Religious Ideology and Lethality

Print Friendly


Aneela Salman*


(There is a gap in research focusing on religious ideology and lethality of a terrorist organization. Determining the ideology of a group is problematic, as many terrorist groups have overlapping ideologies. This paper is a case study analysis of two lethal organizations that base their actions and decisions clearly on religious grounds. Hezbollah is a terrorist organization following Shi’a1  Islam and Al Qaeda declares Sunni2 ideology.  Both organizations have an Islamic ideology with important and significant divergences that need to be understood for effective counterterrorism strategies. Ideology plays a critical role in constructing a world-view of the members of the terrorist organizations but as seen in both the case studies i.e., Hezbollah and Al Qaeda, ideology is not a stagnant or dormant point of reference, but rather it is constantly developing and evolving. Author).

The best available quantitative data on terrorism (i.e., data from Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism’s (MIPT) Terrorism Knowledge Base) provoked the author to investigate the links between religious ideology and terrorism. This paper builds on the findings of Asal and Rethemeyer (2008), who argue that the lethality of a terrorist organization can be  predicted by  the organizational size, ideology, territorial control and networks. Although we cannot assume a direct causal link between the two without investigation, growing literature on religion and terrorism implies a strong relationship, which deserves further study (Hoffman 2006). There is a gap in research focusing on religious ideology and lethality of a terrorist organization. Ideology is one domain within terrorism literature that has not been delved in deeper to find how the fundamental ideology behind a religious group, impacts the level of lethality the group has.

In the MIPT dataset, out of 395 terrorist organizations, 117 groups have ideology (ies) that contains a religious component. And out of 117 terrorist organizations with any element of religious ideology, 109 organizations are inspired by some sect of Islam.  Of the 395 terrorist organizations operating in the world only sixty-eight have killed more than 10 people and only twenty-eight have killed more than 100 people from 1995 to 2005 (Asal and Rethemeyer, 2008). Out of the 68 lethal organizations (who killed more than 10 people in 1995 to 2005), 34 have some element of Islamic ideology. And out of 28 lethal organizations (who killed more than 100 people in 1995 to 2005) 18 have Islam as part of their ideology, drawing attention to the fact that ideology has an impact on the decision of a terrorist organization to kill people. Asal and Rethemeyer (2008) found that religious organizations are much more lethal than non-religious ones.

Asal and Rethemeyer (2008) establish that ideology is one of the determining factors and good predictor of the lethality of a terrorist organization. They use the MIPT dataset, of 395 terrorist organizations operating throughout the world from 1998-2005. This is the most comprehensive and global dataset available on domestic and international terrorism. But MIPT ideological classifications are overlapping and extensive, and do not clearly show how ideology based on different religious sects impacts the lethality of a terrorist organization.

The  MIPT  dataset  provides  comprehensive  information  about the lethality trends of an organization. But determining the ideology of a group is problematic, as many terrorist groups have overlapping ideologies, ranging from religious, ethno-religious, nationalist or a mix of all. About 116 organizations have some element of religion in their ideology. It is challenging to separate the fine lines of ideology because even the most prominent organizations in recent history, such as Al Qaeda, refrain from announcing a clear-cut group ideology. Researchers trying to determine the ideological foundations of a group rely on the declared goals, group history and development, state sponsorship, networks and affiliations. Literature on religious ideology is meager, but suggests that there is a significant difference between Sunni and Shi’a terrorist groups (Lynch, 2008).

To go deeper into the ideology aspect, this paper will do a case study analysis by focusing on the religious sects of two organizations who base their actions and decisions clearly on religious grounds. Hezbollah is a terrorist organization following Shi’a3 Islam and Al Qaeda declares Sunni4 ideology. I have selected Hezbullah to see how having ideological roots in Shi’a teachings affects the decisions regarding how lethal it would be. On the other hand Al Qaeda helps us understand what is embedded in their particular ideology, which makes them decide to kill. Broadly speaking Al Qaeda belongs to the Sunni ideological camp, and within that more particularly to the Salafi movement (Hoffman,2006; Sageman, 2004).

Hezbollah and Al Qaeda may not share the same ideology but their particular ideological background explains their use of violence.  Both organizations claim an Islamic ideology with important and significant divergences that need to be understood for effective counterterrorism strategies. But including Al Qaeda in the analysis, affects the overall analysis as Al Qaeda alone killed almost 3000 people on September 11, 2001. According to the MIPT data during 1995-2005, Hezbollah killed 10 people and Al Qaeda 3505. This paper does not explore the number of casualties but looks into the motivating impulse that impels an organization to kill as well as how ideology prompts that decision.

The most contested and debated issue regarding terrorism is its definition. The MIPT definition which has been used in this study is:‘Terrorism is violence, or the threat of violence, calculated to create an atmosphere of fear or alarm. These acts are designed to coerce others into action, they would not otherwise undertake, or refrain from actions they desired to take’ (MIPT 2006 quoted by Asal and Rethemeyer 2008: p3)

For this paper, ideology is understood as a ‘coherent and systematic whole of ideas’ which provides a rationale for political and social action of any social group. It provides a worldview of that group to justify their actions. Ideology is subject to re-description and reformulation and need not be accepted in its entirety (Alagha, 2006). Ideology is important because it provides the moral framework within which organizations operate (Drake 1998). There are two particular characteristics of any ideology that make it lethal compared to others i.e., the ideology’s audience and its capacity to clearly define an ‘other’ (Asal and Rethemeyer 2008).

According to Geertz (1973), social action is structured by ideology in some ways. ‘An ideology explains the worlds’ conditions and offers a blueprint for action. Ideology helps individuals formulate, consider and respond to political problems’ (p 41). Ideology offers a “model of” and “model for” action. (Geertz quoted by Byman 2006).  In studying Islamic terrorist movements, ideology emerges as the cover term for beliefs, values and goals associated with a movement which offers a rationale for individual and collective action (Snow and Byrd, 2007).

Terrorism and Religious Ideology

Violence and religion seem to be tied in a mutual bond of need, especially when some   adherents to a faith believe in a divine mandate for violence with unquestioned certainty. Though religion does not ordinarily lead to violence but within a particular set of political, social and ideological circumstances it has the potential of extreme violence. Terrorism is rarely an isolated act as it usually involves community support and, in many instances, a large organizational network thereby making it a collective decision with ideological and moral underpinnings (Juergensmeyer, 2000). Although some religions incorporate beliefs that seem more prone to violence, it is widely accepted that all religions have a potential to inspire violence and   incorporate notions of martyrdom and sacrifice (Fox, 2002). Religion is at times a double-edged sword that encourages both peace as well as violence depending on how the tenets are used to justify a group’s acts. Thus religion can be employed to legitimize acts that would otherwise be unthinkable. Murder can become a holy war and suicide seen as martyrdom (Fox, 2002).

In the present war on terror there is a tendency to view all Islamic terrorist movements as a homogeneous wave which is ideologically equivalent and coherent (Snow and Byrd, 2007). For example statements like ‘rise of terrorism fueled by an aggressive ideology of hatred and murder’ and ‘a new totalitarian ideology now threatens, an ideology grounded not in secular philosophy but in the perversion of a proud religion,’5  apply a monolithic lens to understand the concept of ideology. This monochromatic approach is of limited analytic utility as it overlooks ideological variations and ignores a discursive approach needed to articulate and elaborate the possible links between ideas, events and actions (Snow and Byrd, 2007).  This paper builds on the assumption employed by Snow and Byrd (2007) i.e., there is no generic and single Islamic terrorist movement driven by ‘an evil ideology.’6 Instead there are a variety of such movements, which taxonomically might be similar, and share some ideas yet differ in other respects (Snow and Byrd, 2007).

There are serious flaws in treating ideology descriptively rather than analytically, statistically rather than dynamically (Snow and Byrd, 2007). It is problematic to view ideology as a bundle of ideas and meanings that are derived from a sacred text, traumatic experience or cultural narrative. The use and application of ideology is seen in a mechanistic manner rather than a social production that evolved out of interactive processes among members, activists, targets and world events (Snow and Byrd, 2007).

