Radical Islamic Terrorism in Context, pt I

How to make sense of radical Islamic terrorism? This violence is barbaric – but it is not senseless. When you understand the society from which savagery has sprung, the cold logic behind these attacks becomes all too apparent.  Part I in a series; Part II is here

Smoke rises from the Westgate Mall

Source: Jerome Delay/AP. 23 September 2013. 

Brendon O’Niell says it is time to recognize the sheer barbarity of 21st century Islamic terror attacks:

In Western news-making and opinion-forming circles, there’s a palpable reluctance to talk about the most noteworthy thing about modern Islamist violence: its barbarism, its graphic lack of moral restraint. This goes beyond the BBC’s yellow reluctance to deploy the T-word – terrorism – in relation to the bloody assault on the Westgate shopping mall in Kenya at the weekend. Across the commentating board, people are sheepish about pointing out the historically unique lunacy of Islamist violence and its utter detachment from any recognisable moral universe or human values. We have to talk about this barbarism; we have to appreciate how new and unusual it is, how different it is even from the terrorism of the 1970s or of the early twentieth century. We owe it to the victims of these assaults, and to the principle of honest and frank political debate, to face up to the unhinged, morally unanchored nature of Islamist violence in the 21st century.” [1]

I applaud Mr. O’Niell’s frankness. Islamic terrorist groups like Al-Shabaab are savage, barbaric, and evil. Period. They should be seen by all and denounced by all as the monstrous brutes that they have become. Civilization has a pale; this lies beyond it.

But stating this is not enough. We cannot simply name a man a monster — we must try to understand why so many men want to be monsters in the first place. O’Niell is less helpful here:

Time and again, one reads about Islamist attacks that seem to defy not only the most basic of humanity’s moral strictures but also political and even guerrilla logic…. consider the attack on Westgate in Kenya, where both the old and the young, black and white, male and female were targeted. With no clear stated aims from the people who carried the attack out, and no logic to their strange and brutal behaviour, Westgate had more in common with those mass mall and school shootings that are occasionally carried out by disturbed people in the West than it did with the political violence of yesteryear.[2]

There are problems with this line of thought. In his zeal to denounce Islamic terrorism O’Niell makes two errors: 1) He assumes that indiscriminate slaughter of ‘the young and old, black and white, male and female’ is a ‘new and unusual’ development in human history and 2) that the sheer barbarity of these acts ‘defy logic.’

Perhaps the Khwarazmians also thought the slaughter they witnessed was something new under the sun:

The Mongols now entered the town and drove all the inhabitants, nobles and commoners, out on to the plain. For four days and nights the people continued to come out of the town; the Mongols detained them all, separating the women fiom the men. Alas! How many peri-like ones did they drag from the bosom: of their husbands! How many sisters did they separate from their brothers! How many parents were distraught at the ravishment of their virgin daughters!

The Mongols ordered that, apart from four hundred artisans whom they specified and selected from amongst the men and some children, girls and boys, whom they bore into captivity, the whole population, including the women and children, should be killed, and no one, whether woman or man, be spared. The people of Merv were then distributed among the soldiers and levies, and, in short, to each man was allotted the execution of three or four hundred persons.[3]

The indiscriminate massacre of 700,000 men and women and children outside the walls of Merv was barbarous. It was savage. It was evil. But it was not illogical. The horror and slaughter of Mongol conquests often seemed senseless – even ludicrous – to the historians who recorded them. But to the Mongols it had a very real and useful purpose.  When these massacres are seen in the context of the strategic dilemmas faced by the Mongol forces, the imperial system Chinggis Khan created out of whole cloth, and the basic dynamics that defined the encounters between Eurasian steppe peoples and their sedentary neighbors for centuries, the unrestrained butchering of men and women begins to make more sense. [4]

To understand something is not to justify it. The Mongol hordes wrought inexcusable evils. But these evils were deliberately chosen and should be understood and described as such.

