While the professional literature on terrorism and counter-terrorism devotes considerable attention to martyrdom and jihad, not much has pertained to critically underlying promises of immortality. Nonetheless, it is precisely the cumulative appeal of these incomparable promises that could determine the success or failure of threatening terrorist movements. How, then, we must promptly inquire, can this exhilarating appeal be most efficiently countered or obstructed?
To begin, one main point must not be overlooked or subordinated: Whatever the particular jihadist enemy of the moment (e.g., ISIS, Hamas, Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, or some other more or less kindred terror organization), the core struggle is never really about territory, sovereignty, geography, or democracy. Always, whether we are referencing fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, or Gaza, the jihadist enemy seeks something vastly more compelling and personal. This special “something” is power over death.
In exploring suitably generalized recollections of religious faith and the human fear of death, such urgent issues are not by any means limited to Islam. Rather, these thorny issues are more broadly human and species-wide. They should, therefore, be dealt with conceptually and theoretically, and not merely as ad hoc or discrete current events.
Certain obvious questions arise. How shall we effectively counter and combat such a seemingly unchallengeable form of adversarial power? Indeed, must we not quickly ask, “Can any other earthly promise ever compete successfully with religion-based offers of immortality?”
Our answers, however partial and tentative, will have to be based upon well-reasoned analyses. In turn, these answers must be fully civilizational and cultural. Furthermore, these required answers will have little or nothing to do with any still-envisioned applications of military force, whether characterized as “military advisers,” “boots on the ground,” or “aerial bombardments.” In essence, to deal successfully with jihadist foes is not primarily an operational or logistical problem. If it were, the recognizable threat would already be more accessible to narrow tactical remedies. Instead, we will need to also look elsewhere, at least if we should very determinedly seek meaningfully realistic counter-terrorist remedies.
While counter-intuitive, jihadist terror has little to do with land, politics, or strategy. Ultimately, it reveals itself as a presumptively necessary expression of “sacred violence” — that is, of doctrinally based harms that are directed against assorted apostates, heretics, and outright “unbelievers.” This still-expanding network of orchestrated homicides now generally represents an au courant form of religious sacrifice, a long-standing practice that stems from distinctly pre-modern customs (not necessarily Islamic) and that links each applicable suicide’s “martyrdom” with a “properly” designated victim. Without such a specific connection, martyr-based terror can never be anything more than ritual slaughter, that is, unholy, vulgar, and resolutely counter-productive.
Are there any available diplomatic solutions for jihad? Such sacrificial violence expresses Shahada, or Death for Allah; consequently, it would seem that there could be little or no room for any viable negotiations. For the United States and the West in general, most notably Israel, there might never be any ascertainable advantages to offering sequential concessions or any other manifestations of willing compromise.
According to the Hamas Charter: “Peace initiatives, the so-called peaceful solution, and the international conferences to resolve the Palestinian problem, are all contrary to the beliefs of the Islamic Resistance Movement.” If this particular Charter does indeed typify the wider “genre,” a more-or-less traditional armed response could still seemingly be mandated, one, as we now already know, that is ill matched to the underlying problem.
For Hamas, taken here as a jihadist exemplar, the Israeli enemy is more than just an opponent. It is, rather, a delegated “religious” target for abject annihilation, one whose obligatory violent elimination will predictably confer eternal life upon the chosen Islamic sacrificer. “I swear,” continues the Hamas Charter, “by that [sic] who holds in His hands the Soul of Muhammad! I indeed wish to go to war for the sake of Allah! I will assault and kill! Assault and Kill! Assault and Kill.”
The jihadist threat is rooted not only in such specific religious expectations, but also in certain more generalized principles of human psychology. According to the Nobel Laureate in Literature Eugene Ionesco, “I must kill my visible enemy, the one who is determined to take my life, to prevent him from killing me.” More precisely, continues the great Romanian playwright: “Killing gives me a feeling of relief, because I am dimly aware that in killing him, I have killed death. … Killing is a way of relieving one’s feelings, of warding off one’s own death.”
