A Look At Islamic Terrorism


There are differing opinions with regards to Islamic terrorism with the most fundamental of them being the role played by religious beliefs to motivate terrorist organizations. Are the beliefs in Islamic teachings the grounds for terrorist actions or do terrorist groups manipulate religious beliefs to justify terrorist acts? There are many scholars who claim that the teachings of Islam inspire terrorist acts. In this article I will not venture to study this aspect and restrict my study to how terrorists are able to manipulate religion to justify their reprehensible acts. I will attempt to find answer to the question, how is Islam being used by terrorist organizations to achieve political ends?

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I will study the subject under the heads given below.

(a) Why are the teachings of Islam being misrepresented?

(b) How are the teachings of Islam being misrepresented?

(c) Jihad and suicide terrorism.

(d) My Jammu and Kashmir experience.


RELIGION : MEANS TO GARNER PUBLIC SUPPORT. Before I deliberate on how teachings of Islam are being distorted by the terrorist groups it would be pertinent to understand the interplay of the goals of these terrorist organizations and Islam. It is important to study terrorist goals because goals shape the strategy and tactics of the groups and study of interplay between goals and religion will give an understanding as to why and how these groups manipulate the teachings of Islam.

(a) AL QAEDA. Al Qaeda’s stated goal is to end American military presence in Middle East and Arabian Peninsula, stop US support for Israel and overthrow “infidel regimes”.

(b) ARMED ISLAMIC GROUP (GIA). GIA is an Algerian group which aims to overthrow the Algerian regime and replace it with Islamic State.

(c) EGYPTIAN ISLAMIC JIHAD. Its goals are to overthrow the Egyptian government and to make Egypt an Islamic state and it also has some anti Western and anti US interests.

(d) HARKAT-UL-MUJAHIDIN (HUM), JAISH-E-MOHAMMED (JEM), LASHKAR-E-TAYYAIBA (LeT). These are Pakistani groups with declared goal of uniting Kashmir with Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

I have listed few of the Islamist terrorist groups operating in various parts of the world to give an idea of the kind of goals that these groups have identified for themselves. Deeper study of Al Qaeda’s aim will reveal a dream of an Islamic caliphate extending from Europe to South East Asia. Ayatollah Khomeini has a vision of wide Shia crescent of one Iran linking Iraq and Lebanon. The above is indicative of the political ambitions of these terrorist groups and the new world order which they aim to achieve by juxtaposing religion with their stated objectives. In order to achieve their goals terrorist groups need public support and sympathy. In the Muslim world religion has great influence on individual and society at large. The terrorists aim to garner support of this constituency by influencing the thinking in the Muslim world that they are the last bastion of puritanical Islam. They aim to gain support for their political ambitions by manipulating public opinion using the vehicle of religion. They also aim to gain support and sympathy of the Muslim ummah with their promise of regaining the lost glory of the Muslim civilization. Another important issue is that of the links between the terrorist groups. Though some of these groups operate independently, however most of them have developed linkages – even if the linkages are of ideology. Because of this, manipulation of the teachings of Islam by one group has impact on other groups, resulting in the way all of them shape their strategy and tactics. Today we see misinterpretation of the teachings of Islam, without exception, by all Islamist terrorist groups.

RELIGION: MEANS OF COMMUNICATION. Bruce Hoffman, former Director of the RAND Corporation’s Washington Office argues that, terrorist’s message is not necessarily religious, but he is using religion to communicate it. He goes further to say, someone claiming affiliation with an ethnic group cannot expect to get a lot of support beyond the limits of that ethnic group, but those claiming affiliation with a major religion create a much wider potential constituency. Thus terrorist groups try to leverage mosques as communication vehicles where there are captive audiences ready to listen to their views. In the mosques, the terrorists are able to tailor their message to suit their goals, thereby exploiting religion for political purposes.

We thus have terrorist groups misrepresenting the teachings of Islam. First, to gain public support for their cause then, use the religion to communicate with the same people to further their cause.


The opinion of the scholars is divided regarding how Islam is being manipulated by terrorist organizations to achieve political ends. There are scholars on both sides of the divide who have strong views on the subject. Bernard Lewis of Princeton University, USA believes that Islam does not approve of terrorism. He argues that ‘there is no evidence of terrorism in the teachings and traditions of Islam’. On the other hand, Osama bin Laden quotes extensively from Quran and interprets verses from the holy book to justify many of his actions. According to Bill Warner, Director of Centre for Study of Political Islam (CSPI), USA, Islamic texts have been made difficult to understand and comprehend. As per his study, “about 61% of the contents of Koran are found to speak ill of unbelievers or call for their violent conquest” [1] and “about 75% of Muhammad’s biography (Sira) consists of Jihad waged on unbelievers [2] “. However, there are many Muslim scholars who do not agree with his work.

