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Islam and the Cult of Death

Olivier Roy is one of the world’s foremost scholars of political Islam and is the author of Jihad and Death: The Global Appeal of Islamic State
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Jihadism and Terrorism in the age of the Islamic State

THERE IS SOMETHING terribly modern about the jihadi terrorist violence that has unfolded in the past twenty years or so.

Of course, neither terrorism nor jihad is a new phenomenon. Forms of “globalized” terrorism (sowing terror by choosing highly symbolic targets or simply innocent civilians without regard for national borders) developed as early as the late nineteenth century with the anarchist movement, culminating in the first manifestation of global terrorism with the alliance formed by the Baader–Meinhof gang, Palestinian extreme left groups, and the Japanese Red Army in the 1970s. As for the reference to jihad, it is found in the Quran and regularly resurfaces in the Muslim world—particularly through the term mujahid , characteristic of the Algerian Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) and the Afghan resistance.

What is new is the association of terrorism and jihadism with the deliberate pursuit of death. That is the topic of this book. From Khaled Kelkal in 1995 to the Bataclan massacre in Paris in 2015, nearly all terrorists blew themselves up or got themselves killed by the police, without really trying to escape and without their death being absolutely necessary to accomplish their undertaking. As David Vallat, a convert closely associated with Kelkal, who supplied him with his weapon, said, “The rule was, never be taken alive. When Kelkal saw the gendarmes, he knew he was going to die. He WANTED to die!” Some twenty years later, the Kouachi brothers had the same attitude. Mohammed Merah would utter a variant of the famous statement attributed to Osama Bin Laden, also routinely picked up by other jihadis: “We love death as you love life.” The terrorist’s death is not just a possibility or an unfortunate consequence of his action; it is a central part of his plan. The same fascination with death is found among the jihadis who join ISIS. Suicide attacks are perceived by the jihadis as the ultimate goal of their engagement.

This systematic choice of death is new. The perpetrators of the terrorist attacks in France in the 1970s and 1980s, whether or not they had any connection with the Middle East, carefully planned their escape. Muslim tradition, while it recognizes the merits of the martyr who dies in combat, does not prize those who strike out in pursuit of death, because it interferes with God’s will. Why, for the past twenty years, have these actors regularly chosen death? What does it say about contemporary Islamic radicalism? And what does it say about our societies today?

The latter question is all the more relevant as this attitude toward death is paired with another original aspect: jihadism, at least in the West (as well as in the Maghreb and in Turkey), is a youth movement that not only is constructed independently of the parents’ religious and cultural references, but is also inseparable from our societies’ “youth culture.” This generational dimension is fundamental. Yet, however modern it may be, it is not specific to today’s jihad. Generational revolt was born with the Chinese Cultural Revolution. For the first time in history, a revolution was turned not against a social class but against an age group (except the Great Helmsman, of course). The Khmer Rouge and later ISIS embraced this hatred of their forefathers. Its morbid but also universal dimension can be seen in the rise of battalions of child soldiers in various parts of the world. Wherever it occurs, this generational hatred also takes a logical turn: cultural iconoclasm. Not only are human beings destroyed, but statues, places of worship, and books as well. Memory is annihilated. “Wipe the slate clean” has been the common goal of the Red Guards, the Khmer Rouge, and the ISIS legionnaires. As a British convert to ISIS wrote, “When we descend on the streets of London, Paris and Washington the taste will be far bitterer, because not only will we spill your blood, but we will also demolish your statues, erase your history and, most painfully, convert your children who will then go on to champion our name and curse their forefathers.”

The connection between death and youth is not merely anecdotal or purely tactical (suicide attacks are believed to be more effective, adolescents easier to manipulate), because, while all revolutions attract youth, they are by no means all morbid and iconoclastic. The Bolshevik revolution decided to put the past into museums rather than reduce it to ruins, and never has the revolutionary Islamic Republic of Iran considered blowing up Persepolis. This self-destructive dimension has nothing to do with the geostrategy of the Middle East, which has its own specific logic. It is even counterproductive from a political and strategic standpoint. Associated with ISIS’s scheme to restore the caliphate (after al- Qaeda’s plan for global jihad), it makes it impossible to reach a political solution, engage in any form of negotiation, or achieve any stabilization of society within recognized borders. One who is determined to die has nothing to negotiate, and the person possibly manipulating him no longer has control over the spiral of violence he sets in motion. The Cultural Revolution, the Khmer Rouge, the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, the armies of child soldiers in Liberia, and the Rwandan genocide seem like distant nightmares that even the surviving killers say they lived through as if in a trance.

