On September 11th, 2001, the world was shocked and appalled to learn of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. A terrorist attack of such precision and magnitude was unheard of. In the wake of those attacks, individuals and nations alike have been forced to re-evaluate their perception of terrorism, especially the fanatical and seemingly amoral terrorism originating from the Middle East. Commonly referred to as Islamic fundamentalists, this group of radical theologians has been pushed from the shadows into the world spotlight.
Even though September 11th was unique in its magnitude, it was not unique in its kind. Terrorist attacks linked to radical Islamic groups have seen an exponential rise not only in number but also in casualties. This upward surge of violence is starkly represented in the events of the last decade alone. The 1990s saw the bombings of multiple Israeli embassies and organizations, the World Trade Center, the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and several other locations around the world. Planes have been hijacked and crashed adding hundreds more to the death toll. If nothing else, a situation that once could be brushed off as a purely regional conflict has become an issue of global concern.
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The first key to understanding this growing global threat is to discard the commonly held stereotypes and misconceptions surrounding it. We must be able to recognize and target the people responsible while keeping them apart from the cultural backdrop of the area in which they live. Also, we must recognize this cultural backdrop as a complex mix of political, religious, and economic conditions that have evolved from a long and tattered history. By understanding this history, and the nature of the Islamic religion, we can recognize that we stand upon a precipice. Radical Muslim groups stand poised to seize an increasing amount of power as the traditional barriers against them wither and crumble. This power will not only come in the form of political influence and control but also an increase in non-governmental groups and organizations, including ones with terrorist and revolutionary ideals.
This increase in power comes at a very precarious time when access to the very worst tools of terror is reaching high tide. Weapons of mass destruction, and the details of how to build them, have permeated too many nations of the world. We can grasp this notion when we consider, as Andrew Loehmer points out, that “at least 20 states possess or can produce at least two types of weapons – whether nuclear, biological or chemical – and their delivery systems” (Wilkinson 60). Where nuclear weapons do not exist technologies such as nuclear power pave the way to their creation. And at a time when these devices are becoming more and more prevalent, we may come to find our current securities against their misuse poorly inadequate. The existence of zealous Islamic terrorist groups coupled with the relative insecurity of nuclear weapons, including the materials and knowledge required to create them, is a recipe for disaster.
Before we can analyze any part of this destructive equation, we must first remove the filter of bias we unconsciously apply to the situation. Much of this bias stems from our misunderstanding of the language used to label these radical groups. In fact, the term “Islamic Fundamentalism” is inherently misleading. As J. Paul Rajashekar points out, the term fundamentalism was originally applied to American Protestants in the early 20th century. As applied to them, and the generations that followed them, he observes that the word chiefly signified that the Bible was literally interpreted and taken as absolute truth (65). When applied to Muslims, this definition quickly breaks down. As Rajashekar later points out, “All Muslims, irrespective of their general outlook, regard the Qur’an (literally ‘recitation’) as the inerrant word of God.” Thus, without proper redefinition, the terms fundamental, fundamentalist, and fundamentalism, are impossible to apply to the world of Islam without running headlong into a popular misconception. The term fundamentalism needs to be perceived as a desire to return to more traditional practices, not as a synonym for radical.
With misconceptions laid aside, we can begin to trace the roots of the modern movement of Islamic radicalism. The history of Islamic revivalism can be explained largely through analysis of the relation of religion to other parts of life. As Rajashekar states, “Islam is looked upon by Muslims as a comprehensive way of life and they, therefore, understand religion as an integral part of politics, state, law, and society” (66). A movement of the 18th century called Wahhabism is labelled by many Muslim researchers to be the beginning of the desire to live by more strict and traditional Islamic practices. Wahhabism sought to achieve this goal by emphasizing the literal interpretation of the Qur’an. Increasing literal interpretations of the Qu’ran led to increasingly personal interpretations of it, as well. This process, in fact, led to more liberal interpretations of the text (Rajashekar 66). After a brief period where the modernization of Islam became a high priority, two factions formed within the religion. Those who believed in more traditional practices reacted strongly to the increased emphasis on modernization (and consequently, westernization) of Islam. They formed the radical reactionary groups that have evolved into modern Islamic revivalists.
The importance of this increasing trend of revivalism becomes clear when one looks at the tenets and traditions of Islam. As Mahmud Faksh explains, in traditional interpretations, “All human activities, including politics, are rooted in religion and are inseparable” (5). This tenet establishes control of the government as one of the primary goals of revivalist Muslims. Beyond just controlling national governments, traditional Muslim doctrine specifies that there should be a worldwide Muslim community (Faksh 10). This structure fosters a system of spread-apart organizations that loosely act together, but has no central power. Another major consequence of revivalism is the use of jihad, or holy war. This traditional Islamic practice legitimizes the use of violence against all sources that threaten the cause of Islam. Not only is this the rallying call for many of the violent radical groups emerging within the religion, but it suggests that governments and the Muslim community at large should support these actions.