For the most part, in negotiating with jihadists, there should be no reasonable expectations of any reward-centered reciprocity. If, for example, Israel were to offer further territorial surrenders to Hamas or the Palestinian Authority (PA), there could be no correspondingly plausible hopes for a suitable quid pro quo. Almost certainly, therefore, these costly surrenders would be unrequited.
In acknowledging such complex dilemmas, history deserves pride of place. The markedly primal nexus between Islamist sacrifice and political violence has a very long and pertinent “prologue,” including certain little known but still resonating links to ancient Greece. Plutarch’s Sayings of Spartan Mothers reveal the model female parent as one who had reared her sons expressly for civic sacrifice. However counterintuitive, this exemplary mother was always relieved to learn that her “chosen” son had died in a manner worthy of his self, his country, and his ancestors.
The deepest roots of any still-impending jihadist terror, whether from Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, “Palestine,” or elsewhere, originate, at least in part, from those contemporary cultures that embrace roughly similar views of sacrifice. In all of these “sacred violence” contexts, the true purpose of sacrifice extends far beyond civic necessity. Here, always, sacrificial practice becomes a satisfyingly passionate and fully ritualized expression of religious fervor. Such sacrifice stems deeply from a desperately hoped-for conquest of personal death.
In other words, the jihadist terrorist is “normally” animated by demonstrably unchanging hopes to live forever.
To us, in the West, such faith-based hopes may sound unconvincing. Still, in this particular arena of world politics, there can be no greater power than power over death. After all, more-or-less persuasive promises of immortality underlie virtually all major systems of religious belief. Yet, for one reason or another, this fact remains neglected or misunderstood in Washington, Jerusalem, and other major Western capitals.
While the jihadist terrorist courageously claims to “love death,” this necrophilious announcement is an evident lie. Paradoxically, the self-proclaimed “freedom fighter” actually kills himself (or herself), always together with certain innocent others, to ensure that he or she will not die, that there will take place a sacralized transcendence of personal death. Consequently, the so-called death that he or she expects to suffer in any such “suicide” event is momentary or transient.
It represents just a trivial and easily-overlooked inconvenience on the glorious “martyr’s” fiery trajectory toward life everlasting.
Martyrdom operations have always been associated with jihad. These missions are ostensibly based upon long-codified Muslim scripture. Unequivocal and celebratory, jubilant invocations of this strongly prohibited (by international law) species of warfare can be found in parts of the Koran and in certain canonical Hadith.
For the US, Europe, and especially Israel, the vital security implications of any adversarial fusions of doctrine joining religion and violence warrant careful reexaminations. Firmly convinced that Shahada violence against the US, Europe, or Israel will lead directly to martyrdom, the jihadist terrorist will likely never be deterred by any ordinary threats of military or armed reprisal. Reciprocally, however, this “faithful” criminal will be encouraged to commit further atrocities by additional territorial surrenders and/or prisoner exchanges; that is, by precisely the sorts of asymmetrical concessions still under intermittent consideration by Israel.
What is the bottom policy line of all this? Above all, it is that our current and projected wars may be largely beside the point. Whether we are willing to accept it or not, these corrosive wars are usually focused upon mere symptoms of enemy pathology and not at the underlying disease itself. Regrettably, these “wars of defense” are unlikely to make any substantial dent in jihadist thinking; hence, they can be expected to exert only minimal interference with any derivative jihadist harms.
All good strategy must begin at the conceptual or “molecular” level. It is precisely the jihadists’ overwhelming terror of death that leads them, “logically,” to “suicide.” Precisely because any short-term “dying” in the act of killing “infidels” and “apostates” is presumed to buy their freedom from the intolerable penalty of real death — from the “terrors of the grave” — these Islamist terrorists aim to conquer mortality by “killing themselves.”
For them, the obvious oxymoron is a simple example of deductive “logic.” Ultimately, this sort of “sacrifice” is their immutably overriding objective.