All that remains of Merv

Source: Mark and Delewan. Wikimedia. 7 March 2006. o

The Mongols of the twelfth century are not the the terrorists of the twenty first. No radical Muslim slaughters for the same reason hardened Mongols once did. But neither slaughtered simply for the sake of it. While Islamic terrorists attacks can seem the acts of “lunatics” who have “no logic,” nothing could be further from the truth. There is a cold and frightening logic that defines these terrorist attacks. As with medieval historian bewailing the Mongol advance, latter day observers struggle to understand the use of barbaric terror because they are unfamiliar with the social and political context from which the barbarians come.


There is a temptation to look at radical terrorist attacks across the globe and boil them down to their most obvious common element: Islam. This is a step in the right direction but ultimately an insufficient explanation. This theory can be dismantled with a simple question: what of the Islamic communities who have produced no terrorists?

Kingdom of Champa, c. 1300 AD

Source: Wikimedia user clioherodotus. 26 July 2010.

Consider the Cham. (Pronounced jam, as the type spread on toast). Today the Cham are a minority ethnic group whose communities are scattered across the lower Mekong delta in Vietnam and Cambodia. They were once a more powerful people whose kingdom–Champa—stretched across the southern half of modern Vietnam. Theirs was a maritime polity; when not sacking Angkor or fighting off Viet attacks on the land, the Cham traded far and wide by sea. It is through their contacts with Malay, Indian, and Arabic seafarers that the Cham were introduced to Islam. By the 1600s the Cham ruling class and literati had converted.

The Cham’s subsequent history is not happy. The Vietnamese continued their grand Nam tiến and whittled away at the Cham polities century by century until their last capital fell into Vietnamese hands in 1832. Many of the Cham fled to Cambodia, and there they lived as an exile race on the fringes of Khmer society. In retrospect, their treatment by traditional Khmer society does seems not too bad. In those days they were targets of discrimination; when the Red Khmer came to power they were targets of extermination.

 The Cham were everything the Khmer Rouge despised: many of Cambodia’s most successful livestock merchants were Cham, all Cham spoke an alien language, refused to eat or dress in a standardized way, and most damningly of all, were fiercely loyal to their God. They paid a staggering price for their faith:

the Moslem Cham, were sought out and killed as part of a “centrally organized genocidal campaign.” Whole Cham villages were leveled.  For example, in the district of Kompong Xiem five Cham hamlets were demolished and their population of 20,000 reportedly massacred; in the district of Koong Neas only four Cham apparently survived out of a population of 20,000 inhabitants.121 The Chain Grand Mufti was thrown into boiling water and then hit on the head with an iron bar; the First Mufti was beaten to death and thrown into a ditch; the Second Mufti was tortured and disemboweled; and the chairman of the Islamic Association of Kampuchea died of starvation in prison.” [5]

One of every three Cham died during the three years of Khmer Rouge rule. [6]

To this day the Cham live on the margins of Cambodian society. They are poor, have no power, and are often taken advantage of by the powers that be. They are also Muslim. Islam is as the core of their identity. One Cham in Vietnam succinctly summed his people’s common view in an interview with anthropologist Philip Taylor: “To be Muslim is to be Cham.”[7]  The Khmer agree. In common speech Cambodians rarely use the word Cham at all– when talking about the Cham they usually just call them “the Muslims” (buak Islaam ពួកឣិស្លាម) and call spoken Cham “Muslim language” (phiasaa Islaam ភាសាឣិស្លាម). [8] Their ethnicity and their faith cannot be divorced in the minds of the Cham or the society in which they live.

A Cham women from Vietnam

Source: photo by Adam Jones

This existence of the Cham and peoples like them are stumbling block to those who blame Islam alone for barbaric acts of terror. The Cham’s identity is defined by their adherence to Islam. They are a people stripped of a kingdom, scattered and despised by cultures around them for centuries, and the target of a genocide which aimed to eradicate them and their faith.  Within living memory one of every three Cham died because of their religion. Alienated by their customs, language, and beliefs from the community in which they live, the Cham who survived the killing fields have known little but poverty. They have not benefited substantially from Cambodia’s recent economic growth and have no strong voice in the Cambodian political system.

If there was ever a group of Muslims whose history is bitter enough to justify radicalism or whose present condition is desperate enough to encourage terrorism, it would be the Cham.

Yet not one of the Earth’s 400,000 Cham has ever participated in terrorist attack. Never has a barbarian arose from their ranks.


