Terrorism in Transition

Jonathan R White. Handbook of Transnational Crime & Justice. Editor: Philip Reichel. Sage Publication. 2005.

On October 12, 2000, two members of al Qaeda directed a small bomb-laden watercraft toward the USS Cole in Yemen’s Aden harbor for the purpose of attacking the mightiest navy in the world. Despite the ambitious nature of the project, neither a rogue nation nor a terrorist state sponsored the bombers. The attack was the result of a transnational effort by a shadowy group of terrorists. It was a suicide mission, and the two shahidin, or martyrs, felt they were servants in a holy undertaking. Their goal was to strike the epitome of evil, the United States of America. Steering the boat so that their shaped charge warhead faced the warship, they went through a short ritual and detonated the deadly bomb. Seventeen American sailors were killed along with the two suicide bombers. It took a year to repair the damage to the Cole, but the damage to 17 families will never be healed (Gunaratna, 2002, p. 50).

The attack on the USS Cole symbolizes many aspects of modern terrorism. It illustrates the increased willingness of some terrorists to die for a cause, and it demonstrates the ability of a small group to attack a superpower. Yet there is something deeper about the attack on the U.S. Navy destroyer. This issue surfaced in a recruiting tape al Qaeda made after the murderous attack (Benjamin & Simon, 2002, pp. 154-155). Opening with a scene of the damaged destroyer, a caption reads, “Destroying the Cole.” After glorifying the attack, the film shifts to a panoramic view of the Arabic world, scenes of travail from many countries in the Middle East. It concludes with a segment demonizing the West and Muslims who seek political compromise with the United States, Europe, and Israel. Closing with an appeal from the late Abdullah Azzam, one of Osama bin Ladin’s spiritual mentors, the film calls on Muslims to transcend the illusion of nationalism and join a never-ending holy war. The recruiting video uses the attack as a religious call to transnational terrorism.

This chapter focuses on the interplay between religion and transnational terrorism. It begins by describing the slippery nature of definitions, and it separates international and transnational concepts. The three phases of modern post-World War II terrorism are summarized, and an older ideological model of terrorism is recast in terms of religion. The chapter also focuses on the process of religious terrorism, and it contains a brief discussion of asymmetrical warfare. The argument here is that terrorism has gone through three transitory phases since 1945. The first phase was dominated by nationalism, and the second emphasized ethnic and ideological violence. The current phase is dominated by religiously motivated groups. During the first two phases of the postwar experience, terrorism tended to be either a localized or an international affair. Religion has changed the equation, and it provides the base for a transnational terrorism.

Definitional Problems and Transnational Terrorism

It is difficult to conceive of terrorism as a manifestation of transnational crime because the definition of the subject changes in time and political space. This is not to suggest that one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter, but it does suggest that the term terrorism means different things at different times. Alex Schmid (1983, pp. 70-111) claims the slippery nature of terrorism is due to its intangible nature. Terrorism is not a physical entity to be measured and defined; it is an ever-changing affair. Despite the elusive nature of the subject, terrorism becomes more concrete when defined in criminal codes. The problem with such codes, however, is that they are not applicable across cultures. Whether approaching terrorism through social or legal meanings, the concept is problematic within the framework of transnational crime.

Terrorism is political activity involving crime, and its characteristics change with historical circumstances and the political environment. As Louise Richardson (1998/ 2003) argues, the term terrorism is so pejorative that it has become virtually meaningless. She concludes that many violent political activities are inappropriately labeled terrorism and that terrorists continually seek to avoid being labeled. This irony did not escape the early analysts in the field. H. H. A. Cooper (1978) noted myriad definitional dilemmas nearly four decades ago. Walter Laqueur (1999, pp. 8-10) states that volumes will be written about the definition of terrorism and they will not add one iota to our understanding. Schmid (1983, pp. 70-111) provides the most thorough definition by correlating dozens of different definitions, but even his Herculean efforts fail to bring the problem into focus. The complexity of the definitional dilemma is exacerbated when discussing transnational crime.

On one hand, nothing could be more applicable in a reader on transnational crime than a chapter on terrorism. Name an international criminal activity and chances are terrorists have engaged in it. Physical violence such as hijacking, kidnapping, and murder are on the high end of the scale, with drug trafficking, money laundering, and immigration crimes falling in other areas. Terrorists engage in cybercrimes, and they use information networks for clandestine communication. They establish illegal multinational criminal organizations. They extort money, commit credit card fraud, and counterfeit currency. Terrorists forge documents and rob banks. They commit mass murder and engage in activities that would be deemed war crimes in other circumstances (Dyson, 2001). Terrorism frequently involves local and international criminal activity.

