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The cult of terrorism - Samuel Bezzina

In July, Japan oversaw the last death sentence of six doomsday terrorists linked to Aum Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth). This follows another earlier capital punishment of seven cultist extremists, including the movement’s murderous spiritual leader, Shoko Asahara, on July 3.

Blacklisted as a foreign terrorist group, Aum Shinrikyo (Aum) gained notoriety when it conducted the sarin gas attack in Tokyo’s metro stations on March 20, 1995. Aum poisoned 13 commuters to death, leaving hundreds more injured to suffer the horrendous repercussions. This cutting-edge, but folly terror attack was accompanied by an undervalued ‘apocalyptic’ belief behind Aum’s violent philosophy: the end of the world is coming, and you shall die unless you convert to Aum’s Hindu-Buddhist-Christian creed of salvation.

Aum’s ideological, anti-state critique of the world in general, and of Japanese society in particular, raises an unfamiliar, but needed discussion when speaking about the cult of terrorism. Terrorist groups, particularly individual terrorists, come to believe that they are ‘morally right’ when committing murder and plotting atrocities in the name of fighting for a higher, nobler cause.

This sense of moral righteousness can be understood as a fanatical ‘vocation’ adopted by terrorists, despite their organisation’s official ideological leanings. Terrorists adopt political homicide as a holy sacrament, which enable terrorist groups to cleanse the sinful lifestyles of liberal democracies through killing intended targets.

Imagining themselves as “violent missionaries”, terrorists believe that they are born, or converted to create a newfound society built on bloodstained propaganda and one-dimensional utopia. From 1975 to 2002, Greece’s left-wing terrorist group 17 November (17N) assassinated 23 people including politicians, businessmen and diplomats. Assassination was necessary for 17N, adopting a nationalist-rejectionist cult of leading Greek society to a Marxist promised land, free from corrupt state democracy and American interference in Greek life.

 Once arrested, 17N killer Dimitris Koufodinas admitted how: “I assume responsibility for all 17N actions. I deny my accusations... My life has been guided by the belief of building a revolutionary, socialist society.” 

Terrorists adopt homicidal violence to protect the socio-cultural integrity of their population from outside forces of evil

The 17N case shows how terrorists adopt homicidal violence to protect the socio-cultural integrity of their population from outside forces of evil. Ethno-nationalist and jihadist groups, ranging from the IRA to Al-Qaeda, have promoted the use of terrorism as self-defence to fight back expansionist threats from their personifications of evil, representing the liberal state and democratic society.

This conviction is historically inspired from the Sicarii Zealots, an ancient terrorist secret society who fought Roman rule in Judea and Samaria (Israel). The Sicarii Zealots employed  knife stabbings against Roman centurions, and their Jewish collaborators, to fend-off the colonial assaults of the Roman occupier over Jewish territorial and religious traditions practiced since times immemorial.

As Hamas’s organisational name suggests, plainly translated as ‘enthusiasm’, ideological terrorists adopt this passionate, murderous zealotic character to display identity, purpose, heroism, and sacrifice to create a new social order for their people. While keeping their populations’ historical traditions alive, terrorists aim to create this fresh, ideal and pure society based on freedom, revolution and violence. In line with their group’s key ideological leanings, whether Jihadism, Marxism, nationalism, etc., later generations of Chechen, Tamil, Palestinian and Islamist suicide bombers were prepared to kill and die in a survival-like, universal war against political, religious and cultural surrender to the state.

This zealotic idealism is accelerated by the entry of potential extremists into a terrorist group. The exposure of radicalised, however insecure recruits to the underground, but strict ideological guiding principles of a terrorist movement, leads to a quasi-spiritual conversion of some to destroy the immoral democratic state to death.

The divine, god-like charismatic influence of terrorist leaders, including the LTTE’s Vellupilai Prabhakaran, Hamas’s Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Shining Path’s Abimael Guzman, and ISIS jihadist supremo Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, further enflames the terrorists’ fanatical devotion to kill in an apocalytic life-and-death, good-versus-evil armed struggle against state and society.

Mark Jurgensmeyer, American religious sociologist, describes this imaginary fight as an exaggerated “cosmic war”, involving terrorists who refer their violence to age-old, legendary epic battles. This belief is not limited to membership in terrorist movements. In today’s social media age, unlimited access to online ideological propaganda helps potential lone-wolf extremists to find life’s meaning as converted revolutionary soldiers fighting this terrorist war.

 Europe’s right-wing extremists have sought to innovate counter-jihadist social media propaganda, sharing ideological material for terrorist glorification, while uploading attack preparation instructions to provoke an anti-immigrant, white-supremacist cosmic ‘Christian crusade’.

Aum’s cultist legacies has one important lesson to teach for Western state counter-terrorism. Richard English, British terrorism historian, concludes how “we have to be prepared to live with terrorist campaigns enduringly. So far, Western counter-terrorism has been practically ineffective to understand terrorist ideologies. Small groups of determined people continue to use terrorism to gain eye-catching headlines and cause sharp human pain, although failing to create the society in whose name their bloodstained violence is practised.”          

Samuel Bezzina is an independent researcher in terrorism and political violence.

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