is not an invention of modern times. Our vocabulary makes this abundantly
clear. Such words as "zealot," "assassin," and
"thug" reveal that the use of terror as a political weapon
has a long history. Our word "zealot," for example, comes
from the first century Jewish Zealots who assassinated Roman officials
in a failed attempt to end Roman rule in Palestine. The Zealots committed
mass suicide at Masada in 73 A.D.
"assassin" comes from imaginative accounts of a Muslim sect
by such writers as the historian of the Crusades, William of Tyre,
and the explorer Marco Polo. According to these accounts, members
of the sect engaged in acts of political murder in Persia and the
Middle East from the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries after
using the drug hashish. Our word "thug" comes from the name
given to social bandits in India who were followers of the Indian
goddess Kali, and were accused of committing murders from the thirteenth
to the nineteenth centuries.
"terrorism" comes from the French Revolution, when terror
was used as an instrument of state policy. Terror was employed to
eliminate counterrevolutionary elements in the population, save France
from anarchy and military defeat, and suppress hoarding and profiteering.
Unapologetic about the use of terror to eliminate political enemies,
Robespierre said that "Terror is nothing but justice, prompt,
severe and inflexible." An estimated 40,000 people were sentenced
to death during the Terror in France. (Much earlier in history, the
Assyrian Empire (ca. 900 - 600 BC) is reputed to have attempted to
hold its empire together through terror).
terrorism arose in Tsarist Russia in the 1870s, and terrorist tactics
were subsequently adopted by some dissident groups in the Ottoman
and British empire and by some anarchists in the United States and
Western Europe. Late nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century terrorism
typically took the form of assassination attempts on heads of state
and bomb attacks on public buildings. Between 1880, the president
of France, a Spanish prime minister, an Austrian empress, an Italian
king, and two U.S. presidents were assassinated. Attempts were also
made on the life of a German chancellor and emperor.
military historian Sir Michael Howard has noted, the terrorists' objectives
publicize grievances and build support through the "propaganda
of the deed";
destabilize governments and divide the population; and
provoke authorities to overreact and generate international sympathy
for the perpetrators' cause.
was generally opposed by Marxists, who regarded it as counterproductive
and as contrary to the notion that change was best accomplished through
revolutionary action by the masses.
that scholars have debated is how the nature of terrorism has shifted
over time. Scholarly research has demonstrated that terrorism is not
linked to a specific ideological orientation. Terrorist violence has
had many different motivations.
the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, terrorism was generally
ideologically inspired. The assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand
of the Austro-Hungarian in 1914 marked the beginning of a new phase
in the history of terrorism: a first phase of separatist, anti-colonial
terror, which could also be seen in the Ottoman and British empires.
and 1930s saw the emergence of yet another form of terrorism, right-wing
fascist terror, as Hitler's brownshirts and Mussolini's blackshirts
used murder and violent intimidation to achieve political power and
attack specific elements in the population. Fascist dictatorships
and the Soviet Union offer the first modern examples of state-sponsored
terrorism during peacetime, as government authorities began to dispatch
assassins and saboteurs to dispatch their enemies.
wave of nationalist anti-colonial terror emerged after World War II,
when societies as diverse as Algeria, Kenya, and Israel achieved independence
in part as a result of terrorist tactics employed by nationalist groups.
During the early postwar period, terror was not confined to any particular
group of people or part of the world. Acts of terror took place in
such disparate societies as Algeria, Argentina, Egypt, France, Indonesia,
Italy, Japan, Northern Ireland, Peru, and Sri Lanka.
against colonial domination led to a romanticization of revolutionary
violence, an attitude that found its most influential expression in
Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth. The Martinique-born Fanon,
who had participated in the Algerian struggle against France, wrote
"violence is a cleansing force. It frees the native from his
inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction; it makes him
fearless and restores his self-respect." The Algerian struggle
underscored the effectiveness of attacks against civilians.
the successful use of terrorism by the FLN in Algeria, terrorism was
adopted by other nationalist and separatist groups, including some
Basques, Irish, Quebecois, and African and Latin American revolutionaries.
In the case of Northern Ireland, South Africa, and Latin America,
terror tactics were also utilized by the nationalists' and the revolutionaries'
militant opponents. This period also saw the growth of government-
sanctioned or government-tolerated death squads in Argentina, Brazil,
El Salvador, Guatemala, and Spain.
1960s and 1970s saw the rise of new forms of revolutionary terror
in the affluent West, when groups such as the Red Army Faction in
Germany, Action Directe in France, the Red Brigades in Italy, and
the Weather Underground and the Symbionese Liberation Army in the
United States kidnapped and assassinated people whom they blamed for
economic exploitation and political repression. Many members of these
groups were radicalized by the Vietnam war and incidents of police
brutality, though the actual size of these groups tended to be quite
small. It is estimated that the Red Army Faction only had 20 to 30
hard core members and some 200 sympathizers. The worst violence in
the West occurred in Italy, where there were 40 deaths in 1973, 27
in 1974, and 120 in 1980. To suppress terrorism, Italy imprisoned
some 1,300 leftist and 238 rightwing terrorists by 1983.
emerged on the world stage with the 1972 murder of eleven Israeli
athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, in an effort to end Israeli
occupation of their territories and establish a Palestinian homeland.
