Terrorism is an extreme form of bullying, the word being derived from the Latin word terrere, literally "to make tremble". The use of terror as a means of dissuasion or punishment to gain power is thousands of years old. While rulers have always employed terror to keep their subjects in check, historically it's been the favorite weapon of the weak.
According to Gerard Chaliand and Arnaud Blin in The History of Terrorism, "The fact that most notorious instances of contemporary terrorism have a religious dimension, notwithstanding their political aims, should serve to remind us that this has also been true historically of most forms of terrorism."
An example of religious or holy terror is the campaign of violence unleashed by the Zealots, a Jewish political movement in the 1st century for a period of 70 years. Known for their violent resistance against Roman rule, the Zealots had broken with the normal Jewish society, and hence also with Jewish authorities and leaders.
The Zealots consisted of factions, where terrorist group, the Sicarii (violent men), assassinated both Romans and Jewish leaders with daggers. These actions were sometimes also directed towards normal citizens, and in public places. In fact, the Talmud describes the Zealots as biryonim, meaning "boorish" or "wild", and are condemned for their aggression, their unwillingness to compromise to save the survivors of besieged Jerusalem, and their blind-militarism.
The fervor of the Zealots didn't help the Jewish cause. Zealot terrorism caused an enormous Roman backlash, leading to the destruction of the Jewish Temple and the scattering of the Jews and the creation of the Diaspora.
However, in the planned, systematic and long-term use of terror as a political weapon, the Nizari Ismailis or Assassins of the 13thcentury are without precedent. A Muslim sect of Shiites, they were holed up in hundred unconquered mountain fortresses stretching from Afghanistan to Syria, the most important of which was Alamut, the Eagle's Nest, in northern Persia. Each fortress was a "cell" and instructions regarding who to assassinate were communicated to these cells from Alamut, the headquarters.
Members followed without question the orders of their hereditary leader, the Imam. Because they believed that God chose the Imam, he was therefore infallible; he needed no education since everything he did, no matter how odd it might appear to mortals, was considered divinely inspired. His followers accepted seemingly irrational acts, frequent changes of the law, and even the reversal of the most sacred precepts as evidence of God's plan for humanity.
Despite the lack of a conventional army, the Ismaili sect exercised tremendous political power through a highly sophisticated system of terror and assassination. The sect's modus operandi was killing anyone, particularly leaders or powerful people, who opposed them in any way. They recruited young men with a devious technique: lured into the fortress of Alamut, they were given hashish and in that delirious state were taken to a beautiful palace replete with gardens and damsels. They were told by the Imam that they were being shown a glimpse of paradise. And if they succeeded in their missions, after which death was inevitable, they would achieve instant entry into paradise as martyrs of Islam.
Chinese, Persian, and Arabic sources all relate the same account of how young men were lured by ample quantities of hashish and other earthly delights that awaited them in the special gardens of the cult's castle sand fortresses. The steady supply of hashish kept these young men obedient and made them fearless. Supposedly, because of the importance of narcotics for the Ismailis, the people around them called them hashshashin, meaning "the hashish users".
Over time, this name became modified into the word assassin. Like the modern terror networks, the Assassins employed a network of secret agents in the camps and cities of their enemies. Foremost among them were the Seljuk Turks and the caliphs in Baghdad (the Assassins murdered two caliphs). They even made two attempts on the life of Saladin, who was fighting the Christians Crusaders.
For 200 years the Assassins unleashed their terror in the Middle East, and it took a determined effort by the Mongols to stop them. In1256 AD a mighty Mongol army led by a vengeful Hulagu Khan rolled across Persia. Hulagu, who followed a sky worshipping religion, and who was about to embrace Buddhism, did not hate Islam.
According to Edwin Black the bestselling author of Banking on Baghdad, "He just refused to bow to Islam or to any belief system other than his own. Hulagu felt that Islam was an affront to monotheistic Mongol beliefs about an omnipotent god of nature that was present in all things."
Hulagu's army was an amazing military machine. It comprised soldiers, spies, conspirators, astrologers, a thousand Chinese engineers, agents to construct bridges and clear roads, and was reinforced with Christian and Sunni contingents. One by one, Hulagu stormed the 100 supposedly impenetrable Assassin castles, relentlessly killing the masters, soldiers, recruits and even infants in their cradles. The Imam himself was allowed to beg for mercy. It was denied and the Imam's Mongol escorts kicked him mercilessly to his death.
Like the Zealots, who wanted to free the Jews but precipitated the destruction of Israel, the Assassin attempts to kill Mongol leaders, led to Islam facing its gravest threat since inception. The Mongols rolled on to Baghdad and leveled the fabled city, killing at least a million inhabitants. The horde destroyed almost every major Islamic city and wiped out entire populations. The Mongols were seemingly hell-bent on destroying all of Arabia, and they might well have succeeded if suddenly Hulagu hadn't been called back to Mongolia upon his uncle's death.
The Zealots and Assassins created terror and instability by striking at the powerful. In contrast, today's terrorists strike at the man on the street because the rulers are well protected. Apart from that the aims of 21st century terrorists are not fundamentally different. The histories of the Zealots and the Assassins clearly show that terrorism is not a recent development. They negate the notion -- widely believed -- that terrorism is a direct consequence of the social, economic and political injustice rife throughout the world, reproducing on a global scale the class struggle of Marxist ideology.
