The Makings of Religious and Psychological Terror, Explained
Today's terrorism by Hamas and other Muslim groups can be explained by "sacred terror" emanating centuries ago — including by an ancient group of Jewish terrorists from the First Roman-Jewish War.
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In 1933, the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences published fascinating, useful articles on assassination and terrorism, which ended on a strange note, namely that the phenomena, which had reached an exceptionally high point at the turn of the century, were declining so much that the subjects would remain interesting only to antiquarians (people who study or collect antiques).
When the second edition of the Encyclopedia was published in 1968, the editors ignored these subjects altogether. Oh, what a time it was!
But, sadly, not for long. By the 1970s, terrorism — the use of intentional violence and fear to achieve political or ideological aims, primarily against noncombatants (civilians and neutral military personnel) — started making a wicked comeback.
The terms “terrorist” and “terrorism” originated during the French Revolution in the late 18th century — the so-called “Reign of Terror” — but became widely used internationally during the last several decades, thanks to, in part, the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the Basque conflict, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and 9/11.
Arguably, the first organization to use modern terrorist techniques was the Irish Republican Brotherhood, founded in 1858 as a revolutionary Irish nationalist group that carried out attacks in England.
Palestinian terror against Jews, for instance, predates the creation of the State of Israel by nearly a century, claiming its first fatality, Shlomo Tzorif, who was killed by a sword-blow to the head in Jerusalem in 1851. Major massacres of Jews took place in Hebron in 1929 and in the Etzion Bloc on the eve of Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948. In both cases, the Palestinians mutilated their victims’ bodies.
To be sure, Zionist Jews have also had problems with terrorism, even before the State of Israel’s independence in 1948. During the British mandate over Palestine, the Irgun was among the Zionist groups labeled as terrorist organizations by the British authorities and United Nations, for violent terror attacks against Britons and Arabs. Another group, the Lehi, openly declared its members as “terrorists.”
In 2006, there were more than 109 different definitions of terrorism. Not only were individual agencies within the same governmental apparatus unable to agree on a single definition of terrorism, but experts and other long-established scholars in the field are equally incapable of reaching a consensus.
Until UCLA professor David Rapoport published his seminal article “Fear and Trembling: Terrorism in Three Religious Traditions,” scholars largely assumed that terrorism was a modern, political phenomenon.
Earlier published studies considered terrorism to be a product of 19th-century revolutionary politics, and technological developments like the pistol and bomb-making were considered instrumental to the relentless onslaught of assassinations, terrorism, bombings, and political violence in the 19th century.
Rapoport proposed three cases to demonstrate the “ancient lineage” of religious terrorism, which he called “sacred terror,” including the Thugs, the Assassins, and the Zealots-Sicarii (a splinter group of the Jewish Zealots who, in the decades preceding Jerusalem’s destruction in 70 CE, strongly opposed the Roman occupation of Judea and attempted to violently expel them and their sympathizers from the area).1
Rapoport distinguished these three cases as follows:
Thugs – religious terrorists who murder inconspicuously, without political objectives, while exhibiting cult-like attributes
Assassins – religious terrorists who murder conspicuously, with political objectives, inspired by messianic hopes, with religious precedents for their tactics
Zealots-Sicarii – religious terrorists whose attacks usually took place on the most holy days to maximize publicity and provoke massive uprisings, while being inspired by apocalyptic prophecies which visualize the signs of the messiah’s imminence as a series of massive catastrophes
“Our obliviousness to holy terror rests on a misconception that the distinction between it and the modern form is one of scale, not of nature or kind,” Rapoport wrote. “The clear meaning of these three cases is that the decisive variables for understanding differences among the forms terror may take are a group’s purpose, organization, methods, and above all the public’s response to that group’s activities.”
Rapoport was the first to claim that, historically, religious doctrines were more important than political considerations for terrorists to do terrorist things, while also arguing that religious terrorism has been ongoing since ancient times.
“Sacred terrorists find their rationale in the past, either in divine instructions transmitted long ago or in interpretations of precedents from founding periods of the parent religions,” Rapoport wrote. “The very idea of the holy entails contrast with the profane, the normal, or the natural.”
In Gaza, this couldn’t be more true: The strip started to become an increasingly Islamic society in the 1960s, when it was still under Egyptian jurisdiction. But after Egypt once again blocked Israeli ships from using the Straits of Tiran, the 1967 Six-Day War broke out, which led to Israel overtaking control of Gaza.
Meanwhile, in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt, although it remained a fringe group in politics across the Arab world. After a resounding Arab defeat by Israel against Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in the Six-Day War, Islamic fundamentalism began replacing the popularity of secular Arab nationalism.
Following this war, Gaza’s iterations of the Muslim Brotherhood did not actively participate in armed resistance against Israel, preferring to focus on social-religious reform and the restoration of Islamic values.
