Shadowland: The Last Crusades

"Kill them all and let God sort them out." I first saw that bloody-minded credo in Beirut in the 1980s, where it was popular among Christian militias and with American soldiers, emblazoned on T shirts and tattooed across biceps. I thought of it again after the bombing in Saudi Arabia this week, and then the escalation of the war in Iraq.

The notion of wholesale holy war is deeply medieval, of course. The phrase was coined by 13th-century crusaders slaughtering heretics in southern France. (Righteous Christians exterminated other Christians almost as often as they killed Muslims in those days.) On July 22, 1209, tens of thousands of people were besieged by the knights of the cross in the French town of Beziers, some of them heretical, some not. How to decide who should be slaughtered? The monk serving as spiritual adviser to the crusaders deftly cited II Tim. 2:19, "The Lord knoweth them that are his." Kill them all, they figured, let God sort them out.

This sort of thinking isn't ancient history for Al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden and his boys see themselves--no joke--as Islamic knights in those 900-year-old religious wars. Among the faithful they cultivate an aura of chivalry. And they cite their Qur'an with all the inhuman zeal that the Abbot of Chiteau showed when quoting scripture at Beziers.

But the massacre in Riyadh this week is a tough one to justify even by a fanatic's twisted standards. The intentional slaughter of Muslims in the holy month of Ramadan, including five children killed among the 17 dead and 122 wounded, is so profoundly repulsive to the Islamic faithful that it could be the most serious blow yet struck against Al Qaeda's mystique. In the minds of many Arabs and Muslims, it's one thing for bin Laden's minions to lash out at the arrogant United States and belligerent Israel, it's quite another to butcher little kids in their beds.

Most people today, even fanatically religious ones, don't buy the medieval notion that God cleans up the bloody mess a zealot makes in His name. So we see Internet chat sites normally sympathetic to bin Laden trying to make excuses for the Riyadh carnage: the Americans did it, the Israelis did it, the Saudi government did it in nefarious conspiracies to discredit the chivalrous knights of the Al Qaeda round table.

Well, don't you believe it. The various factions of Al Qaeda have a long record of self-defeating violence. In Egypt in the 1990s, for instance, it wasn't only ferocious government repression that crushed the rebels, it was their own blunders. Attempting to blow up the prime minister in 1993, they killed a 12-year-old schoolgirl instead. Trying to break the back of the economy, the terrorists gunned down 58 tourists in Luxor in 1997. In both cases, the Egyptian government exploited the situation brilliantly. The nation mourned the girl and reviled her killers. The hardships that followed the Luxor massacre were laid squarely at the Islamists' door, not the regime's.

So, thanks to its own action in Riyadh, Al Qaeda's got a problem. The critical question is how this moment can be exploited not just to weaken bin Laden's forces, but to crush them. Could the Saudi government do now what the Egyptians did in the 1990s?

Probably not, says Andrew Silke, a lecturer at England's University of Leicester who's an expert on the realpolitik of atrocity. Recently he's been working on a study of the political impact when children are victims of terrorist violence. "From the terrorists' perspectives they can do things to try and limit the fallout," says Silke. Northern Ireland's Provisional IRA, for instance, issued an apology and quietly abandoned the specific tactics that had led to the deaths of two boys at Warrington in 1993, while the Real IRA "were forced into a surly ceasefire after Omagh," a 1998 bombing that left 12 children among the 29 dead.

When it comes to the attack in Saudi Arabia, "Al Qaeda will certainly take hits as a result," says Silke. Indignant Saudis are likely to start fingering Qaeda sympathizers they might have ignored before, and that could lead to a short-term intelligence bonanza. But "the outrage, I suspect, will fade," says Silke. Why? The drama of the escalating war in Iraq, he suggests, continually undermines efforts by the Saudi and American governments to destroy the terrorists' credibility.

Indeed, by the end of this week, it was the increasingly indiscriminate violence of the Americans' "Operation Iron Hammer" that was attracting most of the attention in the Muslim world. Like the frustrated American soldiers in Beirut in the early 1980s, the Americans in Baghdad are finding it just about impossible to separate friend from foe. So they've started opting for displays of massive firepower that are supposed to intimidate their suspected enemies. Ferocious AC-130 gunships have unleashed their cannons and rockets, F-16s have been called into action. The occupation looks more like major combat operations every day. But the essential problem remains. If we can't sort out Iraqi enemies and friends, God help us, we can't just kill them all. Much as bin Laden might like us to, we haven't gone back to the Dark Ages. At least, not yet.