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READ: Non-State Terrorism

Terrorism sounds like a newer problem than it is. The instruments of terrorism may have changed, but many of the tactics and goals have been the same for centuries.

Non-State Terrorism

By Bennett Sherry
Terrorism sounds like a newer problem than it is. The instruments of terrorism may have changed, but many of the tactics and goals have been the same for centuries.

Misconceptions about terror

When you read the word, “terrorism,” what’s the first thing that comes to mind? If your first thoughts were about militant Islamism, you’re not alone. Many people—especially in the United States—associate the word terrorism specifically with violent actions of radical Islamists. Attacks by Islamist groups like Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State (ISIS) and Boko Haram get a lot of media attention. But the fact is that there’s nothing uniquely Islamic about terrorism and nothing particularly terrorist about Islam. Terrorism is very much a part of our world in the twenty-first century, and it serves us better to figure out why it exists in broad terms than to focus specifically on one type of terrorism.
The United Nations typically defines terrorism as “criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes.”1 At its most basic, terrorism uses violence to create fear. Less organized or smaller groups use terrorism as a tool against states and other big, organized communities. Terrorism is designed to scare a government, the public, or a group of people into changing their behavior.2
Historically, the people who employ the tools of terror think of themselves as freedom fighters or revolutionaries, not terrorists. They believe they are fighting oppression. Most have an ideology—anarchism, nationalism, Marxism, white supremacy, militant jihadism, and others—that defines how society should look.

A long history of terror

We tend to think about terrorism as a modern invention. It’s not. Some historians point to examples of terrorism in the ancient and medieval periods. A group of Jewish rebels called Sicarri murdered civilians who opposed their revolt against Roman rule. The Hashashins were a Muslim sect in Persia during the eleventh and twelfth centuries. They assassinated political leaders in opposition of Seljuk rule. In 1605, Guy Fawkes, an English Catholic, plotted to blow up the English Parliament with gunpowder. He and his co-conspirators hoped to kill the king and inspire a Catholic rebellion, but they were caught and their plot foiled. Daggers and gunpowder are very different from hijacked airplanes. But the motivation, tactics, and goals of these early groups shared a lot in common with terrorism today. Both then and now, a non-state group wanted to defeat a state, and they attacked civilians and officials to create an atmosphere of fear.
The Industrial Revolution provided new tools for terrorists. Dynamite was invented in 1867 to make mining more efficient, but it was also useful for blowing up political opponents. Anarchists in the United States and Europe especially used dynamite for political assassinations. Terrorists during the long nineteenth century generally targeted political leaders, rather than civilians. A group of Russian revolutionaries used dynamite to assassinate the Russian Tzar, Alexander II, in 1881. Assassins’ bullets and explosives killed several kings, emperors, prime ministers, presidents, and industrialists in the nineteenth century. The assassins called this sort of terrorism “propaganda by deed.”

