The Year Terrorists Lost Religion

Jihadi groups used to justify attacks as self-defense, but the Pakistani Taliban, Boko Haram and Islamic State have broken from that rationale.

Another way to read the Koran.

Photographer: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

The horrific massacre of 132 boys this week at their school in Peshawar, Pakistan, embodies a new trend in Islamist terrorism that has emerged over this year. Past jihadi terrorists, up to and including Osama bin Laden, claimed that their violence was justified as self-defense under their interpretation of the Islamic laws of war. In 2014, however, we’ve seen radical Islamists ignoring those laws altogether. From Islamic State to Boko Haram to the Pakistani Taliban, the killers seem unconcerned to justify their actions in terms of Shariah -- and this development demands careful attention to understand where the jihadis are going.

Before you say that you don’t care what rationale terrorists give for their actions, recall that understanding terrorism is a necessary prerequisite to combating it. The vast majority of terrorist acts are not committed by literal madmen who don’t know right from wrong. To the contrary, most terrorists think that their actions fit into a moral schema and that they are thoroughly justified by some combination of politics and theology. To understand the terrorists’ arguments is not to justify or forgive them. It’s simply the first step toward making terrorism a thing of the past.

In that spirit, consider that the overwhelming majority of jihadi terrorism has been justified over the past two decades as an exercise of the right to self-defense inherent in the classical Islamic idea of defensive jihad. Unlike offensive jihad to spread the realm of Islam, defensive jihad is not optional but obligatory. According to most classical Islamic authorities, it also doesn’t require the direction of an Islamically legitimate leader. And it applies to the individual, not just to the state.

Consequently, jihadi terrorists have claimed to be engaged in defensive jihad, even when an outside observer would consider the claim doubtful. Bin Laden claimed, implausibly, that Saudi Arabia was being occupied by the U.S., so al-Qaeda’s embassy bombings in East Africa and the Sept. 11 attacks were acts of self-defense. Once the U.S. was actually occupying Iraq and Afghanistan, resistance against it could be described much more convincingly as a defensive jihad to protect Muslims against the unbelieving occupier.

Even in a defensive jihad, there are laws of war laid down by the classical sources. Women and children are not to be killed. Innocent Muslim men, too, are out of bounds, unless (according to some sources) they are being used as human shields by the enemy.

Of course, al-Qaeda and its affiliates killed women and children as well as some Muslims on Sept. 11, and in Iraq and Afghanistan as well. But the theorists of radical jihadism bent over backward to justify these deviations from the classical laws of war.

One rationale was that the classical sources allowed some collateral damage: For example, the use of a catapult that would shoot flaming stones to defeat a siege. Another argument insisted that necessity trumped the classical laws: Because there was no other way for Muslims to defend themselves, weapons of mass destruction were permissible. A third strand, running parallel to some Western thinking about the laws of war, argued that the use of such weapons was proportional to the kind of indiscriminate violence wrought by American air bombardment. Bin Laden himself even offered a fourth claim, namely that all Americans were responsible for American violence because the U.S. is a democracy.

The point is not to explore whether these arguments were correct interpretations of Shariah. Rather, it’s important to notice that the terrorists of 2014 make no such efforts. Boko Haram calls itself a jihadi organization, but it has killed numerous Muslim men. It claims that its best known outrage, the kidnapping of more than 200 young women, is permitted under Islamic law because slaves may be taken, but this is not a doctrine of jihad.

Islamic State goes further. It has used beheadings to enforce its expansion -- and many of those killed have been Sunni Muslims. What’s more, there’s no non-Muslim occupying force in Iraq for Islamic State to be fighting a jihad against. True, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad can be described as an infidel, and so struggle against his regime might count as a defensive jihad. But much of Islamic State’s efforts are focused on other Sunni Muslim groups, including the al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front, from which Islamic State broke off in the first place.

Islamic State is justifying its violence on the theory of state expansion. This rationale is not based in self-defense, but in a kind of raison d’état: The violence is justified because Islamic State is trying to achieve sovereign control. Indeed, sovereignty is at the core of its mission, and explains some of its stranger undertakings such as the issuance of currency and the declaration of a caliphate. These objectives are strikingly different from defensive jihad. Recall that even bin Laden never declared himself caliph, probably because he didn’t govern any territory.

Now in Peshawar, the Pakistani Taliban have followed suit, killing Sunni Muslim boys who couldn’t under any theory be described as part of any occupying force. Pakistan is constitutionally an Islamic state, so the Taliban aren’t engaged in a defensive jihad. They’re trying to gain control of Pashtun-dominated territory -- and perhaps someday of the state itself.

The common thread is the use of terrorism not simply to defend, but to control. The hint of anti-imperialism that attached to al-Qaeda violence and to the modern theory of defensive jihad is starting to look quaint.

The response to the new terrorism must take account of this new, disturbing trend. Put bluntly, the new terrorists can’t be allowed to govern. Their successes in the eyes of their followers will be measured not by resistance to the West, but by the creation of semi-functional states. If it’s sovereignty they seek, then sovereignty must be denied to them -- or they will grow.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.