On the other hand, many distinguished analysts have refused to classify terrorism as criminal activity. Two of the illustrious deans in the field, Paul Wilkinson (1974, pp. 37-55) and Cooper (1978), took pains to emphasize the importance of the political nature of terrorism in contradistinction to its criminal characteristics. Wilkinson’s classic Political Terrorism (1974) identifies three forms of terrorism: criminal, political, and state sponsored. Wilkinson argues that scholars, government leaders, and journalists usually mean “political terrorism” when they discuss the problem of terrorism. Political terrorism can be examined as state repression, ideological revolutionary activities, or nationalistic revolutions. State repression refers to a government’s using terror to keep citizens in line, whereas ideological revolutionary terrorism focuses on violence to change a political system. Nationalistic terrorism emphasizes the ethnic structure of government over its ideological underpinnings, and both nationalistic and revolutionary terrorism can be sponsored by states. Wilkinson’s focus on political terrorism guided many terrorism analysts away from the study of crime.

As editors of an early presidential commission report on terrorism, Cooper and his colleagues (1976) explain why analysts emphasized the political nature of terrorism. To be sure, Cooper says, terrorists engage in all types of crimes, but their purpose is not criminal. The ultimate objective of terrorism is to change political behavior. Criminal activity enters the equation, Cooper says, because terrorists commit crimes as they conduct political operations. Cooper and his colleagues make a distinction between normative crimes and crimes associated with terrorism. When the purpose of a crime is to achieve economic gain or psychological gratification, criminal activity does not fall into the realm of political terrorism, but violent criminal actions in support of political goals may be terrorism. Not all political criminal activity is terrorism, but violent political crimes that victimize innocent individuals may fall into the category. Agreeing with Wilkinson, Cooper’s approach suggests that terrorism is a subject for political analysis, not criminology.

Continuing in the path established by Wilkinson and Cooper, Walter Laqueur (1999, pp. 79-104) further explains the political nature of terrorism. Criminologists may develop profiles and models of criminal activity, Laqueur writes, because they deal with constant traits of human behavior. It is possible to plot behavior over a period of time, profile certain behavioral types, and predict behavior in various social settings. This works in criminology because conditions and behavior are relatively constant, but nothing could be further from consistency than terrorism. No one can develop a criminological model of terrorism, Laqueur argues, because terrorist behavior does not remain constant. Terrorism is not a psychological phenomenon; it represents violent political behavior. Terrorists do not act from psychological inadequacies but from political circumstances. It is possible to determine general characteristics of political movements, but not to engage in a psychological analysis of terrorist criminality. Such definitional specificity, Laqueur concludes, does not exist.

Brian Jenkins (1998) offers a practical solution to the problem: terrorism is situationally defined. Rather than seeking a complex social definition of the problems of terrorism, Jenkins and his fellow researchers at RAND look at the practical aspects surrounding terrorist events. Although terrorism frequently involves criminal activity, terrorists are not typical criminals. They commit crimes for political purposes. When captured by security forces, they are not usually prosecuted as terrorists but charged with the crimes they commit. Terrorists strike targets for political purposes in a given situation, using crime as an incidental tactic. When terrorists cross national boundaries, they become international terrorists. Furthermore, terrorists are not exceptionally creative; they use a limited array of weapons and tactics. Whether regional or international, terrorists use crime in varying situations for political purposes.

An analysis by Jeffery Ian Ross (1999) differs from earlier research suggesting that both political and social factors can lead to a criminology of terrorism, and he takes the argument further. Terrorism involves violence but criminal behavior is a result of political and social circumstances; that is, terrorism involves variables that can be measured on a criminological scale. The measurable by-product can be examined through psychological factors that vacillate with political circumstances. Ross’s conclusions lead to two practical considerations. First, terrorists use both criminal activities and criminal organizations to accomplish political objectives. When using international violence, criminal organizations may pose a problem for national security. Second, as a result of criminal activities, terrorists frequently encounter criminal justice systems even though their primary purpose is not to commit crimes. This presents a policy problem. Terrorism is political activity that can threaten national security on an international scale, yet the criminal aspects of terrorist operations and organizations bring them into contact with justice systems. Should terrorism be handled by the criminal justice system, or should it be considered within the framework of national security? Many countries, including the United States, have yet to answer this question.

