Most victims of terrorism are Muslim. I can understand why they kill non-Muslims, there seems to be many reasons from their twisted perspective, but most often, they are killing Muslims. What is the point of this, given that it merely increases the support of anti-radical sentiments in Muslim communities, which should be the opposite of what they want?

Note that I am not referring to Islamic State: they are a big organisation and thus by killing Muslims who don't support them, they can make an active difference and increase their power and status ... but most terrorist attacks in, say, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkey, etc ... they seem to have almost no positive effect on the power of terrorists in those regions, quite the opposite, with those countries usually focusing much harder on fighting terrorism than they otherwise would've done. So what is the point of these types of attacks?

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    You see, these terrorists believe that all muslims who aren't wahabiists (a fundmanetalist sect of islam) are actually Kuffir just like every other non-muslim. Muhammad himself said to wage war against the Kuffir. Therefore, terrorists, being pious muslims, must by the very nature of their religion kill "muslims" and non-muslims alike. Aug 21, 2017 at 16:36
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    Wrong to describe these people as "terrorists", because terror is simply a political tactic, which can be used by any person or group so inclined. (As can propaganda, armies, navies, attack aircraft, &c, if one has the resources.) This would better be divided into two separate questions: 1) Why do various Islamic sects fight among themselves? and 2) Why do they think terrorism is an effective tactic to use in settling their differences?
    – jamesqf
    Aug 21, 2017 at 17:39
  • Often these attacks are intended to force a regime to divert resources from counterinsurgency to protecting its supporters. If the regime cannot keep its capital city safe it loses support. Aug 22, 2017 at 3:39
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Aug 22, 2017 at 17:01

7 Answers 7


First of all, self-identifying Muslims are not the only people in the world who commit terrorist acts. Terrorist acts are committed by all kinds of people in the name of all kinds of ideologies. But this question seems to be mostly interested in Muslim-on-Muslim terrorism, so this answer will only focus on this.

  1. Not all Muslims are the same. There are the two main branches Shia and Sunni, which also have a number of sub-branches, and a couple of minor branches. In some places, these branches don't get along with each other. Many of the terrorist attacks in Pakistan can be attributed to religious differences (most seem to be uprisings against the government, though).
  2. Just because a terrorist act is performed by a Muslim does not mean it's about religion.

    • Since the Taliban regime in Afghanistan fell, many local warlords are competing for local dominance and some resort to violent methods. Further, the remaining Taliban loyalists consider those who collaborate with the US-backed government traitors and thus consider them legitimate targets in their war to retake control of the country.
    • Most terrorist attacks in Turkey are attributed to either Kurdish nationalists or the Gülen movement. The difference between Kurds and Turks is more a matter of culture than a matter of religion. Gülen is a political opposition to the current government.
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    I don't understand why this answer gathered so many downvotes in such a short time. Can you please offer some constructive criticism?
    – Philipp
    Aug 21, 2017 at 15:23
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    I think this leaves out a lot. I am shocked it reviewed so many upvotes and if I had the appropriate rep, I'd downvote it. It is incredible how many mistakes and omissions it has. Take the first bulletpoint. It would have been easy to state that these differences may lead one group to consider another heretical and therefore that belief, in their view, justifies violence.
    – Lan
    Aug 22, 2017 at 3:02
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    @Lan - Granted. It could certainly use a lot more information. But as to why it’s so upvoted, I would say it’s by comparison. The next most-voted answer uses a definition of terrorism that restricts it only to war (thus ignoring what might be the majority of terrorism, which clearly doesn’t seek military victory), and says that terrorists aren’t extremists. The answer below that blames terrorism on essential characteristics of Islam, and is basically anti-Muslim. This answer isn’t as good as it could be, but by comparison, it’s pretty good.
    – Obie 2.0
    Aug 22, 2017 at 6:05
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    @Philipp If you can't answer a straightforward question without couching it to avoid triggering someone who chose to misread it (as you did in your first edit), I'm a bit skeptical for the future of this site. +1 from me
    – rath
    Aug 22, 2017 at 9:04
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    The linked article about the Gülen movement does not mention any links to terrorist attacks. While I know that the Gülen movement is designated a terrorist organisation by the Turkish government, I have not heard of a terrorist attack attributed to them. Crould you add a source for that?
    – Emil
    Aug 22, 2017 at 20:23

Terrorism is a tool of war. So the result is what is hope to be accomplished with any real war.

The Caveat is that the definition of terrorism has been expanded within my life time from something that is part of war (Such as the IRA) to any act resulting in a killing where a group of people are coerced. This is the definition when used in the Charlottesville incident. They are related but that is not what most Muslim terrorism is about or historically.

The short answer is the subjugation of one group of Muslims over another, such as the long term war between Sunni and Shia sects. The hope is that the terrorism will cause the opposition to surrender and be subjugated according to the goals of the group doing the act of terrorism.

