Seen One Killer, Seen ‘em All?


“The violence we are seeing in Iraq is familiar,” President Bush argued, with seductive simplicity, in Tuesday’s press conference.

“The terrorist who takes hostages or plants a roadside bomb near Baghdad,” he continued, “is serving the same ideology of murder that kills innocent people on trains in Madrid and murders children on buses in Jerusalem and blows up a nightclub in Bali and cuts the throat of a young reporter for being a Jew. We’ve seen the same ideology of murder in the killing of 241 Marines in Beirut, the first attack on the World Trade Center, in the destruction of two embassies in Africa, in the attack on the U.S.S. Cole and in the merciless horror inflicted upon thousands of innocent men and women and children on Sept. 11, 2001.”

Bush’s argument boiled down to this: A terrorist is a terrorist, whether he is a member of Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas or of an Iraqi resistance organization fighting American troops -- and, whatever their differences, they are all inflamed by the “same ideology of murder.” Intended as an expression of “moral clarity,” it’s likely to convince many Americans. But does it hold up? Are such groups all the same, and are they actually driven by an identical ideology?


Let’s start by defining terrorism. It’s a notoriously slippery concept: As the cliche goes, one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. But the most widely accepted and neutral definition is that it is violence against civilians to achieve political aims.

Do all of Bush’s examples pass the test? Certainly the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and in Bali and Madrid, do. But what about the bombing of the Marine barracks in 1983 by Lebanese militants belonging to Islamic Jihad (the precursor to Hezbollah), which Bush also referred to? However appalling, this was directed at a military target in the midst of a civil war. The Marines landed in Beirut as peacekeepers, but they came in the aftermath of Israel’s invasion and were perceived by the Shiite community as intervening on the side of Israel and its Christian Falangist allies.

Likewise, however much one deplores the roadside bombings of American soldiers by Iraqi fighters, such acts scarcely qualify as “terrorism.” The aim is not to kill American civilians but to target soldiers and thereby drive the American army out of Iraq. Whether you support it or oppose it, it’s not terrorism; it’s resistance to occupation.

As for the horrifying suicide attacks by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade on buses and in restaurants in Israel, they certainly qualify as terrorism -- i.e., violence against civilians to achieve political aims. But it is unfair (and misleading) to say that these attacks are motivated by a diffuse “ideology of murder.” In fact, they’re motivated by long-simmering nationalist rage against a 37-year-old occupation that shows few signs of abating; despite the similarity in methods, they are distinct from Al Qaeda’s attacks on trains and resorts. This does not excuse such attacks, but it does distinguish them.

Unlike Al Qaeda, moreover, Palestinian militants are not at war with the U.S. Hamas’ arena of operations is limited, and so are its aims: Its struggle is with Israel, not with the West.

Giandomenico Picco, the former U.N. diplomat who helped secure the release of the Western hostages held by Shiite militants in Lebanon in the late 1980s, believes it is important to draw a careful distinction between “tactical” and “strategic” terrorism. Tactical terror, however murderous, is a means of pursuing concrete territorial goals that -- whether we agree with them or not -- are at least real goals. Strategic terror, by contrast, is an end in itself.


Many nationalist groups have used tactical terrorism, from Algeria’s National Liberation Front to South Africa’s African National Congress to the Irish Republican Army to the Irgun and Stern Gang in Palestine during the British mandate period. Once they achieved independence, these groups generally abandoned terrorism, and many former “terrorists” have become statesmen, among them Nelson Mandela (the leader of a group long classified as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department) and Menachem Begin (who, as the leader of the Irgun militia, presided over the July 22, 1946, bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem that killed 91 civilians).

Since the end of Israel’s 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon four years ago, Hezbollah has largely followed this pattern. The organization now has nine deputies in the Lebanese parliament, where it has focused its efforts on improving the lives of its Shiite constituents. Although the party continues to exchange fire with Israeli soldiers on the border and to offer rhetorical and logistical support for Palestinian militants, it has not been implicated in an attack on Western civilians in more than a decade. The first Islamic cleric to denounce 9/11 was none other than Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, Lebanon’s senior Shiite cleric who served as Hezbollah’s spiritual guide at the time of the 1983 bombings. Like most Shiites, he loathes the Sunni fundamentalists of Al Qaeda, who in turn revile the Shiites.

Al Qaeda, by contrast, has declared war on the United States and the West, and its terrorism is strategic: not simply a means to an end but an end in itself. Its ideology is fanatical, apocalyptic and expansionist, and its goal -- the restoration of an Islamic caliphate and the elimination of “Crusaders and Zionists” -- is a recipe for endless war.

Far from being an expression of moral clarity, Bush’s promiscuous definition of terrorism blinds us to the distinctions among groups with very different and often-clashing agendas and threatens to drag us into further unnecessary wars.

To insist upon these distinctions is not to excuse the murder of civilians, which must be condemned, or to endorse the agenda of nationalist insurgencies that use “tactical terror.” Rather, it is to acknowledge that terror comes in different forms, and that in order to combat it successfully, we need to know which kind we’re confronting.

Adam Shatz is literary editor of The Nation.