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After al-Qaeda

Terror neither begins nor ends with Islam

NEW PRESIDENT DECLARES VICTORY IN WAR ON TERROR—Patriot Act to be Repealed—Department of Homeland Security for Dissolution.

This will not be a headline in 2013, or anytime thereafter, because by its nature the War on Terror can have no end. If you are fighting a war, then you can envisage a victory in which the opposing force is destroyed. In the case of terrorism, particular movements might decline or vanish—and happily, al-Qaeda itself is on a downward trajectory—but terrorism as such is not going away.

Terrorism is a tactic, not a movement. As such, it can be deployed by states, movements, or small groups regardless of ideology. It is not synonymous with Islam, nor with Islamism. That runs contrary to the thinking of many supposed experts and media commentators, who see Islamic terrorism as the definitive form of the phenomenon. As Dennis Prager writes, “A very small percentage of Muslims are terrorists. But nearly every international terrorist is Muslim.” In this view, Islamist organizations are the standard by which all terror groups must be measured, the model imitated by rivals. If terror has a history, it will be found in the Islamic past—shall we start with the medieval Assassins? Or better, just list the index entry: “Terrorism: See Jihad”?

In reality, terrorism in its modern form has a long history in the West—over a century—but not until the 1980s did Islamists play any role, and virtually never as innovators or leaders. The history of terrorism is strikingly diverse, with perpetrators of every race, creed, and color. The modern phenomenon probably begins in the 1880s with Irish bomb attacks against England and with Russian leftists and European anarchists of the 1890s pursuing their cult of the bomb.

More recently, the decade or so after World War II was an era of notable creativity, as Zionist extremists pioneered many new strategies—truck bombs directed against hotels and embassies, attacks against buses and crowded public places. For a time, Zionist groups also led the way in international terrorism, with letter-bomb attacks on British soil, the bombing of the British embassy in Rome, and plots to assassinate foreign dignitaries such as German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. The Algerian struggle of the 1950s popularized these innovations and spawned yet others.

But the golden age of terrorism occurred between 1968 and 1986. Then as now, Arab and Middle Eastern causes drove a wave of global violence, making the “Arab terrorist” as familiar a stereotype as today. Baby boomers recall the horrible regularity of waking up to hear of some new massacre of Western civilians, of kidnapping and hostage taking, and (with monotonous frequency) of attacks on airliners and transportation systems. They may remember the
simultaneous hijacking and destruction of five airliners in Jordan in 1970—fortunately, without fatalities—or the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Some attacks of this era stand out even today for their sadism and indiscriminate violence. In 1972, three Japanese tourists landed at Israel’s Lod Airport, where their nationality prevented them from attracting suspicion. They proved to be members of the Japanese Red Army, working in alliance with the Arab Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the PFLP. Producing automatic weapons, they slaughtered everyone they could see in the terminal—26 civilians, mainly Christian Puerto Rican pilgrims. The following year, Palestinian guerrillas attacked Rome’s Fiumicino airport, throwing phosphorus grenades at an airliner and burning alive some 30 civilians. In 1974, Palestinian guerrillas killed 25 hostages in the Israeli town of Ma’alot. Horror was piled on horror.

The most notorious terrorist of the era was Palestinian mastermind Abu Nidal, as infamous in the 1970s and 1980s as Osama bin Laden has been in recent times. His career reached gruesome heights in the 1980s with a series of attacks that wrote the playbook for al-Qaeda. He specialized in simultaneous strikes against widely separated targets to keep security agencies off balance and win maximum publicity. Typical was the 1985 double-attack at the airports of Rome and Vienna in which 19 civilians were killed. Throughout the 1980s, the prospect of Abu Nidal obtaining a nuclear weapon alarmed intelligence services worldwide.

At this point, the identification of Islam with terrorism might appear to stand up well, with all these Arabs and Palestinians. Then as now, international terrorist actions tended to track back to the Middle East—but not to Islam. The militants of that era distanced themselves from any faith. Abu Nidal usually served Iraq’s secularist Ba’ath regime, which persecuted Islamists.

Like Abu Nidal himself, most Palestinian activists in those years were secular socialist nationalists, and Christians played a prominent role in the movement’s leadership. The most important Arab guerrilla leader of those years—a pioneer of modern international terrorism—was PFLP founder George Habash. He was an Eastern Orthodox Christian who eschewed religion after he became a strict Marxist-Leninist. He discarded his faith when Israeli forces expelled his family from their homes: “I was all the time imagining myself as a good Christian, serving the poor. When my land was occupied, I had no time to think about religion.” Abandoning his church certainly did not mean adopting Islam: his inspiration was not some medieval Islamic warrior but rather Che Guevara.

Habash’s story is emblematic. Also Orthodox was Wadie Haddad, who orchestrated the Dawson’s Field attacks and the 1976 airliner seizure that provoked Israel’s raid on Entebbe. Haddad, incidentally, recruited the once legendary Latin American playboy who earned notoriety as international terrorist Carlos “the Jackal.”

