Since 9/11, terror has become one of the most fashionable issues on both the American and the international agenda, and almost every publisher has rushed to publish a book written by one of the instantly created “experts on terrorism.” These “merchants of fear,” together with other interested political actors–such as the current leaders of the United States and Israel–thus unwittingly play directly into the hands of the terrorists, whose main objective is less to kill than to sow anxiety and panic. Ironically, from this perspective, Al Qaeda and the US Administration, as well as the Israeli right and Hamas, have a common aim: namely, to increase fear in order to recruit and manipulate their own people against their respective “other.”
Historic though it was, 9/11 was neither the first attack against the World Trade Center–the symbol of American strength and values–nor against other grand American targets. During the past two decades, Middle Eastern terrorists have attacked US embassies, military ships and bases, and government personnel. In April 1983 a suicide bomber blew himself up in the US Embassy in Beirut, killing sixty-three people, including seventeen Americans. Six months later another suicide attack killed 241 American servicemen at Beirut International Airport. In 1993 a van exploded in the parking garage of the World Trade Center, killing six and highlighting it as a primary target of Islamist militants on American soil. In a coordinated attack in August 1998, suicide bombers attacked US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, killing 224 people. Two years later the USS Cole was attacked in Yemen, taking the life of seventeen sailors.
This brief, partial count is presented just to suggest the profound changes that have occurred in postmodern warfare. Many of the world’s most volatile conflicts, from Palestine and Afghanistan to Chechnya and Kashmir, pit powerful states against guerrilla or clandestine groups that, in the face of the adversary’s overwhelming military superiority, have struck at civilian targets, turning their strategic weakness into a tactical advantage.
The states in question describe this violence as “terror,” but the perpetrators and their constituents regard it as legitimate resistance to oppression. The current conflict in Iraq exemplifies this kind of “asymmetric” warfare. When Iraqi loyalist forces realized that they could not confront Anglo-American military might on the conventional battleground, they simply dissolved their army and handed the invaders an easy victory. Once the allied forces entered this trap, the Iraqis (joined, it appears, by foreign Arabs) began waging a highly efficient guerrilla war against them, and against anyone associated with the occupier, including the United Nations. Although they can’t defeat the American military, with each attack they can whittle away at the American public’s willingness to bear the costs of maintaining an increasingly unpopular occupation. Acutely sensitive to the threat, the American government has denounced these guerrillas as “terrorists.”
Anyone who writes about terrorism is faced with the notorious problem of defining it. Even recently drafted international conventions, such as the Rome Statute, have avoided defining it while clearly stating that the intentional killing of civilians is a war crime under any circumstances, regardless of whether the act is carried out by a state or by other groups and even if those responsible regard the deaths as “collateral damage.” But exactly who are civilians? This question is not as easy to answer as it seems. Consider, for instance, the case of Israel, a country that defines itself as a “nation in arms,” in which civilians serve as soldiers, taking off their uniforms when danger has passed. The distinction between civilian and soldier is even murkier in the case of armed or unarmed settlers in the Israeli occupied territories, who are a clear extension of the Israeli military occupation. Arab defenders of suicide bombing, notably Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, an influential Shiite cleric in Lebanon, have argued that any Israeli is a legitimate target since all Israelis, men and women, serve in the military. As gruesome as this argument may be, it should hardly come as a surprise, since Israel itself fails to recognize such a distinction.
