R eligion is one of the most powerful forces that can affect human behavior. For centuries, religious beliefs have led to countless murders. Whole societies have fought each other because of different religious beliefs. People have been willing to accept harsh treatment or even death rather than change their beliefs.
The tactics of terrorism have been used in the name of various religions, just as they have been used in the name of politics or nationalism. Believers of many different faiths have been killing innocent civilians for hundreds of years. The names of some religious terrorists from history have entered the English language as ordinary words.
In the period 66 to 73 c.e., Jewish nationalists who wanted to found a country of their own fought the Roman occupation of Palestine. These nationalists were called "Zealots." Today, zealot means a fanatical (or intensely committed to a cause) believer. The word "assassin " comes from an Islamic group that fought the Christian Crusaders in Syria and Persia between 1100 and 1270 c.e. (The Crusaders were members of military forces from Western Europe who
Words to Know
- the Arabic name for God.
- an infectious disease that can be fatal unless a person gets treatment soon after he or she has been exposed.
- in its original meaning, a member of an Islamic group that fought the Christian Crusaders in Syria and Persia between 1100 and 1270 c.e.
- a small group of people within a larger organization; generally, members of one cell do not know members of any other cells, so that if they are arrested they cannot reveal that information to the authorities.
- intensely committed to a cause.
- a legal opinion or decree handed down by an Islamic religious leader.
- a person who places importance on living by a strict set of moral principles.
- a drug made from hemp plants, the same plants used to make marijuana.
- holy war.
- holy warriors.
- the desire to found a new country.
- devotion to religion.
- the belief in Buddhism and other religions that a person's soul is born again and again into many different lifetimes.
- a poisonous gas that affects the nervous system of people who breathe it.
- Islamic law.
- a believer who is intensely committed to a cause.
invaded the Middle East to take back the city of Jerusalem from the Muslims, or followers of the religion Islam. Jerusalem was considered a holy city by Christians.) The word assassin originally meant "hashish eater," because the assassins would take hashish (a drug made from hemp plants, the same plants used to make marijuana) before going out to murder the invaders. In India a group called "Thugs" murdered travelers as offerings to Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction. (Hinduism is the chief religion of India.) The word today is used to describe a killer or gangster.
Christianity and terrorism
At the end of the twentieth century, Islam was the religion most often associated with terrorism. In earlier centuries, however, Christians used widespread terror against Jews and Muslims. One period of terror was the Spanish Inquisition of the fifteenth century. The Inquisition was an effort by the Catholic Church in Spain to identify and punish people who were considered enemies of Christianity—specifically Jews and Muslims, but also Christians who had beliefs different from those held by the Church. At least two thousand people were burned at the stake during the Inquisition. Christians also used terror against members of different Christian sects. The Reformation was a period in the sixteenth century that saw a widespread rejection of the Catholic Church, which many people believed had become corrupted. The people who broke with the Church were called Protestants (because they were "protesting" against what the Church had become), and many of them were tortured and killed for their beliefs.
Many terrorists combine nationalism (the desire to found a new country) and religion. The United States was founded on the principle that religion and politics should be separate and that people should be free to choose their own religion. However, many countries think that all citizens should have the same religious beliefs. In fact, the United States is unusual in not having an "official religion." Even many of the countries that accept a broad range of faiths, like Great Britain, have an official religion (in Britain, it is the Anglican Church). The extent to which unofficial religions are accepted varies from country to country and from religion to religion. Most European countries today accept many religious beliefs, but 350 years ago people were put to death in some of those countries for their religions.
Modern religious terrorism
Modern religious terrorism has generally been more violent and deadlier than the political and nationalist terrorism that came before it. Religious terrorists tend to have an outlook that makes it easier, or even more important, to kill large numbers of people. For example, nationalist or political terrorists usually want to set up a new form of government over a population. Their goal is not to kill as many people as possible but simply to use enough violence to achieve their goal. But religious terrorists are acting in the name of God—or Allah, the Arabic name for God—and may believe that God wants them to kill "unbelievers." Some religious terrorists, such as Osama bin Laden (c. 1957; the man blamed for planning the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon), have called on Muslims to kill all Christians and Jews. Members of other religious groups, such as Aum Shinrikyo in Japan (see below), have believed that they were bringing about God's final judgment, in which everyone not belonging to their religious group is meant to die.
