Jerusalem Letter / Viewpoints

No. 466   29 Heshvan 5762 / 15 November 2001


Jeffrey S. Helmreich

The Debut of Transcendent Terrorism / Current Definitions Fall Short / The Limited American View / A Recurring Blind Spot / Understanding the Paradigm Shift / Policy Implications

The Debut of Transcendent Terrorism

As the smoke clears in New York and Kabul, one blind spot still blocks the Western lens in the war against terror. There remains no official definition of "terrorism." The need for such a definition was affirmed by representatives of over 150 countries at a UN conference held in October 2001 on "What is Terrorism?" They came armed with prior resolutions that ban terrorism in any context, no matter its grievance or goal. But the delegates argued that in order to isolate and criminalize the act itself, they would need to identify it. Otherwise, future thugs who massacre innocent civilians could argue that their case is somehow different, or somehow justified by context. They could claim: "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter."

Yet the member states could not agree on a definition. Officials like U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher argued that there was no need for one: U.S. law (and arguably UN resolutions) already boasts formulations of terrorism. Like their English and Canadian counterparts, however, these standard interpretations can be shown to be inadequate for capturing the most dangerous new breed of terror.

They stem from the traditional Western doctrine. For decades, the West has been gripped by an orthodoxy that holds that all terrorists act for political purposes. Violence occurs to advance some cause or redress some political grievance. Hence, all definitions of terrorism in American and English law include clauses like "to achieve a political end." In other words, terrorists are just like everyone else, with political ambitions and strategic designs, except that they will resort to terrible deeds to achieve their goals.

This view has consequences: it means that terrorists could be thwarted either by appeasing their grievances or by frustrating their political strategies. But recent events have exposed a phenomenon that has long eluded Westernminds: the transcendent terrorist. Like their political counterparts, these killers seek to cut off as much innocent life as possible, maiming where they fail to kill, hurting where they fail to maim, and spreading anguish and suffering with abandon. Unlike other terrorists, however, their murders are not directly calculated to achieve their political aspirations (though they may have many of them). Rather, they act for religious or symbolic ends, or in the name of an ideology that transcends the immediate, earthly consequences. Their terror fulfills a value in its own right, like striking at an enemy deemed inherently unholy: transcendent terror.

These are clearly the most dangerous of terrorists. Changes in policy or deterrence are useless against such murderers, because they often are driven by something beyond practical outcomes and are not afraid to die. Yet they are also the ones who lie outside the scope of nearly all existing statutes, definitions, and accounts of terror. What follows is an attempt to expose and correct this misconception, which plagues both the definition and the understanding of terrorism in the West, and particularly in the U.S. These views need to be updated if they are to capture the reality of the transcendent terrorist.

Current Definitions Fall Short

It is certainly possible to define terrorism in a manner that incorporates transcendent terror, as well. One could focus on the following feature: violence directed at civilians identified with a distinct community, be it religious, political, or ethnic. That, in fact, is what all terrorism has in common.

But a close look at statutes meant to prohibit this behavior reveals a lot of room for violators to slip through the cracks. For example, a UN resolution prohibits, inter alia: "Any other act intended to cause death or serious bodily injury to a civilian, or to any other person not taking an active part in the hostilities in a situation of armed conflict, when the purpose of such act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population, or to compel a Government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act."1

Where this definition falls short is its failure to include anyone who commits acts like the September 11 attack, but without such ambitions as intimidation or coercion. Yet the evidence suggests that at least some of the hijackers acted out of a feeling of divine imperative or opposition to the U.S. as "the enemy of Allah," without regard to political achievements. Does that mean they are not terrorists?

The difficulty goes beyond mere semantics. Definitions that tie terrorism to particular aims serve to reinforce the notion that the act itself -- the deliberate murder of innocent civilians just for being American, for example -- could actually be justified if different, perhaps worthy, goals were at play. Possible exceptions include a mass murderer who acts out of revenge, or to call attention to a legitimate plight. Those who bomb abortion clinics are often called "terrorists," but this definition would exclude them, too: they do not seek to pressure a government or necessarily to intimidate a nation. They may seek simply to strike at the "evil" doctors.