I believe the confusion of what terrorism is comes from forgetting the true intent of any armed conflict. That is to kill and destroy as much of the enemy until the enemy surrenders to you. This is so close to the the act of terrorism. War, for most of human history, has not differentiated between damaging the enemy's army or civilian population and infrastructure. See Sherman's march to the sea during the civil war, Dresden bombing, Hiroshima for classic examples. Was that terrorism? By definition, yes, and it was also a tool of war.

The belief that terrorists are extremists is not borne by evidence. Focusing on Muslim terrorism, you can see there are many similarities to guerilla warfare that occurred during the Vietnam war, and more classically the Soviet-Afghanistan conflict.

A terrorist will see no reason why he should not kill other Muslims simply because they are Muslim. The terrorist accomplishes his planned mission like any soldier, because he was ordered to by his command and control system.

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    It's not about some ludicrous Terrorism = Evil notion. Guerrilla warfare is, well, warfare. It usually isn't targeting civilians to advance an agenda, and there's an army hunting them down. Anarchists in the late 19th with bombs (and assassinations) were terrorists, as were the IRA and the Oklahoma City bombers doing the same, Palestinians blowing up planes, or Al Quaeda crashing planes on 9/11. Small group, agenda, violence to advance the latter. Point being, they were all extremists. Aug 21, 2017 at 17:32
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    @DenisdeBernardy I think what Frank is getting at here would be whether you would consider a siege to starve an entire castle as terrorism? That used to be how wars were fought and won, regardless of civilian casualties. David Blomstrom made a comment above alluding to being able to use the same definition of terrorism to describe US drone bombings, which is also an argument that I think has some merit. Some may want to argue that war is war and terrorism is just a fancy word for people fighting war by another means, and one person's terrorist is another's freedom fighter.
    – user5155
    Aug 21, 2017 at 18:21
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    Grant didn't march to the sea. He was in Virginia laying siege to Petersburg while Sherman was marching to the sea. Aug 21, 2017 at 19:25
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    Disagree with the premise. The goals/aims is what separates terrorism from more conventional military actions. Driving a car into a crowd in France is, even in one's wildest imagination, going to kill enough people or cause enough damage to cause France to surrender to ISIS, or to disable France's capabilities to function. Aug 21, 2017 at 20:00
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    @PoloHoleSet Do it once sure, but do it enough times it could cause political instability and decrease France's willingness to wage war outside of her borders.
    – user5155
    Aug 21, 2017 at 20:46

I can understand why they kill non-Muslims

No, you do not understand. That's why you need to ask the original question, which is based on a false premise.

The picture of a muslim terrorist who kills disbelievers only to get a couple dozen virgins in heaven is propaganda. People don't just kill other people because they have a different faith. If they did, life expectancy around the world would be significantly lower.

Terrorists, including white christian terrorists who kill white christians (IRA, ETA, Breivik, that Nazi who drove a car into a crowd at Charlottesville, and so many more) do so usually for "justice". They often lack a proper future, or longer see a meaning in the "normal" life, and are convinced the enemy is bad enough that they can justify killing civilians who are somehow associated with the enemy. To kill innocents, a terrorist's sense of justice needs to be warped, which it is.

Outside of dishonest political campaigns there is no war where "the Muslims" fight against "the Christians". Terrorists kill people who are on the "bad" side from their point of view. Muslims often live next to other muslims, therefore if a muslim group gets into a conflict with another group it's quite likely that both groups have muslims. Some people who are muslim fight against some things they believe the west stands for, and do so using terrorist acts (which are retaliated and sometimes "pretaliated" by some western soldiers committing terrorist acts against some people of muslim faith). Other people who are muslim fight against some things some other muslims stand for, and do so using terrorist acts. And some people who aren't muslim fight many other things too, and do so using terrorist acts.

  • People do do kill others just because they have a different faith. The difference is that the christians, being secular, no longer do that. And yes, life expectancy when they do it are indeed quite low.
    – user6063
    Mar 25, 2018 at 16:24
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    @SharenEayrs "People do do kill others just because they have a different faith" - Citation needed. They sometimes justify killings with the dead person's faith, which is not the same thing. Most places in the world, including all Arab countries, contain people of various different faiths who are still alive.
    – Peter
    Mar 25, 2018 at 20:02

The objective for Muslim extremist groups attacking other Muslims is generally focused on discouraging and/or punishing an opposing viewpoint.

You could ask a similar question about why white supremacist terrorists would kill white people, as happened in Charlottesville recently. The answer is essentially the same. Moderate Muslims who preach or accept peaceful coexistence with the West and non-Muslims are in direct opposition to the goals and rhetoric of Islamist organizations, so they are the enemy. If they can't be convinced to support the cause, they're just another opponent, and in some ways a more dangerous one - a Muslim speaking out against Islamist ideology is inherently more convincing than a non-Muslim, after all. Killing such people, therefore serves a dual purpose in silencing that dissent, and intimidating others who might also want to speak out against Islamist organizations.

