The New Terrorism: Securing the Nation against a Messianic Foe

By Simon, Steven | Brookings Review, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

The New Terrorism: Securing the Nation against a Messianic Foe


Simon, Steven, Brookings Review


In the minds of the men who carried them out, the attacks of September 11 were acts of religious devotion--a form of worship, conducted in God's name and in accordance with his wishes. The enemy was the infidel; the opposing ideology, "Western culture." That religious motivation, colored by a messianism and in some cases an apocalyptic vision of the future, distinguishes al-Qaida and its affiliates from conventional terrorists groups such as the Irish Republican Army, the Red Brigades, or even the Palestine Liberation Organization. Although secular political interests help drive al-Qaida's struggle for power, these interests are understood and expressed in religious terms. Al-Qaida wants to purge the Middle East of American political, military, and economic influence, but only as part of a far more sweeping religious agenda: a "defensive jihad" to defeat a rival system portrayed as an existential threat to Islam.

The explicitly religious character of the "New Terrorism" poses a profound security challenge for the United States. The social, economic, and political conditions in the Arab and broader Islamic world that have helped give rise to al-Qaida will not be easily changed. The maximalist demands of the new terrorists obviate dialogue or negotiation. Traditional strategies of deterrence by retaliation are unlikely to work, because the jihadists have no territory to hold at risk, seek sacrifice, and court Western attacks that will validate their claims about Western hostility to Islam. The United States will instead need to pursue a strategy of containment, while seeking ways to redress, over the long run, underlying causes.

The Fabric of New Terrorism

Religiously motivated terrorism, as Bruce Hoffman of the RAND Corporation first noted in 1997, is inextricably linked to pursuit of mass casualties. The connection is rooted in the sociology of biblical religion. Monotheistic faiths are characterized by exclusive claims to valid identity and access to salvation. The violent imagery embedded in their sacred texts and the centrality of sacrifice in their liturgical traditions establish the legitimacy of killing as an act of worship with redemptive qualities. In these narratives, the enemy must be eradicated, not merely suppressed.

In periods of deep cultural despair, eschatology--speculation in the form of apocalyptic stories about the end of history and dawn of the kingdom of God--can capture the thinking of a religious group. History is replete with instances in which religious communities--Jewish, Christian, Islamic--immolated themselves and perpetrated acts of intense violence to try to spur the onset of a messianic era. Each community believed it had reached the nadir of degradation and was on the brink of a resurgence that would lead to its final triumph over its enemies--a prospect that warranted and required violence on a massive scale.

Such episodes of messianic zeal are not restricted to the distant past. In the mid-1980s, a group of Israeli settlers plotted to destroy the Dome of the Rock, the 8th-century mosque atop the Haram al Sharif in Jerusalem. The settlers appeared to believe that destroying the mosque would spark an Arab invasion, which would trigger an Israeli nuclear response--the Armageddon said by the Bible to precede the kingdom of God. The plot was never carried out, because the conspirators could not get a rabbinical blessing. Analogous attempts have characterized Christian apocalypticists and even a Buddhist community whose doctrine was strongly influenced by Christian eschatology--Aum Shinrikyo.

The Doctrinal Potency of al-Qaida

Similar thinking can be detected in narrative trends that inform al-Qaida's ideology and actions. Apocalyptic tales circulating on the Web and within the Middle East in hard copy tell of cataclysmic battles between Islam and the United States, Israel, and sometimes Europe. Global battles seesaw between infidel and Muslim victory until some devastating act, often the destruction of New York by nuclear weapons, brings Armageddon to an end and leads the world's survivors to convert to Islam. …

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