The Non-Warm and Fuzzy Guide to Understanding Terrorism

Terrorism was born and has been abroad in the Middle East for decades, only now it is under an Islamic umbrella.  Before there was Islamist terrorism in the Middle East, there was Palestinian terrorism.

Of course, extremist Islam is a dimension of today’s turmoil that cries out for reform.  But there is an element of truth to those who argue that it is not true Islam and that terrorism is a tactic.  The Palestinians’ stated objective was a secular, democratic state.  Underlying all these terrorist currents, whether secular or Islamic, is another dynamic – a power play to dominate their world.  Understanding that provides a key to countering today’s terrorist brand.

Active since the 1960s, revolutionary and Marxist-Leninist Palestinian groups included, among others, the Palestine Liberation Organization, al-Fatah, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Popular Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Palestinian Liberation Front, and the Front for the Popular Palestinian Struggle.  To control the Palestinians, certain Arab states established groups, such as Iraq’s Arab Liberation Front, Syria’s al-Sa’iqah, and Egypt’s Arab Sinai Organization.  The PLO itself was a creation of the Arab League.  Other Arab states, hoping to keep them at bay, financed them.

When the Soviet Union, a prime benefactor, imploded, the terrorists sought another rubric.  They found religion.  Under the guise of Islam, they could finance their operations and continue to roil the masses.

Like the secular Palestinian predecessors, there are multiple Islamic groups: Al-Qaida; Hezbollah in Lebanon; Hamas, Islamic Jihad, al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, and others among the Palestinians; those who have caused mayhem in Algeria; the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Taliban and others in Pakistan; those running Iran; those who portray themselves as purer than the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia; the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq; the al-Nusra Front in Syria; and the mother of all groups, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.  As in the past, Arab and other financial backers have tried to appease them.

The Islamic groups have drawn upon, and at times distorted, ideas and movements that have been extant in the Middle East for some time.  Propagated by the 19th-century thinkers Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh, pan-Islam sought to reform Islam to accommodate modern life and unify the Middle East under Islam to confront encroaching Western powers.  Al-Afghani advocated revolution to achieve political unity, whereas Abduh advocated a gradual, nonviolent, educational approach.  Sultan Abdulhamid II adopted pan-Islam, emphasizing his role as caliph, to shore up the Ottoman Empire.  Al-Afghani, Abduh, and others inspired the Muslim Brotherhood’s formation in Egypt in 1928.

Today’s Islamists eschew modernization and promulgate conservative Islam, seeking to impose it even upon co-religionists through violence.  Such narrow, orthodox Islam also has been a longtime strain, beginning with the ninth-century Hanbali school and revived by the 18th-century Wahhabis, who dominate Saudi Arabia today.

Looking for a precedent to the up close and personal violence that the Islamists use, one cannot but think of the Assassins.  This 11th-century Ismaili Shiite sect became known for fearsome raids from mountain fortresses and for assassinating prominent individuals.  A more recent precedent, in the 1940s and ’50s, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt assassinated political opponents and pro-British Egyptians.  Yet it is difficult to find a precedent in Islam for today’s street-level violence against ordinary civilians.

In dealing with today’s Islamists, we can learn much from the Palestinian example.

The Palestinian terrorists wreaked havoc in Jordan – cavorting in the capital with arms, shooting live ammunition in populated areas, setting up roadblocks, arresting and interrogating people, and extorting money – and almost overthrew King Hussein.  They refined hijacking as a terrorist tool; were a catalyst for the civil war in Lebanon; murdered U.S. diplomats, intelligence agents, and citizens; and murdered 22 children in Maalot, Israel, in 1974, three decades before Beslan, Russia and four decades before Boko Haram in Nigeria.  Despite these horrific events, Middle East specialists parsed their statements for distinctions in ideology, aims, and tactics, hoping to tease out moderates and negotiate a settlement.

This was naïve.  Each group was interested in its own aggrandizement and power.  They fought their host governments and each other.  When they cooperated at all, they moved toward the extreme; there were no true moderates.  Since their inception, Palestinian terrorists have rejected any opportunity for a settlement: they were a brake on any Arab state even contemplating compromise, refused to come to Camp David with Anwar Sadat, rejected Menachem Begin’s offer of autonomy, and rejected Ehud Barak’s offers and President Clinton’s plan.  Instead, they mounted two intifadas.  The Palestinians could have had a thriving state by now; one can only conclude that they do not want one.

Today, similar to the Palestinians, several Islamic groups fight each other and compete to be the most extreme.  The leaders, who essentially head groups of criminals, are interested in imposing their power and pervert the Quran.  We in the West should not repeat our past miscalculations.  We should not parse statements, seek to “understand” underlying motivations, or scour the Quran.  We cannot begin to address social conditions while a sword is at our throats. 

Critics may assert that we should not use a broad brush, that all terrorist groups are not equal, and that one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom-fighter.  They may argue that circumstances giving rise to Islamists in Algeria or to Hamas in Israel are not the same as those producing terrorism in Iraq, thereby implicitly justifying some terrorist groups.  They may claim that people undergoing the social upheaval of modernization naturally will seek refuge in religion.  The validity of these arguments is irrelevant.  The threat to our future and to the future of the Middle East is the same and imminent.

We must use all necessary force to eliminate the terrorists.  There is no possibility of compromise or hope of co-opting them into a political framework.  They would use any such opportunity to thwart our efforts to establish a civil society.  We should not allow them to keep their arms and migrate from place to place to return to fight another day, as we allowed the Palestinian terrorists to go from Jordan to Lebanon to Tunisia and then back – with weapons – to the West Bank and Gaza.  We should be prepared to accept civilian casualties, even of hostages, bearing in mind that such casualties would be as great if these groups came to power.  Only the consequences for the West would be greater.

Marcia Drezon-Tepler is a writer specializing on the Middle East and terrorism.