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In Terror, Does "Why' Matter? Lessons from Lebanon and Iraq

The terrorist activity of the past week has been particularly violent, as well as illuminating.  Wednesday's bombing in Tripoli, Lebanon saw at least 12 people dead and over 50 injured.   The next day, 19 Shia pilgrims were killed and over 75 hurt a mere 50km south of Baghdad.   These attacks, while inflicting similar damage, reflect two distinct movements in Islamic fundamentalism: violence in the name of politics, and violence in the name of religious doctrine.  While the immediate result might appear the same: mangled bodies, plumes of smoke, grieving relatives; the underlying purpose is increasingly important.  Political terrorism can be pacified and defeated, religious terrorism cannot.


How can these divergent fundamentalist movements be identified? Simply look at their targets.  In Lebanon, the attackers targeted a bus transporting Lebanese military personnel.  "What happened is alarming. It is a bloody message to the army that has played a crucial role in keeping peace and stability in Tripoli lately,” said one military official.  “The army and security forces will not yield to attempts to terrorize them with attacks and crimes,” said Lebanese President Michel Suleiman.  These terrorists view the army, and by extension the Lebanese "state', as the enemy.  By targeting the "state', they are attempting to de-legitimize its authority and promote social instability.  This sort of violence is easier to address because it has an inherently political orientation.  As the terrorists attack the political establishment, they in turn recognize that a) a political establishment exists, b) their grievances are towards the establishment itself, and c) that said grievances can most likely be corrected politically and/or socially.  While their problems vis-à-vis the government might be religious in nature, their ambitions are fundamentally political (i.e. statehood, independence, a change in the legal system, etc).  In a nutshell, the terrorist organization does not aim to destroy the political order, but reshape the political order.


Something far more complex is taking place in Iraq, exemplified in what we have seen in the previous week.  Ignoring the growing crisis that these suicide bombings were carried out by women, the more pressing dilemma is the targets themselves: religious pilgrims.   Terrorism of this sort is near impossible to combat because its justifications do not lay in political disillusionment or oppression, but in religious doctrine.  To these Sunni insurgents, not only is the "state' illegitimate, it is so unimportant it is not worth attacking. 


Critics would argue that the only reason these individuals target civilians is that they make easier prey, with government installations and personnel far more difficult to attack.  While this is certainly true for other insurgent organizations, such as Hamas, it does not apply to these specific bombings.  Whereas Hamas and Hezbollah will launch rockets in to civilian neighborhoods or carry out bus bombings, their main adversary is the Israeli government.  By attacking civilians they hope to achieve political aims.  They not only understand concepts of borders, sovereignty, negotiations, and armies, but reinforce these ideas.  In Iraq, religious terrorism lacks these formalities, opting instead to harass and injure a segment of the population for the fulfillment of religious principles.  This is not blowing up a bus to reclaim lost land, but killing people for the sake of killing people.


Of course, no terrorist organization is this black-and-white or cut-and-dry.  For the most part, however, each respective cell does tilt one way or the other.  They either aim to change the political structure, or simply destroy it.  While the results of each movement might be initially similar, the prescriptions are drastically different.  Political motivated terrorism can be dealt with politically.  Remedies can be offered, demands can be met, and if not, the political order can be violently reformed.  Terrorism motivated by religious doctrine is different.  It cannot be reasoned with nor deterred.  How one confronts this type of violence is still up in the air, but the important thing is understanding the difference.



Josh Hammer

Josh Hammer is an International Relations theorist, with expertise in terrorist ideology, American foreign policy, and war / conflict resolution. He currently holds a Master's of Science degree in International Politics from the University of Edinburgh, and a Bachelor of Arts degree in International Relations from the George Washington University. Josh's most recent work, his M.Sc. thesis, is a comparative analysis between Marxist / Leninist ideology and Osama bin Laden's global jihadi movement. He currently resides in New York.

Areas of Focus:
Terrorist Idealogy; American Foreign Policy; Conflict Resolution;


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