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Explaining Religious Terrorism Part 1: The Axis of Good and Evil

May 20, 2004, Author(s): Mark Burgess

The attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001 , seared the dangers of terrorism into the minds of Americans and horrified onlookers across the world as had no previous outrages.  They also (as the identity, nature, and motivations of the perpetrators became almost immediately apparent) drew attention to terrorisms most latently violent and paradoxical variant - namely that undertaken for reasons of religion.  Yet religious terrorism was no more a new trend in 2001 than was terrorism driven by more earthly motives. Long before Sept. 11, fanaticism such as compels religious terrorists, rather than politics, was increasingly recognized as modern terrorisms most noteworthy motivating factor. The modern terrorist, most particular the religiously motivated one, was also notably less restrained in his methods and willingness to inflict casualties than many of his predecessors.[1]

The term terrorism did not itself appear until the end of the 18th Century, when it was used by the likes of the British political philosopher Edmund Burke to demonize the leaders of the French Revolution.  Similarly, terrorism, as a phenomenon that would be readily-recognizable today, did not emerge for a couple of generations after this, when it was adopted by Russian Populists opposed to the Tsarist regime, as well as disparate groups of anarchists and nationalists. [2]  However, to a degree, modern terrorisms lineage can be dated at least as far back as the 1st Century.  Since then, that which we today call terrorism has been constantly with us in one form or another and in various degrees of viciousness. 

That said, todays terrorism differs in many ways from that of earlier eras, not least in terms of the weapons it employs and the mass-media saturated environment in which it operates.  Undoubtedly, both have had an effect on how terrorists ply their trade and how the world perceives and reacts to it: so much was apparent from the use of simple box cutters on Sept. 11, 2001 , to crash sophisticated airliners into high-profile buildings, at the cost of thousands of lives, and while the world watched transfixed via television.  There is also continuity in terrorism, not least in the motives which lie behind it.  Understanding this will prove more important than trying to frantically counter the terrorists latest means of the moment - a tactic which cedes strategic initiative to the terrorist.  It also encourages the illusion that terrorism can be totally eradicated rather than managed, and will forever leave us closing the stable door long after the horse has bolted.  This continuity in terrorist motivations is particularly salient with regard to religion.  Like many of their present day equivalents, terrorisms earliest practitioners were motivated by what they perceived to be a divine imperative. 

Early Holy Terror[3]

Of the earliest religious terrorists, three groups are of particular note: the Thugs; the Assassins; and the Zealots-Sciari.[4]  These three groups, despite operating with the most primitive of weapons, inflicted a sustained casualty rate that their modern predecessors have thus far been unable to match.[5]  They also illustrate the differing ratio between such groups political and religious motivations.  At one end of the spectrum, the Thugs pursued entirely religious ends while, at the other, the Zealots-Sicari were moved as much by political considerations as spiritual ones.

A Hindu sect active from the 7th until the mid-19th century, when they were eliminated by the British authorities, the Thugs (from whom the contemporary expression came) ritually strangled their victims as an offering to the Hindu goddess of terror and destruction, Kali.  They sought to prolong their victims terror as long as possible - an important consideration in their sacrificial ritual.  While the Thugs retained their victims property, using it to bribe the regions various suzerains (whose complicity in providing sanctuary helped the sect to survive for so long), their overriding motivation was religious rather than financial.  Indeed, the cult may be the only example of a terrorist group motivated entirely by a religious imperative.  Moreover, their strict adherence to a religious doctrine that prohibited the killing of foreigners helped secure the Thugs demise.  While this prohibition allowed the cult to go undetected for a time, it also enabled its 10,000 members to be systematically hunted down in operations involving no more than 30 to 40 Europeans who went about their work with relative impunity.[6] 

Ironically, despite their activities being literally intended to terrify their victims (not as central a consideration in terrorism as is often believed[7]), the absence of a political motive could be viewed as excluding the Thugs from being classified as terrorists.[8]  However, they are perhaps the exception to the widely-accepted rule that terrorists have politically motivated goals.  Thugee methods and activities went sufficiently beyond accepted norms[9] to enable them to be classed as terrorists, albeit unique in their degree of religious motivation.  Indeed, if the Thugs are considered terrorists, they are also perhaps the only terrorist to be solely motivated by religious considerations.

