Please note that this essay was written in 2014, prior to the capabilities of Islamic State were fully realised.
Since the conclusion of the Cold War in 1991, there has been an increase in terrorist activity motivated by religion. This also came with a relative decline in secular terrorism. With the rise of nationalism during the 20th century, terrorism had been more based on ideas of anarchism, class-conflict, Marxism, anticolonial liberation, and revolution. However, since the 1980s many prominent terrorist groups active in the world today have a primarily religious focus. In 2004, nearly half of all active terrorist groups were religion-based. Former United States Secretary of State Warren Christopher stated in 1996 that terrorist organisations that operate in the name of religion are, “one of the most important security challenges we face in the wake of the Cold War”. Thus, it is important to analyse the rise of religious terrorism as it poses an international risk. The rise in religiously motivated terrorism coincided with the rise of religious fundamentalism that occurred from the 1979 Iranian Revolution. In addition, since the Cold War there has been an increasing Western physical presence within the Middle East, headed by the United States. Their presence in Saudi Arabia, support for Israel, and military interventions in Muslim-majority states has consequently led to a rise in religiously motivated terrorism. Thirdly, the rise of religious terrorism can also be justified through the emergence of the Internet and escalation of globalisation, enabling fundamentalist ideas to be spread instantly around internationally. In investigating the rise of religiously motivated terrorism since the Cold War, radical Islamic groups like: Al-Qaeda, Jemaah Islamiah, Boko Haram, the Taliban, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL,) among others, will be used as examples. These groups either originated or gained significantly greater attention following the end of the Cold War, and offer an explanation to the rise of religiously motivated terrorism globally.
In understanding why there has been a rise in religiously motivated terrorism, the link between religion and violence must be examined. Although religions are most often associated with notions of love and peace, the mythology of the world’s main religions contain immense violence. Religion scholar and sociologist Mark Juergensmeyer stated in Assaf Moghadam and William Lee Eubank’s 2006 text, “religion deals with the ultimate tension between order and disorder, and disorder is inherently violent, so it is understandable that the chaotic, dangerous character of life is represented in religious images”. In addition with this, religions like Islam, Judaism and Christianity offer moral and theological justifications for violence. Within Islam is the doctrine of ‘jihad,’ of which means “to struggle or strive, and applies to any effort exerted by anyone”. When considered that for the religious fighter, violence is committed in response to a doctrinal need, “terrorism thus assumes a transcendental dimension, and its perpetrators therefore often disregard the political, moral, or practical constraints that may affect other terrorists”. Extreme fundamentalist groups employ terror tactics, for these tactics are considered sacred and theologically legitimated.
The rise of religious fundamentalism during the late 1970s serves as a partial explanation as to the rise of religiously motivated terrorism internationally. As American academic Jonathan Fine wrote in 2008, “Since Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, there has been a steady rise in Islamist terrorism”. Fine argued that ideological principles motivated Islamic terrorists rather than rational-strategic principles that are commonly used by secular-based terror groups. This is evident through Islamic fundamentalist terrorist groups like ISIL, who employ terror tactics in the mission of creating an Islamic State. The term ‘fundamentalism’ was first used in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by American Christians who sought to return to the ‘fundamentals’ of their faith. According to academic Jeffery Haynes, contemporary religious fundamentalism originated as a reaction to “unwelcome manifestations of modernisation, especially declining moral values or perceived undermining of the family as a social institution”. The term was popularised following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, where Islamic fundamentalist Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his party overthrew the United States backed Pahlavi dynasty under Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. It gained significant attention internationally as it lacked the archetypal triggers for a revolution. It replaced a relatively wealthy, pro-Western monarchy with an anti-Western, authoritarian, Islamic theocracy. The revolutionists opposed the Shah’s focus on modernisation and Westernisation, of which consequently resulted in a disregard for religion. Iranian thinkers like Jalal Al-e-Ahmad and Ali Shariati observed Western culture as a plague, and that Islam was the one true liberator of the Arab world from neo-colonialism and capitalism. The Iranian Revolution had an immense impact throughout the world. It generated much interest in Islamic fundamentalism in the non-Muslim world. The Iranian revolution became an example to Muslims throughout the world, as Hoffman stated, “exhorting them to reassert the fundamental teachings of the Qur’an and to resist the intrusion of Western…influence into the Middle East”. Thus, Islamic fundamentalist ideals became popular throughout the Muslim world. Following Iran, many revolutionaries called for similar fundamentalist uprisings in other Middle Eastern and North African nations. Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini preached that violent revolt, and martyrdom against Western tyranny and political injustice was essential for Shia Muslims. Although the Iranian revolution itself was relatively bloodless, the aftermath was violent. The Iran-Iraq war was such a conflict where Islamic fundamentalism was attempted violently. In September 1980 Saddam Hussain’s Sunni majority, Arab nationalist Iraq sought to eliminate the Islamic revolution in Iran in its early stages. However, the Iranians countered and reversed the Iraqi advance. Khomeini stated that, “the regime in Baghdad must fall and must be replaced by an Islamic Republic”… The ideals of Khomeini’s fundamentalism is an important aspect of religiously motivated terrorism, and a central reason into why this form of terrorism has popularised in the last two decades. Many Islamic terrorist groups subscribe to fundamentalist ideals, with these terrorist groups being severely anti-Western, anti-capitalist and anti-modernist in their ideologies. Fundamentalists are prone to terrorist tactics in the name of religion due to their strong beliefs in their cause, “Similar to the polarizing and absolutist rhetoric (us vs. them) used by terrorist groups… exemplary dualism – the belief that we (members) are good and others are evil – is also characteristic of many religious groups”… For the fundamentalist fighter, violence is observed as being a “sacramental act or divine duty executed in direct response to some theological demand or imperative”. The fundamentalist ideas popularised by the Iranian revolution are a key factor into why religiously motivated terrorist groups have increased since 1991. The central aim of many of these Islamic groups, like the Indonesian terrorist organisation Jemaah Islamiyah, “is to establish a unified Islamic nation, guided by a strict interpretation of ‘shari’a’ (Islamic law) among the countries of Southeast Asia”… Notorious terrorist organisations like the Taliban had already achieved this during the 1990s in Afghanistan until they were removed from power in 2001. Even today, the fundamental objective of ISIL is to establish an Islamic state over the Sunni-dominant regions of Iraq and Syria. The popularisation of Islamic fundamentalism from the 1970s to today has also resulted in the rise of religious terrorist organisations. This is simply because fundamentalists and terrorists share the same objective in eliminating Western culture and modernisation from their societies. The growing reaction against Westernisation and modernisation in favour of Islamic fundamentalism has coincidently resulted in the escalation of religiously motivated terrorism internationally.
In addition with the invasion of Western culture and modernisation into Muslim-majority states, there has been a rise in Western military presence in the Middle East. This too has resulted in an increase in religiously motivated terrorism. The history of the United States involvement in the Middle East indicates the hostility that exists today towards the Americans in the region. According to academic Sheldon L. Richman, “The United States, as the heir to British imperialism in the region, has been a frequent object of suspicion… it, has been unable to resist becoming entangled in the region’s political conflicts”… Since the end of the Cold War, the United States in particular has escalated its physical intervention into the Middle East. Islamic fundamentalists raise significant concern with: the American military presence in Saudi Arabia; its support for Israel; and military interventions in Muslim-majority states like Iraq 1991 and 2003-2011; conflicts in the Balkans during the 1990s; Afghanistan 2001-present and recently against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The American presence in Saudi Arabia reflected the concern that the West was corrupting Muslim states. During the First Gulf War from 1990-1991, American soldiers were situated nearby the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, of which infuriated Islamic groups. Former head of Al-Qaeda Osama bin Laden stated his concern in 1996 that “Saudi Arabia had been turned into ‘an American colony”. Bin Laden also issued a fatāwā, (Islamic legal declaration) in August 1996 against the United States for the ‘American occupation of the Holy Lands,’ he stated the escalating United States intervention in the region following the Cold War as a “clear declaration of war on God, his messenger and Muslims.” Subsequently, as American involvement in Muslim lands increased, so did the growth of Islamic terrorist