There are further complications with the definition when discussing various types of terrorism, and this becomes apparent when examining transnational crime. International terrorism involves groups operating across nation-state boundaries, but transnational terror seeks something greater than nationalistic goals. Richardson (1998/2003) writes that terrorism is politically motivated violence directed at noncombatants or symbols, designed to change behavior through communication. She believes the United States sees terrorism more as an international problem than a transnational one. In other words, American policymakers view terrorist organizations in terms of their links to nation-states, even basing policy on state-sponsored terrorism. Transnational terrorism, political violence transcending the nation state, is not at the forefront of counterterrorist policies. Richardson believes the U.S. government as well as American counterterrorist analysts tend to use the terms international and transnational interchangeably; however, she separates the definitions. International terrorism crosses national boundaries while acknowledging the legitimacy and function of the nation-state. Transnational terrorism points toward an ideological globalism ignoring a world divided by national frontiers.

If Richardson’s (1998/2003) dichotomy is correct, it has two important conceptual ramifications. First, by acknowledging the nature of transnational terrorism, policymakers may come to realize that the structure of terrorism has changed. At least two major international terrorist groups embrace a transcendent ideology—al Qaeda and Hezbollah—and both groups are motivated by religion. In addition, several smaller groups want to follow in their path. Second, at first glance, because many of these groups are Islamic, it would seem to suggest the beginning of religious conflicts beyond nationalistic wars. Indeed, this is part of the thesis of Samuel Huntington’s (1996) clash of civilizations. However, when examining Western terrorism, the same transcendent trend seems to be emerging when ideology is used as a surrogate religion. Transcendent ideology dominates modern anarchism, ecological extremism, animal rights activism, anti-genetic-engineering movements, and racial supremacy extremism. Transnational terrorism transcends the nation-state by using religion and surrogate religious values.

Anticolonial, Ideological, and Religious Terrorism

Modern terrorism has undergone three fairly distinct phases since World War II with differing ideas dominating each phase: anticolonial terrorism, ideological terrorism, and religious terrorism.

Anticolonial Terrorism

Many revolutionaries in European colonies used terrorism as a tactic after 1945, targeting colonial administrators, foreign nationals, and natives sympathetic to the colonial power. Terrorists formulated their own theories of anticolonial revolution and based much of their activity on earlier revolutionaries such as the Irish Republican Army and the Russian Peoples’ Will. Anticolonial rebels used terrorism to make foreign occupation too costly for colonial powers (see Debray, 1967; Fanon, 1982; Guevara, 1968). In modern bureaucratic language, this process is known as asymmetrical warfare.

Few scholars have summarized asymmetrical war better than Bruce Hoffman, one of the foremost terrorism experts of our day. Hoffman (1998, pp. 45-65) points to the changing nature of war in the past 50 years. According to Hoffman, the fall of European colonial possessions to the Japanese in World War II established a revolutionary idea throughout the colonial world. When Japan defeated colonial powers, it demonstrated to native populations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America that European systems were not inherently superior to non-European governments. As a result, colonies clamored for freedom. Their cries intensified when the Western powers signed a declaration asserting the right of nations to control their political destinies. When Europe’s colonial powers refused to abandon their empires, even after declaring the right to self-determination, colonies took up the mantle of political revolt.

As violence spread across European colonies, revolutionary leaders quickly realized they could not fight Europeans in a conventional manner. European armies were simply too strong. As a result, revolutionaries found their strategy guided by other principles. The purpose, they reasoned, was not to win a military confrontation against a superior power; their goal was to win a political battle in the court of public opinion. Opinion could be influenced when relatively weak forces attacked stronger forces at their weakest link. Revolutionaries embraced the idea of asymmetry.

Warfare is continually changing, and asymmetry is not a new concept in international conflict. In conventional warfare, the purpose of battle is to bring more resources, troops, and power to a point where the enemy is weak. Successful military leaders create asymmetrical situations. Terrorists essentially follow this logic, with one major exception. Because they are too weak to attack military forces directly, they attack them when they are at rest, or they bypass military targets for civilians. It makes little sense for terrorists to fight in the open against a superior force.

