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Terrorism is the deliberate and random use of violence against civilians for political goals. Since ancient times, various groups throughout the world have used terror for a wide range of purposes. Today many people associate terrorism with Islam because of the activities of high-profile militant Islamic groups, such as Hamas and al-Qaeda. Although Muslim extremists generally appeal to religion to justify their violent actions, their message of hate and intolerance does not correspond to the teachings of the Qur'an.

A Framework.

Terrorist groups represent a wide range of views and have different objectives, membership, and resources. One popular theory divides terrorism into three classes: revolutionary, subrevolutionary, and establishment terrorism. Revolutionary terrorism, the most common form, is practiced by groups who want to topple an existing regime and replace it with a new one. Some radical Muslims aim to overthrow oppressive governments that they consider un-Islamic or corrupted by Western influence. Subrevolutionary terrorist groups seek to change, but not entirely replace, existing political systems.

Establishment, or state-sponsored, terrorism consists of acts carried out by or with the help of a nation's government. The targets may be the state's own citizens, certain groups within the government, or a foreign government or its citizens. Authoritarian regimes often use terrorism against people in the country whom they regard as a political threat. During the late 1980s, the Iraqi government killed between 50,000 and 100,000 Kurds, many of them women and children, because of their desire to form an independent state.

Some nations provide organizational assistance, supplies, and funding to terrorists operating elsewhere. In the Muslim world, weak countries sometimes use terrorism to strike at powerful foreign enemies, such as Israel. Because of the difficulty of tracing the attacks to a particular government, the responsible parties often escape punishment. By supporting Hizbullah guerrillas in southern Lebanon, for example, Iran and Syria can attack Israel without having to confront its well-equipped army.

A Growing Phenomenon.

Terrorist groups have existed within the Islamic community from its early days. The Kharijis were a devout, but militant extremist group. In 656 they split from caliph Ali ibn Abi Talib , believing that his actions constituted a rejection of the Qur'an. They later assassinated him. The Assassins, a splinter Shi'i group headquartered in northern Iran, waged war against the Seljuk dynasty ( 1038 – 1194 ), terrorizing princes, generals, and religious scholars.

Terrorism in the modern Muslim world began with Zionist groups fighting British control of Palestine in the 1940s. After the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1967 , known as the Six Day War, Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Golan Heights. Palestinian guerrillas began to use terrorist tactics with the aim of eliminating Israeli authority in Palestine and destroying the state of Israel. They condemned the Israeli occupation as terrorism and argued that their own acts constituted legitimate resistance. These acts included hijackings, kidnappings, bombings, and the murder of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972 .

Significantly, the Palestinian groups—which included factions within the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)—were inspired by secular beliefs, not religion. At the same time, however, extremist Islamic movements were also gaining strength. The Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979 , which overthrew the American-backed government of Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi , marked a major turning point in the history of militant Islam. Iran's new leaders called for a worldwide revolution that justified violence against pro-Western, secular governments. The ten-year war between the former Soviet Union and the mujahidin in Afghanistan also stimulated the rise and expansion of Muslim terrorist groups. Among the radical religious groups that emerged during the late 1970s and 1980s were Hizbullah (Lebanon), Hamas (West Bank and Gaza Strip), Egyptian Islamic Jihad, and Al-Gamaat Al-Islamiyya (Egypt).

Since the end of the Cold War (the nonmilitary struggle between the United States and the former Soviet Union) in the early 1990s, terrorism has acquired an increasingly global nature. Instability in areas such as the Balkans, Afghanistan, and certain African countries has opened the way for terrorist training. The ease of travel and communication in the modern world has also contributed to the growth of terrorist activities. Al-Qaeda, an Islamic extremist organization established by Saudi Arabian militant Osama bin Laden around 1990 , has been linked to a series of attacks on Western targets. These attacks include the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998 , the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000 , and the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.

Identifying Motives.

In general, Muslim militant movements have focused their activities on authoritarian governments, which they characterize as unjust, corrupt, or un-Islamic. Some groups aim to replace existing secular laws with religious law and to eliminate Western influence on Muslim society. Many base their ideas on the writings of the Egyptian revolutionary Sayyid Qutb , who was executed by the Egyptian government in 1966 . Qutb argued that the faithful had a duty to overthrow rulers who ignored God's law.

Islamic militants blame not only their own governments for the problems of Muslim society, but also the United States. They accuse the United States of supporting repressive governments in the Islamic world. Many militants believe that the only way to bring about lasting change in the Middle East is to eliminate all traces of American influence there. For this reason they target not only local government figures, but also U.S. soldiers, military bases, embassies, and even tourists. Anger toward the United States is a major motivation behind the actions of groups such as al-Qaeda.

Returning to the Source.

Islamic militants often use the term jihad (literally “striving”) to describe their activities. The Qur'an outlines two broad meanings of the word. Acknowledging the difficulty of living a good life, the holy book commands Muslims to struggle against immorality, to seek virtue, and to spend time engaged in good works for the benefit of society. But the Qur'an also uses the term jihad to refer to armed conflict in defense of Islam. The mainstream Islamic community contends that militants have abused the concept of jihad, using it to justify their actions. Indeed, the Qur'an says, “And fight in the way of God with those who fight you, but aggress not: God loves not the aggressors.”

Some militant Muslim groups justify violence by referring to the “sword verses” in the Qur'an, which call for the killing of unbelievers. These verses instruct Muslims to “slay the idolaters wherever you find them” and to “lie in wait for them at every place of ambush.” However, the subsequent verses clearly indicate that violence against unbelievers is a last resort and should be used only if they fail to pay a special tax to Muslim authorities.

Most passages in the Qur'an emphasize peace. The text states that Muslims should honor an enemy's desire for reconciliation. It also says that God does not sanction a war against those who have not initiated an attack. Some terrorist groups explain the killing of innocent people as an unfortunate side effect of their struggle, even in situations where warfare is legitimate. However, the Qur'an clearly outlines permissible and forbidden actions. Civilians, women, children, and religious figures such as monks or rabbis should never be attacked unless they take up arms to fight. See also Arab-Israeli Conflict; Assassins; Bin Laden, Osama; Hamas; Hizbullah; Hostages; Intifadah; Jihad; Khariji; Martyrdom; Palestine Liberation Organization; Qutb, Sayyid; September 11, 2001; Suicide.

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