Why Islamic sect is important?

The early history of Islam is essential to understand the contemporary Muslim world and the role of violence, particularly terrorism, in Islamic politics. The spilt in Islam resulting in two broad sects i.e., Sunni and Shi’a, dates back to early days of the religion.  The rift arose after the death of Prophet Muhammad, when Sunni’s took over power but the Shi’ites claimed to be his true heirs (Jaber, 1997). The first civil war between Caliph Ali7  and General Mawiyah was followed by a second round of violence between Mawiyah’s son, Yazid and Ali’s son, Hussain (the grandson of the holy prophet) in the battle of Karbala in 680. The slaughter / martyrdom of Hussain and his family gave rise to the movement of political protest which became the foundation stone of Shi’a Islam (Capitanchik in O’Sullivan, 1986).

The violent deaths of Ali and his son Hussain instilled an admiration of martyrdom, worthy of emulation, amongst Shi’as. This also defined the major themes of Shi’a Islam i.e., the battle of the forces of good (Shi’a) against the forces of evil (anti-Shi’a). Both sects have different interpretations of history. For Sunni historians, power and success were the determinants of a faithful community and validation of Islam. For the Shi’as, history is the struggle for a ‘righteous remnant in protest and opposition against the forces of evil in order to realize its messianic hope and promise, that is, the righteous rule of the Imam’ (Capitanchik in O’Sullivan, 1986: p 122).

The divergence from the Sunnis is that the latter consider only the Qur’an and the Traditions as the primary sources of the Shari’a. 8 Shi’as, on the other hand, believe religion can only be perfected by following the exoteric (Qur’an and Traditions) and the esoteric (the Imam). They believe that Islam is not revealed to man finally as the Qur’an but it is a continuous process linked with the rise of Imams. The Imam is seen as the guardian of the Shari’a and is the hujja (apodictic proof) of God to mankind, implying mandatory obedience on the part all Shi’as (Alagha, 2006). The Shi’ites believe in the Hadith:9  ‘The Imams will not confer upon an error’ and that ‘Islam is still a fortress of the Twelve Imams’ whereas the Sunnis abide by the Hadith that says ‘the umma will not confer upon an error’ (Alagha, 2006).

In Islamic theocracy, a government would be based on the Shari’a, revealed law, with sovereignty resting with God. The Jurist governor as ‘trustee of the Prophet’ would exercise the same powers as the prophet.

With the Islamic revolution of 1979, Khomeini sought to restore this religious activism in Iran causing disquiet amongst its neighbors in the Persian Gulf, and inspired fanaticism in the Shi’a fighters in Lebanon. Khomeini called upon his followers to ‘create suitable conditions to facilitate the emergence of a generation of believers who would destroy the thrones of despots, just as Imam Huseyn attempted to do at Karbala in 680’ (Capitanchik in O’Sullivan, 1986: p 127).

Global Salafi Movement

The Sunni ideology is further divided into many sects, including the Salafi movement and the Takfiri10 belief. Sageman (2004) develops the concept of a global Salafi movement based on the ideological roots of 172 terrorist groups gathered from open sources. To understand Al Qaeda, it is important to understand the Salafi movement. What sets this movement apart from other terrorist organizations is its violence against foreign non-Muslim governments and their populations.  The Salafis believe that over the centuries Muslims have deviated from the pure message of Islam. To rectify this deviance, Salafis prescribe a strict return to the fundamentals of Islam and are intolerant of any behavior not specifically supported and enjoined by the prophet Muhammad (Sageman, 2004; Wiktorowicz, 2001). The Islamic radicals waging ‘jihad’11 against the United States share a worldview and their own understanding of religious purification (Wiktorowicz, 2001). The Salafis are one of the fastest growing Islamic movements with a vast global outreach to almost all countries (Wiktorowicz, 2001).

The term ‘Salafi’ derives from the Arabic Salaf which means ‘to precede.’ Salaf refers to the companions of the prophet Muhammad, who learned about Islam directly from him, and thus had a purer understanding of the religion. Salafis believe that subsequent interpretations and understanding of Islam were distorted by the introduction of innovations (bida) as well as the emergence of schisms in the religion. Deviations occurred over the passage of time as local customs were incorporated into Islam as it spread outside the Arabian peninsula (Wiktorowicz,2001).

whereby all decisions and actions in life are to be based on the direct sources of Islam i.e., the Qur’an and the Sunnah.  Based on manhaj, Salafis hope to establish a transnational community of ‘true believers whose immutable   adherence to the faith’ (Wiktorowicz, 2001: p21) would be rewarded with salvation. They believe they are the only group destined for salvation on Judgment Day and base this on various hadith such as: “And this Ummah [Muslim community] will divide into 73 sects all of which except one will go to Hell, and they [the saved sect] are those who are upon what I and my Companions are upon.”12 Salafi revivalism found expression in the creation of Salafi political parties and movements notably that of Hasan-al-Banna (1906-1949) who established the Muslim brotherhood in Egypt in 1928. Later, based on similar beliefs, Maulana Maududi (1903-1979) founded the Jamaat- i-Islami (Islamic society) in India in 1941 (Sageman, 2004). The Salafi movement was also greatly influenced by the writings of Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), an Egyptian ideologist for the Muslim Brothers. Some of the founders of Al Qaeda for instance Ayman al Zawahiri, Ali Amin Ali al Rashidi, and Subhi Muhammad Abu Sittah were Qutub’s disciples who had previously fled political persecution in Egypt and joined the Afghan Jihad (Sageman, 2004).

Qutb insisted on Jihad to establish the true Muslim state, as dawa, or preaching could not by itself achieve God’s dominion on earth. This struggle is against any jahili society. Jahili society is any society (including so-called Muslim societies) that ‘does not dedicate itself to submission to God alone, in its beliefs and ideas, in its observances of worship, and in its legal regulations’ (Sageman 2004: p 13). With the notion of all societies being jahiliyya, Qutb provided a rationale to Muslims for rejection of and revolt against nominally Muslim regimes, of not fighting Muslims but idolaters (Sageman 2004). Muhammed Abd al Salam Fajar (1954-1982), Qutb’s disciple built on his argument by giving priority to the strategy that ‘to fight an enemy who is near is more important than to fight an enemy who is far’ (Sageman, 2004: p 16). Transforming the Salafi movement as a Muslim revivalist movement advocating the violent overthrow the ‘near enemy’ i.e., the local Muslim government, to establish an Islamist state (Sageman, 2004).

The Afghan war against the Soviet Union can be regarded a watershed in militant Muslim revivalist movements giving militant groups  from the entire Muslim world a platform to interact over lengthy periods of time. Sheikh Abdullah Azzam was one of the first Arabs to join the Jihad in Afghanistan. He advocated a traditional jihad to push Christian encroachments out of all Muslim lands. Osama bin Laden (Azzam’s deputy) created a common enemy against whom jihadi efforts were to be focused. Thus US troops in Saudi Arabia and later Somalia, provided the embodiment of that common enemy, thereby changing the focus of salafi jihad to the ‘far enemy’ (the United States and the West in general) (Sageman, 2004; Byman, 2003)

Relation between Religious Ideology and States

Religious sect affiliations become a major factor that propels state sponsorship of terrorism. Byman (2006) defines state sponsorship of terrorism as a ‘government’s intentional assistance to a terrorist group to help it use violence, bolster its political activities, or sustain the organization’ (p8). Why do states sponsor terrorism? One reason is the ideological basis that both the state and the terrorist organization share (Byman, 2006).

Ideology plays a vital role in a state’s initial decision to support terrorism and later strategic concerns become equally important. Iran’s support to Shi’a militants in Iraq had ideological and intellectual roots in the religious seminaries in Iraq which later transformed into strategic motivations. Disqualifying the notion of Al Qaeda being a non-state actor, Byman (2006) asserts that the Lebanese Hezbollah and Hamas, and the Kashmiri Hizb-ul-Mujahedin, are some of the many successful terrorist organizations thriving on state sponsorship. Al Qaeda has had links with the Sudanese government and was protected by the Taliban’s Afghanistan since 1996.

