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motivations and intentions as embodied in the growth of the number of terrorist groups motivated by a religious imperative.


The emergence of terrorism motivated by a religious imperative encapsulates the confluence of new adversaries, motivations and rationales affecting terrorist patterns today. The connection between religion and terrorism is not new. However, while religion and terrorism do share a long history, until the 1990s this particular variant had largely been overshadowed by ethnic- and nationalist-separatist or ideologically motivated terrorism. Indeed, none of the 11 identifiable terrorist groups' active in 1968 (the year credited with marking the advent of modern, international terrorism) could be classified as "religious." Not until 1980 in fact-as a result of the repercussions from the revolution in Iran the year before-do the first “modern” religious terrorist groups appear: but they amount to only two of the 64 groups active that year. Twelve years later, however, the number of religious terrorist groups had increased nearly six-fold, representing a quarter (11 of 48) of the terrorist organizations who carried out attacks in 1992. Significantly, this trend not only continued, but accelerated. By 1994, a third (16) of the 49 identifiable terrorist groups could be classified as religious in character and/or motivation. In 1995, their number increased yet again, to account for nearly half (26 or 46 percent) of the 56 known terrorist groups active that year. Thus, by the middle of the decade, the rise of religious terrorism was clear.

The violent record of various Shi'a Islamic groups during the prior decade already evidenced the higher levels of lethality of religious terrorism. For example, although these organizations committed only eight percent of all recorded-international terrorist incidents between 1982 and 1989, they were nonetheless responsible for nearly 30 percent of the total number of deaths during that period. Indeed, some of the most significant


"As David C. Rapoport points out in his seminal study of what he terms "holy terror," until the nineteenth century, “religion provided the only acceptable justifications for terror" (see David C. Rapoport, "Fear and Trembling: Terrorism in Three Religious Traditions," American Political Science Review, Vol. 78, No. 3, September 1984, p. 659).

'Numbers of active, identifiable terrorist groups from 1968 to the present are derived from The RAND Chronology of International Terrorist Incidents.

'Admittedly, many contemporary terrorist groups-such as the overwhelmingly Catholic Provisional Irish Republic Army; their Protestant counterparts arrayed in various Loyalist paramilitary groups like the Ulster Freedom Fighters, the Ulster Volunteer Force, and the Red Hand Commandos; and the predominantly Muslim Palestine Liberation Organization—all have a strong religious component by dint of their membership. However, it is the political and not the religious aspect that is the dominant characteristic of these groups, as evidenced by the pre-eminence of their nationalist and/or irredentist aims.

"The Iranian-backed Shi'a groups al-Dawa and the Committee for Safeguarding the Islamic


10 According to The RAND Chronology of International Terrorist Incidents, between 1982 and 1989 Shi'a terrorist groups committed 247 terrorist incidents but were responsible for 1057 deaths.

terrorist acts of recent years have all had some religious element present." More disturbing is that in some instances the perpetrators' aims go beyond the establishment of some theocracy amenable to their specific deity, but have embraced mystical, almost transcendental, and divinely inspired imperatives. 13



Religious terrorism' tends to be more lethal than secular terrorism because of the radically different value systems, mechanisms of legitimization and justification, concepts of morality, and Manichean worldviews that directly affect the "holy terrorists” motivation. For the religious terrorist, violence first and foremost is a sacramental act or divine duty: executed in direct response to some theological demand or imperative and justified by scripture. Religion, therefore functions as a legitimizing force: specifically sanctioning wide scale violence against an almost open-ended category of opponents (e.g., all peoples who are not members of the religious terrorists' religion or cult). This explains why clerical sanction is so important for religious terrorists1s and why religious figures are often required to "bless" (e.g., approve) terrorist operations before they are executed.

"These include: the July 1994 suicide bomb truck attack on a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, Argentina; the March 1995 nerve-gas attack on the Tokyo subway perpetrated by a Japanese cult, the Aum Shinrikyo; the series of indiscriminate bombings that rocked France between July and October 1995 and again in December 1996; the assassination in November 1995 of Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin in Israel (and its attendant significance as the purported first step in a campaign of mass murder designed to disrupt the peace process); the bombings of a joint Saudi-American military training center in Riyadh in November 1995 and of a U.S. Air Force barracks in Dhahran the following June; the attack on Western tourists in Luxor in November 1997; the bloody succession of bloody suicide bombings carried out by Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad since 1994; and the al-Qa`ida attacks in recent years on the two U.S. embassies in East Africa, the U.S.S. Cole in Aden harbor, and of course the September 11 attacks.