It is, of course, a commonplace that one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. Joyce Davis, Barbara Victor and Jessica Stern are fully aware of this. Thus Stern defines terrorism broadly “as an act or threat of violence against noncombatants with the objective of exacting revenge, intimidating, or otherwise influencing an audience,” a definition implicitly accepted by Davis and Victor. In fact, all three books lump together the use of violence by irregulars, guerrilla fighters and even “lone wolves” against military forces under the umbrella of “terrorism,” failing to distinguish between legitimate acts of violent resistance, on the one hand, and war crimes, on the other. Nor do any of the books explore the issue of state terrorism, which often forms a bloody cycle with guerrilla terror. To their credit, however, all three authors seek to understand the motivations that lead people to commit acts of terror, without giving up their basic belief that no cause, no matter how just and noble, can justify the indiscriminate killing of innocent civilians. Their books differ widely in emphasis. Davis and Victor focus on political Islam and the Arab-Israeli conflict and their implications for US policy, while Stern examines terrorism in a wide range of contexts, from the Middle East and South Asia to the United States. But each book tries to answer a question raised by Davis, the deputy foreign editor at Knight Ridder: “What is it that would make a person crash a plane into a building, killing himself and everybody else? And what is it that would make a person strap explosives to his body and blow himself up?”
Barbara Victor, who has covered the Middle East for CBS and US News & World Report, regards the rise of female suicide bombers, many of them quite young, as one of the most extraordinary aspects of modern terrorism. The conventional wisdom is that they are troubled women who see suicide bombing, the ultimate act of self-sacrifice for the glory of their religion and suffering nation, as the only way to “purify” their honor and that of their family–an issue of supreme importance, especially in traditional Muslim society. However, one of the very first suicide bombers operating against Israeli military forces exploded all the stereotypes connected to this dreadful phenomenon: Loula Abboud, a 19-year-old secular Christian Lebanese girl, commanded a small leftist resistance cell in southern Lebanon against the Israeli invaders. Loula was a beautiful, popular and well-educated middle-class girl, apparently without any social or emotional difficulties. When she blew herself up in front of a group of Israeli soldiers in 1985, she became a Palestinian and Lebanese heroine and a model for Palestinian, Tamil, Kurdish and Chechen suicide bombers of the future, including the first female operating inside Israel, Wafa Idris, who blew herself up in January 2002. In the Tamil and Kurdish movements, women are responsible for more than a third of suicide attacks.
Victor recounts the story of the Palestinian revolution and resistance since the first intifada, through the narratives of several Palestinian women who became, or attempted to become, suicide bombers. She interviewed family members of the bombers, women in Israeli prisons who were caught by the Israelis on the way to commit the action, Israeli and Palestinian politicians and Muslim religious leaders (including Hamas leaders Sheik Ahmed Yassin and Dr. Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, whom Israel recently attempted to assassinate) as well as various “experts” on terrorism. She began her book during an ecstatic mass meeting of Palestinian women with Yasir Arafat in January 2002. At that meeting, Arafat promised full equality between men and women in Palestine and called for women to take part in the armed struggle. Women are not just the “womb of the nation.” He told them, “You are my army of roses that will crush Israeli tanks.”
It’s doubtful that this particular speech inspired the growing number of young Palestinian female suicide bombers, as Victor suggests, but it’s a good literary introduction to a subject that has elicited both horror and fascination in the Western media. In fact, years before Arafat’s speech, women were active in the Palestinian armed struggle. Is the active participation of women in all roles of this struggle a sign of the development of gender equality in a traditionalist society? Probably not: In most cases, the major role demanded of these women remains reproductive. Women are thus asked to give birth to as many children as possible in order to win the demographic race between Jews and Arabs within Palestine. Because of the highly vulnerable position of girls and young women in traditional society, carrying out “patriotic” acts may indeed, at times, be a way of running away from personal troubles. The Algerian revolution too provides a grim prognosis on the issue of women’s liberation. There, women were full partners with men in the revolution. After independence was achieved, they were expected to return to their traditional roles in a deeply patriarchal society.
