Note: This is part of a series. You can read part one here.

Terrorism is a complex political concept and there is no single definition that is universally accepted. The U.S. government defines it as “…premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.” This definition is about as fair as any other.

Put another way, terrorism is:

  1. Politically motivated violence
  2. Committed by non-nations
  3. Committed specifically against civilians/citizen targets
  4. Intended to send a message, one that presumably supports or encourages the political goal

In contemporary practice, the current major terrorist networks are engaged in mutually supportive guerrilla and terrorist campaigns. The Islamic State has, at times, even successfully conducted maneuver warfare with its large and versatile force. Equally important, their media machine is able to export their violence in an intense media campaign intended to strike fear in Americans and rally support from potential extremists.

Scholars classify various terror groups by predominant traits. While all terrorist movements are politically motivated, their basis is usually nationalism, ethnicity, or religion. In any case, common identity is a shared characteristic of all terrorist movements. Groups such as the ETA in Spain and France are nationalist in nature, with some shared political ideology at its core. Even the IRA, a movement with Catholic roots, was primarily about nationalism and territory even though narratives were often framed around a Catholic versus Protestant conflict.

Religious terror organizations have at their core religious ideology. IS and AQ are not alone in their use of religious narratives to mobilize militancy. The Covenant, the Sword, and Arm of the Lord (CSA) was a group that formed right here in America, though they were a more isolated movement than AQ or IS. Having come into formation out of fundamentalist Evangelical Christian ideology, the movement might have grown if not for a diverse American religious economy that immediately rejected it, including moderate Evangelicals, and a powerful state security apparatus to contain it on the public’s behalf.

The mechanism that formed the Islamic extremist movement and the mechanism that formed the Evangelical Christian extremist movement are the same. Whereas the Islamic movement formed in a larger fundamentalist society that is intolerant of religious diversity, the Christian movement formed in a fundamentalist pocket of American society nestled in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas and Missouri. In both cases, group leaders were able to captivate and indoctrinate members with radical religious doctrine pursuant to their political goals of transforming society.

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