Many countries seem plagued by this inability to define terrorism beyond specific political objectives. India, for example, defines it as follows: "acts done by using weapons and explosive substances or other methods in a manner as to cause or likely to cause death or injuries to any person or persons or loss or damage to property or disruption of essential supplies and services with intent to threaten the unity and integrity of [the state] or to strike terror in any section of the people."2

Western countries are especially prone to such limited definitions. England and Canada both have introduced a view on the meaning of "terrorism" in their own legislatures, and they focus only on terrorism with a "purpose" or an "objective," usually political.3

The Limited American View

The U.S. seems the most attached to the limited view of terrorism. The U.S. Code, section 22, reads: "the term 'terrorism' means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents."4 Here the term "noncombatants" is meant to denote military personnel not engaged in combat at the time of the incident, as in the case of the U.S. Marines killed in the bombing of their barracks in Lebanon in 1983.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has laid out in greater detail the crime of terrorism: "the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a Government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives."5

Again, these definitions tie terrorism to political aims. The U.S. statute refers to "politically motivated" acts, while the FBI's definition requires that the act be "in furtherance of political or social objectives." Even the "Patriot Act," inspired by the mass murder of September 11 and passed overwhelmingly by both Houses of the U.S. Congress on October 26, defines terrorism either by citing the U.S. Code, noted above, or with the following addition on "domestic terrorism":

[Domestic terrorism] involve[s] acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State; and (B) appear to be intended (or to have the effect) -- (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government (or any function thereof) by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping (or threat thereof).6

Here, too, lies the persistent attempt to link terrorism with agendas of coercion or intimidation. It is as though U.S. lawmakers insist that many fundamentalist murderers are something other than terrorists, or that no terrorist could be so irrational as to kill thousands of people -- for nothing. In short, these definitions fail to grasp the transcendent terrorist.

A Recurring Blind Spot

This legal gap is more than a mistake of interpretation. In the U.S., it reflects and reinforces a deeper myth that blinds U.S. law and policy. It is a view that insists that there is no violence for its own sake. Rather, terrorists play a strategic game, similar to other parties in a conflict, with political goals and the intention to achieve them. The only difference is that they will resort to desperate measures.

Brian Michael Jenkins, a leading terrorism expert in the U.S. and frequent advisor to the State Department, once summarized the terrorist's mindset: "Their actions are calculated to create an atmosphere of fear and alarm to force social or political change....Their violence is not an end in itself, but for advancing a goal. Political terrorists believing they're the vanguard of the people's will, use violence to shock, get publicity, and leverage a government."7 To his credit, Jenkins acknowledged that not all terrorists were as constrained or strategically motivated. But his view reflected a consensus about most terrorists.

The first World Trade Center bombings in 1993 started to erode this idea. Years later, in an address to Congress, U.S. counter-terrorism czar Michael A. Sheehan noted that the 1993 attacks ushered in a new era in which "terrorism is taking on a whole new face." Witness the rise of the "freelancing terrorists," he said, "driven by religious and cultural ideology to carry out increasingly lethal attacks."8 At the same time, the State Department's annual report on international terrorism warned of "a change from primarily politically motivated terrorism to terrorism that is more religiously or ideologically motivated."9

The majority of experts, who continued to stick to the political model, were dubbed "the academic group" by insiders in the field.10 They included experts like Jenkins and Professor Ehud Sprinzak, who had argued that "most terrorists possess political objectives."11

But there was a hint of change even in this group. Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism scholar who worked at Jenkins' think tank, wrote in later years: "For the religious terrorist, violence is first and foremost a sacramental act or divine duty executed in direct response to some theological demand or imperative."12

Still, if there was a new recognition of transcendent terrorism, it had not penetrated official U.S. definitions or accounts. Even Sheehan, who had been warning of the change, argued that politics had to be the underlying agenda, hidden somewhere beneath the new terrorist's mystical veil. "Especially since the end of the Cold War, a number of terrorist groups have portrayed their cause in religious and cultural terms," he said. "This is often a transparent tactic designed to conceal political goals."13

As late as the spring of 2001, when Sheehan had completed his post, U.S. policy continued to lend credence to accounts of terrorism as a political tool with definable goals. The Mitchell Report, highly esteemed in the upper echelons of the State Department, offered a direct definition of terrorism: "Terrorism involves the deliberate killing and injuring of randomly selected noncombatants for political ends. It seeks to promote a political outcome by spreading terror and demoralization throughout a population."14 This doctrine, in spirit, remains the common thread in the official U.S. definitions of terrorism.

Understanding the Paradigm Shift

The classic doctrine appears to be mistaken. Many terrorists seem to act out of a transcendent, if evil, idealism that is, at most, incidentally related to its political or strategic outcomes. Transcendent terrorists reflect Hoffman's description of violence as a "sacramental act or divine duty." Although these purists may also have grievances, political or otherwise, their violence is not necessarily calculated to redress such concerns. It may, for example, serve only to strike at a target identified with Satan. The act is symbolically or religiously significant in its own right, regardless of what it achieves.

