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Terrorism is an organized campaign of violence intended to frighten a particular population, often to further a religious, political, or social cause. Incidents of terrorism are evident throughout recorded history, reaching new levels of intensity in the Middle East after the creation of Israel in 1948, and culminating in the September 11 attacks in the United States in 2001.
The word terrorism refers to organized acts of violence intended to frighten others and revenge past, or perceived, injustices suffered by the terrorists or their supporters. Attacks upon a hated rival or unjust ruler are age-old, but such acts become terrorism only when the individual who performs the act does so with the support of fellow sufferers who hope their cause will benefit from the fear terrorism provokes.
The oldest recorded instance of terrorism may be found in the Bible where the books of Samuel and Chronicles refer to wandering companies of prophets who worshipped Yahweh and became the core of the army Saul led against the Philistines and other enemies (1 Samuel 10:26). They fought for Yahweh and the religion of the desert, then being challenged by worship of baals—agricultural deities already established in the land of Canaan. The prophets of Yahweh eventually prevailed, supported from time to time by terroristic acts against enemies like the Amalekites, whom Saul utterly destroyed (1 Samuel 15:20).
In ancient Greece, Harmodius and Aristogeiton, who assassinated the tyrant Hipparchus of Athens in 514 BCE, were later regarded as defenders of liberty and honored with statues, but their motives were probably merely personal. In Rome, the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BCE was justified at the time as a defense of the republican form of government. Augustus, as Caesar’s heir, tried to suppress that interpretation of his adopted father’s death, but the historian Tacitus makes clear that it lingered among the Roman senators nonetheless.
In other times and places innumerable kings and chieftains were killed by those around them, but when personal fear or hatred was the motive, historians do not consider such murders as acts of terrorism. The first unambiguous example of a prolonged and secret terrorist campaign centered in Iran and Syria among a small number of Shi’a Muslims who rejected the legitimacy of Seljuk Turkish rulers, pinning their hopes on a hidden imam they believed was the sole legitimate ruler. In 1090, the sect seized a mountain fortress in Iran that became their headquarters for planning surprise assassinations of local emirs. It remained in their hands until 1256 when the Mongols captured the fortress and massacred all its inhabitants. The sect enjoyed widespread initial support, but after its leaders persuaded zealous youths to sacrifice their own lives by killing local rulers in the most public and dramatic fashion possible, sentiment eventually turned against them. Popular rumor eventually held that the assassins were inspired by smoking hashish, not by religious faith and hope; Christian crusaders later learned to call the sect “Assassins”—a name derived from the Arabic word for hashish. But, for more than a century and a half, the sect survived and secretly dispatched assassins to kill its enemies—sometimes planting an agent in court years in advance. Consequently, religious terrorism became a reality throughout much of Iran and Syria. Scores of local rulers died of stab wounds inflicted by devotees of the sect, and suicidal killing entered the Islamic tradition to the dismay of almost all constituted authorities.
Religion and Politics
Other religious and political causes subsequently provoked outbursts of directed violence. Throughout the middle ages, the commercial and money lending roles that Jews played in Christian lands created tension between the two communities that sometimes boiled over into violence resembling terrorism. But for all the thousands killed in such outbursts, rulers’ need for loans always restored a modicum of peace and order. Heretics, too, like the Cathari of southern France, were objects of attacks and extinctions. Buddhist sects played a similar rebellious role in China and Japan as recently as the eighteenth century, and Hindu sects did not always remain peaceable either. But none of these religious frictions achieved the organized, ongoing character of the Assassins’ targeted murders of the high and mighty, aimed at inspiring fear and changing public attitudes.
A closer approximation arose in western Europe after the Reformation when rival Catholic-Protestant movements bred innumerable plots for assassinating rulers. For example, a Catholic assassin shot William the Silent of the Netherlands in 1584 in an age when pistols made killing at a distance much easier than before, while the rivalry between Elizabeth I of England and Mary Queen of Scots generated rival assassination plots (and led to Mary’s execution in 1587) across a generation of religious persecution and uncertainty.
More recently, Christian–Muslim frictions played a principal role in nationalist risings within the Ottoman Empire, beginning as early as 1768, and becoming partially successful in Serbia after 1803 and in Greece after 1821, thanks to foreign support from Russia and Western powers. Both sides resorted to terroristic tactics. When Armenians failed to gain effective international support for their national independence at the end of the century, a handful of terrorists launched attacks against Turks. Then, during World War I, the Turkish government decided to drive millions of Armenians from their homelands and inaugurated a massacre of those who failed to escape into Russia. The Armenian massacres of l916–1918 still remain an acute issue between the two nations.
