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What do Islamist terrorists seek?

An Islamic jihad terrorist (photo credit: REUTERS)
An Islamic jihad terrorist
(photo credit: REUTERS)
"Against them make ready your strength to the utmost of your strike terror into the hearts of the enemies of God, and your enemies."    Koran, 8:60
What, exactly, do Islamist terrorists seek? This core question may at first appear silly, frivolous, or even contrived. Yet, the usual answers are almost always empty chatter and superficial. Never, it seems, are we genuinely willing to probe this complex query with a well-deserved seriousness, with conspicuous applications of intellect, and with a determinably non-partisan analytic resolve.
At one level, of course, the question is silly. To be sure, all jihadist terrorists are responding to presumptively religious expectations. For them, bringing death and suffering to "apostates" and "nonbelievers" is not difficult to justify. It is plainly holy work.
But what can we say at a more helpfully basic, or primal explanatory level, about their motives?
Conceptually, all Islamic terrorists seek to transform pain into power. Still, this commonly-sought transformation is not always easy, in part, because the required correlation is not always proportionate.
In matters of counter-terrorism, some truths emerge as counter-intuitive. It is even possible that inflicting the most excruciating pain upon "suitable" victims could sometimes diminish terrorist power, while causing less overwhelming pain, could sometimes enhance such power.
Jihadist terror groups have learned well from the torturer. They understand that pain, in order to be most purposeful, must  point toward death, but that it must not always kill right away. This is not to suggest that these terrorists do not seek to produce large numbers of dead Israelis or Americans, but only that leaving alive "enemy" witnesses, who will then then fear annihilation themselves, is an integral part of the killer's “choreography.”
Imitating the torturer, the jihadist terrorist plans to take what is private and incommunicable, that is, the pain contained within the boundaries of the sufferer's own body, and manipulate it to shape the behavior of  “others.”  A defiled form of theater, one that intends to extract a desired public influence from the most intimate depths of individual privacy, jihadist terrorism twists and amplifies pain within the single human body in order to influence certain others who live outside that body. Violating the inviolable, it shouts loudly, and with an unspeakable cruelty,  “You are not immune!” ...."Your suffering will not be private."
When, earlier this month (November, 2014) Palestinian terrorists slaughtered devout Jews praying in a Jerusalem synagogue (the "Jerusalem Massacre"), part of their overall "message" was one of irrepressible disclosure:  “Your most personal horror can be made public!”
Oddly, we still hear, even from educated quarters, that Islamic "martyrs" who plan to slay Israelis or Americans have a recognizably political motive. Surely, we are instructed by the learned, these particular killers do not kill gratuitously. Rather, they kill for an identifiable cause: to "recover the land," to "reclaim their rights," to "prevent foreign interventions," to "stop imperialism," to "stop the settlements," to "acquire self-determination," to " get rid of tyrants, apostates, blasphemers,” etc., etc., etc.
The alleged and strenuously vocalized grievances are legion; nonetheless, they are lies, and thus effectively beside the point.
At times, however, jihadists are entirely truthful about their core motives: "The Palestinian problem is a religious one," says the Charter of Hamas, unambiguously, "to be dealt with on this premise....`I swear by that (sic) who holds in His Hands the Soul of Muhammad! I indeed wish to go to war for the sake of Allah! I will assault and kill, assault and kill, assault and kill.' "
In the end, what really matters, to these increasingly far-flung murderers, is to attain "Paradise," and, as a vital corollary, to avoid “torments of the grave.”  Scripturally, all jihadist "martyrs" are offered ironclad guarantees to pleasingly by-pass such unspeakable torments. This is not an inconsequential commitment. It is, rather, an authentically sacred and credible promise of unimaginable seriousness.
For the jihadist terrorist, violence against unbelievers is inextricably and perpetually linked to all that is sacred.
So, where do we go from here?  What "policy sense" can we make of all this?
To begin, Jerusalem and Washington need to know that they confront a continuing masquerade. The declared motive of the
Jihadist perpetrator remains only a convenient fiction. The torturer tortures, because he enjoys torturing. The Islamist terrorist terrorizes with a deeply atavistic, not a political, delight. "Palestinians spearhead Allah's war against the Jews." preach the PA-appointed clergy on the Temple Mount:"The dead shall not rise until the Palestinians shall kill all the Jews...."
