Since Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, there has been a steady rise in Islamist terrorism. Too many analysts underestimate the ideological basis of terrorism and argue instead that rational-strategic rather than ideological principles motivate Islamist terror groups. Comparison between terrorist groups with secular and religious agendas, however, suggests that ideology matters for both and that downplaying religious inspiration for terrorism in an effort to emphasize tactical motivations is both inaccurate and dangerous. Some researchers suggest that to understand terrorism, it is more important to study what terrorists do rather than what they say. University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape argues, for example, that Islam has little to do with suicide bombing. Rather, he suggests, that suicide bombers, wherever they are in the world, are motivated much more by tactical goals. He juxtaposes the suicide terrorism of the (non-Islamic) Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) with Islamist suicide bombing to demonstrate that religion is not the common factor, but rather a desire to end occupation. Therefore, he suggests, focus upon religion is a distraction, and that policymakers seeking to stop the scourge of suicide attacks should work instead to address root causes which he sees as the presences of troops or interests in disputed or occupied lands. Despite the revisionism advanced by Pape and others, the fact remains that most suicide bombings since 1980 in the world in general and in the Middle East in particular are sponsored by Islamist and not secular terrorist groups. Pape avoids this conclusion by gerrymandering his data so that he does not need to include the significant numbers of suicide bombings conducted by Sunnis against Shi’a in Iraq. Middle East expert Martin Kramer suggests that Pape’s thesis may be comforting to Western readers who want to believe that, if only the United States were to pull its military forces from the Persian Gulf and if only all occupation in the Middle East would end, that there would be no more suicide bombing. Western thinking admires empirics, metrics, and pie charts. The secular emphasis of Pape’s theories also comforts. But comfort does not correlate with reality. Islamism is an ideology, and that it does not fit neatly into existing political theory should be beside the point.
Inattention to the ideological upbringing of terrorists is counterproductive. Although the empirical tools of political science are ill-equipped to assess culture, ideology, and motivation, difficulty to quantify these factors does not mean they do not exist. Rather than filter evidence to fit the model, responsible political scientists should adjust their models to accommodate the evidence. Important differences exist between those terrorist groups striving to implement secular revolutionary principles based on the thinking of Vladimir Lenin, Mao Zedong, or Ernesto “Che” Guevara and the groups motivated by the religious revolutionary theories of Muslim Brotherhood theoretician Sayyid Qutb, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, or Palestinian theologian Abdullah Yusuf ‘Azzam, whose concept of defense of Muslim lands as every Muslim’s personal obligation had major influence upon Al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. The writings of leading terrorist theoreticians offer insight into their political objectives. Whether secular or religious, most terrorist and guerrilla organizations hold sacred a few influential works. Among canonical works secular revolutionaries may embrace are Mao and Guevara’s books on guerilla warfare; General Võ Nguyên Giap’s Peoples Army—Peoples War, Carlos Marighela’s Handbook of Urban Guerrilla Warfare,or Abraham Guillén’s Teoría de la Violencia (The theory of violence).
Islamists have supplanted these with a new canon including Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood founder Hasan al-Banna’s essays, the writings of the Muslim Brotherhood’s main theoretician Sayyid Qutb, essays on Islamic governance by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini,Abdullah Yusuf ‘Azzam’s Join the Caravan, and bin Laden deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri’s Knights under the Prophet’s banner. After analyzing the religious foundations of suicide bombing, David Bukay, a lecturer in political science at the University of Haifa, explains, “Suicide bombing in the Muslim world cannot be separated from religion … The ideological basis of such an interpretation has deep roots in Islamic theology, but it came to prominence with the twentieth-century rise of Muslim Brotherhood theorists such as Banna and Qutb and was further developed by their successors.”
