Terrorism: 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 religious ends.

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 CIA’s Counter terrorist Center, argues that there are four key elements of terrorism:

1.      It is premeditated – planned in advance, rather than an impulsive act of rage.

2.      It is political – not criminal, like the violence that groups such as the mafia use to get money, but designed to change the existing political order.

3.      It is aimed at civilians – not at military targets or combat-ready troops.

4.      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 France’s 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 new phenomenon?

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 (“People’s 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 commercial airplane.

Is terrorism 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 theatre.”

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 al-Qaeda.

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 1990’s, 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 1960’s and 1970’s 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 1990’s 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.

These considerations often affected choices of targets as well as the level of violence. Between 1969 and 1993, for instance, less than a fifth of the IRA’s 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.

Have terrorists 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.

Are religiously 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 Laden’s 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 RAND’s 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 “holy.”



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