The caliphate is a fantasy. It is the myth of an ideological entity constantly expanding its territory. Its strategic impossibility explains why those who identify with it, instead of devoting themselves to the interests of local Muslims, have entered a death pact. There is no political perspective, no bright future, not even a place to pray in peace. But while the concept of the caliphate is indeed part of the Muslim religious imaginary, the same is not true for the pursuit of death. Salafism, accused of all kinds of evils, condemns suicide because it anticipates God’s will. Salafism is primarily concerned with codifying individual behavior: it regulates everything, including the use of violence. Salafis are not out to die. Instead, obsessed by salvation, they need life in order to prepare to meet their Lord at the end of an earthly existence led according to its rites and rituals.

The genius of ISIS is to offer young volunteers the narrative framework within which they can achieve their aspirations. So much the better for ISIS if other volunteers to die have little to do with the movement, but are prepared to play out a scenario that lends their personal despair a global dimension

Nor do social frustrations, protest, and political mobilization account for a form of terrorism that precisely annihilates the political even before we can examine the political causes of radicalization. There is no direct link between social, political, and religious mobilizations and the descent into terrorism. There is certainly a leap that can be explained as the symptom of social and political tensions—but to talk about symptoms is precisely to accept a psychological or metaphysical approach: If it is a symptom, then we are no longer in the realm of political rationality.

Lastly, suicide terrorism is not even effective from a military standpoint. While some degree of rationality can be found in “simple” terrorism (that of asymmetrical warfare and a “price–performance ratio” in which a few determined individuals inflict considerable damage on a far more powerful enemy), it is absent from suicide attacks. The fact that hardened militants are used only once is not “rational.” The effect of terror incidents is not to bring Western societies to their knees but to radicalize them in turn. And this kind of terrorism today claims more Muslim than Western lives. The wave of terror that has hit Iraq, Turkey, Saudi Arabia (right in the city of Medina), Yemen, and Bangladesh during the month of Ramadan in 2016 seriously clouds the narrative. How can this offensive be presented as a struggle against Western neocolonialism?

I believe that the systematic association with death is one of the keys to today’s radicalization: the nihilist dimension is central. What fascinates is pure revolt, not the construction of a utopia. Violence is not a means. It is an end in itself. It is violence devoid of a future. If this were not the case, it would be merely an option instead of a norm and a conscious choice. This association of course does not cover the entire issue. It is perfectly conceivable that other, more “rational,” forms of terrorism might soon emerge on the scene. It is also possible that this form of terrorism is merely temporary and that the protest will take on other forms, perhaps more political ones. Lastly, the reasons for the rise of ISIS are without question related to the context in the Middle East, and its demise will not change the basic elements of the geostrategic situation. On the contrary, it will compound them by creating a breach that regional forces will rush into. ISIS did not invent terrorism: it draws from a pool that already exists. The genius of ISIS is to offer young volunteers the narrative framework within which they can achieve their aspirations. So much the better for ISIS if other volunteers to die—psychopaths, people with suicidal tendencies, or rebels without a cause—have little to do with the movement, but are prepared to play out a scenario that lends their personal despair a global dimension.

Instead of a vertical approach proceeding from the Quran to ISIS via Ibn Taymiyyah, Hasan al-Banna, Sayyid Qutb, and Bin Laden, postulating an invariant (Islamic violence) believed to occur on a regular basis, I prefer a cross-cutting approach that seeks to understand contemporary Islamic violence alongside other forms of violence that are very similar to it

