The Plasticity of the Islamic Activist 391
the Muslim world, also has broad legitimacy as an enduring, inﬂuential source of Is-lamist thought.
Refusing to talk to these groups, according to Conﬂicts Forum, has notonly failed to deliver the desired diplomatic result—isolation—but has left Western gov-ernments “frighteningly out of touch with the principal political currents in the MiddleEast,”
and, by extension, the Muslim world. Instead of talking to groups with real con-stituencies, according to Conﬂicts Forum, Western interlocutors take their views from anisolated elite who pander to Western governments, telling them only what they want tohear.
The most costly consequence of Western leaders’ policy decisions in this area, forintelligence analysts, is the information deﬁcit it creates in the area of terrorist decisionmaking.
By refusing to talk to suspect Islamist groups, Western leaders deny themselves andthe agencies they serve a portal view into the internal diversity of Islamic militancy. Notall terrorist groups think the same way about violence, despite the slogan endorsed byRussian president Vladimir Putin and former Spanish prime minister Jose Maria Aznarthat all terrorists, everywhere, are the same, wishing ruin and destruction on the civilizedorder.
While moral clarity compels one to perceive all terrorism as uniformly wrathfuland murderous, strategic acuity compels one to acknowledge the role of rational choicebehind terrorist actions.
Many designated terrorist groups use the same decision-makingtemplate that state actors do in applying military force. Objectives are prioritized, meansare matched to them, and the costs and beneﬁts of violence are weighed. Upon seeingthis pattern in Hamas’s decision-making process, one Western participant in a ConﬂictsForum dialogue voiced the realization that his interlocutors in Hamas were not “geneticallyencoded monsters, but hard-headed—albeit brutal—political actors who carefully choosetheirtacticsandattempttomanagetheeffectsoftheiractions.”
BothHamasandHizbullahareforcedbytheregionalimbalanceofmilitarypowerintheLevant toseekunconventionalmeans of mitigating their respective disadvantages. For Hamas this has meant suicidebombing and improvised Qasam rockets. For Hizbullah it has meant setting itself up asIran’s military proxy, by way of Syria. (Conﬂicts Forum contests this point sharply, givingample and sympathetic hearing to Hizbullah’s claim that it is fundamentally a Lebanesemovement.)
In both cases the adoption of terrorist tactics is a strategic choice based onmilitary reasoning.Still,manyWesternleadersandobserversarecaptivatedbytheMuslim-nessofIslamicterroristgroups,believingthattheyterrorizebecausetheyarefollowingareligiousscript.Ina March 2004 speech, then–U.K. prime minister Tony Blair judged that Islamic extremismin Chechnya, Kashmir, and Afghanistan “was not driven by a set of negotiable politicaldemands,butbyreligiousfanaticism.”
TheDutchpopulistpoliticianGeertWilderscauseda stir across Europe and much of the Muslim world in 2008 by producing a short ﬁlmsuggesting,amongotherthings,thatwhenMuslimscommitterroristacts,theyarefollowingthe Koran’s main directive, to subdue and eliminate inﬁdel cultures; they are not acting on afanatical, minority interpretation of Islam. Jeffrey Imm regularly upbraids U.S. ofﬁcials forfailingto“deﬁne”IslamismastherootoftheIslamicterroristthreat.
TerrorismresearcherLorenzo Vidino—who has testiﬁed on Islamic extremism before the U.S. Congress—interpretsAlQaeda’sattacksinEuropeascoextensivewiththeMuslimBrothers’sreligiousaspirations to “conquer” Christian territory.
While religious fanaticism often plays a rolein preparing individuals for terrorist operations,
it does not, in a signiﬁcant number of cases,suffusetheterroristgroup’swholedecision-makingprocessordetermineitsstrategicoutlook. A 2008 biography of Al Qaeda strategist Abu Musab al-Suri (captured in Pakistanin 2005) shows that even leaders of his most violent of Islamic terrorist groups engagedin dispassionate operational analysis and deliberated on how to achieve optimal military