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Islamist Terrorism From 1945 to the Rise of ISIS

Islamist Terrorism From 1945 to the Rise of ISIS

Despite Islamic teachings against suicide and killing innocent people in battle, terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, or “ISIS,” have used a political form of Islam known as “Islamism” to justify an unholy war of terrorism. In 1988, Osama bin Laden founded Al Qaeda. Even after his death in 2011, Al Qaeda persists, and the more recently formed group ISIS has attempted to provoke an apocalyptic war with the United States and the West.

Over many years, Al Qaeda committed terrorist acts killing many innocent men, women, and children. On August 7, 1998, Al Qaeda terrorists almost simultaneously set off bombs 150 miles apart at U.S. Embassies in the East African countries of Kenya and Tanzania. The blasts killed 12 Americans and about 250 Africans, most of them Muslims. The group was also responsible for the September 11, 2001, suicide terrorist attacks (commonly referred to as “9/11”) on New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon, which murdered close to 3,000 people. On May 12, 2003, Al Qaeda suicide terrorists set off bombs in three housing compounds in the capital of Saudi Arabia. The bombs killed 35 people, including 12 Americans.

Other terrorist groups, often linked to Al Qaeda, have been responsible for attacks around the globe. Bombings of the underground subway in London in 2005 killed 56 people, and shootings and bombings in the Indian city of Mumbai in 2008 resulted in over 160 deaths. A bomber attempted to set off a car bomb in New York City’s Times Square in 2010.

In recent years, a group calling itself the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (aka ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh) has risen to power in the Middle East. ISIS is an Islamist organization that initially formed in Iraq and that seeks to bring about a war against the West centered in Syria. Now a rival of its former allies in Al Qaeda, ISIS has developed an ideology even more extreme and brutal than other terrorist groups.

The U.S. State Department maintains a list of terrorist groups. Included on the list are, to name a few, Nigeria’s Boko Haram, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Algeria’s Armed Islamic Group, Egypt’s Islamic Jihad, Palestine’s Islamic Jihad and Hamas, Uzbekistan’s Islamic Movement, the Philippines’ Abu Sayyaf, and Pakistan’s Jaish-e-Muhammad (Army of Muhammad) as foreign terrorist groups. Unlike Al Qaeda, most of these groups have not committed terrorism internationally. Instead, they use terrorism to help overthrow the regimes in control of their countries.

What is Islamism?

There is tremendous controversy over which terms to use when describing people who justify acts of terror and violence on an interpretation of Islam. For example, in the United States, some people make a point of saying “Islamic terrorists” in order to highlight perceived links between violence and Islamic fundamentalism. Others will strictly avoid connecting the word “terrorism” to any other term that implies a link to Islam, citing concerns about accuracy and the fear of promoting discrimination.

In this article, use of the term “Islamist” conforms to the definition provided by the Associated Press: “An advocate or supporter of a political movement that favors reordering government and society in accordance with laws prescribed by Islam.” Islamists may form political parties to advance their agenda, and some of these parties may even have extreme views of reform within society. But only a small minority of Islamists turn to terrorism in order to gain power, and that is the main subject of this article. The word “Islamism” is not a synonym for “terrorism,” nor is it a synonym for the religion of Islam itself.

Although their goals may differ, Islamist groups generally want to set up states based on Islamic fundamentalism, or literal interpretation of the Koran, the holy scripture of Islam, and the Hadith, a collection of sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. They believe that government based on Sharia, or Islamic law, is superior to any government based on secular laws, democracy in which multiple political views are represented, or any religion other than fundamentalist Islam.

Islamists reject most things Western (except technology). They generally want a more equal society with less division between the rich and poor, but they want women to return to traditional role and dress. This can mean women taking care of the family, staying out of the political and business worlds, wearing a veil, and even dressing in garments that cover them completely. Islamists call for a return to a strict, “pure” Islam that they believe was practiced in the seventh century by the Prophet Muhammad and his immediate successors, the first four caliphs.

Many Islamist terrorists, often called jihadist terrorists, view themselves as following Muhammad’s example. Muhammad in A.D. 622 had to flee from Mecca with a small band of followers. Yet in 630, he returned with an army of followers to conquer Mecca and then spread Islam throughout the Arabian Peninsula. terrorist groups often see themselves as small bands that will similarly lead Islam to victory.