At the same time leaders often masquerade strategic concerns as ideology. Syria propagates an ideology of Arab brotherhood to explain its support for the Palestinian cause, but has repeatedly crushed Arab nationalist movement within its borders. A group’s ideological orientation obvious strategic gain. Thus, the Taliban imposed strict restrictions on Afghan women and music without that serving any strategic purpose. But these actions were based on ideological grounds that also influenced violence as a strategy (Byman, 2006).

States provide safe havens to terrorist groups that match their ideological orientation. Also states inspire political groups to take up arms, an inspiration which later translates to the creation of terrorist groups (Byman, 2006). But states reduce or stop their support to a terrorist group with changes in their own goals, either responding to outside pressure or because the terrorist group itself changed. For different states there is a different mix of motivations ranging from strategic, ideological and domestic, with no single or overarching reason. For example Pakistan had strategic interest in supporting groups in Kashmir, whereas the Taliban had strong ideological and domestic reasons for supporting Al Qaeda. And Iran supported groups for all three reasons. Iran backed Shi’a radicals in several of its neighboring countries, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia (Byman, 2006).

Often regimes seeking to spread their ideology support a terrorist group following the same ideology, to influence its neighbors and attain strategic advantage. States use terrorist groups as a proxy to export their ideology. Terrorism is supported in conjunction with other means, to advance ideological cause.  States sponsor terrorist groups because ideology assists the export of a political system and enhances a country’s international prestige. Ideologically the states supporting terrorism, support perpetration of war crimes by non-state actors but with a degree of deniability, which reduces chances of retaliation from powerful states (Byman, 2006). Being a ‘weapon of the weak’ and a ‘poor man’s air force’ (Hoffman, 2006: p34) states can engage in harming the enemy without waging full fledge war. Hezbollah in Lebanon is the most important example of Iranian state sponsorship groups against its enemy i.e., Israel.

Jihad and Cosmic wars

Exploring the relation between religion and terrorism draws attention to the concept of ‘Jihad.’ It would be wrong to conclude that September 11, 2001 had nothing to do with religious ideology. Jihadist ideology stimulates a new movement called Jihadism (Habeck, 2006). The term is often translated as ‘holy war’ and is understood as a struggle/effort on behalf of Islam. It includes ‘Jihad of the heart’ (inner struggle),

‘Jihad of the tongue’ (propagation) or ‘Jihad of the sword’ (Holy war) (Wiktorowicz, 2001). The greater Jihad is the individual non-violent strife to live a good Muslim life and the lesser Jihad is the violent struggle in Islam. Although Jihad is a    central and common belief in Islamic ideology, there is lack of consensus on its interpretation and understanding (Sageman, 2004).

The Muslim concept of Jihad is used both for personal salvation and political redemption. If violence is more empowering then to be in a state of war serves ones interest (Juergensmeyer, 2000).  Modern Jihad came to full force in the Shi’a and Sunni worlds with the Iranian Revolution in 1979 (Murawiec 2008). ‘It is a reflection, a result, and a concentrate of all the main political pathologies of the twentieth century, led by the parade of motley totalitarian ideologies, but transformed by its absorption into the Islamic cultural Matrix’ (Murawiec 2008: p324)

The Shi’ite manual of Jihad defines and lists the circumstances under which military Jihad becomes a religious duty for Muslims making it their natural right for the defence of the faith as well as for the honor, pride, dignity and wealth of the community. Negligence on the part of believers in carrying out this duty would entail divine punishment in the form of the occupation of their lands by non-Muslims who would establish despotic rule and control the social, political, economic, military, and all other aspects of their lives. Furthermore, Muslims who do not undertake Jihad would be severely punished on Judgement Day for abandoning their faith (Alagha, 2006)

Terrorist violence in the name of religion is carried out in a dramatic fashion. This is a part of a strategic plan for achieving political ends (Juergensmeyer, 2000). Strategic thinking can be construed in a broader sense to include not just immediate political gains but also an internal logic that instigates a group into perpetuating terrorist acts (Crenshaw,1981). Strategy implies not only a degree of calculation in the expectation of achieving a clear objective but also for making a symbolic statement, which is intended to illustrate or refer to something beyond an immediate target, a ‘grand conquest’ (Juergensmeyer, 2000). Religious terrorist organizations set a stage for the dramatic performance of violence with a symbolic significance. Terrorism is the ‘language of being noticed’ (Don DeLillo quoted by Juergensmeyer, 2000: p 139) but for religious terrorism the audience is not ordinary mortals but the Divine. Juergensmeyer (2000) uses the image of ‘cosmic wars’ to explain the larger than life symbol of this particular kind of terrorism. The idea of cosmic war in religion transcends human experience.

‘What makes religious violence particularly savage and relentless is that its perpetrators have placed such religious images of divine struggle  cosmic war – in service of worldly political battles’ (Juergensmeyer,2000: p146). The cosmic war concept is evoked as a defense of basic identity and dignity, where the idea of losing the struggle is unthinkable but at the same time the struggle is seen as hopeless in human terms and the possibility of victory is in Divine hands (Juergensmeyer, 2000).

Terrorism and Sunni vs. Shi’a Ideology

There are two major ideological camps within terrorist groups claiming Islamic ideology i.e., the Sunni and the Shi’a. Most Sunni extremist groups have become affiliated with Al-Qaeda, and draw their main ideological inspiration from Sayyed Qutb under the banner of Salafi- Jihadist ideology. In the last two decades, Al-Qaeda has played a pivotal role in transforming Salafi-Jihad as the central ideology providing impetus to Sunni extremist groups (Lynch, 2008).  Sunni terrorists, especially Salafi-Jihadis have xenophobic tendencies, making their outlook and approach intolerant of moderate /liberal Muslims. This insularity is featured in the terrorist operations carried out by them during 1981 to 2006. Their insular and intolerant world generates almost all their plotters, planners and executors. They bank on sympathy vote from the Sunni Muslim community in general, built on the assumption of the Sunni community being systematically oppressed by the western world and corrupt Islamic oligarchs.

Lynch (2008) highlights significant yet little appreciated differences between Sunni and Shi’a extremist terrorism. According to him they differ in their overall approach and main objectives for using terrorism. Sunni  extremists have  a  continuous, mid-to-high intensity manner, and view war against infidels and apostates as a permanent condition featuring overlapping waves. Shi’a groups on the other hand have carried out relatively discrete terrorist activity. The pattern of recruitment and developing terrorist campaigns also differs in the two sects. Shi’a extremists enjoy direct state support and are likely to originate from Iranian embassies and consulates, compared to Sunni groups, especially Salafi-Jihadis who rely on support extended by co-religionist expatriate communities. Terrorism by Shi’a actors has been more successful, as is evident from the confidence of Iranian and Hezbollah leaders as well as their capacity to base future decisions on the use of terrorism to achieve strategic gains. Shi’a terrorist groups have a greater tendency to kidnap innocents in order to bargain, whereas Sunni groups tend to abduct to kill. Abductions by Shi’a groups are fewer in number and are more likely to end in the release of hostages (Lynch, 2008). According to Lynch about 24 percent of Shi’a-inspired terrorism from 1981 to 2006 in non- combat zones featured kidnapping or hostage taking. Almost all these incidents occurred in Lebanon, with 10 percent of the victims dying in captivity; assassinations were about 35 percent and bombings around 30 percent (Lynch 2008).