Unlike Victor and Davis, who focus exclusively on the Middle East, Jessica Stern takes her readers into the long cross-cultural and winding journey through the dark or glorious (depending on the point of view) business of terror. And a business it is, quite literally. As Stern shows, terror has evolved sometimes in recent years into a highly organized affair, with its own byzantine infrastructure. Exploring the organizational and structural aspects of terrorism, she makes some useful analogies to other types of organizations, notably the virtual communities on the Internet. As she points out, the ideology, the definition of the enemy, the recruitment and modes of operation are frequently disseminated over the Internet, as well as by satellite television and videotaped broadcasts. For example, Al Qaeda–literally “the base”–is said to have originated as a web list of jihadists scattered around the globe, bound largely by shared enthusiasm for holy warfare. Every terrorist can thus become a lone wolf or operate within a very small group in which one person is recruited by another. Other organizations are formed by small, unconnected cells, which makes surveillance and infiltration by intelligence agencies or other rivals or enemies very difficult. What is more, the capture of one cell does not endanger the whole organization. The most highly structured terrorist organizations function like states within states, as in Pakistan, whose intelligence service, the ISI, has offered crucial support for the Taliban and the Kashmiri jihadists. Groups like Hezbollah and Hamas have hierarchically organized leadership, operations and intelligence branches, training camps, independent school systems, industrial and commercial enterprises, charity and welfare systems (to reward supporters, including the families of the “martyrs”), and public relations bureaus. Several groups pay salaries to their operatives and officers or make welfare payments to bereaved families. Stern also believes in the existence of transnational terrorist networks that support each other through the acquisition of weapons and other materials, training and exchange of information. As such, organizations with completely different ideologies and aims form relationships of cooperation. IfIslamist terrorism has a “global reach,” as the State Department insists, America’s belligerent effort to “remake the Middle East” by force is an important reason why.
The social origins of terrorists cut across class divisions, contrary to the notion that terrorism springs mainly from material deprivation, a misperception that has lingered despite the fact that most of the September 11 perpetrators were of middle-class origin. While researching her book, Stern spoke with dozens of alleged terrorists across the world–some of them murderers, others leaders of violent organizations, still others “spiritual” leaders. A number were highly educated, articulate and sophisticated. Some were wealthy or from wealthy families, while others had become rich through organizing terrorist activities and fundraising for them. Others seem indeed clearly poor, materially and socially deprived or schizophrenic and sociopathic. However, most of them offered “rational” explanations for becoming killers, for seducing others to kill or to be killed and for becoming martyrs. Some true believers–Muslim, Christian and Jewish–even tried to convert Stern or at least to convince her of the absolute truth of their vision.
As an American Jew traveling in the Islamic world, Stern naturally raised suspicions among some of her subjects. There is a tense, dark comedy to her exchanges with terrorists that gives her book the flavor of a thriller. During a meeting with Islamic militants in Pakistan, she writes, her hosts
wanted to look me over for themselves. After they leave, [my guide] tells me that they were trying to determine if I came to Lahore on a mission to kill their leader. They wanted to know if I was there on behalf of RAW [the Indian intelligence service]. Or working for the [Israeli] Mossad. “As a result of their inspection, they have determined that you work for the CIA,” my guide informs me, seemingly bemused. I cannot tell whether he concurs with the militants’ assessment.
Well, I’m not, I tell him hotly, foolishly. How can you persuade someone you’re not working for the CIA? It is clear in any case that speaking with an American woman is a novelty for all three of my new acquaintances. My guide admits that I am the first American he has ever met, and the first Jew he has ever seen.
“Anyway, it’s okay; they are flattered if the CIA is interested in them,” he says.
“How did they decide that I’m not planning to assassinate their leader?” I ask.
“It is obvious. You can tell a person’s character by looking into her eyes. You have innocence in your eyes.”
Appearances notwithstanding, Stern is far from naïve and fully appreciates that most of her informers tried to use her for their own purposes, from projecting an exaggerated image of their power to warning their enemies, from raising their profile in the West to winning a place in the pages of history. She therefore tried to check and double-check their stories with intelligence services, which were often no less dubious as sources than her informers. Her own impressions of the interviewees and the atmosphere of the encounters, including even smells, are recounted at length in colorful and, at times, poetic descriptions.
