Terrorism involves violence against civilians, with a political or religious motivation. Terrorist acts are organized so as to attract maximum attention, and are committed for the purpose of intimidating a group of people, and/or pressuring a government to do (or not do) something. In most cases, terrorism is a weapon of small groups, fighting against governments that are more established and better-armed.
Because terrorist organizations guard their secrecy, they offer no clear target for retaliation, and are hard to defend against. Now that the Cold War is over, many observers consider terrorism the greatest threat to world peace and security.
Terrorists don’t call themselves terrorists
The word implies that the person committing the terrorist act is a murderer. Those whom others call terrorists see themselves as fighters for a just cause, and refer to themselves by names like freedom fighter, revolutionary, guerrilla, rebel, or patriot. In the Islamic world, the names jihadi and mujahedeen are used in a similar way. In many conflicts, both sides call their enemies terrorists.
“One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”
Those who commit terrorist acts sometimes succeed in overthrowing governments, and become the new leaders of their countries. People who were once condemned as criminals may then become respected members of the international community. Some claim that it’s a matter of point of view: if you believe the cause is just, then you don’t call the rebel a terrorist; but, if you’re a citizen of the country under attack, then anyone who kills civilians is a murderous terrorist.
Ethicists argue against this, however. They say that violence against civilians deserves the label terrorist, no matter how righteous the goal, and can never be justified. (For a lecture on this subject, go to Georgetown University’s website.)
For some interesting comments from other sources, google the question, Can terrorism ever be justified?
After 9/11, al-Qaeda became the best-known terrorist group in the world. Created by Osama bin-Laden, a wealthy Saudi, the group’s main goals are to drive America and its influence out of the Muslim world, to destroy Israel, and to replace the secular governments of Muslim countries with fundamentalist regimes ruled by Islamic law. Bin-Laden despises the U.S., and Western culture in general; he sees our country as Islam’s greatest enemy. In 1996, he issued a “Declaration of War” against the U.S.; in a 1998 decree, he called on Muslims to kill Americans and their allies whenever possible. According to al-Qaeda’s ideology, killing of civilians is justified in a holy war. Although many of al-Qaeda’s leaders have been captured or killed, it still has cells (see below) in about 100 countries. Experts disagree over whether the group still directly organizes terrorist attacks; some believe it has become a label for separate Islamic groups that oppose the West. Others say that the group remains the world’s foremost threat to Americans. For an overview of the conflict between the U.S. and al-Qaeda, see this review of The Longest War, by Peter Bergen. For more on al-Qaeda in general, see Infoplease.com and Wikipedia.
What is a terrorist cell?
Some terrorist groups organize themselves in small, separate units called cells. Only the cell leader communicates with higher-level members of the organization. If the members of a cell are caught, there is little they can tell interrogators about the operations of other cells or the organization’s leaders.
Terrorist groups, present and past
Hamas A militant Islamic organization waging a jihad (holy war) for the liberation of Palestine, Hamas operates mainly in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. It has attacked Israel with suicide bombings, mortars, and rockets, killing more than 500 people since 1993; at the same time, it has won support among Palestinians by funding and running schools, orphanages, mosques, clinics, youth groups, and soup kitchens. In 2006, Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections, defeating the Fatah party. Hamas refuses to recognize Israel or to renounce violence; the U.S., the European Union, Russia and the U.N. therefore cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority from 2006 to 2007.
Hezbollah A military, political and social service organization in Lebanon, Hezbollah operates schools and hospitals, and takes part in the government, but is also believed to be responsible for bombings, including the one that killed 241 American soldiers in Beirut in 1983. Hezbollah provoked a brief war with Israel in 2006 by firing rockets across the border and kidnapping two Israeli soldiers. The group receives funding from Iran and Syria.
The P.L.O. (Palestine Liberation Organization): Led by Yasser Arafat from 1969-2004, the P.L.O. used terrorist tactics in its fight against Israel until 1988, when Arafat publicly renounced terrorism.
The I.R.A. (Provisional Irish Republican Army): Seeking to unite Ireland by removing Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom, the I.R.A. used bombings and assassinations to coerce the British government to leave Ireland. During the 30 years before it renounced violence, the I.R.A. is believed to have been responsible for the deaths of more than 1,000 British soldiers and police and more than 600 civilians.
Other terrorist groups that made headlines in the past include the Red Brigades (Brigate Rosse) in Italy, Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) in Peru, E.T.A.: a Basque separatist group operating in Spain and France, and the Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany.
Noted terrorist attacks
1946: Irgun, a militant Zionist group, bombs the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, headquarters of the British military. The attack kills 91, including both soldiers and civilians.
