Obsession with Attackers’ Backgrounds Misses the Point of Terrorism

Photo credit: Handout.

As the United States grapples with multiple attacks over the past couple of weeks, the country is asking all the wrong questions.

Though the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Daesh) has claimed responsibility for the Minnesota mall stabbings, the bombs found in New York and New Jersey remain ongoing investigations with no entity claiming responsibility.

Whether the bombs were part of jihadist terrorism or some other form of terror, remains unknown at this time; the real questions are bogged down in a rush to judgement by public commentators.

On one hand many Trump supporters quickly—and frankly gleefully—blamed Muslims, using the incident to justify their xenophobia. Other, more well-meaning, observers urged patience until we had more information on the actual background of Ahmad Khan Rahami. Discovering his background is certainly important, but it misses the point.

Unfortunately, this fixation on background—the person’s religion, race, or whether the person is an immigrant or citizen—is the least important aspect of terrorism. Terrorism has a purpose. It has become so enmeshed in identity that we forget that it is not violence for violence’s sake, it’s a strategy aimed at shaping the political landscape. And, while background investigations that connect individual actors to established terrorist groups is important, recognizing what an attack seeks to accomplish is often missing in public coverage.

Instead, for many, once a perpetrator’s name is revealed as sufficiently Muslim-sounding, it’s clear that it’s an act of terror. After the attacks in Nice, CNN correspondent Max Foster asked:

How can we call it terrorism, though, when we don’t even think he was particularly religious? All his neighbors are saying he was never seen at the local mosque. So, why is he jihadi? Why is this terrorism?

Terrorism has essentially become an umbrella term for any crime committed by Muslims. This categorization needs interrogation.

From struggle to people’s war

Like many Islamic concepts, jihad is today loaded with fear and distortion. Etymologically, jihad merely means “struggle.” Classical Islam defines jihad as both a spiritual and armed struggle against oppression and tyranny. Returning from a battle, Muhammad famously said, “We have returned from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad.” Jihad was defined by the historical circumstances of Islam’s origins. Far from being a religion spread by the sword, Islam was a minority faith beset by larger and more powerful groups. Jihad became the means by which the religion preserved the integrity and unity of the community.

Jihad has since evolved from its early conception. During the Crusades, jihad took on a distinctively territorial definition. Under Yusuf ibn Ayyub, celebrated as Saladin, jihad was defined as the struggle to restore Islam to Jerusalem after it had been purged from the city by the Crusaders in 1099 CE.

In the 18th and 19th century jihad takes on a decidedly anti-colonial bent. The Muslim reformer, Muhammad ibn Abd’ al-Wahhab used jihad as a purifying force to eliminate foreign influences from the Arab heartlands. In 1830, Emir Abdelkadir, the Algerian Sufi, conducted jihad as a war of resistance against French colonists, defending his homeland from invasion.

The idea of defense of faith and land rests at the core of jihad for years.

In the 20th century jihadism coalesces as a distinct ideology through the writing of thinkers like Sayyid Qutb and Abul A’la Maududi. Faced with imperial forces that eroded traditional social structures, both Qutb and Maududi reimagined jihad in Maoist terms as a “people’s war” in which the imperialist would be drawn into a conflict against a united and global Muslim force.

Deviating from traditional understandings of jihad, the ideology of jihadism is unmistakably modern, suturing European ideology onto an older religious concept.

The formulation of a people’s war or a people’s revolution found deep sympathy in both the reformist Salafi-Wahhabism as well as Shia Khomeneism. In 1979 the Soviet-Afghan War and the Islamic Revolution of Iran became the international stage that put theory into practice.

Though colonialism and global intervention has certainly transformed and modernized the concept of jihad, it is hardly synonymous with terrorism. In fact, many groups who espouse jihad do not engage in terrorism at all. The jihadist practice of terrorism is a minority within an already minority position. Yet, the public discourse does little to distinguish between jihad and terrorism.

An uneasy marriage

Contrary to popular belief, Muslim groups are relatively new to terrorism. The earliest terrorist groups in Latin America, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe were mostly secular nationalists. The most dangerous decade in terrorism, the 1970s, was dominated by groups like Weather Underground, the Japanese Red Army, and the Marxist Fadai’yan. In fact, until 2000, the majority of suicide bombings were carried out by the enthno-Marxist Tamil Tigers.

Yet, regardless of the differing ideologies, the consistent element among terrorist groups is that they are marginalized organizations that use spectacular forms of symbolic violence in order to spread fear with the explicit purpose of encouraging a response from their target. Sadly, they tend to be successfully to some degree, which is why the tactic persists.

In the early 20th century, the Jewish nationalist group, Irgun carried out terrorist activities against both Arab Palestinians and the British colonial government. They were one of the first groups to target civilians. Attacks like the King David Hotel bombing in 1946, cornered an already exhausted British military and eventually led to the withdrawal of the colonial government.

The success of terrorist tactics made it an alluring import to marginalized jihadist groups already versed in the ideology of a people’s war. The Revolt, Menachem Begin’s book on the development of the Irgun, became an important primer for jihadis, as well as the IRA and the African National Congress.

In 1983, during the South Lebanon conflict, Hezbollah replicated the success of Irgun through bombings of US marine bases. It led to the withdrawal of US troops. Terrorism, for better or worse, was once again successful in achieving its objective.

But terrorism was not a logical or easy marriage with jihadist ideology. Analysts often forget that during the Soviet-Afghan War, one of the first theaters for jihadis, there wasn’t a single suicide bombing. Both the United States’ and Pakistan’s intelligence services sought to bring the tactic to the mujahideen through texts and training, yet it wasn’t an easy sell. Hezbollah, who early on adopted suicide bombings, eventually abandoned the tactic for more traditional paramilitary methods.

The reason jihadist groups imported terrorism from their nationalist counterparts was that they shared a commonality: they were small marginal groups who sought radical political change. Recognizing the political motivations of terrorist groups is the core to understanding what they want.

I ask Allah to deliver America to Trump

For years, Al Qaeda had sought to draw the United States into a war. Arguably, when the US invaded Iraq two years after 9/11, we were giving Al Qaeda just what it wanted.

The real question we should be asking is: what do terrorists want? While this can go hand in hand with discovering the background of the terrorist, it shouldn’t get lost in the fixation on identity.

For Daesh, the motivation is rather clear. They sow the seeds of fear in order to force countries to close their borders, to foster anti-Muslim sentiment, and to eliminate any zone of co-existence, thus making their us-vs-them vision a reality.

Should Daesh or a similar terrorist group be behind the recent attempts in the US, the question we should be asking is why? The pain and the terror are the immediate results of their attack, but they can also be obfuscating.

We know for example that Daesh is very eager to see a Trump presidency. Recent analysts have uncovered chatter in which Daesh has made the election of Donald Trump a priority, going so far as to say “I ask Allah to deliver America to Trump.”

Daesh wants a militant and isolationist United States that cowers behind a wall; an America that demonizes Muslims and forces the world into a civilizational conflict. When we ask the wrong questions, when we are more worried about background than motive, it leads to bad policies, like bans on Muslim immigration or calls for ideological and religious screening. (Ironically, Trump may be such a poor candidate in this regard that the tried and true tactic could backfire.)

The history of terrorism and its marriage with jihadist ideology is a convoluted and complicated relationship, a relationship made possible through the mere fact that, despite religious rhetoric, jihadism like its secular counterpart, desires something political. Recognizing that history doesn’t just illuminate the motives of jihadist terrorism, but it can orient our response effectively.