Written by Shaykh Mustafa Umar

A False Perception

There is a growing perception, particularly in the ‘West’, that Islam and Muslims are somehow associated with terrorism. This perception is not an accident. It is the result of a well-planned, massive propaganda campaign that has been in motion for over a decade now. Very few people would actually believe that all Muslims are terrorists or likely-terrorists, given the fact that there are over 1.6 billion of them spread throughout the world. However, a more digestible perception, despite being evidently false, has managed to affect several people: the notion that most terrorists in the world are Muslim and are following the religion of Islam.

Is there any truth to this perception? Are Muslims, by virtue of their faith, somehow more prone to committing terrorism or sympathizing with those who do? Let’s look at some hard facts to see that perception is not always reality.

What is Terrorism?

Most people do not understand terrorism. They do not know how to process the phenomenon of terror, nor do they know much about terrorism statistics. There is no class in middle or high school that teaches the average person these things. So let’s start with the definition of terrorism.

There is no single, universally accepted, definition of terrorism. Generally, terrorism refers to the use of violence [or threat of violence] to achieve a political or ideological objective. However, since its foundation in 1945, the United Nations has been unable to adopt one definition of terrorism. In 1988, researchers Alex Schmid and Albert Jongman counted 109 different definitions of terrorism. Why can’t everyone agree on one definition?

It has to do with hypocrisy. When people who are in positions of power would like to identify other parties as terrorists, a problem arises because they themselves are guilty of the same thing. It is part and parcel of the politics of powerful nations. It would be hypocritical to call someone a terrorist when you are using violence for political ends as well. Using such a definition would cause the most powerful nations like the US, UK, France, China, and Russia to be declared as terrorist states. Therefore, there is a ‘need’ for the powers that be to exclude themselves from having the definition applied to them.

A more usable definition is the one mentioned in the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations which defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives” (28 C.F.R. Section 0.85).[1] This definition accomplishes the aforementioned objective well because it contains the word ‘unlawful’, which basically means: not approved of by the power-structure. This doctrinal definition of terrorism is the one commonly used in the media and in intellectual discourse. As Professor Noam Chomsky puts it: “It is basically the same definition but with one qualification: it only applies for what ‘they’ do to us, not what ‘we’ do to ‘them’.”

Statistics on Terrorism in the United States

Let us assume we accept the doctrinal definition of terrorism and look at some facts. According to the FBI database there have been 318 terrorist incidents in the United States from 1980-2005. Most of these are not minor incidents. They include 209 bombings and 43 arsons. If most Americans were asked what years contained the highest number of incidents, it is probable that they would guess those years after 2001, when the ‘War on Terror’ was declared. However, when looking at the statistics, as shown in the chart below, it is interesting to note that the highest number of terrorist incidents in any given year were in 1981, 1982, and 1983.

Another interesting fact to note is that, again according to the FBI, the tiny island of Puerto Rico had the most terrorist incidents out of all the regions in the United States. Most Americans would not have guessed that.

In the same report by the FBI they note the history of terrorism in the United States: “During the period from 1908 to 1982, the FBI dealt with two broad categories of domestic terrorism: right- and left-wing extremist groups. In the period between World War I and World War II, the domestic threat primarily came from right-wing groups, like the Ku Klux Klan… Beginning in the 1950s, the most serious domestic terrorist threat shifted to leftist-oriented extremist groups that generally professed a revolutionary socialist doctrine…” Note that there is neither any mention of Islam or Muslims, nor is there any mention of religion in particular.

In 2010, a RAND Corporation [funded by the U.S. government] report titled “Would-be Warriors” revealed some very interesting facts about terrorism and terrorist groups:

  1. Not a single U.S. civilian has been killed by Muslim extremists since Sept 11, 2001
  2. Only 3 out of 83 acts of terrorism between 9/11/2011 and 2009 were done by Muslim extremists. Most were by animal rights and environmental activists.
  3. There was more terrorism in the 1970’s than the 21st There were over 60 terrorist incidents per year on US soil, most of them being bombings. That’s 15-20 times more terrorism than the period following 2001.

U.S. Terrorist Organizations

If the average American were asked to name five major terrorist organizations in the United States, how many could they name? Most people probably couldn’t name more than one or two. The following is a list of only some of them, coupled with some information about the organization:

Animal Liberation Front: Known for sabotaging animal testing facilities. The FBI said that ALF is the “leading domestic terrorist threat”.

Alpha 66 and Omega 7: Cuban exiles opposed to anyone who takes a moderate approach to Fidel Castro. Responsible for many bombings.

Army of God: Anti-abortion and anti-gay. Known for bombing at least two abortion clinics, a lesbian nightclub, and the Summer Olympics in 1996. They believe that Anglo-Saxons are the only true children of God.

Aryan Nations: A white nationalist, neo-Nazi, Christian Identity group. The RAND Corporation described it as the “first truly nationwide terrorist network”.

Black Liberation Army: Carried out a series of bombings, robberies, and prison breaks.

The Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord: Another Christian Identity organization.

Earth Liberation Front: Eco-terrorist group. The FBI in March 2001 said that it is the number one domestic terrorist threat.