This sermon is from "moderate" and US-supported PA/Fatah, not from "radical" Hamas. For several years, PA/Fatah "security forces" were trained by U.S. military personnel in nearby Jordan, at a cost of several hundred million US tax dollars. Today, these US-trained fighters function largely as anti-American and anti-Israel terrorists.
Typically, the torturer cannot be stopped by answering his contrived questions. Similarly, the martyrdom-seeking jihadist terrorist, spurred on with visions of a privileged ecstasy that lasciviously fuses sex, violence, and immortality, cannot be slowed by any well-intentioned surrender to his demands. For this Islamist operative, the chosen means of terror-violence are not only justified by the ends. They actually represent, in themselves, a fully palpable source of deep personal satisfaction. 
In the authoritative and mainstream Pakistani text on Jihad, a document recovered from the bodies of many slain jihadists, Brigadier S.K. Malik emphasizes the primacy of terror as an end in itself:  "Terror struck into the hearts of the enemies is not only a means, it is the end in itself. Once a condition of terror into the opponent's heart is obtained, hardly anything is left to be achieved. It is the point where the means and the ends meet and merge."
There is more. Always, the jihadist terrorist and his victims experience pain and power as opposites. As the victims' suffering grows, so does the power of the terrorist. As the power of the terrorist grows, so does the pain of his victims. 
It is an unholy, but still decipherable, reciprocity.
  For the bystanders, who include all those who subsequently learn of a terror attack by television, newspapers, or social media, each blast of pain represents a mock execution, a stunning reminder of each individual's unmitigated vulnerability, and a tangible denial of ultimate power. What is this ultimate power? Always, it is power over death; in these terrorist cases, a supreme power permanently linked with fully codified religious promises of immortality.
"Do not consider those who are slain in the cause of Allah as dead," instructs the Koran, "for they are living by their Lord."
So long as the Islamist terrorist is still rational in narrowly strategic terms,  every escalation in the expressed magnitude of violence will follow from deliberately calculated correlations of pain and power. In this connection, the oft-heard observation that such terrorists "have no reason to escalate" is the facile product of some very fragile syllogisms. At a minimum, any such observation ignores literally millennia of pertinent history.
The ghastly pain caused by jihadist terrorism, a pain that seemingly confers power and perpetuity upon the terrorist, begins within each victim’s private body, and then spills out more widely, into the general body politic. Wanting these two realms to become indistinguishable, the jihadist terrorist of IS, Hamas, Fatah, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Islamic Jihad, etc., understands that it is never enough that his chosen victims "merely" feel pain. To meet longer-term and larger terrorist goals, this pain must also be felt, vicariously, but meaningfully, by all others who could still become victims themselves. 
For our leaders, in both Jerusalem and Washington, these core conceptual understandings should immediately become a policy-making focus of dedicated concern. In the final analysis, they could prove vastly more important to our safety than the transient success of any particular counter-terrorist operations. Islamist terrorists are never interested in any social or political objectives per se, but only as part of far more general migrations from the Dar al-Harb (the "world of war") to the Dar al-Islam (the "world of Islam").
Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is the author of many major books and articles on terrorism, nuclear strategy, and nuclear war. These include publications in International Security (Harvard); World Politics (Princeton); Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; Nativ(Israel); The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs; Parameters: The Professional Journal of the US Army War College; Special Warfare (DoD); Studies in Conflict and Terrorism; Strategic Review; Contemporary Security Policy; Armed Forces and Society; Israel Affairs; Comparative Strategy; Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law; and The International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence. Professor Beres’s monographs on security issues have been published internationally by The Ariel Center for Policy Research (Israel); The Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies (University of Notre Dame); The Graduate Institute of International Studies (Geneva, Switzerland); and the Monograph Series on World Affairs (University of Denver). His most recent popular writings can be found in U.S. News & World Report; The Atlantic; The Jerusalem Post; The Washington Times; The New English Review; and Oxford University Press Blog. Dr. Beres's most recent publications by Israeli research institutes are with the BESA Center for Strategic Studies; the Institute for National Security Studies; and the Institute for Policy and Strategy.
Professor Louis René Beres was born in Zürich, Switzerland, on August 31,1945.