Beheading Survivor Tells What It Feels Like – The LBT

The Only Living Survivor Of A Beheading Describes What It Feels Like And What Life Is Like As A Survivor

Adam M. Barr is a retired journalist and author of the upcoming autobiography “Assembly Required: A Journalist’s Story of Survival In Iraq and Pakistan.”


Published August 22, 2016


Investigative journalist Adam M. Barr was working on a story about war refugees in Afghanistan near the Pakistani border when the terrorist group Al-Badr kidnapped him.  Al-Badr held him captive in the mountainous region of Pakistan.  After Al-Badr announced the date of his beheading, a CIA-led rescue mission was organized. 

Barr was rescued, but only moments after his beheading. His head and body were immediately frozen, and less than 24 hours later a German hospital successfully reattached his head to his body in a radical experimental procedure.  After 92 surgeries in the U.S., France, Israel, Brazil and Germany, Barr lives to tell the tale.

Why were you beheaded?

U.S. intelligence thinks the group that took me, Al-Badr, was trying to increase its presence in the western regions of Pakistan.  They were not seeking ransom money or any financial reward.  They just wanted media attention.

When did you first learn that you would be beheaded?

One of my captors spoke a few words of English.  Everything they needed to communicate to me was through him.  I remember him motioning with his hand across his neck one night after we had watched TV, and I said, “No more Haroof wa Aloof?”  [Ed.: Wa Aloof is a popular TV personality in the Middle East.]  He shook his head “no.”  Then he drew a line with his finger all the way around his neck.  This I understood.

What preparations do terrorists make for a beheading?

For most of them I think it was their first beheading, because they kept referring to a blue notebook at each step.  First, they shaved my head using warm water and a shaving cream that had sort of a minty scent to it.  Not too strong, but soothing.  Then they had me dress in an orange tunic.  I remember complaining about the fit being snug in the arm holes but they only had one to choose from.  I made due.

Does getting beheaded hurt?

They did apply a topical anesthetic to my neck.  I’m not sure what it was.  This helped slightly with the initial incision.  Then it just felt like getting the worst paper cut you ever had.  Once they got through the nerves it was completely painless.  I could hear them cutting through bone, but I have no recollection of feeling it.  Ironically, I can remember being encouraged about midway in the procedure because I could hear the gun fire from my rescue team.  I thought perhaps I still had a chance.

You wouldn’t want to take a calculus exam or anything in that state, but you have a good deal of awareness.”

Do you remember the period after your head was severed?

People don’t realize that you can be fully conscious without being attached to your body.  You can still see and hear and smell.  You wouldn’t want to take a calculus exam or anything in that state, but you have a good deal of awareness.

Where was your head afterwards?

I was fortunate that they had a basket made of some fabric that was not medically sterile but at least clean.  In many parts of the Middle East they have what in English would be called “head baskets.”  Head baskets, not to be confused with “head gaskets” like in an automobile, are normally just for ornamentation but not in this case.  So once the procedure was complete they said something in Arabic that sounded like a prayer, and I was lifted up by my ears and placed in the head basket on the left side of my face. 

What do you remember seeing or hearing?

I could see my body still in the operating chair over the edge of the basket out of my right eye, which was a very odd experience.  I remember thinking both that I needed to start working out again and that it’s not my problem anymore – all at the same time.

Having your head separated for any length of time does have some long term health effects.”

How were you saved?

The rescue team knew Al-Badr would start the procedure wherever I was after hearing gunfire so one of their team members co-opted a freezer truck on the street.  The team found my head and body probably within 30 seconds of separation.  I was unconscious before this point, though, so I am only relating what was reported to me after my recovery.  Within 60 seconds my body and my head were in the freezer truck.  The U.S. government was able to fly me in a frozen state to Heidelberg, Germany.  The rather remarkable doctors there have some experience in reattachment procedures but these procedures are still considered very experimental.  My surgery is the only successful human head reattachment on record after a full separation.

Do you have any lingering health issues?

Having your head separated for any length of time does have some long term health effects.  In the morning I sometimes have a tingling sensation in my fingertips and toes.  I also tend to sleep more, but my doctors believe this also could just be natural aging.  

How has your recovery been from an emotional standpoint?

Emotionally, I have done quite well I think but I now have a strong aversion to any sport involving spherical projectiles that approximate the dimensions of the human head.  Volleyball is perhaps the most difficult for me, but I was never a big fan so this is not so hard.  Oh, and, of course, there is some scarring around my neck.  People like to tell stories about how they got their scars.  My story is a show-stopper.

Interview conducted by Skype.  Adam M. Barr has retired from journalism and lives in Nashville, Tennessee with his wife and two daughters.  He is working on a book scheduled to be released in January 2015: “Assembly Required: A Journalist’s Story of Survival In Iraq and Pakistan.”

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