Understanding Islamic Terrorism


Fighting terrorism is not unlike fighting a deadly cancer. It can’t be treated just where it’s visible—every diseased cell in the body must be destroyed.
—David Hackworth

What exactly is terrorism? What moti-vates those who have dedicated their lives to carrying out heinous atrocities against Jews and Christians? These are just a couple of the many questions that must be answered and completely understood by all committed to protecting the innocent and arbitrary targets of Islamic terrorists.

Terrorism continues to puzzle its potential victims and those charged with defending against it at the federal and local levels of emergency response. Should you attempt to seek out an operational definition of terrorism, you would find dozens of answers from various agencies ranging from the Department of Homeland Security to the Department of State to the Federal Bureau of Investigation to the Department of Defense. With so many definitions, how can we possibly find, let alone defeat, our terrorist enemies? This is the question of the century thus far and one that must be answered if we are to successfully protect our nation against future terrorist attacks.

For purposes of this discussion, I offer the following definition for first responders to consider and use as a basis for not only understanding what terrorism is but also for using it as a foundation for developing an efficient emergency response plan:

Terrorism is the deliberate use of violence against a person or persons while employing guerilla warfare tactics in an effort to achieve political, ideological, or religious goals.

In developing this functional definition of terrorism, I carefully considered first responders and what we need to better understand about the deadliest enemies within our nation’s borders. We can begin to move forward with the next issue that involves designing an efficient plan that lays out the prevention, response, and subsequent recovery from an attack. Unlike the average criminal or active shooter who historically acts out of revenge or some psychological disorder, we don’t have a clear understanding of how an Islamic terrorist thinks. Neither do we know what motivates terrorists to become martyrs for a religious cause nor understand their recruitment and training processes. Accordingly, the likelihood of creating a physical or an emotional profile becomes dangerous to first responders and the general public.

What we know at this time is that al-Qaeda (the Base) has become the central hub from which other militant Islamic terrorist organizations or cells acquire the template for launching other attacks against innocent victims they identify as infidels or nonbelievers. Looking at their organizational structure as a foundation for others to emulate is unsettling, as al-Qaeda is quickly becoming more of a social movement instead of an organization with an identified structure. We are now identifying our enemies as decentralized in nature and without any identifiable structure to seek out and defeat.

To gain a better understanding of Islamic terrorists, we must learn more about the religion of Islam and the Muslim culture. I have heard some people state that terrorism is not about religion. I strongly disagree. The foundation of Islamic terrorism itself is based on religion and how terrorist organizations use Islam as a fundamental basis for all manifestos. This, in and of itself, makes this an extremely dangerous situation for all Americans. There have been multiple cases of cult-like scenarios involving religious manifestos throughout history, but none have proven more dangerous than what we face today as targets of terrorism.


Most believe terrorists are crazy, emotionally disturbed individuals. Do not be misled. Their attacks are not the actions or motivations of a cult or a militia. In reality, the terrorists are rational actors with a clear state of mind and a strong belief system. Unlike some of our nation’s most noted serial killers and rapists such as Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy (the Clown Killer), and Jeffrey Dahmer (the Milwaukee Monster), Islamic terrorists are not motivated by revenge and are not emotionally unstable. Simply stated, they are driven by religious factors most people are unable to understand, let alone acknowledge. Some will argue that killing or demonstrating a willingness to die in the name of religion is a by-product of emotionally ill perpetrators, but I would suggest that that conclusion is valid only if the attacks were carried out by those who were brainwashed into believing they are puppets of a greater deity—a supernatural immortal being—who may be thought of as holy, divine, or sacred; held in high regard; and respected. Such is not the case!

The Islamic terrorist is acting in the name of Allah and following the religious teachings of The Holy Qur’an as interpreted by another person such as an imam. They believe that their murderous actions will earn them a place in heaven as a martyr. Furthermore, they believe their martyrdom will afford their loved ones safe passage to heaven as well. These are strong motivators for a mujahed (holy warrior), motivators that must be understood by all who seek to prevent them from attacking innocent people.

Other motivations include the continued praise of Islamic imams here in the States. An example of this was shown on YouTube when American Imam Bilal Abdul-Kareem commented on Major Nidal Hasan’s killing of 13 innocent people at Fort Hood, Texas. Immediately following the attack, the American Islamic Media made available to YouTube, which proved to be a viable media platform for the American imam, Abdul-Kareem’s comments that Hasan may have been attempting to prevent more U.S. military forces from reaching battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan and killing more Muslims.


Nothing has proven more unpredictable than the methodology of terrorists. Part of the reason for this is that we do not understand the Islamic religion. It is hard for most Judeo-Christians to understand how a person can kill thousands in the name of religion. I can already hear the murmurs as I point the finger and lay blame on religion. The simple fact of the matter is this: Islam is the common denominator for all the Islamic terrorist attacks here in the United States and will continue to be the single most powerful motivator for future terrorist attacks.

I can inundate you with multiple quotes from the Qur’an that incite the acceptable killing of all who do not believe in Islam—infidels—and the spreading of Islam by creating a worldwide Caliphate (first form of government inspired by Islam). To a certain extent, this could work to our advantage as first responders. If you subscribe to my philosophy that Islamic terrorists are rational actors and not psychologically unstable people, then we can begin to formulate more realistic emergency plans to prevent and react to future attacks. I believe we here in the West can successfully handle the terrorism paradigm.


Acceptance is the first step in this process. You must acknowledge that terrorist sleeper cells exist here in the United States and that several Islamic organizations and Muslim clerics are allowed to freely speak out against infidels and validate attacks against Americans under a blanket of security provided by our Constitutional laws. Islamic terrorists are living, working, and planning future attacks right under our collective noses, and we are failing to act accordingly.

The second step requires us to identify our enemies through constant vigilance and proper planning to prevent and react to future attacks. As first responders, we have a duty—no, a moral obligation—to learn more about our terrorist enemies. We have spent our entire professional career learning about the garden variety criminal. It is time to take that much needed step to educate ourselves on the threat of terrorism and its Islamic terrorist perpetrators.

Creating an efficient emergency response plan becomes the third step in our recipe. It is imperative that first responder agencies create and rehearse comprehensive strategies that involve every facet of a man-made disaster. This includes the sharing and combining of departmental standard operating procedures (SOPs), identification of multijurisdictional efforts and potential issues, rehearsing real-world terrorist scenarios, and identifying the shortcomings in our response and recovery phases. Once the after-action reviews have been completed, SOPs should be revised accordingly and exercises must be conducted with the proper measures in place to ensure preparedness at every level.

In the end, it must be noted that practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect!

RICHARD J. HUGHBANK, CMAS, CHS-IV, U.S. Major, U.S. Army Major (Ret.), is a graduate of the FBI hostage/crisis negotiator’s course, a psychotherapist, an assistant professor at Northwestern State University, and the president of Extreme Terrorism Consulting, LLC. He has served more than 21 years in the Military Police Corps as a combat veteran in the War on Terror. He has master’s degrees in business and organizational security management, mental health counseling. He has a graduate certificate in terrorism studies and is pursuing his doctorate in homeland security at Colorado Technical University.

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