If barbarity is not an inherit part of Islam, then from what source does it spring?  Lynn Rees offers a perceptive answer to our query:

The problem is less the software architecture of Islam and more the Arab firmware its embedded in. The Arabs reintroduced tribalism to parts of the Near East and Africa where it had been extinct for centuries along with Islam. The pernicious thing about our enabling of the House of Saud through our petrodollars is that the particular Islam they export comes with the most primeval of Arab tribalism. [9]

Lets talk a bit about the social system Mr. Rees names “Arab tribalism.”

The historian Jack Goldstone has suggested that the great civilizations of Eurasia — “Latin and Greek Christendom, the Islamic Caliphate, Hindu India, and Confucian China” – can be understood best when seen as complex systems.”Despite wars and conquests, epidemics and famines, dynastic struggles and heterodox religious movements,” he notes, “they remained basically true to their founding visions” responding to each disturbance with an eventual return to “equilibrium.” [10]

Mr. Goldstone focuses on the imams and the qadis of medieval times, but the traditional Islamic order was much broader than the Caliphate or the Islamic theology that supported it. The chattering classes and the religious ideas they passed between themselves was just the top layer of Islamic civilization. More relevant for our search is its foundations – the basic structures of the Islamic order that shaped the daily lives of every man and child that lived within it. Though dynasties fell and economies collapsed, this bedrock survived the arrival of the Turks, the ravages of the Mongols, and the empires of the Europeans and molded both the dazzling cities of the Levant and the nomads of the Mahgreb.

The tribes of per-Mohaddeian Arabia 

Source: The human journey

This foundation was the traditional Arab endogamous community family, usually embedded in larger tribes, and marked by the lack of independence and education afforded to its women and the number of children they bore. The substructure spread with the original Arab conquests but long survived survived the demise of the the Caliphs. The Federal Research Division explains what a society built upon this structure looks like in modern times:

Syrian life centers on the extended family. The individual’s loyalty to his family is nearly absolute and usually overrides all other obligations. Except in the more sophisticated urban circles, the individual’s social standing depends on his family background. Although status is changing within the emerging middle class, ascribed rather than achieved status still regulates the average Syrian’s life. His honor and dignity are tied to the good repute of his kin group and, especially, to that of its women….

Because of the cohesiveness of religious and ethnic groups, they universally encourage endogamy, or the marriage of members within the group. Lineages, or groups of families tracing descent to a common ancestor, also strive for endogamy, although this is in fact less common, despite its theoretical desirability. Viewed as a practical bond between families, marriage often has political and economic overtones even among the poor….

Being a good family member includes automatic loyalty to kinsmen as well. Syrians employed in modern bureaucratic positions, such as government officials, therefore find impersonal impartiality difficult because its conflicts with the deeply held value of family solidarity…

Syrians have no similar ingrained feelings of loyalty toward a job, an employer, a coworker, or even a friend.

Women are viewed as weaker than men in mind, body, and spirit and therefore in need of male protection, particularly protection from nonrelated men. The honor of men depends largely on that of their women, and especially on that of their sisters; consequently, the conduct of women is expected to be circumspect, modest, and decorous, with their virtue above reproach. Veiling is rarely practiced in villages or tribes, but in towns and cities keeping one’s women secluded and veiled was traditionally considered a sign of elevated status. In the mid-1980s, the practice of wearing the veil was quite rare among young women in cities; however, the wearing of the hijab (a scarf covering the hair) was much more common. Wearing the hijab was sometimes more a symbol of Islamic affiliation than a token of modesty, and the garment underwent a revival in the 1980s as a subtle protest against the secular Baath regime. For this reason, the government discouraged the wearing of such Islamic apparel.

“The traditional code invests men as members of family groups with a highly valuable but easily damaged honor (ird). The slightest implication of unavenged impropriety on the part of the women in his family or of male infractions of the code of honesty and hospitality could irreparably destroy the honor of a family. In particular, female virginity before marriage and sexual fidelity afterward are essential to the maintenance of honor. In the case of a discovered transgression, the men of a family were traditionally bound to kill the offending woman, although in modern times she is more likely to be banished to a town or city where she is not known.” (emphasis added). [10]

This is the traditional Arab social order. [11] This tribal familialism formed the bedrock of Islamic civilization since its genesis; when combined with Islamic religious authority it created an Ummah that could thrive in cosmopolitan fleshpots and rugged pastoral lands. Its fifteen thousand year history is a testament to how resilient and well structured a system it turned out to be.

