Terror in the Name of God

Cultic Studies Review, Volume 1, Number 3, 2002

Terror in the Name of God: The Rise of Religious Terrorism

John W. Morehead

Watchman Fellowship


Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, Americans are coming to grips with terrorist violence. Since the 1980s there has been a shift from politically motivated to predominately religiously motivated terrorism around the world. The differing ethical foundations of religious terrorism have seen an increase in the level of violence and lethality of terrorist attacks. Many of the major world religions and various new religious movements have participated in these attacks. Sociological studies and interviews with terrorists from religiously motivated terrorist organizations reveal a pattern of transformation in a marginalized religious group’s thinking that can lead to motivation for terrorism. The rise of religious terrorism in our time may point toward an increasingly violent future.

The events of September 11, 2001 are deeply imbedded in the minds of all Americans, and others around the world. I remember eating breakfast while watching the news that morning. By the time I turned on the television the first plane had crashed into the first of the World Trade Center’s twin towers. As I watched the drama unfold I thought it was an unfortunate human error or mechanical failure that had caused a small plane to veer off course and hit the tower. Then, to my shock I watched a jetliner crash into the second tower. This second crash moved the incident beyond the realm of accident, and into the frightening arena of a deliberate attack. America, seemingly impervious to terrorist attacks plaguing the rest of the world, was now revealed to be all too vulnerable to such violence.

As the days passed following September 11, investigators learned that a vast network of Muslim terrorists with ties to Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan were responsible for the meticulous planning and execution of the attacks. Radical Islamic terrorists have made the news for years and this was not surprising. But the joy expressed by terrorist leaders after the attack, and their claim that the attacks came with the sanction of God, did surprise many Americans.

A videotape was discovered by American troops in December 2001 as the war on terrorism progressed through the mountains, caves, and valleys of Afghanistan. Bush Administration officials eventually released the tape of Osama bin Laden and his co-conspirators discussing the attack. Through translators, a terrorist leader says to bin Laden, “…everybody praises what you did, the great action you did, which was first and foremost by the grace of Allah. This is the guidance of Allah and the blessed fruit of jihad.”[1]1

Sadly, the claim that God directs acts of terrorism that result in the violent deaths of thousands of people is not unique to the Islamic world. Similar claims are made by extremists from a variety of world religions and smaller religious groups: Sikhism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity in the form of the American “Christian” Patriot movement, as well as Roman Catholicism and Protestantism in Ireland, and various new religions. As we will see, there has been a dramatic increase in religious terrorism. Indeed, terrorism in the name of God provides the primary motivation for a host of international and domestic terrorist groups. In this article we will examine what terrorism is, note the rise of terrorism motivated by religious ideology, look at examples of terrorist groups within a variety of religious traditions, and comment on why such people kill in the name of God.

Defining Terrorism

Defining terrorism is not as easy as it might seem, but it is necessary if we are to differentiate it from other forms of violence. One of the difficulties we experience is that definitions often differ depending upon the perspective of the one providing it. Mark Juergensmeyer, professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, interviewed a number of terrorists and found that not one of them considered themselves terrorists. It has been said that one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter, and this self-understanding of terrorists is important for our purposes of definition, and to our overall understanding of religious terrorism. From within the mindset of terrorist “cultures of violence” the world is already a hostile place, and the groups themselves, and those they represent, are the ones under attack. What those on the outside view as terrorism and unprovoked aggression, those perpetrating the acts consider self-defense:

This is a significant feature of these cultures: the perception that their communities are already under attack―are being violated—and that their acts are therefore simply responses to the violence they have experienced.[2]2

Our examination of terrorist cultures and their self-identity that sees violence as self-defense should not be misunderstood as providing justification for terrorism. Nothing justifies deliberate acts of aggression against innocent civilians. But the self-understanding of terrorist “cultures of violence” provides an important observation for us as we develop an appropriate definition, and consider the motivations for their actions.

An obvious purpose of terrorism is to terrify. Juergensmeyer writes:

The word comes from the Latin terrere, ‘to cause to tremble’…the trembling that terrorism effects – is part of the meaning of the term. It is appropriate, then, that the definition of a terrorist act is provided by us, the witnesses – the ones terrified – and not by the party committing the act.[3]3

Thus the one’s terrified through such acts of violence contribute part of the definition of the term. Beyond this, Bruce Hoffman, one of the world’s leading experts on terrorism, defines terrorism as “the deliberate creation and exploitation of fear through violence or the threat of violence in the pursuit of political change.”[4]4 This will serve as a good working definition.