By comparison, the Assassins were motivated by both politics and religion.  An 11th century offshoot of Shia Ismaili sects, their name (from whence the modern term assassin came) literally means hashish-eater and referred to the ritualistic drug-taking they were (perhaps falsely) rumored to indulge in before missions.[10]  These missions usually involved stabbing to death politicians or clerics who refused to convert to the Assassins version of Islam, the spreading of which was their primary goal.  Such violence as the sect resorted to was used in the defense or furtherance of their religious mission. 

Compared to the Thugs, the Assassins regarded their religious doctrines with some degree of pragmatism.  Not only where they prepared to pretend to denounce their faith as a subterfuge to close on their targets, they also interpreted the prohibition against using the sword on other Muslims to mean that other weapons could or should be used.[11]  In the case of the Assassins, the weapon of choice was a dagger - with earlier Islamic cults using methods such as strangulation or clubbing to circumvent the restrictions on using the sword on co-religionists.  The Assassins also differed from the Thugs in that they played to a physical as well as a spiritual audience.  Whereas the Thugs eschewed publicity, the Assassins courted it, often carrying our killings at religious sites on holy days - a tactic intended to publicize their cause and incite others to it.  This, and their choice of weapons, helped the Assassins achieve the martyrdom that they actively sought - a trait they share with their modern counterparts.  However, such methods also proved counterproductive, incurring heavy reprisals from their enemies which the Assassins, doctrinally constrained to their policy of assassination, were unable or unwilling to match.[12]  Within 40 years the sect was bereft of support and their activities at an end.

Even more short-lived were the Zealot-Sciari -- two distinct but related First Century Jewish sects active for 25 years.  Originally, the preferred weapon of the Sciari (whose name meant daggermen) was the same as that of the Assassins.  Both Jewish groups took their inspiration from Phineas, an Old Testament priest who used the head of his spear (apparently like a dagger) to kill an Israelite and his mistress who were openly defying an edict from God.[13]  The priests actions were attributed with averting a plague among the Israelites and preparing them for a God-ordained war against the Canaanites for possession of the Promised Land.  His religious enthusiasm gave the Zealots their name and bequeathed us the modern term meaning a fanatical partisan.[14]

Like the Assassins, the Zealots-Sciari sought to apply a political solution (in the form of political violence) to a religious problem.  In the Jewish groups case, this took the form of a concerted campaign against Jews and non-Jews.  As with the Assassins, such attacks often occurred in front of witnesses in broad daylight - the better to to send a message to the Roman authorities and Jews alike.  As Rapport relates, this campaign had twin rationales: to make oppression [in reaction to Zealots-Sciari attacks] so intolerable that insurrection [by the Jewish people] was inevitable, and, subsequently, to frustrate every attempt to reconcile the respective parties.[15]  These goals were achieved to a degree that modern terrorists, who would instantly relate to them, can only aspire to.  The Zealots-Sciari not only incited one contemporaneous revolt but also inspired two subsequent ones.  The sum of their activity, which, like that of the Assassins, proved ultimately counterproductive, comprised widespread devastation (including the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem), the mass suicide at Masada, and the virtual extermination of large Jewish populations in Cyprus and Egypt, culminating in the Exile itself.  Through their actions, the Zealots-Sciari hoped to act as a catalyst in facilitating a long-prophesized messianic intervention.  As such, like the Assassins, their immediate audience was human while their ultimate, and more important one, was divine.  In this, as in their ruthlessness[16], both groups methods echoed those of the modern religious terrorists who emerged onto the international stage a little over 20 years ago.

The Renaissance of Religious Terrorism

Religion provided the dominant rationale for terrorism prior to the 19th century.  This trend ended with the eradication of the Thugs, the last example of religiously-inspired terrorists until a little over 20 ago.  The reemergence of religious terrorism in the 1980s followed an interlude when terrorists motivations were overwhelmingly secular.  The move towards secular terrorism was fueled by those notions of nationalism and citizenship that the French Revolution both reflected and helped set in motion.[17] The anti-colonialist and nationalist liberation struggles that followed World War II -- and influenced the ethnic, separatist and ideologically-driven terrorists that came to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s - further catalyzed the secularization of terrorism.[18] 