But now the whole thing is falling apart. The repercussions of its fall will be heard for years – and they will be barbaric.  

Part II is here.


[1] Brendon O’Niell. “I’m sorry, but we have to talk about the barbarism of modern Islamic terrorism.” The Telegraph. 24 September 2013.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Juvayni. Genghis Khan: A History of the World Conqueror. trans. John Andrew Boyle. (Manchester: Manchester University Press). 1959. pp. 161-162

[4] Though dated, J.J. Saunders, The History of the Mongol Conquests. (Philadelphia: Univrsity of Pennsylvania Press). 1969. p. 63; David Morgan. The Mongols. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing). 2nd ed. 2007. p. 81-82 provide a fair example of this approach.

[5] Rudoplh J Rummel. Death by Government. (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers). 1994. p. 188

[6] Ben Keirnan. Genocide and Resistance in Southeast Asia: Documentation, Denial, and Justice in Cambodia and East Timor. (New Brunswick, New Jersey: transaction Publishers). 2007. p. 72. Mr. Keirnan notes that this 36% death rate almost doubled the percentage of ethnic Khmers who died during the same period.

[7] Phillip Taylor. Cham Muslims of the Mekong Delta: Place and Mobility in the Cosmopolitan Periphery. (Singapore: University of Singapore). p. 74

[8] This probably reflects the general tendency of Khmer to see religion through an ethnic lens. An encyclopedia will tell you that Cambodians are Theravada Buddhists; the Khmer will tell you they follow saasna Khmer – the Khmer religion.

[9] Jack Goldstone.  “The Origins of Western Superiority: A comment on Modes of Meta-History and Duchesne’s Indo-Europeans Article Cliodynamics: The Journal of Theoretical and Mathematical History, Vol 4, Issue I

[10] Lynn Rees comment (24 September 2013) on Trent Telenko. “Al Shabaab Sarajevo in Nairobi.” Chicago Boyz. 23 September 2013.

[11] Federal Research Division. Syria: A Country Study. ed. Thomas Collelo. (Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress). 1996.

[12] Anthropologist Philip Salzman’s analysis of how the tribal system and its values fit into the Middle Eastern political order are worth reading. See “Why the Middle East is the Way it Is.” The Hedgehog Review. Vol. 13 (3). Fall 2011. and “The Middle East’s tribal DNA“. The Middle East Quarterly. Vol. 15 (1). Winter 2008. p. 23-33.

Leave a Comment


Excellent post; I look forward to the sequel. I'll be interested to hear what you have to say about Pakistan, which has an honor-bound extended-family culture much like what you describe, and also has proven a fertile ground for extremist violence; but is not (as far as I understand) classifiable as Arab.

Pakistan, Afghanistan, Balochistan, and the Mahgreb (and to a lesser extant, much of the Turk homelands) were organized along tribal lines when the Caliphate began its expansion, and they have more or less remained organized along those lines to the present day. I will talk about this a bit more in the next piece, but part of the brilliance of the Islamic order was its ability to adapt to (I would even say 'hijack') existing tribal values and guide tribal conflicts to the benefit of the system as a whole.

In many ways Pakistan follows the model better than any of the actual Arab states do – see, for example, endogamy or female literacy rates in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Bangladesh. The stark difference between Pakistan and Bangladesh's endogamy rates (a pretty good marker of Islamic tribalism) is particularly revealing.

In some parts of the world tribalism is not as strong, but the Saudis do try their best to spread the mind set of Najdi tribalism by setting up Wahhabi schools all around the globe. I was a little astounded when I learned Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab was a Najdi. It all started to make sense…

Of course, Najdi tribal values by themselves do not a terrorist make. Arab tribalism and the Islamic order it spawned have existed for ages. Violent terrorism is a newer innovation. But you have to understand the system and the pressures it is now under to understand why its more radical (or conservative?) elements think savage terrorist attacks will work as an effective political method.

