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.

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