Religious fervor makes terrorists tougher to handle

When the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine spearheaded the first hijackings of international aircraft in 1969, the Shiite terrorists who commandeered TWA Flight 847 were about five years old. The PFLP was and is a secular, Marxist organization with specific nationalist and socialist goals. Broadly speaking, it was typical of its generation.

With many variations, this type of guerrilla-cum-terrorist organization continues today. Examples include the African National Congress in South Africa, the Shining Path in Peru, the Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia, Action Directe in France, and various Palestinian guerrilla groups. The outlawed Irish Republican Army and its Ulster opposition are complicated cases, combining a number of motivations including religious beliefs.

These groups are as deadly and disruptive as ever. But their motivations, practical limitations, and operational methods are at least familiar in the West. Some of today's terrorists, however, are different. While calling for socioeconomic betterment of their people, their motivation is religious. To be sure, their demands have a political content, but it is distinctly secondary.

``What we are witnessing is a reemergence of religious terrorism,'' says John Rees, co-editor of Early Warning, a newsletter on terrorism and risk analysis. ``Violence in the name of religion has been used since Herod. The Inquisition and Protector [Oliver] Cromwell practiced terror in the name of religion. In the West, where religious faith has been diluted with materialism, the absolutist sanction for terrorist violence has largely been lost. This is not the case with certain third-world movements, for instance the radical Shia.''

Specific historical events have led to the emergence of the new terrorists.

Iran's fundamentalist Shiite revolution in 1979 is primary among these. Besides Iran itself, Ayatollah Khomeini's message inspires Shiite communities in Lebanon, Iraq, and elsewhere in the Persian Gulf to lash out against the Western influences that permeate the regimes they perceive as corrupt and oppressive. And Syria's quasi-Shiite Alawite rulers share a number of values, goals, and tactical objectives with Iran.

A number of seasoned observers describe the hidden agenda of the radical Shiite factions in Lebanon as not merely freeing the Lebanese prisoners in Israel, slapping the US around, or attacking Israel. To be sure, the Shiites consider these desirable by-products.

But essentially, their goal is to undermine the relatively pragmatic leaders of Lebanon's Shiite community and pave the way for more radical, fundamentalist predominance. Displaying the impotence of moderate policies, as compared with effective extremist activism, is a means of accomplishing this. The position of Nabih Berri, moderate head of Lebanon's largest Shiite organization and focal point of current hostage negotiations, hangs in the balance.

Similar motivations lay behind the radical Shiites who seized the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979. They toppled the relatively moderate government then engaged in contacts with the US.

Indian Sikh terrorism is also based on religion. The Sikhs are acting in reaction to Hindu repression of their aspirations for autonomy. The assassination of Indira Gandhi, subsequent Sikh-Hindu bloodshed, and threatened international terrorism share some of the more extreme qualities associated with Shiite violence.

Violence motivated by religious beliefs is more difficult to cope with than its secular predecessors for several reasons:

Threats to kill hostages are credible. If allegedly God-ordained and focused on outsiders, killing is no longer perceived as murder by the perpetrators.

Threats of self-sacrifice are also believable, for the same reason.

Religious ideologues are extremely tough for any intelligence organization to penetrate. Powerful, absolutist convictions are a barrier to the recruiting of agents even when access can be arranged. And the rudimentary forms of communication used by such groups are often among the most impregnable.

Retaliation is extremely difficult. A Libyan or Palestinian guerrilla base, for instance, may be considered fair game. But a mosque complex or holy shrine would not be. And as is currently the case in Beirut, virtually the entire community can be used to disperse and hide hostages.

Being based on communitywide conviction as opposed to that of a small, clandestine group, terrorists will be supported. If an event is played out on territory they control, as in Beirut and earlier in Tehran, replacements and logistical support from local governments will be forthcoming. The TWA hijackers are neither fatigued nor hungry.

The more pragmatic a terrorist, the easier it is to negotiate a solution. At one extreme lie money-motivated kidnappings of businessmen in Latin America. A group of professionals has come into being, whose business is to settle the level of nearly automatic ransoms in such cases. Most are now resolved in this manner.

In the middle lie the politically based demands of classic secular organizations that utilize violence as a tool.

The new breed of extremists represents the opposite pole. Their demands are absolute, their hidden motivations obscure, their threshold of violence low.

As John Rees puts it: ``Can the problems of the Dark Ages, reappearing in the 20th century, be dealt with by enlightened methods, or must the West itself revert to barbarism in dealing with the phenomena. History is replete with examples of civilized societies which have not risen to similar challenges.''

The writer was a government official for two decades before becoming a consultant on international affairs.

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