozen or so Syrian soldiers, whose decapitations, and the individuals who performed them, are shown in gory detail.
After those scenes, a black-masked militant, apparently the same British executioner who’d been seen in other hostage execution videos, is shown brandishing a knife before the camera zeroes in on a blood-streaked severed head between his feet. The fighter said the head was Kassig’s. Kassig’s body was not shown.
“Peter, who fought against the Muslims in Iraq while serving as a soldier under the American Army doesn’t have much to say. His previous cellmates have already spoken on his behalf,” the militant said. “But we say to you, Obama: you claim to have withdrawn from Iraq four years ago. We said to you then that you are liars.”
Friends of Kassig’s believe that the former Army Ranger, who’d been deployed to Iraq and who would’ve received training on hostage scenarios, refused to cooperate with the typical scripted video, knowing that his fate was sealed either way.
Mitchell Prothero, McClatchy’s Iraq correspondent who shared his Beirut apartment off and on with Kassig for eight months, said his belief that Kassig balked at participating in a more dramatic video was “the smallest solace in the world” as he mourned a friend he described as a tough Ranger who’d reinvented himself as a tireless, committed humanitarian worker.
“Clearly something went wrong. Pete was a high-value prize for them. That’s why he went last – he was an American soldier, he’d been a humanitarian worker, and they were saving him for the last,” Prothero said by phone from Irbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish region. “My belief is that he knew it was up and did something to screw up their video.”
“There’s no way they planned for 14 minutes of them killing Syrian guys and then 30 seconds at the end of them killing Pete,” Prothero added.
U.S. authorities said they were “working as quickly as possible” to verify the video, but both President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry issued statements of condolences to Kassig’s parents, Ed and Paula, who earlier had said they were aware of the reports of the death of “our treasured son.”
“Today we offer our prayers and condolences to the parents and family of Abdul-Rahman Kassig, also known to us as Peter,” Obama said in a statement. “We cannot begin to imagine their anguish at this painful time.”
Kerry, too, referred to Kassig as Abdul-Rahman, the name he was said to have taken after converting to Islam.
“This was a young man who traveled to one of the world's most dangerous places to care for the innocent victims of a bloody conflict, and fearlessly dedicated himself to helping those in need,” Kerry said. “There can be no greater contrast than that between Abdul-Rahman’s generosity of spirit and the pernicious evil of ISIL.” ISIL is the U.S. government’s preferred acronym for the Islamic State.
After serving as a Ranger, Kassig trained as an emergency medical technician and founded a nonprofit group, Special Emergency Response and Assistance, to provide aid to displaced Syrians on both sides of the border. He was headed to eastern Syria to deliver supplies that he’d purchased with American donations when he was captured in October 2013.
“He’d live for days in the hospital, pulling long shifts strictly as a volunteer and was even jokingly nicknamed Abu Homsi by his colleagues and patients because they just couldn’t believe this former American soldier was working for free simply to help people,” Prothero wrote in a tribute to Kassig.
In their pleas for his release, Kassig’s family stressed his humanitarian work and his conversion to Islam in Islamic State custody; his parents referred to him as Abdul-Rahman, the Muslim name he’d adopted.
The Kassig family’s statement asked the news media to avoid showing images from Sunday’s video, saying “we prefer our son is written about and remembered for his important work and the love he shared with his friends and family, not in the manner the hostage takers would use to manipulate Americans and further their cause.”
Last month, Kassig’s parents, who live in Indiana, released excerpts of a letter written by their son in captivity. Kassig described his ordeal as filled with “stress and fear,” but said he didn’t believe his captors’ assertions that the outside world had abandoned him.
“Don’t worry Dad, if I do go down, I won’t go thinking anything but what I know to be true,” the letter said. “That you and mom love me more than the moon and the stars.”
The president of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, Hadi al Bahra, released a statement saying that Kassig would be remembered for paying “the ultimate sacrifice trying to relieve the suffering of his fellow human beings far away from home.”
Kassig’s death would raise the execution tally to at least five Westerners. The Islamic State already has killed American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff as well as British humanitarian workers David Haines and Alan Henning. A self-proclaimed Islamic State affiliate in Algeria also filmed the beheading of a French mountaineer, Herve Gourdel, who was kidnapped while on a hiking trip.
The group is also holding British journalist John Cantlie, who was seized with Foley on Nov. 22, 2012, and has since appeared in a series of news-style propaganda videos, the last of which had Cantlie reporting from Kobani, Syria, and was posted Oct. 27.
The group is also believed to be holding an American woman whose case has not been publicized at the request of her family; she hasn’t been seen in Islamic State propaganda. Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, an Italian Jesuit priest and peace activist in Syria, was kidnapped by the Islamic State in July 2013 and hasn’t been heard from since; local reports claimed that he’d been killed but there’s been no confirmation.
Typically, Islamic State beheading videos end with a glimpse of the next hostage up for execution. Sotloff appeared in the Foley video, Haines appeared in the Sotloff video, Henning appeared in the Haines video, and Kassig appeared in the Henning video.
No other Western hostage was shown in the Kassig video, however.
There also was little blood evident on the ground around Kassig’s head, a sharp contrast to the streams that poured from the throats of the Syrian soldiers as their necks were severed, suggesting that Kassig had been killed elsewhere.
The British executioner, who also is shown taking part in the deaths of the Syrians, said Kassig was killed at Dabiq, a town in northern Syria near the Turkish border that was the scene of a noted 16th century battle between the Mamluk Sultanate and the Ottoman Empire.
In the video, the British executioner makes reference to Kassig’s service in Iraq in explaining the selection of Dabiq for his execution. “Here we are burying the first American crusader in Dabiq, eagerly waiting for the remainder of your armies to arrive,” he said, as the camera panned in on Kassig’s head.