Terror in Antiquity: 1st -14th Century AD
The earliest known organization that exhibited aspects of a modern terrorist organization was the Zealots of Judea. Known to the Romans as sicarii, or dagger-men , they carried on an underground campaign of assassination of Roman occupation forces, as well as any Jews they felt had collaborated with the Romans. Their motive was an uncompromising belief that they could not remain faithful to the dictates of Judaism while living as Roman subjects. Eventually, the Zealot revolt became open, and they were finally besieged and committed mass suicide at the fortification of Masada.
The Assassins were the next group to show recognizable characteristics of terrorism, as we know it today. A breakaway faction of Shia Islam called the Nizari Ismalis adopted the tactic of assassination of enemy leaders because the cult’s limited manpower prevented open combat. Their leader, Hassam-I Sabbah, based the cult in the mountains of Northern Iran. Their tactic of sending a lone assassin to successfully kill a key enemy leader at the certain sacrifice of his own life (the killers waited next to their victims to be killed or captured) inspired fearful awe in their enemies.
Even though both the Zealots and the Assassins operated in antiquity, they are relevant today: First as forerunners of modern terrorists in aspects of motivation, organization, targeting, and goals. Secondly, although both were ultimate failures, the fact that they are remembered hundreds of years later, demonstrates the deep psychological impact they caused.
Early Origins of Terrorism: 14th -18th Century
From the time of the Assassins (late 13th century) to the 1700s, terror and barbarism were widely used in warfare and conflict , but key ingredients for terrorism were lacking. Until the rise of the modern nation state after the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, the sort of central authority and cohesive society that terrorism attempts to influence barely existed. Communications were inadequate and controlled, and the causes that might inspire terrorism (religious schism, insurrection, ethnic strife) typically led to open warfare. By the time kingdoms and principalities became nations, they had sufficient means to enforce their authority and suppress activities such as terrorism.
The French Revolution provided the first uses of the words “Terrorist” and “Terrorism”. Use of the word “terrorism” began in 1795 in reference to the Reign of Terror initiated by the Revolutionary government. The agents of the Committee of Public Safety and the National Convention that enforced the policies of “The Terror” were referred to as ‘Terrorists”. The French Revolution provided an example to future states in oppressing their populations. It also inspired a reaction by royalists and other opponents of the Revolution who employed terrorist tactics such as assassination and intimidation in resistance to the Revolutionary agents. The Parisian mobs played a critical role at key points before, during, and after the Revolution. Such extra-legal activities as killing prominent officials and aristocrats in gruesome spectacles started long before the guillotine was first used.
Entering the Modern Era: The 19th Century
During the late 19th century, radical political theories and improvements in weapons technology spurred the formation of small groups of revolutionaries who effectively attacked nation-states. Anarchists espousing belief in the “propaganda of the deed” produced some striking successes, assassinating heads of state from Russia, France, Spain, Italy, and the United States. However, their lack of organization and refusal to cooperate with other social movements in political efforts rendered anarchists ineffective as a political movement. In contrast, Communism’s role as an ideological basis for political terrorism was just beginning, and would become much more significant in the 20th century.
Another trend in the late 19th century was the increasing tide of nationalism throughout the world, in which the nation (the identity of a people) and the political state were combined. As states began to emphasize national identities, peoples that had been conquered or colonized could, like the Jews at the times of the Zealots, opt for assimilation or struggle. The best-known nationalist conflict from this time is still unresolved – the multi-century struggle of Irish nationalism. Nationalism, like communism, became a much greater ideological force in the 20th century.
The terrorist group from this period that serves as a model in many ways for what was to come was the Russian Narodnya Volya (Peoples Will). They differed in some ways from modern terrorists, especially in that they would sometimes call off attacks that might endanger individuals other than their intended target. Other than this quirk, we see many of the traits of terrorism here for the first time; clandestine, cellular organization; impatience and inability for the task of organizing the constituents they claim to represent; and a tendency to increase the level of violence as pressures on the group mount.
Terrorism in the 20th and 21st Century
The Early 20th Century
The first half of the 20th century saw two events that influenced the nature of conflict to the present day. The effects of two World Wars inflamed passions and hopes of nationalists throughout the world, and severely damaged the legitimacy of the international order and governments.
Nationalism on the Rise
Nationalism intensified during the early 20th century throughout the world. It became an especially powerful force in the subject peoples of various colonial empires. Although dissent and resistance were common in many colonial possessions, and sometimes resulted in open warfare, nationalist identities became a focal point for these actions.
