Cowardly lions?

Whenever a terrorist attack happens and innocent lives are lost we get a typical litany of accusations.  The attackers were evil. Their act was heinous.  They are inhuman.  Sometimes the terrorists are called cowards.

Contrast this with how the terrorists refer to themselves.  Mujahideen.  Jaysh al Islam (Army of Islam).  Ansar Muhammad (companions of the Prophet).  Heroes.  Lions of Islam.

So which set of descriptors is accurate?  Well, I guess that depends on which side you’re on.  Me, I am on the side that seeks to discover terrorists and neutralise them before they can act.  They don’t get a lot of sympathy from me, even if I have made it my career to understand what they think and why they think it.

But I do want to take issue with two terms here, one used by one side and the other by the other side, neither of them accurate to me.  Let’s start with coward.

What is a coward in the context of terrorism?  I would place individuals who cause death and destruction without ever placing themselves in danger in this category.  Like a person who builds a bomb and sets a timer so that it explodes well after the extremist has left the premises.  People die and the terrorist is never at risk.  Pretty cowardly in my book.

What I refuse to accept, however, is calling a suicide bomber a coward.  What could a person who sacrifices his own life in the pursuit of what he sees as right (leaving aside whether or not his version of right is accurate) and a coward possibly have in common?  And yet a recent suicide attack in Afghanistan in which six US servicemen lost their lives was labelled a “cowardly act” in a statement released by US Secretary of Defence Carter (see article here).   Sorry Mr. Secretary, the assailant may be many things, but coward is not one of them.  He paid for his beliefs with his life.

On a side note, it interested me that the New York Times article on this event did not call it an act of terrorism.  The newspaper was correct in not doing so since according to every definition of terrorism I have seen, any act of serious violence for ideological reasons has to be executed against non-combatants.  Soldiers in a war zone are, obviously by definition, combatants.

Now for the other term: lions of Islam.  I see this a lot in extremist media: Islamic State has even taken to calling children living under its brutality and trained as future mujahideen “lion cubs”.  The term lion has a very positive image in Islam, as it does in most cultures, evoking bravery, courage and strength.  I suppose that suicide bombers could in a way be seen as lions since they are undoubtedly brave (who agrees willingly to blow themselves up for a cause?  Someone deeply committed to that cause I assume).  But the vast majority of extremists that I have seen use this term are loser wannabes who are the farthest thing from courageous.  They claim to be heroes but are anything but.  And yet the eulogies produced after their deaths promote them as models for Islam and Muslims and “lions” (check out the posthumous video issued by IS on the life and death of Timmins, Ontario own Andre Poulin to get a sense of what I mean).  Calling yourself a lion does not make you one.

We are engaged in a heroic struggle with a formidable enemy that uses terrorism as its weapon.  And while I do not like the term “war on terror” I do recognise that we are in a war of words.  We should choose ours carefully and ignore the laughable terms the terrorists use.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

3 replies on “Cowardly lions?”

You have some interesting posts here, Phil. But I think there may be another dimension. I saw a presentation a few months back that explained salafi-jihadi imagery. Lions were one of the motifs discussed. As I recall, the presenter said (as you did) that the motif of a lion is a very positive value in Islam (as in other religions and cultures). But he went way further beyond that lions evoke “bravery, courage and strength”. He mentioned a notion – “gheera” – protective jealously. He said that this idea is often used in reference to husbands towards their wives, but it is thought to be embodied by lions, towards other members of the pride. The presenter said that salafi-jihadis used the image of lions because they embody this trait – defending the pride, being prepared to sacrifice themselves and their own individual interests for it – much as a jihadist sacrifices wealth and self for Islam and the ummah (which is analogous to the pride of lions).
Being protectively jealous about inviolable matters, such as defending one’s honor or that of the ummah, or Mohammed, or Islam, is considered a type of Jihad (fard ayn). For this, a person may offer everything and sacrifice his life, and such a person would be at the same rank as the martyr in Paradise. The motif of a lion captures this collection of ideas and that is why we not only see individuals referred to as ‘lions of Islam’, as bin Laden was, or as ISIL does of it killers. Or the male children referred ot a lion cubs – meaning they are jihadists in training to one day go off and defend the price (ummah).
I have not idea whether this is right but it sounded plausible. The presentation was excellent – the presenter spoke about green birds, camels on sand dunes, pharaoh, faceless fighter and lone jihadi motifs. And heaps of others.
Anyway, my point is that if this presenter was right, salafi-jihadi imagery has a lot more meaning in it than the obvious.

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