What Is Terrorism?
What exactly is "terrorism"? It is a word with many different definitions—some legal, some political. It has been used to describe crimes as well as to discredit political opponents.
In its broadest practical sense, terrorism is the use of violence to further a political or social cause. Individuals and organizations that use violence to achieve their political goals are called "terrorists" when they aim their attacks at civilians who are not directly involved in shaping government policy. For example, a terrorist might set off a bomb in a crowded store, restaurant, or office building, hoping to persuade the government to outlaw abortion. Or a terrorist might hijack a plane to force another country to change its foreign policy or set a prisoner free. Terrorism is the most extreme way of demanding that people pay attention to a cause. Terrorists are often "true believers," convinced of the rightness of their actions. Where the rest of the world sees empty violence and senseless destruction, terrorists see themselves as heroes fighting for a noble purpose, one based on high ideals.
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Tactics of Terrorists
Editor's note: This chapter is an attempt to explain terrorist tactics, not to condone them in any way.
The tactics and techniques of terrorism have changed overthe decades, but it has always been a poor man's form of warfare. Partly this is a result of technology. Chemical, biological, and electronic warfare were not available to terrorists in the mid-1800s, and few terrorists can afford the heavy weapons—tanks, warplanes, missiles—of a national army. But terrorists fight their campaigns with the same determination as governments fight wars. One major concern is that in the future terrorists may acquire much more powerful weapons, such as nuclear bombs, poison gases, or biological agents.
Murdering political leaders is one of the oldest forms of terrorism. It dates back at least to the Roman Empire, when a group of his political enemies murdered Roman Emperor Julius Caesar (c. 100 B.C.E.–44 B.C.E.). In the modern era the assassination of heads of state, government officials, and policemen has been a standard terrorist tactic.
Assassinations are a key tool in terrorists' attempts to gain attention for their cause. The murder of a leading government official or businessman always attracts the interest of the news media, and it thus...
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Terrorism endangers citizens and threatens the power of governments. Every government needs to be perceived as having the ability to keep its citizens safe from harm—both from external and internal attacks—if it hopes to keep the loyalty of those citizens.
In general, antiterror tactics fall into two categories: direct measures, designed to deal with terrorists themselves; and indirect measures, designed to win the confidence and support of the population. Each of these categories can also be divided into two subcategories: retaliatory measures, designed to punish for events that have already happened; and preventive measures, designed to avoid future incidents. There are thus four categories of antiterrorist tactics:
- direct measures to retaliate for past attacks
- indirect measures to retaliate for past attacks
- direct measures to prevent future attacks
- indirect measures to prevent future attacks
When a government faces a significant terrorist threat, it sometimes adopts broad-ranging measures that fall into more
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National Independence Movements
The end of World War II (1939–45) saw the start of a half century of worldwide conflicts, many of which used the tactics of terrorism.
One set of conflicts arose over the concept of nationalism, the desire to break away from one's current country and found a new, independent nation. During the nineteenth century, European nations (particularly Great Britain and France) controlled huge stretches of Africa and Asia as colonial powers. They conquered the native peoples then brought in European settlers, governing the new territories from distant capitals. At the end of World War II, some people in the English and French colonies were determined to achieve national independence. Some used the American Revolution (1775–83) as a model. These freedom fighters could not afford to set up regular armies, so they turned to terrorism as an inexpensive way to conduct their wars. Many of the independence movements also received support from the Soviet Union and China, and thus became caught up in the Cold War, a period of heightened political tensions between the two world superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, that lasted from 1945 to 1990.
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Political and Economic Warfare
Since the French Revolution (1789–90), terrorism has most often been linked to the struggle for political and economic supremacy. The motivation of many terrorists has been to over-throw the established government. In countries that did not have democratic systems of government, some people felt that terrorism directed against the government was the only method of bringing about change. In other cases, attacks have been aimed against economic targets as a means of weakening the government. Even in countries that had elected legislatures, some people felt that the government was dedicated to preserving the interests of the wealthy, and that the working class had no voice or influence. In these cases, terrorism has been a form of revolution, seeking to overthrow the entire system of government, not just a particular official or policy.
