Offers of Immortality: Countering the Core Incentives of Jihadist Terror

While opposing jihadist terror has become a critical security task in the United States, Europe, and Israel, little if any analytic attention has been directed toward possible remedies that would build suitably upon enemy searches for immortality, or power over death. Opinion

Palestinian militants from the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades (Photo: AP)

"'I believe' is the one great word against metaphysical fear." (Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West)

While the professional literature on terrorism and counter-terrorism devotes considerable attention to jihad in virtually all of its conceivable forms, not much space is assigned to critically underlying promises of immortality. Significantly, it is the cumulative appeal of these unique promises that could actually determine the success or failure of individual terrorist movements, and also their specific operations. How, then, can this plainly exhilarating appeal be most efficiently countered?

In order to formulate a suitably coherent and compelling answer, a key point must not be overlooked, or even subordinated. It is this: Whatever the particular jihadist enemy of the moment (e.g., ISIS, Hamas, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, or some other more-or-less kindred terror organization), the principal struggle is never really about territory, sovereignty, geography, or democracy. Always, whether we are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, or Gaza, the jihadist enemy seeks something vastly more personal and important. Oddly, because even now this utterly central point is being minimized, what is most urgently sought by this driven adversary is power over death.

Historically, as we may also note from Oswald Spengler's aptly generalized recollection of religious faith and death fear (above), such adversarial issues are not limited to Islam. Rather, these always-bewildering issues are much more broadly human, or species-wide.

How, then, shall we now effectively counter and combat such a seemingly unchallengeable form of adversarial power? Indeed, mustn't we soon inquire, "Can any other earthly promise ever compete successfully with religion-based offers of immortality?" Our answers, however partial and tentative, will have to be based upon well-reasoned analysis and conspicuous understanding; invariably, these answers must be widely civilizational and cultural. In all likelihood, moreover, these required answers will have little or nothing to do with any still-envisioned applications of military force, whether conceptualized as "military advisors," "boots on the ground," or "aerial bombardments."

In essence, we must finally understand, dealing successfully with jihadist foes is not primarily an operational problem. If it were, the recognizable threat would already be more accessible to narrowly tactical remedies. Instead, we will need to also look elsewhere, at least if we should determinedly seek realistic counter-terrorist remedies that might actually "work."

In both its core conception and operational execution, jihadist terror has little to do with land, politics, or strategy. It reveals, ultimately, a singular expression of sacred violence – that is, of doctrinally-based harms that are directed against assorted apostates, heretics and outright "unbelievers." This still-expanding network of orchestrated homicides now generally represents an au courant form of religious sacrifice, a long-standing practice that stems from distinctly pre-modern customs (not necessarily Islamic), and that links each applicable suicide’s "martyrdom" with a properly designated victim.

Lacking such a specific nexus, suicide terror can never be anything more than ritual slaughter, unholy, vulgar and insistently counter-productive.

What about available diplomatic solutions for jihad? As such sacrificial violence expresses Shahada, or Death for Allah, it would seem that there can be little or no room for any meaningful negotiations. In this connection, for America and the West in general, especially Israel, there might never be any ascertainable advantages to offering sequential concessions, or, for that matter, to any other manifestations of willing compromise.

According to the Charter of Hamas: "Peace initiatives, the so-called peaceful solution, and the international conferences to resolve the Palestinian problem, are all contrary to the beliefs of the Islamic Resistance Movement."

If this particular Charter does indeed typify the wider "genre," a more-or-less traditional armed response could still seemingly be mandated, one, as we now already know, that is ill-matched to the underlying problem.

For Hamas, taken here as a jihadist exemplar, the Israeli enemy is more than just an opponent. It is, rather, a delegated "religious" target for abject annihilation, one whose obligatory violent elimination will predictably confer eternal life upon the chosen Islamic sacrificer. "I swear," continues the Hamas Charter, "by that (sic) who holds in His hands the Soul of Muhammad! I indeed wish to go to war for the sake of Allah! I will assault and kill! Assault and Kill! Assault and Kill."