Terror activity                                    # Non combat zone events         % Non-combat zone events

Targeted Assassinations                                               55                                                           35%

Bombings/ Explosive Detonations            47                                                           30%

Kidnappings/ Hostage Taking                      38                                                           24%

Airplane Hijackings and All others             18                                                           11%

Total                                                                      158                                                         100%

(Taken from Lynch 2008)

is apparent amongst Shi’a groups. There is also a propensity towards killing of individuals and minimizing collateral damage. Sunni groups, particularly the Salafi-Jihadis, on the other hand have a track record of    high-causality killings. The specific targets of Sunni groups are more ambiguous, with blurred lines between targeted killings and more generic attack against a hated group. The Salafi-Jihadis are identified by their immediate media transmission and attack glorification using the latest technology (Lynch, 2008). Further differences are seen in information management; Sunni groups amplify a terrorist event and take immediate credit, compared to their Shi’a counterparts who adopt a low key approach. Sunni terrorist groups are more likely to attack businesses that serve alcohol across the Islamic world while Shi’a outfits are more prone to target members of the print and electronic media (Lynch, 2008).

With regard to suicide terrorism, Lynch (2008) believes13that it is neither unique nor exclusive to Islamist terrorism. However, since its first use by Hezbollah in 1983, it has incrementally been employed by Islamic groups. Lynch argues that Shi’a actors resort to suicide terrorism when this tactic is feasible and in the past decade and a half has been primarily used against Israel. Sunni groups especially the Salafi-Jihadists have engaged in martyrdom operations since the 1990s, and have acquired particular notoriety for the prolific use of this form of terrorism. Lynch also warns that Shi’a terrorist outfits have the capacity to carry out such attacks with efficiency.

A major reason for this difference could be that the Shi’as are far fewer in number. Compared to some 1.3 billion Sunnis, there are only 280 million Shias worldwide and are mainly concentrated in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain and Azerbaijan (Lynch 2008). A majority of Iranian Shi’a expatriates are refugees from the Iranian revolution and are bitterly opposed to the clerical dispensation in Tehran. Similarly, nearly all Lebanese Shi’a expatriates are hostile towards Hezbollah.

The Salafi-Jihadist movement working within the rubric of reactionary Sunni Islam, aspires towards a stateless, Sunni Islamic Caliphate across the Muslim world, even if it entails employing unbridled violence and terror. Since Osama bin Laden’s 1998 fatwa, the unswerving objective has been to drive out the ‘far enemy’ from Muslim lands and to expose and topple the corrupt ‘near enemy’ i.e., the leadership in Islamic countries (Lynch, 2008). In contrast, Shia terrorist groups do not display such a deep ideological grounding the exception being Hezbollah’s Iran-backed onslaught against Israel.

Hezbollah – The Party of God

Maya the wife of Salah, a Hezbollah member explains why her husband committed suicide bombing:

He had only one goal at the end and that was to kill the largest number of the enemy. You see he had been pleading and asking the leadership to allow him the privilege of carrying out a mission of this type for the past three years. He believed he had to defend and fight for his land and countrymen and this was the best way for him to do so’ (Jaber, 1997: p 3).

Thinking these men as poor, desperate or even stupid enough to be fooled by promises of paradise and eternity misses their understanding of the ‘deep rooted sacred tradition of martyrdom.’ Poverty does not explain Salah’s last wish for his son to become a resistance fighter and Maya’s agreement to let their son follow his father’s footsteps (Jaber 1997). Hezbollah justifies such acts through its interpretation of Qur’anic verses such as: ‘Permission for warfare is given to those upon whom war is made because they are oppressed and most surely Allah is well able to assist them’ (Surat-al-Hajj, 39, The Qur’an quoted by Jaber 1997).

Lebanese Shi’ite history and Hezbollah:

ezbollah, which translates as the “Party of God,” was established by Iran with Syrian support in 1983 supposedly on the principles of Islam.with the objective of establishing an Islamic state through an ‘Islamic Revolution in Lebanon’ (Alagha, 2006).

Israeli’s 1978 ‘invasion’ of Lebanon (Jaber 1997) was followed by the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini and the establishment of an Islamic Republic in Iran in 1979, which became a Shi’ite stronghold in the region. Actually in the sixteenth century, the Safavids assumed power in Iran and adopted Shi’ism as the official religion, thus Iran has a unique tie with Lebanese Shi’as.

Shi’ite history is a mix of revolutionary spirit and political withdrawal. Their first leaders are considered martyrs who died for their inheritance rights. Later the Shi’ites developed the survival strategy of taqiyya, religious dissimulation, which allowed them to hide their religion. In spite of being the majority community in Iraq they faced oppression during the rule of Saddam Hussein in the 1970s and 1980s (Jaber 1997). A sense of alienation and the need for far-reaching changes in the world order is apparent in the works of many Shi’ite theologians (Hoffman2006, Byman 2006)

Lebanese Shi’as are partly from Lebanon proper while some migrated from Iran. Their existence can be traced back to ninth century (Alagha,2006; Jaber, 1997). The Shi’ite community in Lebanon was concentrated in the Bekaa valley, and was mostly a backward rural community. By the 1960s it grew into the largest sect in Lebanon amongst eighteen different religions (Alagha, 2006). Even after many years, the Shi’ites continued to trail behind the rest of the country, neglected by the government and  is owned by their own feudal class. They were traditionally under- represented in politics which, in turn, limited their access to the basic necessitates of modern life (Byman 2006; Jaber 1997).

Shi’ite political awakening in the region was brought about by a charismatic Lebanese Shi’a leader, Musa Sadr. He was born in Qom, Iran and educated in Najaf, Iraq; both are pivotal theological centers of Shi’a Islam. Sadr was a friend of both Ayatollah Khomeini as well as President Assad of Syria (Alagha, 2006; Jaber 1997). He championed the Shi’ite’s sense of communal identity in Lebanon and founded the Lebanese Shi’ite Islamic Higher Council ‘Majlis al-Shii al-Aala’ along with an associated militia, Amal (Byman 2006). The Council provided a political platform and a basis for official representation of the Shi’ites (Jaber 1997). Later Sadr created a socio-religious movement of the deprived, the ‘Harakat al-Mahroumeen’ which compelled the Lebanese government to grant Shi’ites full recognition as a separate community (Alagha, 2006, Jaber 1997).

With a large Shi’ite community, Lebanon was a natural ground for Iran’s revolutionary passion. Further, Lebanon’s civil war and borders with Israel, convinced Iran’s clerical leadership that this was a strategic ground to hurt their mortal enemy i.e., Israel (Byman 2006). But even before the Iranian revolution, Lebanon was a house divided against itself where its eighteen different religious factions and ethnic groups competed against each other and were backed by several of Lebanon’s neighbors.  The situation was further complicated by the influence of Palestinian militias and the Palestine Liberation Organization used Lebanon as their base for anti-Israel operations (Byman 2006). Iran’s intervention was targeted towards leading the Shi’a movement in the latter’s resistance against Israel. Amal was influenced by Islam but had a secular orientation, designed to unite Lebanese Shi’a on communal rather than ideological lines. It was more inclined towards the Israeli backed National Salvation Authority rather than Iran (Byman 2006; Alagha, 2006). In 1978, Sadr disappeared mysteriously while on a visit to Libya, and his less charismatic and religiously unqualified deputy i.e., Nabih Berri, took over the movement (Byman 2006).

Hezbollah, a ‘motley assortment of small Shi’ite organizations’ (Byman 2006: p 83) was created to counter Amal and to export Iran’s revolution to Lebanon (Byman 2006). Iranian clerics and paramilitary forces helped train and indoctrinate new Shi’ite members in the Bekaa Valley, and also developed a social services and fund-raising network there.

Hezbollah ideology:

Hezbollah religious ideology is based on the belief in Shi’a Islam of Wilayat al-Fiqih (guardianship of the jurists) and Jihad fi sabili Allah (struggle in the way of God). The basic Shi’ite religious ideology is based on Imama (Doctrine of the imamate), taqiyya (expedient dissimulation  a quietist practice of self-protection) and ta’bi’a (mobilization – an activist practice for defending the self (Alagha, 2006).