Terrorists who believe they are acting on instructions from God often have such confidence in the rightness of their cause that they will have less hesitation about killing large numbers of civilians.
The rise in religious terrorism is also connected with the rapid spread of Western influence, especially in the Muslim world. Many Western ideas, those held by people in democratic nations of the Americas and western Europe, are contrary to Islamic beliefs and practices. Also, the wealth of the West, in contrast to the widespread poverty in Islamic countries, has created a broad gap between Western and Islamic societies. While Western eyes may see some of the rules of Sharia, or Islamic law, as inappropriate for the modern world (for example, the treatment of women), in Muslim societies these rules seem comfortably traditional and in line with basic religious teachings. Much education in the Islamic world is provided by Muslim clerics, or religious leaders, who are less concerned with subjects like science and math than in drumming basic religious values into the minds of their young male students. Graduates of such religious schools may well be convinced that the way to heaven is through strict observance of religious rules and removing Western influences from their society. Thus, violent terrorist acts are viewed as evidence of religious piety (devotion), and self-sacrifice (by carrying out a suicide bombing, for example) is praised as a way to get to paradise.
Islam and Western Culture
In the 1920s Islamic teachers in Egypt set up the Muslim Brotherhood to fight Western social influences. The organization used terrorist tactics to try to drive Western cultural influences out of Egypt.
In 1979 the Islamic religious leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (pronounced koh-MAY-nee; c. 1900–1989) founded a new government in Iran that was strongly anti-Western. The American embassy was attacked, and about seventy employees were held hostage for 444 days, from November 1979 to January 1981. Iran's action was cheered by Muslims in many countries, and it remained for two decades a model for dealing with the West.
The Iranian revolution also was the start of another theme of Islamic terrorists: the overthrow of pro-Western rulers, like Iran's Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (1919–1980), in favor of governments that would follow Islamic law, called Sharia.
On September 11, 2001, two hijacked passenger planes crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City and another hijacked plane crashed into the Pentagon near Washington, D.C. (A fourth plane was hijacked the same day, but it crashed in rural Pennsylvania killing all aboard. Passengers evidently had fought with the hijackers and forced the plane
down, in order to avoid a fourth deadly crash in an urban area.) The twin towers of the Trade Center collapsed, and the Pentagon was seriously damaged. About three thousand people died. It was the most lethal and shocking terrorist attack in American history. U.S. officials soon blamed an Islamic organization called Al Qaeda (pronounced al KAY-duh) for planning and executing the attacks.
Al Qaeda (an Arabic word meaning "the base") was first organized to fight the occupation of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union (now, Russia and its neighboring countries) in the mid-1980s. Bin Laden, then a wealthy Saudi Arabian businessman, helped recruit Muslims from other countries to drive out the Russian forces. Thousands of Arabs became mujahideen (holy warriors) in Afghanistan. The United States, through the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), also sent funding to these warriors, in addition to many American weapons. The Soviet Union withdrew its troops from Afghanistan in 1989, but al Qaeda was not finished. Its founder left Afghanistan for his native Saudi Arabia but kept the organization going to provide support for veterans of the Afghan war. Bin Laden had a vision of a larger Muslim community that would strictly follow the Koran (Islam's holy book, which lays out detailed rules for everyday life). He was especially offended by the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden started a campaign to drive out American influence from the Middle East and set up a fundamentalist Islamic government in Saudi Arabia. (A fundamentalist is a person who places importance on living by a strict set of moral principles.)
Bin Laden makes alliances
Bin Laden allied with other Islamic groups, among them the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and a Pakistani group, Harakat ul-Ansar, that was fighting to set up an Islamic government in the Indian state of Kashmir. Al Qaeda became a kind of central coordinator for local groups that wanted to found Islamic governments throughout the Muslim world. The term used to describe such groups is "Islamist." They are Muslims who see Islam not just as a religion but also as a political movement. Al Qaeda organized itself into cells, small groups of people within a larger organization whose members generally do not know members of other cells so that if they are arrested they cannot reveal information about other cells to the authorities. The central group provided funding and guidance, but local chapters—sometimes made up of only a few people—operated mostly independently. This made Al Qaeda particularly difficult to track down.