organisations. Former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) analyst Michael Scheuer deliberated that American foreign policy actions in the Muslim world is fueling Islamic terror. Scheuer argued that Islamic terror attacks against The United States, like the September 11 attacks in 2001, were motivated not purely due to hatred of Western culture, but as a reaction to what they interpreted as American aggression in the Muslim world. Al-Qaeda in particular considered all violence against the United States and its allies as defensive and reactionary. In 2004 bin Laden provided his justification for the September 11 attacks, “we witnessed the injustice and tyranny of the American-Israeli alliance against our people in Palestine and Lebanon…when America allowed the Israelis to invade Lebanon, helped by the U.S. Sixth Fleet. As I watched the destroyed towers in Lebanon, it occurred to me punish the unjust the same way: to destroy towers in America so it could taste some of what we are tasting”… According to Al-Qaeda, the September 11 attacks in 2001 were reactionary against ‘American aggression’ in Muslim states. In addition with this was the United States’ support for Israel. This too is also a fundamental reason into the rise of religious terrorism in recent decades. Anti-Israel terrorist organisations like Hamas and Hezbollah emerged in the late 1980s and gained significant attention during the 1990s and 2000s. The emergence of these groups is evidence of the rise of religiously motivated terrorism since 1991. The escalation of Western military involvement in the Muslim world has also subsequently resulted in the rise of theologically inspired terrorism since the Cold War.
The emergence of the Internet during the 1990s and 2000s and the consequent growth of globalisation have also contributed to the rise of religious terrorism internationally since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Advances in telecommunications during the last two decades have made the transferring of information and ideas across the world almost instant. Religious terror groups have been able to adapt well to the rapidly changing world. Academic Mark Sageman noted that the ability to adapt is a strength of terrorist groups. He wrote that, “Terror groups are not static; they evolve over time”. Terrorist groups during the 21st century have been able to use avenues like the Internet in order to spread their ideology globally, in addition to gaining recruits and followers to their cause. The use of social media and the Internet in particular is important for religious terrorist organisations in the 21st century. In a study by Israeli academic Gabriel Weimann, he found that in 2012, “ 90% of terrorist activity on the internet takes place using social networking tools”. Social media allows terror an affordable, universal platform to facilitate their ideas to their audience in real time. This has escalated the rise in religious motivated terrorism, as the relevant information is extremely easy to access. Al-Qaeda has been stated as a terror group to use the Internet to advantage. Audrey Kurth Cronin stated in 2009 how as a ‘global movement,’ “Al-Qaeda…has used the tools of globalisation to connect with multiple audiences, including potential new members, new recruits, active supporters, passive sympathisers, neutral observers, enemy governments, and potential victims”. Other terrorist groups like the Taliban, Al-Shabab and Boko Haram have social media accounts that they use frequently. Most recently ISIL has reflected how effective the Internet and the global media can be in spreading fundamental terror ideas. In 2014 ISIL realised video footage of militants beheading American and British journalists onto the Internet. The shocking footage was broadcasted internationally, thereby spreading Islamic State’s message globally. The globalising world and use of the Internet has helped in the rise of religiously motivated terrorism since the end of the Cold War.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and conclusion to the Cold War in 1991, there has been a significant rise in religiously motivated terrorism. The reason for this escalation has been separated into three main explanations. The rise of religious fundamentalism following the Iranian Revolution in 1979 is one reason to the rise in religious terrorism globally. This was due to the desire to rid the Muslim world of Western corruption and modernisation, and was often attempted violently following Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s ascension in Iran. In addition, the escalation of Western military involvement during the 1990s and 2000s, support of Israel has also consequently resulted in the rise of religiously motivated terrorism as a reactionary measure. The rapidly globalising world and emergence of the Internet following the Cold War has also heavily contributed to the rise in religious terror. The Internet allowed for information to be transferred immediately, resulting in the promotion and growth of religious terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda and Islamic State. The following reasons have helped to explain the rise in religiously motivated terrorism since the Cold War.