Religion and Terror

Many people associate religion with acts of compassion and kindness that flow out of ancient ethical systems. While every religion has its radical fringe, the association of religion and terror is difficult for many people to grasp. Unfortunately, religion and terrorism have a long history of association.

For example, many words that we use to describe violent acts come from religious terrorist groups in history. The word “zealot” comes from a Jewish sect that fought Roman occupation by terrorist means. The word “assassin” comes from a group of radical Shi’ite Muslims, and literally means “hashish-eater,” referring to the ritual use of hashish by the assassins before they committed acts of murder. Our final example is the word “thug.” This word comes from a group of Hindu robbers and murderers who followed Kali, the goddess of death and destruction.[5]5

While the present intimate association of religion and terrorism is a recent development of the last few decades, sadly, religion has long provided motivation for terrorism. Indeed, ‘[u]ntil the 19th century, religion provided the only justification for terrorism.”[6]6

Shifting Foundations

Over time the foundations and motivations for terrorism shifted. Terrorism motivated by a religious imperative gave way to new groups primarily motivated by political concerns. While many of these groups had religious aspects to their causes, their political, ethnic, and nationalist motivations were the primary motivating factors. For a time, religion was not the chief concern of these groups.

But this changed in the 1980s. This was a decade that saw a dramatic rise of religious terrorism, primarily in the form of radical Islamic and Jewish groups. This rise in religious terrorism continued into the decades that followed.

In 1980 the U.S. State Department roster of international terrorist groups listed scarcely a single religious organization. In 1998 U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright listed thirty of the world’s most dangerous groups; over half were religious.…[T]he proportion of religious groups increased from sixteen of forty-nine terrorist groups identified in 1994 to twenty-six of the fifty-six groups listed the following year.[7]7

With the increase in the number of terrorist groups motivated by a religious agenda the religious foundations of such groups moved beyond Islamic extremism. As previously noted, religious terrorism now encompasses representatives from the major world religions and a few from a variety of new religious movements.

Deadly Differences

Terrorism experts have noted important contrasts between the ethical systems that drive terrorism motivated primarily by political or ethnic considerations as opposed to those with religion as the primary factor. Political terrorism is concerned with committing relatively small acts of violence against a particular group on behalf of a constituency in order to motivate another group to make political changes on the terrorist group’s behalf. In the ethical system of political terrorism, it is to the terrorist group’s advantage to keep the magnitude of violence and casualties low. Such groups are also less likely to kill indiscriminately.

By contrast, religious terrorism has a radically different ethical system. They often act for no one other than themselves. They have no external constituency they are trying to influence, and most importantly, they believe they are using violence with a divine mandate. For the “holy terrorist,” “violence [is] first and foremost a sacramental act or divine duty executed in direct response to some theological demand or imperative.”[8]8 Religious terrorists therefore see themselves as part of a cosmic struggle against evil. With this radically different worldview and ethical system, the religious terrorist is much more likely to engage in killing that results in massive casualties (as evidenced in the Oklahoma City and World Trade Center bombings). Perhaps even more frightening, the religious terrorist is also more likely to use weapons of mass destruction, such as nuclear, radioactive, biological, or chemical weapons. The threat of weapons of mass destruction by terrorist groups, once thought highly unlikely by terrorist experts, is now considered a very real possibility. As we will see, biological and chemical weapons have already been used by religious terrorist groups.

Participants in the Cultures of Violence

As we have seen, religious terrorism is not limited to Islamic extremism. A variety of religions have fringe elements engaged in acts of terrorism.


Although Christians do not usually equate Christianity with terrorism and violence, this grand world religion is not exempt from this plague. Examples of Christian terrorism include Eric Robert Rudolph, linked to the 1996 bombing of the Atlanta Olympic Games, as well as abortion clinic bombings in Birmingham, Alabama and Atlanta, Georgia, and the bombing of a lesbian bar also in Atlanta. Rudolph, who is still being sought by federal authorities, is likely influenced by heretical and racist “Christian” Identity teachings.[9]9 Identity provides an ideological foundation for a variety of other groups, including Aryan Nations, Posse Comitatus, and likely influenced Timothy McVeigh, convicted and executed for bombing the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City. McVeigh is known to have visited Elohim City, an Identity compound, and to have read from The Turner Diaries, a fictional book that, though not claiming to be Christian, has been used to promote Identity conspiracy theories that have led to religious terrorist violence. The Turner Diaries was written by William Pierce, who once wrote for the American Nazi Party.