We may witness, both by inference and by tangible experience, that America’s, Europe’s, and Israel’s terrorist enemies have very distinctive and correspondingly manipulative orientations to “peace.” This irremediable asymmetry puts us at a foreseeable and potentially grievous disadvantage. While our jihadist foes manifest their own positive expectations for immortality, individual and collective, by the intentional and doctrinally-based slaughter of “heathen,” our political leaders remain blithely unaware of their enemies’ resolutely primal fusion of violence and the sacred.
Among more “normal” conflict scenarios, America and Israel now face steadily expanding mega-threats of unconventional war and unconventional terrorism. Faced with determined adversaries who are not only willing to die, but who actively seek their own “deaths” in order to live forever, Washington and Jerusalem should finally understand the unavoidable limits of narrow military remediation. These distressing limits could become even more unmanageable if unconventional war and unconventional terror were at any time forged against us in assorted possible synergies, or, to use more expressly military parlance, as possible “force multipliers.”
None of this is to suggest that sustained and selective armed force against pertinent jihadist targets is necessarily in vain or is always inappropriate. It is only to remind our leaders that any such applications of force should be diligently combined with new and novel efforts to convince these terrorists that their expected martyrdom is only an elaborate self-deception. To be sure, any such effort would be profoundly difficult and sorely problematic, but the time is now at hand for fighting such complex wars on a thoroughly antecedent intellectual front.
In properly opening such a front, it will benefit all counter-terrorist strategists to recall that even an adversary who does not fear cessation of life could still remain subject to certain alternate fears. For example, the relevant jihadist might still be deterred by threats of humiliation, operational failure, incompetence, emasculation, community derision, or — perhaps most terrifying of all — rejection by God. These variegated apprehensions could resemble what Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard had famously termed the “Sickness Unto Death,” a sense of despair so utterly devastating that it feels worse even than imminent physical annihilation.
From their own current perspective, our jihadist enemies are certainly baffling, but not necessarily impenetrable. They do not intend to do evil. On the contrary, they commit to the killing of Americans, Israelis, and assorted other despised “unbelievers,” with an absolute purity of heart. Though mired in blood, their doctrinally mandated search for “heathen” and “infidels” is deliberate, unrestrained, and seemingly self-assured. It is, after all, born of the unassailable conviction that waging “Holy War” can never be shameful.
With its irreversibly sacred underpinnings, such struggle can only be heroic.
Going forward, our main task must be to capably undermine all such doctrinal underpinnings. By using our civilizations’ considerable and still-latent brainpower, and in very conscious conjunction with certain of the more usual expressions of military firepower, it can be accomplished. In the end, our unavoidable war against jihadist terror must always be fought first on the primary battlefield of “mind.”
The obligatory war against jihadist terror must become a preeminently intellectual one. In explaining their own earlier orientations to war, the ancient Greeks and Macedonians were not hesitant to express their distinct preference for struggles of “mind over mind” over those of “mind over matter.” By extension, of course, the very best case of any “mind over mind” applications would allow a particular enemy to be defeated without any palpable costs or measurable risks to “matter,” that is, without any actual fighting. In the ancient east, and in a similar conceptual vein, Chinese military theoretician Sun-Tzu had already commented in his classic The Art of War: “Subjugating the enemy’s army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence.”
Although any such optimal application of “mind over mind” to counter jihadist terror seems effectively implausible, a more general commitment to mounting an authentically intellectual struggle in this urgent arena of conflict could be reasonable and promising. Indeed, today, when the jihadist peril could sometime fuse sacred enemy visions of immortality with nuclear terrorist assaults, only a genuinely increased reliance upon mind could offer us a still-promising source of long-term security and survival. It goes without saying, therefore, that such reliance is always well worth cultivating.
Louis Rene Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and publishes widely on world politics, terrorism, and international law. Born in Zürich, Switzerland, on August 31, 1945, he is the author of some of the earliest major books on nuclear war and nuclear terrorism.