Analysis - Security Studies

Imaginary Purity

Why sectarian terror is spreading in the Arab world
Thursday، December 29، 2016
Imaginary Purity

The terrorist attack on the Saint Peter and Saint Paul Church in Cairo on December 11 was not an exceptional event in recent Arab history. Over the past two decades, the region has seen a steep escalation in campaigns by terrorist organizations to exterminate different religious groups from Iraq to Yemen, Syria, Libya and beyond. This violence against other religious sects is the product of two main problems. Firstly, states have failed to create coherent, modern societies that allow for coexistence between different groups and sects. Instead, they have allowed the growth of identities that trump nationalism, making it harder for sects to live in tolerance. 

The second problem is the spread of the religious discourse adopted by terrorist groups in the region, under the influence of political and social factors. Such discourse gives prominence to more violent sectarian rhetoric and argues that other sects must be destroyed to implement their totalitarian vision of an ideal society of the “pure faith” in which they yearn to live.

Sectarian terrorism - meaning and origin

Sectarian terrorism refers to the efforts of terrorist groups to cause the greatest possible damage and violence towards a particular sect that does not share their ideology. The aim of these acts of violence is to spread fear and anxiety among members of that sect. At the same time, they are intended to stress the religious “purity” of the group carrying out the act and its commitment to an ideology its members believe they are entitled to implement. 

While sectarian violence has existed from time to time throughout the region’s history, notably with the rise of takfiri groups during the previous century, the current wave appears to be the most violent in the region’s modern history. The roots of this violence are founded as a result of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, which was the most dramatic moment in the region’s history. 

When the United States toppled the Saddam Hussein regime, it unleashed a vast store of sectarian hatred. Some of the blame for creating that well of resentment must also be attributed to Hussein’s regime, which for decades dealt with sectarian issues with a symbolic, formal approach that did not resolve the core issues. 

After the Iraqi regime had fallen, the US began its efforts to rebuild the Iraqi state, which appeared biased, in one way or another, towards the desires of the Shiite community. Meanwhile, there was frequent talk of dividing Iraq, and Sunni Iraqis began to feel that their rights were being marginalized in the post-Saddam state. Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda was on the rise, and on the other side of the divide, the Badr Organization and other Shiite groups and militias supported by Iran carried out acts of violence against Sunnis.

These factors together created the perfect environment for creating a wave of sectarian terrorism that was not limited to Iraq but began to spread across the region. Al-Qaeda played a significant role in this phenomenon, particularly through Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the seed that later grew into the Islamic State group. Zarqawi had a bloodthirsty sectarian outlook and saw the Shiite sect as his primary target. In June 2004, he sent a letter to Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden saying that “the Shiites are in cahoots with the American occupation in order to strengthen their rule.”

In keeping with this view, Zarqawi carried out a campaign of terrorist attacks in March 2004 during Ashoura, a Shiite religious festival, killing 185 individuals in car bombings in Baghdad and the Shiite holy city of Karbala. Al-Qaeda in Iraq went on to carry out further attacks that threatened to draw Iraq into a sectarian civil war, most prominently blowing up the shrines of the two Imams, Ali Al-Hadi and Hassan al-Askari, in Samarra in February 2006. 

Sectarianism spreads in the region

This terrorism with sectarian overtones continued and despite losing some intensity after Zarqawi’s death in 2006, it began to spread across the region, thus becoming more complicated in the process. In Yemen in February 2010, an attack targeted convoys of Shiite Houthis in Jawf and Saada provinces, killing 18 people and injuring others. Within the same month, Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the attacks and said it carried them out to uphold “the honor of the Prophet Mohammad and to defend the Sunnis who are facing Shiite oppression.”

The sectarian model also took root in Egypt, marked by a suicide bombing that hit a church in Alexandria just before Orthodox Christmas celebrations in the very first minutes of 2011, killing 21 people and wounding others. 

As the Arab revolutions swept the region, a new wave of sectarian terror took hold which was more radical, more widespread and characterized by extreme violence, in particular with the emergence of the Islamic State group which occupied large parts of Syria and Iraq then announced the establishment of an Islamic caliphate. Iraq and Syria have seen the group attack places of worship and oust or kill members of other religious groups, particularly the Yazidis, Christians and Shiites. The sectarian model extended to the Gulf, through operations including the bombing of the Imam al-Sadiq mosque in Kuwait in June 2015 leaving 26 people dead. 

Egypt and Libya were also on the front line of this sectarian terrorism, which was primarily directed against Christians. A video released by the Islamic State group in Libya in February 2015 depicts ISIS fighters beheading 21 Egyptian Christians. In the same context, the suicide bombing at the Saint Peter and Saint Paul Church in Cairo on December 11 killed more than 24 people and wounded many others. 

Terrorist motives

The Palestinian writer Majid Kayali states that “sectarian thinking comes from the point of view that divides society horizontally, not vertically, meaning that sects become homogeneous environments… and in a situation like this, individuals are stereotyped, and their specific characteristics and individual choices are discarded, as sects are placed in opposition to each other in a framework of fanaticism and rejection of the other.” This offers a way to begin understanding many of the reasons for the spread of sectarian terror in the Arab region in recent years, which can be summarized as follows:

1. A binary view of the world: Sectarian terrorist groups have a reductionist vision that divides the world into simplified binaries. In such a vision, there is an inevitable conflict and confrontation between good and evil, or in other words, between the House of Islam and the House of War. History and the present are used selectively to support this vision and create perceptions that strip other sects and groups of their legitimacy and morality. Pierre Conesa notes that “many religious struggles are based on a vision of the other as evil, or as Satan himself, and see war as essential in order to wipe him entirely off the face of the earth.”