Hoffman (1998, pp. 45-65) examines three anticolonial revolts in Palestine, Cyprus, and Algeria to demonstrate the effectiveness of asymmetry. The process began in Palestine before World War II. Two Jewish terrorist groups, the Irgun Zvai Leumi and the Stern Gang, found they could attack occupying British forces even though the British outnumbered them. The keys to terrorist successes were threefold: (1) Terrorists looked and acted as normal citizens when not engaged in combat; (2) terrorists operated in an urban environment, allowing them to emerge from a crowd and to merge back into it; and (3) symbolic targets created an aura around each attack, making it appear to be more significant than it really was. Terrorists demonstrated that superior numbers of British soldiers could not keep the country safe, and the process continued after the war.

Long before the 24-hour news coverage of CNN, Hoffman (1998) argues, Zionist terrorists were able to focus world attention on a relatively obscure cause. When the terrorists murdered Palestinian Arabs or British soldiers, they did so for the sake of gaining notoriety. They hoped to wear down the security forces psychologically, to create a political climate in Britain that would deem the costs of occupying Palestine to be too high, and to keep the conflict before the eyes of the world. When the British left in 1948, it was partially as a result of a successful terrorist campaign. Other revolutionaries took note: Asymmetrical war worked.

Hoffman’s analysis of Cyprus and Algeria reveals similar results. Cypriot terrorists had no desire to kill British soldiers for the purpose of gaining a military victory. They wanted to demonstrate the ability of a weaker force to strike a stronger force at will. Again, the message was asymmetry. The same lesson came into play in Algeria. One Algerian revolutionary leader stated that it was better to kill one enemy soldier in front of the world’s media than it was to kill ten of them in a forsaken desert. The purpose of killing was to gain attention. In addition, terrorism in Palestine, Cyprus, and Algeria legitimized civilian targets. Murdering civilians had the same impact as killing soldiers.

Ideological Terrorism

The second phase of modern terrorism evolved from the legacy of anticolonialism. By 1960, ideological and nationalistic terrorists used anticolonial rhetoric to challenge Western society. This led to the growth of left-wing and ethnic violence in the 1960s and 1970s (Pluchinsky, 1982, 1993). As left-wing and nationalistic violence swept the Middle East, Asia, Latin America, and the West, an international ethos of revolutionary terrorism seemed to pit itself against the Western world.

The ideological terrorists of the left, and later the right, used the rhetoric of anticolonialism, but their targets were the economic and social symbols of Western democracies. Some indigenous revolutionary radicals gravitated to these movements, and many more sympathized with them. The political climate spawned by the Vietnam War fueled violent ideological terrorism in Europe and the United States. Third world revolutionaries claimed these new ideologues as their own, and nationalistic terrorist groups in Spain, Ireland, and the Middle East moved from the rhetoric of nationalism to call for international revolution. The revolutionaries claimed to transcend nationalism, whereas their more conservative adversaries traced their support back to nation-states supporting terrorism. In the end, the ideological movements failed even before the collapse of the former Soviet Union. Nationalistic groups in Ireland and Spain lost much of their support, and groups in the Middle and Far East searched for new meanings.

Why had ideological terrorism failed? Why did militants in Palestine, Iran, and Sri Lanka look for another cause? Corrado and Evans (1988) speculate that the impact of democracy was ultimately to blame. Left-wing intellectuals had no moral ground in the Western political frame. Violence de-legitimated terrorism, and left-wing ideas became part of the political dialogue. Dennis Pluchinsky (1993) points out that the extremist groups also ran out of steam. Their unwillingness to compromise and disgusting fascination with violence turned public opinion against them. Pluchinsky also shows that Western political systems were sympathetic to both class and ethnic injustices. When mainstream politicians stole the terrorist agenda, the terrorists had no reason to fight. The same logic did not apply to Asia and Africa. When Western democracies trumped the ideological terrorists, violent groups searched for another supporting structure. They found it in religion.