This outlook changed in early-1980s Gaza, and Islamic organizations became more involved in Palestinian politics. The idea of Hamas began taking form in late 1987, when several members of the Muslim Brotherhood convened the day after an incident in which an Israeli army truck had crashed into a car at a Gaza checkpoint, killing four Palestinian day-workers.
A leaflet issued in December 1987 — calling for resistance — is considered to mark Hamas’ first public intervention, though the name Hamas itself was not used until 1988.
To many Palestinians, Hamas appeared to engage more authentically with them, since it provided an Islamic version of what had been the Palestine Liberation Organization’s original goals: armed struggle to liberate all of Palestine (“from the river to the sea”), rather than territorial compromises to which the PLO acquiesced.
Creating Hamas as an entity distinct from the Muslim Brotherhood was a matter of practicality; the Muslim Brotherhood refused to engage in violence against Israel, but without participating in the First Intifada, the Islamists tied to it feared they would lose support to their rivals, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the PLO. They also hoped that, by keeping its militant activities separate, Israel would not interfere with its social work.
In 1988, Hamas published its official charter, wherein it defined itself as a chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood and its desire to establish “an Islamic state throughout Palestine.” This charter includes declarations like:
Hamas is an Islamic Resistance Movement with an ideological program of Islam.
Its roots and connections are to Salafism (Sunni Muslim) and the Muslim brotherhood, respectively, with Islam as its official religion and the Koran as its constitution.
Hamas is one of the links in the chain of the struggle against the Zionist invaders and references a hadith (an Islamic commandment) which states that the Day of Judgment would not come until the Muslims fight and kill the Jews.
Allah is Hamas’ goal, the Prophet is the model, the Qur’an its constitution, jihad its path, and death for the sake of Allah is the loftiest of its wishes.
There is no negotiated settlement possible. Jihad is the only answer.
In this way, Hamas is akin to the Thugs, among Rapoport’s analysis of the three cases of ancient religious terrorism, since they don’t really have political objectives, yet very much exhibit cult-like attributes. In Israel, many people refer to the terror organization as a “death cult.”
Since 2001, Hamas has been among the five most active terror groups worldwide, and it’s considered to be the third-most wealthiest one, with some $700 million in annual revenues.
What makes Hamas a particularly dangerous terror group is not that its members are able to indiscriminately kill as many Israelis and Jews to which they aspire. Instead, it’s their hallmark psychological terror that makes them so troubling.
Psychological terror is a common tactic used by groups that cannot render impressive military results. Even Russia, with its bonafide army, has demonstrated a broader pattern of prioritizing psychological terror in Ukraine over achieving tangible battlefield effects.2
“The use of terrorism as a tactic is predicated upon inducing a climate of fear that is incommensurate with the actual threat,” said Middle East historian Richard Bulliet. “Every time you have an act of violence, publicizing that violence becomes an important part of the act itself.”3
Hence why Palestinian terrorists didn’t just come armed only with guns and grenades during their October 7th attacks. They also came with cameras to film their actions as they broke through Israel’s border and raped, burned, mutilated, and massacred more than a thousand civilians, while kidnapping hundreds more.
“The body cams were worn to preserve Hamas’ handiwork for posterity, to document with pride,” wrote Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States. “The videos they captured were intended for viewers throughout Gaza and well beyond — to cities and villages across the Middle East and portions of the Muslim world.”
“They were designed not to delegitimize Israel internationally or weaken it internally — just the opposite has happened — but to fortify support for Hamas and the Jihadist idea,” Oren added. “The foreign correspondents who saw clips from the terrorists’ body cams were permanently scarred. Hamas’ audiences were delighted.”4
In this way, Hamas is akin to both the Assassins and the Zealots-Sicarii. Like Hamas, both were inspired by messianic hopes to seek maximum publicity. Both interpreted important events in the founding period of their religion as precedents for their tactics, and to also mean that those who died in this struggle secured their places in paradise. And both rebellions had an international character.
Historically, the Assassins survived two centuries (from 1090 to 1275) and seriously threatened the governments of several states, especially those of the Turkish Seljuk Empire in Persia and Syria. Hamas certainly fits this mold with respect to Israel (and even Egypt, to Gaza’s southern border).
“Their purpose was to fulfill or purify Islam, a community whose political and religious institutions were inseparable,” Rapoport wrote. “One cannot understand the Assassins without emphasizing the deeply embedded Muslim admiration for martyrs, particularly for those who die attempting to kill Islam’s enemies. Assassin education clearly prepared assailants to seek martyrdom.”
“The word used to designate the assailants — fidayeen (consecrated or dedicated ones) — indicates that they were considered religious sacrifices who freed themselves from the guilt of all sins,” he added,” and thereby gained ‘entry into paradise.’”
Islamic millenarian movements are largely associated with the shia (the minority), who believe that eventually a mandi (a messiah) will emerge to lead a holy war (jihad) against the orthodox establishment to cleanse Islam.
In various messianic Jewish and Christian images, violence may or may not appear, but an essential part of messianic Islam regards jihad in the sense of an armed revolutionary struggle, as the method whereby a perfected social order must be brought into being.
