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While there are many definitions of terrorism and no single accepted one, the research literature assumes three main components: (1) use or threat of violence; (2) injury to noncombatants; and (3) a symbolic effect designed to attract attention. Violence is an integral part of terrorism and is present in every incident.
Several factors influence the decision to use violence within the terrorism framework: (1) violence must be faced by the target power, and the target power’s response may violate its own values and draw criticism at home and abroad; (2) violence attracts attention to the terrorist organization’s agenda, obliging the targeted regime to confront the problems raised and try to solve them; and (3) the use of violence arouses fear and horror in the civilian population. The perpetrators of the violence try to make the population pressure the regime into solving the terror problem, and sometimes even to meet the demands of the terrorist group.
Even though terror is considered the weapon of the weak, it should be stressed that the use of violence in the framework of terror is also common between sovereign states, and not only between illegal groups operating against certain other groups or states. State terrorism is terror perpetrated by states against their citizens or via specific groups that enjoy state support, whether covert or overt. Totalitarian regimes such as that of Augusto Pinochet in Chile or Saddam Hussein in Iraq used their own secret police forces to terrorize their citizens. These regimes operated against their own citizens, employing kidnappings, torture, and extrajudicial executions. Other regimes, mainly in South America, had armed militias that perpetrated acts of terror against their citizens and which were supported or tacitly approved by the state.
Despite this reality, there is disagreement regarding the inclusion of state-sanctioned acts of violence against citizens in the definition of terror. The main dispute concerns the fact that state violence instigated in its own territory is considered legitimate and justified in the struggle against hostile elements, and therefore cannot be defined as terror. The significance of this is that the definition of state-sanctioned acts as terror depends on the attitude of the international community toward the methods used by the state, the conditions under which the violence is used, whether in an armed conflict facing the state or during peacetime.
According to David Rappoport’s 2003 work, there have been four separate waves in the use of terror since the 1880s. The first lasted about thirty years, from the 1880s to the 1920s. The groups active during this period espoused a revolutionary antimonarchy ideology, using force mainly in assassination attempts against representatives of the royalty; for example, the People’s Will, Narodnaya Volya in Russia, or the Black Hand in Serbia. Notable among the events of this period were the assassinations of Czar Alexander II by Russian revolutionaries on March 13, 1881, and of Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne, on June 28, 1914, the incident that sparked World War I.
The second wave continued from the 1920s to the 1960s. In this wave, terror was used mainly by ethnic groups in their struggles for independence from colonial powers—the EOKA in Cyprus and the Etzel and Lehi, Hebrew acronyms for National Military Organization and Fighters for Israel’s Liberty, respectively, in British Mandate Palestine. The activities in this second wave differed from those in the first wave in that their targets were military and government installations, similar to the guerrilla warfare of the Force de Liberation Nationale (FLN) in Algeria in the mid-1950s.
The third wave was concentrated in the 1960s and 1970s and was employed by ideological groups on the radical left trying to change the ruling regimes in their own countries, like the Red Brigades in Italy. For the first time, these groups were active in countries other than their own. They cooperated with like-minded foreign organizations and for the first time launched international terrorist activities, such as when the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) cooperated with the Japanese Red Brigade in Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, and Libya, among other countries.
The fourth wave began in the 1980s. The political ideology of the 1960s and 1970s has been largely replaced by religion as a background for acts of violent terrorism and its targets. Most perpetrators come from Islamic countries, although today’s terrorism is not unique to Islam. The main tactics are kidnappings and suicide attacks in numbers that rose from 40 in the 1980s to 125 in the 1990s, and dozens of attacks per year since 2000. The most notable terrorist group is Al-Qaeda, which recruits and operates worldwide. Its network-based structure and use of the Internet for communication between cells in different countries make it completely different from the typical groups of previous decades.
In the early twenty-first century accelerated technological development and computerization throughout the world have increased terror that is less conspicuously violent, such as cyber-terrorism. This involves attacks against a country’s computer systems and civilian and military communications. As such, researchers are not in agreement as to whether this is actually terrorism, since it does not involve violence.
- Rappoport, David C. 2003. The Four Waves of Rebel Terror and September 11. In The New Global Terrorism: Characteristics, Causes, Controls, ed. Charles W. Kegley. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- White, Jonathan R. 1998. Terrorism: An Introduction. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.
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