What do All Islamist Terrorists Seek?

It's beyond ISIS. They and "Jihadi John" are merely the tip of a much wider Jihadist iceberg.

Prof. Louis René Beres,

OpEds Prof. Louis Rene Beres
Prof. Louis Rene Beres
israelnewsphoto: R. B.

"Against them make ready your strength to the utmost of your power....to strike terror into the hearts of the enemies of God, and your enemies."  Quran, 8:60

In recent weeks, a great deal of press attention has been directed to the alleged objectives of ISIS terrorism.[1] But ISIS is merely one particular expression of a far more generic and general terror phenomenon. Now, we need to ask a still broader and potentially more meaningful question: "What do all Jihadist terrorists really want?" By raising this more comprehensive query, we could substantially enhance the scientific progress of counter-terrorist theorizing.

Theory is a net. Only those who cast, will catch. The discovery of theory-based regularities constitutes the beginning of any science, including even Jihadist or Islamist counter-terrorism.

We require analytic theory, not merely additional reportorial or anecdotal treatments. Precisely what regularities are discoverable in Islamist terrorist behavior? To be sure, all Jihadi terrorists see themselves as responding to certain presumptively religious expectations. For them, bringing death and suffering to "apostates" and "unbelievers" is never difficult to justify. On the contrary; it is holy work.

All world politics is a struggle for power. Islamic terrorists, not merely ISIS, seek to transform pain into power. Still, accomplishing such enormously complex transformations is not always easy, in part, because the needed correlation is not always proportionate.

In theoretical matters of counter-terrorism (and nothing, one should be reminded, is ever more practical than good theory), some truths may emerge as counterintuitive. It is possible, for example, that inflicting the most excruciating pain upon recognizably "suitable" victims could diminish terrorist power, while sometimes causing less overwhelming pain, could enlarge such power. This ironic possibility now requires further study and scrutiny.

Jihadist terror groups have learned conscientiously from the torturer. Their members well understand that pain, in order to be purposeful, must point toward death, but they also understand that such pain must not necessarily kill right away. This does not suggest that Islamist terrorists do not seek to produce large numbers of dead Israelis or Americans or Europeans - of course they do - but only that leaving alive certain "enemy" witnesses who will then fear annihilation themselves is also desirable.

Jihadist terrorism twists and amplifies pain within the single human body in order to influence those many others who live outside that body.
Such barbarous but nuanced thinking is an altogether integral part of the Jihadist killer's choreography. It carefully scores a strategic danse macabre, but one that is ultimately rooted in visceral faith and corollary doctrine.

Long ago, long before Islam, similarly "tragic" insights were uncovered by classical Greek philosophy. Naturally, Aristotle's Poetics does not deal with terrorism, but it does explain that the main purpose of tragic "theatre" is not to excite us (the "audience") with the misfortunes of fellow human beings, but instead, to awaken within us a more primary fear for ourselves.

There is something else. Imitating the torturer, the Jihadist terrorist plans to take what is private and incommunicable, that is, the pain contained within the boundaries of the sufferer's own body, and manipulate it grotesquely to shape the behavior of  certain hated “others.”  A thoroughly defiled form of theater, one that intends to extract a desperately desired public influence from the most intimate depths of individual privacy,  Jihadist terrorism twists and amplifies pain within the single human body in order to influence those many others who live outside that body. Violating the inviolable, it shrieks loudly, and also with an unspeakable cruelty,  “You are not immune!” ...."Your suffering will not be private."

Recently, the most conspicuous example of such crude calculations is the ISIS murderer, "Jihadi John"(Mohammed Emwazi), a Kuwaiti-born Briton best-known for enthusiastically beheading western captives.

But it's not just about ISIS. When, in November, 2014, Palestinian terrorists meticulously slaughtered devout Jews praying in a Jerusalem synagogue, their  key "message" was one of an irrepressible disclosure:  “Your most personal horror," these murders screamed, "can be made public!” Notably, ISIS and Palestinian fighters are not mutually exclusive terrorist operators.

