Understanding Israel's Islamic Terrorist Enemies

Some Serious Reflections
By Louis Rene Beres

"O my soul, do not aspire to immortal life,
but exhaust the limits of the possible"../..../... Pindar, Pythian iii

In confronting its Islamic terrorist enemies, Israel must look carefully behind the news, behind the obvious questions of weapons and tactics and behind the usual babble of politics. When it does, it will discover that the greatest dangers now stem from the orientation of these particular enemies to freedom from death. Believing that escalating violence against the Jewish State can buy such freedom, especially if that violence is suicidal, Hamas and related groups are sometimes effectively immune to orthodox strategies of preemption, reprisal and deterrence.

How can this overriding point be lost to Israel's leaders? How long will it take before they can recognize that, for certain of their terrorist enemies, death is the real prototype of injustice (not the day to day irritants of work and disillusionment that are magnified by the pundits and the "experts") and that liberation from death is linked directly to "martyrdom?" Paradoxically, therefore, dying offers the only conceivable path to immortality for Islamic terrorists, but only where the dying is "two-sided," that is, where it takes place together with the purposeful killing of Jews.

"There is but one truly serious philosophical problem," says Camus, "and that is suicide." Today this observation holds even greater meaning than Camus could have intended, at least in the Middle East, as the suicide of Israel's enemies is directed toward the genocide of Israel. Seeking to rid themselves of the insufferable terrors of flesh and blood mortality, certain Islamic enemies of Israel turn to terror as remedy. In the end, by ironically tying their own deaths to a promise of life everlasting, these terrorists accept a perfectly zero-sum vision of holy war. By their suicides, a double-victory is achieved, a victory over death and a victory over a despised adversary. Could anything be more gainful, or easier to understand?

Where are Israel's serious thinkers? How can Israeli strategists fail to build upon Camus' pertinent insights? Israel's Islamic terrorist enemies cannot be confronted exclusively by business as usual conceptions of strategy and tactics. Rather, they must now be confronted, at least in part, by policies that are constructed upon the antecedent awareness that suicide is presently a great philosophical/existential problem for Israel, not, of course, in the sense of Israeli suicides, but in the sense of terrorist exchanges of temporary life for eternal life and of temporary individual Islamic life for permanent collective Jewish extermination.

What pertinent counterterrorist policies, then, should be constructed? Theoretically, our assumptions must suggest efforts, by Israel, to (a) encourage Islamic terrorist enemies not to "aspire to immortal life," and/or (b) encourage terrorist enemies not to associate their Israel-directed suicides with immortality, not to link their own personal deaths with destruction (optimally, mass destruction) of Israelis. With regard to option (a), the successful encouragement of Israel's terrorist enemies to "exhaust the limits of the possible" would surely be impossible. With regard to option (b), however, some serious possibilities may present themselves. Should Israel's Islamic terrorist enemies, still not liberated from their aspirations to immortality, see no connection between freedom from death and the killing of Israelis, their rationale for violence against the Jewish innocent could largely disappear.

Is this a plausible terrorist view, one that might be encouraged productively by Jerusalem? Surely it would be worth a try! As a practical matter, Israel would do whatever it could (in territories under its control) to counter ongoing Islamic radical preachings that call for jihad against Israel. The idea here would be to counter those propagandistic urgings that give rise to anti-Israel terrorism before they are heard. Such efforts, of course, would be additional to the usual battery of operational remedies, augmenting usual (but increasingly ineffectual) measures with unusual (but potentially effectual) ones.

In the final analysis, there is little counterterrorist point for Israel in trying to affect doctrinal changes in the Islamic world. Such changes, focussing upon Israel's place in the Islamic world and/or the immortality benefits of anti-Israel terrorism, would be far beyond the limits of possibility. But If Israel could somehow stand between unchanging doctrine and prospective Islamic terrorists, thereby distancing or even detaching the violent message from a broad audience of potentially willing believers, the message could fall largely upon deaf ears. It follows, as this strategy would require substantial control over critical territories, that more effective counterterrorism would require a prompt disengagement from the Peace Process. Only then could Israel "exhaust the limits of the possible."

Louis Rene Beres (Ph.D., Princeton 1971) is a professor at Purdue University, Department of Political Science.

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