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.
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.
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 shocking detail.
After those scenes, a black-masked militant, apparently the same executioner 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 “But we say to you, Obama: You claim to have withdrawn from Iraq four years ago.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 had been deployed to Iraq and who would have 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 had re-invented 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 said.
President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry issued statements of condolence to Kassig’s parents, Ed and Paula, who earlier had said they were aware of the reports of the death of “our treasured son.”
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 he 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 adopted.
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.”