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The Changing Faces of Terrorism

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posted on Sep, 20 2009 @ 06:46 AM
The Changing Faces of Terrorism
By Professor Adam Roberts

The oft-repeated statement 'One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter' reflects genuine doubts about what constitutes 'terrorism'. Sir Adam Roberts surveys the ever-changing definition of terrorist activity, including mass murder of civilians exemplified by the events of September 11.


The attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on September 11 confirmed that terrorism had acquired a new face. Terrorists were now engaged in a campaign of suicide and mass murder on a huge scale. Previously it had been possible to believe that there were limits beyond which even terrorists would not go. After the thousands of deaths on September 11, it was evident that at least one group would stop at nothing.

Terrorism was not always like this. Its history is as much European as Middle Eastern, and as much secular as religious. Far from being wilfully indiscriminate, it was often pointedly discriminate. Yet there are some common threads that can be traced through the history of terrorism. What happened on September 11 was a sinister new twist in an old story of fascination with political violence.

The word 'terrorism' entered into European languages in the wake of the French revolution of 1789. In the early revolutionary years, it was largely by violence that governments in Paris tried to impose their radical new order on a reluctant citizenry. As a result, the first meaning of the word 'terrorism', as recorded by the Académie Française in 1798, was 'system or rule of terror'. This serves as a healthy reminder that terror is often at its bloodiest when used by dictatorial governments against their own citizens.


During the 19th century terrorism underwent a fateful transformation, coming to be associated, as it still is today, with non-governmental groups. One such group - the small band of Russian revolutionaries of 'Narodnaya Volya' (the people's will) in 1878-81 - used the word 'terrorist' proudly. They developed certain ideas that were to become the hallmark of subsequent terrorism in many countries. They believed in the targeted killing of the 'leaders of oppression'; they were convinced that the developing technologies of the age - symbolized by bombs and bullets - enabled them to strike directly and discriminately. Above all, they believed that the Tsarist system against which they were fighting was fundamentally rotten. They propagated what has remained the common terrorist delusion that violent acts would spark off revolution. Their efforts led to the assassination of Tsar Alexander II on 13 March 1881 - but that event failed completely to have the revolutionary effects of which the terrorists had dreamed.

Terrorism continued for many decades to be associated primarily with the assassination of political leaders and heads of state. This was symbolized by the killing of the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand by a 19-year-old Bosnian Serb student, Gavril Princip, in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914. The huge consequences of this event were not the ones that Princip and his fellow members of 'Young Bosnia' had envisaged. Princip could not believe that the assassination had triggered the outbreak of world war in 1914. In general, the extensive practice of assassination in the 20th century seldom had the particular effects for which terrorists hoped.

In the half-century after the World War Two, terrorism broadened well beyond assassination of political leaders and heads of state. In certain European colonies, terrorist movements developed, often with two distinct purposes. The first was obvious: to put pressure on the colonial powers (such as Britain, France, and the Netherlands) to hasten their withdrawal. The second was more subtle: to intimidate the indigenous population into supporting a particular group's claims to leadership of the emerging post-colonial state. Sometimes these strategies had some success, but not always. India's achievement of independence in 1947 was mainly the result, not of terrorism, but of the movement of non-violent civil disobedience led by Gandhi. In Malaya, communist terrorists launched a major campaign in 1948, but they failed due to a mixture of determined British military opposition and a programme of political reform leading to independence.

Civilans as targets

Terrorism did not end after the winding-up of the main European overseas empires in the 1950s and 1960s. It continued in many regions in response to many circumstances. In South-East Asia, the Middle East and Latin America there were killings of policemen and local officials, hostage-takings, hijackings of aircraft, and bombings of buildings. In many actions, civilians became targets. In some cases governments became involved in supporting terrorism, almost invariably at arm's length so as to be deniable. The causes espoused by terrorists encompassed not just revolutionary socialism and nationalism, but also in a few cases religious doctrines. Law, even the modest body of rules setting some limits in armed conflict between states, could be ignored in a higher cause.

How did certain terrorist movements come to be associated with indiscriminate killings? When in September 1970 Palestinian terrorists hijacked several large aircraft and blew them up on the ground in Jordan but let the passengers free, these acts were viewed by many with as much fascination as horror. Then in September 1972 11 Israelis were murdered in a Palestinian attack on Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games at Munich. This event showed a determination to kill: the revulsion felt in many countries was stronger than two years earlier.

A justification offered by the perpetrators of these and many subsequent terrorist actions in the Middle East was that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza (which had begun in 1967) was an exercise of violence against which counter-violence was legitimate. The same was said in connection with the suicide bombings by which Palestinians attacked Israel in 2001-2. In some of the suicide bombings there was a new element which had not been evident in the Palestinian terrorism of 2 or 3 decades earlier: Islamic religious extremism.