In time, if ISIS should fight its way successfully across Jordan, it could find itself in control of  "West Bank" (Judea/Samaria), and thereby of any still-developing state of "Palestine." Ironically, this scenario could become even more likely if the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas were willing to abide by any pre-independence agreements made with Israel to "demilitarize."

Oddly, we still hear, especially from educated quarters, that the Islamic "martyrs" who plan to slay Israelis or Americans or Europeans have a discernible political motive. Accordingly, we are instructed by the most "learned" university professors, these Jihadist killers do not kill gratuitously. No, they kill for a readily identifiable and tangible cause: To "recover the land," to "reclaim their rights," to "prevent foreign interventions," to "stop imperialism," to "stop the settlements," to "acquire self-determination," to " get rid of tyrants, apostates, unbelievers, blasphemers,” etc., etc., etc.

Here, the strenuously vocalized "grievances" are legion. Nonetheless, they are lies, and thus effectively beside the point.

At times, on the other hand, Jihadists are unabashedly truthful about their base motives: "The Palestinian problem is a religious one," says the Charter of Hamas, "to be dealt with on this premise....`I swear 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.' "

If you like ISIS, you'll love "Palestine."

In the end, what really matters to all these unheroic and unapologetic murderers, is to attain "Paradise," and, as an obvious corollary, to avoid the expectedly unbearable “torments of the grave.”  Scripturally, Jihadist "martyrs" are offered ironclad guarantees to pleasingly by-pass all such torments. This is not an inconsequential commitment. It is, rather, an authentically sacred and credible promise, one of literally unimaginable seriousness and consequence.

For the Jihadist terrorist, maximally cruel violence against specifically designated "others" is inextricably and perpetually linked to all that is sacred.

Unassailably, for this terrorist, such violence is sacred unto itself.

As scholars and policymakers, where do we go from here, now that we are more familiar with indispensable and rarely understood conceptual knowledge?  What practical sense, we need to inquire, can we make of all this? Can the derivative "lessons" be usefully operationalized?

To begin, Jerusalem and Washington and London and Paris and Brussels and Copenhagen need to acknowledge that they confront a lethal masquerade. Often, the openly declared motive of a Jihadist perpetrator remains as convenient fiction. For the most part, the torturer tortures, because he enjoys torturing. For the most part, the Islamist terrorist terrorizes with a deeply atavistic, and thoroughly lascivious delight.

For this terrorist, sex, war, and immortality represent a unified and indissoluble whole.

ISIS and "Jihadi John" are merely the tip of a much wider Jihadist iceberg. "Palestinians spearhead Allah's war against the Jews." preach the PA-appointed clergy on the Temple Mount: "The dead shall not rise until the Palestinians shall kill all the Jews...."

This sermon comes from "moderate" and U.S.-supported PA/Fatah, not from "radical" Hamas. For several years, in fact, PA/Fatah "security forces" were expressly trained by U.S. military personnel in nearby Jordan, at a cost to the American taxpayer of  several hundred million dollars. Today, these U.S.-trained fighters function largely as anti-American and anti-Israel terrorists. Many, moreover, have joined the ranks of terrorist armies already planning to overthrow the Hashemite monarchy in Amman.

Should kindred ISIS forces make their own way across Jordan, and into the "West Bank", it will be Arab Jihadists, not Israelis, who would foil any relevant statehood plans for "Palestine."

The torturer cannot be stopped by answering his contrived questions. Similarly, the martyrdom-seeking Jihadist terrorist, spurred on by visions of a privileged ecstasy that obscenely fuses sex, violence, and immortality, cannot be slowed by any calculated surrender to his demands. For this Islamist operative, the chosen means of terror-violence are not only justified by the ends. Rather, they represent, in themselves, a fully complete and palpable source of deep personal satisfaction. 

For all Jihadists, not just ISIS, terrorist-means are themselves deeply satisfying and inspirational. In essence, the satisfaction offered them here is incomparable.

