Do the most potent forms of terrorism have a religious underpinning?

Essay, 2017
12 Pages, Grade: 72

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Table of Contents

Comparing Religious and Secular Terrorist Aims

Comparing Religious and Secular Terrorist Acts

Fear, Propaganda and Distorting the

Potency of Religiously Underpinned Terror



Terrorism with a religious underpinning is a term that speaks for itself in that it is political violence committed in the name of a religion, for religious purposes, by religiously motivated individuals. Religiously motivated terrorism is not a new or contemporary concept as examples of ‘religious terrorism’ can be seen in the Bible, in the story of Joshua’s return to Canaan, and throughout the Christian Crusades of the middle ages. Present-day religiously motivated terrorism is directly associated with Islam primarily due to the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and the subsequent US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan as part of the War on Terror. Rapoport (2002) claims that the current resurgence of ‘religious terrorism’ is the “fourth wave of rebel terror”, and is part of a naturally evolving movement of terrorism within states, succeeding the earlier waves of anarchism, anti-colonial and new left terrorism throughout the 20th Century. The propagation of religiously motivated terrorism has led many to conclude that the most potent forms of terrorism have a religious underpinning, a belief which may be justified by the emergence of ISIS and their brand of extremely potent violence. Yet, the dominance of secular ideologies in war and terrorism throughout the 20th Century raises questions in regards to whether the view of religiously motivated violence as more potent is simply just a subjectively held Western belief (Bourne, 2014:236). This essay will compare the aims and means by which religiously motivated and secular terrorists act before addressing the violence of contemporary Islamic terrorism and the effect of fearmongering propaganda in amplifying the potency that underpins religious terrorism.

Comparing Religious and Secular Terrorist Aims

The common theme amongst all forms of terrorism and those who commit terrorist acts is that they are outsiders attempting to alter their set of circumstances through politically violent means. This is one of the few commonalities that the religiously motivated terrorist and the terrorist motivated by secular ideologies share. Secular terrorist groups aim to alter the state of affairs within the current structure. For example, nationalist separatist groups, like the ETA who wish to establish a Basque nation separate from Spain, do not necessarily wish to see the destruction of the Spanish nation. Conversely religiously motivated terror groups tend to view themselves as part of a system that is not worth preserving and often seek to return society to an idealised version of the past (Gunning & Jackson, 2011). The religiously motivated terrorist has a self-image as a soldier “in a spiritual army, engaged in a great cosmic war” with the goal of cleansing the existing immoral system whilst building a new religious kingdom on earth (Juergensmeyer, 1997). This unhappiness with the current global order and yearning for a return to what is perceived as a former glorious utopia is not a phenomenon unique to terrorism and has been linked by some, such as Bourne (2014:236), to a wider resurgence of religion in politics in response to globalisation. ISIS’s proclaimed establishment of their ‘caliphate’ is the prime example of a terrorist organisation actively attempting to fulfil their religiously motivated aim of returning to past glory as they have implemented strict 7th Century sharia law throughout areas of Iraq and Syria whilst also destroying anything they deem to be pagan and enslaving minority groups such as the Yazidis (Cockburn, 2015). The motivation to destroy a system and create a new one in its place naturally brings with it more potent forms of terrorism as the level of violence to achieve such an ambitious goal is then seen as not only morally justified, but as a necessity if the religiously motivated terrorist’s goals are to be realised (Hoffman, 2007:2).

The primary audience that the religiously motivated terrorist answers to is the deity under whose guidance they purportedly act, whereas the secular terrorist group must answer and appeal to a community which they may claim to represent and defend whose support is crucial in keeping the movement active (Hoffman, 2007:3). For instance, the importance of maintaining support for secular terrorist groups was demonstrated in the later years of the Provisional IRA’s campaign as they made a number of costly mistakes, such as the Enniskillen bombing which killed eleven civilians and halved Sinn Fein’s local council seats in the following elections, essentially pushing the movement towards a peaceful and political resolution to the conflict (Rusk, 2007). The religiously motivated terrorist does not have the problem of justifying their actions to the public as it is a common belief across religiously motivated terrorist groups that should they carry out their attack they will be rewarded in the afterlife. Much like modern day religiously motivated terrorists, the Assassins of the middle ages believed that to kill or be killed was an honour as it guaranteed entry to paradise in the afterlife (Martin, 2011:135). Religiously underpinned violence is “part of a sacramental act or divine duty” and therefore it has no other meaning but the act of killing in itself, whereas secular terrorists kill to achieve a goal or communicate their message (Hoffman, 2006: 88). For the religiously motivated terrorist violence is both the means and the end, it is one in the same, whilst for terrorists motivated by secular beliefs violence is a means to an end, thus having killing as the main purpose serves only to cultivate more potent forms of terrorism.