Although Hezbollah is vague about a specific date its foundation, Alagha argues that it was established in 1978, as an Islamic movement of socio-political protest by the Lebanese Shi’ite religious leadership in alliance with and influenced by the Iranian ideological movement (Alagha, 2006). On its official website Hezbollah clearly acknowledges its ideological ties with Iran: ‘The revolution against the Shah in Iran undoubtedly carried much inspiration for the Shi’a community in Lebanon, but it’s modern historic roots go back to the Islamic revival at the centers of learning in Najf, Iraq in the 1960s.’14 Hezbollah perceives itself fighting an entirely self-defensive struggle, with divine sanction (Hoffman 2006; Snow and Byrd 2007):

“We are an umma linked to the Muslims of the whole world by the solid doctrinal and religious connection of Islam, whose message God wanted to be fulfilled by the Seal of the Prophets, i.e., Muhammad. This is why whatever touches or strikes the Muslims in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Philippines and elsewhere reverberates throughout the whole Muslim umma of which we are an integral part. . . . We see in Israel the vanguard of the United States in our Islamic world. It is the hated enemy that must be fought until the hated ones get what they deserve.”(Hezbollah Program 1985: 1 quoted by Snow and Byrd 2007, p 8) Ever since Hezbollah’s birth, the Shi’ite ulema (Muslim religious scholars) have played a pivotal role in the party (Bryan Early 2006). Hezbollah claims Sheikh Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah as its spiritual leader15 but the latter has repeatedly stated that he has no organizational role, ties or link with Hezbollah. However, it is Fadlallah who unhesitatingly justifies Islamic terrorism on the grounds of self-defense.

‘Jihad [literally “striving”, but in this context “holy war”] in Islam is a defensive movement against those who impose violence’ (quoted in Hoffman 2006: p 91). For Hezbollah, the struggle against Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon is nothing short of being divinely ordained ‘directed by the tenets on Islam’ (Hoffman 2006: p91) Hezbollah remains faithful to its Islamic ideology and at the same time operates as a social service provider to a large section of Lebanese society (Bryan Early, 2006).

Hezbollah’s identity:

In the past two decades Hezbollah has gained the reputation of the world’s  most lethal and effective guerilla/terrorist organization and the organization has evolved from an Iranian-led terrorist group to the largest party in the Lebanese parliament. With two faces i.e., a terrorist organization and a social and a political actor, it becomes difficult for US foreign policy to differentiate between the two (Bryan Early 2006).

ezbollah’s goals include the establishment of a Shi’ite theocracy in Lebanon, the destruction of Israel and the elimination of western influence in the Middle East. 16 The US is depicted as the “great satan” and Israel the “little satan.” These are further linked to the concept of oppressor and oppressed and provide the motivating impulse for anti- Zionism, Pan Islamism, anti-imperialism, jihad and martyrdom (Alagha,2006). It does not give specific examples of Sunni-Shi’a disagreements as it aims to unite all Muslims. Efforts to unify Muslims have been more at a theoretical than a practical level. It intends to convey superiority of the Islamic order over the materialistic outlook of West. Over the last two decades Hezbollah has professionalized its military capacity, established itself in the Lebanese political process and meshed into the Lebanese social fabric (START).

Hezbollah’s identity construction over the years has focused on three key components i.e., religious ideology (1978-84/5), political ideology (1984/5-1990) and political program (1991-2005). Its religious ideology is embedded in the Shi’ite jihadi struggle/movement emerging in a specific social, political and economic context within a Lebanese, Arab and Islamic framework (Alagha, 2006). It has developed from a religious movement to a social movement and finally to a full-fledged political party with a parliamentary, municipal and governmental presence. The question arises what the role of Hezbollah’s Shi’ite ideology is in its development spectrum? Or has it sacrificed its ideological principles in bargaining with other political parties by including mainly Lebanese Christians and Sunnis in its election lists (Alagha, 2006)? Has this change affected its decision to kill people?

Hezbollah- Jihad:

Hezbollah  religious  ideology  depicts  Jihad  fought  only  in  the way of God as a fulcrum of Islamic belief. The audience, therefore, is not an earthly one. Hezbollah explicitly identifies suicide bombers as martyrs, being inspired by and emulating Imam Hussain. Martyrdom is considered a key to heaven but Hezbollah has shifted its religious- ideological justifications of Jihad to a more political-ideological one (Alagha, 2006). It has restrained itself from suicide attacks against Israeli civilians and focused instead on Israeli military and intelligence personnel occupying Lebanese soil (Alagha, 2006). It has observed the civilian/military divide by targeting combatants in the Israeli-occupied‘security zones’ to legitimize its claim of a resistance group against foreign occupation (Early, 2006)

Hezbollah jihad has a contractual dimension with a tacit consent from God based on paying homage and pledging allegiance to Him, to enter heaven in return for this sacrifice. “Allah has bought from the believers their lives and their wealth in return for Paradise; they fight in the way of Allah, kill and get killed [yuqtalu]. That is a true promise from Him in the Torah, the Gospel and the Qur’an; and who fulfils his promise better than Allah? Rejoice then at the bargain you have made with Him; for that is the great triumph” (Qur’anic verse quoted byAlagha, 2006)

The Shi’ites believe that Jihad is one of the doors to heaven and cite the following verse from the Qur’an (9:88-89):“But the Apostle and those who believe with him struggle [jahadu] with their wealth and their lives. To those are the good things reserved, and those are the prosperous. Allah has prepared for them gardens beneath which rivers flow, abiding therein forever. That is the great triumph!” (Quoted by Alagha 2006: p 83).

Hezbollah records lethality as a major strategy that has yielded results:

‘what caused most political consternation were the quite spectacular actions against various foreign occupants by its predecessors. The bombing of the barracks of the US Marines and French headquarters in 1983 killed 300 soldiers of the Multinational Force that by then had lost its semblance of neutrality of intervention in the punishing Israeli siege and occupation of West Beirut. That humiliation led the US to lose its nerve in trying to police the conflict, which no longer was restricted to an Israeli – Palestinian matter, with force. The subsequent bombing of the “Israeli Defence Forces” headquarters in Tyre with 75 soldiers lost took its toll on Israeli resolve and led to it’s retreat to the present occupation zone in the south.’ 17 Thus Hezbollah ideology is based on the concept of Jihad and martyrdom which are demonstrated in its acts of suicide terrorism. On  11  November  1982  Hezbollah’s  first  suicide  bomber,  Ahmed Qasir, detonated himself in the Israeli military headquarters killing 76 (the Hezbollah website claims 75) officers. The day continues to be commemorated by Hezbollah as ‘Martyrdom day’ in Qasir’s honor (Alagha, 2006).

Till 1984 Hezbollah was mainly an underground movement and remained mostly anonymous. It subsequently made several political declarations and established a politburo. It established its official mouthpiece and weekly newspaper ‘al- Ahd’ in June 1984 (Alagha,2006). It has its own radio station and satellite television ‘al-Manar’ which is the primary propaganda engine for anti-Israel and anti-US programs to the Islamic world in multiple languages (START).

The existing literature tends to overlook the nationalist thrust propelling many terrorist movements. In the case of Hezbollah, there is excessive emphasis on its Shi’ite identity and ideology as well as a tendency to see it in the same light as Al Qaeda. The sectarian emphasis is probably due to its origins in the mid-1980s as a Shi’ite resistance movement supported by Syria and Iran and touted in the ideological preaching of Ayatollah Khomeini (Snow and Byrd 2007). Yet over the years, Hezbollah has become more nationalist in orientation by seeking a prominent and legitimate role in the Lebanese government, politics and society (Snow and Byrd 2007, Early 2006). Till now Al Qaeda does not have similar aspirations for participatory politics. Hezbollah’s strategy of establishing good relations with other Palestinian resistance groups including Hamas, is aimed at strengthening its liberation movement against regional injustices perpetuated by its perceived enemies, namely, Israel and the US. This strategy of forging alliances is not only of concern to Israel and the US but has also induced Sunni groups aligned to Al Qaeda to attempt merging the Palestinian struggle under the umbrella of their global network. This resonated in a video statement by Ayman al-Zawahiri18 in which he addressed the Hezbollah-Israeli conflict:

‘The whole world is an open field for us. As they attack us everywhere, we will attack them everywhere. As their armies got together to wage war on us, our nation will get together to fight them. . . . The shells and missiles that tear apart the bodies of Muslims in Gaza and Lebanon are not purely Israeli. Rather, they come from and are financed by all countries of the Crusader alliance. Thus, all those who took part in the crime should pay the price. We cannot just stand idly by in humiliation while we see all these shells fall on our brothers in Gaza and Lebanon’(BBC 2006: 1 quoted by Snow and Byrd 2007: p 8).