The Advent of Religious Terrorism

Religious terrorism differed from previous experiences because it introduced a cosmic dimension to violent political struggles. Mark Juergensmeyer’s (2000) groundbreaking work, Terror in the Mind of God, examines the uncompromising attitude of such philosophy. The mere existence of a demonized enemy is evil, and any deviation from the orthodox path potentially represents the work of the devil. Therefore, tolerance of differences is inconceivable. Violence is mandated, according to Juergensmeyer, as a result of the cosmic necessity to purify creation by purging evil. The call to violence, Juergensmeyer argues, is a call to purify the world from nonbelievers and those who interpret religious tradition incorrectly. If the holy warrior fails, God fails, so the struggle calls for martyrs willing to accept the holy duty of sacrifice. Holy war comes through a tradition that allows only one way of thinking. If the holy warrior falls in a losing cause, the warrior becomes a martyr for hope. On the other hand, successful warriors represent a victory for God. Such holy wars represent uncompromising principles of struggle and sacrifice.

Juergensmeyer examines holy warriors in several differing faith traditions and finds commonalities. It is interesting to apply his logic by comparing one of the al Qaeda manuals, Declaration of Jihad Against the Country’s Tyrants (n.d-b), with the Defense Manual of the American extremist right-wing group known as the Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord (1982). Both books begin with theological passages claiming that their interpretations of God are correct. They both quote U.S. Army manuals (al Qaeda does a better job), interspersing tactical directions with lengthy scriptural passages accompanied by violent exegesis. If the manuals are indicative of the mind of the holy warrior, the language of religious terrorism remains constant across cultures. Yet violent domestic religious groups and international groups were never able to grow past regional issues. Al Qaeda differed, becoming a truly transnational terrorist group. A brief examination of recent history explains why.

Lebanon, Sri Lanka, and Afghanistan: Suicide, Religion, and Asymmetry

Holy terror began growing in the Middle East in the wake of the Iranian revolution (1978-1979). Iranian revolutionaries established a theocratic government based on the laws of Shia Islam. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, their tanks rolled through the Shiite villages of Southern Lebanon. Militant Iranians flocked to Lebanon in response, and they spawned a new type of terrorist group with a new tactic, the suicide bomber. Old forms of terrorism gave way to the religious fervor of Hezbollah, the Party of God, as religious terrorists struck the Israeli invaders with human bombs.

The Israeli Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT, 2001) developed a thorough description of the process Hezbollah developed to conduct suicide operations. The ICT argues that preparation for a suicide bombing comes from two separate units. The first is a standard military group that focuses on reconnaissance, logistics, and planning. The second unit has a psychological function. It recruits and isolates a suicide bomber, preferably a young man or woman, brainwashing the victim until martyrdom seems to be the only logical course of action. When the victim is ready, the psychological unit turns the martyr (shahid) over to the military unit. The military unit straps the suicide bomb on the victim and directs the shahid to the target. This two-step process became the Hezbollah model for suicide bombings from 1983 until the mid-1990s.

Other Middle Eastern groups found themselves copying the Hezbollah religious-based model. Violent Palestinian groups broke away from the ethnonationalist Palestine Liberation Organization and formed religion-based groups such as Hamas. A splinter religious group from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, openly praised Hezbollah and followed its example in suicide bombing. Religious terrorist groups sprang up in Egypt and other parts of North Africa. Suicide became a volatile tactic, and other groups found new ways to employ suicide bombers.

New methods of suicide bombing developed in Sri Lanka and Kurdistan. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elaam (LTTE or Tamil Tigers) of Sri Lanka waged a campaign of terror based primarily on ethnicity, but they capitalized on religious differences between Buddhists and Hindus. Embracing suicide bombings, the LTTE modified the formula posited by Hezbollah and other Middle Eastern groups. They recruited, conscripted, and kidnapped children, isolating them in training camps and socializing them for years in a cult of martyrdom. As the children matured, they turned into willing candidates for suicide operations. Socialization became a new method to prepare suicide bombers. The Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) avoided religion altogether, selecting suicide bombers and telling victims that both they and their families would be murdered unless they carried out the attack. The PKK was especially successful at disguising young women, packing explosives around their stomachs to make them appear pregnant. The suicide terror spawned by the LTTE and PKK was deadly and devastating.

Learning from previous experiences with suicide bombings, another variation of religious terrorism developed in Central Asia. In December 1979, the former Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to bolster a fading Communist regime. The conflict became a surrogate superpower struggle, with Soviet forces engaged against Afghan guerrillas who, in turn, were supported by the United States. In the eyes of the world, the Soviet Afghan War (1979-1989) represented the last battle of the Cold War. In the eyes of the Afghan guerrillas, however, resistance against the Soviets was a holy war, a battle between God’s holy warriors—the mujihadeen—and the godless Marxists of the former Soviet Union. When the Soviets retreated and the U.S.S.R. collapsed, the mujihadeen believed God had defeated the Communists. Some of them prepared to take their battle to other enemies (see Rashid, 2002).