But that is what part II is for.

Sorry, I have not absorbed this series in detail so I can't venture an opinion on the basic argument. (It's too late in the evening.)

But I am curious: why, w/r/t endogamy, is Pakistan more like the Arab countries? Why the large diff. btw Pakistan and Bangladesh in this respect (assuming those linked percentages, from roughly 20 yrs ago, still hold today)?

This map probably answers tha question.

While found in other parts of the world, endogamy is a distinctive trait of the early Arab tribes. Where these tribes went endogamy went with them.

I have to disagree with your logic on why certain muslims do not produce terroists. What I've noticed is when they are faced with a population that will most unhesitantly react in a violent manner equal or exceeding their own barbarity, that's when you see so called "peaceful" muslims. The other factor we have to take into account is that the Chams area southeast asian influenced people, and local culture can have a strong influence on the extremes of islams (coupled with the fact that they might be in a less than desirable position).

When moslems see or sense weakness, that's when you get terroism!


"When moslems see or sense weakness, that's when you get terroism!"

Can you provide any specific examples of this? There are many places that seem to run counter to the trend. Think about a place like Iraq. A well placed terrorist bomb near a Shiite mosque is sure to bring about a similar bombing in a Sunni region. 'Equal barbarity' is the expectation — indeed, I would go so far to suggest that it is the desired outcome. (Part II makes this point more clear).

In any case, in places like Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine, or Pakistan, violent reactions to terrorism have not brought civil peace or calm. A spiral of ever more devastating attacks between the two (or more) sides seems to be the more normal pattern.

@ T. Greer

My comments might have been a little simplistic, it deserved a more complex answer on this. There are multiple factors that need to be seen when I say when they sense weakness, it has to be from some position of power or feeling of having the means to act with impunity, and if they are particularly committed to standard form of islam (as opposed to that changed in while assimilating to local culture).

I was addressing your use of the Cham, I feel it is not a representative example. When moslems are in a extreme minority and have non-moslem contributions to their culture(they were previously hindu or buddhist and still retained some elements) I doubt any sort of terroism would come from them, expecially when they are living with a group that has shown they will committ extreme violence (Cambodians and vietnamese willing to imprison or wipe out whole families if needed, no hesitation). None of the examples you provide as counter put them in a position of extreme vulnerability, Iraqi shiites and sunnis are not overwhelmed by the presence of each other (each supported by iran and alqaeda/sunni countries respectively) plus a third front of kurds takes some fo the steam out of that muslim jihad, plus some of what you describe are not islamic fights (Lebanon) those are tribal/political wars.

Chams are not a true example, better examples are nearby, indonesia, philippines (laskar and abu sayyaf) where you have governments or polity who do not have truly aggressive responses against radical (more appropriate might be to say traditional or reverted) islam and use policies of appeassement that have not since truly been sucessful, much to the dismay of suffering of the non-moslems countrymen.


A few thoughts.

1. There are still many, many exceptions to your theory. To choose one example: Why does Saudi Arabia produce so many more Islamic terrorists than Turkey? Turkey's regime is far less brutal than the House of Saud. But Turkey does not export terrorism.

2. The other problem with theory is that it does not really engage the central question of this entire series – what is the logic of a suicide attack? Using phrases like 'appeasement' in this context is nonsensical. How can you appease someone who is dead? Why would acting 'aggressively' stop suicide attacks? For the individual terrorist the outcome in the same whether they are responded to with aggression or not: martyrdom.

3. "Cambodians and vietnamese willing to imprison or wipe out whole families if needed, no hesitation"

I have never read, seen, or heard about a single instance where Cambodians imprisoned or wiped out entire Cham families post-Khmer rouge. Could you point me to any examples of this?

It is difficult to claim that the Khmer rouge represent the default or even hidden strain of Khmer political thought. To the contrary, everything about the Rouge and their methods has been repudiated. Even the words they used for 'eating' and 'comrade' are taboo.

You occasional meet Russians or Chinese who talk about the good ol' days when everybody worked for socialism.

No one ever talks like that about the Khmer Rouge.

