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Taking Terrorists at Their Word By: J. Peter Pham
The National Interest | Wednesday, September 15, 2004


Voices of Terror: Manifestos, Writings and Manuals of al-Qaeda, Hamas, and other Terrorists from around the World and throughout the Ages. Edited by Walter Laqueur. New York: Reed Press, 2004. 520 pp. $19.95.

In her now classic study on The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt confronted the question of why it was that much of the West was for so long so reluctant to grasp the criminal nature of the Nazi and Soviet regimes. Furthermore, why did so many fellow travelers and other apologists crop up to cover up and explain away the extraordinary atrocities committed under Hitler and Stalin? In the end, Arendt found the answers to her queries in the very nature of quotidian life in liberal democracies: because the democratic body politic is dependent upon certain assumptions about individuals, self-interest, rationality, and the rule of law, it has great difficulty in imagining the violence and terror that are part and parcel of life under totalitarian domination. Consequently, she lamented that “the normality of the normal world is the most efficient protection against disclosure of totalitarian mass crimes.”

As the third anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington approaches, it is difficult not to observe that history has once more confirmed the veracity of the dictum that plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Arendt’s analysis of the West’s failure to appreciate the totalitarian terror that threatened it half a century ago is eerily paradigmatic of its ongoing failure to grasp the nature of the phenomenon of transnational terrorism and political violence that challenges it today. The same historical forces are at work, not only trivializing accounts of the extraordinarily pernicious nature of very real threat, but also attempting to legitimize terrorists into political actors with rational grievances with whom one can treat on the basis of some elusive common ground. While sweeping generalizations are usually unhelpful in statecraft, as one surveys everything from the strategy—if it can be called that—of endlessly pursuing compromises with the firebrand Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq to the almost shameless excuse-making for Islamist violence that goes on in American academia, one cannot help but wonder if the old cycle of wishful thinking, denial and appeasement is putting on an encore performance—or, as Yogi Berra, put it once, “it’s dejà vu all over again.”

What is tragic about this state of affairs is that whereas the totalitarians of former days went out of their way to create elaborate façades to hide their true colors—one recalls, for example, the Soviet Union’s longtime denial of its responsibility for the massacre of the Polish officer corps at Katyn or Stalin’s broken promises to Roosevelt and Churchill at Yalta—today’s terrorists, especially those of Islamist provenance, have been rather open about their motivations, aims, tactics and strategy. Part of the shift has been technological: the geometric expansion of mass communications coupled with almost unlimited access to the internet both encourage and facilitate this glasnost. Much, however, is attributable to the fanatical logic of terrorism. Unburdened by the realpolitik demands of government that was the ultimate, if limited, check on the Hitlers and Stalins of totalitarian regimes, some contemporary terrorists are indifferent to the normal give-and-take of politics and, hence, have no need to indulge conventional pieties. Others, certain of the sanction of divine mandate, make no secret of their goals, no matter how apparently irrational these might be to the rest of the world. After all, would not dissembling the command of the Almighty be itself an act of blasphemy?

The architect of 9/11, Osama bin Laden, for one, has been a man of many words and, in a perverse sense, a man of his word. On February 23, 1998, Al-Quds al-‘Arabi, an Arabic newspaper published in London, carried the rambling “Declaration of the World Front for Jihad against the Jews and Crusaders” signed by bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and three other jihadi leaders. Citing America’s “crimes”—principally, the presence of American military personnel on the sacred soil of Arabia, the ongoing sanctions on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and “the petty state of the Jews”—the signatories issued a fatwa laying down that “to kill the Americans and their allies, civilian and military, is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it.” As the anonymous author of the bestseller Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror acknowledged in his book, “bin Laden publicly has [subsequently] described each action he intended to take against America<.”

To be fair, the United States government maintains a little-known intelligence agency within the much-maligned Central Intelligence Agency, the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS), which constantly collects, translates and publishes foreign media reports and other open-source material. This information is made available to policymakers and, by subscription, to the general public. However, despite the recent furor over the lack of intelligence, there has been surprisingly little attention focused on how little regard was given, in both intelligence and political circles, to the information that was available. It is as if the same psychosis that blinded the West to the true nature of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia yesterday characterizes it estimation of transnational terrorists today: they can’t really mean that, can they? So many policymakers continue to ignore the obvious (see, inter alia, my commentary “Religion: The Missing Link,” ITNI, May 5, 2004) and search for more “imaginative”—one ought to say “imaginary”—explanations: if only the Israeli democrats would compromise with Yasir Arafat’s Palestinian thugs, if only the Turkish elites were not so defensive about the secular character of their state, if only the French would put up with the de facto Islamicization of their treasured constitutional laïcité, etc.