Afghanistan also reinforced the modern allure of asymmetrical warfare. The mujihadeen could rarely match the Soviet army in the field, but they could lure it into situations where they had temporary superiority. In addition, they fought on terrain conducive to their hit-and-run tactics. The battles between the Soviets and the mujihadeen became classical examples of asymmetry, representing a weak force pitted against a stronger power with the weaker force carrying the day (White, 2003a, pp. 47-63).

There were several religious guerilla groups in the Afghan War, and they believed God stood behind their victory. Martyrdom and suicide operations became a standard course of action (Shay, 2002, pp. 105-146). No leaders seemed to understand this more than the chiefs of al Qaeda—Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri. Building on the experiences of previous suicide operations in the Middle East, Kurdistan, and Sri Lanka, they enhanced the effectiveness of their martyrs. Rather than brainwashing young people into committing suicide or forcing unwilling victims, al Qaeda leaders allowed experienced warriors to volunteer for “martyrdom operations.” When the shahid joined a terrorist cell, he found himself in the presence of a charismatic leader and other warriors who had volunteered for death. Continually emphasizing martyrdom, a theme reinforced in both Christian and Islamic traditions, charismatic leaders were able to maintain a cult of martyrdom where suicide became the highest form of organizational and religious sacrifice (Gunaratna, 2002, pp. 7-8, 90-97). This allowed al Qaeda to place sleeper suicide agents in deep cover, sometimes lasting for years.

Religion and the Logic of Transnational Terror

Religion also influenced the structure of terrorism. Neither suicide nor asymmetry brought a transnational dimension to terrorism, but religion did. Shay (2002, pp. 52-66) points to a variety of mujihadeen groups that grew from the Soviet Afghan War. When the Soviets withdrew, the new Afghan leader, Najibullah, vowed to keep centralized Communist power in Kabul. The mujihadeen continued to resist, even though the United States ended its support, turning attention to Saddam Hussein. According to Gunaratna (2002, pp. 4-23), Abdullah Azzam, the cleric who founded al Qaeda, believed that an ideological holy war should continue after the Afghan struggle. This would involve evangelical activities and assisting Muslim guerrillas in the event of war. Osama bin Laden disagreed. Influenced by two Egyptian organizations, bin Laden argued that al Qaeda should embrace the tactics of terror. Azzam was murdered, and the bin Laden/al Zawahiri philosophy took control of al Qaeda. They decentralized command structures and created a loose-knit conglomeration of groups around the globe. They also dispersed decentralized cells, sending al Qaeda fighters throughout the world. This diverse group of terrorists avoided structure, bureaucracy, and hierarchical organization. Al Qaeda, bound together by religious fanaticism, became a transnational terrorist group (see Table 4.1).

The United States refocused on the Middle East when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990. A massive international coalition, headed by American forces, responded and dismantled the Iraqis in a quick campaign. The presence of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia angered many Muslims, including the reconstituted al Qaeda. The United States soon found that it was the prime target of a transnational terrorist operation.

In the anticolonial and ideological phases of modern terrorism, most terrorist organizations did not seek to transcend the nation-state. For example, Hezbollah reinvented itself as an international terrorist group in the course of the Iranian revolution, leaving Iran to fight the Israelis and eventually the Americans in Lebanon. But Hezbollah’s political orientation and logistic links remained firmly attached to Iran, with secondary links to Syria and supporters from Lebanon until the mid-1990s. In the early days, Hezbollah internationalized the Shiite agenda but made no attempt to transcend the state. Al Qaeda took another path. Religion provided the basis for transcending the state, and the process was not limited to Islamic extremists. Seeing the success of al Qaeda, Hezbollah changed its direction. Although still maintaining ties to Iran and Syria, it has branched into a transnational group.

The Theology of Transnational Terrorism

Religious terrorism in the modern world evolved from earlier forms of terrorism, and holy terror ultimately became a theological process. That is, the transcendent nature of religious violence took place because groups began thinking in religious terms. Symbols, myth, and sacred meanings became the basis for action and for transcending the nation-state.