During the nineteenth century, religious differences ceased to command primary loyalties in Europe, but secular causes soon arose to foment terrorism. Frustrated nationalists, anarchists, and socialists pursued their goals by assassinating officials and rulers or provoking other kinds of violence. Successful terrorist campaigns, like that which preceded the emergence of the state of Israel in 1948, are seldom officially celebrated since established governments fear such attacks. Unsuccessful campaigns last longer and, even when they eventually fade away, may leave heroic memories behind.
When the Irish Free State was created in 1920, leaving Northern Ireland (Ulster) subject to the British crown, an angry remnant formed an illegal organization, the Irish Republican Army (IRA), to fight on for a united Ireland. Though it was militarily defeated and its ability to occupy territory ended in 1922, for more than eighty years it organized terrorist campaigns against the British in Great Britain as well as in Northern Ireland, relying mainly on targeted assassinations and bombs timed to explode after those who planted them were safely out of the way. Eventually the anger sustaining the IRA campaign dwindled until its leaders negotiated a stable ceasefire agreement with the two main Unionist parties in 1998. In 2002, Unionists suspended a power-sharing agreement, implemented in 1999, when an IRA spy ring within the Sinn Fein party was discovered. The peace agreement was not renegotiated until 2005, when IRA handed over its arms and formally decommissioned itself. The extreme Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has remained distrustful that the IRA has irrevocably renounced violence, and a small diehard faction in Northern Ireland calling itself the “real IRA” has occasionally continued to detonate bombs and kill police officers. Cooperation between all political parties has continued, however, and in May 2007 a governing system in which Unionists and Sinn Fein leaders share power and rule Ireland, while remaining a part of Great Britain, was finally achieved, and has survived, though precariously, through 2009.
Basque nationalists in Spain and France initiated a similar terrorist campaign for full independence in 1959. Their organization still persists but in recent years fewer bombs have exploded and Basque terrorism may be winding down. Elsewhere in the world, the post–World War II disruption of European empires in Asia and Africa was often hastened by acts of terrorism, and when the colonial rulers tried to hang on, as happened in Algeria and Vietnam, for example, bitter, full-scale wars ensued, featuring acts of terrorism on both sides. Nor have post-colonial Africa, Asia, and Latin America escaped terrorist violence within state borders and across them. In 1994, ethnic strife provoked an outburst of wholesale terrorism in Rwanda, and similar violent clashes are still common in Sudan and Congo, while twenty-six years of terrorist struggle may have ended in Sri Lanka with the surrender of Tamil fighters in 2009. In the Americas, both Colombia and Mexico still suffer from terrorism organized by drug traffickers exporting cocaine and other drugs to the United States.
As long as populations of different languages and customs find themselves living under the same government, nationalist movements are liable to provoke terrorism. As large-scale migration adds new strands to the ethnic mix in the world’s big cities, urban struggles among ethnic groups may become far more violent than when voluntary allegiance to a common national identity was taken for granted.
Anarchist and socialist programs for social reform provided the other principal inspiration for terrorism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Modern anarchism arose from the writings of Pierre- Joseph Proudhon, who coined the term in 1840. It was turned into a movement by Mikhail Bakunin (1814–1876), whose effort to dismantle governmental and other forms of authority attracted considerable support among working men in Italy and Spain. Bakunin advocated violence, and between 1894 and 1914 anarchists succeeded in killing a notable array of prominent persons, including the president of France, the king of Italy, and U.S. president William McKinley. But anarchism disintegrated as an organized movement during World War I.
Russian revolutionaries, calling themselves the People’s Will, launched a similar outburst of political assassinations in 1878. After killing several high police officials, their success climaxed in 1881 when, after several failed attempts, a member of the organization threw a bomb that killed both himself and Czar Alexander II. Arrests and the executions of suspected revolutionaries ensued. But popular discontent became manifest in 1905, when defeat by the Japanese in the Far East discredited the Russian government, and twelve years later heavy casualties in World War I led to a successful Communist revolution in 1917.