Terrorism in the twentieth century

Three social transformations changed terrorism in the twentieth century: democracy, urbanization, and nationalism. By this time, more people lived under democratic regimes—which made killing a king much less effective. Thus, terrorists turned their attention toward masses of civilians, and with cities getting more crowded, explosives were more effective.
Finally, nationalists increasingly used terror against the empires that ruled them. In the Austrian, Ottoman, and British Empires, nationalists used violence and terror to secure national independence. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) was formed during World War I to support of the Irish War of Independence. Unable to directly challenge the mighty British Empire, they used guerilla warfare, bombings, and assassinations. After Ireland won independence, the IRA focused on Northern Ireland, which remained part of the UK. The IRA attacked Protestant civilians and British leaders from the 1960s through the 1990s, until a political deal in 1998 brought an end to the period known as “the Troubles.”
The aftermath of an IRA bombing at the Grand Hotel in Brighton, England in 1984. The bomb was intended to assassinate Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, but she escaped. Five others were killed and dozens injured. © Getty Images.
Other groups used terrorism not against a foreign empire, but against their own government. A revolutionary communist group in Peru called the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) attacked Peruvian officials and civilians. They wanted to topple the government and replace it with communism. In the 1980s and 1990s, Shining Path members assassinated leaders, destroyed infrastructure, and bombed public spaces.
Far-right groups have also used terrorism. In the United States, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) was founded after the Civil War. During the civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s, the KKK reemerged and launched a campaign of terror to intimidate African American citizens. They used lynching, cross burning, and murder to repress voting and uphold segregation.
KKK members stand next to a burning cross in 1958. The KKK burned crosses in public view as one method of intimidation against African Americans. Public domain.
Today, we often associate terrorism with religion, but most twentieth-century terrorism was secular. At the 1972 Olympics, a group of Palestinian terrorists murdered eleven members of the Israeli national team. As terrorist organizations grew in the Middle East, tactics such as embassy bombing and plane hijacking became more common. These groups focused on political goals. However, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 set the stage for a new sort of terrorism: militant jihadism. The Soviet war in Afghanistan lasted ten years, providing training and experience to many of the fighters who would later join groups like Al-Qaeda. These Mujahideen3 soon left Afghanistan to fight in conflicts in other parts of the world.
Militant jihadist organizations have become the face of terrorism in the twenty-first century. Al-Qaeda’s attacks on 9/11 and the American response helped expand several other militant jihadist organizations. The Islamic State (ISIS) rose to prominence in 2014, seizing control of territory in Iraq and Syria. In Nigeria, Boko Haram has committed assassinations, kidnapping, and bombings to undermine the Nigerian government.
Western governments and media might focus on militant jihadists, but these groups do not have a monopoly on the use of terror. Recently, white supremacists have committed terrorist attacks around the world. Mass shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh that killed 11 people, and the Charleston Church Massacre, where 9 died, were designed to intimidate Jewish and African American communities, respectively. In Christchurch New Zealand, a white supremacist attacked two mosques in an anti-Muslim attack, killing 51 people.
Members of Pittsburgh and the Squirrel Hill community pay their respects at the memorial to the 11 victims of the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre. © Getty Images.

When terror wins

Terrorists want to provoke an overreaction. They want to seem like a huge, existential threat to create fear, panic, and chaos. Governments have used the fear of terrorism to justify wars and surveillance of their own citizens, spreading violence abroad and curtailing freedoms at home. After the 9/11 attacks, a global war on terror mobilized national governments to brutally repress terrorist groups. The Tamil Tigers, for example, had operated in Sri Lanka since the 1970s. But in 2009, the government crushed the revolutionary group, using brutal violence and mass imprisonment, widely criticized by human rights groups. The war on terror was in itself so terrifying it changed the strategies of many older, non-Islamist terrorist organizations. Some groups, like Euskadi ta Askatasuna—a Basque separatist party in Spain—declared a truce in 2006 and ceased violent attacks, partly in fear of being associated with Islamist terrorism and becoming a target in the war on terror.
Are we too afraid of terrorists? Deaths from terrorist attacks have increased in recent decades, but the number is still relatively small. 2014 was the deadliest year for terrorist attacks, with 32,685 people killed globally. This is a large number, but it is still quite small relative to total causes of death. And if you’re reading this from a wealthy nation, your risk of dying in a terrorist attack is miniscule. The media focuses most of its attention on terrorist attacks in wealthy, Western nations. But attacks in these nations account for a tiny percentage of the global total. In 2017, terrorism accounted for 0.05 percent of global deaths, or 1 in 2,000. Of these, only 0.9 percent were in the world’s wealthiest nations (home to about 1 billion people), or about 1 in 222,000.
When there is a terrorist attack—especially in North America or Western Europe—it’s all over the news. Governments respond forcefully, and there is an outpouring of emotion and fear. But this fear makes the danger seem larger than it really is, which creates chaos. This is the exact reaction that terrorist attacks are designed to provoke.
Author bio
Bennett Sherry holds a PhD in history from the University of Pittsburgh and has undergraduate teaching experience in world history, human rights, and the Middle East at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Maine at Augusta. Additionally, he is a research associate at Pitt's World History Center. Bennett writes about refugees and international organizations in the twentieth century.

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