Internally, this is justified or rationalized by declaring Muslim opponents as "kafir" (infidels), essentially claiming that they're not really Muslims, and therefore legitimate targets. One of the "kill lists" released by ISIS relatively recently in its online magazine was focused on Western Muslims. The article was titled “Kill the Imams of Kufr in the West” and called on its followers to kill “overt crusaders” and “politically active apostates” who “involve themselves in the politics and enforcing laws of the kufr”. You can find a copy of the magazine here, and of course, it's all kinds of unpleasant, and contains disturbing images.


The trivial answer is they dont find the selfproclaimed religious denomination of their victims all that relevant compared to the goal they try to reach by blowing them up.

You should split up the question if you want real answers. Like this: why do group-name1-terrorists feel its okay to kill fellow muslims in Turkey? Why do group-name2-terrorists also feel its okay to kill fellow muslims in Turkey? And so on. To answer such questions you have to take into account what the goal of the terrorists is, if they perceive the victims as their constituents or allies (or as enemies, fair game) and how much they think killing those victims will help reaching their goal. And you have to take into account how realistic the terrorists are.

Let me explain with examples from other terrorist acts.

After suffering a real military defeat (Kobani) ISIS set fire to a POW pilot from Jordan. This succesfuly diverted media attention from their magnificent defeat and put them on the map as real badasses. We cannot know if they found the brutal murder of a fellow muslim/enemy soldier difficult to commit, but it is clear that the victim's religion did not make their action less successful in diverting media attention from getting their asses thoroughly kicked at Kobani.

Andras Breivik is a white supremacist who murdered white children, his fellow-countrymen, because he mistakenly thought that this would provoke a civil war in his country (which in his head was a 'good thing'). The children were attending a leftist political summercamp so he considered them to be enemies.

The IRA certainly did not have the support of all Catholic Irish. It did not help their popularity that they not only killed British soldiers, but also placed bombs in public places killing ordinary Irish men, women and children. However, in the end they put their cause on the agenda for long enough to get to a peaceful solution. The Basque seperatists tried to do much the same thing but failed. (My point being sometimes hurting their own people does not stop terrorists from reaching their goals sometimes it does.)

And, very important, you should consider the possibility of false flag attacks. If you look up the Bologna Attack on wikipedia, a terrible terrorist attack in Italy in 1980, you can read about all the false claims of responsibility and planting of evidence.


Because it isn't about religion, it's about power. Islamists want power, not for everyone to respect religion the right way.

So when non-islamists, "moderates" or just another branch of islam, because you have Shia and Sunni yes, but you also have the Wahabi Sunnis(Saudi Arabia), the somewhat more moderate Egyptian Sunnis, the even more moderate Syrian and Lebanese Sunnis, etc.

All these different practices stem from different seats of power. Syria and its sort of adopted child Lebanon are friendly towards Iran and the Shia, and do not seek religious fascism.

Egypt has a much more radical view on religion, but avoids exporting it and seeks a relatively large intellectual and spiritual life.

Saudi Arabia practices the worst kind of islam, the very very medieval one, and intends for this kind of islam to be imposed worldwide with no regard towards what others might have to say about it.

ISIS is of course the bastard child of the US destruction of Irak(which created a power vacuum and thus room for a new power) and the massive support of Saudi Arabia towards the most radical elements of Islam.

On an ideological level, Egypt battles Saudi Arabia for influence, but is a ruined state and thus cannot battle the Swims-In-Oil nation. Syria is more mild, it's a smaller nation led by a dictator from a non-muslim minority, and thus tries to keep a balance by opening itself to Iran, and might be the only Sunni nation to do so.

To cut to the chase, the problem is and has always been Saudi Arabia in that matter, both because of their endless pits of black gold, and because of their position as an archaic absolute monarchy that sits on the most holy muslim sites and always had a large share of the muslim world's fanatics.

ISIS is mainly supported both in men and money by the Saudis, and they're the ones killing most muslims, except when the Statesians start bombing or pushing for revolution.


Much of the muslim vs. muslim terrorism happens between the various branches of islam, e.g. sunni and shia islam to name two biggest branches. Thus, the terror afflicted on muslim-majority countries might well be motivated by religious differences perceived by extremist supporters of the different branches of islam.

In the course of reporting on the ongoing terror within Iraq, I heard a political commentator refer to this situation as the islamic world's analogue of the Thirty Years' War. The Thiry Years's War is often described as a war between the two dominant branches of Christianity in Europe, i.e. Catholicism and Protestantism. However, the picture is more complicated, as what started out as a religious conflict, internal to the Holy Roman Empire, over time devolved into a general war.

Although, the comparison is rather loose, one might see some similarities.

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