Terrorism, to be sure, is America's overriding problem for the immediate future. Yet terrorism is not really our underlying problem. It is, rather, the palpably barbarous tactic of a methodically planned and determinedly apocalyptic war. Directed initially against Israel and the United States, this fevered attack will soon spread ? perhaps uncontrollably - to large cities in Europe and possibly even to various parts of Asia.

This war is a sustained and forseeably catastrophic Arab/Islamic assault against the West, a civilizational struggle in which a resurgent medievalism now seeks to bring fear, paralysis and death to "unbelievers." It goes without saying that an overwhelming number of Muslims throughout the world are uninvolved in this assault or are even tacitly opposed to it (few Muslims will oppose it openly), but many millions of others in many countries are already prepared to enter Paradise by becoming "martyrs." In the next several months, the preferred terrorism tactic in this war is likely to involve chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.

Our truest war is not against Osama Bin Laden or even the particular Arab/Islamic states that nurture and encourage his program for mass murder. Even if Bin Laden and every other identifiably major terrorist were apprehended and prosecuted in authoritative courts of justice, millions of others in the Arab/Islamic world would not cease their impassioned destruction of "infidels." These millions, like the monsters who destroyed the World Trade Center and attacked the Pentagon, would not intend to do evil. On the contrary, they would mete out death to innocents for the sake of a presumed divine expectation, prodding the killing of Israelis, Americans and Europeans with utter conviction and complete purity of heart. Sanctified killers, these millions would generate an incessant search for more "Godless" victims. Though mired in blood, their search would be tranquil and self-assured, born of the knowledge that its perpetrators were neither evil nor infamous, but heroic and "sacrificial."

For those millions engaged in an Arab/Islamic war against the West, violence and the sacred are always inseparable. To understand the rationale and operation of current terrorism against the United States, including the September 11th attacks, it is first necessary to understand these conceptions of the sacred. Then, and only then, will it become clear that Arab/Islamic terror against the United States is, at its heart, a manifestation of religious worship known as "sacrifice." This is the truest meaning of Arab/Islamic terrorism against our country. It is a form of sacred violence oriented toward the sacrifice of both enemies and martyrs. It is through the purposeful killing of Americans, any Americans, that the Holy Warrior embarked upon Jihad can buy himself free from the penalty of dying. It is only through such cowardly killing, and not through diplomacy, that "Allah's" will may be done.

When America has understood that terrorism is only a tactic, and that it is a tactic related to Islamic sacrifice, it will be able to confront a particularly lethal enemy, one that already has within its capabilities the capacity to kill hundreds of thousands or even millions of American men, women and children. Until now, this is an understanding that has lent itself to insubstantial theorizing. Now, immediately, Arab/Islamic terrorism should be recognized, at least in part, as a bloody and sacred act of mediation between sacrificers and their deity.

America is now routinely characterized as a "cancer" in the Arab/Islamic world. A recent article from an Egyptian newspaper speaks of "the cancer, the malignant wound, in the body of Arabism, for which there is no cure but eradication." Such references are far more than a vile metaphor. They are profoundly theological descriptions of a despised enemy that must be excised, that is, "liquidated." Where this "liquidation" would be accomplished by self-sacrifice, possibly even terrorism involving weapons of mass destruction, it would be life-affirming for the killers. Naturally, some Arab/Islamic governments and movements would deny such end-of-the-world thinking, but it operates nonetheless.

What is to be done? The truth of the terrorist threat to the United States is vastly more grotesque than what is commonly understood. We face suicidal mass killings with unconventional weapons in the future not because there exists a small number of pathological murderers, but because we are embroiled - however unwittingly - in an authentic clash of civilizations. While we all wish it weren't so, wishing will get us nowhere.

Our only hope is to acknowledge the true source of our now existential danger, and proceed to fight the real war from there.


Louis Rene Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is author of

many books and articles dealing with terrorism and war.