What is it?
Is terrorism just
brutal, unthinking violence?
No. Experts agree that
there is almost always a strategy behind
terrorist actions. Whether it takes the form of
bombings, shootings, hijackings, or
assassinations, terrorism is neither random,
spontaneous, nor blind; it is deliberate use of
violence against civilians for political or
Is there a
definition of terrorism?
Even though most people
can recognize terrorism when they see it, experts
have had difficulty coming up with an ironclad
definition. The state department defines
terrorism as premeditated, politically
motivated violence perpetrated against
noncombatant targets by sub national groups or
clandestine agents, usually intended to influence
an audience. In another useful attempt to
produce a definition, Paul Pillar, a former
deputy chief of the CIAs Counter terrorist
Center, argues that there are four key elements
It is premeditated planned in advance,
rather than an impulsive act of rage.
It is political not criminal, like the
violence that groups such as the mafia use to get
money, but designed to change the existing
It is aimed at civilians not at military
targets or combat-ready troops.
It is carried out by sub national groups
not by the army of a country.
Where does the
word terrorism come from?
It was coined during
Frances Reign of Terror in 1793-94.
Originally, the leaders of this systematized
attempt to weed out traitors among
the revolutionary ranks praised terror as the
best way to defend liberty, but as the French
Revolution soured, the word soon took on grim
echoes of state violence and guillotines. Today,
most terrorists dislike the label, according to
Bruce Hoffman of the RAND think tank.
Is terrorism a
No. The oldest terrorists
were holy warriors who killed civilians. For
instance, in first-century Palestine, Jewish
Zealots would publicly slit the throats of Romans
and their collaborators; in seventh-century
India, the Thuggee cult would ritually strangle
passerby as sacrifices to the Hindu deity Kali;
and in the eleventh-century Middle East, the
Shiite sect known, as the Assassins would eat
hashish before murdering civilian foes.
Historians can trace recognizably modern forms of
terrorism back to such late-nineteenth-century
organizations as Narodnaya Volya
(Peoples Will), an anti-tsarist
group in Russia. One particularly successful
early case of terrorism was the 1914
assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz
Ferdinand by a Serb extremist, an event that
helped trigger World War I. Even more familiar
forms of terrorism-often custom-made for TV
cameras-first appeared on July 22, 1968, when the
Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine
undertook the first terrorist hijacking of a
aimed at an audience?
Usually, yes. Terrorist
acts are often deliberately spectacular, designed
to rattle and influence a wide audience, beyond
the victims of the violence itself. The point is
to use the psychological impact of violence or of
the threat of violence to effect political
change. As the terrorism expert Brian Jenkins
bluntly put it in 1974, Terrorism is
Was September 11
the deadliest terrorist attack in history?
Yes. Before September 11,
the deadliest attacks were the bombings of
airplanes, such as Pan Am flight 103, destroyed
over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 by terrorists
linked to Libya, or the 1985 bombing of an Air
India jet. Each of these attacks killed more than
300 people. The August 1998 bombings of the U. S.
embassies in Kenya and Tanzania-before September
11, the largest attacks on major buildings-killed
224 people; these attacks have been linked to
By way of comparison,
Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people by bombing a
federal office building in Oklahoma City in 1995.
The failed February 1993 attempt by Islamist
terrorists to destroy the World Trade Center
killed six people and injured about 1,000 others.
In addition, the 1983 Islamist suicide bombing of
the U.S. marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon,
killed 242 Americans.
Was September 11
part of an increasingly deadly trend in the
evolution of terrorism?
Yes. During the
1990s, there were fewer terrorist attacks,
but they tended to kill more people. Experts
attribute this trend-fewer attacks, more
fatalities-to a rise in religiously motivated
terrorism, which lacks some of the restraints of
earlier versions of terrorism. They add that
heightened vigilance and security has often made
the hijackings and kidnappings popularized in the
1960s and 1970s more difficult,
driving some groups toward simpler but sometimes
deadlier bombing operations.
Did anything hold
back terrorists from mass killing in the past?
Yes. Some terrorist
groups before the 1990s often were limited
by fears that too much violence could backfire.
In other words, experts say, terrorists groups
wanted to find the proverbial sweet spot: they
sought to use enough shocking violence to bring
attention to a cause they felt had been
neglected, but they did not want to use so much
violence that their audiences abroad would become
permanently alienated. Nor did nationalist
terrorist groups-such as the Palestine Liberation
Organization or the Irish Republican Army
(IRA)-want to go so far that they dried up
support among their own people.
often affected choices of targets as well as the
level of violence. Between 1969 and 1993, for
instance, less than a fifth of the IRAs
victims were Protestant civilians, reflecting a
deliberate choice to avoid alienating potential
Irish supporters. As the terrorism expert Brian
Jenkins has put it, terrorists used to want a lot
of people watching, not a lot of people dead.
ever used weapons of mass destruction?
Yes. In 1995, members of
Aum Shinrikyo, a Japanese cult, released sarin
nerve gas into the Tokyo subway, killing 12 and
wounding over 3,500-the first recorded use of
chemical weapons by terrorists. The first deadly
use of biological weapons by terrorists was the
late-2001 U.S. mailings of anthrax-laced letters
by persons still unknown.
motivated terrorists like al-Qaeda less
restrained than other terrorists?
Yes, generally speaking.
Not only are these terrorists goals after
vaguer than those of nationalist terrorists-who
want, for example, an independent state, a much
more concrete goal than Osama bin Ladens
sweeping talk of jihad-but their methods are more
lethal. That is because, experts say, the
religious terrorist often sees violence as an end
in itself, as a divinely inspired way of serving
a higher cause. As RANDs Hoffman notes,
even such earlier arch terrorists as Carlos the
Jackel and Abu Nidal never contemplated,
much less attempted, the complete destruction of
a high rise office building packed with
people. But for al-Qaeda, the
Iranian-backed Hezbollah, the Japanese cult Aum
Shinrikyo, the Palestinian group Hamus, and other
religious terrorist organizations, mass killings
are considered not only acceptable but also