IDENTIFICATION OF THE ENEMIES. The terrorist groups operating around the world can be divided into two categories, the ‘secular’ and the groups which draw inspiration from religious teachings. Secular groups have been motivated by secular agendas of Vladimir Lenin, “Che” Guevara, Mao Zedong and so on; while there are groups who draw inspiration from teachings of people like Muslim Brotherhood theoretician Sayyid Qutb, Palestinian theologian Abdullah Yusuf ‘Azzam’, Iranian ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. One important difference between the two groups is in the way they identify their enemies. For the secular terrorist groups the enemies are the members of the governmental setup or certain social economic order. For the Islamic terrorists it has much wider connotation. Different terrorist groups have different ways and means to identify their enemies. For example Sayyid Qutb, who is considered to have influenced the ideology of many terrorist groups including Al Qaeda says, ‘the way to bring about freedom to Muslims is to fight, “jahiliyyah” or pre Islamic ignorance is through preaching and through physical power and jihad against organization and authority of jahil system [3] ‘. These kinds of beliefs are open to interpretation and to followers of Sayyid Qutb they have justification of his understanding of Islamic teachings to enforce their belief even by the use of force. This leaves room for distortion of Islamic teachings. We have seen that on many instances ideologues of terrorist groups have come out with their interpretation of religious scriptures to suit organisational political agendas.

The way terrorist groups identify their enemies has to be seen in the light of the stated goals. My understanding is that though the terrorist groups have a loose alliance but they aim to establish a Pan Islamic Caliphate. To achieve their ambitions the terrorist groups are trying to ensure that not only individuals but the states and the administrative machinery of the ‘jahil’ system are brought to submission to their understanding of Islam. Today Islamic Terrorism is a worldwide phenomenon.

How are these groups able to justify their terrorist acts to the teachings of Islam even when their acts cause casualties to innocent civilians including Muslims?

JUSTIFICATION FOR KILLING OF CIVILIANS. Quran and the teachings of Islam have laid down code of conduct regarding the laws of war and the definition of “combatants” and “non-combatants”. Off late, certain terrorist groups have broadened the definition of combatants to include all civilians living in ‘infidel lands’. The ideologues of the terrorist groups’ have proposed their interpretations of laws of war whereby such civilians are being perceived in the same way as soldiers fighting on the battlefield. Such a position endangers the lives of innocent civilians including women and children and denies them the protection under Islam from a religious perspective. ‘On 28 June 2002, 28 scholars from the Al-Azhar Institute in Egypt determined that in conducting jihad there is no need to make any distinction between soldiers and civilians. In April 2002, Sheikh Hamed al-Ali, a lecturer on Islamic culture in Kuwait and one of the leaders of the radical Salafi stream, clarified in a religious ruling the circumstances in which it is permitted to kill civilians in the cause of jihad without violating the Prophet Muhammad’s command prohibiting the murder of women and children.’ [4] It is not as if there are no counter arguments from respectable scholars to such edicts, but the terrorist groups seem to ignore everything that can thwart the fulfilment of their aims.

JUSTIFICATION FOR KILLING MUSLIMS. In the world today, there are many Muslim majority countries affected by terrorism. In fact, a large percentage of casualties due to terrorist actions are Muslims. Certainly Islam does not preach Muslims should kill Muslims to advance the cause of the religion. So how do these terrorists justify the killing of Muslims?

It would be worthwhile to make a comparison between the targets and modus operandi of ‘secular terrorists’ and Islamic terrorists. The IRA in the 1990s issued warnings, disrupted public transport system and bombed downtown areas on Sunday mornings. This is in contrast to Al Qaeda which bombed the World Trade Centre towers, carries out bombings in crowded market places, suicide bombings in mosques knowing quite well there will be sizable Muslim population. Bin Laden and the likes of him are making distinction between ‘good and bad Muslims’ and misinterpret the teachings of the religion. The secular terrorist groups may still have some disinclination to cause casualty to members of their own racial or ethnic groups but some of the religious oriented terrorist groups do not show any such compunction. Anybody who opposes the political ambitions of these groups is their enemy, including Muslims. One of Sayyid Qutb’s idea identifies who is a true Muslim and who is not, thereby making many of them as apostates and giving jihadists “a legal loophole around the prohibition of killing another Muslim,” and also making “it a religious obligation to execute” the self-professed Muslim. These alleged apostates also include leaders of Muslim countries, since they have failed to enforce Sharia law. [5]


I will now attempt to study how Islamist terrorist organizations are furthering their cause through misrepresenting the concept of Jihad and through suicide terrorism.