There is nothing new about terrorism inspired by secular agendas. Although Plato, Aristotle, and leading Christian theologians such as Thomas of Aquinas, John of Salisbury, and George Buchanan discuss political violence, most terrorism experts mark Maximilian Robespierre’s “Reign of Terror” during the French Revolution as the beginning of modern political systematic terrorism. Beginning in the early nineteenth century, German and Italian radicals embraced terrorism and, in the 1880s, Narodnaya Volya (People’s will), which conducted a violent campaign of assassination to fight autocracy in Russia, became a role model for similar groups established by Armenians, Macedonians, Bosnians, and Serbs prior to World War I. Between 1914 and 1939, there was a visible decline in terrorism perpetrated by independent political groups although Fascist governments and the Soviet Union sometimes sponsored terror against their own populations for internal political objectives. During World War I, British operative T.E. Lawrence’s assistance to the Arab revolt in the Hijaz laid the foundation for modern guerrilla warfare, a subject later developed by Chinese revolutionary Mao Zedong. Between 1945 and 1979, there were three principle types of terrorist entities: organizations struggling for independence from colonial occupiers such as the Front de Libération nationale (FLN) in Algeria or the Mau Mau in Kenya; separatist groups such as the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in Northern Ireland and the Basque Euzkadi Ta-Askatasuna (ETA) in Spain; and socio-economic revolutionaries such as the Montonerosin Argentina, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the Baader Meinhof Gang in West Germany and the Red Brigades in Italy. A commonality among all groups, though, would be an attempt to justify their actions in economic or social theory. In most if not all cases, the definition of the opponent by secular agenda guerrillas and terrorist groups was confined to a socioeconomic concept such as “Yankee” capitalism or resisting the imperialism of countries such as Great Britain or France. Even the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) infused its national liberation agenda with Marxist rhetoric. Among anti-colonial movements, a terrorist group’s victory did not seek to shatter the nation-state system or eradicate the defeated side. Although many left-wing radicals sincerely believed in universal change with respect to the individual and his role in society, their actual policies were oriented more toward local rather than global interests. Guevara’s attempt to export the Cuban revolution to Congo and Bolivia floundered, and all attempts by Latin American guerillas to unite failed. Nor did Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh seek global export of their ideology or practice although neither of them was averse to utilizing instruments of state power to aid proxy groups in neighboring states. Further, in almost every case, if a terrorist group seized a government or defeated a colonial power, it nevertheless found it in its interest to restore quickly diplomatic and economic relations. In Algeria, for example, the FLN reestablished close ties with France upon winning Algerian independence. In 1963, the year after Algeria won its independence, Paris provided it with 1.3 billion francs (US$260 million)in loans. In no instance did the enemy associate with a particular civilization or culture, as now occurs with pan-Islamist terrorism. While it was popular to talk about the internationalization of terrorism in the 1970s, incentives for terrorist groups to cooperate had more to do with tactical concerns than with ideological motivation. For example, when George Habash, leader of the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), assembled representatives in May 1972 from the Irish Republican Army, the Baader Meinhof Gang, and the Japanese Red Army for a meeting in northern Lebanon’s Badawi refugee camp, he sought to trade PLO and Libyan offers of training bases for European and Asian terrorist groups in exchange for facilitation by European groups of PLO operations in Europe. The PFLP’s participation in a January 31, 1974 Japanese Red Army attack on a Shell oil refinery at Pulau Bukom, off the coast of Singapore, was motivated less by PFLP ideology than an agreement to pay the Japanese Red Army for its May 30, 1972 attack on the Lod (later renamed Ben Gurion) Airport outside of Tel Aviv.
Terrorist goals shape tactics. Groups immersed in the rhetoric of liberation, for example, target governing officials and foreign residents. The Viet Minh initially targeted only the French and those they deemed to collaborate with the French before expanding their campaign to drive out all foreigners. The Mau Mau and FLN pursued similar patterns of attacks. Among terrorist groups seeking autonomy or separation, favorite tactics included the kidnapping and murder of government and military officials. The IRA targeted British policemen, soldiers, and the British intelligence apparatus while the Basque ETA concentrated its attacks on local politicians and judges. Warnings prior to attacks that might harm the general population show that these groups sought more to make a political statement and less to cause a blood bath.