Here al-Zawahiri is not only focusing on winning the hearts and minds of Palestinian organizations but is also pledging common cause with Hezbollah and, at the same time, bracketing ‘all countries of the crusader alliance’ under one heading (Snow and Byrd 2007).

Hezbullah is investing in building a domestic image by running a number of social programs in southern Lebanon, that provide schooling, medical care and welfare to Lebanese Shi’a (Alagha, 2006). It wants to project an international image of itself as a pan-Arab, pan-Islamic movement. Hezbollah seems to be pursuing practical politics in a religious garb. Its relations with Iran are based on political-ideological, strategic-policy terms (pan-Islamism) and with Syria on ethno-national identity (pan-Arabism) (Alagha, 2006).

Training other Sunni groups and even non-Islamic outfits such as the Tamil Tigers has been part of Hezbollah strategy to spread the schemes of martyrdom into other territories.  Addressing the organization’s military units in December 2002, the Hezbollah leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, aid:‘Martyrdom operations – suicide bombings – should be exported outside Palestine. I encourage Palestinians to take suicide bombings worldwide. Don’t be shy to do it.’19 Hezbollah lethality is inspired by Shi’a terrorism, which is Iranian focused. Its organizational goals contrast with the Sunni extremist focus on broad messianic objectives thereby drastically limiting Shi’a terror propaganda (Lynch, 2008)

Al Qaeda and its Ideology

The brainchild of Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda has its genesis in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion of 1979. Osama bin Laden formed Al Qaeda around 1988, as an international terrorist network seeking to rid Muslim countries of the profane influence of the west and to establish a fundamentalist Islamic regime. Afghanistan became the headquarters for recruiting, training and financing thousands of foreign

‘mujahadeens’ holy warriors from more than fifty countries (Rueda,2001; CFR, 2008). Many believe that Al Qaeda is a group of ‘religious fanatics, lunatics, mad mullahs or even fascists—embodiments of ‘pure evil’ which corrupts and misrepresents Qur’an’(Hellmich, 2005).

To understand Al Qaeda and its ideology it is pertinent to reflect on the background of Osama bin Laden. It is thought that bin Laden’s experiences during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan as a logistical coordinator and financier of the Afghan and Arab resistance reaffirmed his belief in the collective Muslim armed struggle, inspired by Islamic principles. His exposure to the preaching of conservative Islamic scholars and militants laid the theological and ideological foundations for his belief in ‘defensive jihad’ as well as his desire for a puritanical Salafist Islamic reform in Muslim societies (Blanchard, 2004).

According to Sageman (2004), Al Qaeda is the vanguard of the global Salafi movement, which includes many sister terrorist groups that share the same ideology. The ‘Salafi movement determines its mission, sets its goals, and guides its tactics (Sageman 2004; p1). Salafi ideology makes the Saudi Arabian government an un-Islamic regime, which needs to be purged of its present leaders.

Unhappy over the introduction of foreign military forces in Saudi Arabia after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the 1991 Gulf War, bin Laden renewed his commitment to defensive jihad and advocated violence against Saudi Arabia and the United States (Blanchard, 2004). He publically criticized the Saudi royal family for inviting foreign troops into the holy lands.   Later he was expelled from Saudi Arabia and this increased his hatred of the US. Bin Laden issued a declaration of jihad against the US in 1996, signaling his emergence on the world stage. In his declarations he adopted the historical imagery of Islamic resistance to the European crusades, describing the enemy as ‘the alliance of Jews, Christians and their agents’ and holding them responsible for “massacres in Tajikistan, Burma, Kashmir, Assam, the Philippines, Fatani [as transliterated], Ogaden, Somalia, Eritrea, Chechnya, and Bosnia-Herzegovina”  (Blanchard,  2004:  p  3).  Bin  Laden  projects the image of the Islamic world as one seamless community in which Muslims are obliged to defend themselves against foreign invaders. He exhorts the Muslim Umma to unite under a ‘pious caliphate’ that would be governed by Islamic law and principles. He perceives Afghanistan under the Taliban as a model Islamic state (Blanchard, 2004).

Al Qaeda in Arabic means ‘the base.’ It is led by bin Laden and administered by a council that discusses and approves major terrorist operations. The head of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, the top deputy of bin Laden, is Al Qaeda’s ideological advisor. Another prominent leader was Abu Musab al Zarqawi who established the Sunni Muslim extremist group Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and planned deadly terror attacks including beheadings of kidnapped foreigners. Praised by bin Laden as the ‘prince of al-Qaeda in Iraq’ he was later killed in a US air strike near Baghdad in 2006 (CFR, 2008).

Today Al Qaeda is a ‘networked transnational constituency rather than the monolithic, international terrorist organization with an identifiable command and control apparatus that it once was.’ Since 9/11 is has emerged as a ‘nimble, flexible and adaptive entity,’ demonstrating remarkable resilience and durability and claims to be stronger and more capable (Hoffman 2006: p282). With a hydra-headed network, Al Qaeda shares Sunni Muslim fundamentalist view with many Islamic terrorist groups around the world (CFR, 2008). It depends on its local cells for its pan-Islamist ideology (Hoffman 2003).

‘The current Al Qaeda therefore exits more as an ideology that has become a vast enterprise – an international franchise with like-minded local representatives loosely connected to a central ideological or motivational base but advancing the remaining center’s goals at once simultaneously and independently of each other’ (Hoffman 2006). Al Qaeda attacks American and Western interests, Jewish interests and Muslim states it considers impious/corrupt including the Saudi monarchy (CFR, 2008),

which reflects on its ideological foundations:

“The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies – civilians and military – is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it, in order to liberate al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy mosques from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim. This is in accordance with the words of Almighty God, “And fight the pagans all together as they fight you all together,” and “Fight them until there is no more tumult or oppression, and there prevails justice and faith in God.” (Fatwa20 issued by Osama bin Laden and others in al-Qaeda, published in al- Quds al-Arabi, 23 February  1998, taken from Wiktorowicz,2001)

Here bin Laden is referring to America as the embodiment of evil and oppression, a mythical monster, which has to be battled, and which only divine power can subdue. The process of creating satanic enemies is part of the construction of an image of cosmic war (Juergensmeyer, 2000). Following the bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania (1998), Laden argued that it was the retribution of US policy for massacres of Palestinian civilians and Muslims. All the grand declared threats to the US were enacted on September 11, 2001. The attack on the twin towers made Al Qaeda the number one enemy of the US. Bin Laden declared his support for the hijackers and threatened future attacks as a defense motivated response (Blanchard, 2004).

There is a distinction between pre and post-9/11 bin Laden statements. In many pre-9/11 pronouncements he appeals to non-Arab Muslims engaged in conflict in Chechnya, Bosnia, Kashmir and Philippines. In the post-9/11 period, bin Laden’s appeal shifted to national groups facing counter-terrorism operations, particularly in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iraq and Palestinian territories (Blanchard, 2004).

Interestingly Al Qaeda propounds an intellectual concept that is not based on main schools of Islamic theology, but constructs a new ideological starting point by the application of Islamic principles to sociopolitical change. Its political goals are reinforced by the teachings of the Qur’an, the organization creates a powerful imagery that is embedded in the collective consciousness of the Muslim community.

Thus it inspires its followers to commit violence and convinces them that these acts of destruction are ordained by Allah (Hellmich, 2005).

Bin Laden projects Jihad as an individual responsibility incumbent on all Muslims, to avenge the innocent Muslim blood, especially that of Muslim children in Iraq and Palestine (Hoffman, 2003). “Those [Westerners] who talk about the loss of innocent people didn’t yet taste how it feels when you lose a child, don’t know how it feels when you look in your child’s eyes and all you see is fear. Are they not afraid that one day they [will] get the same treatment?” (Laden quoted by Hoffman 2003).

