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March 3, 2015 / 12 Adar , 5775
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Déjà Vu All Over Again – It’s Time To Understand What Jihadist Terrorists Really Want


            To be sure, it’s a theme that I have already pursued in this column on several occasions, but nonetheless one that still seems to warrant further emphasis and elucidation. We all seem to know what Jihadist terrorists are after, yet our pertinent U.S. foreign policies remain founded upon altogether contrary assumptions. The most obvious example of such confusion, perhaps, is this country’s continuing support of Palestinian statehood, an outcome that would, prima facie, undermine America’s war on terror.


            Consider this: Al-Qaeda operatives, some acting together with certain allied Palestinian terror-groups, are actively planning future attacks against the United States. More than likely, these attacks would involve chemical and/or biological weapons. At a time of “ordinary” disease pandemic (i.e., swine flu), the latter could even hold a special attraction.


            Beyond any reasonable doubt, a nuclear dirty-bomb event is also on the drawing board. Some Jihadist terrorists are already working diligently in this weaponization direction. Here, however, near-term enemy success is marginally less plausible.



             Again, what exactly, do these terrorists really seek? Are they all really after some identifiable form of political or social reform? This question may first appear silly, obvious or even contrived. Yet, the usual answers are almost always superficial and unhelpful. Almost never, it seems, are we willing to probe this hideously complex question seriously, with applied intellect, analytic deliberation and courageously non-partisan resolve.


            At the most basic level, these terrorists “simply” want to transform pain into power.  But this transformation is not always easy, because the correlation is not always proportionate.  It is even possible, at least on occasion, that inflicting the most excruciating pain upon us would diminish terrorist power, while causing less overwhelming pain would enhance terrorist power.


            Ironically, in view of current American debates over torture, the terrorist groups that now prepare mega-attacks on this country have always learned from the torturer.  They fully understand that pain, to be purposeful, must point toward death, but that – still – it must not necessarily kill.  This is not to suggest that Islamist terrorists do not seek to produce large numbers of dead Americans, but rather, that leaving alive many American witnesses who will then themselves fear annihilation is an integral part of the macabre “choreography.”


            Imitating the torturer, the Jihadist terrorist plans to take what is private and incommunicable, the pain contained within the boundaries of the sufferer’s own body, and then manipulate it to shape the behavior of others.  A manifestly defiled form of theater that draws public influence from the innermost depths of human privacy, terrorism twists and amplifies pain within the individual human body to influence others who live outside that body.  Violating the inviolable, it declares with unspeakable cruelty that not only is no one immune, but that everyone’s most personal horror can also be made public.


            Now led by a new president, America still hears from certain Jihadist quarters of the Islamic world that “martyrs” who plan to slay more of our countrymen have a recognizably political motive. Surely, we are soberly informed, these killers do not kill gratuitously.  Rather, they kill to “recover the land,” to “reclaim our rights,” to “prevent foreign intervention,” to “acquire self-determination,” to “rid us of tyrants, apostates, blasphemers,” etc. Their alleged grievances are legion, but – operationally and ideologically – they are utterly beside the point.


            There is, perhaps, a tiny light at the end of the long tunnel.  Once these “sacred” objectives are realized, Washington is assured all will be well.  The killers will “return” to a life of peace.  There will be no more pain, no more unspeakable public intrusions into the very depths of individual privacy. Their attempted violent deconstruction of our civilization, their gleeful uncreation of what has been assembled for literally thousands of years, will quietly announce its own end.


            Yet, what America and its president hear, they do not always understand.  Like the victim of torture, who is told again and again that his pain is somehow related to his too – reluctant disclosure of information, Washington still confronts a masquerade.  With the entire United States, as with the individual torture victim, the declared motive of the perpetrator is only a fiction.  In the end, the torturer tortures because he enjoys torturing. The terrorist, for his part, terrorizes with visceral delight. He does this even with a grotesque voluptuousness, not merely for “the cause,” but because that is what heor she truly wants to do.  On the very day that I write these words, Fatah has broadcast very graphic images of Hamas torture.


            The delighted torturer cannot be stopped by answering his questions.  The inflamed terrorist cannot be stopped by yielding to his terror. The Jihadist-driven Islamic terrorist will cease his terror only when Washington agrees to accept a complete surrender to “Holy War.” It is probably true, as Osama Bin Laden himself has repeatedly advised us, that America may still escape its terrible fate through mass conversion to Islam. Till then, however, the authoritative Islamist view is that our “infidel blood lacks sanctity.”  


            The Jihadist terrorist and his victims experience pain and power as opposites.  As the victims’ suffering grows, so does the power of the terrorist.  And as the power of the terrorist grows, so does the pain of his victims.  For the bystanders, and this includes all of our country that is not directly involved in a particular terrorist attack, each blast of pain is a mock execution, a stunning reminder of American vulnerability, and a palpable denial of American power.


            The terrorist, like the torturer, can alter human language.  With each act of terrorism, America will lose more and more of its “voice.”  After a time, if nothing more is done about the terrorist exploitation of American pain as power, Washington will be left dumb.  In response, the terrorist, confronted with an American victim that has now become conspicuously supine and pitiable, will close in with even greater destructiveness and an altogether foreseeable ferocity.


             Any terrorist escalation in the magnitude of terror would follow directly from correlations of pain and power.  All terrorism intends to change an intended victim’s general awareness that “all persons must die” to the far more specific awareness,  I  must die – and maybe soon.”  As any resort to more destructive forms of terror could hasten this change, such resort should not be dismissed too quickly.  The facile observation that “terrorists have no reason to escalate” is now an evident product of the most fragile syllogisms.


            The pain caused by terrorism, a pain that confers power upon the terrorist, begins within the victim’s private body, and then spills out more widely into the general body politic.  Wanting the two realms to become indistinguishable, the terrorist already understands that it is not enough that his victims feel pain.  Pain must also be felt, vicariously but palpably, by all those who might still themselves become victims.  For President Obama, this should be a conceptual understanding of immediate operational importance. It is far more important than the number of troops on the ground in either theatre of current conflict (Iraq or Afghanistan) or than any other standard military calculations of probable U.S. victory or defeat.



Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press. He isthe author of many major books and articles on terrorism, nuclear strategy and nuclear war, including publications in International Security(Harvard); World Politics (Princeton); 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 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); and the Monograph Series on World Affairs (University of Denver).

About the Author: Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is professor of political science and international law at Purdue University and the author of many books and articles dealing with international relations and strategic studies.

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