That Word Terrorist, and What Terrorists Say about It

By: Dr. Christopher C. Harmon,
Daniel K. Inouye, Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies

Prepare what force you can and cavalry to terrorize the enemies of God and your enemies.1

Armed with this Qur'anic verse, Karim Bourti, a member of the transnational Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) in North Africa, explained his pride in considering himself "a Muslim terrorist," saying he "loves" the model terrorist of this new century.2 "All those who are sincere with Allah support Osama Bin Laden. Any Muslim who doesn't love Bin Laden has hypocrisy in his heart."

Algerian by birth, Bourti became a naturalized citizen of France in 2000 and spent years organizing international jihad from Paris, until he was stripped of his French citizenship in 2006. He told a journalist at length about his aggressive "mission to send young Muslims living in France to get killed abroad," for which he collected thousands of francs, and later euros, at mosques or over the phone. He lectured young men on emulating the courage of those fighting in Chechnya and Palestine. He praised "martyrdom operations"—otherwise known as mass homicide bombings. His personal successes include recruiting Hervé Djamel Loiseau and Brahim Yadel, both of whom trained in the al Farouk camp in Afghanistan run by Osama bin Laden. Loiseau died in the Tora Bora mountains in the early weeks of the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan, and Yadel landed in Guantanamo Bay detention.

Karim Bourti is an archetype of Islamist terrorism in our times: geographically deracinated but strongly ideological; an Algerian who plotted against his own government as well as that of his host country, France; a Muslim who schemed to kill Muslim clerics and politicians; and a member of the GSPC, which, like many disparate small Sunni groups, was later folded into al Qaeda. Bourti is murderous, but he claims to kill for "idealistic" reasons. He lived comfortably in the open, liberal democracy of France but was part of a clandestine organization that was working to wreck it. He came to France as a refugee from a war-torn North African country and as a citizen was protected by French police, yet he loathed France for being too secular and too supportive of the Algerian government and for siding "too closely with the Americans."3

Some social scientists and theorists believe the use of the word terrorism reflects only the prejudices and self-interested opinions of "establishment" elites and Westerners. But Bourti is a proud terrorist who offered the opinions quoted above to an Algerian journalist, whom he mistook for an ally. Everything he said confirms the profound seriousness of the ideas behind terrorist acts and the global fight against international terrorism. Within one generation, our world has seen millennium bomb plots; the 9/11 attacks; devastating bombings in Ankara, Bali, and Casablanca; well-sequenced multiple explosions on transit systems in Britain and Spain; and "complex attacks" in which infantry tactics were used against the innocent in public places such as Mumbai, or were combined with improvised explosive devices, as is frequently done in Iraq.

The calculation required to accomplish all such killings is sometimes openly betrayed in the speech that frames terrorists' assaults. Terrorists' own words belie the pious excuses they typically offer for their actions. Yet hardly anyone who is studying the phenomenon of twenty-first-century terrorism has noticed this disjunction.4 Even many scholars commonly repeat the dismissive cliché that "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." Certain terrorism analysts think it's a safe assertion that no sub-state actor would ever accept the label terrorist for himself. But some of these actors embrace the label, and we should recognize that their admissions are important.

Fourteen issues of the al Qaeda magazine Inspire appeared between 2010 and 2015, offering readers insight into the organization's purposes and strategies. Inspire's editors flagrantly deploy the very words (terrorist and terrorism) that some mainstream English-language media outlets discourage or forbid their own writers from using, to avoid inflaming readers. Qur'anic verses, such as the earlier quote beloved by Karim Bourti, and teachings relevant to terrorists from lesser sources in Islam appear throughout Inspire's pages. Such teachings may take the narrow argumentative line of Osama bin Laden, that "good terrorism" is readily distinguished from "bad terrorism" by the virtuous intentions of the jihadi perpetrators. This argument is also made in issue 12 (November 2015) of the Islamic State's magazine Dabiq.5

The Inspire editors present whole pages of exhortations to terrorism written by Abu Musab al-Suri, a deep student of Islamist militancy who is known primarily through his internet presence. His encyclopedic study The Call to Global Islamic Resistance argues, for example, that even a bomber not seeking salvation may still be praised, for "he terrorizes the enemy; that is good too, because this is the best of all spites and has benefits for Muslims."6 After its initial issues, Inspire began saluting itself and its own fearless approach to political struggle by claiming to have inspired specific incidences of terrorism. For example, the September 2015 issue offers an article on "Remembering Boston" and "the youth who terrorized the disbelievers" in their American homeland, referring to the two Tsarnaev brothers who carried out the bombing.7 The same issue also trumpets the death of a cartoonist named on Inspire's earlier "wanted" lists.8 From the standpoint of criminal law or just common sense, that is known as a confession!