2. Purity of doctrine: The binary view of the world is accompanied by a vision of imagined religious purity among members of terrorist groups who perceive themselves as an elite among the believers, such as expressed by the Islamic State group. The group portrays itself as appearing near the end of time to set up a state with the highest degree of religious purity, while at the same time wiping out other sects and religious groups which are expressions of the so-called “profane world” that must be eliminated as a first step towards the establishment of a religiously pure state. 

It cannot be ignored that many who have carried out acts of sectarian violence held such views, and their actions were mixed with the belief that doing away with other sects is a sacred religious duty that would prepare the way for creating a pure society. 

3. Sectarian conspiracies: One major motivation for sectarian violence is the perennial belief that the world is subject to conspiracies by other sectarian groups, which demands the annihilation of those groups, each of which is seen as a homogenous bloc, to confront their conspiracies. This line of thought has found adherents among many terrorist groups in the region, particularly the Islamic State group, which in 2012 issued what it called “a video of the Battle of the Captives, Number 1.” 

The video included clips of the group’s leaders including al-Zarqawi and Abu Hamza al-Muhajir accusing Shiites of being agents and conspirators and claiming that the “American crusaders handed Iraq over to the Iraqi Shiites”. The video ends with al-Muhajir calling followers to “kill the Shiites, crucify them and cut off their limbs”. 

4. Sectarian revenge: When terrorist groups face significant losses, they often respond by carrying out more sectarian attacks against groups they blame for their losses. For example, after the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi was killed in April 2010, the group carried out five car bomb attacks in a month against Shiite mosques in Baghdad, killing at least 58 people. In the same context, terror groups place their operations in the context of sectarian issues and crises in order to claim a resemblance of legitimacy among their sects and find justifications for their operations which they see as revenge against the entire enemy sect or religious group. 

The self-proclaimed ISIS used this argument when it executed Egyptian Christians in Libya in 2015, portraying the act of revenge on behalf of Muslims everywhere for the detention of Camelia Shehata and Wafaa Constantine, priests' wives the group said had converted to Islam and were detained by the Coptic Church against their will.

5. Competition between terrorist groups: Outbidding theory argues that terrorist groups compete to carry out the most extreme acts of violence in order to win legitimacy, distinguish themselves from other groups, recruit more fighters and win more material support, which in turn gives them more independence and allows them to expand and continue operating. Thus sectarian violence becomes a way of gaining legitimacy as a terrorist group, along with a discourse that is welcomed by some who are attracted to join the group. With every escalation of sectarian attacks, the group gains more ability to present itself as the defender of the “pure faith” and the fighter of “infidels”.

Catastrophic outcomes

Continued sectarian terrorism could push the region towards years-long catastrophe marked by chaos, hatred and sectarian policies. Such a situation is likely to be characterized by three key features:

1. A deepening of the policy of regional sectarian axes that has existed for decades. There is a relationship between terrorism in the region and the sectarian policies of regional powers. Terrorist groups, on the one hand, justify their acts based on the policies of rival regional powers, while on the other, the growth of sectarian terrorism gives regional powers renewed incentives to intervene and strengthens their ambitions for increased regional clout. 

2. The emergence of new pressures on nation states in the region. Said demands take on two primary forms. Firstly, pressure on sects and religious minorities, especially in cases where the state has failed to protect them, to obtain weapons and adopt the path of armed violence to be able to respond using their sectarian violence, thus creating a vicious cycle. Secondly, demands for fundamental changes to the way the country is governed, which can lead to instability that in turn inspires violence.

3. The creation of greater freedom of movement for terrorist groups as societies become more wrapped up in internal sectarian struggles, which in turn can lead to the creation of “stateless areas” such as in northwestern Iraq. Such stateless areas give terrorist groups bigger opportunities to set up independent state-like structures outside the state, allowing them to nurture new generations that are even more extreme and violent.


It is unrealistic to assume that the wave of sectarian violence witnessed in the region will come to an end any time soon. Such a pessimistic outlook is reasonable given the dominant policies in the area and the nature of terrorist groups. The policies being followed in the region are highly sectarian, and the Arab uprisings ensured that they would be re-exposed, especially in Syria and Yemen, in the sense that the conflicts in those countries have gone beyond the point of being political and have taken on both regional and sectarian characteristics. 

Terrorist groups in the region want to show that there is an ongoing danger of being subject to sectarian attacks, especially given the military pressures faced by the ISIS in Mosul. On top of that comes the complex nature of sectarian terrorism, which is subject to its own mechanics. Many sectarian terrorist attacks are advanced, carefully organized “signature attacks” that use tactics such as bombings with explosive belts, vests, car bombs and so on to cause the maximum possible damage. This organised form of sectarian violence does not rule out the possibility of random attacks, which Council on Foreign Relations expert, Richard Haas, has labelled “retail terrorism” (as opposed to the large-scale “wholesale terrorism” of ISIS) - a form of terrorism that is particularly attractive to many members of small terrorist groups. 

Keywords: TerrorismIraqISISSyriaAl-QaedaTerror AttacksEgyptSectarian Violence