The Origins of Al Qaeda
In 1990 Iraq invaded the small country of Kuwait, just north of Saudi Arabia, and the United States used Saudi bases to launch a counterattack that soon drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait. This conflict was known as the Persian Gulf War (1990–91). Fearing a second invasion attempt by Iraq, the United States kept troops in Saudi Arabia after the war ended. This enraged Osama bin Laden, a wealthy Saudi Arabian, who believed that having non-Islamic troops in Saudi Arabia, home of Muhammad (the founder of Islam; c. 570–632) and the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina, was against the beliefs of Islam.
Bin Laden was driven out of Saudi Arabia in 1991 for his antigovernment activities. He went to Sudan, an Islamic country in east Africa. There bin Laden began a terrorist campaign against U.S. influence in the Islamic world.
In the early 1990s Al Qaeda began to target United States interests. In 1992 bin Laden claimed responsibility for attacks on U.S. soldiers in Yemen, a country located south of
Saudi Arabia. The next year, he claimed responsibility for attacks on American troops in Somalia, a country in eastern Africa. The 1993 explosion of a truck bomb in the parking garage of the World Trade Center in New York City was also blamed on Al Qaeda.
Al Qaeda in Afghanistan
In 1996 Sudan drove out bin Laden under pressure from the United States and Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden moved his headquarters to Afghanistan, where the Islamic fundamentalist group called the Taliban was fighting regional warlords (independent military commanders) for control of the country. Al Qaeda recruited Afghan veterans to fight alongside the Taliban. Their goal was to establish a government based on a strict, fundamentalist reading of the Koran. At the same time, bin Laden continued to direct Al Qaeda's fight against American interests. In 1996 a bomb at a military complex in Saudi Arabia killed nineteen U.S. soldiers. In 1998 terrorists bombed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing more than two hundred people, most of them citizens of those two countries. In 2000 terrorists attacked the warship USS Cole while it was docked in Yemen, killing seventeen sailors. American
efforts to fight back—such as firing missiles at Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan from bombers and aircraft carriers after the attack on the Cole—did no good, and the Taliban government refused to hand over bin Laden to the United States.
September 11, 2001
Al Qaeda next organized the most deadly terrorist attack ever made on the United States. On September 11, 2001, four teams of hijackers took over planes flying from the East Coast to California. The hijackers steered the planes into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and into the Pentagon near Washington, D.C., killing everyone aboard, including the hijackers. Because the planes were fully loaded with fuel for their long flights, they exploded like bombs when they hit the buildings. A fourth hijacked plane crashed in Pennsylvania. Apparently the passengers had realized the hijackers' plans and tried to overpower them. In the struggle, the plane crashed before it too could be used to destroy a target on the ground.
About three thousand people died in the attacks, which aroused a national fury. The United States again demanded that Afghanistan hand over bin Laden to stand trial for planning the attacks. The Taliban government in Afghanistan refused.
The United States responds to the attacks
In response to the attacks President George W. Bush (1946–) declared a worldwide "war on terrorism" and vowed to hunt down and destroy terrorist operations anywhere they could be found. He ordered the massive bombing of targets in Afghanistan, mainly aimed at knocking out Al Qaeda and the Taliban government that was protecting it. Within a few weeks, the Taliban had collapsed, and the Al Qaeda leaders disappeared from sight. Months after promising to capture bin Laden "dead or alive," U.S. officials admitted they had no idea whether bin Laden was still alive, and if so, where he was hiding.
Within six months of the September 11 attacks, the United States also sent troops to Afghanistan; to the Philippines, to help the government hunt down a small Islamic terrorist band called Abu Sayyaf; and to the state of Georgia, formerly part of the Soviet Union, to help train local troops to fight Islamic terrorists in nearby Chechnya.