In addition to Rudolph, McVeigh, and radical anti-abortionist terrorists, Christianity also struggles with the ongoing violence between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. Although many question whether this struggle involves political differences rather than religious, it cannot be denied that both sides in this struggle have committed acts of murder and destruction in the name of God.


Islamic terrorism is the type most people naturally think of when the subject comes to mind. Prior to the September 11 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, as well as the attack on the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen, all linked to Osama bin Laden, were notable examples of Islamic terrorism. Osama bin Laden is affiliated with a radical form of Islam known as Wahhabism. Wahhabi Islam began as an Islamic revivalist movement in the eighteenth century. Today it represents a radical movement of Islam that is promoted around the world primarily through Saudi Arabia. In addition to the radical Wahhabi background, bin Laden also had ties to the al-Qaeda terrorist network, and the Taliban movement, which served as the governing authority in Afghanistan. The Taliban are not associated with Wahhabi, but do represent a very strict and radical form of Sunni Islam, one of the main sects of this world religion.

Other examples of Islamic terrorism include the previous World Trade Center bombing in 1993 credited to Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman, Hamas suicide bombers, Islamic Jihad, various Palestinian organizations such as Hizbollah, and numerous other Islamic terrorist groups.


In a discussion of Jewish terrorism we should note that such acts of violence have not always been in response to Islamic terrorism against Israelis. Radical Jewish activists have been involved in proactive attacks against Muslim officials and civilians, as in the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 by Yigan Amir, and the attack at the Tomb of the Patriarchs by Dr. Baruch Goldstein in 1994. In both cases the perpetrators cited divine callings and theological justification for their killing.

Sikhism and Hinduism

In 1984 Beant Singh, a Sikh militant, murdered India’s prime minister, Indira Gandhi. Several years later in 1995 a massive explosion killed India’s chief minister. Investigators later identified the perpetrators as members of the Babbar Khalsa, a deadly guerilla movement active in Punjab. The last several decades have seen increased violence and terrorism in the struggle between Sikhs and Hindus. This violence is not likely to diminish in the near future.

New Religions

Not only have the major world religions been plagued by the scourge of religious terrorism, new religious movements, often viewed as heretical offshoots or “cults” by their “parent” religions, have engaged in terrorism as well.

One notable example comes in the form of followers of the late Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (later known as Osho) in The Dalles, Oregon. In 1984, 750 people became sick after eating in restaurants after Rajneesh ordered his followers to spread the salmonella bacteria in order to influence local elections. The event was thought to only be a trial run for a much larger attack, possibly on the city’s water supplies. It was the largest outbreak of food borne disease in the U.S. that year.[10]10

Another startling example was the 1995 poison gas attack on a Japanese subway by members of Aum Shinrikyo (now known as Aleph). This attack used deadly sarin nerve gas, which killed 12 people and injured more than 5,000. The Aum attack was the first mass-scale chemical terrorist attack. In addition to its chemical weapons, the group built a vast arsenal of biochemical, biological, and conventional weapons, including mustard gas, anthrax, botulism, Q-fever, and TNT. Aum was fascinated by technology, and even experimented with seismic weapons designed to trigger cataclysmic earthquakes in Japan. While the group’s leaders, and those who perpetrated the attacks, are currently undergoing trial in Japan, the group is still in existence, has expanded its membership in Japan and Russia, and has shorn up its financial stability through various business ventures. Group leaders have also recently been charged with attempting to stage additional terrorist attacks to force the Japanese government to free Shoko Ashara, Aum/Aleph’s leader. The U.S. State Department includes Aum/Aleph on its list of foreign terrorist organizations.[11]11

While these new religions acted in the past, and while Aum/Aleph should be watched in the future, other groups should be closely monitored, including two black supremacist groups in the U.S.

Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam has long been associated with racist rhetoric and militant tendencies. Although Farrakhan has softened his rhetoric in recent years after his struggles with prostate cancer, and has made moves toward orthodox Sunni Islam that preaches universal brotherhood regardless of race, the Nation’s past affiliations give cause for concern. Farrakhan has prophesied doom for white America, and has called for the establishment of a separate black territory in the U.S. He has ties to a radical, black Muslim street gang in Chicago, El Rukn, and maintains close ties with international terrorist state leaders Mu’ammar Qadhafi and Yasar Arafat. Interestingly, Farrakhan has also met secretly with radical white supremacist groups.[12]12

The other black supremacist group is Nation of Yahweh, founded by Hulon Mitchell, Jr. (known in the group as Yahweh ben Yahweh, meaning “God, Son of God”). Until his recent release from prison, Mitchell was serving time for a murder conspiracy conviction stemming from a 1986 incident when Mitchell ordered the fire-bombing of a neighborhood. He was also found guilty of sending members of his group as “death angels” to kill whites and blacks who interfered with his business activities. While Mitchell is not permitted to meet with members of his group as part of his parole requirements, he still exercises strong control and loyalty that recently manifested itself in dangerous rhetoric. At a group conference in Montreal in October 2001, group members recited a pledge of allegiance to Mitchell, and shouted their proclamations of being ready to “die for Yahweh…kill for Yahweh.” Mitchell’s followers see him as a persecuted Messiah and believe the September 11 attacks were divine retribution for the unjust incarceration of “the great God Yahweh ben Yahweh.” When a female attendee of the conference emphasized Yahweh’s love for all people, a male elder reminded her of the need to “get rid of the deceivers.”[13]13

Why They Kill

How are we to explain acts of religious terrorism? One explanation holds that terrorists are pure incarnations of evil who hate American ideals of freedom. Another explanation is that terrorists have been brainwashed. How else can we explain such acts of immorality and cruelty?

While the explanations offered above contain elements of the truth, they are probably not the best explanations for either the rise of religious terrorism or why terrorists commit unthinkable acts of violence. Surely terrorists commit acts of evil, and to some extent are evil in their hatred for other human beings who do not share their cause, but they are average human beings who are motivated, somehow, to commit acts of violence with the claim of divine sanction. The notion that they hate freedom also seems to be an overstatement because they do believe in some form of freedom, at least for themselves and their peoples. As to the possibility of brainwashing, while terrorists may be indoctrinated in a particular worldview or ideology, the brainwashing hypothesis neglects the complexities involved in conversion to a radical religious orientation that results in terrorist acts. Understanding why people kill in the name of God is a complex subject that resists simple explanations.

What then leads a ten-year-old boy to appear in a terrorist recruiting video featuring an al-Qaeda training camp under the direction of bin Laden? What leads a highly educated Japanese scientist to create chemical and biological weapons to be used on civilians by Aum/Aleph? Or what would so motivate American citizens that they would see the U.S. government as the supreme enemy in a struggle climaxing in a racial war where Christian patriots become victorious?

Juergensmeyer’s research and analysis provides us with some insights that may provide answers to these questions.[14]14 After interviewing terrorist leaders from a number of different groups an interesting picture emerged. Despite their differing religious foundations, these acts of terrorist violence appear to have common themes and patterns that provide us with a convincing explanation for why religious terrorists kill in the name of God. Juergensmeyer sees a development in a marginalized religious group’s thinking that transforms it into a religious terrorist group. We can summarize his thinking on the steps of this progression:

Cosmic war

As the members of the terrorist group feel more and more threatened by its perceived enemies, usually enemies with greater political and military might than the terrorist group, the real-world struggle begins to take on a new, transcendental symbolism. The group’s religious ideology transforms the conception of the struggle to where it assumes cosmic dimensions. The group’s struggle is then seen as part of an ongoing battle between the forces of good versus evil. Where outsiders see a terrorist act insiders see part of a cosmic drama or holy war. This conception of cosmic warfare provides hope and motivation for terrorists fighting a more powerful foe.

Scriptural imagery

This conception of cosmic war is supported with divine warfare imagery from various sacred texts of Scripture within the group. Christian patriots may appeal to a biblical text which says that “The LORD is a warrior” (Exod. 15:3, NASB), to the Turner Diaries or the anti-Semitic work The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. Hindus may turn to warfare imagery in various Hindu scriptures. Regardless of whether the text is an actual piece of scripture within their religious tradition, or simply functions as an authoritative text, the document provides religious symbolism for acts of divine warfare.

