The uses of terror and the end of the world

by John MacBeath Watkins

Some people called him Timur the Lame. Some called him Tamerlane. He was a Mongol chieftain who, in 1398, built a pyramid of 90,000 severed heads before the walls of Delhi, to let the inhabitants know what would happen to them if they did not surrender. They did not, and after the sack of the city and the annihilation of its inhabitants, it was a century before the city could rebuild.

The uses of terror in war have a long history. Sometimes it works, as it often did for the Mongols, sometimes it fails, as it did in the terror bombing of London in World War II.

One of the things terror is used for is to eliminate the gray zones, the areas where compromise might occur. No one in Delhi after Timur's ghastly pyramid rose was saying, "I'm sure this Timur is a reasonable chap we can talk with, make a few compromises, and conclude a peace at a reasonable cost."

Terror draws a firm line between combatants. If you are Islamic State, and most Muslims are fleeing your state rather than flocking to it, eliminating the gray zones will eliminate the zones into which they are fleeing.

In fact, Islamic State sponsored violence in Europe is explicitly aimed at making Europeans view as the enemy refugees fleeing the violence of IS and other warring factions in Syria. Their propaganda magazine, Dabiq, following the Charlie Hebdo attack, published an editorial that said such attacks  “compel the Crusaders to actively destroy the grayzone [where Westerners and Muslims co-exist] themselves…Muslims in the West will quickly find themselves between one of two choices, they either apostatize …or they [emigrate] to the Islamic State and thereby escape persecution from the Crusader governments and citizens.”

The European Union's top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, has said that all of the attackers in the November, 2015 Paris attacks were believed to be European residents, not refugees. All those who have been identified were. One who has yet to be identified carried a forged Syrian passport, which had been used to pass through Greece. Perhaps he was on a watch list in Europe, and was using the refugees as a way to get past border patrols, but if that were the case, why not a forged Belgian passport?

It seems quite likely that the unidentified terrorist carried a forged Syrian passport because the aim of the attacks was to eliminate what Islamic State sees as a threat -- cooperation between Europeans and those Muslim refugees who have fled IS.

Where terror is effective, it either terrifies the enemy into surrender, as was the intent of Timur's pyramid of heads or the American bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with nuclear bombs, or it is intended to get the enemy to over-respond in a way that makes more people join the terrorists.

That's a motive that fits very well with giving a terrorist a fake Syrian passport and sending the agent through the refugee route to Europe. The attacks have had the desired effect, at least on all the serious Republican candidates for president (that is, those with a serious chance at the nomination, regardless of the seriousness or silliness of their rhetoric.)

It may seem that getting a powerful country like France as an enemy would be suicidal for a tiny protostate like Islamic State's "caliphate." But we must keep in mind that Islamic State is an apocalyptic cult which not only believes these are the end times, but strives to bring about the end times. As Graham Wood noted in his much-cited Atlantic article about Islamic State, this is not so different from the theology of the Branch Davidians, but instead of a compound with a few people in it, they control a territory with 8 million people.

The frightening thing to me is that some of our politicians most eager to confront Islamic State, and to define the conflict as being between Islam and Christianity, are those with ties to American religious groups who believe we are living in the end times. About three quarters of Evangelical Christians believe this. I remember talking to a small-town businessman in the Puget Sound area who was telling me about a real estate investment, then paused to say, well, I suppose it seems kind of silly to think that far out, when the Rapture may happen at any time.

Fortunately, he made the investment, which by now should have paid off.

But that's the thing. Islamic State is Sunni Muslim. There are Shi'a Muslim who also believe we are living in the end times, and Christians, and Jews. It is possible that at some point, all the major actors in the Middle East will be led by people who believe the end of the world is coming, and that this would be a good thing.

There are many different versions of the end times; Islamic State contends that the "Romans"(Christians, or perhaps the Turks) led by the anti-messiah Dajjal, will push them near annihilation, until there are only 5,000 fighters left cornered at Jerusalem, then Jesus, the second most revered prophet in the Bible, will come to lead them and they will push back and eventually gain victory.

But wait, isn't that the plot of the Left Behind series of books based on Christian eschatology? Well, pretty much, just a little difference about who the good guys are.

The prophesy is in the source material for all the religions in the Abrahamic tradition. There are different versions of what that source material means. Some Christians, for example, think the end times have already happened.(the Preterist view, which says Revalations describes the events of about 70 A.D.) Others of all the faiths with this source material are sufficiently humble not to claim they know when the world will end.

One problem with groups which hold these views is that they may not have any path to peace that is consistent with their beliefs other than the apocalypse. Another is that people will do far worse things in the name of making the world a better place than they will out of mere greed.

Those who believe they are bringing an end to injustice can easily justify acts of terror involving the deaths of innocent in order to bring about more deaths, more terror, and a final, dramatic end to all that is evil in the world.

The terror in Paris was intended to sharpen the lines of conflict. The ideal outcome for those who committed these atrocities would be to empower people who believe, as they do, that we are living in the end times, and who want to bring about the apocalypse. The strategy is to have terror beget terror, to bring about a final conflict that will end the world.

The term self-fulfilling prophesy comes to mind. Let's hope it doesn't come to pass.

Here's a list of the Paris, Nov. 2015, terrorists so far identified (seven of the eight attackers)

Bilal Hadfi, 20 - French (living in Belgium)
Ismaël Omar Mostefaï, 29 - French
Samy Amimour, 28 - French
Ibrahim Abdeslam, 31 - French (living in Belgium)
Salah Abdeslam, 26 - French (living in Belgium)
Hamza Attou, 21 - Belgian

Mohamed Amri, 27 - Belgian (born in Morocco)

The eight attacker was the one with the fake Syrian passport.