II. Definition, Types, and Strategies of Terrorism
Terrorism is undeservingly notorious for its presumed difficulty to be clearly defined. In actuality, the search for an adequate definition of terrorism is difficult because various institutions compete for the most appropriate approach. Thus, terrorism is defined from the variable viewpoints of law, politics, culture and public opinion, and the sciences. In any one discipline of the sciences, moreover, a plurality of definitions is developed from a multitude of theoretical perspectives. Underlying these approaches, however, are certain recurring elements that can be put forward to develop a minimal definition of terrorism.
Terrorism involves the use of illegitimate means, typically involving the exercise of violence oriented at civilians, for political-ideological purposes. Terrorism thus has both an instrumental component, referring to its means, and a goal-oriented component, referring to its objectives. Differences in the extant definitions of terrorism revolve around the differential emphasis that is placed on either the means or the objectives of terrorism. From the viewpoint of a nation-state, for example, an official definition of terrorism as it is articulated in a formal legal system typically emphasizes the means of terrorism as involving some unlawful methods, such as the (violent) tactics that are used by a certain type of actors (unlawful combatants). Other definitions, by contrast, focus on the aims of terrorism in seeking to destabilize the social order and endangering the security of a state or population. From a strict analytical viewpoint, it is useful to incorporate more, rather than fewer, dimensions of the acts of violence conceived as terrorism, so that both means and aims should be considered.
Because terrorism typically involves violent tactics employed on a relatively massive scale, it shares certain characteristics with warfare. Yet, terrorism is different from warfare in that it exists outside, and purposely operates against, the principles of war as they are regulated by the international community of nations. Unlike warfare, terrorist acts are often oriented toward civilian populations or are indiscriminate in their infliction of violence. Whereas war operates on the basis of standards of international law, involving legally recognized methods and actors (soldiers), terrorist activities are conducted by individuals and groups who do not enjoy any legally recognized status. Strategically, the means of terrorism involve methods oriented at the power of governments, including the kidnapping or killing of government officials, economic strategies such as sabotage and property damage, and other criminal activities such as drug trafficking and robberies to finance terrorist activities.
Acts of terrorism are politically oriented and ideologically motivated, ranging from specific goals formulated in terms of the might of political nation-states to more general aims related to the plight of certain peoples and groups. Thus, terrorism can result from demands made by ethnic groups to receive representation in an existing political community or have its own state be formed, while terrorism can also be part of ideological fights for the acknowledgment of underrepresented and oppressed expressions of ideas and ways of life. Because of the intrinsically political-ideological objectives of terrorism, the underlying ideas of terrorism are important to consider as the motivating forces that fuel terrorist groups and individuals. Strategically, moreover, the instilling of fear is an important immediate objective of terrorism.
Specific forms of terrorism can be distinguished on the basis of a variety of typologies differentiating more precisely among various means and aims of terrorist activity. From a historical viewpoint, for example, the distinction among revolutionary, nationalist, and religious terrorism can usefully bring out important shifts in terrorist activity over the ages. Revolutionary terrorism is associated with attempts to violently seize political power in the context of nation-states. Nationalist terrorism involves the violent quest by certain groups, who define themselves mostly on the basis of ethnicity as a nation, to gain autonomy and establish a new state. Religious terrorism is ideologically rooted in strands of various religious traditions that typically oppose secularization processes in society. Historically, terrorism was mostly associated with revolutionary movements involved with seeking to overthrow political regimes. As the establishment of nation-states took on a more permanent hold, nationalist terrorism increased to secure the rights of specific ethnically defined minority groups, such as the Irish in the United Kingdom, the Basques in Spain, and Zionists in the former British Mandate of Palestine. In recent times, religious terrorism has proportionally increased the most, especially on an international level. The most conspicuous examples are al-Qaeda, which is held responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, and other extremist groups with connections to Islam.
Historically, the term terrorism originated during the aftermath of the French Revolution, when the French National Assembly in 1793 decreed a mass mobilization of all able-bodied men in order to secure the republic and thwart off both internal and external enemies of the revolution. During the resulting “Reign of Terror,” tens of thousands of people, most of them ordinary workers and peasants, were massacred as purported enemies of the people. Other important historical precursors of terrorism can be traced back to the strengthening of conservative political regimes. In the late 19th century, for instance, anarchist terrorism involving various violent means, such as bombings and assassinations, spread across various nation-states. On May 4, 1886, the so-called Haymarket Riot erupted in Chicago, Illinois, when a bomb was thrown at police who were overseeing a rally protesting the police killing of two striking workers the day before. The May 4 bombing resulted in the deaths of several police and civilians. Eight anarchists were tried for murder and four received the death sentence. Although the Haymarket incident was relatively isolated, anarchist violence took on a more systematic character in Europe. In the late 19th century, numerous violent attacks took place that were motivated by anarchist ideas aimed at overthrowing established conservative regimes.
The invention of dynamite, the favorite tool of the 19th-century bomb-throwing anarchist, has been said to signal the beginning of terrorism from a technological point of view. Today, the means employed by terrorist organizations and individuals are more varied than ever, involving both legitimate as well as illegitimate activities and political as well as nonpolitical crimes. In addition to engaging in bombings of civilian populations in hostile lands, modern terrorist groups can branch out into the legitimate world of human affairs by organizing social welfare provisions in friendly territories. Terrorist activity today, furthermore, can involve routine criminal enterprises, such as drug trafficking and money laundering, in order to facilitate other, more violent activities that are politically motivated. An additional characteristic of contemporary terrorism is the increasingly high degree of technological sophistication that marks terrorist organizations and their methods of operation. Aided by newly developed means of transportation and communication, a relatively high degree of internationalism and cross-border cooperation characterizes many contemporary terrorist groups. The methods of personnel recruitment, training, and intelligence gathering have likewise modernized to high levels of expertise. Modern-day terrorism is also feared to involve the use, or at least the deliberate pursuit, of lethal means of unprecedented proportion (e.g., so-called weapons of mass destruction) and has occasionally taken on a more organized character, involving globally organized terrorist networks. The contemporary world of terrorism is also more complex, involving both multiple domestic and international forms as well as a growing number of causes, as varied as the environment, white supremacy, and abortion, and includes state-sponsored or state terrorism in addition to terrorism committed by a host of non-state actors.