Comparing Religious and Secular Terrorist Acts

The lack of accountability to any empirical force in this world links directly to the religiously motivated terrorist’s definition of the enemy. Secular terrorists see their enemy as “representatives of a certain socioeconomic order” while religiously motivated terrorists have a much broader definition, mostly targeting anybody who is seen not to follow their own strict interpretation of their religion (Fine, 2008). The wide ranging definition of who the enemy is majorly underpins the justified use of indiscriminate, large-scale violence in the religiously motivated terrorist’s mind. Hoffman (2007:11) acknowledges that a broad definition of the enemy may essentially act to remove the psychological barrier that has prevented radical secular groups committing mass murder in the past. Attacks such as Aum Shinrikyo’s 1995 release of sarin gas on the Tokyo subway which left 13 dead and 6,000 injured, with the intention of killing more is a testament to the claim that religion enables more potent forms of violence such as mass murder (Alfred, 2015). However, this is not to say that those who carry out atrocities in the name of some form of secular terrorism will not commit mass murder, as demonstrated by the 2011 Oslo attack by the far-right terrorist Anders Breivik who killed 77 people via indiscriminate bombing and shooting (Seierstad, 2015). The claim that religiously motivated terrorism removes the psychological barrier to committing mass murder is not an invalid point but it is a generalised one and should not be assumed but used when attempting to identify the reasoning behind such attacks.

Statistically in recent years religiously motivated terrorism has been much more lethal than the terrorism of secular movements. With 1,265 attacks between 1968 and 2007 religiously motivated terrorists claimed 9,689 lives, averaging 5.2 fatalities per attack and were four times as lethal as secular terrorist attacks which were committed almost twice as much over the same 40-year period (Berman, 2009:8). Yet, not all religiously motivated groups are completely unrestrained in their acts. Groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah have been much less potent in their violence than secular groups such as the FARC and Tamil Tigers, often restraining themselves due to political conditions (Jackson et. al, 2011:170). However, this highlights the ineffectiveness of seeing religion and terrorism’s inherent political characteristics as two distinct categories. More often than not if a religiously motivated terrorist group is to restrain themselves it will be for political reasons. For this reason, purely religious restraint is a rarity but has been demonstrated by groups such as the Thugs whose downfall was a direct result of the restraints of their religion as their belief that their deity, Kali, intended to eventually destroy their order led to older more tradition-bound members to become informers (Rapoport, 1984:663).

Our contemporary understanding of religion as a mainly apolitical and private phenomenon does not reflect the reality that politics and religion are inherently intertwined and one cannot be wholly distinct from the other (Jackson et. al, 2011). ‘Religious terrorism’ is not to be seen as a sub-category of terrorism in itself, as it is often incorrectly portrayed, but as a major enabling factor for certain movements who use terrorism to achieve religious ‘goals’ via political violence. Though, the redundant nature of the term ‘religious terrorism’ does not affect the potency of the terrorist acts committed in the name of certain religions, clarification on the matter highlights that religion is a characteristic and not an outright sub-category of terrorism in itself. Therefore, it is important to remain aware of the political motives which underpin the goals and motives of religiously motivated terrorist organisations.

Contemporary Religiously Motivated Terrorism and Islam

In the 21st Century, following the events of 9/11, religiously motivated terrorism or any terrorism for that matter has been associated with the religion of Islam. Islamic extremists have consistently demonstrated the potent characteristics that underpin religiously motivated terrorism by using religion as a moral justification and lever of power to mobilise the terrorist through appealing to their deeply held beliefs. This has ensured, for example, that terrorists have remained loyal to their mission as sleeper cells within western culture as was the case in regards to the 9/11 attacks (Bar, 2004:28). Prior to 9/11, terrorist attacks were predominantly carried out by groups with secular ideologies and mostly occurred in Colombia, Peru, El Salvador and Northern Ireland, however after 9/11 the concentration of global terrorist activity shifted from these regions to the likes of Iraq, India, Afghanistan and Pakistan with the vast majority of attacks being perpetrated by religiously motivated, Islamic terrorists (Roser & Nagdy, 2016). Although 9/11 may seem to have been the catalyst for the proliferation of Islamic extremist groups, it was in fact the subsequent War on Terror and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan that effectively created a “new training and recruitment ground” for Islamic extremists in Iraq (Martin, 2011:153). In correlation with this rapid multiplication of Islamic extremist groups the potency of the violence has increased tremendously. As groups, such as ISIS who committed 931 attacks in 2015, resulting in 6,050 deaths and averaging nearly six deaths per attack, carry out large scale attacks both in the Middle East and throughout the Western world (START, 2016:13).

ISIS have exhibited a shocking level of brutality both in the tactics they employ to maintain control within their self-declared ‘Caliphate’ and abroad when carrying out attacks on western targets. One example of the brutal tactics within their ‘Caliphate’ is their penchant for extremely violent punishment which includes executions by crucifixions or stoning and the amputation of limbs for numerous crimes ranging from murder to adultery (Lister, 2015:49). Moreover, religiously motivated Islamic terrorist organisations in general have become inherently associated with the tactic of suicide bombing, a link that is perhaps unjustified as the world leaders in suicide terrorism are the Marxist/Leninist Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka (Pape, 2003:343). Yet, in terms of the popularity of the tactic it is generally favoured more by religiously motivated Islamic groups as it is a cost-effective, precise and enormously potent form of violence (Corte & Giménez-Salinas, 2009). ISIS have implemented suicide bombing in an extremely violent manner with the aim of causing as much damage possible as was demonstrated by the 2015 Paris attacks in which seven of eight attackers detonated suicide vests after firing indiscriminately upon civilians (Phipps & Rawlinson, 2015). Attacks within a community, outside of the terrorist group’s home country not only cause physical damage to the targeted community but also have an intense psychological impact, leaving a legacy of fear and paranoia due to their unexpected and extremely violent nature. Hoffman (2003) correctly surmises their impact in asserting that “coldly efficient bombings tear at the fabric of trust that holds societies together.” The fear cultivated by the extremely violent tactics deployed by Islamic terrorist groups has been a main driving force behind much of their ‘success’ primarily due to their ability to manipulate this fear in their own favour through the use of propaganda.