Stern suggests four principal motivations behind terrorism. The first of these is a stark sense of alienation. Here, Stern gives a vivid description and analysis of the American neo-Nazi and Christian cults, notably a white supremacist group in rural Arkansas that aimed at restoring pure white supremacy in the States through the elimination of blacks, Jews and other nonwhite ethnic groups. They “hoped to hasten the return of the Messiah by ‘carrying out God’s judgments’ against unrepentant sinners. They believed that humanists, communists, socialists, and Zionists had taken over the US government. They knew for a fact that Jews, Satan’s direct descendants, were working closely with the Antichrist, whose forces included the United Nations, the IMF, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Illuminati, and the ‘One-Worlders’…. They had joined forces with other right-wing groups in the hope of destroying what they called the Zionist Occupied Government (ZOG).”
It’s not surprising that most religiously motivated zealot groups–Christian, Jewish and Muslim–possess very similar worldviews and vocabularies and, at times, identify similar enemies. The world of the terrorist, regardless of ideology, is divided between the in-group members (“the chosen people”) and their dehumanized enemy (“the children of darkness”), a manichean dichotomy that makes killing and self-sacrifice inevitable. Such thinking, Stern notes, permeated the antiabortion terror that plagued America in the 1990s.
The second motive for being ready to kill and be killed–perhaps the most powerful one–is a sense of humiliation. Stern illustrates this point with a comparison of the immense poverty and deprivation of Palestinians in Gaza’s refugee camps with the luxurious dwellings of their neighbors, the 6,000 Jewish settlers who compose 0.5 percent of Gaza’s population but who hold 42 percent of the land within well-guarded enclaves like Netzarim, while living off Palestinian labor and consuming six times the amount of water as the Arab population. For a population that has been forced into a permanent subordinate position by an occupying power, this disparity is not only a hardship but a searing humiliation as well. As Victor observes, the failure of adults to win the Palestinian struggle and their apparent helplessness in the face of such injustice has bred a generation that is revolting not only against the Israelis but also against their elders, who have been powerless to prevent their children from becoming martyrs.
Stern, who can scarcely hide her moral indignation at the situation in the occupied territories, regards humiliation as a major reason for the appeal of groups like Hamas. In fact, the motivations for violent actions reflect a mixture of causes, including religious fervor, nationalism, poverty, dispossession and a thirst for revenge. “Hardship always brings people back to God,” said one leader of Hamas. “Islam distinguishes us in that it prepares people to die for the sake of Allah.” Yet a closer look at Palestinian martyrdom (suicide bombers, for example) suggests that, piety aside, a cruel social calculus is also at work here. When a starving refugee family has ten or twelve kids with no prospects for a proper education, stable employment or suitable marriages, the appeal to “donate” one or two children to Allah becomes very seductive. In exchange, the family receives considerable “charity” funds, honor and social recognition. The potential “martyr,” in turn, is promised glory in this world and the next. His videotaped testament is broadcast all over the Islamic (and sometimes Western) world and his photos are carried in mass demonstrations. Moreover, the Garden of Eden is promised not only to him but to his entire family. Sometimes these promises are accompanied by ambiguous sexual afterworld rewards–a clear example of the invention of a tradition by popular Islam.
Stern writes: “When such a person makes a cost-benefit analysis about the value of his life versus the value of his death, he attaches greater value to death–both for his country and for himself. This suggests that something is terribly wrong–either with him, his training, or with his situation.” As an Israeli who was educated with the slogan “it is good to die for our country” and the eulogizing of Samson- and Masada-style suicidal “heroism,” I cannot agree more with Stern’s observation. Japanese kamikaze pilots are another celebrated example of the ways in which some cultures blur the boundaries between soldiers and martyrs more than others.
The third motive for terrorism and massacres, according to Stern, is the struggle for demographic supremacy by one ethnic or religious group over the other within a certain territory. In Indonesia, she observes, Suharto’s efforts to resettle Muslims from densely populated regions in sparsely populated Christian areas destabilized the delicate ethnoreligious balance and provoked large-scale massacres of Muslims by Christians, followed by massacres of Christians by Muslims. The Indonesian case has an overt connection to the original Afghan jihad against the Soviets. Some Indonesian veterans of the Afghan war formed a militia, Laskar Jihad, to fight a Christian militia.