1963: A Ku Klux Klansman bombs the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Four young African-American girls die.
1970s-1990s: I.R.A. bombings and shootings kill more than 600 civilians and more than 1,000 British soldiers and police.
1972: At the Munich Olympics, Palestinian militants calling themselves Black September kidnap and kill 11 Israeli athletes and one German policeman.
1983: Suicide bombers explode truck bombs at two Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, killing 241 American and 58 French soldiers.
1988: Pan Am 103, a jetliner, is blown up over Lockerbie, Scotland; 270 people die. Only one person, a Libyan, is eventually convicted of involvement in the attack—which may have been a retaliation for air-strikes on Libya ordered by Ronald Reagan in 1986 (an attempt to kill Muammar al-Qaddafi, who had sponsored a terrorist attack in West Berlin that killed two American soldiers).
1978-1995: The Unabomber (Theodore Kaczynski), a mathematics professor, sends 16 bombs to universities and airlines, killing three and injuring 23. In a manifesto, he explains that he wanted to call attention to the erosion of freedom in modern technological society.
1993: A truck bomb explodes in an underground garage in N.Y.’s World Trade Center, but fails to topple the building; 6 die, more than 1,000 are injured. Ramzi Yousef, who planned the bombing, had hoped the tower would fall and crash into its twin, killing everyone inside.
1995: Aum Shinrikyo, a religious cult, releases sarin gas in Tokyo subways, killing 12 and seriously injuring 50.
1995: A bombing at a federal office building in Oklahoma City kills 168 and injures nearly 700. Planned and executed by right-wing anti-government army veteran Timothy McVeigh, the bombing was the deadliest terror attack in U.S. history until 9/11.
2000: Al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen bomb the U.S.S. Cole, a missile destroyer, killing 17 American servicemen.
September 11, 2001 Islamist terrorists hijack four jets and crash two of them into the World Trade Center towers. Within two hours of the first crash, both towers collapse. The third jet crashes into the Pentagon; the fourth targets the U.S. Capitol, but passengers overpower the hijackers and the jet crashes in Pennsylvania. Nearly 3,000 people die that day, including office workers, fireman, police, and airline crew and passengers, making it the deadliest terrorist attack in world history.
2001: Someone (still unidentified) mails letters containing anthrax to journalists and politicians; five people die.
2004: Madrid railroad bombings, organized by Al-Qaeda, kill roughly 200 people and injure at least 1,400. As a result, Spain’s newly-elected government ends its support for the U.S. military campaign in Iraq.
2005: Four bombs in three London subway stations kill more than 50 and injure more than 700. The group that claims responsibility says the attacks are retaliation for England’s involvement in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
2013: On 4/22/13, two homemade bombs explode near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring more than 170. Within five days, the bombers are identified as Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 26 and 19, immigrants from the Chechen Republic in Russia. Tamerlan is killed in a shootout with police; Dzhokhar escapes, but is captured the next day and questioned. The motive behind the bombing: the brothers came under the influence of Islamic jihadists. For more on the bombing, see CNN.
Since 9/11, intelligence and law enforcement officials, with help from vigilant citizens, have prevented several would-be terrorists from carrying out their plans. Here are a few examples:
• Richard Reid, the Shoe Bomber: In December 2001, this British citizen hid explosives in his shoes, intending to ignite them while aboard a flight to Miami. He was stopped by the flight attendants, with help from passengers, and eventually sentenced to life imprisonment. He’s the reason why security agents check your shoes before you board a plane.
• The Christmas Day bomber: on December 25, 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Muslim Nigerian, tried to set off plastic explosives in his underwear while on a flight to Detroit. Spotting the flames, another passenger held him down while flight attendants used fire extinguishers to put out the flames. Abdulmutallab told authorities that he had been directed by al-Qaeda.
• Times Square, May, 2010: Street vendors noticed smoke coming from an SUV and told a police officer. The SUV had been loaded with explosives, and the explosives had been ignited, but had failed to detonate. The bomb squad disarmed the bomb, and no one was hurt. Two days later, Faisal Shahzad, a Connecticut resident born in Pakistan, was arrested after boarding a flight to Dubai. He admitted that he was responsible for the bomb, and that he had attended a terrorist training camp in Pakistan. (To see a video in which the bomber explains his motives, go here.)
• 10/29/10: Two package bombs en route from Yemen to Chicago, hidden in printer cartridges, were removed from UPS and FedEx planes because of a tip from a former Guantanamo detainee. American officials suspect a group called Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. See the New York Times for details.
