The New Terrorism
Fanaticism and the Arms of Mass Destruction
Walter Laqueur
Oxford University Press
198 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10016

It is a season of books on terrorism and allied subjects like Taliban, al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. Here is a comprehensive book that seeks to look into the history of terrorism and its “left” and “right” varieties. We have chapters like Religion and Terrorism, State Terrorism, Exotic Terrorism, Terrorism and Organised Crime and Terrorism of the Future. Sounds quite ambitious. However, what Laqueur provides in terms of the wide scale of the study is seriously marred by some embarrassing inaccuracies of fact and argument.

For instance, he puts the hashishin  (from whom the English word assassin comes) of early Islam, the relatively recent thugs   of India and the first century AD Jewish sicaris in the same category of “terrorists” inspired by religion. As per the current understanding of terrorism, only the assassins (hashishin ) and sicaris  would usually be taken as terrorists while the thugs  would be categorised as religious-minded violent criminals and murderers. The simple reason for such characterisation would be that terrorism is the use of violence to terrorise a large section of people or to harass a government for political ends. Terrorists always have political agenda to push. The thugs  offered the head or blood of their victims to goddess Kali, which was a religious ritual to solicit her blessings for their enterprise of violent plunder. They did not have any political agenda whatsoever.

On the other hand, the sicaris  murdered and terrorised people, including fellow Jews, in a vain bid to harass the Roman occupation forces in Palestine, while the hashihsin did so to harass the Islamic ruler, the khalifah. In case of the hashihsin  it was a sectarian political struggle within Islam, the rulers being Sunni and the rebels being Ismailite Shias. Laqueur falters more often when he comes to contemporary South Asia.

There is a small sub-chapter, “India, Pakistan, and the Sikhs,” which shows the author at his weakest. He says that as many as a “thousand a year have been killed in Karachi alone,” and surmises that the Indian intelligence agencies have been quite successful at engineering strife within Pakistan. “Pakistan has returned the favour through its activity and has also been active in the Punjab conflict,” he says. That is, Pakistan is doing it because India did it. Interestingly, Laqueur calls the Mohajir Qaumi Movement (MQM) only Mohajir Quawmi, deleting “movement” and altering the spelling of “Qaumi”. That also indicates his uncertain grasp of things. Even more interestingly, he calls Benazir Bhutto, Ben Azir Bhutto, hebraicising the familiar name in the process. In some cases of “religious” terrorism cited by him (like Algeria’s), the violence is primarily of a political nature, articulated in religious idiom. Algeria’s Islamic Salvation Front is not exactly an al Maghreb version of Taliban, though it articulates most of its political and cultural positions in terms of Islam. The Algerian military (supported by France) is largely responsible for the Front’s success, because it prevented the Front from forming government following massive electoral victory. In most cases, non-Western freedom movements have used religious jargon to formulate their political position. This was so in India as well during the 19th and 20th century. Even today BJP uses religious language and symbolisms to convey ordinary political messages and to achieve political ends. This does not make such political groups innately religious.

Finally, to give Laqueur his due, he does concede at the very beginning of the book that it is not easy to categorise much of the violence going on today neatly as terrorism, organised crime or simple brigandage. Flawed though it is, it remains one of the best books on the subject. It carries a blurb, the opinion of former CIA director James Woolsey, “If you read only one book on it, this should be it.” Well, Mr Woolsey is not too much wide of the mark.


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