Jewish Defense League: Founded by Rabbi Meir Kahane. Executed at least 15 terrorist attacks in the U.S. [more than al-Qaeda] and responsible for at least 60 bombings.

Ku Klux Klan: A white supremacist, anti-Communist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Catholic group.

Militia Movement: An anti-government movement. One common tactic is to explode pipe bombs at government facilities. They have about 20,000-60,000 people in the U.S.

Phineas Priesthood: Another Christian Identity movement against interracial intercourse, homosexuality, abortion, and multiculturalism.

Symbionese Liberation Army: A far left organization.

United Freedom Front: A Marxist organization responsible for at least 20 bombings and 9 bank robberies.

The Weather Underground: A far left organization responsible for at least 45 bombings between 1970-1977.

Ejercito Popular Boricua [Boricua People’s Army] – Demanding independence of Puerto Rico from U.S. imperialism.

New World Liberation Front – A far-left organization responsible for at least 70 bombings in the Bay Area alone.

Notable U.S. Terrorist Attacks

The following is a very brief list of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Many people are unaware of these incidents for one reason or another.

1910: Bombing of the L.A. Times Building by James and John McNamara who wanted to unionize the paper.

1920: Wall Street bombing by followers of Luigi Galleani with 100 pounds of dynamite that killed 38 people and injured 400.

1927: Bath, Michigan bombings by Andrew Kehoe who was angry over taxes. He set off three bombs killing 45 people [including 38 students].

1971: Bombing of the U.S. Capitol Building by the Weather Underground in protest for the U.S. invasion of Laos.

1972: Bombing of the Pentagon by the Weather Underground in retaliation for the U.S. bombing raid in Hanoi.

1975: Bombing of the Department of State Building by the Weather Underground in response to war escalation in Vietnam.

1976: Hijacking of Cubana Flight 455 by CIA-linked Cuban exiles who killed all 73 people on board.

1978-1995: Unabomber Attacks by Ted Kaczynski who sent letterbombs to academics and other influential people.

1995: Oklahoma City Bombing by Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols who killed 168 people.

1996: Centennial Olympic Park Bombing by Eric Robert Rudolph. This was the largest pipe bomb in U.S. history.

2001: Anthrax Attacks by Bruce Edwards Ivins.

2007: Virginia Tech Massacre by Seung-Hui Cho who killed 32 people. He likened himself to Jesus Christ and expressed his hatred of the rich.

2010: Austin IRS Attack by Andrew Joseph Stack who flew an airplane into the IRS building because he was mad at the government.

2011: Tucson Shooting of Gabrielle Giffords where Jared Lee Loughner shot nineteen people.

International Terrorist Organizations

Terrorism, even according to the doctrinal definition, is a universal phenomenon. Here are only some international terrorist organizations that most people have probably never heard of:

Aum Shinrikyo: Japan. A new religious movement responsible for the 1995 Sarin Nerve Gas attacks in the Tokyo subway.

All Tripura Tiger Force: India. The goal is to expel all immigrants of Tripura. 90% of members are Hindu and 10% are Christian.

Babbar Khalsa: India/Canada. A Sikh religious organization that blew up a 747 jet in 1985 killing 329 people [including 280 Canadian citizens].

Communist Party of India (Maoist): Prime Minister Singh said that they are “the single biggest security challenge ever faced by our country”. They have killed over a thousand people.

Provisional Irish Republican Army: Ireland. They have killed over 1800 people.

ETA (Basque Homeland and Freedom): Spain/France. They have killed almost a thousand people.

Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK): Turkey. A Socialist/Nationalist party demanding independence.

New People’s Army: Philippines. A Communist organization.

National Liberation Front of Corsica: France. A separatist organization.

Justice Commandos Against Armenian Genocide: Trying to force Turkey to admit to the past Armenian genocide. Responsible for at least 23 terrorist attacks.

The Two Main Causes of Terrorism

According to Amy Zalman, who is a global terrorism expert, all terrorist acts are motivated by two things:

  1. Social and political injustice: People choose terrorism when they are trying to right what they perceive to be a social or political or historical wrong—when they have been stripped of their land or rights, or denied these.
  2. The belief that violence or its threat will be effective, and usher in change. Another way of saying this is: the belief that violent means justify the ends. Many terrorists in history said sincerely that they chose violence after long deliberation, because they felt they had no choice.

She notes that this explanation of the causes of terrorism may be difficult to swallow. It sounds too simple, or too theoretical. However, her response is that if you look at any group that is widely understood as a terrorist group, you will find these two elements basic to their story.[2]

Image is Everything

The reason why Islam and Muslims are often perceived to hold a virtual monopoly over terrorism has to do with the amount of negative media coverage they get. This propaganda has resulted in American Muslims becoming one of the most persecuted minority groups in America since September 11, 2001.

Equipped with a better understanding of the definition of terrorism, the identity of terrorist groups, statistics on notable incidents in the United States, and motives underlying terrorism, it is hoped one will conclude that terrorism is not restricted to any particular group or religion.

[1] https://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/terrorism-2002-2005, last accessed 1-25-17

[2] http://terrorism.about.com/od/causes/a/causes_terror.htm, last accessed 1-26-17