In the authoritative and mainstream Pakistani text on Jihad, a document recovered from the bodies of slain Jihadists, Brigadier S.K. Malik emphasizes the primacy of terror as an end in itself:  "Terror struck into the hearts of the enemies is not only a means, it is the end in itself. Once a condition of terror into the opponent's heart is obtained, hardly anything is left to be achieved. It is the point where the means and the ends meet and merge."

There is more. Always, the Jihadist terrorist and his victims experience pain and power as opposites. As the victims' suffering grows, so does the power of the terrorist. As the power of the terrorist grows, so does the pain of his victims. 

It is an unholy, but still decipherable, reciprocity.

Aristotle would have understood. For the bystanders, who include all those who must subsequently learn of a terror attack by television, newspapers, or social media, each blast of pain represents a mock execution, a stunning reminder of each individual's unmitigated vulnerability, and a tangible denial of ultimate power. What exactly is this ultimate power?

It is power over death.

Western democracies should finally take heed. There is no greater power on earth than power over death. None. Beside such dazzling power, with its religiously codified assurances of life everlasting, ordinary national armies and navies are ultimately of no consequence.

"Do not consider those who are slain in the cause of Allah as dead," instructs the Quran, "for they are living by their Lord."

So long as the Islamist terrorist remains rational in narrowly strategic terms, every escalation in the expressed magnitude of violence will follow from certain deliberately figured correlations of pain and power. In this connection, the oft-heard observation that such terrorists have no real reason to escalate is the facile product of very fragile syllogisms. At a minimum, any such observation must ignore literally millennia of pertinent history, of narratives that reinforce Fyodor Dostoyevsky's core insight that humankind generally seeks to act for passion, and against reason.

The ghastly pain caused by Jihadist terrorism, a pain that seemingly confers power and perpetuity upon the terrorist, begins within each victim’s private body, and then spills out more widely, into the generalized body politic. Wanting these two realms to become indistinguishable, the Jihadist terrorist of ISIS, Hamas, Fatah, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Islamic Jihad, etc., etc., understands that it is never enough that his chosen victims feel pain. To meet longer-term and larger terrorist goals, this pain must also be felt, vicariously, but meaningfully, by those others who could still become victims themselves. 

For our leaders, in both Jerusalem and Washington, these conceptual understandings should immediately become a policy-making focus of  dedicated concern. In the end, they could prove more important to our safety than the always transient success of any particular counter-terrorist military operation. Islamist terrorists, it must be kept in mind, are never interested in any ordinary social or political objectives per se, but only as part of more presumptively obligatory "migrations," from the ephemeral Dar al-Harb (the "world of war"), to the unconquerable Dar al-Islam (the "world of Islam").

Whether or not this interest makes any sense to us is immaterial. The only thing that really matters is that it makes sense to them.


Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is the author of many major books and articles on terrorism, nuclear strategy, and nuclear war. These include publications in International Security (Harvard); World Politics (Princeton); Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; Nativ (Israel); The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs; Parameters: The Professional Journal of the US Army War College; Special Warfare (DoD); Studies in Conflict and Terrorism; Strategic Review; Contemporary Security Policy; Armed Forces and Society; Israel Affairs; Comparative Strategy; Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law; and The International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence. Professor Beres’ monographs on security issues have been published internationally by The Ariel Center for Policy Research (Israel); The Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies (University of Notre Dame); The Graduate Institute of International Studies (Geneva, Switzerland); and the Monograph Series on World Affairs (University of Denver). His most recent popular writings can be found in U.S. News & World Report; The Atlantic; The Hill; The Jerusalem Post; The Washington Times; The New English Review; and Oxford University Press Blog. Dr. Beres' most recent publications by Israeli research institutes are with the BESA Center for Strategic Studies; the Institute for National Security Studies; and the Institute for Policy and Strategy. His tenth book, Israel's Nuclear Strategy: Surviving amid Chaos, will be published later this year. ProfessorBeres was born in Zürich, Switzerland, on August 31,1945.


[1] The most visible example is Graeme Wood's essay in The Atlantic, "What ISIS Really Wants,"  March 2015.