This is why, instead of a vertical approach proceeding from the Quran to ISIS via Ibn Taymiyyah, Hasan al-Banna, Sayyid Qutb, and Bin Laden, postulating an invariant (Islamic violence) believed to occur on a regular basis, I prefer a cross-cutting approach that seeks to understand contemporary Islamic violence alongside other forms of violence and radicalism that are very similar to it (generational revolt, self-destruction, a radical break with society, an aesthetics of violence, the inclusion of the conflicted individual in a larger, globalized narrative, doomsday cults). It is too often forgotten that suicide terrorism and phenomena such as al-Qaeda or ISIS are new in the history of the Muslim world, and cannot be explained simply by the rise of fundamentalism. That is why I wrote, “terrorism does not arise from the radicalization of Islam, but from the Islamization of radicalism.” I had been developing this idea for a long time, in particular since an article published in 2008. However, I unwittingly borrowed most of the formulation from my colleague Alain Bertho (who does not seem to hold it against me), in answer to a question from a journalist for who quoted him, mentioning “the Islamization of radical revolt,” an expression I altered to read “the Islamization of radicalism.”

Far from exonerating Islam, this phrasing beckons us to understand why and how rebellious youths have found in Islam the paradigm of their total revolt. It does not deny the fact that a fundamentalist Islam has been developing for over forty years, all the more as I have devoted two books to the phenomenon: Globalized Islam , to analyze the specific nature of this fundamentalism, and Holy Ignorance, to show in what respect the development of all religious fundamentalisms are part of a process of deculturation of religion that also affects Christianity. I am simply saying that fundamentalism alone does not produce violence.

My approach has been highly criticized. One scholar claims that I do not see the political causes of the revolt (essentially the colonial legacy, Western military interventions against peoples of the Middle East, and the social exclusion of immigrants and their children). I have also been accused of disregarding the link between terrorist violence and the religious radicalization of Islam through Salafism. I am fully aware of all of these dimensions. I am simply saying that they are inadequate to account for the phenomena we study, because no causal link can be found on the basis of the empirical data we have available. This terrorism and this suicidal jihadism indeed have specific characteristics that suggest they are more than mere symptoms of the woes afflicting Muslim societies (whether these come from external oppression or from being locked into a logic of religious fundamentalism). But that leaves the question of the Middle East and the place of Islam in the West intact. Terrorism obscures rather than reveals other processes at work: the geostrategic reconfiguration of the Middle East, the painful formatting and standardization of the Muslim religion (imposed in a very narrow timeframe after a long period of stagnation) in the context of globalization and secularization, and the demographic and social changes brought about by recent large-scale immigration.

It is for those reasons that, for the moment at least, I will leave aside the question of “religious radicalization,” if only because the term “radicalization” when applied to religion is a poor choice of words, as in fact it implies that there is a definition of a moderate state of religion. What indeed is a “moderate” religion? Does it make sense to talk about a “moderate” theology? Were Luther and Calvin “moderate” theologians? Certainly not. Calvinism, for instance, is theologically “radical.” There are no moderate religions, only moderate believers, but that does not mean that they necessarily believe moderately, conforming to the wishes of our society, which has become so secularized that any outward sign of faith appears at best incongruous, at worst threatening. Religions are indeed caught up in a process of fundamentalist rigidification due to the deculturation of religion and the triumph of a secularism that no longer comprehends the religious realm. This phenomenon goes well beyond violent radicalization; the causes deculturation, the generation gap, globalization, and even conversions and individual reversions to religious observance— can be intertwined and juxtaposed.

It is too often forgotten that phenomena such as al-Qaeda or ISIS are new in the history of the Muslim world, and cannot be explained simply by the rise of fundamentalism. That is why I wrote, “terrorism does not arise from the radicalization of Islam, but from the Islamization of radicalism”

My argument, misconstrued and especially misrepresented by others, is that violent radicalization is not the consequence of religious radicalization, even if it often takes the same paths and borrows the same paradigms (that is what I call “the Islamization of radicalism”). Religious fundamentalism exists, of course, and poses considerable societal problems, because it rejects the values based on the centrality of the individual and personal freedom in all realms, starting with the family, sexuality, and procreation. But it does not necessarily lead to political violence: a Hasidic Jew or a Benedictine monk is an “absolute” rather than a radical believer, living in a sort of social secession but not politically violent. Similarly, most Salafis are non-violent.

Returning to the political realm, emphasizing the form that radicalism takes (fascination with death) to the detriment of its “causes” may seem an attempt to “derealize” the political. The task of derealization has moreover earned credibility in academic circles since the work of Jean Baudrillard and Faisal Devji. But is it truly a matter of derealization, in that the role of emotions, the imaginary, and representations is deeply political?