In revolution or in any conflict, however rightful the cause, the intentional abuse of the innocent is reprehensible and is punishable under international humanitarian law and under several clear Security Council resolutions such as 1373 (2001).9 Within any legitimate polity during peacetime, if the people were to condone acts of terrorism done on their behalf, they would have to abandon moral logic and humanity and surrender the public space meant for sane debate and healthy disagreement in politics.10 But terrorists choose the weapon of fear purposefully, knowing that the power to shock is one they want to wield. If we listen, we often hear the killers themselves saying—sometimes quietly, sometimes boldly—that they understand this tool of terrorism, they respect its power, and they rely on it to achieve their goals. Although we may not trust terrorists' words, the words themselves often belie the notion that terrorism is a meaningless term.

Early Uses of the Term Terrorist

Arguments in favor of terrorism had been developed by nineteenth-century European anarchists, many of whom despised religion. The highly moralistic Russian anarchist Alexei Petrovich Kropotkin wanted attacks to focus on infamous despots and known torturers among the police. But even he accepted the bold and shocking acts of "insanity" carried out by other anarchists, because the ideas of these "madmen" would seep into other men's minds and win converts to the anarchist cause.11 Assassinations won praise for being destabilizing. Sergey Nechaev's Catechism of the Revolutionist (1869) called for targeting the "cleverest and most energetic figures" in government "to shatter its strength."12 He warned against pity while praising "merciless destruction." In 1880, while in Geneva, Russian revolutionary Nikolai Morozov published an exhortation to "terroristic revolution."13 His praise of terrorism noted "this advantage that it can act unexpectedly and find means and ways which no one anticipates. … All that the terroristic struggle really needs is a small number of people and large material means." Still other anarchists of that era mocked any discrimination in the selection of targets and approved of all violence, including petty crime, for the damage it could do to society generally.14 All acts were "good" if they helped to make governance impossible—the strategic goal of anarchism. A German immigrant to America, Johannes Most, was a dynamite enthusiast and relished the fear that explosions could incite in people. He not only preached in favor of such attacks for years but also published a newspaper, Freiheit (Freedom), in which he called on fellow anarchists to carry them out. One 1884 article by Most was simply titled "Advice for Terrorists."15

Perhaps the single most influential book in modern terrorism studies is Alistair Horne's A Savage War of Peace: Algeria, 1954–1962.16 In it, Horne explains how moderate Algerian nationalists were ignored, used, or misused by hardliners in the National Liberation Front (FLN), the main opposition group. The group began its campaign to expel the French colonial regime in Algeria through politics and guerrilla warfare against the French security forces, both of which can be seen as legitimate avenues in the context of anti-colonial revolution. The FLN also used limited acts of terrorism against certain loyalist Algerians. Within two years of the conflict's outbreak, however, a more muscular position was staked out by fierce revolutionaries such as Abane Ramdane, who relished the slogan, "One corpse in a [dinner] jacket is always worth more than 20 in uniform."17 That slogan embodies a strategy adopted by the FLN that broke the laws of warfare and led directly to infamous plastique (IED) attacks on popular cafés and the bombing of a dance hall that left girls and boys with missing legs lying on a burning floor. When psychoanalyst and FLN propagandist Frantz Fanon wrote essays defending such shocking violence, illegitimate belligerents everywhere were encouraged.18 Some came to Algiers from abroad in 1962 for the FLN victory celebrations at the end of the war.

Decisions by Muslim extremists to use purposeful cruelty against civilians must not be confused with mainstream Islamic faith. Algeria is a Muslim nation, but the FLN were, above all, nationalists, and some members were secular. The strenuously religious cadres among them were either marginalized or absorbed.

Terrorism in the Modern Era

In the mid-twentieth century, exhortations to terrorism came from a different ideological center. Brazilian Marxist Carlos Marighella wrote his Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla in 1969, in which he argued for terrorist acts, including bank robberies, to shake "capitalism's nerve system."19 Marighella used the word terrorismo to promote acts of violence as a means to effect "irreparable loss against the enemy." Acts of terror, he wrote, should be executed with "the greatest cold-bloodedness." He concluded, "Terrorism is an arm the revolutionary can never relinquish."20 Marighella died in a shootout with police later the same year. But his manual became celebrated, widely translated, and deeply influential.