The USS Cole
Seventeen U.S. sailors were killed and thirty-nine injured when the USS Cole was bombed in Yemen on October 12, 2000. A small boat pulled up alongside the ship while it was refueling. The boat exploded, ripping a 20-by-40-foot hole in the side of the Cole, killing sailors and threatening to sink the ship. Al Qaeda was blamed for the attack. U.S. officials immediately saw similarities with the twin U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania two years earlier, which also were blamed on Al Qaeda.
Inside the United States officials began taking steps to make sure that future hijackers would be kept off airplanes. Others began looking through files of immigrants, searching for people who may have helped the Al Qaeda hijackers. In an act of terrorism apparently unrelated to Al Qaeda, letters containing deadly anthrax spores were mailed to politicians and the news media. (Anthrax is an infectious disease that can be fatal unless a person gets treatment soon after he or she has been exposed.) The letters resulted in the deaths of several postal workers, as well as several civilians whose mail came into contact with the anthrax letters.
Osama bin Laden (c.1957–?)
- Born in Saudi Arabia in 1957, the seventeenth child (out of fifty) of a billionaire owner of a construction company. His mother was from Syria, and Osama was her only child.
- Studied business and economics at King Abdul Aziz University in Saudi Arabia.
- After the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 went to Pakistan to help fight a jihad (holy war) against the invaders. Used his fortune to establish Islamic schools in Pakistan for Afghan refugees. Moved to Afghanistan in the mid-1980s to recruit Arab volunteer fighters against the Russians. Set up Maktab al-Khidimat (MAK) to recruit Islamic fighters. MAK had recruiting offices in Detroit, Michigan, and Brooklyn, New York.
- Returned to Saudi Arabia in 1989 after the Russians withdrew from Afghanistan. Founded another organization to help veterans of the war in Afghanistan and to recruit fighters for Islamic causes in Bosnia, Chechnya, Somalia, and the Philippines.
- After allegedly organizing the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, became America's most-wanted terrorist. Disappeared during the American bombing campaign in Afghanistan.
Goals of Al Qaeda
The goals of Al Qaeda are a mix of religion and politics. One immediate goal is to drive out the United States, and American influence, from the Islamic nations of the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia. A second goal is the destruction of Israel, which was founded on Palestinian Arab land in 1948 as a homeland for Jews. A third goal is the creation of a single Islamic nation governed by Sharia. In 1998 bin Laden declared in a
fatwa (a legal opinion or decree handed down by an Islamic religious leader) that it is the duty of every Muslim to fight the United States, Jews, and any Muslims who do not join his struggle. What he meant by "Muslim" is Muslim rulers, like those in Saudi Arabia, who have cooperated with the United States.
Al Qaeda also follows the teachings of a twentieth-century Egyptian cleric named Sayyid Qutb (1906–1966; see box on pp. 198–99), who taught that Western civilization was basically opposed to Islam and argued that a jihad was needed to defend Islam against Western influence.
Leaders of Al Qaeda
Bin Laden is not the only leader of Al Qaeda. One of bin Laden's top lieutenants is Ayman al-Zawahiri (1953–), an Egyptian doctor once jailed for conspiring to assassinate Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat (1918–1981). Zawahiri was suspected of organizing the murder of sixty-seven foreign tourists in 1997 as they visited ancient Egyptian sites near Luxor, Egypt. He also signed a 1998 statement by Al Qaeda calling for attacks on American citizens everywhere.
Another leading figure in Al Qaeda is Muhammad Atef, bin Laden's second in command. Atef is suspected of planning the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.
Al Qaeda became the single most influential Islamist group throughout the Muslim world, creating alliances with similar groups as far away as the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia.
Sayyid Qutb (1906–1966)
Although not widely known in the West, Sayyid Qutb has been highly influential in the Muslim world as a supporter of a "holy war" against Western influences. His writings in favor of violent opposition to Muslim political leaders who do not follow a fundamentalist version of Islam have had an impact on terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, among others.
