Cruelty Is All They Have Left; for Many Terrorist Groups, Violence Has Now Become an End in and of Itself

Newsweek, March 22, 2004 | Go to article overview

Cruelty Is All They Have Left; for Many Terrorist Groups, Violence Has Now Become an End in and of Itself


Byline: Fareed Zakaria, Write the author at comments@fareedzakaria.com.

Does it matter whether the carnage in Madrid last week was the act of the Basque terrorist organization ETA or of Al Qaeda? Of course there are important differences between the two. ETA is a local organization, Al Qaeda a global one. The former is secular, the latter religious. But they have something in common that is revealing about the nature of terrorism. Both groups had a political agenda, but as their political cause has lost steam, they are increasingly defined almost exclusively by a macabre culture of violence.

"The purpose of terrorism," Vladimir Lenin once said, "is to terrorize." Like much of what he said, this is wrong. Terrorism has traditionally been used to advance political goals. That's why a rule of terrorists used to be: "We want a few people dead and a lot of people watching." Terrorists sought attention, but didn't want to make people lose sympathy for their cause. Yet with many terrorist groups--like ETA, like Al Qaeda--violence has become an end in and of itself. They want a lot of people dead, period.

Some in Spain have argued that if indeed Al Qaeda proves to be the culprit, then Spaniards will blame Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar. It was his support for America and the war in Iraq, they say, that invited the wrath of the fundamentalists. But other recent targets of Islamic militants have been Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia, not one of which supported the war or sent troops into Iraq in the afterwar. Al Qaeda's declaration of jihad had, as its first demand, the withdrawal of American troops from Saudi Arabia. Osama bin Laden does not seem to have noticed, but the troops are gone--yet the jihad continues. The reasons come and go, the violence endures.

The Middle East scholar Gilles Kepel makes an analogy between communist groups and Islamic fundamentalists. In the 1940s and 1950s, communist groups were popular and advanced their cause politically. By the 1960s, after revelations about Stalin's brutality, there were few believing communists in Europe. Facing irrelevance, the hard-core radicals turned to violence, hoping to gain attention and adherents by daring acts of bloodshed. Thus the proliferation of terror by groups like the Red Brigades and the Baader-Meinhof gang. Similarly, for decades Islamic fundamentalists tried to mount political opposition in Arab countries. Frustrated by failure, they have become terror machines and nothing more. …

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Cruelty Is All They Have Left; for Many Terrorist Groups, Violence Has Now Become an End in and of Itself
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