Osama bin Laden rarely used the word terrorism unless it was in an accusation against others. He declared that Western media terrorize their own consumers, implanting fear and helplessness.21 Yet even bin Laden, in a video he made months after the attacks against American targets on 9/11, characterized these as "benevolent terrorism"22 intended to force the United States to abandon Israel. In a message to Taliban leader Mullah Omar that was found on an al Qaeda computer in Afghanistan, bin Laden crowed that most Americans were suffering psychological problems following the attacks on their cities.

The fatwa that bin Laden issued on 23 February 1998 calling for jihad against Jews and Westerners is now infamous, but little attention was paid to it at the time of publication. The fatwa was signed by an international array of six Muslim terrorist leaders, including the head of the Egyptian group Al Jihad, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who now leads al Qaeda. The document claimed religious inspiration for bin Laden's order, which repudiated the established global practice of seeking to limit fighting to declared belligerents: "The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies—civilians and military—is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country."23 In a propaganda statement he delivered three months later, titled "The Nuclear Bomb of Islam," bin Laden declared that "it is the duty of the Muslims to prepare as much force as possible to terrorize the enemies of God."24

Terrorism is also the explicit objective of two different al Qaeda training manuals discovered in the years prior to the 9/11 attacks. The first, found in the early 1990s, filled 11 volumes. Along with a flood of pages on tradecraft, there was an exhortation to practitioners to assassinate prominent Arab leaders and to kill as many as possible in Western lands, at events such as Christmas gatherings. Institutions, clubs, and hospitals in Jewish communities should be carefully chosen to cause as many deaths as possible. A second manual consisting of about 180 pages was found in Manchester, England, in May 2000.25 It denounces "apostate" Arab rulers, Jews, and others; repeatedly urges violent actions to create fear; and advises on such means as poison and explosives, among other weapons. Explicitly mocking "Socratic debates [and] Platonic ideals," the manual exhorts "the ideals of assassination, bombing, and destruction." It claims that holy text and commentary support this jihad, including this Qur'anic passage: "Strike terror into the enemies of Allah and your enemies, and others besides whom ye may not know, but whom Allah doth know."26

While doubts remain about Ramzi Ahmed Yousef's ties to al Qaeda, many analysts believe he was acting for the then five-year-old organization when he directed the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City. A truck bomb, placed in the parking garage under one tower, was intended to topple that tower against the other. While it failed to accomplish that goal, six people were killed, 1,000 were injured, and as late as 2006, thousands of others were reported to have developed respiratory diseases from the blast. At his hearing, Yousef boasted: "Yes, I am a terrorist and I am proud of it." That line was re-quoted in a feature story on Yousef in Inspire.27

Within the larger international militant Islamist community, there are other confreres and allies just as outspoken as Yousef. One is a Syrian-born Londoner named Omar Bakri Muhammad, who is the founder of the city's branch of Hizb ut-Tahrir (the Islamic Liberation Party). He had warned of a big al Qaeda operation in London a year before the 7 July 2005 bombing of four London subway trains (the attack now known as 7/7). In an interview with a Portuguese magazine, Bakri extolled terrorism as a tool.

We don't make a distinction between civilians and noncivilians, innocents and nonbelievers. Only between Muslims and nonbelievers. And the life of a nonbeliever has no value. … We don't say, ‘I'm sorry, it was a mistake.' We say ‘You deserved it.' We assume the purpose is to kill as many people as possible, to spread the terror [to] people in the West. … Terror is the language of the 21st century. If I want something, I terrorize you to achieve it.28

Rabei Osman Sayed Ahmed, an Egyptian extremist who was tried in Italy in 2006, allegedly kept and shared extensive video and audio files of jihadi materials, including a song with the lyrics: "We are terrorists, we want to make it known to the world, from West to East that we are terrorists, because terrorism, as a verse of the Qur'an says, is a thing approved by God."29 Another file, a "Poem for Jihadists," merely repeated again and again, "I am a terrorist; I am a terrorist."30 Another example of a proud sponsor of terrorism is Dr. Yusuf Abdullah Al-Qaradawi, a bank manager and shareholder in the bank Al Taqwa. Interviewed in 1999 by the Palestine Times, Al-Qaradawi advocated operations in which a "Muslim fighter turns himself or herself into a human bomb that casts terror in the hearts of the enemy."31 He called for financial and moral support for such acts.32