From that standpoint, François Burgat’s objection that radicals are motivated by the “suffering” experienced by Muslims who were formerly colonized, or as victims of racism or any other sort of discrimination, US bombardments, drones, Orientalism, and so on, would imply that the revolt is primarily one led by victims. But the relationship between radicals and victims is more imaginary than real. Those who perpetrate attacks in Europe are not inhabitants of the Gaza Strip, or Libyans, or Afghans. They are not necessarily the poorest, the most humiliated, or the least integrated. The fact that 25 per cent of jihadis are converts shows that the link between radicals and their “people” is also in the realm of the imaginary, or is at least—as I argue—an imaginary construct. One of the rare Afghans involved (Omar Mateen, the Orlando shooter) never mentioned the killing of Taliban leaders by American drones to justify his act just prior to his rampage in June 2016. On the contrary, he claimed allegiance to the virtual Islam of the caliphate. After all, the imaginary is also part of the political realm. Only a mechanistic Marxist analysis or the rational choice theory can claim that decisions are “objective.”

Revolutionaries almost never come from the suffering classes. In their identification with the proletariat, the “masses,” and the colonized, there is indeed a choice based on something other than their objective situation—or rather, there is indeed an imaginary reconstruction of their being in the world and a rhetoric to express it. Such was the existential difficulty of all leftist revolutionary movements in the 1960s and 1970s: very few activists belonged to (or were familiar with) this virtual proletariat for which they were prepared to die. While Maoism did not glorify suicide, it did indeed promote the death of the “old man” within in favor of renewal through the purifying contact of workers and peasants. This is an old theme of Paul the Apostle that reappears among the born again and converts: “the old man” within must be crucified, even if that means killing the man himself (Romans 6:4 and 6:6).

We are in the second generation of jihad. From Khalid Kelkal to the Kouachi brothers and Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the profiles are the same. First and foremost, they all die in action: either they blow themselves up, or they get themselves killed by the police because they put up firm resistance

The political can thus only be understood by studying the construction of the imaginary. Explaining radicalization by emphasizing suffering in fact reintroduces the imaginary factor. The rebel suffers from others’ suffering. Very few terrorists or jihadis advertise their own trajectory. They always talk about what they have seen of others’ suffering. It was not Palestinians who shot up the Bataclan. It was people who from afar saw videos of the destruction the Israelis wreaked in Gaza. It is not Afghan victims of American bombardments who attack Christians in Pakistan: it is Pakistanis who see Islam oppressed by Christians the world over except in their own country, where they themselves are the oppressors. In particular, young people who rush to ISIS in Syria do not know—or rather, choose not to know—that ISIS attacked the Palestinian refugee camp in Yarmouk, Syria (March 2014) and cut the throats not of Marxist cadres, but in fact of Hamas cadres, whose militant and Islamic credentials cannot be denied and who had just joined the anti-Bashar al-Assad coalition. These new recruits to ISIS find themselves automatically fighting against Hezbollah, which in 2006 was the symbol of the fight against Israel. This estrangement from the Palestinian cause is moreover not specific to jihadis: Nowhere from Casablanca to Tunis to Istanbul have there been any big demonstrations in support of the Palestinians in the Middle East since 2011.

But radicals do claim allegiance to a political imaginary, and that is reason enough not to view them as mere symptoms, fanatics, or psychopaths. The psychological approach is useful, but it does not invalidate a political approach, especially as the political impact of terrorism is patently significant. Furthermore, the fact that they also profess a religious norm has an impact on the religion itself, which is obliged to take a stance, for it is not enough to say, “That’s not Islam,” or, “Islam is a religion of peace.” Violence in the name of Islam forces ordinary believers to speak, and thus obliges them to contribute to the formatting of their religion (for instance by broaching the questions of blasphemy, apostasy, and homosexuality). All levels must be considered simultaneously.

