Following the horror of the September 11 2001 attacks on the
in New York and on the Pentagon in Washington, the world was
shocked and began to speak of a new global crusade. In the words
of US President George W Bush it became 'the war on terrorism',
which has since become 'the war on terror'. Although the champions of
this new war announced
that it would be a wide-ranging exercise, perhaps the most significant
problem -and one that widens its scope- is its lack of proper
definition. Terror and terrorism are different
things: the latter is the practice, the former the effect.
The practice has been utilized since time immemorial, and the
effect is also as old as time itself.
In the post-September 11 world, an effort was made initially
to distinguish between 'terrorist groups with a global reach'
and 'freedom fighters' with territorial claims, such as the Tamil
Tigers of Sri Lanka. But this distinction is confusing. The Arab
countries for example have been quick to point out that Hamas,
a group fighting for the creation of a Palestinian
are 'freedom fighters', but have nonetheless been dubbed 'terrorists'.
By contrast, the Al-Qaeda organization that is blamed for the
attacks in New York and Washington, does not have national demands,
but Islamic ones, and its reach is broad, global even.
A generic notion of terrorism is increasingly being applied,
which is to equate terrorists with 'enemies of civilization'.
By definition, this makes terrorism the enemy of a status quo,
defined vaguely by Washington as 'civilization'. In doing so
this repeats a commonplace, since terrorism has been identified
with individuals or groups seeking to destabilize or overthrow
the existing political institutions. However, terrorism has been
used both by the colonial powers (such as France in Algeria or
Indo-China, or the US in Vietnam) and by anti-colonialists (such as the Irish, the
Algerians, Palestinians and Vietnamese). What is certain is that the
systematic use of terror tactics, or of an unanticipated violence
- whether against the government, the public or individuals -
in order to achieve a political objective, is not only the conventional
definition of 'terrorism', but also a practice as old as time.
It has been used by political organizations of the right and
left alike, by revolutionaries, by nationalist groups, by armies,
by secret police and by governments.
of the past
ancient Greece, Xenophon (431-350
wrote of the psychological effectiveness of using terror in the
war against enemy populations. The Roman emperors Tiberius and
Caligula used expropriation of property and executions as methods
to protect their regimes. Precedents for political crimes can
be found in the Old Testament, in the stories of Judith and Holofernes,
of Jahel and Sisara, and in the reflections of classical theologians
and philosophers, such as Seneca, who established that 'no
sacrifice pleases the gods so much as the blood of a tyrant'.
In Rome, and later also in Byzantium, the assassination of individuals
in power became almost a tradition, seemingly endorsed by Cicero's
idea that 'tyrants always bring a violent end upon themselves'.
However, the assassination of individuals -even if it has existed
throughout human history- differs from modern terrorism.
There are early examples of groups engaged in systematic terrorism,
such as the Sicarians. They were one of the Jewish groups that
fought the Roman occupation of Palestine and demanded an independent
Jewish state. Historian Flavius Josephus considers the Sicarians
such for the daggers or siccas they carried) responsible for the catastrophe
of the year 70AD, when the Second Temple was destroyed and the
Jewish state came to an end in Jerusalem.
Another example is that of the Order of the Assassins (hachichin), an offshoot
of the Muslim sect of the Ismailis, which terrorized the Middle
East in the 11th century. Its founder, Hassan I Sabah, ordered
the capture of several forts in the mountains, though the Assassins
soon moved their activities to the cities, killing enemies in
Baghdad, Persia, Syria and Palestine. There were also secret
societies in India and China, motivated more by religious creed
than by politics, that made use of systematic violence.
and the state
Spain, the Inquisition used arbitrary arrests, torture and execution
against what it perceived to be heresy, but the use of terror
- along with the arrival of the word 'terrorism' - was the standard
carried by the Jacobins during the French Revolution. In the
period known as the Reign of Terror (1793-94) the revolutionary Robespierre
advocated the practice and made use of it to encourage 'revolutionary
virtue'. By 1798, the term was applied generally to any entity
that sought to achieve political goals through violence and intimidation.
The Jacobins were the only ones to use the term in a self-referential
way, and with them was born what is currently known as 'modern
terrorism'. From that time forward, the word 'terrorism' -initially
linked to the concept of 'virtue'- took on negative connotations.
After the American Civil War (1861-65), some of the
defeated but defiant southerners formed a terrorist organization,
the Ku Klux Klan, to intimidate those who supported the Reconstruction.
