Bloodthirst

100 Beheadings, 6 Months: Why the Saudi Kingdom Is on an Execution Spree

The Saudis are on a beheading spree, executing 100 ‘criminals’ in the first half of the year. Blame a new king, a failed war, and a double jihadi threat for the gruesome upswing.

06.18.15 9:15 AM ET

The Saudi government executed its 99th and 100th convicts of the year on Monday. A dubious local court system already had convicted a Syrian with trafficking drugs and a Saudi of stabbing a fellow citizen. Wearing black bags over their heads, the convicts were publicly executed—each beheading delivered with the single swing of a long sword.

Such executions have long been part of Saudi Arabia’s criminal justice system. But the Kingdom this year is on a gruesome killing spree, taking off the heads of 100 people in just the first six months of this year. The toll has startled the world community and raised questions about the Kingdom’s new blood thirst.

In 2014, there were 90 such deaths, according to Amnesty International, and just 26 in 2011, the year of Arab Spring. Roughly half of those killed this year are foreign nationals, with Pakistanis representing the most foreigners killed at 14, according to Human Rights Watch. At least three are under 18 years old. If such rates continue this year, Saudi Arabia will surpass its own record of 192 executions, set in 1995.

Experts and U.S. officials watching events unfold believe the regional instability is leading to increased internal fears of jihadism, revolution, and rebellion seeping into the Kingdom. The rising Islamic State threat, regional instability, falling energy prices, a rising Iranian hegemony, and the Kingdom’s failed assault on rebels in Yemen are aggravating already existing internal tensions.

“Given the changes in succession and ongoing conflicts in the region, it would not be surprising if the number of executions remains elevated as the continues its transition to new leadership while facing a range of security issues in the region,” a U.S. official explained to The Daily Beast.

Fears of a rising ISIS threat in Saudi Arabia are not unfounded; hundreds, if not thousands, of ISIS fighters come from Saudi and return to their home country. Neither are fears that the Shiite minority residing in the oil-rich east will rise against a state that oppresses them. The enormous amount of instability around the region only exacerbates those fears, U.S. officials and experts have concluded.

“Many Saudis were worried the implications of a break in unity on the domestic front, especially at this time of growing extremism… They don’t want terrorist activity to infect their own country,” said Lori Plotkin Boghardt, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “All these external challenges makes internal challenges much more complicated.”

The opaque monarchy is not prone to publicly explain its actions. So the world is left to thread together the few details emerging from the Kingdom to understand the rising death tally. Perhaps the biggest question is how much the influence of the new king, Salman, is having on the rising number of executions.

King Salman has only been in power since this year, upon the death of his half-brother King Abdullah in January. But in that time, King Salman already has made moves to suggest that he will be more aggressive than his half-brother who proceeded him. At home, bloggers who write benign critiques have received 1,000 lashes. Abroad, the king embarked within two months of taking office on an airstrike campaign in Yemen. “Decisive Storm” was meant to fend off the rising threat of Iranian-back Houthis on his southern border, but the Saudi campaign is now floundering.

“The King and his very ambitious son have shaken up a lot in the in less than five months. They know the Yemen war has not brought the Decisive Storm it promised,” Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst and terrorism expert at the Brookings Institution, explained in an email. “The Kingdom is a police state, one of the most severe in the world. It has two major terrorist threats, ISIS and AQAP [al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula]. This sends a signal that terrorism and dissent will not be tolerated.”

But Boghardt noted that there have been spikes in executions before Salman, first in the ’90s and again after Arab Spring and the rise of ISIS. In the first 20 days of August 2014, as ISIS rapidly took territory across Iraq, Saudi Arabia executed 19, people including one for sorcery.

The increase in capital punishment in Saudi Arabia mirror trends throughout the Arab world. While no other Arab state has conducted so many executions, let alone beheadings, many have been carrying out authoritarian practices, like mass arrests and crackdowns on freedom. In Egypt, for example, President Abdel Fatah al Sisi has presided over a crackdown on journalists, thousands of arrests of Islamists and liberals alike. More recently, there have been reports of activists disappearing all together. The argument across the Middle East is that it is better to live under brutality than for the state to devolve into Libya, Iraq, or, worst of all, Syria. For many Saudis, public executions are a means to deter would be jihadists or rebels, experts said.

Among Saudis, there has been little outward criticism of the increased government beheading or increasingly strident rulings by judges. Last month Sunni Saudi Arabian activists condemned an ISIS attack on a Shiite mosque that killed 21 people. National unity, they suggested, was more important than sectarian unity.

Saudi Arabia is governed by a strict interpretation of Islamic sharia law. The Quran allows for hudud, or the execution of those who commit specific crimes identified in the holy book. And the Saudi judiciary permits the execution for eye-for-eye retribution murders, or qisas, as well as tazir, or general offenses designated as death penalty cases by Saudi law.

But the majority of executions are for crimes that more legally murky than hudud. According to a tally compiled by Human Rights Watch, based on reports from the Saudi Press Agency, only 14 of the 100 executions were for hudud offenses, compared with 30 under qisas and 56 under tazir. Most of those executed for tazir offenses are drug crimes. Evidence is often spurious and confessions are often obtained through torture, HRW found.

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“It’s bad enough that Saudi Arabia executes so many people, but to execute people convicted in nonviolent drug offenses shows just how wanton these executions are,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW Middle East and North Africa director, in a press statement.

On Monday, Ismael Al-Tawm smuggled “a large amount of banned amphetamine pills into the Kingdom,” the Interior Ministry said in a statement, according to the Saudi Press Agency. He was executed in the northern Al-Jouf Province. Rami Al-Khaldi was convicted of stabbing a Saudi citizen to death and was executed in the western city of Taif.

The next day, two more Saudis were sentenced to death, according to local reports, raising the latest tally to 102.