Blood & Rage: A cultural history of terrorism, by Michael Burleigh

The al-Qa'ida spokesman who, following the 2004 Madrid train bombings, told the West, "You love life and we love death" articulated a chilling truth. It's clear in Michael Burleigh's weighty book that death has always been the terrorist's trump card. It's not only the targeted assassinations, indiscriminate mass murders and tit-for-tat killings that spread fear; so too does the passion with which certain terrorists embrace their own annihilation. Their mindset seems so bewilderingly alien.

In this bracingly opinionated account, the author argues that all terrorists are "morally insane". From playboys to psychopaths, narcissists to n'er-do-wells, "the milieu of terrorists is invariably morally squalid, when it is not merely criminal." Slaughter costs, and money laundering, peddling drugs, extortion and armed robbery all fall within the job description.

Burleigh defines terrorism as a tactic. It's also a lifestyle choice which is neither glamorous nor admirable, as Burleigh sets out to show. Spanning the last 150 years, Burleigh examines ideologically-inspired movements (Nihilists, revolutionaries, Red Brigadists, the Baader-Meinhof gang) and nationalist/separatist activists: Fenians, ETA, FLN and OAS, the PLO and various Middle East factions, the ANC, Irish Republicans and Loyalists).

Each informative and absorbing chapter could stand alone, whether it's detailing Algeria's fight for independence or the continuing armed struggle of the Basques. Devoting the final portion of the book to Islamic terrorism, the historian explains why Islamofascist or Islamobolshevik are terms to be avoided. (Jihadi-Salafists is more accurate). Latin American and Sri Lankan terrorists don't figure but the weird Japanese Red Army does, whose operatives embarked on missions with Rimbaud poems and origami dolls tucked inside their pockets.

Burleigh's searing anger isn't just directed at terrorists but the way in which he thinks we deal with them. Britain's tradition of offering sanctuary to foreign radicals is partly answerable for our present status as "Londonistan". If we believe him, it's liberal apologists who started making life easy for terrorists as far back as the l9th century. Around the time the Russian Kadet Party was sympathising with their violent acts, French poet Tailharde was declaring "What do the victims matter, as long as the gesture is beautiful?". Since then, other "useful idiots" have included lawyers who abet their terrorist clients, pundits quick to hog the microphone and terror-groupies such as "that loathsome academic enthusiast for the purifying effects of political violence", Jean-Paul Sartre.

Not only have terrorists consistently exploited the media, but their love affair with technology isn't new, either. Once the superiority of dynamite over gunpowder had been established, Fenian and anarchist newspapers gave tips on handling explosives and advertised bomb-making classes. Today the details are available on the internet. The Red Brigades were already filming their executions in 1980. Blowing up London Transport may seem like a sinister new development; however, Fenians dropped bombs on the Metropolitan Line in 1883. Russian anarchists, meanwhile, were carrying out suicide bombing as early as 1904. Long-haired Nihilists with their tinted glasses may not have been anticipating 72 virgins, but they subscribed to the ultimate meaningless act in a world which (for them) had no meaning.

The refugee camp and the occupied homeland have produced generations of brutalised people with nothing to lose. But Bin Laden and Carlos the Jackal both hailed from the super-rich, and there have been scores of "guilty white kids", the offspring of lawyers, architects and judges who have grabbed guns and joined the fray. The youth who murdered Russia's Prime Minister in 1911 rejected a future of "nothing but an endless number of cutlets". Thirty years earlier, Vera Figner abandoned her privileged position as a "beautiful doll" to help assassinate Tsar Alexander II. The Red Brigades and Baader-Meinhof had "beautiful dolls" too, ruthlessly exploiting their middle-class connections.

Vanity is never in short supply among terrorists. The charismatic peasant and maniac Serge Nechaev basked in the admiration of socially smart women. High on amphetamines in his tight trousers, Andreas Baader also surrounded himself with a harem of radical chicks. The macho Ali Hassan Salameh of Black September liked gold-medallions and a beauty queen on his arm, while the Northern Irish loyalist-cum-drug-dealer "Mad Dog" Adair opted for arms pumped full of horse steroids and a shaved head polished with Mr Sheen.

Burleigh doesn't spare us the details in a world where punishments and spats are settled with acid in the face, kneecappings, chisels and knives. A sense of the ridiculous occasionally dilutes the horror. There's something comic, for instance, about some of the Baader-Meinhof antics, such as Ulrike Meinhof unscrewing a hand grenade, not realising she was supposed to toss it away. In jail, Baader and Jan-Carl Raspe were given communicating cells. After three weeks, Raspe pleaded for the door to be bricked up again.

Engaging and provocative, Burleigh is master of the caustic putdown. Radical cleric Abu Hamza stuck to bomb-making in Afghanistan being "too bulky to romp easily up and down mountains". Gerry Adams has "the tone of a sociology lecturer at a provincial university"; Bin Laden resembles "those self-righteous superannuated rock stars with delusions of grandeur who harangue world leaders about Africa".

Perceiving Islamist terrorism with its Crusader-Zionist fixation as a real threat to civilisation, Burleigh nevertheless ends on a positive note. We need to entice extremists back to normality and he suggests several things we could do: stop identifying ourselves with repressive states; promote democracy; encourage a true dialogue between western and Islamic cultures. Only then will Jihadist- Salafism, like other terrorist movements, begin its death throes.

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?