TCS Daily

The Difference Between Islamic Terrorists and Others

By Rory Miller - February 16, 2005 12:00 AM

As the War on Terror moves towards its fourth anniversary, and with no end in sight, it is likely that the call for western policymakers to re-evaluate their self-imposed taboo on "talking to terrorists" will gather momentum.

Just last December, for example, Alistair Crooke, a former senior MI6 officer, who between 1997 and 2003 acted as the European Union's official link to Islamist groups in the West Bank and Gaza called for the West to re-assess its approach to such groups and to create a framework for discussions with these and other Islamists in the Middle East.

But though it is tempting to succumb to this view it is vital that we remember just exactly who, and what, we are dealing with. Islamist terrorists are not like their nationalist or social revolutionary predecessors who focused on the attainment of territorial or political objectives, and whose resort to violence was contingent on achieving specific and tangible grievances.

Groups like the IRA, Spain's Basque separatist ETA, the Kurdish PKK in Turkey and numerous Palestinian factions did kill in cold blood and did randomly target civilians. One thinks of the IRA's Belfast bombing campaign of July 1972 that left nine dead, including 7 civilians, and injured over 130, including 77 women and children, in the course of a few hours. The same is true for ETA, which killed 21 civilians in an attack on a Barcelona supermarket in 1987, and 13 holidaymakers when it bombed the tourist resorts of Alicante and Benidorm at the peak of the 1999 summer season.

Nevertheless, it is inconceivable that the IRA, ETA or any of the numerous secular groups that took the lead in international terrorism in the 1970s and 1980s, would have undertaken a 9/11 type operation. As Tony Blair put it in a 2004 interview: "September 11 showed us a new type of terrorism, completely different, say, from the IRA. The IRA did terrible things, and I'm not minimising the suffering caused, but the IRA would not have tried to kill 3000."

Unlike Islamists, such traditional terror groups sought limited political objectives and thus, though responsible for much suffering, often placed limits on the execution of their terror tactics for both moral and political reasons. As Matthew Levitt has noted even the most radical secular Palestinian terror groups (such as George Habash's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine), limited their objectives to the destruction of only one state -- Israel -- whereas Hamas, Hezbollah, Al Qaeda and numbers other Islamist groups see this as a starting point and have far broader ambitions.

Moreover, traditional terror groups viewed violence primarily as a means of pressuring opponents, and the international community at large, to make political concessions. This approach was encapsulated by Yasser Arafat in his keynote address to the United Nations in 1974:

        "Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter's 
        gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand. I repeat: Do not let 
        the olive branch fall from my hand."

This necessitated achieving a balance between using violence to achieve publicity and political gains and avoiding the mass killing of civilians for fear of discrediting the cause, and reducing public sympathy, even among loyal supporters. As one anonymous IRA source explained following a number of high profile IRA bombings in England in 1974, "last year taught us that in publicity terms one bomb in Oxford Street is worth ten in Belfast". In these terms it is not a coincidence that the 199 commuters killed in the March 2004 Islamist attack on the Madrid rail system far exceeded the number of victims of any ETA attack up to that point and claimed 90 more lives than ETA was responsible for killing in the whole of 1980, its bloodiest year of terror.

This is not to deny that Islamists have quantifiable and very real political objectives. Al Qaeda demands the removal of all non-Muslim troops from Muslim lands; Palestinian Hamas (the Arabic acronym of the Islamic Resistance Movement) demands the withdrawal of Israel from the West Bank and Gaza; Pakistani and Kashmiri Islamists demand India's withdrawal from Kashmir; their Egyptian and Algerian counterparts have battled for years to remove repressive and autocratic regimes at home.

Nor is it to deny that these, and other, issues do help Islamists gain support within the Muslim world. However, even if tomorrow India and Israel were to unilaterally withdraw from disputed territories; even if all western troops were to be evacuated from Iraq and the Gulf states and sent to Cairo and Algiers to help Islamists overthrow the existing secular regimes this would not end the Islamist offensive against the West.

For this offensive is motivated first, and foremost, by the radical belief that the pre-eminent religious duty of a proper Muslim is not only to undertake jihad against secular Muslim regimes and non-Muslims based in Muslim lands, but by the belief that jihad must continue until the Caliphate -- Islamic rule -- is established in all places that Muslims live.

Indeed, there is an argument to be made that it is only because the War on Terror is taking its toll on the Islamists by denying them any permanent bases of operation, by choking their financing, and by exterminating and incarcerating their key players that the Bin Ladenites have even resorted to masking their broad global objectives by focusing on specific and limited grievances.

As a document entitled 'Letter to the American people', first circulated in Islamist circles in late 2002, explained:

        "What we are calling you to, and what do we want from you?" The first 
        thing that we are calling you to is Islam...It is the religion of Jihad in the way 
        of Allah so that Allah's Word and religion reign Supreme...The second 
        thing we call you to, is to stop your oppression, lies, immorality and 

Characterising the West as the "worst civilisation witnessed by the history of mankind" it went on to list the moral weakness of the West -- from alcohol, to usury, to gambling and the exploitation of women.

That is why Bin laden chose to call his Islamist umbrella organization, of which al Qaeda was only one part, the International Islamic Front for the Jihad Against Jews and Crusader. As terror expert Reuven Paz has noted this was an implicit message to the Muslim world that the Islamist groups were pursuing an Islamic victory over non-believers as part of an "eternal religious mission to a victory which will not be achieved for many generations". Bin Laden sent the same message in a far more explicit manner in a statement broadcast by al-Jazeera television in November 2001: "This war is fundamentally religious...under no circumstances should we forget this enmity between us and the infidels. For, the enmity is based on creed."

The belief that Islam has embarked (to quote from an al-Qaeda statement) on a "decisive [battle]...between infidelity and faith" provides legitimization for the mass-killing of innocents, including children, on a level previously unknown. It is in this context that one should view the revelation of the 9/11 Commission Report that while based in Sudan in the mid-1990s, a report by senior al Qaeda military commander Mohammed Atef (aka Abu Hafs al Masri) rejected the use of traditional terrorist hijacking operations because they were useful primarily as an instrument to force negotiation over the release of prisoners rather than to inflict mass casualties.

Over the entire course of the twentieth century less than twenty terror attacks killed one hundred people or more. Before 9/11 one could find little comfort in this. But in its wake, and in the aftermath of Bali, Madrid and Beslan, such figures serve only to remind us of why there can be no negotiations with those intent on promoting Jihad.

The truth is that the War on Terror must carry on until Islamist terrorists realise we cannot be beaten no matter what they throw at us. This may take generations, none of us may live to see it, but the alternative path of negotiations, appeasement and concessions is far more likely to contribute, rather than avert, radical Islam's end goal -- the subversion of our democratic process and the end of our civilization.

Dr Rory Miller is Lecturer in Mediterranean Studies, King's College, London University. He is associate editor of the academic journal Israel Affairs and the author of the forthcoming Ireland and the Palestine Question, 1948-2004



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