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Terrorism in Historical Perspective
by Steven Mintz, University of Houston

Terrorism 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.

Our word "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.

Our word "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).

Modern 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.

As the military historian Sir Michael Howard has noted, the terrorists' objectives were three-fold:

  • To publicize grievances and build support through the "propaganda of the deed";
  • To destabilize governments and divide the population; and
  • To provoke authorities to overreact and generate international sympathy for the perpetrators' cause.

Terrorism 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.

One question 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.

During 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.

The 1920s 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.

A second 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.

Struggles 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.

Following 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.

The late 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.

Terrorism 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.

More 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 and eco-terrorists.

Two questions 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 fundamental ways:

State-sponsored terror has given way to terror perpetrated by individuals or independent groups

According 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.

In contrast 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 communiqu├ęs 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.

Loners 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.

A growing number of acts of terror are perpetrated in the name of religion rather than of ideology or nationalism.

Revolutionary 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 targets.

The number of acts of terror has decreased, but those that take place have grown more deadly.

According 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.

Before 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.

Augmenting public concern is the availability of weapons of mass destruction, including chemical and biological weapons.

These 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.

In Colombia, paramilitaries killed fifteen villagers they accused of collaborating with Marxist guerrillas.

In Londonerry, Northern Ireland, a roadside bomb, targeting three police officers, exploded. The bomb was apparently planted by the Real IRA.

A suicide bomber in Istanbul detonated a bomb to protest conditions in Turkish prisons.

Many 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.

Has terrorism 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.

Nevertheless, 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 provincial power.

While 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.

For additional background information on the history of terrorism, see:

David Greenberg, "The Changing Face of Terrorism," Slate, September 13, 2001

Bruce Hoffman, Inside Terrorism (Columbia University Press, 1999)

Sir Michael Howard, "Terrorism Has Always Fed Off Its Response," The Times (London), September 14, 2001


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