Beyond the state

In the 1990s, a new face of terrorism emerged. Osama Bin Laden, son of a successful construction engineer, became leader of a small fanatical Islamic movement called Al-Qaida (The Base). Its public statements were an odd mixture of religious extremism, contempt for existing Arab regimes, hostility to US dominance, and insensitivity to the effects of terrorist actions. Many of its leaders, having helped to free Afghanistan of Soviet occupation in the 1980s, now developed the broader ambition of resisting western dominance, especially in Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. In pursuit of these ambitions they killed hundreds in bombings of US embassies in Africa in August 1998. Here was a new kind of terrorist movement that had a cause, and a network, that was not confined to any one state, and whose adherents were willing to commit suicide if they could thereby inflict carnage and destruction on their adversaries, as they did on September 11. Since their aims were vague and apocalyptic, there was little scope for any kind of compromise or negotiation.

posted on Sep, 20 2009 @ 06:46 AM
Can the huge variety of forms of action be categorized under the single label of 'terrorist'? The term is contentious: very few people apart from the Russian Tsar-killers have actually called themselves terrorists. Yet there are some common factors that can be detected behind the many changing faces of terrorism. First, it usually has an unofficial character, claiming to be the result of an upsurge of public feeling. (Of course many governments secretly instigate or support it.) Second, terrorism is based on a naïve belief that a few acts of violence, often against symbolic targets representing the power of the adversary, will transform the political landscape in a beneficial way. Third, terrorism has become increasingly involved in attacking innocent civilians - often with the purpose of demonstrating that the state is incapable of protecting its own people. Fourth, terrorists generally underestimate the strong revulsion of ordinary people to acts of political violence.

There is a further common factor - the tendency of terrorism to become endemic in particular countries and regions. Started by the Left, it has been continued by the Right, and vice versa. Started in a nationalist cause, it is then employed in resistance to the resulting state. Started to cleanse society of corruption and external control, it continues in support of the drug trade and prostitution. If violence becomes a habit, its net effect can be to prevent economic development, to provide a justification for official violence, and to perpetuate existing patterns of dominance and submission.

Defining terrorism

Since there are common factors, it ought to be possible to define terrorism. In the 1960s the UN General Assembly embarked on an attempt to do this. Initially little progress was made, partly because many states were reluctant to go far along the road of outlawing terrorism unless at the same time the 'causes of terrorism' were addressed. Other states saw this approach as implying that terrorism was a response to real grievances, and thereby insinuating that it was justified.

Thus the main emphasis at the UN was on limited practical measures. In a series of 12 international conventions drawn up between 1963 and 1999, particular terrorist actions, such as aircraft hijacking and diplomatic hostage-taking, were prohibited. As the 1990s progressed, and concern about terrorism increased, the UN General Assembly embarked on discussions about defining and outlawing terrorism generally. Its Legal Committee issued a rough draft of a convention, which:

Reiterates that criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstances unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or other nature that may be used to justify them.

There are still disagreements between states about this draft convention. Even if it is eventually agreed, there is a difference between agreement on the general principle of outlawing terrorism and its application to particular facts. The labelling of individuals and movements as 'terrorist' will remain complicated and highly political. Two key questions arise: (1) Is it reliance on terror that truly distinguishes a movement from its political opponents? (2) Even if parts of a movement have employed terrorist methods, is 'terrorist' an accurate description of the movement as a whole, made up of many different wings, and employing many different modes of action?

What next?

The facile and oft-repeated statement 'One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter' reflects genuine doubts about the term. In the past there have been strong disagreements about whether certain movements were or were not terrorist: for example, the Jewish extremist group Irgun in Palestine in the 1940s, the Viet Cong in South Vietnam from the late 1950s to the mid-1970s, and the Provisional IRA in Northern Ireland from the late 1960s onwards. Famously, in 1987-8 the UK and US governments labelled the African National Congress of South Africa 'terrorist': a questionable attribution even at the time not because there had been no violence, but because the ANC's use of violence had been discriminate and had constituted only a small part of the ANC's overall strategy.

The new face of terrorism as mass murder is significantly changing such debates. The extremism of the September 11 attacks has led to a strong international reaction. As a result, none of the 189 member states of the UN opposed the USA's right to take military action in Afghanistan after the events of September 11, and none has offered explicit support for Al-Qaida. While there remain numerous concerns about the direction of the US and international moves against terrorism, and it is too early to say that the new face of terrorism is on the retreat, it is not too early to hazard the guess that, by engaging in crimes against humanity, the new face of terrorism may have contributed to its own eventual demise.

Find out more


Terrorism and International Order by Lawrence Freedman et al. (Routledge and Kegan Paul for the Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1986)

The Terrorists: From Tsarist Russia to the O.A.S by Roland Gaucher (Secker and Warburg, 1968)

The Age of Terrorism by Walter Laqueur (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1987)

Terrorism and the Liberal State (2nd edition) by Paul Wilkinson (Macmillan, 1986)

The Assassins by Bernard Lewis, Oxford University Press, April 1987

The Day that Shook the World by the BBC News Team (BBC Books, 2001)


Social Science Research Council, New York. See section on 'After September 11: Perspectives from the Social Sciences'

United Nations, New York. See section on 'UN Action Against Terrorism'.

About the author

Sir Adam Roberts is Montague Burton Professor of International Relations at Oxford University and a Fellow of Balliol College. His books include Documents on the Laws of War - 3rd edition edited with Richard Guelff (Oxford University Press, 2000)

posted on Sep, 20 2009 @ 07:17 AM
reply to post by LiveForever8

Nice essay. S&F

Terrorist has always been a subjective term.

Although creating terror by performing acts of violence should be the only definition. If terror is the only thing you want to create.

Just my humble opinion.

[edit on 20-9-2009 by mikerussellus]

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