PHOTOGRAPH BY ELYXANDRO CEGARRA/ANADOLU AGENCY/GETTY IMAGES
BY ROBIN WRIGHT
The jihad by Muslim extremists against the West began at 1:05 P.M. on April 18, 1983, when a dark delivery van made a sharp left turn onto the cobblestone drive of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. Instead of parking, the van—laden with explosives—accelerated, and rammed into the entrance. The explosion echoed across the city. Black smoke enveloped the Embassy, a seven-story complex that overlooked the Mediterranean. When the smoke cleared, the front of the building was exposed, like the open face of a doll’s house, with bits of furniture and bodies thrown across the floors and onto the coastal boulevard beyond. More than sixty people were killed; many more were wounded. My office was just up the hill, behind the Embassy.
The jihad has mutated ever since; the groups have multiplied. The disparate wings now hold notorious records: in two separate bombings in Beirut, in 1983, the largest loss of U.S. military personnel in a single incident since Iwo Jima, and the largest loss of C.I.A. operatives ever. In 2001, in the United States, the deadliest attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor. In Madrid, in 2004, the deadliest terrorist attack ever in Europe, after multiple bombs went off on rush-hour trains. And in Paris on Friday, the deadliest attack in France since the Second World War. The jihad’s many tentacles have now terrorized Western targets on six continents.
The terror didn’t start in Beirut, of course. The world had already witnessed the simultaneous hijacking of American, British, and Swiss planes by Black September, in 1970; the slaughter of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics; and the 1975 kidnapping of eleven OPEC ministers, by Carlos the Jackal, in Vienna. They’re recorded on the National Counterterrorism Center’s timeline of major incidents since the emergence of terrorism as a popular form of modern warfare, in the seventies. Many terrorists had ties to the Middle East back then, too. But the acts were perpetrated by secular groups.
The ideological tide turned in 1979, with twin eruptions: the Iranian Revolution unleashed Islamic zealotry intent on ridding the region of Western (particularly American) influence. It appealed primarily to Shiites, including the young men who later formed Lebanon’s Hezbollah. The Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan provoked a region-wide backlash in the form of new mujahideen holy warriors. They were primarily Sunni, and included the young Saudi Osama bin Laden. In both, religion became the idiom of opposition, the mobilizer, the rallying cry. Religion was invoked to condone violence—even a takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Islam’s holiest site. Jihad was redefined.
The movement has grown exponentially with each decade. The eighties brought suicide bombings. The tactic, initiated by Hezbollah, was adopted and adapted by its brethren, notably in the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Dawa (The Call), in Kuwait. But the groups had largely local and limited goals, such as confronting foreigners or seizing political space. Hezbollah’s attacks in Beirut in the early eighties sought to force American and French forces out of Lebanon. (They did.)
In the nineties, the jihadis went beyond their traditional turf, with Hezbollah’s attacks in Argentina and Al Qaeda’s first attack on the World Trade Center and its bombings of U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The pattern led the Harvard historian Samuel P. Huntington to pen his controversial 1996 book, “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.” The post-Cold War world was re-organizing around “societies sharing cultural affinities,” Huntington wrote. “The West’s universalist pretensions increasingly bring it into conflict with other civilizations.” The new fault lines, Huntington said, were largely between Muslims and non-Muslims.
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