The large-scale bombing of civilian targets became part of warfare during the Second World War. Early in the War both Britain and Germany refused to attack civilian targets. Then, in May 1940, as a result of a communications error, the Luftwaffe bombed Rotterdam, killing about 1,000. The next day British sent 100 bombers to attack the Ruhr. And, so, the terror escalated.
But the Allied response was far beyond anything done by Germany. The British and American bombing of Dresden alone killed an estimated 135,000 – twice the number of British civilians killed in the entire six years of the War. Germany produced a total of only 172 strategic bombers compared to the Allies 7,238. And from 1940, their primary mission was night attacks on factories and houses.
Following the devastating raid on Cologne by 1,000 Allied bombers, Goebbels, who believed that American Jews were responsible for the policy of civilian bombing, announced “the mass extermination of Jews in reprisal”. And, again, the terror escalated.
The American bombing of Japan was just as horrific as the bombing of Germany. One raid alone on Tokyo killed 100,000 people and injured a million. Eventually 95 percent of Tokyo’s residential areas were destroyed. This “terrorism” was brought to a new height with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing a total of 155,000 – the primary reason for which was not to force the surrender of Japan, which was already inevitable, but to force it before Russia could get into a position to challenge American domination of the Far East by entering the War against Japan, which it was due to do two days later.
In many Muslim’s view, it is not only bombing that should be seen as “terrorism”. For example, the American sanctions on Iraq were claimed to have led to the deaths of a million innocent children.
They also sees America’s support of Israel as implicating it in Israeli terrorist activities, such as the Shabra and Shatila massacre. (In 1982, Israeli troops sealed off Palestinian refugee camps at Shabra and Shatila in Lebanon while Lebanese Phalangist militia, funded and armed by Israel, slaughtered possibly 3,500 of the refugees – mainly old men, women and children.)
Many Muslims, believes that Allah ordered Muslims to “purify” their lands of non-believers. This is especially true of the Muslim “Holy Land” of Saudi Arabia where the two holy cities of Mecca of Medina lie.
In defiance of these feelings, at the time of the Gulf War, America sent 500,000 troops to the region and based most of them in Saudi Arabia. Many American troops remain there. In the eyes of many Muslims, this is equivalent to, say, half a million Arab troops being stationed in the Vatican. Even if the Pope had invited them to be there, this would outrage many Christians.
The presence of American troops is seen as equivalent to the invasion of the Muslim lands by the Crusaders in the Middle Ages. Bin Laden, for example, is part of an alliance called the “International Islamic Front for the Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders” which aims to rouse Muslims to a jihad (holy war) to force the Jews and “crusaders” from their lands.
He sees America’s willingness to spend billions on occupying the Muslim Holy Lands and supporting Israeli interests there, when many in America are homeless or living in poverty, as demonstrating Jewish power in the American government.
The comparison with the Crusades can be extended to the most feared Muslim fighters of the Middle Ages – the Assassins. These were members of a fanatical, and heretical, sect who had a set of beliefs, which shed light on todays suicide bombers who the West find it so difficult to understand.
In 1096, a group in Persia refused to acknowledge the authority of the newly appointed Caliph of Cairo and, instead supported his brother, Nizar. These “Nizari” were led by Hasan-i Sabbah who established a mountain fortress and developed a new teaching, which spread through Persia and Syria. Among his followers were a group of fanatical murderers known as Assassins who terrorised the Muslim world for over two hundred years. They were wiped out in Persia by the Mongols in about 1256 and by the Egyptians in Syria. Scattered groups survived in various places including Punjab (now Pakistan), Afghanistan and Northern Syria.
The Assassins struck terror among the Crusaders although, in fact, they caused hardly any casualties. Hasan-I Sabah passed into European folklore as “The Old Man of the Mountain”. Even Marco Polo speaks of them:
“The Old Man kept at his court such boys of twelve years old as seemed to him destined to become courageous men. When the Old Man sent them into the garden in groups of four, ten or twenty, he gave them hashish to drink. …
And when the Old Man wished to kill someone, he would take him and say: ‘Go and do this thing. I do this because I want to make you return to paradise’. And the assassins go and perform the deed willingly.”
Although written over 700 years ago, this has such echoes with recent events that it is worth looking at the beliefs of the Assassins that led them to such actions.
(It must be understood that, except in one brief period, these beliefs, which contain elements of ancient Persian theology, have always been considered heretical and has been persecuted by official Islam.)
The Assassins were Isma’ilis. Isma’ilis believe that history is divided into seven periods. Each period begins with a prophet and each prophet is followed by an interpreter who reveals the true secret meaning of the prophet’s teachings to a select band of initiates. The first six prophets were Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Mohammed. Their interpreters were Seth, Shem, Isaac, Aaron, Peter and Ali. The seventh prophet was Muhammed ibn Isma’il, who did not die in the 8th century, as history tells, but went into hiding and will return as the Mahdi to begin a new era in which the old teachings, including the Koran will become obsolete. Isma’ilis reject the Koran and traditional Islamic prayer and believe that Islamic teachings must be interpreted spiritually. There are several groups of Isma’ilis today, including the followers of the Agha Khan.
The Assassins are distinguished from other Isma’ilis by their belief in the doctrine taught by Hasan-I Sabah that the absolute power of God demands absolute faith and absolute obedience. This is achieved by progressing through nine degrees of initiation. These begin with the First Degree in which pupils are taught to doubt all conventional ideas. By the Eighth Degree the initiate believes that all religion, philosophy and ethics are fraudulent and that fulfilment can only come through absolute obedience to the head of the sect. In the Ninth Degree, they come to accept that belief itself is fraudulent and that all that matters is action – as ordered by the chief of the sect.
These Isma’ili teachings predict the coming of an era in which all of the old orders will be overthrown. Some, including Bin Ladin, see the fall of the Soviet Union as the beginning of the collapse of the old orders.
Bin Ladin makes the point that NATO spent $455 billion on weaponry to defend Europe against the Russians but never fired a single shot and, so, achieved nothing. The Afghans, on the other hand, fought a war against the Soviets and, as Bin Ladin, argues, Allah miraculously defeated them – not only forcing them out of Afghanistan but bringing about the fall of the entire Soviet Union.
Bin Ladin believes that, if the Americans are drawn into a similar war, Allah will defeat them too.
Bin Ladin sees himself more as a teacher than a commander. He says that his role is “to lead the people to the light”. He issues fatwas (religious judgements), sets up training camps, supports and finances activities but does not directly order them. He claims that there is no leader and that he, like the “terrorists”, are commanded only by Allah.
The “terrorists” see Bin Ladin as an inspiration. Many who claim to be followers of Bin Ladin are followers of his inspiration rather than his orders.
What this means for the West is that eliminating Bin Ladin will not destroy his “organization” because there is no real organization. Indeed, it could have the effect of making him a martyr.
Bin Ladin says that his “message to the American people to look for a serious government that looks out for their interest and does not attack others, their lands or their honour”.