Why Do Terrorists Kill in God’s Name?
Although published over 15 years ago, Stern’s work on why terrorists kill in God’s name provides a unique window into the motivation and organization of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim militants. They all believe that their killing of their enemies (in their minds, God’s enemies) rids the world of evil. Stern’s method: empathize with the terrorist during interviews but short of sympathy toward their cause.
Stern taught “Terrorism” at Harvard University from 1999-2015. She conducted first-hand research into the motivations and the organizational patterns of terrorist networks. That research resulted in this book. She has since published other important works on this subject of compelling interest. Currently she teaches at the Fredrick S. Pardee School for Global Studies at Boston University.
Why Do Terrorists Kill? – Grievances
Terrorists derive justification for killing in God’s name from a number of grievances. Leaders exploit feelings of alienation and humiliation, for example, to create their warriors. Demographic shifts, the selective reading of history, and territorial disputes (e.g., Kashmir) also contribute. What do terrorists achieve? They receive material, emotional, and spiritual benefits, she reports. When a small group of warriors gives money or take up arms, others in the group benefit from this payment of a “tax.”
Ramzi bin al-Shibh, a mastermind of the September 11 attacks, explains this idea of “tax.” “It is imperative to pay a price for Heaven, for the commodity of Allah is dear, very dear. It is not acquired through rest, but [rather] blood and torn-off limbs must be the price.” He reminds Muslims that the moral “obligation of Jihad” is as important as prayer and the giving of alms. He also warns Muslims that “painful and harsh” punishment awaits those who neglect to pay their “taxes” by failure to wage jihad. (p. 4)
Reward and Threat
Leaders motivate followers through the promise of heavenly reward or the threat of heavenly retribution. “All the terrorists discussed in Part 1,” says Stern, “claim to be motivated by religious principles, but most pursue a mixture of spiritual and political goals.” (p. 6) The Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord (Christian) and the Jewish Underground seek eternal, spiritual goals or aim to bring in the Endtimes predicted in Scripture. Others, like Hamas, seek political power to control Israel. Some indigenous Indonesians created intense religious violence in their aim to take control of their region’s natural resources.
Part 2 explores how leaders run successful holy war operations. Inspirational leaders motivate lone-wolf avengers. Some groups organize loosely, while others, like Al Qaeda, are highly organized and disciplined. Leaders inspire leaderless-resistance individuals to take individual action, without communicating their plans to others. Terrorist ideologies and personal grievances motivate lone-wolf avengers, such as those who kill abortion doctors in the name of Pro-Life. Using euphemisms, they call these “defensive actions” against “baby butcheries,” i.e., killing doctors, their staff, and bombing abortion clinics.
Next Week: Part 2: How Terrorists Organize, continued.