Social and economic revolutionaries targeted businessmen and bankers. In 1975, for example, the Ejército Revolutionario del Pueblo (People’s Revolutionary Army) kidnapped wealthy Argentine heirs for a $60 million ransom. The Italian Red Brigades seized and, on March 16, 1978, executed Aldo Moro, a former Italian prime minister. Baader Meinhof did similarly with Hanns-Martin Schleyer, a West German businessman. Controlling time is a unifying characteristic of secular agenda terror. Hostage taking and voicing demands against a deadline leads many governments to negotiate and some, such as the West German government, to capitulate, as Bonn did when it freed three Black September terrorists who remained alive after the September 1972 Munich massacre of Israeli Olympians. Hostage-taking also amplifies media coverage into what Gabi Weiman, a Haifa University professor of communication, calls “the theater of terror.” British prime minister Margaret Thatcher recognized the same phenomenon when she declared, after a terror attackin 1985, “We must find ways to starve the terrorists and hijacker of the oxygen and publicity on which they depend.” The most common secular agenda terrorist demand, at least historically, is for the release of prisoners. Between 1972 and 1980, most European negotiations with PLO terrorists involved the PLO’s demands to free imprisoned terrorists. Moro’s Red Brigade kidnappers and the Black September terrorists, who on March 1, 1973, seized the U.S. embassy in Khartoum, also demanded prisoner releases. Suicide bombing was never and still is not as frequent a tactic for secular agenda terrorists as it is for Islamist groups. While a few secular agenda terrorists starved themselves to death in prison in Germany or Ireland, their suicides were not part of operations but came only after capture. However, there have been three secular terrorist campaigns that have embraced suicide terrorism: Pro-Syrian secular groups in Lebanon in the early 1980s, the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, and the Kurdistan Workers Party (Partiya Karkerên Kuridstan,PKK) in Turkey. Between 1983 and 1986, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party was responsible for ten suicide bombings, SyrianBaath Party members conducted seven while the Socialist Nasserite party executed two suicide bombings. Although the LTTE was founded in 1972, it did not launch its first suicide attack until 1987, four years after Hezbollah pioneered such tactics in Lebanon. The change in Tamil strategy came when the Sri Lankan army forced their collective backs against the wall, arresting most of the LTTE leadership in 1981 and making significant military inroads. While the Tigers initially provided their fighters with a poison capsule in order to enable them to avoid interrogation, between 1981 and 1987, they began to attack targets with explosive-laden trucks, the driver exiting the vehicle moments before the explosion. Such attacks were imprecise and so, between 1987 and 2000, some 200 Tamil terrorists, 30 percent of whom were women, conducted 168 suicide bomb missions. The PKK only began using suicide-bombing tactics in 1995, targeting government and military installations rather than populated areas. Suicide bombing was never a major component of its terrorist operations; it launched only fifteen suicide attacks between 1995 and 1999, some of which were particularly deadly;  PKK suicides are few and far between. gunfire, land mines, and delayed fuse bomb attacks account for the majority of its operations, which have killed thousands since 1984. Again, suicide attacks have been the exception rather than the rule. Too little is known about the motivation of the attackers, here. Some may have been terminally ill or promised significant financial reward to support their families; others may have believed they could escape alive.