The history and organization of the Islamic religion establish both its means obtaining power and its use of that power. The rise of Islamic revivalism has created a system which will try to wrench power through any means necessary, and then use that power for the enforcement of Islamic doctrine. This system also lends itself readily to violence under the standard of jihad and has dictated the tactics of the radical Islamic terrorists. However, as of yet, most of the power remains in the hands of relatively moderate governments. Most countries of the Middle East have not succumbed to the influence of the radical camp. But several emerging factors will soon increase the speed at which the remaining power shifts into the hands of these radicals.
The biggest asset to the radical Islamists is youth. As Bradford McGuinn notes, increasingly, the younger generation is revolting against the desire for modernization and acceptance of the West that is characteristic of older Muslims. Within a generation, the tone of an entire region is rapidly changing from acceptance to brutal rejection. So far this change has been kept in check because the existing power structure in government is older and tends to support more secular policy, including battling the uprising of radicalism. However, as these leaders age and are replaced by younger revivalist leaders, this roadblock to more religious law will be demolished.
At the same time control over the region is eroding from within, outside governments are less and less willing to provide the difference. Fed up with years of brutal conflict with no foreseeable end in sight, countries like the US are tired of the constant struggle to keep the peace (McGuinn). This trend is one supported strongly by the countries of the Middle East. In fact, Faksh points out that the view that Islam is of supreme importance necessitates that Islamic people and governments have little to no contact with non-Muslims (15). Therefore, we are heading towards a policy of letting the Middle East stew in its own pot of hatred and dogmatic religious doctrine.
Unfortunately, this pot of stew has already begun to boil over. The decentralized nature of the radical Islamic movement has enabled it to migrate into many other countries of the world. Steven Emerson explains that as the ranks of militant Muslims grew, many dispersed themselves out to the US and various countries in Europe (A23). So instead of outside countries taking action in the Middle East, the Middle East has followed us home and brought its own form of diplomacy with it.
What will radical Islam do with its expanding organization and growing power? Unfortunately, the answer may be grimmer than we could imagine. The events of September 11th were a shocking reminder that this brand of terrorist places little value upon human lives, even their own. Therefore, it seems the only logical limit on the amount of damage these groups will cause will be the power of the weapons they are able to obtain. This train of thought will eventually force us to contemplate the feasibility of these terrorists obtaining control of man’s most deadly weapon: the nuclear bomb.
Access to nuclear weapons technology is widespread among countries. Today, the world’s arsenal of nuclear warheads numbers more than 40,000 (Wilkinson 60). On top of this, Barry Schneider, Director of the US Air Force Counterproliferation Center, estimates that “there are perhaps thirty to forty other states that possess the technical capability to ‘go nuclear’ in a few years” (199). While many of these states will most likely decide not to go down the path towards actually building weapons, the fact that about a quarter of the world’s countries could create them within a few years is chilling enough. In regard to the Middle East specifically, James Wirtz comments that Israel and Pakistan already have nuclear weapons and Iran and Iraq most likely possess the technology to build them (Paul 141). So not only has the technology for these weapons permeated the world and multiple Middle East nations, but also nations that are predominantly Muslim.
The existence of the technology and terrorist factions obtaining it are two entirely separate matters. However, it would seem that the more prevalent the technology is, the more likely it is to fall into the wrong hands. If terrorists wanted to obtain a nuclear weapon, the most important and difficult component to obtain would be the fissile material, i.e. whatever substance would fuel the nuclear reaction. As Loehmer explains, terrorists would most likely obtain fissile material one of four ways,
Separation of plutonium from irradiated light or heavy water reactor fuel in own facilities; theft of fissile material during transport; obtaining the needed material from a black market; material through state-sponsoring. (Wilkinson 51)
While Loehmer dismisses fairly quickly the possibility of terrorists separating plutonium from spent fuel and also says that a nuclear black market has not materialized, each of the remaining methods he at least labels as possible.
Theft of the fissile material, while it is being transported, is perhaps one of the most likely sources for terrorists to obtain the material. An outright operation to steal fissionable material might not be too farfetched. Jessica Stern, a Senior Fellow at the Belfour Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University detailed the outcome of a mock terrorist infiltration attempt at Rocky Flats, a nuclear materials production facility near Denver, Colorado. Not only did the team determine that terrorists could have infiltrated the facility, but the security director of the plant “had quit ‘in disgust’ a month earlier, claiming that he could no longer ensure the safety of Denver’s citizens” (58). If America cannot even safeguard its own nuclear material, how can countries like Russia, whose economy has been in collapse since the break-up of the USSR, be expected to?
Also while discussing theft, Loehmer states that “terrorists could try to acquire the needed material covertly with the assistance of an inside confederate” (52). Indeed it seems possible that an influential controller might be swayed by the radical Islamic cause, especially in a Middle Eastern country. There is also evidence that radicals have already begun developing connections inside the military in some countries. In Egypt, for example, Jeffrey Bartholet, Carol Berger, and Melinda Liu state, “A growing body of evidence suggest that terrorist groups have infiltrated the army, an alarming development gave the regime’s reliance on the military establishment” (41). Terrorists may already have the connections they need to launch an operation to obtain usable fission material.