Suicide bombers represent the epitome of this logic. The media is replete with stories of bombers seeking a reward in heaven for their suicidal exploits, but theology suggests a deeper rationale for suicide bombing. In any religion, humans perform various activities to approach a deity, and one of the most fundamental elements for atonement is sacrifice (Tillich, 1957). Sacrifice is the conduit for entering holy ground. Campbell (1949) argues that myth has the same power, vicariously placing the community in a hero’s shoes as the deity is approached. Seen from this frame, suicide bombing becomes far more than simply an action to gain a reward in the afterlife. It is the supreme act of sacrifice in approaching a deity. Indeed, some people willingly sacrifice themselves for familial and political causes, but religion has a ready-made prescription to justify such sacrifice.

Table 4.1 Al Qaeda’s Campaign of Terror

Date Place Event
12-29-92 Aden, Yemen Hotel bombing
2-26-93 New York City First World Trade Center bombing
10-3-93 Mogadishu, Somalia Firefight, U.S. Army Rangers
Late 1994 Manila, Philippines Operation Bojinka
11-13-95 Riyadh, Saudi Arabia Car bomb, U.S. military personnel∗
12-26-95 Addo Abada, Ethiopia Attempted assassination of Hosni Mubarak
6-25-96 Dharan, Saudi Arabia Truck bomb, U.S. Air Force base∗
8-7-98 Dar es Salaam, Tanzania U.S. embassy bombing
8-7-98 Nairobi, Kenya U.S. embassy bombing
12-4-99 Port Angeles, Washington Foiled bombing plot
December 1999 Amman, Jordan Foiled bombing plot
10-12-00 Aden, Yemen Boat bomb, U.S.S. Cole
12-25-00 Strasbourg, France Foiled bombing plot
9-11-01 New York City World Trade Center attacks
9-11-01 Washington, DC Pentagon attack
9-11-01 Pennsylvania Attack foiled by hijack victims
9-13-01 Paris, France Foiled bombing plot
9-13-01 Brussels, Belgium Foiled bombing plot
9-19-01 Detroit, Michigan Sleeper cell closed
10-8-01 Sarajevo, Bosnia Foiled attack
October 2001 Madrid, Spain Sleeper cell closed
Early 2002 Singapore Three sleeper cells closed
4-11-02 Djerba, Tunisia Truck bombing of a synagogue
Summer 2002 Gibraltar Foiled naval attack
Summer 2002 West Coast, US Alleged sleeper cell closed
Fall 2002 Buffalo, New York Alleged sleeper cell closed
10-6-02 Aden, Yemen Boat bomb, French merchant ship
10-9-02 Kuwait Marines attacked by two gunmen
10-12-02 Bali, Indonesia Bombing of a nightclub
11-12-02 Unknown Tape claiming to be bin Laden praises recent violence

SOURCE: White (2003b, p. 295). Copyright 2003. Reprinted with permission of Wadsworth, a division of Thomson Learning: http://www.thomsonrights.com.

∗The FBI has not established links between al Qaeda and this attack. These attacks may be linked to Hezbollah or a similar group.

Chip Berlet (1998) complements the portrait of ritual sacrifice by explaining how enemies become unholy. Soldiers, politicians, and others routinely degrade their enemies, but religious terrorists take the matter further. They demonize their enemies, rendering them fit not for holy sacrifice but for destruction. Berlet believes the process begins when a particular group is blamed for a social problem. He calls this process scapegoating. When scapegoats are demonized, they become the representatives of the antideity in a divine struggle. Their destruction is mandated in the sacrifice.

An al Qaeda bombing illustrates the point. In 1998, suicide terrorists destroyed two American embassies in Africa. Ironically, the majority of people killed were Muslims, not Americans or even Christians. According to one of the al Qaeda manuals (Al Qaeda, n.d-a), such killing is permissible because good Muslims will go to heaven. If the victims were not good Muslims, they were part of the enemy’s forces and deserved death. In the sacrificial world where the enemy is demonized, there is no middle ground. People are either part of God or part of the devil, and God will reward the innocent people who stand on holy ground. The demonized others are of no consequence.

This concept is not new nor is it limited to major religious traditions. Researchers from the RAND Corporation (Jenkins, 1984) conducted in-depth interviews with a surviving terrorist from the Japanese Red Army after the murder of more than 70 people in Israel’s Lod Airport in 1972. The terrorist was temporarily saddened to discover that his group had accidentally murdered Puerto Rican Christian pilgrims instead of Israelis. When confronted with the mistake, he was eventually able to dismiss the problem, claiming that divine justice would make celestial beings of the Puerto Ricans. Innocent victims present no problem for a group that has dichotomized the world between the righteous and the demons.