But terrorist tactics run against the basic teachings of Islam. The Koran set strict rules against suicide and killing women, children, and old people in battle.

The overwhelming majority of Muslims deplore terrorist attacks and view them as violating the Koran. Most fundamentalist Muslims also believe terrorism violates Islamic law. Nonetheless, the Islamic State and other jihadist groups draw their supporters from the ranks of Islamic fundamentalists.

Secular States After World War II

Islam is the religion of more than 80 percent of the people in North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. Islamic empires controlled these areas for more than a thousand years, up until the fall of the last great Islamic empire—the Ottoman Empire—which collapsed after World War I. During the 200 years it was crumbling, European nations were busy adding most of the heavily Islamic areas of North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia to their empires. This is known as the period of colonialism. Following World War I, they carved up most of the remaining parts of the old Ottoman Empire.

European control ended gradually. Most countries in this heavily Islamic area gained their independence shortly after World War II, and almost all the new leaders who emerged in countries like Iraq, Syria, and Egypt chose to follow a secular model of government pioneered by Turkey after World War I. Many adopted European or American legal systems and other Western ways, forcing Islamic law and culture into the background.

The Jewish State and the PLO

In 1948, the United Nations, with the strong support of the United States, partitioned the land then called Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. The surrounding Arab countries, however, rejected this partition, which they viewed as another case of European colonialism, with Jews displacing Arabs. Surrounding Arab countries attacked Israel, but Israel defended its new borders and even gained territory.

In 1967, Egypt and Syria mobilized their troops in preparation for another war, but Israel attacked first. This war lasted a mere six days and resulted in Israel occupying Egyptian land all the way to the Suez Canal as well as Jordan’s West Bank, Syria’s Golan Heights, and East Jerusalem. In 1973, Egypt and Syria attempted to defeat Israel in yet another war, but failed again.

The failures showed that the Arab states were too weak to overcome Israel, which was far more advanced economically and militarily. A new entity, the nationalistic Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), stepped in to take up the war against Israel. A secular organization, the PLO never favored an Islamist state. But factions of it started using terrorism—kidnappings, shootings, bombings, and hijackings. (The PLO has consistently denied it was ever involved in terrorism.) In the 1980s, two Islamist groups formed to oppose both Israel and the secular PLO: Islamic Jihad and Hamas. Over the years, these two organizations frequently used suicide bombers to inflict terror within Israeli society.

The Rise and Spread of Islamic Fundamentalism

For many years, two main forces have worked to spread Islamic fundamentalism. One is a grassroots, non-governmental effort. The other is sponsored by the government of Saudi Arabia.

One of the primary grassroots efforts has been through the Muslim Brotherhood. Today, this organization exists in more than 70 nations in the world. It was founded in 1928 in Egypt, during British colonial rule to create an ideal government, based on Sharia. Before this ideal Islamist state could be achieved, however, the Muslim masses would have to be gradually brought back to a fundamentalist Islam. The Brotherhood preached self-help, generosity, family values, social services for the poor, and restricting women to their traditional role in the home.

In 1948, a member of this group assassinated Egypt’s prime minister. The Brotherhood then splintered between those who advocated violence and those who wanted to work non-violently for an Islamist society. The same process has repeated itself in other countries, with the Brotherhood starting as a peaceful organization and sometimes splitting into more radical factions.

The second powerful force pushing fundamentalism has been the Saudi Arabian government. The home to about one-fourth of the world’s known oil reserves, Saudi Arabia produces great wealth. The Saudi government supports a fundamentalist Islam called Wahhabism, named after a Muslim named Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab who lived in the 1700s. Wahhab led a religious movement to restore the purity of Islam in Arabia, the Muslim holy land where the Prophet Muhammad lived and died. Wahhab joined with the Saudi family of Arabia to violently suppress all Arab Muslims who resisted his fundamentalist version of Islam. The Saudis and their Wahhabi allies established the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932.

Since the founding of the kingdom, the Saudi royal family has handed over control of religious, moral, educational, and legal matters to the Wahhabi clergy. Saudi Arabia has no elected government, and it allows no other religion and few human rights. The hands of thieves are still cut off as they were in Muhammad’s time. Women have virtually no public life and are even forbidden to drive automobiles, but they have gained the right to vote and run for public office in municipal (local) elections. The first such election took place in December 2015.