Cronin, Audrey Kurth. 2009. ‘How al-Qaeda Ends’. In How Terrorism Ends. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 175
Gasiorowski, Mark J. 1987. ‘The 1953 Coup D’état in Iran.’ International Journal of Middle East Studies. New York: Cambridge University Press. Vol. 19 Issue 3. 261
Fine, Jonathan. 2008. ‘Contrasting Secular and Religious Terrorism.’ The Middle East Quarterly. Winter 2008, Volume 15, Number 1. 59
Haynes, Jeffery. 2008. ‘Religious Fundamentalisms’. In Routledge Handbook of Religion and Politics. London: Routledge. 160.
Hoffman, Bruce. 2004. ‘The Changing Face of Al Qaeda and the Global War on Terrorism.’ In Studies in Conflict and Terrorism. Washington DC: The RAND Corporation. Volume 27, Number 6. 550.
Hoffman, Bruce. 2006. ‘Religion and Terrorism.’ Inside Terrorism. New York: Columbia University Press. 86
Ozalp, Mehmet. 2004. ‘Q. 90’ and ‘Q.91’ from 101 Questions you Asked About Islam. Sydney: Brandl & Schlesinger. 303.
Sageman, Mark. 2004. ‘Social Networks and the Jihad’. In Understanding Terror Networks. Philadelphia: Univeristy of Pensylvania Press. 137
Rogers, Brooke; Loewenthall, Kate; Lewis, Christopher Alan; Almôt, Richard; Cinnirella, Marco; & Ansari, Humayan. 2007. ‘The role of religious fundamentalism in terrorist violence: A social psychological analysis’. in International Review of Psychiatry. Informa Healthcare. Volume 19, Number 3. 259
Aghai, Vahab. 2011. Terrorism, An Unconventional Crime. Quote Osama bin Laden, 2004. Xlibris Corporation. 97
Juergensmeyer, Mark. 2004. Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence. University of California Press. 6
Keddie, Nikki & Yann, Richard. 2003. Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution. Yale University Press. 201
Moghadam, Assaf & Eubank, William Lee. 2006. The Roots of Terrorism. Infobase Publishing. 108
Scheuer, Michael. 2004. Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror. Sterling, Virginia: Potomac Books, Inc. 9
Wright, Robin B. 2000. The Last Great Revolution: Turmoil and Transformation in Iran. The University of Michigan Press.
bin Laden, Osama. 1996. ‘Ladenese epistle: Declaration of War against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places.’ The Washington Post Company. 2001. Accessed 14 October 2014. Available at: http://rbvincent.com/warosama.htm
Buescher, John, 2010. ‘A History of Fundamentalism.’ Teachinghistory.org. Accessed 12 October 2014. Available at http://teachinghistory.org/history-content/ask-a-historian/24092
Cockburn, Patrick. 2014. ‘Battle to establish Islamic state across Iraq and Syria.’ The Independent. London. Accessed 13 October 2014. Available from: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/battle-to-establish-islamic-state-across-iraq-and-syria-9510044.html
Richman, Sheldon L. 1991. ‘”Ancient History”: U.S. Conduct in the Middle East Since World War II and the Folly of Intervention.’ In Policy Analysis . CATO Institute. Accessed 14 October 2014. Available from: http://object.cato.org/sites/cato.org/files/pubs/pdf/pa159.pdf
Weimann, Gabriel. 2012. ‘Lone Wolves in Cyberspace’. In Journal of Terrorism Research. The University of Haifa. Volume 3, Number 2. Accessed 15 October 2014. Available from: http://ojs.st-andrews.ac.uk/index.php/jtr/article/view/405/431
 Hoffman, Bruce. 2006. ‘Religion and Terrorism.’ Inside Terrorism. New York: Columbia University Press. 86
 Juergensmeyer, Mark. 2004. Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence. University of California Press. 6
 Moghadam, Assaf & Eubank, William Lee. 2006. The Roots of Terrorism. Infobase Publishing. 108
 Ozalp, Mehmet. 2004. ‘Q. 90’ and ‘Q.91’ from 101 Questions you Asked About Islam. Sydney: Brandl & Schlesinger. 303.