Equally non-Islamist were the PFLP’s several spinoffs, like the Maoist Democratic Front, DFLP, which murdered the hostages at Ma’alot. That faction’s leader, Nayif Hawatmeh, was born Catholic. Several Palestinian attacks in these years sought to put pressure on Israel to release its most prestigious captive, Melkite Catholic Archbishop Hilarion Capucci, jailed for running guns to the guerrillas. Only in the late 1980s, after the rise of Hamas, did an Islamist group take the lead in armed assaults on Israel.

Earlier Middle Eastern movements had no notion of suicide terrorism, which was, moreover, unknown to the Islamist militant tradition before about 1980. The movement that used suicide attacks most frequently and effectively, the Tamil Tigers, is in fact Sri Lankan and mainly Hindu-Marxist. In other cases too, hideous terrorist actions we have come to associate with Islamic extremism have clearly non-Islamic roots. Think for instance of those unspeakable al-Qaeda videos depicting the ritualized execution of hostages in Iraq and elsewhere. To quote Olivier Roy, one of the most respected European scholars of Islamist terrorism, these videos are “a one-to-one re-enactment of the execution of Aldo Moro by the Red Brigades [in Italy in 1978], with the organization’s banner and logo in the background, the hostage hand-cuffed and blind-folded, the mock trial with the reading of the sentence and the execution.”

Through the 1970s and 1980s, terrorism was kaleidoscopic in its political coloring. White Europeans, on the left and the right, made their own contributions. During the 1970s, Italian far rightists and neo-Nazis tried many times to carry out a mega-terror attack on that nation’s rail system. After several bloody attempts, they succeeded in killing 85 at Bologna’s central station in 1980. The United States, meanwhile, had its own domestic terrorist violence, as Puerto Rican separatists carried out deadly bomb attacks in New York and Chicago. And after so many years, Irish terror groups, Protestant and Catholic alike, still pursued their age-old traditions of violence directed against rival civilians.

By no means was international terrorism the preserve of Arabs, let alone Muslims. In 1976, an anti-Castro rightist group based in Florida blew up a Cuban airliner flying from Barbados to Jamaica, killing 76. Prior to 9/11, the dubious record for the worst terror attack in history was held by the Sikh group that destroyed an Air India 747 in 1985, killing 329 innocent people. So commonplace were international attacks, and so diverse, that when a bomb killed 11 people at New York’s La Guardia airport in 1975, the possible perpetrators were legion. (The current best guess points to Croatian opponents of Yugoslavia’s Marshal Tito.)

Where, amidst all this bloodshed, were Islamist terror groups? They added little to the story prior to the rise of Hezbollah during the Lebanese civil war, with the bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut in 1983 and the subsequent attack on the Marine barracks. Only from the early 1990s do we find fanatical Sunni networks spreading mayhem around the world, including the early actions of al-Qaeda.

This chronology raises interesting questions for understanding the roots of terrorism. If Islam is so central to the phenomenon, we need to explain why Muslim terrorists should have been such latecomers. Why were they not the prophets and pioneers of terrorism? Why, moreover, did they have to draw all their tactics from the fighters of other religions and of none—from Western anarchists and nihilists, from the Catholic IRA and Latin American urban guerrillas, from Communists and fascists, from Zionist Jews and Sri Lankan Hindus?

Apart from the crucial element of suicide bombing, al-Qaeda brought little to the international terrorist repertoire. The Madrid rail station attack of 2004 neatly replayed the fascist strike at Bologna, while even 9/11 borrowed many elements straight from Abu Nidal, including the simultaneous targeting of multiple airliners. In its methods and strategies, the modern terrorist tradition owes much to the Marxist tradition—to Lenin, Guevara, and Mao—and next to nothing to Muslims.

None of these points should come as a surprise to anyone who remembers the 1970s and 1980s. In its day, the Dawson’s Field affair of 1970 transfixed global media almost as much as the 9/11 enormity did a decade ago. So did the Munich Olympics attack of 1972, or the 1976 saga of the hostages at Entebbe. It’s remarkable to see how readily modern audiences credit suggestions about the novelty of international terrorism or its association with Islamist groups. Particularly startling is how thoroughly Americans have forgotten their own terrorist crisis of the mid-1970s. How can something as horrendous as the La Guardia massacre have vanished from public memory? And is it really possible that the once satanic name of Abu Nidal carries next to no significance for anyone below the age of 50? There is no better illustration of how present-day concerns have eclipsed the older realities.

Terrorism can be used by groups of any ideological shade. The scale or intensity of terrorist violence depends on the opportunities available to militants and the potential opposition they face from law-enforcement agencies. By these criteria, Western nations will continue to be subject to attacks, and those events will follow precedents that we have witnessed over the past 40 years.

However hard we try, we cannot make our society invulnerable. The more we think about the gaps in our defenses, the more astonishing it is that incidents have occurred so rarely. If you fortify aircraft, terrorists attack airports; if you fortify airports, they can bring down aircraft with missiles; if you secure all aircraft, they attack ships; if you defend all public transportation, they undertake massacres in malls and sports stadiums.