Fear, Propaganda and Distorting the Potency of Religiously Underpinned Terror

Contrary to the practices of early religiously motivated terror groups, like the Thugs who actively strove to avoid public attention, modern religiously motivated terrorist groups attract attention to themselves as a means of propaganda which is primarily dispersed through popular media and internet (Rapoport, 1984:660). Jihadists in particular have been producing ‘slick’ propaganda since the 1980s, which was solely aimed at inspiring potential recruits and more often than not failed to reach the collective consciousness of the West (Stern & Berger, 2015:101). ISIS, however, have been particularly adept at attracting and maintaining Western media attention primarily due to their presence across multiple social media platforms including YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. Twitter illustrates their strong social media presence as by the end of 2014 there were over 45,000 Twitter accounts used by ISIS supporters with the group’s sophistication in the use of propaganda demonstrated by the automation of propaganda through high-level technology such as computer controlled social media accounts, or ‘bots’ (Berger, 2015). The use of propaganda by ISIS on social media and through more traditional forms, such as the release of beheading videos, provoke shock, horror and the illusion that ISIS is a much bigger threat to the wider world than they are in reality, thus serving to underpin the potency of their violence (Stern & Berger, 2015:125). This potency is then exaggerated further through fear-mongering discourse popular amongst media and Western leaders.

The rhetoric surrounding radical Islamic extremism overemphasises the threat posed by Islamic groups and ignores the reality that these groups will almost always choose to attack the “near Satan” of domestic secular governments rather than the “far Satan” of Western governments when given a choice between the two (Berman, 2009:237). A discourse of exaggerated claims in regards to the threat posed by Islamic terror groups has gained dominance in the West, as demonstrated by Western leaders such as President Donald Trump who has equated the challenge posed by radical Islamic terrorism with that of past struggles with Nazism and Communism (Trump, 2016). The old “bogeymen” of Communism, Fascism and Nazism have given way to the new “bogeyman” of Islamic terror which is constructed as being in direct contention with the western way of life (Oller, 2008:289). Many Christian extremists, particularly US white supremacist groups, view the War on Terror as a divinely planned religious war between Christianity and Islam (Martin, 2011:153). The shared belief in a great religious war between both sides highlights the similar characteristics that the opposing groups share and their ability to manipulate abstract political ideologies in to religious imperatives, essentially undermining many deeply held views of religiously motivated terror groups as a solely foreign phenomenon (Hoffman, 2007:8). Although the violence of religiously motivated terror groups is more potent than that of secular groups, the exorbitant amount of media coverage afforded to ISIS has shown the effectiveness of propaganda and fear as the group apppear to be more violent and a bigger threat than they are with their own narrative that has been spread through their propaganda serving only to construct a distorted reality.


Religiously motivated terrorism is naturally more potent than that of secular terror groups primarily due to the belief that their actions are ‘divinely sanctioned’. Though, to view ‘religious terrorism’ as a sub-category of terrorism in which the terrorist has solely religious goals is inaccurate, obstructive and an ideologically loaded concept which may be used to further certain political interests (Jackson et. al, 2011:170). It is important to view the religious beliefs of a terrorist group as an enabling characteristic that should not detract from their inherently political goals as terrorists. Woolsey’s claim that religious terrorists “don’t want a seat at the table, they want to destroy the table and everyone sitting at it” reveals both the truths and falsities behind claims of religiously motivated terrorism’s potency (Morgan, 2004:31). Present-day religiously motivated terrorists do not want to destroy the table nor do they only want one seat at the table, they want to control the table and hold all of the seats in order to fulfil their divinely sanctioned, inherently political mission of establishing a new religious utopia. The melodramatic tone of Woolsey’s statement mirrors Western exaggeration of religiously motivated violence which serves only to give credence to the narrative that Islamic terrorists such as ISIS spread through their fearmongering propaganda. Fear is the currency in which ISIS trades, and through their own propaganda and a skewed narrative surrounding them, they have managed to intensify the perception of the modern religious terrorist’s violence. Although secular terrorists have shown the extreme potency of their violence, terrorism with a religious underpinning will remain more potent as their deity is their audience and violence is both the means and the ends by which they aim to achieve their goals.

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Do the most potent forms of terrorism have a religious underpinning?
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Mr Aaron Murchan (Author), 2017, Do the most potent forms of terrorism have a religious underpinning?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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