The jihadist threat is rooted not only in such specific religious expectations, but also in more generalized principles of human psychology. According to the literature Nobel Laureate, Eugene Ionesco, "I must kill my visible enemy, the one who is determined to take my life, to prevent him from killing me." More precisely, continues the great Romanian playwright: "Killing gives me a feeling of relief, because I am dimly aware that in killing him, I have killed death.... Killing is a way of relieving one's feelings, of warding off one's own death."

For the most part, in negotiating with jihadists, there should be no reasonable expectations of any gainful reciprocity. If, for example, Israel were to offer further territorial surrenders to Hamas or the Palestinian Authority (PA), there could be no correspondingly plausible hopes for a suitable quid pro quo. Almost certainly, these costly surrenders would be altogether unrequited.

In acknowledging such complex dilemmas, history deserves pride of place. The markedly primal nexus between Islamist sacrifice and political violence has a very long and pertinent "prolog," including certain little-known but still resonating links to ancient Greece. Plutarch's Sayings of Spartan Mothers reveal the model female parent as one who had reared her sons expressly for civic sacrifice. However counter-intuitive, this exemplary mother was always relieved to learn that her "chosen" son had died in a manner worthy of his self, his country, and his ancestors.

The deepest roots of any still-impending jihadist terror, whether from Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, "Palestine," or elsewhere, originate, at least in part, from those contemporary cultures that embrace roughly similar views of sacrifice. In all of these "sacred violence" contexts, the true purpose of sacrifice extends far beyond civic necessity. Here, always, sacrificial practice becomes a satisfyingly passionate and fully ritualized expression of religious fervor. Such sacrifice stems deeply from a desperately hoped-for conquest of personal death.

In other words, the jihadist terrorist is "normally" animated by resolute hopes to live forever.

To us, in the West, such faith-based hopes may sound silly, and should not be taken too seriously. Still, in this particular sector of world politics, there can be no greater power than power over death. This conclusion is not really all that difficult to understand. After all, more-or-less persuasive promises of immortality underlie virtually all major systems of religious belief. Yet, for one reason or another, this fact remains neglected or misunderstood in Washington, Jerusalem, and other Western capitals.

While the jihadist terrorist courageously claims to "love death," this "necrophilious" announcement is an evident lie. Paradoxically, the self-proclaimed "freedom fighter" actually kills himself (or herself), together with innocent others, only to ensure that he or she will not die, that there will thankfully be a sacralized transcendence of personal death. Consequently, the so-called death that he or she expects to suffer in any such "suicide" is anything but final.

It is, rather, just a trivial and momentary inconvenience on another glorious "martyr’s" fiery trajectory toward life everlasting.

It is largely an "old story." Martyrdom operations have always been associated with jihad. These missions are ostensibly based upon long-codified Muslim scripture. Unequivocal and celebratory, jubilant invocations of this strongly prohibited (international law) species of warfare can be found in parts of the Koran, and in the canonical Hadith.

For the US, Europe, and especially Israel, the vital security implications of any adversarial fusions of doctrine joining religion and violence warrant careful re-examinations. Firmly convinced that Shahada violence against the US, Europe or Israel will lead directly to martyrdom, the jihadist terrorist will likely never be deterred by any ordinary threats of military or armed reprisal. Reciprocally, however, this "faithful" criminal will be encouraged to commit further atrocities by additional territorial surrenders, and/or prisoner exchanges, that is, by precisely the sorts of asymmetrical concessions still under intermittent consideration by Israel.

What’s the bottom line of all this, at the policy level? Above all, it is that our current and projected wars may be largely beside the point. Whether we are willing to accept it or not, these corrosive wars are usually focused upon mere symptoms of enemy pathology, and not at the underlying disease itself. Regrettably, these "wars of defense" are unlikely to make any substantial dent in jihadist thinking; hence, they can be expected to exert only minimal interference with any derivative jihadist harms.

All good strategy must begin at the conceptual or "molecular" level. It is precisely the jihadists’ overwhelming terror of death that leads them, "logically," to "suicide." Precisely because any short-term "dying" in the act of killing "infidels" and "apostates" is presumed to buy their freedom from the intolerable penalty of real death – from the "terrors of the grave" – these Islamist terrorists always aim to conquer mortality by "killing themselves."