The New Forms of Terrorism and Jihadism

While the systematization of suicide actions dates back only to 1995, it fits within the individuation of the categories of terrorism and jihadism, each having its own specific genealogy. Prior to the 1980s, terrorism was more a weapon used by secular groups, some nationalist, others revolutionary, in a tradition dating back to the late nineteenth century. Attacking symbolic targets or killing civilians to sow terror with the aim of destabilizing states and societies and “raising consciousness” among the “oppressed,” whether proletarians, the colonized, or Muslims, has been part of the Western landscape since the late nineteenth century, from the anarchist movement, the FLN, or the Organisation Armée Secrète (Secret Army Organization) during the Algerian War, up through Action Directe. “There are no innocent bourgeois,” the anarchist Émile Henry said while standing trial for having thrown a bomb into the Café Terminus in Paris in 1894. If you replace “bourgeois” with “French person,” you’ve got the Bataclan.

Terrorism associated with the Middle East is not new either. Without going back as far as the Algerian War, the 1970s and 1980s were marked by terrorist attacks in Europe. But all were related to state strategies and therefore fit into a context of negotiation against a backdrop of power struggles: whether pro-Palestinian, pro-Iranian, pro-Syrian, or pro-Libyan, all attacks were intended as retaliation for French policy in the Middle East. Suicide bombings are not even an Islamist innovation: in the 1980s they became a preferred tactic of the Tamil Tigers, who invented the explosive belt.

In fact, the matrix of current forms of radical violence (jihad and Islamic terrorism) was fashioned between 1948 and 1981 in the Middle East, bursting onto the scene in the West in the mid-1990s. It developed along two axes that constantly intersect but that should not be confused: the justification of terrorist action; and a new definition of jihad.

Jihadism Replaces Jihad

Jihad was rethought following the failure of the Arab offensive against Israel in 1948 (a failure that would recur repeatedly). It then passed from state hands, and was taken over by militants. The notion comes from the Quran, and there is no point saying that it is primarily an effort made toward God, even if etymologically that is true. Etymology is never the reason for the meanings people give words, and jihad indeed had a military sense from the start as well. But, since the time of the Prophet, a whole range of scholarly legal literature has developed to regulate jihad, to prevent it from serving as a pretext for revolt and sustaining fitna (violent discord) in the community. Regulation also aims to enable sovereigns to control external wars and avoid dangerous escalations. Most scholars therefore do not view jihad as one of the five pillars of Islam. It is not a personal obligation (fard ‘ayn), but instead a collective obligation; it pertains to a specific community threatened by non-Muslims and applies to all the Muslims in this community. It cannot be carried out against other Muslims. It must be declared by the competent religious authorities. Volunteers must meet specific requirements (have their fathers’ permission if they are under age, repay their debts, make sure their families have adequate income and support, etc.).

Muslim tradition, while it recognizes the merit of the martyr who dies in combat, does not prize those who strike out in pursuit of death, because it interferes with God’s will. Why, for the past twenty years, have these actors regularly chosen death? What does it say about contemporary Islamic radicalism? And what does it say about our societies today?

No one can declare himself a jihadi. And in fact, very few calls for jihad have been issued over the course of history. The Ottomans used it very sparingly, and calls for jihad during the war of 1914 had no impact in North Africa or British India, despite that being the objective. The term came back into use with the anticolonial struggles, but always at a regional level (such as the Mahdi in Sudan). There is even the peculiar case of Zinoviev, representing the Comintern at the Congress of the Peoples of the East in Baku in 1920, who himself issued a vibrant call for jihad against the British. (The call for jihad in Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion falls within the classic theory of jihad.) But things changed with the nakba, the Arab defeat in the war against Israel, in 1948. The Arab states and the leaders of the Muslim world turned out to be incapable of carrying out jihad against the Hebrew state. Two divergent trends then emerged among the Palestinians: the conversion of the struggle into a war of national liberation (which gave rise to the PLO); and the move toward global jihad (well embodied by Hizb ut-Tahrir, founded in 1953 as a Palestinian liberation party with Islamist leanings that gradually came to champion a supranational caliphate based in London).

