Islamic Terrorism

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Islamic terrorism is both a propaganda term and an analytical category to describe the work and beliefs of a loosely linked set of fundamentalist groups at war with westernized Arab regimes and the countries that support them. The term is both problematic and to many people offensive. It implies that as a religion Islam encourages violence and that Muslims may be especially susceptible to becoming terrorists. Critics correctly point out that although both Judaism and Christianity have motivated terrorist groups, these groups have seldom been labeled "Jewish terrorists" or "Christian terrorists." The 2006 controversy over cartoons published in a Danish newspaper and republished elsewhere in Europe underscores the sensitivity of this issue. The cartoons satirizing Islam included a sinister image of the Prophet Muhammad wearing a turban made to look like a bomb with a lit fuse. The drawings produced little response when they first appeared in Denmark in the fall of 2005 but unleashed a firestorm of protest when republished by papers in Muslim countries in February 2006. The cartoons reinforced the offensive stereotype that Islam is a violent religion that encourages terrorism. For these reasons many analysts prefer the terms Islamist terrorism or fundamentalist terrorism.

As a proselytizing religion, Islam (like Christianity) has historically permitted use of violence to spread the faith. However, the Prophet placed tight restrictions on any use of force. Following the battle of the Trenches before Medina, Muhammad articulated the concept of "lesser jihad," or defensive war, to protect the uma (community of believers). Contrary to popular belief, jihad does not mean "holy war." "Holy struggle" or "struggle for righteousness" better captures the meaning of the term. For this reason, the Prophet insisted that the "greater jihad" be the personal struggle to live as a good Muslim. Muhammad also outlined what Christians would call a just-war theory, laying down strict prohibitions against killing noncombatants, especially women and children.

While nothing in the core teachings of Islam justifies the abuses of contemporary terrorist groups, Islam, like any other religion, has been used by followers to justify a range of violent actions. Contemporary Islamic extremism has its roots in Wahhabism, an eighteenth-century revival movement that sought to restore the faith to its original, pristine form. This commitment to turning back the clock has led both followers and critics of the movement to refer to it as Salafism, from the Arabic word salaf, meaning "predecessors" or "ancestors." Although not inherently violent, Wahhabi theology rejected any "modern" additions to Islamic faith, practice, or even culture. Calls to purify Islam of these idolatrous trappings brought Wahhabis into violent conflict with Islamic regimes. Their founder, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, declared a jihad against those who did not agree with his view of the faith. This mandate would find an echo in the radicalism of Osama bin Laden.

For most of its history Wahhabism remained isolated in Saudi Arabia. Despite its call for the restoration of an Islamic republic, the sect provided the theological underpinning and much of the muscle of the new kingdom of Saudi Arabia founded in 1932 by Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud. In the turmoil of the postcolonial world and especially following the Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic revolution, Wahhabism spread farther afield and in its most militant form supported (or was appropriated by) the radical terrorist group Al Qaeda. In Egypt, Wahhabism took root in the Muslim Brotherhood, a largely nonviolent movement offering an alternative to the secular Arab nationalism of Gamal Abdel Nasser. The Brotherhood later spawned Egyptian Islamic Jihad, the terrorist organization responsible for the murder of Nasser's successor, Anwar Sadat, and linked to the 1993 bombings of the World Trade Center.

Until 1979 the Saudi Kingdom made little effort to encourage the spread of Wahhabism. The Iranian revolution, however, threatened Sunni Arab (and therefore Saudi) primacy in the Muslim world. To counter the spread of radical Shiite Islam, the Saudis funded the madrassa movement. The royal government and Wahhabi charities founded hundreds of free Koranic schools throughout the Muslim world. Although these schools did not necessarily espouse violence, their conservative theology would make them fertile recruiting grounds for extremist organizations in future years. Located in poor areas where families could not afford even modest fees at state schools, madrassas offered free education with an ideological bent appealing to socially and economically marginalized people.