12For example, the creation of Islamic republics modeled on Iran in predominantly Muslim countries like Algeria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

The Aum Shinrikyo's nerve-gas attacks on the Tokyo subway in March 1995 as part to overthrow the Japanese government and establish a new Japanese state based on the worship of the group's founder and Shokho Ashara.

"For a more complete and detailed discussion of this particular category of terrorist organization, see Bruce Hoffman, "Holy Terror": The Implications of Terrorism Motivated By A Religious Imperative," Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, vol. 18, no. 4 (Winter 1995), which was also published in the RAND Paper series, under the same title, as P-7834 in July 1993. See also the more complete discussion in Bruce Hoffman, Inside Terrorism (NY: Columbia Univ. Press, 1998), pp. 87-130.

"For example, the fatwa (Islamic religious edict) issued by Iranian Shi'a clerics calling for Salman Rushdie's death; the "blessing" given to the bombing of New York City's World Trade Center by the Egyptian Sunni cleric, Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman; and the dispensation given by Jewish rabbis to rightwing Jewish extremist violence against Arabs in Israel and the West Bank and Gaza; the approval given by Islamic clerics in Lebanon for Hezbollah operations and by their counterparts in the Gaza Strip for Hamas attacks; and, the pivotal role played by Shoko Ashara, the religious leader of Japan's Aum sect, over his followers. Although bin Laden himself lacks formal theological training and credentials, he has nonetheless issues fatwas to justify al-Qa'ida attacks on American and other western targets, including against civilians.


Do Islamist radicals pose a different type of danger than do leftist or nationalist groups? How does the difference manifest itself?

The most alarming aspect of the attacks on September 11th is that they conform to a trend in international terrorism that has emerged in recent years and has been almost exclusively linked to Islamic radicals: the infliction of mass, indiscriminate casualties by enigmatic adversaries, striking far beyond terrorism's traditional operational theaters in Europe and the Middle East. By contrast, terrorism, as noted above, was formerly practiced by distinct, numerically constrained organizational entities that had a defined set of political, social or economic objectives and who also often issued communiqués taking credit for, and explaining in great detail, their actions.1 Hence, however disagreeable or

distasteful their aims and motivations may have been, these groups' ideology and intentions were at least comprehensible-albeit politically radical and personally fanatical.

Most significantly, however, these more familiar terrorist groups engaged in highly selective and mostly discriminate acts of violence that were directed against a comparatively narrow range of targets. Moreover, rarely did these groups venture outside their self-proclaimed operational area (i.e., mostly their own or neighboring countries or established international centers and global cross-roads of diplomacy and commerce) to carry out attacks. Therefore Palestinian and Lebanese terrorists frequently operated in Europe and on occasion the IRA might strike in Germany or the ETA in France. For nearly three decades, the locus of international terrorism accordingly remained firmly entrenched in Europe and the Middle East. Only occasionally did it spill over into Asia and Latin America and almost never into Africa and the United States, itself (the sites of the most spectacular al-Qa'ida operations).

Finally, these groups were often numerically small. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, neither the Japanese Red Army nor the Red Army Faction, for example, ever numbered more than 20 to 30 hard-core members. The Red Brigades were hardly larger, with a total of fewer than 50 to 75 dedicated terrorists. Even the IRA and ETA could only call on the violent services of perhaps some 200-400 activists whilst the feared Abu Nidal Organization was limited to some 500 men-at-arms at any given time."7

Indeed, some groups—like the Provisional Irish Republican Army-not only claimed

responsibility for attacks, but also issued warnings in advance of such operations.

"7See the authoritative membership figures published in the U.S. Department of Defense, Terrorist Group Profiles (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1988), pp. 5, 35, 61, 64, 56, and 118.


The September 11th attacks, like those also perpetrated by Islamic radicals on the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania three years earlier, diverge dramatically from these established patterns. First, rather than attempting either to limit casualties, the terrorists clearly intended to inflict widespread, indiscriminate casualties among thousands of innocent people in order to achieve their objective.

