What is terrorism?

(under construction)
by Wm. Robert Johnston
last updated 2 November 2001

Terrorism has tradtionally been defined as politically-motivated violence by sub-national organizations. The difficulty in so narrowly separating terrorism from other forms of violence is increasing with recent changes in the nature of terrorism. This is evidenced by three points. First, trends towards state-sponsorship of terrorism have increased. Second, it may be difficult to distinguish between acts of domestic terrorism and acts of civil war. Third, religiously-motivated acts of mass-casualty violence have become more frequent.

Modern developments

When terrorism became a global issue in the 1960s and 1970s, most such acts were perpetrated by small organizations with no formal ties to national governments. Their objectives were political; therefore, they generally did not seek massive casualties because this would damage sympathy for their objectives. These groups were mostly revolutionary and/or leftist in their orientations. Examples are the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the Red Army Faction, and the Weathermen.

In the 1980s international terrorism began a transformation produced primarily by Islamists. This Muslim faction adopted the view that Islam was in a battle for survival with the West and that any degree of violence was justified in this struggle. In conjuction with this, like-minded terrorist groups were organized into cooperating entities. As Islamists came to power in Iran, Sudan, and Afghanistan they employed the full resources of these governments to support these increasingly allied groups. These and other nations support these groups to further their own foreign policy objectives.

The consolidation of these groups is epitomized in the formation of Al-Quieda in 1992. This dispersed, multi-billion-dollar operation has the cooperation of several national governments in the Arab world. Iran and Syria have used elements of this organization to extend their foreign policy, as when terrorists engaged U.S. forces in Somalia in 1993. Additionally, the 1990s has brought a wide range of technologies within access of terrorists, including technologies relevant to weapons of mass destruction.

Ambiguities in defining terrorism

The fact that extremist nations have come to employ terrorism as a means of pursuing foreign policy objectives is not surprising in a sense. Strategic warfare, such as military strikes on civilian targets during wartime, has a long history. Various smaller countries have apparently concluded that since they cannot engage in strategic warfare in kind against a superpower, they can nonetheless attack civilian targets by less standard means. By supporting sub-national terrorist groups, they can pursue geopolitical objectives while maintaining a pretense of innocence and often avoiding devastating retaliation.

The same blurring between war and terrorism applies within national boundaries. Revolutionary organizations engaging in violence against the established government meet the definitions of criminals and terrorists. Should such a group attain its objectives (which has occasionally happened), its past violence might then be seen as a civil war.

Some religiously-motivated violence has no clear political objective. With some recent instances the objective went little beyond producing large numbers of casualties. The Aum Shinri Kyo cult in Japan is the principle example.

© 2000, 2001 by Wm. Robert Johnston.
Last modified 2 November 2001.
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