Radical theology alone, even when coupled with economic and social disadvantage, did not produce "Islamic terrorism." A unique set of political circumstances caused these factors to coalesce around one of the deadliest terrorist organizations in history. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan drew thousands of mujahidin (holy warriors) from around the Muslim world to help Afghans fight the infidels who had invaded their country. Among these warriors was a wealthy Saudi named Osama bin Laden. Although bin Laden played a relatively minor role in the ultimately successful war to expel the Soviets, he went on to organize Al Qaeda. Bin Laden offered his organization of mujahidin to the Saudi monarchy following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in the summer of 1990. The Saudis chose an American-led coalition instead, earning them and their allies the eternal enmity of Al Qaeda.

Al Qaeda and its affiliates, the organizations most people have in mind when they speak of "Islamic terrorism," espouse goals consistent with the principal tenets of Wahhabism. First and foremost, they seek to replace apostate regimes within the Muslim world. Any Muslim country not governed by strict sharia law (Islamic law based on the Koran and the Hadiths, or sayings of the Prophet) qualifies as apostate. Egypt, Pakistan, and Iraq (under Saddam Hussein and the subsequent government) lead the list of regimes needing to be replaced as does Saudi Arabia. Although it governs the kingdom according to sharia, the monarchy committed the unforgivable sin of inviting the "crusaders" (U.S. troops) onto the sacred soil of Saudi Arabia. Wahhabism also calls for the creation of an Islamic republic rather than a monarchy. Moving beyond the national level, bin Laden and his followers wish to create an Islamic caliphate of all Muslim people.

The anger of "Islamic terrorists" toward the West in general and the United States in particular is more complex. The United States became a target because of its support for the apostate regimes the extremists want to replace. Extremists also find the U.S. presence in the Persian Gulf unacceptable. U.S. support for Israel further angers Al Qaeda and its affiliates. Finally, Islamic extremists hate the secularism and what they see as the decadence of the West, corrupting influences brought daily into Muslim countries by the Internet and satellite television.

The invasion of Iraq has further angered Islamist terrorist groups and resulted in more attacks. On 11 March 2004, the Moroccan Combatant Group detonated 10 bombs, 8 on trains and 2 in a train station, during morning rush hour in Madrid, Spain, killing 192 people and injuring more than 2,000 others. On 3 April those suspected of carrying out the attacks blew themselves up in their Madrid apartment when cornered by Spanish security forces. The terrorist group formed in the late 1990s by former Afghan mujahidin to promote Islamic revolution in Morocco launched the attacks to punish Spain for its support of the U.S.-led war in Iraq. A new government elected shortly after the attacks announced that it would be withdrawing Spanish troops from Iraq. The decision stemmed from complex domestic issues, but the terrorists claimed a victory and assured Spain the attacks would stop.

A year later Islamist terrorists struck again, hitting the London Underground with three near-simultaneous suicide bombs during morning rush hour on 7 July 2005. A fourth bomber detonated his device on a double-decker bus within an hour. The attacks killed 57 people, including the terrorists, and injured 700. Three of the four bombers were born in Britain and were of Pakistani descent; the fourth had emigrated from Jamaica. At least one of the men had ties to Pakistan that suggest an Al Qaeda link. In a video statement recovered after the bombings, one of the bombers said attacks would continue so long as Muslims continued to suffer attacks, presumably from the West, although he made no specific reference to Iraq. Another group of suicide bombers attempted a follow-up attack on the London commuter system on 21 July, but their bombs failed to detonate. The terrorists were quickly apprehended.

Ironically, the religious nature of Islamic extremist terrorism makes it particularly deadly. Terrorists who believe their cause to be divinely inspired have little compunction about killing innocent civilians. One of the perpetrators of the 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa who later cooperated with the United States explained Al Qaeda's rationalization for the unavoidable deaths of Muslims who worked in the two buildings. If they are righteous in the eyes of Allah, he was told, they will go to paradise. If not, they deserve to die.

See alsoAl Qaeda; Islam; Terrorism.


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Gunaratna, Rohan . Inside Al Qae'da: Global Network of Terror. New York, 2002.

Hoffman, Bruce. Inside Terrorism. London, 1998.

Kepel, Gilles. Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam. Cambridge, Mass., 2002.

Mockaitis, Thomas R., and Paul Rich, eds. Grand Strategy in the War against Terrorism. London, 2003.

Tom Mockaitis

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Islamic Terrorism

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