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 terrorism’s
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 terrorism’s 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.
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.  However, to a degree, modern
terrorism’s 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
That said, today’s
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 terrorist’s 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, terrorism’s earliest practitioners were
motivated by what they perceived to be a divine imperative.
Early Holy Terror
Of the earliest religious
‘terrorists,’ three groups are of particular note: the Thugs; the Assassins;
and the Zealots-Sciari. 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. 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 region’s 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.
Ironically, despite their
activities being literally intended to terrify their victims (not as central a
consideration in terrorism as is often believed), the absence of a political motive
could be viewed as excluding the Thugs from being classified as terrorists. 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” 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. These missions usually
involved stabbing to death politicians or clerics who refused to convert to the
Assassin’s 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. 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
Assassin’s, doctrinally constrained to their policy of assassination, were
unable or unwilling to match. 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. The priest’s 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.”
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.” 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, 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
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. 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
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. 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.
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
This renaissance in holy
terrorism (illustrated in Figure 1, above) arose alongside the revival among
the world’s 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. 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
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 . 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
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.” 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 .
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 region’s 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.
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
Army’s 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
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 cult’s 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
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, 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 terrorism’s 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 today’s
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.
Commission on Terrorism, "Countering the Changing Threat of
International Terrorism: Report of the National Commission on Terrorism,"
 See, an earlier
article in CDI’s 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
 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.
 These groups are
examined in greater depth in, ibid. The following section draws on this
 David C. Rapoport, "Fear and Trembling: Terrorism in Three
Religious Traditions," American Political Science Review 78, no. 3
(1984), p. 659.
 Ibid., p. 663, n. 16.
more on this see, Burgess, "A
Brief History of Terrorism."
 See, Mark Burgess, "Terrorism:
The Problems of Definition," Center for Defense Information (2003)for more on the issues pertaining to the definition of
 Rapoport, "Fear and Trembling: Terrorism in Three
Religious Traditions," p. 660, n. 5.
 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.
 Similarly moot
distinctions were drawn by Christian bishops fighting in the Crusades, who,
being forbidden from using edged weapons, used maces in battle.
 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.
 Numbers 25: 7-8, Holy
 Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (Merriam-Webster, 1984), p. 2657.
 Ibid., p. 669.
 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.
 See, Burgess,
Brief History of Terrorism."
Hoffman, InsideTerrorism, (New York:
Columbia University Press, 1998), p. 90.
 Ibid., p. 90
 Ibid., p. 91.
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.
 Mark Juergensmeyer, "The worldwide
rise of religious nationalism," Journal of International Affairs 50,
no. 1 (1996), p. 13.
 As such
considerations indicate, today’s 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 CDI’s Explaining Terrorism series.
Fukuyama, "The End of History?" The National Interest, Summer (1989), p. 14.
Wilkinson, Terrorism versus Democracy: The Liberal StateResponse,
( London ; Portland , OR : Frank Cass,
2001), p. 20.
 Such an opinion
has been expressed by Carmi Gillion, head of the Shabak ( Israel ’s general
security service) at the time of Rabin’s assassination. Jessica Stern, Terror
in the name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill, 1st ed. ( New York : Ecco, 2003), pp. 105-106.
 From a 23 December 1998 interview with Time
Magazine. Cited in Frontline, ‘Osama
bin Laden v.the U.S.
Indictments and Statements.’ Online at: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/binladen/who/edicts.html. Downloaded Feb. 4, 2004
 See, Dan Vergano, "Toll from 'Dirty Bomb' Could Be
Costly," USA Today (2004), p. 9D.