By jihadism I am referring to a theory that developed in the 1950s. Implicitly present in Sayyid Qutb’s writing, it would be most clearly expressed by two authors: the Egyptian Abd el-Salam Faraj and the Palestinian Abdallah Azzam, who however deeply diverged over what would become known as “terrorism.” As Anwar al-Awlaki (an American citizen who, after having been recruited for al-Qaeda, set up a jihadist base in Yemen and was killed in 2011) summarized in a passage that circulates widely on the internet:

Jihad is the greatest deed in Islam and the salvation of the ummah is in practicing it. In times like these, when Muslim lands are occupied by the kuffar [unbelievers], when the jails of tyrants are full of Muslim POWs, when the rule of the law of Allah is absent from this world and when Islam is being attacked in order to uproot it, Jihad becomes obligatory on every Muslim. Jihad must be practiced by the child even if the parents refuse, by the wife even if the husband objects and by the one in debt even if the lender disagrees.

Jihad is defined here as an individual religious obligation on the same level as the five pillars. It is no longer optional, at least as long as part of the ummah is suffering under a foreign yoke. This is what Faraj had conceptualized as the “absent obligation,” the sixth pillar of Islam which is not defined as such in the Quran, as inexplicable as it seemed to him. Jihad has become an individual, permanent, and global religious duty. Jihadis obviously do not hesitate to innovate when it comes to doctrine, and stray from the sacred texts and official exegesis. But the reasoning goes even farther with Abdallah Azzam. Jihad is not merely a sort of military service. It is also a school of religious and military training. The aim is not so much victory in the field as the making of a new sort of Muslim, one who is completely detached from ethnic, national, tribal, and family bonds: a global Muslim. He will not be able to return to civilian life after he has served. He becomes a professional jihadi, somewhat on the model of members of the Comintern or Che Guevara-style revolutionaries. This implies a new type of marital relations and community life, de facto nomadism, detachment from the day-to-day political life of Muslim societies, and adoption of “global” codes and lifestyles (particularly in the use of English). It is the opposite of the Khaldunian model, in which esprit de corps is rooted in the anthropology of a tribal society. But it will be seen that, from Afghanistan through Fallujah to Libya, relations between jihadis and tribes are more complex and more open than official jihadi doctrine would suggest.

It is important to realize that this jihadi model is not necessarily terrorist. I was in close contact with international jihadis who came to Afghanistan in the 1980s and who were organized through the “service bureau” that later became al-Qaeda after Abdallah Azzam was murdered in November 1989. Under Azzam’s leadership they never resorted to terrorism, or even suicide bombings (even if they always volunteered for the front lines). They never targeted Soviet diplomats or civilians even though these were present in the Arab world. Certainly, they had Salafi leanings and readily lectured Afghans about “the right Islam,” even if Azzam gave strict instructions in Join the Caravan not to interfere with Afghan society. It is likely that some young people who go off on jihad today do so with this perspective, particularly those who combine jihad and hijra (the Hegira), in keeping with the idea that once they have been “born again,” they are obliged to go live in a Muslim country, but only under an “authentically” Islamic regime. Paradoxically, this quest for an Islamized space goes hand in hand with globalized Islam. Such young people are looking for a place detached from any real history or traditional culture, where they can live out their “pure Islam.” As will be seen, the search for a territorial niche goes together with being a part of globalized Islam—as long as this niche does not correspond to any real society that might impose its culture and customs. That is indeed what ISIS appears to offer.

Excommunication and Suicide

Whereas the new jihad was conceived following the nakba, the conceptualization of terrorism came about in the wake of Nasser’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1960s. It takes root in the idea of takfir: for the radicals, the problem facing the Muslim world is its own leaders’ impiety; for even if they follow Islamic practices, they are still impious in the policies they carry out. Suicide attacks were viewed at first more as attacks than as suicide. The murder of an ungodly leader (the “Pharaoh”) was in fact supposed to raise consciousness among the people and spark an uprising. This is the anarchist model of propaganda through action. But the tactic was not successful: the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981 did not produce a popular uprising, but rather further crackdowns. The people were not worthy of those who died for them.

The attack’s modus operandi—in other words, the death of the perpetrator—then became the norm. This pursuit of death (the usual “We love death as much as you love life”) then became grounded at once in a political failure and a profound religious pessimism that permeated the writings of Sayyid Qutb. Muslim society had returned to its pre-Revelation state (takfir or ignorance), except that there would not be another prophet, for Mohammed is the seal of prophecy—in other words, the last prophet. That means that the end of time is near. Added to that notion came a whole apocalyptic and somewhat nihilistic dimension: If the end was near, it was important to think of one’s own personal salvation rather than spend one’s efforts creating a better society. And this salvation can be achieved through death, for it is the shortest and safest route.