• 12/6/10: Based on secret diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, the New York Times reports that the U.S. believes extremist groups around the world are getting millions of dollars in support from sources we have not been able to block. These sources include drug harvests in Afghanistan, fundraising among religious pilgrims at Mecca in Saudi Arabia, and kidnapping for ransom. The money has flowed to Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Hamas, and other groups.
• 1/26/11: Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, the first Guantánamo detainee to be tried in a civilian court, has been sentenced to life in prison for his part in the bombings of two U.S. Embassies in Africa in 1998. The trial was seen as a test of President Obama’s plan to try terror suspects in civilian courts. See this New York Times article for more.
• Democratic revolutions in the Middle East: the beginning of the end for Islamic terrorism? Al-Qaeda has long denounced the Arab world’s secular dictators—but neither religion nor terrorism has played an important role in the 2011 uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere. These movements have been driven, instead, by secular, democratic aspirations. For more on what this means for the future, see this New York Times article.
• 3/8/11: President Obama has reversed his 2009 order that stopped new military trials of Guantánamo detainees. Military trials may now go forward for current detainees. The president said he still hopes to close Guantánamo eventually.
• 4/25/11: WikiLeaks has released more than 700 classified military documents from the Bush era about the Guantánamo Bay detention camp. The documents reveal intelligence officials’ comments on prisoners there, including some who were victims of mistaken identity. See the New York Times for more.
• 4/26/11: The New York Times reports evidence, from the WikiLeaks Guantánamo files, that Al-Qaeda planned to follow up on 9/11 with other terrorist attacks in the U.S.
• 5/1/11: Osama bin-Laden is dead: After pursuing America’s foremost enemy for nearly 10 years, C.I.A. and military operatives killed al-Qaeda’s founder and leader in a compound in Pakistan where he had been living with family members. President Obama announced the news in a special late-night broadcast from the White House, saying that “justice has been done.” Bin-Laden’s body was buried at sea. See the New York Times for more.
• 5/6/11: A first look at the computer files and documents found in bin-Laden’s compound shows that, as of 2010, al-Qaeda was considering an attack on American railroads. Intelligence analysts have concluded that bin-Laden was still active in plotting terrorist attacks.
• 7/13/11: In a coordinated attack, three bombs exploded in busy commercial areas of Mumbai (formerly Bombay), India’s biggest city. The bombs, which went off within minutes of each other, killed 26 and injured 130 more. The attack has been classified as terrorism, though no group has claimed responsibility.
What do terrorists want?
Different terrorists have different goals. Marxist groups (including Shining Path, Red Brigades, and Baader-Meinhof) have sought the overthrow of capitalist governments; right-wing terrorists (such as Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City) have lashed out at what they see as government oppression. Separatists want to break away from nations in which they are ethnic or religious minorities, and form smaller nations. Religious terrorists reject secular rule, and seek to establish new governments based on religious law.
Why are so many terrorist groups linked with Islam?
Any discussion of this question must begin with a reminder that most Muslims are not terrorists and don’t support terrorism. The radical minority who embrace violence seem to share these motivations:
• Loathing of American/European culture and values, and resentment of this influence on their societies. Western sexual mores, especially (as seen in movies and on television), repel these culturally conservative, religious Muslims.
• Hatred of Israel, as a non-Muslim state in the middle of the Arab world. Widespread resentment of Israel has been a potent recruiting tool for terrorists.
• America’s invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. These are seen by many as humiliating assaults, and the resulting civilian deaths and destruction have intensified resentments.
Finally, oil wealth has enabled countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia to fund terrorists dedicated to the destruction of Israel.
How can anyone be convinced to become a suicide bomber?
What suicide bombers in the Middle East seem to have in common is deep religious faith and hatred of Israel. Each undergoes intense indoctrination, and records a video statement about his (or her) future martyrdom; on the day of the bombing, they watch their own videos and those of previous suicide bombers. Religious leaders tell them their deaths will be painless, and tell males that they will enjoy virgins in paradise. After the bombing, the suicide bomber’s family is paid a few thousand dollars. [For a long account of a suicide bomber’s training and motivation, see this New Yorker article.]
How likely is it that terrorists will use nuclear or biological weapons?
At present, it seems unlikely that a terrorist group will soon succeed in using a nuclear weapon, because the technology required is more sophisticated than many people realize. Biological weapons may be more easily deployed, however.