Today, many voices, especially Islamic fundamentalists, communists, and social welfare types, blame various players (including the US, Israel and India) for creating conditions ripe for the incubation of terror cells. They cite American intervention in Iraq, American support to Israel, political subversion by India in Kashmir, the poverty of Muslims worldwide, among others for the rapid increase in terrorist activity. By that yardstick, Africa, which was ravaged by colonialism, should be a haven for terrorists.
Poverty as a cause for terrorism doesn't explain the huge increase in Islamic terror activity in Kerala, one of India's most developed states. It really doesn't explain how Muslims from contrasting places such as Pakistan, Sudan, Chechnya, Britain and Australia are ending up as terrorists in Afghanistan.
Invariably, any discussion on terror veers round to Islamic terrorism. Islamic terror is major worry for governments because of its propensity to give local issues a global or pan-Islamic flavor. The converse is also true – how often have we seen Muslims worldwide take to the streets in protest against American intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan and Israeli actions in Palestine.
One reason why Muslims take recourse to religious terror is the belief that it is sanctioned by history, or at least because of established precedent. Take the Ottoman empire of Turkey, which raised state terror to a new level. The incredible wealth flowing in from the provinces allowed the sultan to keep hundreds of concubines apart from his four wives. When a sultan died, his many contending sons would launch horrific civil wars, which by their violence threatened the very existence of the empire. The solution: wholesale murder.
Edwin Black writes in Banking on Baghdad: "Fratricide became an institutional Ottoman tradition, endorsed by the empire's Islamic scholars. In the 1400s, Sultan Mehmed formally wrote such killings into law: 'For the welfare of the state, the one of my sons to whom God grants the sultanate, may lawfully put his brothers to death. A majority of the ulema (Koranic clergy) considers this permissible'."
For the Ottoman ulema it was a matter of expediency – by giving their nod to mass murder, they got the sultan off their backs. In the1980s when an Indian newspaper reviewed Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses, the Islamic clergy in South Asia and Iran promptly passed fatwas (death warrants) against him, without even bothering to read the book. For them it was a convenient way to appease Muslims rioting in European and Asian cities.
While medieval Europe had its Inquisition, witch hunts and burnings at the stake –all forms of state terror – reforms gradually led to a clear separation of state and church, leading eventually to a situation where religion ceased to be a cause for war.
On the other hand, reform in Arabia usually meant swinging from one extreme to the other. In the 1700s emerged the Wahhabis, religious fanatics who were part reformer, part Bedouin raider. Founded by Mohammad ibn Abd al-Wahab, its followers declared that all forms of Islam organized after AD 950 were blasphemous. This included both the Sunni and Shia establishments.
Forbidding the use of tobacco and alcohol, they demanded a simple life, from featureless dress to austere personal conduct. Like the Puritans of Europe, they despised anything that gave pleasure to men. For instance, the ornate shrines and mosques and elaborate minarets and archways that are a distinctive feature of Islamic architecture were anathema to them. Wahhabi mosques were stern statements in stone (or mud).
It's notable that while the Wahhabis derided the gluttony and the wasteful ways of contemporary Muslim potentates in Turkey and Arabia, they never gave up the internecine violence that the common people were tired of. Massacres of blaspheming Muslims were common. In one instance in 1801, an army of Wahhabis attacked the Mesopotamian city of Karbala. Muslim women, children, young and old were brutally murdered, after the combatants were dealt with.
The guerrilla movements of the 20th century – like today's Maoist movements – used terror as a pressure tactic to bring governments to the negotiating table. Militant Islam is different and difficult in that it has nothing to negotiate. The fight is to the end.
Satellite phone intercepts by India's intelligence agencies during the November 2008 Mumbai terror attacks show this facet of terrorism. The 10 terrorists holding hostages in two hotels and a Jewish centre were in constant contact with their handlers in Pakistan. The handlers urge them to fight to the end, asking them to set fires everywhere to slow down the commandos. When a fatally wounded terrorist tells his bosses about his wounds, he's instructed to start praying because the time for paradise has arrived.
In a way, the wheel has come full circle and we are back to the days of the Assassins. The Grand Imams of terror are hiding in Afghanistan and Pakistan, collecting funds, creating charities to mask their identities, and training young men obsessed with, and mesmerized by, the idea of jihad.
Terrorism targets the mind because its victims have no idea where the next blow will come from. While the Mumbai attacks killed 183 people, millions more were shocked (though certainly not cowed) by the audacity of the attacks. Millions of suburban train commuters in Mumbai travel to their offices knowing that terror lurks around the corner.
The very openness of democracies makes them highly vulnerable. Terrorism thrives in disrupting the freedom of free societies by paradoxically taking advantage of the free movement possible in such places. Witness the rash of terror bombings in Russia since 1991 when it became a democracy in contrast to the total safety when it was under lock down during the Soviet era. Similarly, Muslim Uighur separatists will find it hard to attack Shanghai under a totalitarian dictatorship in China.
But while terrorists can disrupt, they can't displace. So far, no state has buckled before Islamic terrorism. For free nations like India and many others, that's the only lifeline.
Rakesh Krishnan is a features writer at Fairfax New Zealand. He has previously worked with Businessworld, India Today and Hindustan Times, and was news editor with the Financial Express