Second, both sets of coordinated, near-simultaneous terrorist operations occurred in regions of the world that had remained relatively outside the maelstrom of international terrorism. For exactly this reason, masterminds of the attacks probably regarded Kenya and Tanzania and later the United States as irresistibly attractive operational environments precisely because of this past immunity. This factor alone must send disquieting reverberations to other parts of the globe who have hitherto been unaffected by international terrorism. In this respect, no country can any longer feel completely secure. Already, in 1992 and again 1994, Argentina—a country similarly located in a region of the globe traditionally outside the ambit of international terrorism-became tragically enmeshed in distant struggles with the massive truck-bombings of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires and two years later of a Jewish community center in that same city.

In recent years, bin Laden not only publicly declared war on the United States because of its support for Israel and the presence of American military forces in Saudi Arabia, but has issued fatwas, or Islamic religious edicts, thereby endowing his calls for violence with an incontrovertible theological as well as political justification. To this end, tens of thousands reportedly have been trained by bin Laden in Afghanistan and the Sudan over the past decade.18

In sum, the resurgence of terrorism motivated by a religious imperative could hardly be more palpable or different from previous waves of terrorism over the past three decades.

Is al-Qa'ida a particularly dangerous unusual adversary?

Al-Qa'ida is a particularly dangerous adversary because it is a remarkably adaptive and nimble organization. The fact that is able to function on a number of different operational levels (with varying degrees of command and control from some central authority exercised) also means that it does not have one set modus operandi nor any single identifiable footprint. This is at least partially a reflection of the organizational and

"Douglas Frantz and Raymond Bonner, "Web of Terrorism: Investigators See Links to bin Laden in Gaza and Across Europe," New York Times, 23 September 2001.

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operational abilities, vision, attention to detail and level of planning and patience and finally business and management acumen that bin Laden has brought to the group I his role as charismatic leader.

This constellation of characteristics was clearly evident in the enormity and sheer scale of the simultaneous suicide attacks carried out by al-Qa'ida on September 11th eclipse anything we have previously seen in terrorism. Among the most significant characteristics of the operation were its ambitious scope and dimensions; impressive coordination and synchronization; and the unswerving dedication and determination of the 19 aircraft hijackers who willingly and wantonly killed themselves, the passengers and crews of the four aircraft they commandeered and the approximately three thousand persons working or visiting both the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.


Indeed, in terms of lethality alone the September 11th attacks are without precedent. For example, since 1968, the year credited with marking the advent of modern, international terrorism, one feature of international terrorism has remained constant despite variations in the number of attacks from year to year. Almost without exception," the United States has annually led the list of countries whose citizens and property were most frequently attacked by terrorists. But, until September 11th, over the preceding 33 years a total of no more than perhaps 1,000 Americans had been killed by terrorists either overseas or even within the U. S. itself. In less than 90 minutes that day, nearly three times that number were killed. 21 To put those uniquely tragic events in context, during the entirety of the 20th Century no more than 14 terrorist operations killed more than 100 persons at any one time. Or, viewed from still another perspective, until September 11th, no terrorist single operation had ever killed more than 500 persons at one


19 The lone exception was 1995, when a major increase in non-lethal terrorist attacks against property in Germany and Turkey by the PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party) not only moved the US to the number two position but is also credited with accounting for that year's dramatic rise in the total number of incidents from 322 to 440. See Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, Patterns of Global Terrorism 1999. Washington, D.C., U.S. Department of State Publication 10321, April 1996, p. 1.

20 Several factors can account for this phenomenon, in addition to America's position as the sole remaining superpower and leader of the free world. These include the geographical scope and diversity of America's overseas business interests, the number of Americans traveling or working abroad, and the many U.S. military bases around the world.

2 See "Timetables of the Hijacked Flights," in Reporters, Writers, and Editors of Der Spiegel Magazine, Inside 9-11: What Really Happened (NY: St. Martin's, 2002), pp. 261-262.

22 Brian M. Jenkins, "The Organization Men: Anatomy of a Terrorist Attack," in James F. Hoge, Jr. and Gideon Rose, How Did This Happen? Terrorism and the New War (NY: Public Affairs, 2001), p.5.

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