Qutb was born in a small Egyptian village and became a school inspector for the Egyptian government. He also wrote a novel and published literary criticism during the 1930s and 1940s. A turning point in his life came in 1948, when the Egyptian Ministry of Education sent him to live in the United States to study education. Qutb encountered hatred of Arabs in the United States, and he disapproved of the "loose" ways of American women (traditional Arabic women are covered from head to toe). On his return to Egypt in 1951, he joined the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that had started as a religious social club in 1928 and gradually turned into a political organization that used violence to achieve its goals.
In 1954 Qutb was one of about four thousand Muslim Brotherhood members who was arrested after an assassination attempt on Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918–1970). Qutb remained in prison for ten years, was released briefly in 1964, and then was rearrested after the Muslim Brotherhood made yet another attempt to assassinate Nasser. He was executed in 1966.
During his time in prison, Qutb wrote a work titled In the Shadow of the Koran, consisting of thirty volumes of commentary on the Muslim holy book. Qutb wrote about the strict demands Islam makes on believers, and on the fate of non-Muslims, particularly Christians and Jews, who will end up in hell. Although Qutb attacked non-Muslims, he was even more critical of Muslims who did not strictly follow Sharia, or Islamic law. The rulers of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, two of the largest Muslim states, failed to follow Sharia. Instead, Qutb wrote, they were influenced by the West. Qutb insisted that such governments had to be resisted and overcome.
Qutb's writings were similar to the teachings of a much earlier Islamic scholar, Ibn Taymiyah (1263–1328). Taymiyah opposed almost everything not mentioned specifically in the Koran. Taymiyah wrote that if an Islamic ruler did not follow all the teachings of Islam, he should be fought in a holy war. Qutb's vision for the future was a sort of religious community of all people who observe the teachings of the Koran.
The writings of Qutb and Taymiyah were cited by the terrorists who assassinated Anwar el-Sadat in 1981 (after the Egyptian president signed a peace treaty with the Jewish state of Israel) and have been used to justify opposition to the rulers of Saudi Arabia. Qutb's writings also influenced the Taliban, which founded a strict Islamic government in Afghanistan in the 1980s, as well as bin Laden, founder of the Al Qaeda terrorist organization.
Algerian Armed Islamic Group
In 1992 an organization in Algeria called the Armed Islamic Group (GIA, the initials of its name in French) began a series of attacks on non-Algerians, government officials, journalists, artists, and government buildings. The GIA wanted to rid the country of all foreign influences and set up a fundamentalist Islamic government. The GIA emerged after Algeria held its first multiparty elections in 1991. An Islamic political party, the Islamic Salvation Front, won the first round of elections, after which Algeria's military government declared the results void, banned the Islamic party, and arrested thousands of its supporters.
The GIA's campaign against the secular (nonreligious) government of Algeria has been particularly violent. Estimates of the number of people killed in ten years of conflict range up to one hundred thousand. Foreign tourists, workers, and Catholic priests have been murdered, seemingly at random. In addition, the organization has attacked entire villages in Algeria, killing hundreds of civilians, including women and children. In 1997 the GIA issued a statement saying the deaths were an "offering to Allah" and vowing to continue.
The GIA targeted Algerians it thought were supporting the military government or non-Islamic values. Women who led a Western lifestyle (including women who worked or who lived alone), for example, were raped, kidnapped, and murdered. Political activists, journalists, and artists also were favorite targets. People in these groups tried to leave Algeria, but often other countries refused to take them on the grounds that it was not the government, only a terrorist organization, that was threatening them.
On March 20, 1995, members of a Japanese religious sect called Aum Shinrikyo released poisonous sarin nerve gas onto five subway cars in Tokyo. As the cars traveled toward the center of the Japanese capital, the gas spread into other subway stations. In all, the attack killed twelve people and injured thousands more.
What Is Sarin?
Sarin is a poisonous gas that affects the nervous system of people who breathe it. The technical term for sarin is a "cholinesterase inhibitor." Sarin prevents the nervous system from working normally. It causes muscles to contract, including the diaphragm, which makes it difficult or impossible to breathe. Sarin is highly deadly: only about 1 milligram in the lungs is enough to kill a person.
