Are Militants' Swords Mightier Than Guns?

He was beaten, threatened, had guns put to his temple and a sword placed menacingly at his throat. Then, after nearly a month of terrifying captivity, Murat Kizil says he was reborn.

Kizil had virtually given up hope when he was suddenly released by the militants holding him captive in Iraq. On July 4, the 28-year-old air-conditioning technician was reunited with his family in the southern Turkish city of Adana.

"The Fourth of July is my new birthday," said Kizil in a phone interview with from Adana. "It's my second birthday. I didn't think I had any chance of being released. I never dreamed I would make it out alive."

Kizil and another Turkish worker, Soner Sercali, were captured by militants June 9 after their car took a wrong turn on the outskirts of the restive Iraqi city of Fallujah. For the next few weeks, Kizil says he spent most of his time blindfolded, handcuffed, bundled from house to house in the dead of night and frequently threatened with execution.

Then the hostages' employer, the Turkish company Kayteks, announced it would stop doing business with the U.S. military in Iraq. On July 2, their captors dropped the two men near the Turkish Embassy in Baghdad. Two days later, Kizil was finally home with his family, tucking into his mother's special rice pilaf and lamb.

Where the Past Meets the Present

Not everyone captured by Islamic militants in recent times have been as fortunate. In May, American Nicholas Berg was beheaded in Iraq, and footage of the young businessman screaming while his captors slowly sawed off his head was posted on the Internet.

Berg's decapitation was followed by the beheading of a number of foreign hostages in Iraq, including South Korean contractor Kim Sun-il and Bulgarian driver Georgi Lazov. And in Saudi Arabia, Paul Johnson, an American engineer working for U.S. defense contractor Lockheed Martin, was decapitated by a group claiming to be al Qaeda's "wing in the Arabian Peninsula."

In each case, video footage of the killings showed hooded militants armed with machine guns, rifles and rocket-propelled grenades eschewing their modern arms for a weapon of a bygone era.

And in a ritual that is now sickeningly familiar, gruesome images of a form of execution often associated with a barbaric past were recorded and disseminated using up-to-date digital technology.

Offensive Acts, Ritualistically Implemented

While violent death in any form is disturbing, the visceral nature of beheadings — and the deliberate mutilation of the body it involves — makes it particularly horrifying.

"These are glaringly offensive terrorizing acts that are almost ritualistically and theatrically carried out," said John Esposito, professor of religion and international affairs at Georgetown University. "It's not so much the punishing of the individual as the using of the individual."

And with a pattern of recording and releasing videotaped messages announcing abductions along with deadlines for their demands to be met, militants have been using the media to maximum effect.

In one of the more morbid moments of his captivity, Kizil said he once saw a photograph of himself and fellow hostage Sercali on television. But he was unable to hear the audio as his captors — who claimed to belong to a little-known group called the Mujahedeen Brigade — quickly switched off the television.

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