The Saudi government has used money from its oil revenues to fund Wahhabi missionaries, mosques, and schools and to promote Wahhabism in dozens of countries, including the United States.

The Revolution in Iran

In 1979, a revolution in Iran overthrew the shah (king) and electrified the Muslim world. Many Muslims viewed the shah as a despot who had been put in power by the United States and Great Britain. Fundamentalists saw him as a traitor to Islam. During the turmoil that took place during the revolution, radical Muslim students seized the U.S. embassy and held American diplomats hostage for more than a year.

The galvanizing leader of the Iranian Revolution was a Shiite Muslim, Ayatollah (a religious title) Ruhollah Khomeini. (Shiite Muslims are a minority—about 15 percent of all Muslims—but they constitute the majority in Iran, Iraq, and Bahrain and are about 40 percent of the population in Lebanon.) Khomeini seized power over other factions and created an Islamist state headed by a “Supreme Religious Leader.” Despite popular elections for other positions and even women’s right to vote and hold public office, Shiite religious leaders control the military, law-making power, courts, education system, and all matters of public morality. But Iranians are increasingly demanding democratic reforms.

Iran has also become a central source for arming and financing radical Islamist groups like Lebanon’s Hezbollah (Party of God). In the 1980s in Lebanon, Hezbollah kidnapped a number of Westerners and was also responsible for the bombing that killed 241 U.S. Marines, sailors, and soldiers. Hezbollah also led an 18-year guerilla campaign against Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, which caused Israel to remove its troops in 2000.

From the Soviet War in Afghanistan to 9/11

Also in 1979, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in order to help Afghan communists who had seized power. Muslims from around the world called for a jihad, or holy war in defense of Islam, to free the Muslim country from the invaders. Thousands from many countries volunteered to be mujahedeen, holy warriors. Saudi-funded religious schools in neighboring Pakistan produced many volunteers for the jihad.

Money poured in from the Muslim Brotherhood, but also from Saudi Arabia and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The Saudis sent many volunteer fighters and spent untold millions of dollars. The CIA contributed more than $3 billion, supplied more than 1,000 small, portable Stinger missiles (for shooting down helicopters and low-flying airplanes), and trained the mujahedeen. Afghanistan had become a battleground in the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States.

One of the Saudi volunteers was 25-year-old Osama bin Laden, a member of a wealthy Saudi family. He had attended Wahhabi schools and completed college studying engineering and public administration. For the Afghan jihad, he raised money through his family connections, set up training camps, and commanded mujahedeen in battle against the Soviets. He also organized his fighters into a network that became known as Al Qaeda (“the base”). After the Soviet Union withdrew its troops from Afghanistan in 1989, Bin Laden returned home to Saudi Arabia as a hero.

But in 1990, Iraq (led by Saddam Hussein) invaded Kuwait. Fearing that Iraq would next invade Saudi Arabia, Bin Laden offered to bring in mujahedeen to help defend the nation. Instead, Saudi King Fahd decided to rely on American military forces to defeat Iraq, and he allowed them to set up bases in the Muslim holy land. The stationing of non-Muslim troops on Saudi Arabia’s holy soil transformed Bin Laden into an outspoken enemy of the Saudi ruling family and its American defenders.

Saudi Arabia expelled Bin Laden in 1991. He went to Sudan in East Africa, a country with a strict Islamist government. He took with him an estimated $250 million, part of which he spent to fund terrorist training camps. Bin Laden had become an international outlaw. Eventually, he made his way to Afghanistan, where the Taliban group had seized power and imposed a strict Islamist regime. (In Arabic, talib means “student.”) The Taliban offered him sanctuary in Afghanistan where he provided the regime with financial aid and fighters. He also created training camps for his growing Al Qaeda terrorist network.

In 1998, Bin Laden proclaimed jihad against Americans and Jews, claiming that “the United States is occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of its territories, Arabia, plundering its riches, overwhelming its rulers, humiliating its people, threatening its neighbors.” Bin Laden decreed that it was the duty of every Muslim “to kill Americans.” After Bin Laden issued his decree, Islamist terrorists began to strike American targets. In 1998, two U.S. embassies were bombed in Africa. In 2000, suicide bombers attacked the U.S.S. Cole warship off the coast of Yemen. In 2001, terrorist airplane hijackers killed almost 3,000 people in the United States.

