The Rise of Terrorism

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What is the history of terrorism?

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A comprehensive chronology or history of terrorism could begin with the Sicarii, a Jewish group active in the First Century C.E. that violently resisted the Roman Empire, including carrying out assassinations against Jewish “collaborators” as well as against Roman officials.  The next notable instance of political terrorism is usually attributed to the Hashhashin, or assassins, of 11th to 13th Century Persia and Syria.  A Shiite Islamic sect, the Hashhashin carried out attacks against Christian and non-Shi’a Muslim as well as against Turkish officials administering the Ottoman Empire during the group’s final period of existence. 

The modern era of terrorism is considered to have begun with the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution.  The persecutions and beheadings characteristic of the period between September 1793 and July 1794, and overseen by Maximilien Robespierre is considered a watershed moment in the history of the use of terror to instill fear in a  population for the purpose of affecting political change. 

The 19th Century saw an increase in terrorism by anarchists in Russia and the Basque region of Spain and France, abolitionists (in the United States, John Brown’s violent opposition to slavery), and nationalists in the Caucasus and Balkans in Europe and Asia.  The Russian anti-Czarist movement of Mikhail Bakunin was among the most well-known of the anarchists active during that century, and his group’s attacks on Czarist officials were among the most violent in the world.  The creation of Irish Republicanism, born of violent hatred for and resistance to Protestant British domination of Catholic Ireland initiated a war of terrorism that would rage across northern Ireland and England for over 100 years.  In the United States, the post-Civil War creation of the Ku Klux Klan witnessed the spread of terrorism across the American South targeting mostly blacks but also Jews and Catholics. 

As the 19th Century gave way to the 20th, the use of terrorism continued to grow across much of the world.  Russian anarchists were replaced by the Bolshevik movement of V.I. Lenin and his followers, and the First World War would be ignited by an act of political terrorism when a Serbian nationalist assassinated Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914.  While Irish terrorism would pick up speed, anti-Zionist terrorism directed against Jewish immigrants to Palestine would be increasingly met with Jewish terrorism against Arab opponents.  And, of course, political terrorism carried out by the growing national socialist movement in Germany would presage the rise of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. 

Political terrorism would become a major characteristic of West European society during the 1970s and 1980s, as left-wing groups like the Baader-Meinhof gang (more formally, the Red Army Faction) in Germany, the Red Brigades in Italy, and the Direct Action in France, supported by the Soviet Union and its satellites in Eastern Europe, carried out attacks against their respective governments and societies until the end of the Cold War deprived them of their sanctuaries and material supporters in the East.  Meanwhile, the Palestine Liberation Organization began hijacking planes and setting off bombs targeting the Israelis.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and U.S., Saudi, and Pakistani support for anti-Soviet and anti-Communist insurgents is considered the precursor to the rise of al Qaeda and the modern era of terrorism.

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