The words of Mohammed Atta, on the morning of his deadly mission on September 11, reflect the insignificance of the earthly results of his mission: "When you board the plane, remember that this is a battle in the sake of God, which is worth the whole world and all that is in it. As the Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) has said."15

In fact, the ideologies of terrorist organizations may always have been as transcendent as they were political, even as the Western perspective grasped only half the story. Although many of the groups on the new U.S. list of terrorist organizations have political grievances, their ideological differences with the U.S. and its allies appear to stem as much from what the U.S. is as from what "the great Satan" does.

Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the spiritual patriarch of Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the 1993 bombings, has said: "Hit hard and kill the enemies of God in every spot to rid it of the descendants of apes and fed at the tables of Zionism, Communism and imperialism....There is no truce in jihad against the enemies of Allah."16

Abdel Rahman's underling, El-Said Nosair, was equally symbolic in his stated objectives. He called for attacks on "enemies of Islam" by "destroying the structure of their civilized pillars such as the touristic infrastructure...and their high world buildings which they are proud of and their statues...and the buildings in which their leaders gather."17

Even groups far removed from the Arabian Peninsula or the Persian Gulf, where the U.S. has had its most celebrated influence, likewise see America as inherently impure. The Amir of Markaz, an Islamist, anti-Indian group based in Pakistan, has stated: "Democracy is among the menaces we inherited from an alien government. It is part of the system we are fighting against. Many of our brothers feel that they can establish an Islamic society by working within the system. They are mistaken. It is not possible to work within a democracy and establish an Islamic system. You just dirty your hands by dealing with it. If God gives us a chance, we will try to bring in the pure concept of an Islamic Caliphate."18

Markaz's spiritual founder was none other than Bin Laden's own guru, Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, who had settled in Pakistan. His declared aim was the establishment of the Islamic Caliphate throughout the world, using violent jihad as the vehicle.19

Similarly, the Lebanese Hizbullah, long mistaken as a local resistance organization, outlined its position regarding the U.S. in its founding charter, drafted more than a decade before anyone spoke of the new terrorists: "We combat abomination and we shall tear out its very roots, its primary roots, which are the U.S. All attempts made to drive us into marginal actions will fail, especially as our determination to fight the U.S. is solid."20

Hizbullah eventually, if slowly, arrived on the list of terrorist groups whom the U.S. has deemed unlawful for any state to sponsor. Nevertheless, Syria, a long-time backer of Hizbullah, appeared to have taken a key signal from the reluctance in the State Department to add the Lebanese group to its terrorist list. Hizbullah, with the aid of Syria, has launched repeated terrorist attacks on Israel near the Shebaa farms, recognized by the UN to be an area outside of Lebanese territory. After Israel responded by bombing a Syrian radar station in eastern Lebanon, there were three months of quiet. But just three weeks after the September 11 attacks, when the West seemed hopeful that Syria would join the anti-Bin Laden coalition, Hizbullah suddenly resumed attacks on Israel from the Shebaa farms. Apparently, Syria had been emboldened by a perception that the West would tolerate Syrian sponsorship of a terrorist organization, as Western countries sought Syrian support for their coalition.21

The attempt to attach local political agendas to Hizbullah, by branding it a Lebanese resistance organization, proved false when it continued to attack Israel even after Prime Minister Ehud Barak withdrew Israeli forces from Lebanon. Perhaps analysts should have focused on Hizbullah's values, enshrined in its charter, demonstrating that Hizbullah would oppose any Western-style state as a matter of principle, not politics. As stated in its charter: "We reject both the USSR and the U.S., both Capitalism and Communism, for both are incapable of laying the foundations for a just society."22

Again, it is the very identity of the U.S. -- as secular, as a democracy, as capitalist -- that renders it the enemy of Hizbullah and other terrorist groups. These terrorists pay as much tribute to anti-Western values as to any political gripe they may have with the West. Their terrorism, especially suicide bombing, is often transcendent.23

Policy Implications

A new understanding of transcendent terrorism would support a different policy objective, which could be summarized as follows: terrorists should be fought, not bought. Because terrorists do not necessarily act out of political or strategic motivations, there may be no way to appease or frustrate would-be terrorists by manipulating their interests and incentives. No change in policy could deflect the passion of a group who opposes a nation's very identity.

That leaves an alternative response: to isolate terrorism as a tactic and attempt to criminalize it and build consensus for banishing it from civil society, as recent UN resolutions have attempted to do. One recent declaration stated: "The States Members of the United Nations solemnly reaffirm their unequivocal condemnation of all acts, methods and practices of terrorism as criminal and unjustifiable, wherever and by whomever committed, including those which jeopardize the friendly relations among States and peoples and threaten the territorial integrity and security of States."24

Where these resolutions fall short is in definition. As Boaz Ganor, of the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism, has argued, "an objective definition of terrorism is not only possible; it is also indispensable to any serious attempt to combat terrorism."25

But if definitions of terrorism are to capture the transcendent terrorists as well, they must be stripped of qualifying language like "in the pursuit of political objectives." That leaves an account of terrorism that focuses on the act itself: violence directed at civilians identified with a national, religious, or other kind of community.