This phenomenon was developed mostly among Sunni Muslims. Even if young Iranians who “volunteered to die” at the front during the war with Iraq (amply studied by Farhad Khosrokhavar) shared this pessimism, and even if Hezbollah in Lebanon has used suicide attacks, this tactic occupies a very different place among Shias. Shia terrorists have instead usually practiced a form of state terrorism, given that their actions were sponsored by Iranian state institutions and were part of Iran’s national strategy. They are therefore profoundly different from the Sunnis, not only due to their involvement in state and territorial geostrategy, but also because of their mode of action: suicide attacks were reserved for actions of a military nature (for instance in Lebanon in 1982–1983 against Western armies), whereas terrorist acts against civilians abroad adhere to the classic form of a bomber commando that returns underground once the action has been accomplished (in Buenos Aires in 1994; in Bulgaria in July 2012). Furthermore, Shiism does not allow “holy ignorance” to develop among young radicals who proclaim themselves masters of the truth. The clergy has the monopoly on religious knowledge, and will not let young militants tread on its toes. The principle of marjayya (spiritual guidance of the great ayatollahs) forbids believers from inventing their own Islam. The believer cannot reject the principle of authority: he can choose his source of inspiration, but not act as a substitute for it.

The New Radicals

Up until the mid-1990s, internationalist jihadis were mostly individuals from the Middle East who went to fight in Afghanistan prior to the fall of the communist regime there in 1992, afterwards returning to take part in jihad in their home countries or taking it abroad. They are the ones who mounted the first wave of “globalized” attacks (the first attempt against the World Trade Center in 1993, against the US embassies in East Africa in 1998, against the US Navy destroyer Cole in 2000). This was the first generation of jihadis, under Bin Laden, Ramzi Yousef, and Khaled Sheikh Mohammed. From 1995 a new generation began to develop, known in the West as “homegrown terrorists.” Even if they were not all born in the West, they have been Westernized. More importantly, they have no ties with their families’ countries of origin. Finally, among them are also a growing percentage of converts (as of 1995) and women (as of 2012). Their field of action is now global.

Another methodological problem naturally arises: Who is a terrorist? Although it can be agreed that this category applies to the killers at the Bataclan as well as at Charlie Hebdo (defined by the means of action), should all volunteers for jihad who go off to fight in Syria be considered potential terrorists (which has been the practice of the French courts since 2015)? The members of the Beghal group (1997) were not involved in suicide bombings in Europe. There are, moreover, more converts who get themselves blown up at the jihad front than in attacks in Europe, and women tend to go to Syria rather than operate in Europe. One major difference is that many jihadis are recruited over the internet or, more precisely, look on the internet to find fellow volunteers or information on jihad, while nearly all terrorists belong to a little group that is already connected either to al-Qaeda or to ISIS. But the boundaries are easily blurred. Starting around 1995, terrorists (the Roubaix gang) also went to wage jihad abroad (in Bosnia in this case), whereas young jihadis became terrorists on their return to Europe. Many terrorists have been involved in jihad, but not all of them, and not all jihadis are necessarily bound to become terrorists, if only because it would appear that ISIS decides from the start who will be sent back to the West after training and who will be used in suicide attacks in the battlefield. But precisely because foreign volunteers who go to Syria are chosen primarily for suicide attacks, and because today nearly all terrorist operating in Europe are destined to die in action, the two categories intersect at least at one point: voluntary death. Today’s jihadis share with terrorists a fascination with death, and that is what justifies studying them together. My hypothesis is that today’s terrorists are a subset of jihadis.

We are in the second generation of jihad. From Khalid Kelkal to the Kouachi brothers and Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the profiles are the same. First and foremost, they all die in action: either they blow themselves up, or they get themselves killed by the police because they put up firm resistance or because they did not worry about planning their escape. There is not a third generation of jihad, at least for the moment.

(This is an excerpt from Olivier Roy's latest book Jihad and Death: The Global Appeal of Islamic State | Hurst & Company | £15.99 | 120 pages)