As for the Zealots-Sicarii, they only survived for some 25 years, a brief existence by the standards of the Assassins, but their immediate and long-run influence was enormous. Hamas is very similar to them in its ability to generate popular insurrections, an unusual capacity among religious terrorists. Hence why, in this current war, we’re seeing Israel be provoked and attacked by other groups, such as Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the Houthis.
In addition, the Zealots-Sicarii normally assassinated prominent Jews (their own people) who they felt had succumbed to Hellenistic culture. Hamas does the same to people in Gaza and other places who they feel are not loyal to their doctrine, or who pose a social or political threat to the terror group.
As in the Zealots-Sicarii’s case, these acts by Hamas are also efforts to create a state of war readiness, and, more specifically, to intimidate people who were anxious to avoid armed conflicts with them.
Furthermore, the Zealots-Sicarii succeeded in pulling participants (despite their contrary intentions) into an ever-escalating struggle by shock tactics which manipulated their fear, outrage, sympathy, and guilt.
Sometimes these emotional affects were provoked by terrorist atrocities which went beyond the consensual norms governing violence; at other times they were produced by provoking enemies into committing atrocities against their will, and the possibility that conflicts could become international troubled their enemies.
Consecutive atrocities continually narrowed prospects for a political, or mutually agreeable, solution. This served to destroy the credibility of moderates on both sides, while steadily expanding the conflict, which enlisted new participants. Yet no master hand could be detected in this process.
Several Zealot and at least two Sicarii organizations existed, and many other groups participated, but only a few can be identified. Then, as now, the effect of multiplicity was to encourage each element toward even more heinous atrocities, in order to prove the superiority of its commitments.
As these extraordinary actions unfolded, the participating groups found it necessary to make even more fantastic claims about their enemies and even more radical promises about the social reconstruction that would result from their victory.
If all of this isn’t Hamas to a tee, I don’t know what is.
The emphasis on group participation is paramount, since terrorists frequently exploit images of a group of masked individuals exerting total power over their captives, thus sending a defiant message that the act is a collective demonstration of the group’s power, rather than an individual criminal act.
“You don’t have the notion that a certain person has taken a hostage. It’s an image of group power, and the force becomes generalized rather than personalized,” Richard Bulliet said. “The randomness and the ubiquity of the threat give the impression of vastly greater capacities.”
When a horrific terror event happens, like on October 7th in Israel, experts say it’s natural to feel disturbed, even if the act occurred thousands of kilometers away.
“We walk around, psychologically, in a bubble, and that bubble represents our belief system and values,” said Dr. Charles Figley, director of the Florida State University Traumatology Institute. “Most often we assume incorrectly that other people have the same values and social niceties as we do. When that is violated or challenged, the first response is usually an effort to protect our beliefs and, in other words, to deny that it actually happened.”5
“It’s uncomfortable believing that the world is less safe, so we have to imagine or construct a scenario that will allow us to feel more safe again and resist change,” Figley added.
Hence why, according to Figley, people often fall into two camps after experiencing trauma: overreaction or under-reaction.
“If we overreact in an emotional way, then we’re not thinking very logically and clearly, and we could benefit from thinking it through rationally,” Figley said. “If we only go to the rational part and don’t think about the humanity and the emotions, then we are also denying sensitivity to that and awareness of how we may be responding, perhaps not now but eventually on an emotional level.”
Figley recommended that it’s worth asking yourself why you might be under-reacting or overreacting to a particular situation, because it may be related to your subconscious.
“It may be associated with one’s own fear of death, you may be still grieving a previous death, or fearful for a relative in military service,” he said. “Then that’s where you put your attention, not where it started but where it led you.”
In fact, how our fears influence are responses to psychological terror is the focus of research known as terror management theory. This idea is referred to in analytical psychology as the archetypal shadow characteristics: suspicion, distrust, and self-doubt, as well as paranoia of others, themselves, and the world.
Plot twists are an often-used device by terrorists, which explains why, amid the current hostage deal between Israel and Hamas, Israeli military spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari warned that there may be changes amid the deal.
“It is important to note that Hamas is a ruthless enemy,” Hagari said. “Difficult days are ahead of us, joy mixed with sadness.”
“Fear and Trembling: Terrorism in Three Religious Traditions.” The American Political Science Review, Vol. 78, No. 3 (Sep. 1984), 658-677. https://web.archive.org/web/20170519193901id_/https://www.aclu.org/files/fbimappingfoia/20111110/ACLURM001595.pdf.
“Russia Turning To 'Psychological Terror' as Forces Struggle: ISW.” Newsweek. https://www.newsweek.com/russia-ukraine-drone-isw-terror-psychological-1752617.
“Coping With Psychological Warfare at Home.” WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/features/coping-with-psychological-warfare-home.
“Why the Body Cams?” Clarity with Michael Oren. Substack.
“Coping With Psychological Warfare at Home.” WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/features/coping-with-psychological-warfare-home.