The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







Terrorism is a controversial term with multiple definitions. One definition means a violent action targetting civilians exclusively. Another definition is the use or threatened use of violence for the purpose of creating fear in order to achieve a political, religious, or ideological goal. Under the second definition, the targets of terrorist acts can be anyone, including civilians, government officials, military personnel, or people serving the interests of governments.

Through intimidation or by instilling fear, terrorism can be used as a form of blackmail to apply pressure on governments for goals the terrorists could not achieve by direct violence alone. Civilians are usually held to be "innocent" victims of terrorist violence if they are unarmed and not in uniform when it occurs. Intentional violence against civilians (noncombatants) is the type of action most widely condemned as "terrorism".

Guerrilla warfare is often confused with terrorism as a small force attempts to achieve large goals using organized acts of violence against a larger force. But in contrast to terrorism, these acts are against military targets, and civilian targets are minimized to increase public support. For this reason, it is generally considered to be a military strategy rather than terrorism.



Who is a terrorist?

Acts of terrorism can be perpetrated by individuals, groups, or states, as an alternative to an open declaration of war. They are often carried out by groups who otherwise feel powerless. Groups that sponsor or engage in the use of terrorist tactics tend to use more neutral or positive terms to describe their own actions, such as freedom fighters, patriots, or paramilitaries. While the targets of their activity are quicker to use terms like terrorism. According to one view, one person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter - but these two terms are not mutually exclusive and not all freedom fighters are considered terrorists. Likewise, not all terrorists are considered freedom fighters.

Controversial definitions

On the surface, the popular definition of 'terrorism' represents a shift from previous means of defining an enemy from territorial or cultural disputes over ideology or religion, to the acts of violence against the public. Many people dispute this definition however as ideological and simplistic, arguing instead that 'terrorism' is simply another in a long lists of enemy terms — that underneath any current conflict lies the same materialistic and ethnocentric reasons of which most past wars were based and now freely explained. The use of the terms terrorism and terrorist are politically weighted, and are often used to polarizing effect, where 'terrorism' becomes simply a relativist term for the violence committed by an enemy, from the point of view of the attacked. Because of the political nature of some struggles, 'terrorism' can become identified as simply any violence committed against the establishment.

State combatants

The violence, i.e., terrorism, committed by state combatants is also considered more acceptable than that of the 'terrorist,' who by definition does not follow the self-serving laws of war, and hence cannot share in the acceptance given to establishment violence. Thus the term is impossible to apply by its rational definition — states who engage in warfare often do so outside of the laws of war and often carry out violence against civilian populations, yet rarely receive the label of 'terrorist.' The common public distinction between state violence and terrorism is based on a perception that terrorism targets noncombatants as a consistent policy, and therefore more irrational than state violence, which is assumed to be more considerate of human life, or at least does not consistently pursue unarmed civilian targets with the same zeal.

History does not always bear this out, however, and language reflects this: few would question that deliberate attacks on civilian refugee columns and camps is an attempt to induce terror in the enemy population and is therefore a terrorist act. As such the most accurate definition of "terrorism" must be based in its abstract nature as a term for characterising the violence of an enemy as conforming to an immoral code of conduct.

No concern for civilian life or safety

A common characteristic of terrorism is that its perpetrators may take shelter behind the local population (either sympathetic to their cause, indifferent, or under duress) in an attempt to impede opposing state forces from retaliating. The prospect of high civilian casualties often blocks large-scale (or as state forces would claim, efficient) responses in such situations. If civilian casualties damage the state's public image and earn publicity to the terrorist cause, this can be thought as an objective indication of which side is exploiting civilian deaths and which side is impaired by them.

In this case, a finer definition will distinguish between attacks on civilian population as a primary target, in contrast to civilian casualties resulting from an attack on terrorists who intentionally retreat and live among a largely noncombatant community (as opposed to terrorists who choose to operate from jungles, deserts and other uninhabited areas). See also collateral damage.

Whether the primary "intention" of an attack was to harm civilians or not may seem difficult to ascertain, but in reality, many actions can define a criminal act as non-terrorism: If the attackers make at least some attempt to reduce civilian casualties, such as by using precision-guided munitions rather than weapons designed to cause maximum area damage; if civilians in the target zone are forcefully removed prior to the attack, or warned and allowed reasonable time to evacuate; if the attackers target the "system" rather than its civilian inhabitants. These actions show some concern of the attackers to civilian casualties, while attacks that lack them are more easily defined as terrorism.

For example, the Jewish organization Etzel (considered by some to be a terrorist group, and often equated with contemporary Palestinian groups such as Hamas), preceded many (but not all) of its attacks on civilian targets with warnings to the British occupation authorities in Palestine, as in the bombing of the King David Hotel, 1946. The Basque ETA group is also known for pre-emptive warnings. By contrast, groups who use suicide bombing attacks against civilians (such as Hamas, al-Qaida and the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades) rely on the element of surprise in order to maximize casualties, and therefore never issue warnings. Terrorist groups sometimes arrange for secondary devices to go off at a slightly later time in order to kill emergency response personnel attempting to attend to the dead and wounded, or to delay their response out of concerns that such a device exists. Examples include a (failed) cyanide gas device that was meant to explode shortly after the February 26, 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and a second car bomb that detonated 20 minutes after the December 1, 2001 Ben Yehuda bombing by Hamas in Jerusalem.