Consequently, it is most opportune that Walter Laqueur, the noted historian and geopolitical scholar who holds the Kissinger Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, has just edited a new volume entitled Voices of Terror: Manifestos, Writings and Manuals of al-Qaeda, Hamas, and other Terrorists from around the World and throughout the Ages. In this book, Laqueur, whose dozens of books include Terrorism, The Age of Terrorism, The History of Terrorism, The New Terrorism, and No End to War: Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century (all but the latter preceding by years, if not decades, the plethora of post-9/11 books on the subject), brings together primary source material from his two previously published anthologies, The Guerilla Reader (1977) and The Terrorism Reader (1978), with over 150 pages of new material, some of it translated into English for the first time, and introductory notes. Among the documents collected in the new anthology, in addition to the previously cited fatwa by bin Laden, one finds key terrorist texts such as Sayed Qutb’s seminal essay “Jihad in the Cause of God” (“this struggle is not a temporary phase but an eternal state”), excerpts from the al-Qaeda manual (e.g., “Eleventh Lesson: Espionage,” “Guidelines for Beating and Killing Hostages”), and the Hamas “Covenant” that declares: “Renouncing any part of Palestine means renouncing part of the religion…There is no solution of the Palestinian problem except by Jihad. The initiatives, proposals and International Conferences are but a waste of time, an exercise in futility. The Palestinian people are too noble to have their future, their right and their destiny submitted to a vain game” (article 13). Those who, in its time, read al-Zawahiri’s rambling treatise Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner, selections from which are included in Laqueur’s anthology, would have been forewarned about the tactical use of many Islamic “charities” (“The jihad movement must dedicate one of its wings to working with the masses, preach, provide services for the Muslim people, and share their concerns through all available avenues for charity and educational work”) as well as realized their insight into the weakness of will in the West (“Killing them with a single bullet, a stab or a device made up of a popular mix of explosives or hitting them with an iron rod is not impossible. Burning down their property with Molotov cocktails is not difficult. With the available means, small groups could prove to be a frightening horror for the Americans and the Jews”). The scope of the work is immense: in addition to documents from Islamist terrorists in the Middle East, those of other groups representing ongoing or emerging security challenges, including the Basque ETA, Colombian combatants and the Filipino Abu Sayyaf.

Of course, many Western leaders are dismissive of the import of these texts just as Neville Chamberlain was once dismissive of the contents of Mein Kampf and Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg discounted the import of Lenin’s writings before dispatching the revolutionary back to St. Petersburg. Likewise many, perhaps even most, pious Muslims will find the Koranic interpretations of marginal jurists like Sayed Qutb and Abdullah Yusuf Azzam—to say nothing of those of Osama bin Laden, who has no scholarly credentials of speak of—to be religiously problematic, to say the least. However, the logic of terrorism only requires a fanatical few to unleash violence on the many. And while Laqueur, citing both the considerable technical difficulties and political considerations, notes that it may take longer than popularly believed before weapons of mass destruction are used by terrorists, it also seems but a question of time before this apocalyptic scenario comes to pass, as the posting on one terrorist website quoted in the last entry of Voices of Terror openly discusses with glee:

Rawalpindi 25/12/03: Pakistan’s U.S. led Dictator Musharraf has narrowly survived a second assassination bid this month. “The Cretin and all his companions are safe and sound” said Major General Shaukat Sultan. An aide said Musharraf, who had been heading home, was in good spirits. The Pakistani nukes will soon get a new erratically and lethal owner and the American apes down with Mad Cow disease don’t catch on nothing, awaiting a dirty bomb on nice homeland in a mass hysteria after orange fake alert. [spelling and grammar in the original]

At the end of his earlier study, No End to War, Laqueur concluded rather somberly that there is little likelihood that the terrorist threat will diminish significantly in the foreseeable future:

Even in the unlikely case that all global conflicts will be resolved—that all political, social and economic tensions of this world will vanish—this will not necessarily be the end of terrorism. The combination of paranoia, fanaticism and extremist political (or religious) doctrine will find new outlets. It is the reservoir from which the terrorism of today and tomorrow attracts is followers. Perhaps it is not part of the human condition, but it certainly is part of the condition of certain sections and individuals. There are bound to be ups and downs as far as the frequency and the political impact of terrorism is concerned. But there is a huge reservoir of aggression, and for this reason terrorism will be with us as far as one can look ahead.

But if it is the fate of the West to be tested in the forge of this unrelenting and asymmetrical warfare, then in confronting their foes, free societies would do well to be armed with a knowledge and understanding of the forces—no matter how seemingly irrational or alien—that motivate the terrorists.


Dr. J. Peter Pham is at James Madison University, Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is the author, most recently, of Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State (Reed Press, 2004).


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