Gradually, as nations became closely tied to concepts of race and ethnicity, international political developments began to support such concepts. Members of ethnic groups whose states had been absorbed by others or had ceased to exist as separate nations saw opportunities to realize nationalist ambitions. Several of these groups chose terror as a method to conduct their struggle and make their situation known to world powers they hoped would be sympathetic. In Europe, both the Irish and the Macedonians had existing terrorist campaigns as part of their ongoing struggle for independence, but had to initiate bloody uprisings to further their cause. The Irish were partially successful, the Macedonians failed.
The “total war” practices of all combatants of WWII provided further justification for the “everybody does it” view of the use of terror and violations of the law of war. The desensitization of people and communities to violence that started in World War I accelerated during World War II. The intensity of the conflict between starkly opposed ideologies led to excesses on the part of all participants. New weapons and strategies that targeted the enemies’ civilian population to destroy their economic capacity for conflict exposed virtually every civilian to the hazards of combatants. The major powers’ support of partisan and resistance organizations using terrorist tactics was viewed as an acceptance of their legitimacy. It seemed that civilians had become legitimate targets, despite any rules forbidding it.
Cold War Developments
The bi-polar world of the Cold War changed perception of conflicts the world over. Relatively minor confrontations took on significance as arenas where the superpowers could compete without risking escalation to full nuclear war. Warfare between the East and the West took place on the peripheries, and was limited in scope to prevent escalation. During the immediate postwar period, terrorism was more of a tactical choice by leaders of nationalist insurgencies and revolutions. Successful campaigns for independence from colonial rule occurred throughout the world, and many employed terrorism as a supporting tactic. When terrorism was used, it was used within the framework of larger movements, and coordinated with political, social, and military action. Even when terrorism came to dominate the other aspects of a nationalist struggle, such as the Palestinian campaign against Israel, it was (and is) combined with other activities.
Throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union provided direct and indirect assistance to revolutionary movements around the world. Many anti-colonial movements found the revolutionary extremism of communism attractive. Leaders of these “wars of national liberation” saw the advantage of free weapons and training. They also realized that the assistance and patronage of the Eastern Bloc meant increased international legitimacy. Many of these organizations and individuals utilized terrorism in support of their political and military objectives. The policy of the Soviet Union to support revolutionary struggles everywhere, and to export revolution to non-communist countries, provided extremists willing to employ violence and terror as the means to realize their ambitions.
The Internationalization of Terror
The age of modern terrorism might be said to have begun in 1968 when the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) hijacked an El Al airliner en route from Tel Aviv to Rome. While hijackings of airliners had occurred before, this was the first time that the nationality of the carrier (Israeli) and its symbolic value was a specific operational aim. Also a first was the deliberate use of the passengers as hostages for demands made publicly against the Israeli government. The combination of these unique events, added to the international scope of the operation, gained significant media attention. The founder of PFLP, Dr. George Habash observed that the level of coverage was tremendously greater than battles with Israeli soldiers in their previous area of operations. “At least the world is talking about us now.”
Another aspect of this internationalization is the cooperation between extremist organizations in conducting terrorist operations. Cooperative training between Palestinian groups and European radicals started as early as 1970, and joint operations between the PFLP and the Japanese Red Army (JRA) began in 1974. Since then international terrorist cooperation in training, operations, and support has continued to grow, and continues to this day. Motives range from the ideological, such as the 1980s alliance of the Western European Marxist-oriented groups, to financial, as when the IRA exported its expertise in bomb making as far afield as Colombia
Current State of Terrorism
The largest act of international terrorism occurred on September 11, 2001 in a set of co-ordinated attacks on the United States of America, where Islamic terrorists hijacked civilian airliners and used them to attack the World Trade Centre (WTC) towers in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, DC. The effects of 9/11 had a significant impact on the American psyche and led to global reverberations. Other major terrorist attacks have also occurred in New Delhi (Indian Parliament attacked); Bali car bomb attack; London subway bombings; Madrid train station bombings; attacks in Mumbai (hotels, train station and a Jewish outreach centre), Nigeria, Pakistan, Paris, and more. The operational and strategic epicentre of Islamic terrorism is mostly centred in Pakistan, Afghanistan and parts of Syria. Refer to our blog for more recent terror incidents and analysis.