Paris-based sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar’s Suicide Bombers: Allah’s New Martyrs has been at the forefront of efforts to emphasize the tension between religious motivation and more rational and temporal strategic considerations. Khosrokhavar, perhaps because of his greater familiarity with Islamic tenets, is correct to see it as a function of jihad. There has been an evolving and, perhaps, dominant strand of modern Islamist thought which finds Western culture to be inimical to Islam and, therefore, a legitimate target for jihad. One of the biggest ideological differences between religious and secular terrorists is their definition of the enemy: While secular terrorists see their opponents as representatives of a certain socioeconomic order or regime, Islamist terrorism espouses a broader definition. Qutb, for example, revived the Qur’anic term jahiliya, the pre-Islamic age of ignorance in which paganism flourished, to describe the state of any society not by his definition Islamic.Abdullah Yusuf ‘Azzam’s understanding of dhimmi(subjugated religious minority) statusalso inserted into modern political discourse the early Islamic bifurcation of the world into the Dar al-Islam (Abode of Islam) and Dar al-Harb (Abode of War). In the former, where Muslims ruled, Jews and Christians could convert or accept second class status while Muslims conducted violent jihad to bring minorities under their control. While traditional theologians might argue that Muslims had a duty to protect dhimmis so long as they continued to pay inflated taxes and adhere to special codes, ‘Azzam, bin Laden, and their fellow travelers have argued that Jews and Christians have gone astray from their “original religions,” and are agents of the modern West, undeserving of any protection. Arab Sunnis returning from fighting the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan and various Palestinian groups such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad and inaugurated a new phase in religion-inspired terrorism. ‘Azzam spun a mystique of invincibility around the Muslim warrior following the Soviet Union’s defeat in Afghanistan. One of his most famous slogans during the Afghan war was “Jihad and the rifle alone. No negotiations, no conferences, no dialogue” On March 6, 1995, Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmad Yasin declared that any suicide bomber who had received the blessing of a certified Muslim cleric should be considered a shahid (martyr) who had fallen in the service of jihadrather than one who had committed suicide by personal intent, something forbidden in Islam. Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an influential Sunni cleric based in Qatar, affirmed Yasin’s approach the following year. Then, on February 23, 1998, bin Laden announced the establishment of the International Islamic Front for Jihad against the Crusaders and the Jews and declared it legitimate to kill any American, whether military or not. While Qutb provided the theoretical basis for modern Sunni Islamism, Khomeini provided the exegesis to legitimize Shi’i theocracy in his 1970 essay, “Hukumat-i Islami” (Islamic government). Permeating Khomeini’s writing is a perception of the West as an opponent to Islam, the concept of martyrdom, and the self-identification of Shi’a as oppressed people. He saw the superpowers as responsible for all the world’s wrongs and suggested that it was the obligation of all Muslims to mobilize the oppressed to remove the superpowers from the global arena. Khomeini’s linkage between asceticism and suicide is crucial to understand the rise of suicide bombing into the principal tactic by Islamic terrorist organizations. He believed humanity can only crush its selfish desires by spiritual devotion to the umma or community, which is being threatened by the West. The only way to cope with the human obsession with materialism is total denial. Khomeini, in fact, goes to the extreme of justifying the deliberate giving of one’s life for the Islamic cause insofar as death is the ultimate denial of one’s material self. While martyrdom has long been a theme of Shi’ism, Khomeini’s teachings and charisma led many Shi’a to rationalize the justification of suicide on religious grounds.
The major Islamist terror tactic has, since the early 1980s, been the suicide bomber. In contrast to secular terrorists, Islamist suicide terrorists need not escape; their planning focuses instead on how to deliver the perpetrator to the target area. Suicide bombers are walking smart bombs, able to position themselves among crowds or in restaurants to achieve maximum carnage. During the 2001-2002 terror wave in Israel, Hamas and Islamic Jihad bombers, for example, made last minute target selections in order to bolster the number of civilians they could kill. Islamist terrorists also need not use time to augment their demands. While the Marxist groups of the 1970s might have threatened hostages against concrete demands, Islamists seek to kill first, and lecture later. Islamists do take hostages but, in such cases, their goal is as likely to be to draw out terror in a 24-hour news cycle, than to win concession. The 9-11 hijackers, for example, resisted U.S. air traffic control attempts to communicate because their goal was not a wish to transmit demands but rather the desire to kill as many people as possible. Al-Qaeda’s decision to launch the attacks cannot be disengaged from ideology and the dream of renewing a lost caliphate. One of Bin Laden’s most important objectives was to accelerate recruitment of new volunteers for global jihad and Islam. Bin Laden said that the “war in Afghanistan has exposed America’s weakness. Despite the clear technological advantages of its war machine, it cannot defeat the Muslim mujahideen…. The number of people who embraced the Islamic faith after the campaign was greater than the number who had grasped Islam in the past eleven years.” Hijacker Muhammad Atta’s last will and testament, found in the trunk of his car, suggests very different considerations than a secular agenda terrorist event.