JIHAD. Jihad in Arabic is a noun meaning struggle and in its common usage means, “striving in the way of Allah”. Muslims use the word Jihad to describe three different kinds of struggle.

(a) A believer’s internal struggle to live out the Muslim faith as well as possible.

(b) The struggle to build a good Muslim society.

(c) Holy war; the struggle to defend Islam with force, if necessary [6] .

This is how Prophet Mohammed probably wished Jihad to be. How did Saddam Hussain interpret Jihad? Just before the Gulf War Saddam had threatened the United States with Jihad. Daniel Pipes in his article in the New York Post of 31 Dec 2002 says it was, “Saddam’s call for legal, compulsory, communal effort to expand the territories ruled by Muslims at the expense of territories ruled by non Muslim”. This may be one extreme view but certainly there was no religious obligation for Muslims to answer his call. Saddam probably wished to play on the religious sentiments of the Muslims to perpetuate his regime against an imminent attack.

Many of the terrorist groups perpetrate violence in the name of Jihad and many a times even without enunciating demands. There are numerous cases all over the world of bombs going off in market places and on trains which have puzzled authorities about the motives of these acts. There can be no religious justification for these acts. These acts are possibly committed due to terrorists’ personal grievances, cultural reasons or to change the existing political order. Many scholars of Islamic history argue that the concept of Jihad is dynamic and has been constantly evolving. This has led to the modern day Jihadists to distort the original concept to help them achieve their aims including political aims. Kaisa Schreck, editor of the International Relations and Security Network (ISN) is of the view that, “perceived decline of Islamic culture and power, coupled with oppression by secular dictators, gave rise to radical Islamist agenda in Sayyid Qutb which is centered on the concept of violent Jihad”. The original concept of Jihad as enunciated by Prophet was distorted by the likes of Qutb who preached, ‘human society had become tainted by a pre Islamic barbarism. Muslims who did not see this reality were ignorant non believers and therefore legitimate targets in a holy battle’. Modern day Jihad got a fillip in the 1980s when thousands of Jihadists were ‘factory produced’ by the CIA and the ISI in madrassas of Pakistan using the Saudi money. The Islamist guerrillas initially fought the Soviet army and today they fight everywhere from Philippines to Kashmir to Iraq and the United States. Theological credentials of the product of these madrassas, run under the patronage of either the intelligence agencies or by groups having politico religious ambitions, has never been a source of debate. The products of these madrassas are mercenaries who are fighting for political order in the name of Jihad and religion.

SUICIDE TERRORISM. Study of suicide terrorism has thrown up conflicting results. There is a school of thought for whom suicide terrorism has been sanctified by the Quranic verses and the Sunnah while for the other group, religious teachings have a minor role in suicide attacks carried out by Islamic terrorists. It is actually a means to achieve political aims. The studies carried out on the subject have thrown up interesting results with regards to education level, background and principle motivation for undertaking such attacks.

According to Charles A Kimball, Department of Religion, Wake Forest University, USA “there is only one verse in the Quran that contains a phrase related to suicide,” verse 4:29 of the Quran. It reads, “O you who believe! Do not consume your wealth in the wrong way – rather through trade mutually agreed to and do not kill yourself. Surely God is merciful towards you.” Islam strictly prohibits suicide and murders. However, Al Qaeda, Hamas and some other terrorist organizations give religious sanctity to such acts. For many of the suicide terrorists Sura 9 Ultimatum, Verse 111 from the Quran preaches the followers of the religion to undertake this venture. For these groups there is sufficient justification in the Quran which assures a place in paradise if a person dies advancing the cause of Islam. But the moot question is, are the terrorist groups advancing the cause of Islam or some politico religious agenda?