Armed groups need only a handful of shooters and bombers to create havoc. The Provisional IRA probably never had more than 500 soldiers at any time, while the Basque ETA peaked around 200—supported, of course, by a larger penumbra of sympathizers. Both maintained campaigns spanning 30 or 40 years. A group of just ten or 20 militants can keep a devastating effort going for a year, and until they are hunted down they can convince a powerful Western nation that it is suffering a national a crisis.

No government can defend itself against terrorism solely by enhancing security. Ultimately, defense must always rely on effective intelligence, which means surveillance of militant groups and their sympathizers, infiltrating those groups, and winning over informants. The fact that attacks on U.S. soil have been so rare means that our intelligence agencies have been doing a pretty good job.

But there will always be vulnerabilities. However thoroughly agencies maintain surveillance on potential troublemakers, on occasion they will fail to mark those individuals who have made the transition from isolated blowhards to dedicated killers. By definition, they are most likely to err when confronting someone who does not fit the profile of the time—when, for instance, the suspect is a white Nazi rather than an Arab Muslim or vice versa. At some point a bomber or assassin—an Anders Breivik, a Timothy McVeigh, or a Mohamed Atta—will slip through, with catastrophic results.

We might call this the Apache Theory of terrorism. Of all the enemies the U.S. faced during its wars against Indian tribes in the 19th century, the Apaches were the most determined and resourceful. When nervous white residents of the Southwest asked, “How many Apaches are hiding in this room right now?” the answer was always, “As many as want to.” Will there be terrorism in the U.S. or Europe? If enough people want to perpetrate it, some will get through.

And who are the new Apaches who might someday surpass the Islamist menace? While prophecy would be foolhardy, we know enough about the history of terrorism to suggest some areas of danger.

One peril is that old causes now quiescent will again spring to life. In the United States, that could mean the ultra-right groups that have such a lengthy record of activism. Presently they are close to inactive, and the menagerie of largely harmless militia groups serves mainly to provide bogeymen for leftist speculation. But that could change overnight: Oklahoma City was the work of one cell.

European groups could also revive, especially if the continent descends into economic anarchy. Imagine poorer nations like Ireland and Greece driven to ruin by what they see as exploitation by Europe’s financial elite. Given the long experience of the Irish with direct militant action, do we think they will do nothing? Diehard IRA elements have for years threatened to renew their attacks on England, but their impact would be massively greater if they targeted European financial or political centers like Frankfurt or Strasbourg. Across the continent, economic collapse could reawaken ethnic hatreds we thought had perished with the Habsburg Empire.

Nor has Europe’s neo-fascist tradition vanished. Although the media treated Breivik as a loner, he stands in a long and bloody tradition, one especially strong in those southern European nations most vulnerable to financial collapse. In the 1970s and 1980s, both left- and right-wing militants in Italy made bizarre deals to obtain weapons from Middle Eastern sources, including Iran and Libya. Who is to say those connections are extinct?

Terrorism also continues to be a weapon of state power, a covert means for achieving goals that cannot be obtained through the open exercise of force. In different forms, state-sponsorship has always been key to terror movements. Even in tsarist days, the Russians freely used terrorist proxies, and Mussolini’s secret service, the OVRA, honed this tactic to a fine art. While the Soviet KGB was legendary for arming and funding extremist groups, it was absolutely not unique.

Some countries have even used the tactic as barefaced extortion. Through the 1980s, you could tell when an Arab Gulf state had fallen behind on money it owed Saddam Hussein because the mysterious “Abu Nidal Organization” would leap into action with an assassination or airliner bombing. When Mideast countries engaged in actual war—as Iran and Iraq did through the 1980s—they used their overseas proxies to promote clandestine goals. In retrospect, many of the terror attacks on European soil in the mid-1980s seem intended to persuade Western nations to supply arms to one or the other of the combatants in the Iran-Iraq conflict.

For some 40 years now, Libya, Syria, and Iran have sponsored surrogate terrorist movements worldwide. Arguably, the weaker those regimes become, the more likely they will be to use those proxies to strike out at opponents, including the United States. Of course, attacks will not carry a brand identifying the country responsible; a strike would come under cover of some bogus front or Islamist cell. As long as unscrupulous states wish to exert pressure on others—to embarrass them, to force them to take steps they do not want, to make their position in some region untenable—we can expect to see terrorism used as a form of proxy war.

That means terrorism will be with us as long as the world knows ethnic hatred and social division—which is to say, until the end of humanity. The phenomenon cannot be ended entirely, but individual movements certainly can be defeated and suppressed. And we should not imagine “terrorism” as a monolithic enemy that demands we militarize our whole society to meet the challenge.

Above all, we should not forget the lessons of the past. However appalling it might be to study individual groups or incidents, in the long term the story of terrorism contains a surprisingly positive lesson. Terrorism can inflict dreadful harm on a society, even claiming thousands of lives. But in the overwhelming majority of instances, these movements are not only beaten but annihilated—so thoroughly, in fact, that later generations forget they even existed.

Philip Jenkins, Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of History and Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University, is the author of Images of Terror and Jesus Wars.

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