By 1980, when the number of active terrorist organizations that could be classified as intern ational had reached 64, only two of these groups were motivated primarily by religion.[19]  Within a dozen years, the number of religious terrorist groups had increased to 11, and now included adherents of all the major world religions as well as many minor cults.  Within three years, this number had grown until almost half of the 56 identifiable, active international terrorist groups were religious ones.[20]

The appearance of a new trend in 1996 towards more secular and fewer religious terrorist groups is potentially misleading in assessing such organizations impact.  As is discussed below, religious terrorist groups present an exponentially greater threat (just how much greater would not become widely-realized until the al Qaeda attacks of America on Sept. 11, 2001) given their higher proclivity towards mass casualty attacks relative to their secular counterparts. 

This renaissance in holy terrorism (illustrated in Figure 1, above) arose alongside the revival among the worlds religions which overlapped with the end of the Cold War.  This latter event, which saw Communism largely discredited, yet the benefits of liberal democracy only partly realized, left a sort of ideological vacuum.  As such, the heightened interest in religion that marked the ensuing period was perhaps unsurprising - not least as it was also marked by the dawning of a new millennium in the West, a much-anticipated augur for the numerous religious groups who attached great import to the fulfillment of historical prophecy.[22]  A similar historical junction had been reached some 20 years earlier in the Muslim world, in whose calendar 1979 equated to the start of a new century (in this case the year 1400) - traditionally a period of unrest and messianic anticipation. 

This new century began bloodily, with an attack by a Sunni group on Mecca s Grand Mosque, and would soon unfold against the backdrop of armed resistance to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan by Muslims who flocked there from across the world.  Meanwhile, the Iranian revolution provided inspiration to those who decided to take up arms in the cause of a religion which was proving more seductive than the secularized alternative offer by the governments in many majority Muslim countries. The eventual Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan , which many Muslims viewed as a victory for the Mujahadeen (often conveniently overlooking the role of Western support in securing this outcome) provided a further impetus for the re-politization of Islam. 

This re-politization formed a bigger process which all these factors were products and components of, and catalysts in.  This process was further stimulated by the apparent military impotence of the Arab world in various encounters with Israel , as well as a wider disgruntlement across the Muslim world at the perceived ascendancy and cultural imperialism of the West in many realms.  This re-politicization continues, echoing the earlier movement towards pan-Islamism that began in the 1860s and quickened in the 1920s, when, in reaction to moves by Mustafa Kemal to turn Turkey into a secular state, the Muslim Brotherhood was formed in Egypt .[23]  Subsequent crackdowns by the authorities at best stifled the aspirations of the Brotherhood and others of replacing secular rule with religious rule, and, rather than extinguishing the flames of such discontent, may ultimately have served to stir and keep alive their embers. 

The ongoing disillusionment of many Muslims towards the governments of secularized Islamic states was mirrored in the West during the immediate post-Cold War period.  In this case it was not secular politics but liberal democracy that was found lacking by many -- even at its apparent moment of victory.  As Francis Fukuyama conceded in one of the most famous and articulate arguments for that victory: One is inclined to say that the revival of religion in some way attests to a broad unhappiness with the impersonality and spiritual vacuity of liberal consumerist societies.[24]  As happened across Muslim lands also, this unhappiness was to find its expression, not only in recourse to religion, but in recourse to religious terrorism. 

Terrorism Across Religions

The Sept. 11, 2001, al Qaeda attacks highlighted just how dangerous a mix terrorism and religion is.  This perception has been solidified by the series of terrorist strikes that have been launched since - whether by al Qaeda or its affiliates - as far a field as Bali , Spain , and Saudi Arabia .  All these attacks highlight the threat posed by Islamic terrorists in particular.  However, while, they reflect a wider phenomenon of Muslim extremists resorting to terrorism in pursuit of their aims, they are but the (as yet) bloodiest expression of a phenomenon which extends far beyond Islam. 