Al-Qaeda’s ideology has developed over the years in response to its geopolitical and geostrategic activities (Rueda, 2001).   It sees the world as its stage, carrying out terrorist attacks   in diverse places like Tunisia, Pakistan, Jordan, Indonesia, Kuwait, Philippines, Yemen and Kenya. Its targets include German, Australian and Israeli tourists, French engineers and American diplomats and servicemen. It has continued to employ suicide bombing tactics at sea, on land and in the air (targeting commercial aviation) (Hoffman 2003). The main challenge for this organization is to promote and ensure durability of its ideology and concepts (Hoffman, 2003).

There has been a shift in bin Laden’s stance, towards more moderate political rhetoric and emphasis on economic effectiveness of Al Qaeda, to broaden its appeal, and draw inspiration for more ‘spectacular’ attacks.’

The elimination of several of its key leaders and the ongoing Afghanistan war has not ended Al Qaeda’s campaign. It was able to launch seven successful suicide attacks from April to December 2002, killing 250 western civilians (more than the three years combined before 9/11) (Pape, 2003).


This paper has attempted to find a link between ideology, terrorism and lethality. For this     purpose religious ideology and specifically was examined by looking at two ideology-driven Islamic terrorist organizations i.e., Hezbollah and Al Qaeda.

Ideology plays a critical role in constructing a world view of the members of the terrorist organizations but as seen in both the case studies i.e., Hezbollah and Al Qaeda, ideology is not a stagnant or dormant point of reference, but rather it is constantly developing and evolving. Hezbollah in the last twenty years has evolved into a robust political entity from its original religiously-driven militant character. Looking at the Shi’a-Sunni variation of terrorist targets and operations, within Islamic terrorist organizations it becomes clear that they cannot be bundled under one heading of a ‘Global Jihadi movement’(Habeck, 2006) or’ Global insurgency.’ Religious ideology, along with political and nationalist agendas and goals, shapes the lethality policy of a certain group. Islamic fundamentalism is too broad a category to capture the complex and varied nuances of ideological dissimilarities within the Islamic terrorist groups. While looking at Hezbollah and Al Qaeda, we see a development of ideological ideas, although grounded in religious understanding but definitely not limited to it. Influenced by social, political, geographical and economic settings, the ideology(ies) motivating these terrorist organizations are not frozen in time.

Both organizations in this study are lethal, but their strategies and approach towards carrying out operations is different (Lynch, 2008). Religion for both the organizations consists of socio-cultural symbols that convey a conception of reality and construe a plan around it (Hellmich,2005). Al Qaeda has a particular political view about the situation in Muslim societies in general and at the same time, its religious ideology of Salafi revivalism and violence influences its political worldview. The decision to kill is greatly influenced by the worldview and shared ideology of a certain terrorist group but it is not the sole factor.

Keeping the organic ideologies and the variety of Islamic movements in mind, there is need for more flexible counterterrorism strategies by addressing and understanding a particular terrorist organization in the light of its ideological worldview, rather than bundling them under broad the ideological framing of Al Qaeda and Hezbollah but they are definitely not identical or ‘isomorphic ideologically’ (Snow and Byrd 2007: p8). Caution needs to be taken in assuming that there is ideological coherence within these various movements. Iraq the present battle ground of Shi’a-Sunni tensions clearly demonstrates the ideological heterogeneity between and within Islamic militant and terrorist organizations, which suggests that ideology is much more elastic and malleable than often assumed (Snow and Byrd 2007).

The terms ‘Global Insurgency’ or ‘Global war on terror’ dangerously simplifies the character and course of terrorist movements. Global terrorist datasets and quantitative studies do give a broad overview of patterns emerging in the terrorist operations but they lack the capacity to understand the highly complex nuances that separate one terrorist organization from the other. There is need to understand their worldview, their approach, grievances, goals and also the highly pertinent question; why some terrorist organizations kill more than others? An alternative and discursive conceptual scheme is required to understand the ideological motivations driving terrorist organizations (Snow and Byrd 2007).

Pape’s (2003) ‘strategic logic’ approach to explain the suicide terrorism tactic in fact corroborates the role of ideology in the decision to be lethal. Religious fanaticism is not irrational, but it’s a rational understanding from the point of view of the terrorist and his organization, and that rational understanding emerges out of the ideological framework the  individual  and  his  organization  work  within.  The  experiences of terrorists and their worldview is embedded and generated by the ideological understanding of that individual and his organization. Pape (2003) argues that among Islamic suicide attacks, groups with secular orientations account for about a third of these attacks. First of all if those groups are Islamic, then some part of their ideology is influenced and drawn from religious ideas. How can Pape (2003) neatly categorize some Islamic groups as being secular? The problem with identifying and labeling ideology is that in many cases it cannot be neatly packaged as being religious or secular.

perpetuator in the process becomes a rational choice because it gives results (Pape, 2003). During April to December 1983 Hezbollah carried out six suicide terrorist against US and French forces in Lebanon, resulting in 384 casualties and also the complete withdrawal of their targets (Pape 2003).

Religious ideology makes the lethality decision easier to understand and justify. Al Qaeda definitely constructed an essential ‘other’ drawing on Salafi teachings whereby anyone not waging jihad for the puritanical return of true Islam belongs to the enemy camp. Victims of religious terrorism are easily dehumanized in the minds of individual terrorists and their organizations. Although their audience is larger than life (Hoffman 2006), but their potential recruits are very much human, and ideology plays a critical role in recruiting ‘rational’ individuals who are in line with the rationality of the organization i.e., ideology. It is naïve to believe that Al Qaeda’s ideology had no role to play in its ‘spectacular’ display of carnage on 9/11 killing almost 3000 people. It was indeed a rational decision for Al Qaeda, reinforced by its ideological foundations, of ‘othering’ and ‘satanizing’ the US (Juergensmeyer, 2000) Piazza argues that Al Qaeda and its affiliated groups fit a typology as ‘universalist/ abstract’ while other Islamist terrorist groups are more properly categorized as ‘strategic’ based on their critical organizational and goal structure differences that determines their tactical behavior of using suicide terrorism and attacking soft targets which helps determine their  lethality.  But  what  Piazza  calls  ‘universalist’ and  ‘strategic’ is again embedded in certain ideological frameworks, which have evolved over time. Such clear-cut categorization of Hezbollah or Al Qaeda is problematic, as both organizations’ ideological foundations have developed over time. Bin Laden with his shift to more ‘moderate, political rhetoric’ and growing emphasis on economic effectiveness of Al Qaeda’s campaign to broaden the movement’s appeal (Blanchard, 2004), reflects on the potential metamorphosis of ideological motivations. A straightjacket approach to categorizing an organization as ideologically arrested greatly hampers the real understanding of the role ideology plays in its lethality.

State sponsorship is based on shared ideology but it is not limited to that sphere as political and strategic goals take preference over time. But the initial shared ideological basis is essential to understand the lethality patterns of a terrorist organization. Hezbollah would certainly not be such a professional militant organization, if it was not supported by Iran and Syria. Within the ideology and lethality paradigm, the state sponsorship links play a crucial role in predicting a certain group’s capacity and willingness to kill someone. Al Qaeda though not restricted to one geographical location enjoys open or tacit approval in many countries including elements in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan (Byman 206, Bloom 2005) that allow its operations within its borders.

Hezbollah has had links with various organizations, even though it does not share the same ideology with them. For instance it has been willing to train the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka and terrorist groups in Japan in terrorist militancy and especially suicide terrorism operations. Sharing the same ideology does not affect their assistance and training program. Al Qaeda on the other hand has a vast network of organizations, which are affiliated with it and mostly the source of affiliation is the sharing of the same ideology. The invasion of Iraq posed a dilemma for Al Qaeda, as the majority population in Iraq is Shi’a, which Sunnis consider heretics. Al Qaeda is also reported to have developed ties with Hezbollah for some terrorist operations (Byaman 2003), proving that ideological flexibility is subject to strategic gains.