Religious terrorists also frequently believe they have had some type of sacred enlightenment. A fictional example serves to illustrate the point. In The Turner Diaries, a white supremacy novel written by the late William Pierce under the pseudonym Andrew MacDonald (1989), the novel’s protagonist goes through a profound religious experience while being initiated into a terrorist group known as the Order. The hero makes the transition from small-time criminal into theological terrorist after the experience. Such life-altering moments are hardly limited to violent escapades, but they are part of religious terrorism. Unfortunately, they also lend legitimacy, in the terrorist’s mind, to sacred conflict.

A practical example can be used to emphasize this process. The Aum Shinrikyo was a religious cult based in Japan in the early 1990s. In 1995, it carried out the largest known act of chemical terrorism in the history of the world. Fortunately, the cult’s inability to disperse sarin gas prevented massive casualties. Brackett (1996) provides the best in-depth analysis of the cult. Formed by Shoko Asahara, Aum drew professionals into an eschatological grouping that combined apocalyptic Buddhism and Christianity. Operating in Africa, Asia, Australia, North America, and Europe, Aum gradually gathered the ingredients necessary to make weapons of mass destruction. Benjamin and Simon (2002, pp. 129, 228-229, 433-438) point to both the transnational character of the group and its apocalyptic tendencies. After receiving a religious revelation, Asahara decided to bring about Armageddon by launching a chemical attack on the Tokyo subway system. Several Aum members used sharpened umbrellas to puncture plastic bags filled with a liquid solution that would produce a poison gas when exposed to the air. The attack failed because the agents were not strong enough to bring about massive casualties.

The difficult point for the Tokyo subway attack is not the failed technology but the willingness to induce mass casualties. Technological weaknesses can be overcome. Asahara demonstrated the willingness to induce megadeath through religion. According to Brian Jenkins (1987), the political terrorists of the 1970s and 1980s were unwilling to cross the line from localized destruction to using weapons that would result in massive death. The reason is fairly straightforward. Political terrorists want to influence political opinion and gain power. By introducing massive death, they delegitimize the cause. Religious terrorists, playing to a deity, have no such inhibition. Furthermore, after receiving a mandate to perform such a deed, sacred enlightenment, murderous religious zealots have no logical incentive to hinder mass destruction.

Religious terrorism begins when potential terrorists believe the existing order is a threat to divine structure. Religious terrorists are not in a battle with human forces; they battle evil. Juergensmeyer (2000, pp. 153-195) points out that this leads to a cosmic confrontation. Terrorists operate on a battlefield where their deity’s creation is threatened with disorder. Myth, symbols, and sacred ideology are invoked in the holy war, and the struggle assumes much more than historical dimensions. All history hangs in the balance of the confrontation.

Theology has criminological importance. Religious terrorists are able to transcend the state because they behave differently from political terrorists. The process can be illustrated by differentiating criminals from political terrorists. Bodrero (2002) argues that the behavior of ordinary criminals is self-focused, is driven by immediate gratification, is oriented toward escape, and exhibits no particular loyalty to a cause. Terrorists, on the other hand, are focused on the group, willing to defer gratification for a greater good, oriented toward attack, and ultimately loyal to a cause. Hoffman (1995) points out that religious terrorists exhibit characteristics similar to political terrorists except in their attitude toward death. Although political terrorists view death as a necessity, religious terrorists actively seek to maximize death. They do not care about the political ramifications of megadeath, to say nothing of its tragic human toll, because existence is either good or evil, and all evil must be destroyed. This cosmic view transcends nationalized terrorism.


Transnational terrorism is changing the function of terrorism in the modern world. The United States has traditionally approached transnational terror as an international problem, but the flattened structures of groups such as Hezbollah and al Qaeda posit true transnational challenges to the West. Terrorists do not tend to be either original or highly innovative, and terrorist organizations change slowly, mimicking the experiences of the past. Trends indicate that terrorism will increasingly decentralize as groups transcend national boundaries. Groups will remain religious or use surrogate causes such as animal rights, the environment, or genetic engineering. The trend toward religious violence not only brings transnational links, it provides the logic for mass destruction. Future counterterrorist policy should take these trends into account. Terrorism has transmogrified into a transnational experience.