Despite the freedom and equality that Marxists expected to arise spontaneously when the new government abolished private property, terrorism did not disappear from Communist Russia. It became especially acute when party morale was strained in 1937– 1938 by the forced establishment of collective farms and a strenuous campaign to build electric power plants and modern factories. Leading Communists were put on trial and compelled to confess to treason before suffering execution, and many army officers, suspected of disloyalty, were summarily killed as well. No one could be sure a secret denunciation might not provoke sudden death or imprisonment, and, ironically, a chief of the Russian secret police was among those arrested and killed.
Though thousands of innocent persons died, and millions were sent to forced labor camps in Siberia, the terror was successful in the sense that public dissent disappeared, and new jobs created by manufacturing tractors, trucks, and modern armaments won over most of those conscripted for work in the new factories. In 1949, when Communists came to power in China, similar policies were sustained by comparable terror, especially during the Great Leap Forward of 1958–1960. After taking power in 1975, Marxists in Cambodia went even further by compelling nearly all urban dwellers to endure forced labor in the countryside where about a million died.
Marxists nonetheless viewed official terrorism as a regrettable expedient for suppressing temporary and misguided opposition. That was not true of Hitler and his Nazi followers, whose anti-Semitism inspired the only sustained, bureaucratic, and deliberate effort ever launched to exterminate a whole population. The Nazis kept their plan secret while they transported more than 5 million European Jews and a few other “undesirables” away from their homes and delivered them to death in poison gas chambers between 1943 and 1945. The scale and cold-bloodedness of this slaughter is unmatched, yet, it could be argued that the Holocaust was not terrorism, since it was not primarily intended to frighten Jews or change their ways.
Religious, or ostensibly religious, quarrels assumed a new intensity after the establishment of the Jewish State of Israel in 1948. Millions of Palestinian Arabs were driven from their homes by victorious Jewish armies and long aspire to return some day when Arab armies might come to their aid and destroy the new state. A series of short wars did ensue, and, until very recently, the Israelis were easily victorious.
On September 11, 2001, Islamic terrorists hijacked four commercial airplanes. Two planes taking off from Boston were flown into the “twin towers” of the World Trade Center in New York City, destroying them; a third, which departed from Dulles International Airport, hit the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., causing extensive damage; the fourth, flying from Newark, New Jersey, probably heading for the White House, crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, as passengers attempted to recapture the airliner from the hijackers who had overtaken the cockpit. The September 11 attacks, the single most successful incident of terrorism in modern history, resulted in the deaths of 2,973 civilians, plus 19 hijackers.
The outrage and fear this incident aroused among Americans is hard to exaggerate. The thousands of deaths, combined with the visceral images of the twin towers burning and collapsing on the nation’s TV screens, made indelible impressions. The attack was planned and carried out by a formerly obscure organization, al-Qaeda, headed by a wealthy Saudi native named Osama bin Laden. At the time of the attacks, he was operating in Afghanistan, a guest of Taliban fighters who had recently taken control of the country, where they started to enforce their own extreme version of Islamic law and conduct.
The War on Terror
President George W. Bush (in office 2001–2009) responded by declaring a “War on Terror,” and within months sent U.S. soldiers to Afghanistan where they soon defeated the Taliban but failed to catch bin Laden, who is believed to have fled to the mountainous tribal region between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The War on Terror strained established patterns of American law and justice as the government imprisoned hundreds of suspects for years without formal trial, calling them “enemy combatants,” while authorizing controversial methods of interrogation many labeled torture.
This tangle has yet to be resolved by President Barack Obama. The United States also keeps armies in Afghanistan and in Iraq, where the Bush administration decided to overthrow the existing government on what turned out to be faulty information about weapons of mass destruction. On top of all that, the Taliban have returned to parts of Afghanistan; the U.S.-sponsored governments in Iraq and Afghanistan are dubiously secure, and al-Qaeda continues to operate in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
So the War on Terror continues with no end in sight. In view of all the grievances that incite acts of terrorism—suicide bombings are the latest and most feared tactic—winning is inherently impossible, if winning means ending such acts. Instead, more acts of terrorism crop up in almost every country of the world. That is not surprising. Terrorism has existed for millennia; and the fourfold multiplication of human numbers across the past century guarantees that innumerable persons suffer frustration today and are tempted to resort to terrorism tomorrow, being ready, even eager, to end unhappy lives with acts of angry defiance.
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