The menace of terrorism and its early origins

by Prof. Laksiri Fernando

(August 20, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The menace of terrorism threatening the very existence of the civilized world and its ramifications on democracy and human rights are matters that are not understood properly by very many people both in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. There are those who obliquely defend or justify terrorism for various reasons some of which being their own inclinations for terrorist or violent activities. Perhaps for them, the end justifies any means and this is obviously very dangerous thinking by all means.

There are others who fail to understand the gravity of terrorism in its full essence and in fact consider the phenomenon to be ordinary or something which the world needs to live with. They wish to go on with their ordinary life or rather ‘ordinary politics’ for that matter and could pose a grave obstacle to the genuine efforts at eradicating terrorism in a particular country like Sri Lanka or international terrorism at a larger scale.

The most dangerous seems to be the ill-defined theorizing going on in legitimizing terrorism or cloaking it with various popular tag names such as ‘liberation,’ ‘revolution,’ or even ‘human rights’ and ‘democracy.’ There is no question that terrorism often bases itself on legitimate or perceived grievances of various social strata or communities, particularly of youth, whether it is Al Qaeda or the LTTE.

However, any political analysis should be able to distinguish those objective factors from the subjective proclivities of terrorism which are destructive, vicious, suicidal for themselves and in fact criminal by any definition of the term. The purpose of this article is to make that distinction explicit by referring to the early appearances of terrorism in the world, also highlighting the similar traits in the contemporary scene.

The eradication of terrorism does not mean the suppression of the legitimate underlying grievances and on the contrary would be the only way forward in addressing them in more congenial and democratic conditions. This has been the case, the potential of which is already shown, in the Eastern Sri Lanka and this would be the case if the efforts of eradicating terrorism are not thwarted by unholy alliances national and international ‘when the war would be over’ in the North as well.

Early Origins

Terrorism is not only a contemporary menace. This menace has been there even in ancient times appearing and disappearing on and off under certain situations most of which are linked to subjective circumstances than to objective conditions. The difference today is terrorism’s pervasiveness, the type of weaponry used, its international character and the terminal threat that it poses to the very existence of the civilized world.

The earliest known terrorist organization in the world was the Zealots of Judea during the Roman Empire in the first century AD. The English word Zealot meaning fanatic in fact derived from the legacy of this terrorist group. The story of this terrorist group was written by one of its early adherents, Flavius Josephus, who broke away with them, a la Karuna, and wrote the actual history of the group and the circumstances of their emergence titled The Jewish War (Bellum Judaicum). A Penguin Classic is available of this important book translated by G. A. Williamson, a revised edition printed in 1979, which runs into 511 pages.

When the Romans occupied and controlled Judea obviously there were grievances and resistance on the part of the Jewish people. However, the Zealots became terrorists or can be characterized as such not because of their resistance to the Roman Empire but primarily because of the type of violence that they used and the use of violence against their own people. One may argue that unlike today, where democratic means were not available, there was some legitimacy for the use of violence under those circumstances because no resistance could be launched peacefully or legitimately. Therefore, mere violence is not the main criteria of characterizing Zealots as terrorists.

The Zealots had all other paraphernalia to be characterized as terrorists. They were incorrigibly uncompromising like the modern day terrorists and in fact expressed fanaticism in their outlook and beliefs. This was not the case among the ordinary Jews. Out of over a million of Jews in Judea, the Zealots were limited to a few thousands even at the peak of their influence. The ordinary Jews were pragmatically accommodative as far as their religion, economic living and culture could be practiced peacefully. There was no much difference for them who could be their immediate ruler; a Roman or a Hebrew. Jewish nationalism was not a well formed phenomenon during those days and the community, while loosely belonging to a single faith, was divided by various tribal and family groups. The Zealots in fact came from one of those subgroups.

The way the Zealots behaved was closely linked to what was preached by their own elders and leaders. In that very sense, the politics of Zealots was linked to the subjective conditions of that particular milieu and not to the conditions of Jews in general. The main catalyst of terrorism of the Zealots was indoctrination and not a particular objective grievance, socio-economic, political or even religious. The grievances were there like in any other situation or society and they supplied only a support base when those were utilized for terrorist purposes. The Zealots in fact were a religious and a political sect who wished domination not merely against the Romans but primarily within its own society and other sects.

According to their theology, they could not accept any foreign rule in their land and they were duty bound by God to unleash violence against what they perceived as the enemies of Judaism. They were formed as a political party with self-appointed leaders and had broken with the normal Jewish society and hence with the Jewish authority and the leaders. Religious and nationalist fanaticism was the main tenet of their political ideology.