The most feared group, the Abu Nidal organization, which split from
the Palestinian Liberation Organization in 1974, had approximately
500 hard-core members.
recently, the Aum sect in Japan, which was responsible for the Tokyo
subway nerve gas attack, and the radical wing of the militia movement
in the United States, raised public awareness of the threat of domestic
terrorism in world's most prosperous countries. In recent years there
have been outbursts of public alarm about cyber-terrorists, narco-terrorists
that have preoccupied scholars of contemporary terrorism is whether
the nature of terrorism has undergone a fundamental change in recent
years and whether terrorism has been successful as a political tactic.
Has terrorism shifted in its roots, methods, and goals? Those who
argue that terrorism has changed contend that it has changed in three
terror has given way to terror perpetrated by individuals or independent
to the U.S. Department of State, there were 189 state-sponsored acts
of terrorism in 1987, compared to no more than 15 in 1998. Four of
the countries that regularly appear on the State Department list of
terrorist sponsors-Cuba, Libya, North Korea, and Syria-have not been
accused of involvement in international terrorist attacks in more
than ten years.
to groups such as the Japanese Red Army, Germany's Red Army Faction,
the Irish Republican Army, and Italy's Red Brigade, which had a clearly
defined leadership structure, the newer groups appear to be more decentralized
and loosely knit. The newer groups also appear to be less willing
to issue communiqués explaining and taking credit for their attacks.
But these groups may be larger than their predecessors. Whereas the
Abu Nidal organization reportedly had about 500 members, the Osama
Bin Laden's Al-Qaida network is reputed to have 4-5,000 supporters.
also appear to be more involved in terrorist acts than in the past.
These include violent anti-abortionists and individuals such as the
Unabomber and Timothy McVeigh, who are not members of established
organizations, as well as xenophobes and racists engaged in white
supremacist and neo-Nazi violence.
number of acts of terror are perpetrated in the name of religion rather
than of ideology or nationalism.
and separatist movements engaging in terroristic acts have declined
in recent year, while religious groups make up a growing number of
the organizations that have been identified as perpetrators of international
terror. In 1980, just two of 64 international terror groups were considered
to be religiously motivated. In 1995, the figure was 26 out of 56
organizations. There is concern among many scholars that as religious
motivation has increased, the goals of terrorists have become more
grandiose and they have grown less selective and discriminate in their
of acts of terror has decreased, but those that take place have grown
to the U.S. State Department, the largest number of terrorist acts
occurred in 1987, when 666 attacks occurred. In 1998, in contrast,
there were 273 terrorist attacks, the smallest number since 1971.
the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the deadliest
act of international terrorism was the 1985 bombing of an Air Indian
jet by Sikh militants, killing 329 people. In second place was the
bombing of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, in which 213 people
were killed. Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people at the Alfred P. Murrah
Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995.
public concern is the availability of weapons of mass destruction,
including chemical and biological weapons.
generalizations, however, may obscure as much as they reveal. During
the days surrounding the September 11th attack, there were at least
three other attacks that might be described as acts of terror, none
of which were religiously motivated.
paramilitaries killed fifteen villagers they accused of collaborating
with Marxist guerrillas.
Northern Ireland, a roadside bomb, targeting three police officers,
exploded. The bomb was apparently planted by the Real IRA.
bomber in Istanbul detonated a bomb to protest conditions in Turkish
generalizations about terrorism defy simple stereotypes and generalizations.
Profilers typically described terrorists as impoverished, poorly educated
and impressionable youths from refugee camps. But in fact many of
the accused World Trade Center attackers were mature, often highly
educated and well-trained adults, many with families, who had spent
years in Western Europe or the United States.
been successful? Terrorism has been most successful when its goal
has been to end colonial domination, in part been wearing down a colonial
power's will and partly by winning international recognition for the
validity of the perpetrators' aims. It has been less successful in
toppling existing regimes.
terrorism has frequently been successful in bringing about fundamental
political change. The most notable examples include South Africa,
where the African National Congress now governs, and in Quebec, where
separatists-who murdered a Quebec cabinet minister in 1970-attained
there can be no doubt that terrorists acts have in certain instances
contributed to the victory of a particular cause and even altered
the course of history, it is not at all clear that terrorism was the
main reason why certain causes succeeded. Nor is it obvious that political
violence achieved the specific ends that its perpetrators sought.
It may well be that non-violent means would have been more effective.
background information on the history of terrorism, see:
Greenberg, "The Changing Face of Terrorism," Slate, September
Hoffman, Inside Terrorism (Columbia University Press, 1999)
Howard, "Terrorism Has Always Fed Off Its Response," The
Times (London), September 14, 2001