A danger to civil liberties
In response to terrorist attacks, democratic governments may clamp down on civil liberties in order to catch past and would-be perpetrators. This happened, to some extent, after 9/11. Under an Executive Order by President Bush, the National Security Agency was authorized to monitor phone calls, emails, internet activity, and other communications, without warrants, as long as the NSA believed that one of the parties was outside the U.S. (In April, 2010, a federal judge ruled that the government broke the law when it spied on two lawyers for an Islamic charity without seeking warrants.) Also, during the fearful months after 9/11, many innocent Arab-Americans and other Muslims were detained for questioning. The need to prevent future attacks sometimes conflicts with our accustomed freedoms. If there is another attack on the scale of 9/11, you can expect this issue to resurface.
The origin of the word terrorism
After the French Revolution, the new republic established what came to be called the Reign of Terror, in which 40,000 supposed enemies of the new regime lost their lives at the guillotine. The revolutionary leader Robespierre said, “Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible”—but the word terrorism soon came to signify merciless bloodshed in pursuit of political goals.
The U.S. has had a naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, since 1903. Detention camps for accused terrorists were set up here after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, and have operated since 2002. The Bush administration contended that detainees were not entitled to the protections of the Geneva Conventions, because they were terrorists aiming to harm American citizens, not uniformed soldiers or guerrillas who abide by the rules of war. Designating them “enemy combatants,” U.S. military personnel subjected detainees at Guantánamo (also called “Gitmo”) to harsh interrogation that many consider torture. (According to this 2008 exposé, U.S. military trainers leading an interrogation class in 2002 based their methods on Chinese torture techniques used during the Korean War.) Organizations such as Amnesty International, the Red Cross, and Human Rights Watch have criticized the treatment of prisoners at the facility, and called for it to be shut down. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell agreed, saying, “It is causing us far more damage than any good we get for it.”
President Obama pledged to shut down Guantánamo during his campaign, but the process has been slow and difficult, in part because of resistance to housing the detainees in prisons on American soil. In all, nearly 800 detainees have been brought to Guantánamo; most have been released without charge, or transferred to facilities in their own countries. Only three prisoners have been tried and convicted. As of June, 2010, 181 detainees remained. U.S. officials intend to put fewer than half of them on trial and release the rest.
For more on Guantánamo, see this Wikipedia article.
What should we do with captured terrorists?
In Afghanistan, in Iraq, and here in the U.S., we have captured people who we believe killed (or tried to kill) civilians and American soldiers for political reasons. Should these accused terrorists be held indefinitely without trial? That would violate American standards of justice. Many argue that terrorists don’t deserve the same rights as citizens accused of committing ordinary crimes. But what about detainees who are innocent?
Should accused terrrorists be tried in civilian courts, or by military commissions? A Washington Post article by Jack Goldsmith, professor at Harvard Law School and Assistant Attorney General under President George W. Bush, outlines the history of the problem. In “A Way Past the Terrorist Detention Gridlock,” 9/10/10, Professor Goldsmith writes: “…our nation is still flummoxed about what to do with captured terrorists… Guantanamo Bay has proved harder to close than the Obama administration anticipated. Many terrorists there are too dangerous to release and, for a variety of evidentiary reasons, cannot be brought to trial. Our allies have taken fewer detainees than we would like. These men will thus have to be held in U.S. custody. But neither Congress nor the American people is keen on transferring them to the United States. ¶Military commissions have not worked well, either… Civilian trials for terrorists have also proven difficult. They gathered disfavor when Attorney General Eric Holder said he would prosecute Khalid Sheik Mohammed and other alleged Sept. 11 plotters in civilian court in Manhattan… The Bush administration prosecuted scores of terrorists in civilian court with little controversy. But the charge that the Obama administration is insufficiently tough on terrorists has made it harder for this administration to try terrorists in civilian court.” The article goes on to propose that military detention and civilian trials be the main way we deal with captured terrorists.
For more views on the topic of what to do with captured terrorists, see this blog entry that attacks the Goldsmith article cited above… this article by Douglass Cassell in a journal of Northwestern University Law School, which discusses what’s permitted under international law… this NPR interview with Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch, about what’s wrong with keeping detainees in Guantanamo indefinitely… and this Washington Post op-ed by Marc Thiessen, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, arguing in favor of “enhanced interrogation techniques” (which critics call torture), based on the argument that these techniques enabled interrogators to get information from detainees that foiled terrorist plots.
Jessica Stern, “5 myths about who becomes a terrorist,” Washington Post, 1/1/10: much of what we think we know about terrorists is wrong.
Did the U.S. overreact to the 9/11 attacks? A comparative analysis of threats to our security, from Scientific American.
Khalid Mustafa Medani, “Want to Fight Terrorism? Think Globally, Act Locally,” Toronto Globe and Mail, 8/4/08, posted on merip.org: argues that the key to combating jihadism lies at the local level, with clan and community leaders.
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Last updated 4/28/13
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