Terrorist Tactics

There is an amazing similarity between the tactics and the methods used by the Zealots and the modern day terrorists, although the weapons at their disposal were different. The credit or rather the discredit of the invention of ‘suicide terrorist’ definitely goes to the Zealots. It was not a suicide bomber but a ‘suicide dagger-man’ which was invented by the Zealots as bomb making was not known to them at that time. The most dangerous was the Sicariis like the Back Tigers today who were trained for special purposes of suicide attack and missions of assassination and mass killing. Josephus gives a vivid picture of how these suicide attacks were invented by Eleazar, the brother of the initial leader of the Zealots, Judas.

In confronting the Zealots, the Roman commanders often travelled on elephant back in leading their soldiers in battle. Suicide attacks were aimed at these commanders and their elephants. Josephus relates how Eleazar "struck the beast’s under-belly [with dagger], bringing it down on himself so that he was crushed to death." Eleazar was the first martyr and the suicide attacker known in history. "He had done more than make a heroic attempt, putting glory before life itself," Josephus explained.

The insurrection led by the Zealots allegedly on behalf of the Jews was not without intrigue or internal plotting. The leadership in fact rotated around few brothers, sons and son-in-laws of the same family who in fact betrayed one against the other to seek leadership and power. This internal treachery is amply narrated by Josephus with emotion and feeling as a Jew himself. He criticized the self-appointed leaders of the Zealots. "I must permit myself to bewail my country’s tragedy" he said. He repeated saying that "If anyone criticizes me for the accusations I bring against the party chiefs and their gangs of bandits, or for my laments over the misfortunes of my country, he must pardon my weakness, regardless of the rules of historical writing" (my emphasis).

According to some historians, the movement of the Zealots emerged in the early years of the first century AD. However, the terrorist activities proper culminated in the years 66 to 70 with assassinations, suicide attacks, ambush of food convoys and massacres of those who opposed their policies and objectives. It was King Herod supported even by Jewish commanders and soldiers who liberated Jerusalem in the year 70. Josephus gave the following account of that military effort.

"First to be captured was the area around the Temple; then the army poured in and there was frightful carnage everywhere, as the Romans were furious at the length of the siege, and Herod’s Jewish soldiers determined that not one opponent should survive." The battle in fact was a human tragedy although unavoidable under the circumstances. There was nothing called ‘humanitarian law’ during those times or awareness of the importance of human life whether the person is an enemy, enemy’s family or an innocent bystander.

As Josephus related, "They were massacred by the thousands, crowded together in streets and houses or fleeing to the Sanctuary." He also noted that "No mercy was shown to infants or the aged or defenceless women." The above was in the process of eradication of terrorism which eventually stopped the continuous killings and counter killings that amounted to, according to some accounts, over 110,000 deaths in a period of eight years (66-73 AD). The innocent people killed by the Zealots had been in the range of 45,000 apart from the soldiers killed.

End of Terrorism

The terror of the Zealots did not end instantly. It continued even after the capture of Jerusalem for some years. Those who escaped the capture and others in the provinces gathered at the mountain fortress of Masada facing the Dead Sea and held it until 74. Masada was like Thoppigala in Sri Lanka. Masada did not pose a major threat to the Romans at the beginning. However based at the fortress, the Zealots continued ambushes and harassed villagers ransacking their homes and farms. It is possible that they took child soldiers.

It was to stop this terrorist nuisance that Masada was attacked and captured. Vespasian, the new Emperor in Rome, appointed Falvius Silva to do the job. He was backed by the Tenth Legion of around 10,000 soldiers. The siege of Masada continued for nearly a year. When the soldiers finally entered Masada, all remaining 967 Zealots were dead. They had virtually committed ‘suicide.’ As the religion prohibited suicide, they had killed each other until the last man who performed the sacrilege. The story was related to Josephus by a surviving woman with five children.

There may be few lessons to learn from the story of the first terrorists, the Zealots. First is to learn that terrorists are created not merely by social or political grievances. They are by and large created through indoctrination on fanatic isms. Second is to know that terrorists are small groups of people without much base among the masses but bases are often created through terrorism itself. Third is to learn that pervasive grievances might create breeding grounds for terrorism and addressing those grievances is necessary in rooting out terrorism in the long run. Fourth is to say that eradication of terrorism does not mean the suppression of legitimate grievances on the part of relevant communities and on the contrary would be the only way to addressing them in more congenial and democratic conditions today.
- Sri Lanka Guardian