Moral justification

Once a religious terrorist group sees its struggle as a part of cosmic warfare, members of the group envision themselves as holy warriors engaged in battle. Their role in battle is symbolized by various scriptural or authoritative imagery that confirms for them the nature of the divine struggle. The ideology then provides the appropriate moral justification for violent acts against civilians who would not ordinarily be seen as combatants and appropriate targets for destruction. The moral justification provided by the ideology of religious terrorists explains the rising death tolls and the deliberate carnage perpetrated by religious terrorist groups. With this background of moral justification for holy war, religious terrorist groups are more likely to consider the use of weapons of mass destruction.

Martyrs and demons

Finally, with moral justification for violence the terrorists see themselves and their enemies in a new light. Suicide terrorists become martyrs, sacrificial victims, and heroes in the divine cause. Civilian populations of the enemy are dehumanized and become demons, targets deserving of destruction as part of a greater evil. Such dehumanization then facilitates even greater acts of violence that is further legitimized by the religious terrorist’s worldview.

How Should We Respond?

The events of September 11 changed America and the world. We can no longer assume that terrorist violence is a problem overseas that we watch on the news in our living rooms. Terrorist groups increasingly view America as the embodiment of evil. We need to learn to live with terrorism, do our best to prevent its violence, and respond appropriately as a culturally and religiously diverse culture. Responding to terrorism will involve many elements including the following:

  1. Recognize terrorism’s existence. As we have experienced, terrorism is now an American problem. Even after the destruction of the al-Qaeda network America will face a number of international and domestic terrorist threats. With short American attention spans, maintaining our recognition and awareness of this threat is vital.

  2. Be alert to your surroundings. Wherever you are be aware of circumstances around you. Report any suspicious activity or persons to the appropriate authorities. The need for alertness will need to be balanced with living a normal life. Living in fear and paranoia of terrorism plays into the goals of terrorist groups. Be alert, but live your life as you did before September 11.

  3. Distinguish terrorists from the religion they claim to represent. Christians may rightly protest that the terrorism of Timothy McVeigh at Oklahoma City, or the bombings of Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland do not represent the religion of Christianity. This is true. But millions of Muslims around the world would raise the same objections concerning Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. Juergensmeyer has said, “Osama bin Laden is to Islam [what] Timothy McVeigh is to Christianity.” We must remember that every religion has its extremists, and we must be careful to distinguish between a terrorist and the religion that they claim provides the justification for their violence.

A Disquieting Future

After surveying international terrorism Bruce Hoffman concludes his assessment, as we conclude our study, with a warning that needs to be remembered:

The growth of religious terrorism and its emergence in recent years as a driving force behind the increasing lethality of international terrorism shatters some of our most basic assumptions about terrorists and the violence they commit…In sum, compelling new motives, notably those associated with religious terrorism, coupled with increased access to critical information and key components, notably involving [weapons of mass destruction], leading to enhanced terrorist capabilities, could portend an even bloodier and more destructive era of violence ahead than any we have seen before.[15]15

[1]1 “Bin Laden on tape: Attacks ‘benefited Islam greatly,’” http://www.cnn.com/2001/US/12/13/ret.bin.laden.videotape/index.html.

[2]2 Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 12. He is also credited with the use of the term “cultures of violence.”

[3]3 Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God, 5.

[4]4 Bruce Hoffman, Inside Terrorism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 43.

[5]5 Ibid., 88-89.

[6]6 Bruce Hoffman, “Old Madness, New Methods,” RAND Review/Winter 1998-99, 13.

[7]7 Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God, 6.

[8]8 Bruce Hoffman, “’Holy Terror:’ The Implications of Terrorism Motivated by a Religious Imperative” (RAND, 1993), 2.

[9]9 Watchman Fellowship’s Profile on Identity can be downloaded from the Internet at http://www.watchman.org/profileident.htm.

[10]10 “Bioterrorism is next big threat, expert warns,” The Oregonian, March 11, 1998. See also Thomas J. Torok, MD, et. al., Journal of the American Medical Association (1997), 278:389-395.

[11]11 Patterns of Global Terrorism: 1997, Department of State Publication 10535, Released April 1998.

[12]12 Vibert L. White, Jr., Inside the Nation of Islam: A Historical and Personal Testimony By a Black Muslim (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001).

[13]13 Followers of Yahweh reemerge in Canada,” Miami Herald online, October 15, 2001, http://www.miami.com.

[14]14 Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God, chapters 7-11.

[15]15 Bruce Hoffman, Inside Terrorism, 204-205.