Ideologically the Islamic notion of Muslim Umma defies national boundaries. Pape (2003) suggests that the US should emphasize on domestic security by enhancing and strengthening border controls making it difficult for suicide attackers to enter the US. Pape is assuming an ‘outsider’ who is exposed to the ideology outside the US, but with the rapidly growing technologies preaching and promoting their world view, sharing ideology is not limited by national boundaries. Many of the Al Qaeda’s suicide terrorists and affiliates have lived in the US and western democracies.

Understanding the ideological foundations of Al Qaeda is critical for designing effective counterterrorism strategies (CTS). Building CTS on wrong assumptions and faulty understanding of ideology inspiring terrorist attacks can lead to more killings. Looking at both the case studies discussed above, we need to be extremely cautious while brushing aside and ignoring ideology, especially religious ideology (Pape, 2003), as a motivating factor for terrorist organizations to decide to kill more people.

Concessions, as a possible counterterrorism strategy (Pape 2003), would be ineffective if the terrorist organization is performing for a divine audience (Juergensmeyer 2000) and has a larger than life time frame in mind. Al Qaeda believes God would win wars for them. Any concession to an enemy who aspires for divine rewards and sees himself part of ‘cosmic wars’ has a dramatically different worldview than his target.  In an increasingly globalized world, no country can adopt an isolationist approach. Pape (2003) suggests energy independence for the US, to curtail its reliance on Gulf energy sources and reduce recruitment of suicide terrorist in that region. But indirectly he is proposing an isolationist policy, which has the potential to aggravate rather than curtail lethal attacks on the US. In a way he corroborates bin Laden’s stance that energy dependence was a major reason for US troops to be in that region.

For any counterterrorism strategy to be effective, I argue that winning an ideological war should be an integral part of US strategy, whereby the peaceful face of religion is highlighted rather than alienating representative populations as potential members of terrorist organizations. Otherwise the  US  would  be  unintentionally pushing itself into a cosmic war model and reinforcing the ideological ‘othering’ process, which stimulates recruitment of individuals following that particular ideological thinking. Furthermore, for the success of any CTS, it is important to build relations with communities in terrorist prone regions, as local people are the real center of information and resistance.


Alagha,  Joseph  Elie.The  shifts  in  Hezbullah’s  ideology  :religious  ideology, political ideology and political program, [The Netherlands]: Amsterdam University Press, c2006. Asal, Victor and Rethemeyer, R. Karl (2008), “The Nature of the Beast: Terrorist Organizational Characteristics and Organizational Lethality.” Journal of Politics 70(2): 437-449.

Blanchard, Christopher M. (2004) Al Qaeda: Statements and Evolving Ideology, CRS Report for Congress Order Code RS21973, November 16, 2004

Bloom, Mia (2005) Dying to kill, The Allure of Suicide Terrorism’ New York: Columbia University Press.

Byman  Daniel  (2006)  Deadly  Connections.  Cambridge:  Cambridge  University Press.

Byman, Daniel L. (2003), Al-Qaeda as an Adversary: Do We Understand Our Enemy?, World Politics, Vol. 56, No. 1 (Oct., 2003), pp. 139-163 Crenshaw, Martha (1981) “The Causes of Terrorism.” Comparative Politics 13 (4):379-399.

Drake, C. J. M. 1998. “The Role of Ideology in Terrorists’ Target Selection.” Terrorism

& Political Violence 10(2): 53-85. Early Bryan R.. 2006. Larger than a Party, yet Smaller than a State:’ Locating

Hezbollah’s Place within Lebanon’s State and Society. World Affairs 168(3): 115-28.

Fox, Jonathan (2002) Ethnoreligious Conflict in the Late Twentieth Century: A General Theory, (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, (2002).

Habeck Mary (2006) Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror, New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2006.

Hafez, Mohammed M. (2007) Suicide Bombers in Iraq: The Strategy and Ideology of Martyrdom, United States Institute of Peace Press (USIP Press), July 2007

Hellmich, Christina (2005), Al-Qaeda—terrorists, hypocrites, fundamentalists? The view from within. Third World Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 1, pp 39 – 54, 2005 Hoffman, Bruce (2003) Al Qaeda, Trends in Terrorism and Future Potentialities: An Assessment. published 2003 by RAND

Hoffman, Bruce (2006) Inside Terrorism. New York: Columbia University Press. Jaber,  Hala  (1997)  Hezbollah:  Born  with  a  Vengeance,  New  York:  Columbia University Press, 1997.

Juergensmeyer, Mark (2000) Terror in the Mind of God. Berkley: University of California Press.

Lynch, COL Thomas F. III (2008) Sunni and Shi ’a Terrorism-Differences that Matter, Combating Terrorism Center, at West Point, Occasional Paper Series, 2008 Murawiec, Laurent (2008), The Mind of Jihad, Cambridge University Press, NY. O’Sullivan, Noel (ed) (1986) Terrorism, Ideology, and Revolution, Published in 1986, Wheatsheaf Books, Distributed by Harvester Press (Brighton, Sussex)

Pape Robert, (2003) “The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism.” American Political

Science Review 97(3): 1-19.Piazza ,James A. ( Is Islamist Terrorism More Lethal?: An Empirical Study of

Group Ideology, Organization and Goal Structure, Submitted to Comparative Political Studies

Rueda, Edwin O. (2001) New Terrorism? A Case Study of al-Qaida and the Lebanese Hezbollah, Available at: Dec/01Dec_Rueda.pdf

Sageman, Marc (2004) Understanding Terror Networks. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Slavin, Barbara (2008) Mullahs, Money, and Militias, How Iran Exerts Its Influence in the Middle East, United States Institute of Peace. Special report 206 , June 2008.

Snow, David A. and Byrd, Scott C. (2007) Ideology, Framing Processes, and Islamic

Terrorist Movements Mobilization: An International Quarterly Review 12(1): 119-136

Wiktorowicz, Quintan (2001), The new global threat: Transnational Salafis and Jihad, Middle East Policy, vol. Viii, no. 4, December 2001

Wittes,Tamara Cofman (2008) Three kinds of movements, Journal of Democracy Volume 19, Number 3 July 2008

Other sources

Council  on   Foreign  Relations  (CFR)  Al   Qaeda  profile: publication/9126/

Hezbollah website: START, National Consortium for  the Study of Terrorism and the Response  to Terrorism.   Hezbollah   profile:

The National Security Strategy papers of the United States of America, March 2006.


1              (or Shi’ite) A Sect or branch of Muslim religion centered in Iran with large followings in southern Iraq and sub-sects (Alawi, Ismaili) in Syria and Lebanon (Bloom, 2005)

2              The mainstream Muslim religious sect

3              (or Shi’ite) A Sect or branch of Muslim religion centered in Iran with large followings in southern Iraq and sub-sects (Alawi, Ismaili) in Syria and Lebanon (Bloom, 2005)

4              The mainstream Muslim religious sect

5              President Bush, National Security Strategy, March 2006

6              British Prime Minister Tony Blair on BBC 2005

7              Cousin and son-in law of Mohammed, ruled over the Islamic Caliphate from 656 to 661.

8              Muslim religious jurisprudence and law.

9              Verse of the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam

10           Takfiri is a relatively small but important group of radicals ideologically driven to label other muslims as heretics and apostates, thus justifying use of violence against them.

11           Holy war

12           As quoted in Jamiat Ihyaa Minhaaj Al-Sunnah, A Brief Introduction to the

Salafi Dawah (Suffolk, U.K.: Jamiat Ihyaa Minhaaj Al-Sunnah, 1993), p. 5. (Taken from Wiktorowicz, 2001, p 36)

13           Based on MIPT-TKB and START-GTD 1 databases.

14           Hezbollah website

15           Source Hezbollah website

16           Source START data, terrorist organizations profile (TOPS)

17           Source Hezbollah website

18           Al Qaeda’s second in command

19           Quoted by Murawiec 2008:p 55

20           Islamic religious jurisprudential opinions