For them, the obvious oxymoron is a simple example of deductive "logic." Ultimately, this sort of "sacrifice" is their immutably overriding objective.

We may witness, both by inference and by tangible experience, that America's, Europe's and Israel's terrorist enemies have very distinctive and correspondingly manipulative orientations to "peace." This irremediable asymmetry puts us at a foreseeable and potentially grievous disadvantage. While our jihadist foes manifest their own positive expectations for immortality, individual and collective, by the intentional and doctrinally-based slaughter of "heathen," our political leaders remain blithely unaware of their enemies' resolutely primal fusion of violence and the sacred.

Among more "normal" conflict scenarios, America and Israel now face steadily-expanding mega-threats of unconventional war and unconventional terrorism. Faced with determined adversaries who are not only willing to die, but who actively seek their own "deaths" in order to live forever, Washington and Jerusalem should finally understand the unavoidable limits of narrowly military remediation. These distressing limits could become even more unmanageable if unconventional war and unconventional terror were at any time forged against us in assorted possible synergies, or, to use more expressly military parlance, as possible "force multipliers."

None of this is to suggest that sustained and selective armed force against pertinent jihadist targets is necessarily in vain or is always inappropriate. It is only to remind our leaders that any such applications of force should be diligently combined with new and novel efforts to convince these terrorists that their expected martyrdom is only an elaborate self-deception. To be sure, any such effort would be profoundly difficult and sorely problematic, but the time is now at hand for fighting such complex wars on a thoroughly antecedent intellectual front.

In properly opening such a front, it will benefit all counter-terrorist strategists to recall that even an adversary who does not fear cessation of life could still remain subject to certain alternate fears. For example, the relevant jihadist might still be deterred by threats of humiliation, operational failure, incompetence, emasculation, community derision, or – perhaps most terrifying of all – rejection by God. These different apprehensions could sometime resemble what Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard had famously termed the "Sickness Unto Death," a sense of despair so utterly devastating that it feels presumptively worse than even imminent physical annihilation.

From their own current perspective, our jihadist enemies are certainly baffling, but not necessarily impenetrable. They do not intend to do evil. On the contrary, they commit to the killing of Americans, Israelis and assorted other despised "unbelievers" with an absolute purity of heart. Though mired in blood, their doctrinally-mandated search for "heathen" and "infidels" is deliberate, unrestrained, and seemingly self-assured. It is, after all, born of the unassailable conviction that waging Holy War can never be shameful.

With its irreversibly sacred underpinnings, such struggle can only be heroic.

Going forward, our main task must be to capably undermine all such doctrinal underpinnings. By using our civilizations' considerable and still-latent brainpower, and in very conscious conjunction with certain of the more usual expressions of military firepower, it can be accomplished. In the end, our unavoidable war against jihadist terror must always be fought first on the primary battlefield of "mind."

In the final analysis, the obligatory war against jihadist terror must be a preeminently intellectual one. In explaining their own earlier orientations to war, the ancient Greeks and Macedonians were unhesitant to express their distinct preference for struggles of "mind over mind" over those of "mind over matter." By extension, of course, the very best case of any "mind over mind" applications would allow a particular enemy to be defeated without any palpable costs or measurable risks to "matter," that is, without any actual fighting. In the ancient east, and in a similar conceptual vein, Chinese military theoretician Sun-Tzu had already commented in his classic The Art of War: "Subjugating the enemy's army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence."

While still logically possible, any such patently optimal application of "mind over mind" against jihadist terror is effectively implausible, and could never merit serious operational consideration. Nonetheless, a more general commitment to preeminently intellectual struggle in this particular ambit of security concern would be both reasonable and promising. Now, when the jihadist peril could sometime fuse sacred enemy visions of immortality with nuclear terrorist assaults, only a genuinely increased reliance upon mind can offer us all a commendable tour de force.


Louis René Beres, a frequent contributor to Israel Defense, is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. He publishes widely on world politics, terrorism and international law.


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