@ T. Greer

On your thoughts:

1. "Why does Saudi Arabia produce so many more Islamic terrorists than Turkey? Turkey's regime is far less brutal than the House of Saud. But Turkey does not export terrorism."

Turkey is another bad example, you seem to not be too knowledgeable about history. Kemal Ataturk made a systemic effort to secularize (read de-islamicize) his society to the point where they could function as a secular nation (albeit with islamic background) and get westernized (even changed the writing system alphabet used). Have a muslim nation go to the length of Ataturk and maintain it, you'll get the same result. Being too islamic was seen with suscpicion as Turkey's ultranationalist military had a iron grip to ensure Ataturk's legacy until just recently.

2. "what is the logic of a suicide attack? Using phrases like 'appeasement' in this context is nonsensical. How can you appease someone who is dead?"

Again with the bad examples. Suicide attacks are a relatively recent aberration, 1st one actually occurred with s a palestinian christian if I remember my history. Some muslims have come out against it as unislamic, but other muslims took it as a substitute for dieing in battle against the infidel(martyrdom, end result being the same, being rewarded in heaven with many delights (including 70 houris/virgins). As far as appeasement, remember this is the "ummah" mentaliy, with a group honor at stake, and culture of celebrating those killed in the battle, they are held up as rockstars (look at the way westerners celebrate their dead rockstars, i.e. kurt cobain, etc, then you'll get a measure of why it's so attractive)

3. 3. "I have never read, seen, or heard about a single instance where Cambodians imprisoned or wiped out entire Cham families post-Khmer rouge. Could you point me to any examples of this?"

Wow! how naive are you? I still hear individual vietnamese still talk about what they did to the Chams historically rather smugly.

Oh has cambodia turned into some pacifistic nation unbeknownest to the the rest of us?
O.k. let see how I can explain this to you…if let say a guy kicked you ass a few years ago, but now says he's reformed(not guilt ridden, a bit different like saying you're officially sorry, but that's all you're getting)… you still know what he's capable of, right? That is, a ass kicking can still be in store, if provoked. That is unless he started acting like a scared pansy and kissing your ass(appeasement) about how he's is all guilt ridden to point it's like masochism, which if you're that type of person (opportunistic) you'll probably try to get away with more.

One of the Anglican Bishops, Michael Nazir-Ali had a great way summing up the muslims attitude, "a dual psychology" and "You cannot claim both victimhood and domination". There is complaining and cry of victim when being defeated, but triumphalism when sucessfull (no excessive expressions of western style liberal guilt)

@mahalo everyone-

"you seem to not be too knowledgeable about history."

Perhaps. But then again, maybe I have heard of Ataturk after all…

The Kemalist reforms actually accord pretty well with what I have laid out here. You focus on their violence. I focus on what they actually achieved: mass literacy, feminism, and a 15% endogamous marriage rate (a rate lower than every other Islamic country in the ME). In Turkey the 'traditional Islamic order' was crushed decades ago. And yes, its death was a very violent, nasty affair. That is what the death of a civilization looks like.

But it is dead. There is nothing left for the reactionaries to fight to preserve.

"Again with the bad examples. Suicide attacks are a relatively recent aberration"

Let me remind you of the question this post tries to address: what compels a Jihadi to execute a 'senselessly' barbaric suicide attack? My friend, if we we declare that 'suicide attacks are bad examples' of senselessly barbaric suicide attacks, then we have nothing to talk about at all!

This is the point of the series. To understand the political and cultural logic of a barbarous, suicidal terrorism.

"Oh has cambodia turned into some pacifistic nation unbeknownest to the the rest of us?"

I repeat my challenge: find one example where Cambodians imprisoned or wiped out entire Cham families post-Khmer rouge. Just one.

This whole line of thought seems a bit removed from the reality of Cambodian politics, though. More Khmer died under the Khmer rouge than Cham did (though in terms of % the Cham were hit very hard). There is no demographic group that can look at the Khmer Rouge and say, "Hey, Cambodia, we kicked your but last time and we could always do it again if we wanted to." The analogy just does not work.

As a final note – stop with the condescending clap-trap. I don't have time to waste engaging with people who have no respect for others in thread. Much simpler just to ban them and delete the comments.