The Hunt for Osama bin Laden

The United States responded to the September 11, 200l, attacks by declaring a war on terrorism. U.S. troops invaded Afghanistan and overthrew the Taliban. In 2003, the United States and allies invaded Iraq and toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein, a brutal dictator, though not associated with Islamist ideas.

Both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama vowed to capture or kill Bin Laden. Obama shifted military forces to Afghanistan in part to accomplish it. During these presidencies, U.S. forces and intelligence agencies were successful in targeting and killing numbers of Al Qaeda leaders, but Bin Laden remained elusive.

In August 2010, U.S. intelligence focused on a possible compound deep in Pakistan that had links to the terrorist leader. After months of information-gathering, more evidence suggested that this was Bin Laden’s refuge.

On April 29, 2011, after numerous briefings and security meetings, President Obama gave the order for Navy SEALs (Sea, Land, and Air team) to move in on the compound. On Sunday, May 1, they attacked and killed Bin Laden. In the firefight, four others were killed, including Bin Laden’s son, one of his wives, and two other men. Upon hearing the news, President Obama reportedly said, “We got him.” A ten-year hunt had ended.

The U.S. has continued its strategy to target and eliminate other Al Qaeda leaders, such as Sanafi al-Nasr, a radicalized Saudi citizen who led an Al Qaeda-linked group in Syria. However, Al Qaeda and its affiliates (groups claiming allegiance) remained active in several countries, including Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, Somalia, and Yemen. Ayman al-Zawahiri, whom national security experts call the “brains” behind 9/11, has been a prominent spokesman for Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda in Yemen claimed responsibility for the January 2015 mass shooting at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, France, in which 12 people were killed. Charlie Hebdo had frequently published cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad, among other non-Muslim religious and political figures.

The Rise of ISIS and Boko Haram

Starting in 2010, protests against authoritarian government in Tunisia quickly spread to other Arab states in North Africa and the Middle East. The widespread protests became known as the “Arab Spring.” In March 2011, the authoritarian regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria imprisoned and tortured 15 young people for writing anti-government graffiti. This sparked protesters in the city of Deraa to demand democratic reforms and the release of political prisoners. Government security forces responded with gunfire, killing four protesters.

By 2011, conflict in Syria became increasingly violent until civil war broke out in 2012, largely along religious lines. Sunni-dominated rebel groups battled the forces of the Shiite-dominated government. The government’s use of chemical weapons and indiscriminate “barrel bombs” against civilians, as well as violent and brutal conflicts among competing rebel groups, drove almost 12 million people from their homes.

In the midst of this conflict, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) rose to power. ISIS is a radical and well-organized Islamist organization that has conquered territory in Iraq and Syria, further driving many Syrians from their homes. The stated purpose of ISIS is to establish a renewed caliphate, or rule according to the earliest leaders in seventh-century Islam, and to become the highest authority in the Islamic world, destroying all it considers the enemies of Islam. The group is infamous for mass murder of civilians, graphic videos of beheadings of captives, and the destruction of irreplaceable archaeological treasures.

Thousands of radicalized fighters from around the world, including Europe and the United States, have traveled to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS, some later returning to their homelands. In 2015, ISIS claimed responsibility for suicide bombings in Beirut, Lebanon, killing 40 mostly Shia Muslims, downing a Russian airliner over Egypt killing 234 people, and for a massacre of over 130 people in Paris, France. Two reportedly “self-radicalized” jihadists in San Bernardino, California, carried out a mass shooting, killing 14 people, in December 2015. One of the shooters had proclaimed allegiance to ISIS on Facebook prior to the shooting.

In the years since 9/11, another jihadist group called Boko Haram (generally defined as “Western education is a sin”) organized a militant rebellion against the government of the African nation of Nigeria. Seeking to conquer the Christian-dominated areas of southern Nigeria and to install an Islamist government for the whole nation, Boko Haram targets Muslims and Christians alike in violent raids and assaults.

The group grabbed the attention of the world in 2014 when its members kidnapped 276 schoolgirls from a government secondary school in Chibok. Most of the girls were Christians who were forced to convert to Islam, and few were ever rescued. Amnesty International reports that the girls were sold into slavery, forced into marriages, and often “brainwashed” and turned into Boko Haram fighters.