Some in the counterterrorism community have a profound analytical problem because they cannot understand the open advocacy of attacks on the innocent in attempts to create a general condition of fear. The word terrorism is no mere label but the description of a reality. Understanding what extremist Islamic terrorists tell us is part of understanding their strategies. If we can do that, we will understand much more about what their regime may be like should they succeed in their quest for a global caliphate. It is always possible that these terrorists will "reform" once in power and turn to governance. But it is equally possible that their terrorism against actual and perceived opponents will only get worse, as happened in the case of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's ISIS thugs boast of terrorizing their enemies—foreign and domestic—in order to maintain rule in the "caliphate." When ISIS's chief spokesman, Abu Mohammed al Adnani, railed at length against Shi'a Muslims, Yazidis, Christians, Jews, and others in an address he gave on 22 September 2014, he sounded like a fascist orator of the 1930s.33 It was obvious that his words were meant to justify the continuous murders, maimings, and menacing ISIS was carrying out against members of these groups in the territories it controlled. Self-satisfaction about "terrorizing" and "humiliating" enemies drips off the full-color pages of Dabiq, the disturbing ISIS magazine. After the attacks in Paris in November 2015, the e-zine's cover story was "Just Terror"—terrorism that is just.34 The story's text lauded terrorism for Allah's sake and demanded credit for the Paris attacks and the downing of a Russian passenger jet over Egypt in October.

Terrorism, as the words of perpetrators remind us, is about demonstrating power. It is a strategy for wielding power in politics, even when religious, anarchistic, or other motives are proclaimed more loudly. The terrorists' own words should be prompts to our global community: vicious and inhumane approaches to politics must always be avoided, deterred, and countered with reasonable human ideals. ²

About the Author(s):

Dr. Christopher C. Harmon is on the faculty of the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies.