Origins of terrorism
In 1789, a mob in Paris, France, stormed a prison called the Bastille (pronounced bas-TEEL) to seize weapons that were
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Governments are often the targets of terrorism, but they can also sponsor terrorists or use the tactics of terrorism. There are two broad definitions of "state-sponsored terrorism." One refers to governments that support or conduct terrorism against other governments. The other refers to governments that conduct terrorist acts against their own citizens.
International state-sponsored terrorism
The U.S. State Department, which is in charge of the United States's relationships with other countries, maintains a list of nations accused of conducting state-sponsored terrorism. The purpose of this list, the government says, is to put pressure on nations that either use terrorism or that support terrorist groups. The government also maintains a list of independent foreign terrorist organizations. Governments that support these organizations or do not help in efforts to arrest their members may be placed on the State Department's list.
In the months following the September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon near Washington, D.C., the State Department had seven countries on its list of governments that engage in state-sponsored terrorism: Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Cuba, North Korea, and Sudan....
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The tactics of terrorism have occasionally been used to tryto achieve social or political changes not meant to result in the complete overhaul of the government. Periodically in U.S. history, causes have arisen that have seemed important enough to certain individuals to motivate them to violent action. Slavery, the environment, and abortion are the three causes that have most often moved people to take up terrorist tactics.
Terrorism and race in America
Slavery is an economic and social system in which one individual owns another and the owner forces the slave to work on his behalf. The first slaves came to North America with Spanish explorers in the mid-sixteenth century. Captured in Africa, they were sent to work on small farms in South Carolina and Florida. African slaves were not brought in large numbers to the British colonies of mainland America until about 1675. During the 1700s slavery became vital to the economies of the Southern states, where slaves lived under harsh conditions as they provided cheap labor on the vast plantations of tobacco, rice, and, later, cotton. Slavery was less important to the industrial North, though the profit from the slave trade did finance the industries connected with the trade, such as shipbuilding and sail making.
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Terrorism is well suited for use by a weak force against a powerful force. Small groups of individuals who are opposed to a government can turn to terror to achieve their goals rather than face a nation's army.
With one terrorist act, a single person can strike a major blow against a government or an entire society. Some authors have called such terrorists "megalomaniacs," individuals who believe they have a destiny to make a big difference in world history. In many cases, the first time one of these terrorists strikes is the first (and often the last) time he or she is noticed by the world.
Megalomaniacs are hard to guard against. Traditional intelligence techniques such as spying are best at detecting larger groups of people who make their intentions public. Sometimes these groups even use terror to attract more attention to themselves. The megalomaniac terrorist, on the other hand, strikes first and seeks publicity only afterward, when prevention is no longer possible.
The techniques of the megalomaniac are often designed to accomplish a great deal in a single blow. Their tactics are not aimed at building up power in a region, controlling territory, or setting up a new government. Rather, their goals are negative: to kill a national leader, to destroy a famous building, or to bring down an airplane and kill many people.
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Religion is one of the most powerful forces that can affect human behavior. For centuries, religious beliefs have led to countless murders. Whole societies have fought each other because of different religious beliefs. People have been willing to accept harsh treatment or even death rather than change their beliefs.
The tactics of terrorism have been used in the name of various religions, just as they have been used in the name of politics or nationalism. Believers of many different faiths have been killing innocent civilians for hundreds of years. The names of some religious terrorists from history have entered the English language as ordinary words.
In the period 66 to 73 C.E., Jewish nationalists who wanted to found a country of their own fought the Roman occupation of Palestine. These nationalists were called "Zealots." Today, zealot means a fanatical (or intensely committed to a cause) believer. The word "assassin" comes from an Islamic group that fought the Christian Crusaders in Syria and Persia between 1100 and 1270 C.E. (The Crusaders were members of military forces from Western Europe who
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