Originally allied to Al Qaeda, Boko Haram announced its support for the rival ISIS group in 2015.

Rejecting Terrorism

The overwhelming majority of Muslims reject terrorism and the jihadists’ call for a war on America and the West. They view jihadist or radical Islamist beliefs as a perversion of Islam.

Bin Laden’s only appeal was to those few who believe the United States is the enemy. In the last 25 years, Islamic fundamentalism has gained many adherents. It has attracted the poor, the unemployed and underemployed, and otherwise frustrated young people. Leaders like Bin Laden, however, have come from wealth and often are educated in Western nations. Most of the states in the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia have failed to improve the lives of their citizens. Some are brutally oppressive, and Islamist groups came to be seen as an alternative to the rulers.

The uprisings during the “Arab Spring” offered hope for the many Arabs who advocate secular-based, democratic reforms. But political instability throughout the region, especially in Iraq, Egypt, and Syria, gave Islamists and jihadists such as ISIS the opportunity to gain influence, thousands of recruits, and even territory to control. Despite vicious attacks that have occurred in Western countries, such as France and the United States, the victims of jihadist violence and brutality are most often Muslims in the Middle East.

The more brutal ISIS becomes, however, the more the people and governments in the Islamic world unite against them. But they are not necessarily united with each other. In the United States, the debate continues about what policies are necessary for confronting terrorism.

Discussion and Writing

1. What are “Islamic fundamentalism,” “Islamism,” and “jihadism”? Compare the uses of these terms in the reading.

2. In 1929, British historian Arnold Toynbee wrote, “If you looked in the right places, you could doubtless find some old fashioned Islamic Fundamentalists still lingering on. You would also find that their influence was negligible.” Why do you think that was true then and no longer true today?

3. What do you think accounts for the rise of Islamist terrorist groups? Use the text of the reading to support your claims.

4. Evaluate the effect of Bin Laden’s death on Al Qaeda and Islamist terrorism.

For Further Reading and Research

Browning, Noah, and John Irish. “Saudi Arabia announces 34-state Islamic military alliance against terrorism.” Reuters, December 15, 2015. URL: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-saudi-security-idUSKBN0TX2PG20151215
Esposito, John L. Unholy War, Terror in the Name of Islam. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.  
“Hunting Bin Laden.” Frontline (PBS). 2001.  
Lewis, Bernard. The Crisis of Islam, Holy War and Unholy Terror. New York: The Modern Library, 2003.  
Ramadan, Tariq, “Beyond Islamism.” Tariq Ramadan Official Website, August 5, 2013. URL: http://tariqramadan.com/english/2013/08/05/beyond-islamism/.  
“The Rise of ISIS.” Frontline (PBS). 2014.  
Wilson, Scott, Craig Whitlock, and William Branigin. “Osama bin Laden Killed in U.S. Raid, Buried at Sea.” Washington Post, May 2, 2011.  
Wright, Robin. “A Short History of Islamism.” Newsweek, January 10, 2015. URL: http://www.newsweek.com/short-history-islamism-298235.


 ACTIVITY: Islamist Terrorism: What Should We Do About It?


Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups continue to be a threat. The United States had withdrawn almost all combat troops from Iraq (2011) and Afghanistan (2014) but resumed airstrikes and using some combat forces against ISIS and others in those countries in 2015. The U.S. still faces dangers from Islamist terrorism. What should we do about this?

  1. Below are listed some policies that the United States might adopt to try to counter Islamist terrorism. Form small groups to discuss these policies.
  2. Each group should choose what it considers to be the most important policy for the United States to adopt now. Groups may develop their own policy choice if they wish.
  3. Each group should then defend its policy choice before the rest of the class. If the group has come up with a policy choice not listed below, then the group may report on that alternative, too.

Proposed Policies

  1. Remove all American military forces from Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan and do not get involved in conflicts in the Middle East. Instead, encourage Saudi Arabia and other nations in the region to unite in the fight against ISIS.
  2. Increase U.S. airstrikes (bombing missions) against ISIS and other known Islamist-terrorist targets in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. Provide limited military aid and strategic guidance to allies in the region, such as moderate Sunni Arabs in Syria and the Iraqi army.
  3. Commit ground troops, or combat troops, in addition to airstrikes in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, in order to fight a full-scale war against ISIS and other Islamist or jihadist groups in the region.