"Lone wolf" attacks on civilians

Law enforcement agencies such as the FBI have identified a pattern of "lone wolf" terrorism resulting in unannounced attacks on civilians. These individuals appear to operate independently, but only become terrorists due to early indoctrination, training, and support by organized groups. They function under the tacit approval of the group, and protect it by operating alone.

The radical Christian extremist Eric Robert Rudolph, who launched a series of attacks against civilians in the American South, is often cited as a "lone wolf," as is the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. Both had ties to reactionary groups, then distanced themselves from those groups before executing their attacks.

In February 1994, not long after the Oslo peace accords between Israel and the PLO were signed, an Israeli extremist named Baruch Goldstein opened fire without warning inside a mosque on the West Bank, killing 29 people. Goldstein had previously been associated with a terrorist group inspired by the racist doctrines of Meir Kahane.

See independent terrorist actor for further information about "lone wolf" terrorists.

Derivation of the word "terrorist"

A terrorist' is, strictly speaking, one who is personally involved in an act of terrorism. The term "terrorism" comes from the French 18th century word terrorisme (under the Terror), based on the Latin language verbs terrere (to tremble) and deterrere (to frighten from). The use of the term "terrorist" has had broader applications however, ranging in application from disgruntled citizens to common political dissidents. The term "eco-terrorist" for example was coined to apply to those who damage or destroy property as a symbolic act of resisting economic trends and policy that impact the environment negatively.


Main article: Definitions of terrorism

Many definitions of terrorism exist, from various locations within the political spectrum. Most definitions of terrorism recognize and explain four primary criteria, these being the target, the objective, the motive, and the legitimacy of the action.

In November, 2004, a UN panel described terrorism as: "Any action intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians, non-combatants when the purpose of such act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population or compel a government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act."

History and causes

In the 1st century, Zealots conducted a fierce and unrelenting terror campaign against the Roman occupiers of the eastern Mediterranean. The Zealots enlisted sicarii to strike down rich Jewish collaborators and others who were friendly to the Romans.

In the 11th century, the radical Islamic sect known as the Assassins employed systematic murder for a cause they believed to be righteous. For two centuries, they resisted efforts to suppress their religious beliefs and developed ritualized murder into a fine art taught through generations. Political aims were achieved through the power of intimidation. Similarly, the Christian warriors of the Crusades pursued political aims by means of genocidal assaults on Muslim civilian populations.

During the French Revolution (1789 - 1799), the most severe period of the rule of the Committee of Public Safety (1793 - 1795) was labelled "The Terror" (1793 - 1794) and described Jacobin extensive use of death penalty by guillotine. Some argue that this period is an example of state terrorism. Certainly, it induced fear and outrage not only in the domestic population of France, but also throughout the European aristocracy. This period is the first known use of the term "terrorism".

By the mid-19th century, Russian intelligentsia grew impatient with the slow pace of Tsarist reforms, and sought instead to transform peasant discontent into open revolution. Anarchists like Mikhail Bakunin maintained that progress was impossible without destruction. Their objective was nothing less than complete destruction of the state. Anything that contributed to this goal was regarded as moral. With the development of sufficiently powerful, stable, and affordable explosives, the gap closed between the firepower of the state and the means available to dissidents. Organized into secret societies like the People's Will, Russian terrorists launched a campaign of terror against the state that climaxed in 1881 when Tsar Alexander II of Russia was assassinated. Also, a revolutionary Irish-American group called the Fenian Brotherhood planted explosive devices around the city of London in particular and the British mainland in general in the mid 1800's, in protest to the British occupation of Ireland. This is often seen as the first act of 'republican Terrorism'

Today, modern weapons technology has made it possible for a "super-empowered angry man" (Thomas Friedman) to cause a large amount of destruction by himself or with only a few conspirators. It can be, and has been, conducted by small as well as large organizations.

Some believe that individuals or groups resort to terrorism when other avenues for change, including economics, protest, public appeal, and organized warfare, hold no hope of success (also see rioting). Therefore some argue that one approach to reduce terrorism is to ensure that where there is a population feeling oppressed, some avenue of problem resolution is kept open, even if the population in question is in the minority.

Others, for example the American intellectual Noam Chomsky, believe that terrorism is typically sponsored by governments through the organisation, funding or training of death squads and similar paramilitary groups, often under the banner of counter-terrorism. In his view the causes of terrorism include attempts to gain or consolidate power either by instilling fear in the population to be controlled, or by stimulating another group into becoming a hardened foe, thereby setting up a polarizing us-versus-them paradigm (also see nationalism and fascism). (Nicaragua v. United States is often cited by Chomsky as an example). Iranian support of the Hizbullah in Lebanon is also relevant in this context.