Such a focused understanding of terrorism, one that disregards its context, may seem incompatible with trying to understand the roots and causes of such behavior. However, an adequate definition of terrorism may equally serve to remove the misconceptions about its roots. Classical accounts, that mistakenly linked all terrorism to goals, tended to discount ideology as a motivation for terrorism; they focused instead on purported sociological, political, or even psychological causes. Thus, terrorists were classified variously as desperate, enraged, or insane. But even a cursory glance at the profiles of the September 11 hijackers and murderers gives lie to such accounts.26

Indeed, strategic or political terms do not suffice: the attack could not be reasonably calculated to advance a political goal, even the removal of U.S. troops from Saudi Arabia (said to be a Bin Laden aim). And even if the attacks could be so construed, the hijackers' own written notes suggest no political agenda driving their mission. Psychological terms, however, are equally inadequate: the attackers do not appear to have been enraged, desperate, or even noticeably deviant people. Perhaps, then, the most appropriate discourse remains the one that naturally and immediately came to mind on the day of the devastation: moral terms. Terrorism, in these terms, would be described as simply evil, an abominable violation of human decency and the sanctity of life. In this context, it would serve neither truth nor justice to hide terrorism in the guise of politics and strategy.

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1. Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism (UN GA Res. 54/109, February 25, 2000).
2. "India Promulgates New Anti-Terrorism Ordinance," Press Trust of India (October 25, 2001), p. 1.
3. Sonia Verma, "Anti-Terror Bill a Rush Job," Toronto Star (November 11, 2001), p. 5.
4. 22 USCA � 2656f, "Annual Country Report on Terrorism," sec. (d) (2).
5. http://www.fbi.gov/contact/fo/jackson/cntrterr.htm.
6. H.R.2975, sec. 25 (A).
7. "Brian Michael Jenkins, deputy chairman of Rand Corp., Interview," Omni, vol. 17, no. 2 (November 1994).
8. Michael A. Sheehan, "Vital Speeches: Terrorism is Taking on a Whole New Face," City News Publishing Company (March 1, 2000).
9. "U.S. Study Finds Terrorist Shift to South Asia," Washington Post (May 2, 2000), p. A24.
10. Nicholas Lemann, "What Terrorists Want," New Yorker (October 29, 2001), pp. 36-38.
11. Ibid.
12. Ibid.
13. Sheehan, "Vital Speeches."
14. Sharm el-Sheikh Fact Finding Committee (the Mitchell Report), April 30, 2001, U.S. Department of State, International Information Programs. Courtesy of www.usinfo.stategov/regional/nea/mitchell.htm.
15. "The Final Night," Los Angeles Times (September 29, 2001), p. A1.
16. Christopher Dickey, "Wrath of Islam," Newsweek (March 15, 1993), pp. 13-14.
17. Ibid.
18. B. Raman, "Markaz Dawa al-Irshad, the Talibanisation of Nuclear Pakistan," Study for the Institute for Topical Studies, Chennai, South Asia Analysis Group (India), (August 26, 1998).
19. Yoni Fighel, "Sheikh Abdullah Azzam: Bin Laden's Spiritual Mentor," International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya, Israel (September 27, 2001), www.ict.org. il.
20. Courtesy of "Middle East Quarterly," Daniel Pipes, editor, www.danielpipes.org. See also www.hezbollah.org.
21. "Why Syria is Becoming the Coalition's Spoiler," Jerusalem Issue Brief, vol. 1, no. 9, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (November 8, 2001), www.jcpa. org.
22. www.danielpipes.org; www.hezbollah.org.
23. "Declaration on Measures to Eliminate International Terrorism," (UN GA Res. 49/60; December 9, 1994).
24. Boaz Ganor, "Terrorism: No Prohibition Without Definition," International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism (October 7, 2001), www.ict.org. il.
25. Kate Zernike and Don van Natta, Jr., "The Plot; Hijackers' Meticulous Strategy of Brains, Muscle and Practice," New York Times (Novembr 4, 2001), p. A1.
26. Ibid.

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Jeffrey S. Helmreich is the author of numerous articles on Israel for American newspapers and journals. His most recent Jerusalem Viewpoints include "The Israel Swing Factor: How the American Jewish Vote Influences U.S. Elections" (January 2001), and "Journalistic License: Professional Standards in the Print Media's Coverage of Israel" (August 2001). His first study for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs was "More than a Truce: The Cold Peace between the P.L.O. and Hamas" (August 1994).

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The opinions expressed by the authors of Viewpoints do not necessarily reflect those of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.