  1. For several translations of the verse this sentence comes from, see "Compared Translations of the Meaning of the Quran—8:60: al-Anfal—The Spoils of War": back up
  2. Bourti's quotes and the information on Bourti in this and following paragraph are from Mohamed Sifaoui, Inside Al Qaeda: How I Infiltrated the World's Deadliest Terrorist Organization, trans. George Miller (New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 2003), 70–73. Originally published as Mes "frères" assassins: Comment j'ai infiltré une cellule d'Al-Qaida (Paris: Le Cherche Midi, 2003).go back up
  3. Loathed is apparently not too strong a word: "Hatred of France is the unifying thread running through the testimonials" of the jihadi inmates interviewed by Farhad Khosrokhavar, an eminent French social scientist, for his book When Al Qaeda Talks: Testimonials from Behind Bars (Paris: Grasset, 2006). See also John Rosenthal, "The French Path to Jihad," Policy Review 139 (October/November 2006): 39–59. These attitudes are particularly chilling in light of the January 2015 and November 2015 mass murders in Paris.go back up
  4. Much of this article is adapted from the preface to my book Terrorism Today, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2008). I have continued to collect and analyze examples of how terrorists admit that the word applies to themselves. I was unaware of anyone else writing at length about this topic until 2011, when Alex P. Schmid devoted some paragraphs to this phenomenon in his Routledge Handbook of Terrorism Research (New York: Routledge, 2011). I am obliged to Dr. David Tucker for commenting on a draft of the present article for CTX. go back up
  5. "Just Terror," Dabiq, no. 12 (November 2015).go back up
  6. The Call, heavily edited for length by Jim Lacey, appears in English as A Terrorist's Call to Global Jihad: Deciphering Abu Musab Al-Suri's Islamic Jihad Manifesto (Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2008), 179. Other exhortations to terrorism by Al Suri were selected for publication in issues 2 and 5 of Inspire.go back up
  7. "Assassination Operations," Inspire, no. 14 (September 2015).go back up
  8. Ibid., 7, 35–37. The issue also offers provocations to assassinate anti-black racists in the United States at the conclusion of the magazine's six-page article on "The Blacks in America."go back up
  9. United Nations Security Council, Resolution 1373, 28 September 2001: back up
  10. See Christopher C. Harmon, "Terrorism: A Matter for Moral Judgment," Terrorism and Political Violence 4, no. 1 (Spring 1992): 1–21. go back up
  11. The quotations and information in this paragraph may be found within the original documents, reprinted in part in Walter Laqueur and Yonah Alexander, The Terrorism Reader: A Historical Anthology (New York: Meridian, 1987). The original documents and their locations within Laqueur and Alexander's The Terrorism Reader are provided in subsequent notes. This volume, revised and reissued in 1991 by Penguin, remains one of the most useful collections of primary sources available to our field. See also the "Terrorism" section of Bibliographies in Military Studies, ed. Dennis Showalter (New York: Oxford University Press, April 2014): back up
  12. Sergey Nechaev, Catechism of the Revolutionist [1869], excerpted from Michael Confino, Daughter of a Revolutionary: Natalie Herzen and the Bakunin-Nechayev Circle (London: Alcove Press, 1974); repr. in Laqueur and Alexander, The Terrorism Reader, 68–72.go back up
  13. Nikolai Morosov, "The Terrorist Struggle" [1880], excerpted from Feliks Gross, Violence in Politics (The Hague: Mouton & Co, 1972); repr. in Laqueur and Alexander, The Terrorism Reader, 72–78.go back up
  14. On the similarities between criminality and anarchist activity, see Anna Geifman, Thou Shalt Kill: Revolutionary Terrorism in Russia, 1894–1917 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993). Pages 137, 141, and 146 include writings by certain anarchists who use the word terrorist to describe themselves.go back up
  15. Johannes Most, "Advice for Terrorists," Freiheit, 13 September 1884; repr. Laqueur and Alexander, The Terrorism Reader, 100–8.go back up
  16. Alistair Horne, A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962 (New York: Viking, 1977).go back up
  17. Ibid., 132, 184–87. go back up
  18. Editor's note: Dr. Harmon, with coauthor Paula Holmes-Eber, wrote at greater length about the use of terrorism as a tactic in the Algerian conflict in his article "Women in Terrorist Undergrounds," CTX 4, no. 4 (November 2014): back up
  19. Carlos Marighella, Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla [June 1969], Adelphi Papers 79, ed. Robert Moss (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 1971). See pages 36–37 on "Terrorism" and "The War of Nerves." A different edition (Vancouver, Canada: Pulp Press, 1974) includes an additional section, "By Way of Introduction," that also mentions terrorism with approval. The translators are not named in either version.go back up
  20. Ibid. go back up
  21. See the transcript of an interview with Osama bin Laden, Frontline, May 1998: back up
  22. Oliver Burkeman, "New Video Shows Bin Laden Alive," Guardian, 27 December 2001. go back up
  23. "Text of World Islamic Front's Statement Urging Jihad against Jews and Crusaders," Al-Quds al'Arabi (Arabic-language newspaper in London), 23 February 1998, trans. Foreign Broadcast Information Service. Besides al-Zawahiri, the five other signatories are Osama bin Laden; Abu-Yasir Rifa'I Ahmad Taha, a leader of the [Egyptian] Islamic Group; Shaykh Mir Hamzah, secretary of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan; and Fazlul Rahman. Rahman was described as the emir of the Jihad Movement in Bangladesh, but scholars, reporters, and al Qaeda analysts seem unable to establish with certitude who he is and whether he remains alive. go back up
  24. Quoted in the indictment of Osama bin Laden, Muhammad Atef, et al., (for bombings of US embassies in East Africa), U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, 6 November 1998: 32.go back up
  25. "Declaration of Jihad against the Country's Tyrants: Military Series," an undated manual found in an al Qaeda safe house, translated by US authorities, and used in the trials of suspected al Qaeda members for bombings. Subsequently published as The Al Qaeda Training Manual, ed. Jerrold Post (Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala.: US Air Force Counterproliferation Center, 2004). I have used this manual frequently in classes I teach on terrorism.go back up
  26. Al Qaeda Training Manual, 6. This quotation appears to be a different translation of the same Qur'anic passage cited by terrorist Karim Bourti earlier in the article. go back up
  27. Inspire, no. 13 (Winter 2014). Page 41 carries a Ramzi Yousef profile and quotation. go back up
  28. Bakri continued: "The word ‘terrorism' is not new among Muslims. Muhammad said: ‘I am the prophet who laughs when he's killing the enemy.' It is not only a question of killing. It's laughing while we are killing." These quotations first appeared in Publico and were reprinted in Harper's Magazine in July 2004. A detailed examination of Bakri's life and work can be seen at go back up
  29. Elaine Sciolino, "From Tapes, a Chilling Voice of Islamic Radicalism in Europe," New York Times, 18 November 2005: back up
  30. Ibid.go back up
  31. Terrorist Threats to the United States: Hearing before the Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims of the Committee on the Judiciary House of Representatives, 106th Congress (26 January 2000), 26: back up
  32. Ibid.go back up
  33. Yara Bayoumy, "Isis Urges More Attacks on Western ‘Disbelievers,'" Independent, 22 September 2014: go back up
  34. "Just Terror," Dabiq, no. 12 (November 2015).go back up
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