Indeed, before Sept. 11 the most deadly terrorist attack on American soil -- the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Office Building in Oklahoma City , which killed 168 people - was perpetrated by professed adherents of Christianity. The bombers, believed linked to the American Christian Patriot movement, were apparently attempting to foment a nationwide revolution.  Such extreme views as they represented are exhibited across the broader Christian Identity movement - an umbrella body for like-minded militia groups, many of whom have resorted to terrorism.  Similarly, other Christian activists have long-indulged in a campaign of violence aimed at abortion clinics that has included bombings and assassinations.  Christian fundamentalist groups have also been linked to right-wing terrorism in both Central and North America .[25]

Judaism has also seem some of its followers resort to terrorism, as witnessed by events such as the 1994 gun attack by Baruch Goldstein, a member of the right-wing Jewish group, Kach, at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron ( a town known to its Palestinian inhabitants as al Khalil) which killed 30 Arab worshippers and injured dozens more.  The following year saw another Jewish religious extremist, Yigal Amir, assassinate the Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, in what was to be the first step in a mass murder campaign to destabilize the regions peace process.  Such individuals, and organizations such as Kach and its offshoot, Kahane Chai, are viewed by some as possibly posing a bigger threat to Israel than even the Palestinian group Hamas.[26]

Nor is religious terrorism peculiar to the Abrahamic faiths and their offshoots.  For instance, Sikhism has proved prone to it also, with the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Indira Ghandi (in retaliation for what was perceived as the Indian Armys desecration of the Golden Temple in Armritsar in 1984) leading to a wave of violence that was to claim over 35,000 lives.  As with other religious terrorism, this violence was motivated by political as well as religious considerations - in this case the establishment of an autonomous Sikh state.  Such was the stated aim of groups such as Dal Khalsa and Dashmesh.  Among the most notable instances of Sikh terrorism was the 1985 bombing of an Air India airliner which killed 328 people.

Meanwhile, cults have proved at least as inclined toward terrorism as the more established religions.  Indeed, guided are they are by doctrines which often appear to evolve ah hoc, and lacking the restraining influence of more a more orthodox and conventional membership (such as is often afforded to those of a more established religion) cults may prove even more susceptible to terrorism and more unpredictable when they resort to it.  Perhaps the most spectacular and worrying instance of religious terrorism by such a cult was the March 1995 sarin nerve gas attack in Tokyo s subway system by Aum Shinryko.  Although a dozen people died with thousands of others wounded, the casualty rate was mercifully low given the deadly nature of the nerve agent in question.  The attack, with which the cults leader intended to help provoke a world-wide apocalypse, was to be the first in a series of identical attacks - some of which were to occur in America . 


The incident brought to the fore the specter of terrorists employing weapons of mass destruction (WMD), a fear which has heightened in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.  This fear of a WMD strike has been incited, not just by the scale of the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center , but by the nature of the group which carried them out.  Asked in 1998 about rumors that his organization was seeking to obtain chemical or nuclear weapons, al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden replied:

 Acquiring weapons for the defense of Muslims is a religious duty. If I have indeed acquired these weapons, then I thank God for enabling me to do so. And if I seek to acquire these weapons, I am carrying out a duty. It would be a sin for Muslims not to try to possess the weapons that would prevent the infidels from inflicting harm on Muslims.[27]

As such clearly stated intent -- along with attacks such as those by Aum Shinryko -- show, while there may be some disagreement as to the risks posed by improvised WMD[28], the possibility of such weapons being used is one which cannot be discounted.  Religious terrorists willingness to use such weapons reflects a readiness and eagerness to inflict mass casualties that secular terrorists would likely balk at as counter-productive.  This inclination towards higher levels of violence has emerged as one of religious terrorisms defining characteristics.  That the Assassins, Thugs, and Zealots-Sciari achieved higher and more sustained casualty rates than have yet been attained by their modern day counterparts provides cold comfort.  Indeed, in so much as todays religious terrorists have access to immensely higher levels of technology and destruction than their predecessors, such considerations are a cause for further concern.  This gives added urgency to the need to further understand religious terrorism - a necessary prerequisite to containing it.  A sobering thought is all this is that of religious and secular terrorism it is the latter which is the relative newcomer. 



[1]  National Commission on Terrorism, "Countering the Changing Threat of International Terrorism: Report of the National Commission on Terrorism," (2000).

[2] See, an earlier article in CDIs Terrorism Series , Mark Burgess , "A Brief History of Terrorism," Center for Defense Information (2003), for more on the emergence of modern terrorism and the history of terrorism generally.