There remains much controversy, at least in the United States and Europe, about the origin and motivation of religiously justified terrorism. Pape and University of Georgia political scientist Mia Bloom, author of Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror, are among the most influential revisionists. But, despite the popularity of their theses in a field which seeks to mitigate if not exculpate the influence of religion, their arguments fall short. Pape makes two major assumptions about suicide bombing: first, that it is motivated primarily by resistance to foreign occupation and, second, that religious ideology has only a minor role in suicide attacks perpetrated by Muslims. Bloom also argues that suicide bombers kill themselves only as a means to an end, using suicide only “to outbid rival militias through the use of shocking tactics” and, in the Palestinian case, to “compete for leadership.” According to Pape and Bloom, strategy and political objectives rather than religion are the primary incentive for suicide attacks. But religion, rationalism, and strategic planning are not incompatible. The Tamil Tigers may have embraced suicide bombing in their separatist fight against the Sri Lankan army, but suicide bombers in Casablanca and London were not motivated by occupation, but rather by jihadist ideology. While Western scholars may have internalized the separation of church and state legislated in the United States and practiced in Europe, for Khomeini, Hezbollah’s Hasan Nasrallah, bin Laden, and Qaradawi, no such separation exists. They are rational but see the world differently. Unlike Pape and Bloom, Khosrokhavar looks for the deeper, individual rather than organizational motivations behind suicide bombing. With comparative analysis of martyrdom in Christianity and Sikhism, Khosrokhavar argues that it is particularly Islamic to sanction sacred death for the sake of the community (umma). Perhaps this is why Khosrokhavar warns that political science and economics are not sufficient to understanding the human factor in religion-inspired terror. Both individuals and terrorist organizations see suicide bombing as a rational and integral aspect of ideology, strategy, and tactics. Israel counterterrorism expert Boaz Ganor elaborates on this self-image of the suicide bomber and his supporters. Ganor explains, “The term suicide attack is misleading. In the eyes of the attacker and his community this phenomenon has nothing to do with committing suicide … Committing suicide is forbidden in Islam but instead, he is seen as a shahid—a martyr who fell in the process of fulfilling the religious commandment of jihad.” Khomeini’s influence on Islamist terror suggests that suicide bombing has a wider ideological and strategic foundation than just opposition to occupation. Rather, the basis for suicide bombing is threefold: First, suicide for jihad cleanses the perpetrator of the world’s evils. Second, suicide for the community purifies the umma. Third, suicide bombing serves the goal of opposing Islam’s enemies. So, too, does his questionable interpretation of cause and effect. He claims that terrorism forced Israel to withdraw twice from Palestinian areas during the 1990s: In April 1994, when Israel withdrew from parts of Gaza and between October 1994 and August 1995 when Israel pulled back from portions of the West Bank. He also credits terrorism with Jerusalem’s decision to release Hamas spiritual leader Ahmed Yasin from prison in October 1997. His assumption is faulty, though. Pape neglects to mention that Israeli leaders agreed upon this withdrawal policy in the Oslo Accords’ “Declaration of Principles.” The Israeli public persuaded its leadership to seek peace with the Palestinians, not because of terror—Israeli forces had contained if not defeated the first intifada—but rather because they thought the Oslo adventure might achieve a reasonable political solution. By focusing only on occupation and national liberation, though, Pape overlooks a complicated web of incentives and motivations that undercuts his argument.