Beyond the mutual atrocities, what is interesting in this case, and in those of Kashmir, Pakistan and Egypt, is the direct impact of the Afghan war on the spread of worldwide Islamic militancy and terror groups, including Al Qaeda. The long fight in Afghanistan attracted sympathizers from all over the globe (much like the Spanish Civil War) to defend the country of believers against the kuffar, or infidels. There they received training, mainly from the CIA, learned to use a wide variety of arms and explosives, acquired combat experience and achieved a sense of power, pride and comradeship as a result of the final victory. After the Soviet defeat, they exported the Afghan-style Islamist revolution to every possible corner of the world in which Islamic communities exist. The veterans of this war may be found in Pakistan and India, northern and equatorial Africa, Lebanon, Palestine, Chechnya, Bosnia, the United States and, quite possibly, Iraq, where an unknown number of foreign Arabs have joined Iraqis fighting the occupation.
The last motive for terrorism mentioned by Stern is the one that she mistakenly classifies as “history.” Here, she refers mainly to the Jewish messianic groups that planned to destroy the Muslim Holy Sanctuary in Jerusalem, which was supposedly built on the site of the Jewish Temples. There was also a realpolitik aspect of the plan–stopping Israel’s withdrawal from the Sinai following the Camp David peace accords with Egypt–but the larger goal was messianic in nature. By blowing up the third-holiest Islamic religious site, they hoped to cause such an uproar in the Islamic world that the whole process of reconciliation would come to an immediate end. They believed that the destruction of the mosque would ultimately precipitate an apocalyptic war that would hasten the coming of the Messiah, the reconstruction of the Third Temple and the reign of the Lord on the earth. The plan was not carried out because, according to their testimony, they failed to find a great rabbinical authority to bless it. Next time, one fears, they may have more luck and find such a blessing. Of course, the motive for this assault had nothing to do with history; it was rooted in a fanatical interpretation of biblical “history” and other texts from Jewish scripture. In this the religious right in Israel has much in common with the radical Islamists who are their most bitter adversaries.
Contemporary Islamists, after all, look back to their own Golden Age, when they developed a great civilization of philosophers, scientists, merchants, medics, poets and military geniuses who almost succeeded in conquering all of Europe. They compare this with their current situation. The corrupt, despotic Arab regimes that were unable to solve social and economic problems did have enough power to destroy all civil democratic opposition, but could not overcome fundamentalist Islamic groups. Most of these regimes have received the steady support of the United States. America, as a representative of the victorious West and as a prime backer of the Arab regimes and of Israeli policy, is regarded, both by Arab elites and ordinary people as being responsible for their misery. Davis, Stern and Victor all agree that if we are to stop the flow of young Arab recruits to groups like Al Qaeda, moral, ideological and economic pressures will be more effective than military campaigns. The majority of Muslims, even those who reject Western values and regard the current era as a regression to the pre-Islamic age of barbarism (jahaliya), are not supporters of a worldwide holy war, and they can become allies in an effective fight against terror. Davis warns, however, against too close an association with oppressive Arab regimes, even if they do fight the militant Islamists in their own countries. Supporting such governments–along with the invasion and occupation of Iraq and uncritical backing of Israeli expansion in the occupied territories–merely increases enmity toward the West.
In their classic study Terror and Taboo: The Follies, Fables and Faces of Terrorism (1996), Joseba Zulaika and Bill Douglass write that “regarding terrorism, the brandishing of stark facts goes hand in hand with great leaps into discursive fantasy.” Terrorism is a genuine malady of our time, but it has evolved into a discursive fantasy, used and abused by the rulers of some states, under the cover of “fighting terrorism,” for achieving completely different and contradictory aims. Neither the American war in Iraq nor Ariel Sharon’s war against the Palestinian Authority and people is likely to eradicate terrorism. On the contrary: The result of “antiterrorism” is invariably to heighten the desperation of weak and wretched groups and to multiply their incentives to strike back with terror.