In the absence of state funding, terrorists often rely on organized crime to fund their activities. This can include kidnapping, drug trafficking, or robbery. But terrorists have also found many more legitimate sources of revenue. Osama bin Laden, for example, invested millions in terrorism that his family made in the construction industry building luxury castles for those making their money from selling the country's oil. The diamond industry emerged early in the twenty-first century as an important new source of funding for terrorism, and Islamist terrorist groups in particular have been very effective at procuring funding through a system of charitable contributions.

It should be noted that social psychologists, evolutionary psychologists, and sociologists who have studied ethnoreligious conflicts via controlled experimentation have a very different view of the etiology of terrorist violence. For them, terrorism is almost invariably the result of an interaction between genetic and environmental variables. Terrorists are most easily created when a person with a genetic predisposition to violence and to unquestioning acceptance of authority comes into contact with an ideology that dehumanizes another group of people. Given sufficiently strong ideological indoctrination (known in common parlance as brainwashing ), a large segment of virtually any group of people will engage in acts of violence against civilians. Examples of this behavior include the Holocaust and the widespread mass-murders that have occurred in recent years in Sudan.

Terrorists often seek to demoralize and paralyze their enemy with fear. This sometimes works, but it can also stiffen the enemy's resolve.

In general, retribution against terrorists can result in escalating tit-for-tat violence. It is often felt that if the consequences of engaging in terrorism are not swift and punitive, the deterrent to other terrorist groups is diminished.

Terrorism relies heavily on surprise. Terrorist attacks can trigger sudden transitions into conflict or war. Frequently, after a terrorist attack, a number of unassociated groups may claim responsibility for the action; this may be considered "free publicity" for the organization's aims or plans. Because of its anonymous and sometimes self-sacrificial nature, it is not uncommon for the reasons behind the terrorist action to remain unknown or murky for a considerable period.

The existing order within countries or internationally depends on compromises and agreements between various groups and interests that were made to resolve past conflicts. Over time, these arrangements become less relevant to the current situation. Some terrorist acts seem calculated to disrupt the existing order and provoke conflicts in the expectation that it will lead to a new order more favorable to their interests. Some people considered to be terrorists, or supporters of terrorist actions, at some point in their lives have gone on to become dedicated peace activists (Uri Avnery), respected statesmen (Yitzhak Shamir) and even Nobel Peace Prize laureates (Nelson Mandela, Yasser Arafat). This illustrates the plasticity of the term.

Examples of terrorism

The following incidents have been described as domestic and international terrorism: the Oklahoma City bombing in the USA (April 19, 1995); the Omagh bombing in Northern Ireland (August 15, 1998); the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York, and Washington DC, USA; the Munich Massacre of Israeli Olympic athletes in 1972; the Bali bombing in October 2002, the destruction of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland on December 21, 1988, and the Centennial Olympic Park bombing in 1996. See List of terrorist incidents for more examples.

The deadliest attack ever committed, not known to have been sponsored by a state and described as terrorism was the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon, in Arlington County, Virginia. So far as is known, the deadliest attack planned but not executed was Operation Bojinka, which aimed to murder Pope John Paul II and blow up 11 airliners. The plot was aborted after an apartment fire in Manila, Philippines on January 5, 1995 exposed the operation to police. The militants who were planning it were just over two weeks away from implementing their plot.

Since 1968, the U.S. State Department has tallied deaths due to terrorism. In 1985, it counted 816 deaths, the highest annual toll until then. The deaths decreased over the years, then rose to 3,295 in 2001, most as a result of the September 11, 2001 attacks. In 2003, more than 1,000 people died as a result of terrorist acts. Many of these deaths resulted from suicide bombings in Chechnya, Iraq, India and Israel. It does not tally victims of state terrorism.

Emergency preparedness

Acts of terrorism typically cause a significant number of civilian casualties. To protect against such attacks, there is a need for increased vigilance on the part of governments. Examples include more thorough inspection of baggage in airports.

Preparing for terrorism includes the construction of hospitals with a large surge capacity, as well as of alternative care facilities to handle a huge influx of patients and displaced persons . In order to reduce the spread of infection, decontamination during a release of chemical or biological agents is an important element of emergency planning.

Global Trends

Data from the US Department of State shows that, since the late 1980s, there has been a decline in the number of international terrorist attacks. Data from the Terrorism Knowledge base show a similar decline since the early 1980s.

The major decline in international terrorist attacks was in Western Europe. On the other hand, Asia experienced an increase in international terrorist attacks. Other regions experienced less consistent patterns over time.

From 1991 to 2003, there was a consistent increase in the number of casualties from international terrorist attacks in Asia, but few other consistent trends in casualties from international terrorist attacks. Three different regions had, in three different years, a few attacks with a large number of casualties.

On the other hand, data from the MIPT Terrorism Knowledge Base show that since the mid to late 1990's there has been a large increase in the number of total terrorist incidences, injuries and fatalities. Most of this increase is due to an increase in domestic terrorism.

See also


External links

Etymology (history and first use of "terrorism")





Further reading


Last updated: 10-20-2005 11:58:25
The contents of this article are licensed from under the GNU Free Documentation License. How to see transparent copy