Some time back I wrote about an ageing man in Karachi who had travelled to Egypt to fight against the Israeli military during the 1967 Egypt-Israel war. After the war (which lasted just six days and saw the Israelis wiping out the Soviet-backed Egyptian forces), the man travelled to Jordan where he joined Yasir Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). He was soon sent to a village on the LebanonIsrael border to mount guerrilla attacks against Israeli border guards.
During the planning of one such attack, the PLO squad he was part of split when there arose a possibility that the attack might cause civilian casualties. He told me that the majority of the men in his squad were against killing civilians and refused to take part in the attack which was eventually aborted. The man returned to Pakistan and set up a tea stall on Karachi’s I.I. Chundrigar Road. The reason I repeat this story here is to contextualise the mutation of the idea of modern Muslim militancy and/or how drastically it has changed in the last four decades or so.
Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, James Lutz, in his 2005 book Terrorism: Origins & Evolution wrote that most European left-wing and Palestinian guerrilla groups, between the 1960s and late 1970s, largely avoided inflicting civilian casualties because they wanted the media and the people to sympathise with them.
This is not to suggest that civilian deaths were always entirely avoided; it is however true that many militant groups often suffered splits within their ranks on this issue. The most wellknown split in this context (and regarding Muslim militancy) was the one between Yasir Arafat and Abu Nidal in the PLO in 1974. Arafat had decided to abandon armed militancy and chart a more political course. Nidal on the other hand not only wanted to continue pursuing militancy but wanted to intensify it even further. He formed the violent Abu Nidal Organisation (ANO) which, by the 1980s, had become a notorious mercenary outfit for various radical Arab regimes in Libya, Iraq and Syria.
Even the anti-Soviet ‘mujahideen’ in Afghanistan - the forerunners of devastating ‘Islamist’ outfits such as Al-Qaeda - were conscious of receiving good press and public sympathy by avoiding civilian casualties. In spite of being heavily indoctrinated by CIA and Saudi-funded clerics in Afghanistan and Pakistan to embrace death as a religious duty, the mujahideen did not use suicide bombings, not even against Soviet forces.
The first-ever suicide bombing involving Muslim militants took place in Beirut in 1983 when a member of the Hezbollah drove a truck laden with explosives into a compound full of US military personnel. Yet, it was not until the 1990s, when so-called Islamic militants, many of who had never used violence against civilians during the Afghan insurgency, began to attack soft civilian targets in various Muslim-majority countries.
In his excellent 2004 BBC documentary, Power of Nightmares, film-maker Adam Curtis noted that those who fought in Afghanistan were made to believe (by their facilitators in the US and Saudi Arabia) that it was their ‘religious war’ which downed a superpower in Kabul - many such fighters returned to their home countries and tried to overthrow the existing governments there.
Since this time they were trying to uproot Muslim regimes (and not atheist communists), Curtis suggests that they believed that they could trigger uprisings among the people against ‘corrupt Muslim regimes’ by creating revolutionary chaos in the society. Thus, car bombs began to explode in public places and, as Curtis then notes, once these failed to generate the desired uprisings, suicide bombings became common when the militants became desperate.
It is also vital to note that suicide bombings, despite the fact that suicide is explicitly forbidden in Islam because it challenges God’s authority over life and death, was hardly ever condemned even by the supposedly apolitical and non-militant religious figures. This was especially true between the 1990s and the mid-2000s and largely because most Muslims were still stuck in the quagmire of the glorified narratives of divinely-charged bravado diffused by Muslim and US propagandists during the antiSoviet insurgency. For example, in Pakistan, suicide bombings were not condemned till 2014. Even as 50,000 people lost their lives to terror attacks between 2004 and 2014, many non-militant religious figures, reactionary media personalities and socalled experts were continuing to see sheer nihilist violence (in the name of faith) as reactions to state oppression, poverty, corruption, drone attacks, anything other than total nihilist madness. Nihilism.
That’s exactly what it really is. Famous French academic, author and a long-time expert on Islamic militancy, Oliver Roy, recently wrote in The Guardian (13 April, 2017) that the nihilist dimension is central to understanding the unprecedented brutality of outfits such as the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and especially the militant Islamic state (IS) group.To them violence is not a means. It is an end in itself. Such nihilism that wants to wipe out existing social, cultural and political modes and structures of civilisation through ‘apocalyptic violence’ has been used before in varied forms and in the name of varied ideologies.
Nazis in Germany did it in the name of Aryan supremacy; Mao Tse Tung in China did it in the name of ‘permanent (communist) revolution’; and the Khmer Rouge did it in Cambodia, by wiping out thousands of Cambodians and announcing communism’s ‘Year Zero.’
But since Islamic nihilists are still in the shape of insurgents (and not part of any state), Roy sees them more as large apocalyptic death cults who this time just happen to be using Islam as a war cry, mainly because this gives them immediate media coverage. He writes that just as disturbed teens and confused angry youth become easy recruits for cults promising them an identity (in return for total obedience to a charismatic leader), contemporary nihilists and death cults posing as ‘Islamic outfits’ attract exactly the same kind of following.
What’s more, after painstakingly going through the profiles of known young men and women who decided to join such cults and willed themselves to carry out the murder of civilians and of themselves, Roy found that only a tiny number of them were ever actually involved in any political movements before their entry into the outfit. Roy noted that most were‘born again Muslims’ who had suddenly become very vocal about their beliefs and then were rapidly drawn in by the many recruitment tactics of nihilist cults operating as Islamic outfits around the world.
Most telling is the fact that religious figures in Muslim countries had continued to see the nihilists as a radical expression and extension of the glories of the Afghan insurgency-only to now realise that to the nihilists they too are as much infidels as the Soviets were, or the Westerners are.