 Hoffman, 2006: 88
 Fine, Jonathan. 2008. ‘Contrasting Secular and Religious Terrorism.’ The Middle East Quarterly. Winter 2008, Volume 15, Number 1. 59
 Fine. 2008: 59
 Buescher, John, 2010. ‘A History of Fundamentalism.’ Teachinghistory.org. Accessed 12 October 2014. Available at http://teachinghistory.org/history-content/ask-a-historian/24092
 Haynes, Jeffery. 2008. ‘Religious Fundamentalisms’. In Routledge Handbook of Religion and Politics. London: Routledge. 160.
 Gasiorowski, Mark J. 1987. ‘The 1953 Coup D’état in Iran.’ International Journal of Middle East Studies. New York: Cambridge University Press. Vol. 19 Issue 3. 261
 Keddie, Nikki & Yann, Richard. 2003. Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution. Yale University Press. 201
 Hoffman, 2006: 90
 Wright, Robin B. 2000. The Last Great Revolution: Turmoil and Transformation in Iran. The University of Michigan Press. 9
 Wright. 2000: 126
 Rogers, Brooke; Loewenthall, Kate; Lewis, Christopher Alan; Almôt, Richard; Cinnirella, Marco; & Ansari, Humayan. 2007. ‘The role of religious fundamentalism in terrorist violence: A social psychological analysis’. in International Review of Psychiatry. Informa Healthcare. Volume 19, Number 3. 259
 Hoffman. 2006: 88
 Hoffman, Bruce. 2004. ‘The Changing Face of Al-Qaeda and the Global War on Terrorism.’ In Studies in Conflict and Terrorism. Washington DC: The RAND Corporation. Volume 27, Number 6. 550.
 Beary, Brian. 2009. ‘Religious Fundamentalism: Does It Lead to Intolerance and Violence?’ in CQ Global Reasercher. SAGE Publications. Volume 3, Number 2. 45
 Cockburn, Patrick. 2014. ‘Battle to establish Islamic state across Iraq and Syria.’ The Independent. London. Accessed 13 October 2014. Available from: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/battle-to-establish-islamic-state-across-iraq-and-syria-9510044.html
 Richman, Sheldon L. 1991. ‘”Ancient History”: U.S. Conduct in the Middle East Since World War II and the Folly of Intervention.’ In Policy Analysis . CATO Institute. Accessed 14 October 2014. Available from: http://object.cato.org/sites/cato.org/files/pubs/pdf/pa159.pdf
 Fisk, Robert. 2007. The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East. Quote Osama bin Laden 1996. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. 22
 bin Laden, Osama. 1996. ‘Ladenese epistle: Declaration of War against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places.’ The Washington Post Company. 2001. Accessed 14 October 2014. Available at: http://rbvincent.com/warosama.htm
 Scheuer, Michael. 2004. Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror. Sterling, Virginia: Potomac Books, Inc. 9
 Aghai, Vahab. 2011. Terrorism, An Unconventional Crime. Quote Osama bin Laden, 2004. Xlibris Corporation. 97
 Sageman, Mark. 2004. ‘Social Networks and the Jihad’. In Understanding Terror Networks. Philadelphia: Univeristy of Pensylvania Press. 137
 Weimann, Gabriel. 2012. ‘Lone Wolves in Cyberspace’. In Journal of Terrorism Research. The University of Haifa. Volume 3, Number 2. Accessed 15 October 2014. Available from: http://ojs.st-andrews.ac.uk/index.php/jtr/article/view/405/431
 Cronin, Audrey Kurth. 2009. ‘How al-Qaeda Ends’. In How Terrorism Ends. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 175