Fanaticism, like the terrorism which it generates, needs to be interpreted in a long-term perspective. Short-term analysis of fanaticism commonly arrives at one of two misinterpretations. The fanatic is a rational actor. His (rarely her) aims are rational even if we do not always recognise their underlying logic. The fanatic is a madman. The British Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, calls bin Laden 'obviously psychotic and paranoid as well'. Seen in long-term perspective, fanaticism looks rather different. The most dangerous fanatics have always had, and will doubtless continue to have, two distinguishing characteristics. First, all fanatics are necessarily conspiracy theorists. Their extreme hatred of the enemies they have sought to destroy over the last millennium (among them heretics, witches, Jews, Trotskyists and the United States) can only be justified by substituting demonic, conspiratorial myth-images for reality. As Voltaire warned us two and a half centuries ago, 'Those who believe absurdities will commit atrocities'. Conspiracy theory is the only ideology which-as in the case of earlier fanatics--all the, otherwise disparate, most dangerous terrorists of the last decade (the first World Trade Center bombers, Aum Shinrikyo, Timothy McVeigh and Al-Qaeda) have in common. Second, however, at an operational level, the most dangerous fanatics, despite their conspiracy theories, are calculating and often dangerously effective-as on 11 September 2001.
The fanaticism which is at the heart of today's transnational terrorism can only be understood if both of these points are taken into account. The historical record shows, however, that analysts have found it very difficult to grasp that those who threaten us have been both at the same time. That has been true of our response to Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and-at least initially-Usama bin Laden.
Because Hitler could, when he chose, play the role of a skilful international statesman, pre-Second World War Western assessments of his intentions simply could not credit the fanaticism with which he pursued his ultimate aims of a huge slave empire in Eastern Europe and the 'final solution' of the Jewish question. Though Hitler was obsessed by the preposterous conspiracy theory of a Jewish plot for world mastery, he was none the less shrewd and calculating enough to out-negotiate Western statesmen before WW2 and to drive his generals to achieve during the first two years of the war the most spectacular sequence of rapid military victories since Alexander the Great.
While British intelligence knew an unprecedented amount about Hitler's military operations, caught every one of his spies in Britain and used them as the basis of the stunningly successful Double Cross deception, the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) understood very little indeed about how his mind worked-so little that it recruited two astrologers and a water-diviner. As Paul Winter has shown, until 1942 the JIC paid more attention to the astrologers than to the conspiracy theories of Mein Kampf.