By the end of that century, terrorist tactics had been adopted
by anarchists in Western Europe, Russia and the US. They believed
that the most effective means for social and political change
was to assassinate the individuals in power: in the period 1865-1905,
anarchist bombs and bullets killed several kings, presidents
and government officials.
In the 20th century, the practice of terrorism, by both the right
and the left, came to be understood as the attempt by groups
or individuals to use the power of terror to destabilize or overthrow
the existing order. It was adopted as state policy by Adolf
Hitler's Nazi Germany and by Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union.
Without legal grounds or restrictions, they systematically used
arrest, imprisonment, torture, executions and forced labor to
fuel fear and encourage adherence to the national ideology and
the state. This practice, whose origins lie with Robespierre,
became known as state terrorism.
Following World War II, terrorism practiced by individuals or
groups continued in Ireland and Spain, but largely disappeared
from its modern home in Europe, shifting to Asia and the Middle
East, where it was taken up by the Jews who demanded their own
state in Palestine. It could be said that, in the 20th century,
terrorism underwent a drastic change, as the main victims became
random civilians rather than representatives of the state.
Cold War and beyond
believe that what had been considered 'ideological' terrorism
that practised in the late 1960s by the Red Army Faction in Germany,
the Red Brigades of Italy or the Japanese Red Army) was more or
less extinct by the end of the Cold War. They thought this mainly
because the Soviet Union's role as an incubator for anti-capitalist
or anti-democratic movements was not taken on by any other state.
But supplanting the old ideological conflict are the ethno-religious
conflicts. The increased US presence in the Middle East and the
Pacific, as well as the fragile stability of Central Asia, leads
some observers to believe that ethno-religious terrorism will
continue to rise in those regions. Others believe that terrorism
related to specific issues will undergo an inordinate expansion,
utilized by groups such as the neo-Luddites that reject technology,
or those opposed to abortion and taxes, like certain groups in
expanded reach both of weapons and media coverage has maximized the psychological
effects -terror- of terrorism. If nuclear terrorism was for decades
a dystopia (negative
utopia) technological advances have
made it a real possibility. Nowadays nuclear terrorism would
entail the use of nuclear weapons by individuals or groups, not
by states. The impact of terrorism has also been greatly magnified
by the mass
any act of violence attracts TV coverage and is beamed
to millions of viewers. This extensive reach has led to the use
of terror as a way of publicizing the demands, complaints or
political objectives of a particular organization (see 'The changing face
Although to date only one country, the US, has used nuclear weapons
in war - against the civilians of two Japanese cities at the
end of World War II - chemical weapons attacks have flourished
during the last decades. They were not only used in international
the Iraq-Iran War in the 1980s) but also by a terrorist group. In March
1995 the Japanese religious cult Aum Shinrikyo carried out a
nerve gas attack in the Tokyo subway, killing 12 people and injuring
5,000. Until then, an assault of that sort had been considered
highly unlikely. An estimated 30 to 40 countries have the capability
to produce chemical weapons. Germ warfare is another possibility.
In the wake of the September 11 outrage, mail containing Anthrax
spores brought more terror to US citizens.
is commonly said that terrorism is 'the weapon of the weak'.
Those who are overpowered by armies or economic means often resort
to this practice. Powerful states nowadays fear that the new
communication technologies, which encourage communication between groups
and individuals worldwide, could foment global terrorism - aiming
it beyond the realm of governments. Targets could include multinational
corporations, international institutions and even non-governmental
organizations (NGOs). Cyber-terrorism - attacks against computer
networks - is a threat that is currently manifest in the 'almost
benign' actions of hackers and deliberately-spread computer viruses.
In the midst of the globalization process, which
erases borders, it seems that the current manifestations of terrorism
whether political, religious or moral, have also become supranational.
Occasionally, the terrorism may be apolitical, as in the case
of Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber in the US, whose manifesto
through his bomb attacks) proclaimed a revolution, not against
institutions, but against the 'economic and technological basis
of present society'.
As some critics say, among them French philosopher Jean
present-day terrorism can be understood as resistance to a 'definitive
order'. In that sense, the World Trade Center symbolized the
world order that was imposed after the Cold War; the globalized
and technocratic world sought to reflect its own image in the
Twin Towers. This world is an interconnected system that evolves
into a single unit that carries within it its own terror - insecurity.
In that economic, political and technological web nobody is independent
and no one can stand by her/himself. From this line of reasoning
it follows that the formula can be reversed this time and that
current global terrorism is just the effect, for terror is already
embedded in the system.
*Published in The World Guide