Marc Sageman, a former CIA case officer, psychiatrist, and University of Pennsylvania political scientist, pursues a different thesis in his book Understanding Terror Networks. Sageman seeks to refute the regular notions regarding causes for terror, such as poverty and brainwashing, and emphasizes instead social bonds and networks.counter global jihadism is by mapping and analyzing the Islamists’ social structure. Although Sageman argues that social bonds among terrorist networks play a stronger role then ideologies, he avoids Pape’s mistake of seeking to claim exclusivity for his theory, and so encourages counterterrorist intelligence communities to train case officers versed in Muslim cultures and language and acknowledges the individual dedication of the 9-11 terrorists which, from their “martyrdom” videos and Muhammad Atta’s last will and testament, show was rooted in religion. Supporters of Pape’s revisionism blur the difference between self-sacrifice and suicide to downplay the dissimilarity between secular terrorism and Islam-inspired suicide bombing is the distinction between readiness to sacrifice oneself for a cause as opposed to a conscious decision to carry out a suicide attack. Every soldier who enlists to a combat unit knows that he or she could be killed in action; many young men and women are willing to take that risk, not because of a desire to die but rather because of the conviction that under certain circumstances it may be necessary to lose one’s life in the line of duty. Secular terrorists also acknowledge risk without expressing the desire to kill themselves. Guevara writes, for example, “The guerrilla combatant ought to risk his life whenever necessary and be ready to die without the least sign of doubt, but at the same time, he ought to be cautious and never expose himself unnecessarily. All possible precautions ought to be taken to avoid defeat or annihilation.”
Jamal al-Gashay, one of the three Black September terrorists captured by West German police after the Munich massacre and later released in exchange for the return of hostages on a hijacked Lufthansa jet, gave a television interview subsequent to his release. “We knew that achieving our objective might cost lives,” he said, “but since the day we joined up, we had been aware that there was apossibility of martyrdom at any time in the name of Palestine.” Motivation and readiness for sacrifice is not the same as willingness to embrace certain death. There is a huge difference between the Latin American battle cry, Viva la Muerte! (Hail Death!)and the declaration suicide bombers make on video prior to their mission, Ana ash-shahid al-hayy, “I the living martyr.” For the suicide bomber, such words are not a mere slogan but rather the expression of deep religious values. Ganor defines a suicide attack as “an operational method in which the very act of the attack is dependent upon the death of the perpetrator … This is a unique situation in which the terrorist is fully aware that if he does not kill himself, the planned attack will not be carried out.” While in the 1970s, terrorists devoted much effort to establishing escape routes or to releasing their fellow terrorists from prison, for the suicide bomber such efforts are unnecessary. Although Pape and Bloom argue that religion-inspired terrorists do not kill as an end in itself, al-Qaeda strikes suggest otherwise. Regardless, the difference in modus operandi between religious and secular terrorists differs enough that they should be considered distinct groups which do not necessarily share the same temporal motives.
Analyzing the differences between secular agenda terrorists and their religious counterparts is crucial to understanding the special nature of contemporary terror. Unlike the activities of secular guerrillas and terrorists between 1945 and 1979, the war against the enemies of Islam is not limited by time, territory, or a specific socioeconomic agenda, and it is being conducted against an entire culture and civilization. Therefore, “resisting occupation” as Pape suggests, is only one limited stage in a much larger scheme for a new world order. This is evident in Khomeini’s vision of a wide Shi’i crescent extending from Iran through Iraq and linking up with Lebanon, or in Al-Qaeda’s dream, of a new Islamic caliphate stretching from Spain in the west to Iraq in the east and eventually including Southeast Asia and Europe as well. Far from being empty slogans, these objectives reflect deep ideological commitment to a new world order. In order to better understand the political mindset of Islamist terrorist organizations, the formative texts of the Sunni and Shi’i leaders should receive as much if not more attention than the strategies and tactics they apply. Giap, the mastermind of North Vietnamese guerrilla operations, once said, “Political activities are more important than military operations, and fighting is less important than propaganda.” In confronting Islamist terror, ideology is perhaps even more crucial.