The recent attacks on Paris and now San Bernardino have, rightly, focused on the sheer barbarity of the assaults. These atrocities were deliberately intended to cause as much wanton loss of life as possible. Such callous targeting of innocent people defies most people’s comprehension. Surely these people must be psychopaths or beyond the pale of anything we remotely connect with decent human conduct?
Regrettably, the actions of the ISIS terrorists, appalling and evil though they may be, have their own twisted logic and motivations. In order to understand them and thus be better informed and equipped to deal with them, we have to go beyond condemnation (which usually has zero impact on the terrorists anyway) and seek to comprehend what motivates the likes of the Paris attackers to do what they do.
First, it is important to differentiate two phases of terrorism. For much of the 20th century most terrorist activity was never aimed at causing random killings of innocent civilians. Whether it was the Provisional IRA, the Baader Meinhof Gang or the PLO, to name three of the most well-known terrorist groups of the last century, civilian casualties were usually the unintended consequences – or to put it more euphemistically – the ‘collateral damage’ – arising from operations aimed at specific military, economic or political targets.
In each case the terrorists never intended to kill themselves and strived, with greater or lesser diligence and competence, to avoid or minimise civilian casualties.
Beginning in the last quarter of the 20th century and particularly, but not exclusively associated with Islamic terrorism, a second phase of terrorism has taken precedence. To be sure this latest form still focuses on military, economic and political targets but with the deliberate intention of causing mass civilian casualties with no warning characterised by the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks in New York and London and now the Paris attacks.
What motivates this new form of terrorism and its desire to inflict mass terror on civilians?
The new terrorism takes over two themes that characterised the previous phase. The first is an absolute conviction amounting to faith that those advocating, endorsing and carrying out terrorist activities are right in what they are doing. They sincerely believe they are fighting to bring in a world which will end injustice, eliminate inequality and oppression. While some are just wanting to overthrow perceived repression and achieve national liberation, others are utopian visionaries, intent in ushering a virtual heaven on earth. In either case, terrorism is not politics as we know it based on debate, compromise and pragmatism but a firm belief in the certainty and righteousness of the terrorist cause that brooks no discussion or hesitation.
The second theme is that terrorists believe that their actions or deeds will act as a catalyst to inspire the masses to rise up against their oppressors and overthrow the oppressor regimes. In this regard the terrorists believe themselves to be acting as the vanguard, leading the masses to fulfil their revolutionary potential. In reality this often serves as a smokescreen for an elitist, superior mentality that can allow terrorists to perpetrate any action as this is being carried out for the benefit of the oppressed masses.
The elements of faith, certainty and the vanguard mentality that make up the terrorist’s mind-set invariably operate within the framework of an ideology that provides the core set of ideas legitimating and giving coherence to the terrorist’s activities. With a few exceptions, terrorist ideologies in the first phase were secular in nature: left or right wing or nationalist in orientation. In stark contrast the second phase is shot through with an ideology equally as utopian and visionary as its’ secular predecessor but based on millenarian religious grounds that takes the elements of faith, certainty and vanguardism onto a new level.
‘Islamoterrorism’ as it is often described is based on waging holy war or jihad in order to impose a new Caliphate where Sharia law will prevail. Among the essential tools to bring this about are martyrdom and mass destructive attacks on cities and civilians. Such attacks, according to the their interpretation of Islam (and contrary to that of almost all other Muslims) are sanctioned by the Prophet and, ultimately by God and thus have divine sanction. Despite their differences in other areas, both al Qaeda and ISIS subscribe to this central core of belief.
In this regard the statement published by ISIS after the Paris attacks is most revealing. ISIS described Paris as a city of evil, full of sin and “apostates” revelling in debauchery. When the eight terrorists opened up with their guns and indiscriminately attacked people enjoying a Friday night out in the City of Love they did so because those they were attacking were non-believing sinners and their actions were mandated by God. And when they blew themselves up their sacrifice would guarantee them a place in heaven for eternity as righteous holy warriors.
But there’s one further twist to this. Apart from the inherent evil and wickedness of the act, the chances are such random terrorist acts will also kill devout Muslims; the very people who ISIS and al Qaeda claim to be fighting for! The response from Islamoterrorism is simple. If there are true believers caught up and killed in the act then God will know his own and they too will gain entry to paradise for eternity.
Effectively a jihadist can blow up his own mother in the commission of a terrorist act and justify it as a righteous act as she is now in heaven.
Such a mentality is not only barbaric, evil and mediaeval but can justify any action no matter how heinous and all in the name of twisted perversion of religion and even love.
Faith, certainty and terror overlaid by religious conviction and mandated by God is a formidable concoction. In order to defeat Islamoterrorism we have to understand the potent cocktail that motivates its’ adherents, leaders and foot-soldiers: for them death is salvation and the whole world from a Christmas office party to a rock concert is a ‘legitimate’ target.