The incident on March 20 drew the world's attention to the cult, but it was not the first time Aum Shinrikyo had used biological or chemical warfare. In June 1994 cult members released a cloud of sarin gas in a residential neighborhood of Matsumoto, Japan, a city northwest of Tokyo. They were attempting to kill three judges who were ruling on a lawsuit against the cult. Seven people died in the attack, and 144 others, including the judges, were injured. In April 1990 the cult had tried to release the deadly botulin toxin from a vehicle driving around Japan's parliament building. Three years later, in June 1993, they made a similar attempt to spray botulinum toxin near the wedding of Japan's crown prince. In the same month, the group tried to release deadly anthrax spores from an office building in Tokyo. In March 1995, a few days before the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway, the group attempted to spray botulinum toxin in another Tokyo subway station; the attack failed because one cult member decided not to load the sprayers with the toxin.
What Is Aum Shinrikyo?
Aum Shinrikyo was organized as a "new religion" by a partly blind Japanese yoga instructor who calls himself Shoko Asahara (his original name was Chizuo Matsumoto). He founded a yoga school in 1984 and gained a following. (Yoga is a philosophy and a system of exercise that teaches control over one's mind and body.) In 1986 Asahara made a trip to the Himalayan mountains, where he said he had been spiritually awakened. The next year he renamed his group "Aum Shinrikyo." "Aum" is a Sanskrit word meaning "the powers of destruction and creation in the universe," and "Shinrikyo" means "supreme truth."
The religious beliefs of Aum Shinriko are a mixture of Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and "New Age" religions. Asahara has declared himself to be the first "enlightened one" since the Buddha, as well as the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. (Buddha was the founder of the Buddhist religion and is considered the first person to achieve "enlightenment," the goal of all Buddhists. Reincarnation refers to the belief in Buddhism and other religions that a person's soul is born again and again into many different lifetimes.) Asahara claimed that the world will soon come to an end and that only members of his group will survive. In particular, he said that only those who become "superhuman" will survive: those who are resistant to chemical and biological warfare. In the early 1990s Asahara announced that some power—sometimes identified as the United States, Japan, Jews, Freemasons (a secret society founded in the Middle Ages), or the British royal family—would launch a third world war or possibly attack Japan. He later accused the United States of trying to launch chemical warfare attacks on him and his facilities in Japan.
Political power and chemical warfare
Aum Shinrikyo also had political ambitions in Japan. In 1989 the sect formed a political party and ran for seats in Japan's parliament in 1990. None of the twenty-five sect members who ran was elected. The sect also arranged to start producing rifles and bought a helicopter to deliver chemicals by air. Aum Shinriko began manufacturing both biological and chemical weapons on a massive scale. The sect had plans to produce 70 tons (63.5 metric tons) of sarin nerve gas, as well as anthrax and other biological agents. They tried unsuccessfully to recruit Russian scientists who worked on chemical and biological weapons to work for them.
At the time of the 1995 Tokyo subway attack, Aum Shinrikyo claimed twenty thousand to forty thousand members in Japan, Russia, Sri Lanka, and the United States. It had financial assets as high as $1.5 billion, which it earned from a combination of legal business dealings (particularly the assembly and sale of inexpensive personal computers) and illegal ones (it worked with Japanese organized crime in the illegal drug trade). Money also came from fees the sect charged to attend lectures by Asahara and money collected from people who joined the cult, who were required to hand over their life savings.
Because Aum Shinrikyo had official status as a religious group in Japan, the police were reluctant to investigate it for fear of violating Japan's guarantees of religious freedom. But in March 1995, the police finally opened an investigation, and it was this investigation that apparently prompted the group to launch its poison gas attack on the Tokyo subway. Two months later, the founder, along with other sect members, was charged with murder. In 2002, Asahara's trial was still ongoing.
Despite Asahara's being in prison, the sect continued to operate under the leadership of Reika Matsumoto, the teenage daughter of Asahara, and some of his senior lieutenants.
"Religious Terrorism." Terrorism Reference Library. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 24, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/books/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/religious-terrorism
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