The other school of thought believes that there are multifarious reasons, other than religious, which motivates people to carry out suicide missions. For them there are Muslim youths in the West who feel a sense of discrimination and alienation because of cultural differences. Some of the Muslims are outraged by what they feel as injustice being meted out to Muslims in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine. For others it is financial factor which is the cause of recruitment and still for others it could be revenge, ideology, tribal loyalties or the indoctrination carried out in the madrassas. According to Professor Dipak Gupta, San Diego State University the driving force behind terrorist actions tends to be the desire to be an important member of the group. So is suicide terrorism a case of leader inculcating a sense of achievement in the terrorists and justifying the act in the name of Islam? Fahana Ali, international policy analyst at the RAND Corporation says for, “women jihadist collective identity is more important than the individual identity, and its members are willing to do anything for a charismatic leader”. Other reasons for these women to undertake terrorist activities could be revenge for lost husband or a close relative, gain respect of the other members of the group and in the society.

From the above it is clear that the reasons for undertaking suicide terrorism are many. However, as seen earlier in the article terrorist groups try to misinterpret religion to garner support of the Muslim world for their acts and also recruit suicide terrorists. Cloak of religiosity is provided to communicate with gullible section of the Muslim community and earn their support for their actions.


During the course of my study I did come across arguments forwarded by many scholars who felt emphasizing strategic and political considerations for terrorist acts by Islamist groups and downplaying religious inspiration for terrorism was dangerous and inaccurate. Results of many studies on the subject have concluded that Islamic terrorist groups undertake terrorist acts for strategic and political considerations. Some of these studies suggest that politics and grievances (of Muslim community) are the cause of violence and religious rhetoric. It is also important to study reverse relationship that is, the possibility of religious teachings shaping political views. Prudence demands we should not be dismissive of such an idea; however, the role of Islamic teachings in motivating terrorists’ organizations is a subject itself and is beyond the scope of the article.


In my over 20 years of commissioned service I have been posted to J&K on five occasions, of that four times for counter terrorist operations. There were certain issues which stood in the face way back in 1993 and my views got reinforced over the years in my many interactions with terrorists, surrendered and apprehended, their sympathizers and the common man. Many of the terrorists and over ground workers I came across were non practicing and neither were their families very religious. These terrorists took on the facade of religiosity once they were indoctrinated or forced to join the terrorist groups. In my interactions with them I got a sense of what they passed on as religious knowledge was superficial understanding of Quran, other religious scriptures and practices. When some of them would quote scriptures they would display ignorance of real knowledge and the context for what they were saying. The above strengthened my belief that these individuals became radical because of lack of knowledge of Islam rather than being knowledgeable about it. My understanding of terrorist groups, at least of the lower rung, is that the groups do not have any kind of ideology even political. Religion is being manipulated to fill that void artificially. The common man in J&K is politically discerning and awake to the ground realities of the sub continent. The terrorist groups are also alive to this aspect and are also aware that their demands are inadequate to attract wide following; therefore it is a deliberate attempt on their part to shroud their political demands in the cloak of religiosity. Another striking aspect of this story is the reason why individuals get motivated for the terrorists cause. In J&K, in many of the cases it has been social cause besides friendship, kinship, camaraderie, sense of adventure, easy money which has been a motivating factor rather than religious ideology and this is consistent with my arguments in the article.

My interaction with some of the foreign terrorists also threw up similar interesting facets of terrorists’ training including ideological training. These terrorists were indoctrinated with hate speeches, trained to cause destructions and to cause murder, but even they could not advance any convincing theological rationale for their acts. Perhaps their trainers are aware that ordinary ‘Jihadists’ in Pakistan are also not well versed with the indepth understanding of Islamic teachings, hence the indoctrination of the terrorists by their handlers in Pakistan is intensely political. They play on the psyche of Muslims who are concerned with the ‘plight of their Kashmiri brothers’. They have been indoctrinated on the theme of humiliation and suffering of the Muslims at the hands of Hindus. For them Muslims are being oppressed and humiliated by non Muslims and the only way to defend the honor is through Jihad ensuring liberation of Kashmir and its merger with Pakistan. This heady concoction of fight for honor and political ambition offered on religious mantle is most effective.


The issue of Islamic terrorism has religious overtone but religion is not everything about Islamic terrorism. Islam does have a history of violence associated with it since its early days but then so do many other religions in the world. The aggression of the Islamist terrorist groups that we see today does emanate in portions from misinterpreting the teachings of Islam and in part is the outcome of political ideas, hence it has to be defeated through teaching correct religious practices and by political tools. The strategy being followed by Government of India in J&K viz political activism, winning hearts and minds of the people and military action against the terrorists coupled with keeping communication channels even with dissidents open is part of the approach to the problem of religious terrorism. A concerted effort has to be made to expose terrorist groups of the manner in which they misrepresent Islam. More important aspect is to make citizens of the country in general and Muslims in particular aware of the true religious practices and teachings of Islam.

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