[3] As has been noted in another article in the CDI Explaining Terrorism series no contemporaneous Christian terrorist groups are considered in this section as no such group easily lends itself to a comparative analysis.  As Rapoport says: [Late-Medieval period millenarian Christian] terror was a sort of state terror; the sects organized their communities openly, taking full control of a territory, instituting gruesome purges to obliterate all traces of the old order, and organizing large armies, which waged holy wars periodically sweeping over the countryside and devastating, burning, and massacring everything and everyone in their paths, David C. Rapoport, "Fear and Trembling: Terrorism in Three Religious Traditions," American Political Science Review 78, no. 3 (1984), p. 660, n. 4.

[4] These groups are examined in greater depth in, ibid.  The following section draws on this text.

[5]  David C. Rapoport, "Fear and Trembling: Terrorism in Three Religious Traditions," American Political Science Review 78, no. 3 (1984), p. 659.

[6]  Ibid., p. 663, n. 16.

[7] For more on this see, Burgess, "A Brief History of Terrorism."
[8] See, Mark Burgess, "Terrorism: The Problems of Definition," Center for Defense Information (2003)for more on the issues pertaining to the definition of terrorism.

[9]  Rapoport, "Fear and Trembling: Terrorism in Three Religious Traditions," p. 660, n. 5.

[10] According to Rapoport, there is no evidence that drugs were actually taken, with the term hashish-eaters used by orthodox Muslims in reaction to the fact that the Assassins apparently showed no feelings or remorse in carrying out murders. Ibid., p. 666.

[11] Similarly moot distinctions were drawn by Christian bishops fighting in the Crusades, who, being forbidden from using edged weapons, used maces in battle.

[12] Per Rapoport, Acts of urban terrorism [by the Assassins] occurred, the quarters of the orthodox were firebombed, but so infrequent were these incidents that one can only conclude that the rebels believed that another assassination was the only legitimate response to atrocities provoked by assassination. Ibid., p. 667.

[13] Numbers 25: 7-8, Holy Bible.

[14] Websters Third New International Dictionary (Merriam-Webster, 1984), p. 2657.

[15]  Ibid., p. 669.

[16] Such ruthlessness included the massacre of prisoners who had previously been granted safe conduct, a tactic apparently designed to lead to an increasing cycle of violence and which demonstrated that the Zealots-Sciari viewed their struggle as a total war - something which can also be said of modern religious terrorists.

[17] See, Burgess, "A Brief History of Terrorism."

[18]  Bruce Hoffman, InsideTerrorism, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), p. 90.

[19]  Ibid., p. 90

[20]  Ibid., p. 91.

[21]  Bruce Hoffman, "Old Madness New Methods: Revival of Religious Terrorism Begs for Broader U.S. Policy," Rand Review, Winter (1998-99): 12-6., p. 14.  Based on a chart therein.  Figures from the RAND-St. Andrews Chronology of International Terrorism.

[22]  Mark Juergensmeyer, "The worldwide rise of religious nationalism," Journal of International Affairs 50, no. 1 (1996), p. 13.

[23] As such considerations indicate, todays Islamic terrorism appears to have arisen from a remarkable convergence of historical precedents.  The nature of this still-evolving dynamic, and the terrorist threat that it has begat, is such as to warrant further discussion than is possible here.  Given this, and that Islamic terrorism is arguably the gravest variant of religious terrorism (and indeed terrorism) facing the West today, this topic shall be explored at greater depth in a subsequent article in CDIs Explaining Terrorism series.

[24]  Francis Fukuyama, "The End of History?" The National Interest, Summer (1989), p. 14.

[25]  Paul Wilkinson, Terrorism versus Democracy: The Liberal StateResponse, ( London ; Portland , OR : Frank Cass, 2001), p. 20.

[26] Such an opinion has been expressed by Carmi Gillion, head of the Shabak ( Israel s general security service) at the time of Rabins assassination. Jessica Stern, Terror in the name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill, 1st ed. ( New York : Ecco, 2003), pp. 105-106.

[27] From a 23 December 1998 interview with Time Magazine.  Cited in Frontline, Osama bin Laden v.the U.S. : Indictments and Statements.  Online at:  Downloaded Feb. 4, 2004 .

[28] See, Dan Vergano, "Toll from 'Dirty Bomb' Could Be Costly," USA Today (2004), p. 9D.