More worrisome than terrorists using confederates inside governments are the governments themselves sponsoring the terrorists. In 2000, four Middle East states (Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Sudan) were labelled as both sponsoring terrorism and possessing weapons of mass destruction (Cordesman 33). While none of these states currently have nuclear weapons, Iran and Iraq were labelled above by Wirtz as being on the brink of their development. Even without the weapons themselves, these states may soon have the capacity to create the fissionable material, which terrorists might also gain access to.
There are several ways in which terrorists might gain access to materials for nuclear weapons. Still, the construction of the actual bomb from the fissionable material would still remain. However, some nuclear experts say obtaining the fissionable material is the difficult part, building a working bomb is easy. Luis Alvarez, a Manhattan Project scientist, states, “Most people seem unaware that if separated U-235 is at hand, it’s a trivial job to set off a nuclear explosion…. Even a High school kid could make a bomb in short order” (qtd. in Leifer, 29). Obviously, a crude bomb of this type of construction would not have the power of modern nuclear warheads, but even a small fission reaction would be enough to cause massive damage and radiation.
If a terrorist group were to somehow obtain materials and build a nuclear bomb, the US would be in a little better position to prevent its detonation than a conventional bomb. Furthermore, we would have no significant retaliatory measures. We might be able to discover the individuals or group responsible and bring them to justice, but we would have no way of instituting a large-scale retaliation of a magnitude similar to the attack. It is possible that some blame could be placed on a foreign government, as in the case of the Taliban and September 11th, but in any case, any sort of nuclear retaliation would likely be virtually out of the question.
This issue of retaliation highlights an important gap in the US defence against nuclear weapons. The US relies on a philosophy of deterrence, i.e. any nuclear strike against us would trigger massive nuclear retaliation. This philosophy, however, requires there to be a definitive target to retaliate against, which in the case of terrorists, there rarely is. Even a national missile defence system would likely prove ineffective as any detonation would probably occur from the ground.
If we were to catch a terrorist group attempting a plan involving nuclear weapons at virtually any stage of their operation, the terrorists would still partially succeed in their mission. This is because, as Loehmer points out, even the word nuclear induces terror (Wilkinson 50). Even just a plan to try to obtain a nuclear weapon would attract massive attention from the media, and inspire wide-spread fear in the general public. Publicity and attention are the true goals of terrorists, and violence is usually simply a means to attract these same things, so in this case, even failure means success. This simply provides more of an incentive for the attempt.
Terrorists do not commit acts of violence and destruction for joy or challenge. Terrorist groups are organizations with specific goals they want to achieve and specific ways they plan to achieve them. Like most organizations that fight for a cause, getting the attention of people is many times the most important step. Unfortunately the quote “If it bleeds, it leads” oftentimes proves all too true in the world of mass media and terrorists have quickly learned this fact. The more shocking, the more violent, the more destructive the act the more attention it seems to get.
In today’s society, Islamic radicalism provides the most brutally efficient machinery to orchestrate this violence. It turns idealistic youths into savage tools of a dogmatic crusade. To these selfish, soulless warriors no price of human life is too high for their cause. With each new plan more destructive than the last, someone will eventually attempt the unthinkable. Some groups will attempt to use man’s most destructive weapon to aid their own destructive ends. The cruel irony is that even if they fail, it will only inspire others to try the same thing. Our only true hope is that somehow this madness is put to an end before the human race is.
Bartholet, Jefrey, Carol Berger, and Melinda Liu. “A Wave of Terror All Their Own.” Newsweek 30 August 1993: 41.
Cordesman, Anthony H. Homeland Defense: The Current and Future Terrorist Threat. Westport: Praeger, 2000.
Emerson, Steven. “A Terrorist Network in America?” New York Times 7 April 1993: A23.
Faksh, Mahmud A. The Future of Islam in the Middle East: fundamentalism in Egypt, Algeria, and Saudi Arabia. Westport: Praeger, 1997.
Leifer, John. “Weapons of Mass Destruction.” Washington Monthly 99: 28-32.
McGuinn, Bradford R. “Should we fear Islamic fundamentalists?” USA Today Magazine November 1993: 34. EBSCO
Paul, T. V., Richard J. Harknett, James J. Wirtz, eds. The Absolute Weapon
Revisited: Nuclear Arms and the Emerging International Order. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998.
Rajashekar, J. Paul. “Islamic Fundamentalism.” Ecumenical Review January 1989: 64-72.
Schneider, Barry R. Future War and Counterproliferation: U.S. Military Responses to NBC Proliferation Threats. Westport: Praeger, 1999.
Stern, Jessica. The Ultimate Terrorists. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1999.
Wilkinson, Paul, ed. Technology and Terrorism. Portland: Frank Cass, 1993.
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