The Best Books to Understand Modern Terrorism

After Sri Lanka

by Iain Overton, The Guardian, UK, April 25, 2019

Though the first suicide bombing was in 1881, 40% of those killed by them have died in the last five years. Iain Overton picks the best books that explain why

Security personnel outside St Anthony’s Shrine in  Colombo, Sri Lanka, following the terrorist attacks there this week.

Security personnel guard St Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo, Sri Lanka, following the terrorist attacks there this week. Photograph: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

Terror is not a new phenomenon. The 19th-century invention of dynamite by a man who is better known for his peace prize – Alfred Nobel – and the adoption of that explosive material by young radicals, with visions of utopia burning in their eyes, meant that Victorian papers were filled with tales of civilians killed by bombs thrown into restaurants across Europe’s capitals. Suicide bombers also long predate Islamic State – who on Tuesday claimed responsibility for the attacks in Sri Lanka over the Easter weekend. The first suicide bombing was in 1881 (it killed the tsar of Russia), while the Chinese military invented the suicide belt when deploying their “Dare to Die Battalions” against the Russians and Japanese in the 1930s.

However, 40% of those killed by suicide bombs have died in the last five years. To put it another way, in 1976, no suicide bombs exploded anywhere in the world. In 2016, 40 years later, 469 strikes were launched in 28 countries. How did it come to this?

In the decade following the 11 September attacks, 1,742 books are estimated to have been written about that fateful New York day. But the sheer spread and number of Salafi-jihadist groups – who are responsible for more than 95% of modern day suicide bombings – has meant that many attempts to explain the rise of global terrorism have descended into exercises in book-keeping. You can’t go far wrong, though, with Jason Burke’s The New Threatfrom Islamic Militancy, a natural, albeit depressing, extension of his previous work The 9/11 Wars. Both books place the current globalisation of terror within wide political and social contexts.

Similarly, Black Flags: The Rise of Isis by Joby Warrick offers insight into a world marked by shifting sands of loyalties.

Modern terror is clearly underpinned by ideology, and this creates fertile ground for misinterpretation, cliche, racism and anti-immigrant sentiment. It leads to certain newspaper columnists aligning terrorism with Muslims, and such broad-brush, toxic writing has unquestionably contributed to racism and anti-immigrant sentiment. Shiraz Maher’s SalafiJihadism offers much needed nuance; it gives insight into the theological frameworks adopted by many proponents of terror today without falling into arcane arguments about Islamic law.

The belief held by Isis that the perfect Islamic world will only be ushered in after they suffer almost total defeat on the battlefield (a utopia heralded by the arrival of Christ, descending on Jerusalem) is well captured by William McCants in The ISIS Apocalypse. It charts a chilling millenarianism that frustrates conventional attempts to dismantle the group – because if death and defeat is part of your strategy, all conventions are turned on their heads.

Mia Bloom’s two recent books Bombshell and, with John Horgan, Small Arms investigate the roles of women and children in terrorism, specifically as victim-perpetrators in the case of the latter. In his powerful analysis of the US’s drone wars, Sudden Justice, Chris Woods shows how harmful counter-terrorism has been, while Julia Ebner astutely examines the rise of rightwing hate rhetoric alongside Salafi-jihadist violence in The Rage: The Vicious Circle of Islamist and Far-Right Extremism.

The seesaw of attack and counterattack that characterises any terror bombing is perhaps most potently captured in Karan Mahajan’s novel The Association of Small Bombs. The detonation of a bomb in Delhi is seen from multiple perspectives, including the victims’ and bomber’s, so as to explore the complex realities that led to such terror.

What all of these authors have in common is showing how the devil is in the detail. And that, in order to understand modern terrorism, we need to examine its multiple causes and, crucially, to ensure we do not inadvertently condone a different, but equally harmful, form of state-supported terror in our response. Because the way the West has responded to 9/11, and all the violence that has followed, clearly hasn’t made the world a more peaceful place.

 Iain Overton’s The Price of Paradise: How the Suicide Bomber Shaped the Modern Age is published by Quercus.

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