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10 Things to Know About Terrorism

by Mark LeVine  (October 2001)

1. What is terrorism?

Terrorism is hard to define. In its broadest sense terrorism can be thought of as the use or threatened use of force against civilians designed to bring about political or social change. Moreover, while we think of terrorism as being both a political and irrational act (especially suicide terrorism), terrorism can also be thought of as a rational act conducted specifically because of the impact -- fear, confusion, submission -- it will have.

Given the U.S. government's pledge to wage a war against terrorism, it is important to look at its definitions. According to both the Department of Defense (DOD) and the FBI, terrorism is "the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives." The DOD definition adds that a goal of terrorism can be "inculcating fear" (thus the psychological dimension), while the State Department is more elaborate, specifying that terrorism may include the use of biological, chemical or nuclear devices as well as the act of "assassination."

The latter would suggest that assassinating bin Laden would be a terrorist act by our definition of the word; the former that allied forces in the fire bombings of cities in Dresden, and specifically the U.S., through its use of nuclear weapons to end World War II and of chemical weapons in Vietnam, has already engaged in terrorist activities, although the moral calculus and justification for these actions varies widely and in comparison with the terrorism of the enemies, such as Nazi Germany.

This is the grand conundrum of defining terrorism; it is very difficult to separate it from acts of war, just or unjust. We all have heard the saying, "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." And indeed, Osama bin Laden and his comrades were hailed as freedom fighters in the 1980s by the American government at a time when politicians like Dick Cheney considered Nelson Mandela a terrorist.

Further, the UN definition of terrorism states that "all war crimes will be considered acts of terrorism," in which case most every government in the world (especially the major military powers, Pakistan, Israel, the major Muslim states, most Latin American governments) has committed terrorism, though few have ever faced justice or even opprobrium for doing so.

2. What is the history of terrorism?

The first recorded use of "terrorism" and "terrorist" was in 1795, relating to the Reign of Terror instituted by the French government. The use of "terrorist" to signify anti-government activities was recorded in 1866 referring to Ireland, and in 1883 referring to Russia.

Throughout history humans have terrorized their neighbors to generate fear and compel changes in behavior. At the dawn of China's imperial age, T'ai Kung, the first Chinese general and progenitor of strategic thought, described the "spreading of civil offensives" to sow dissension, demoralize the populace and incapacitate the government.

In the modern period, all regular armies have recruited "irregulars" to do their dirty work: Cossacks, hunters, Hussars, all were used to draw a civilized veil over the actions of their sponsors as they raped and pillaged in towns and across countrysides. (Ironically, Ivan the First had to subdue the very Cossacks he used to pacify the Muslim regions of Russia; today the U.S. is forced to "subdue" the Muslims we used to pacify Russia.)

Today terrorism must be viewed within the context of the modern nation-state. Indeed, it was the rise of a bureaucratic state, which could not be destroyed by the death of one leader that forced terrorists to widen their scope of targets in order to create a public atmosphere of anxiety and undermine confidence in government. This reality is at the heart of the ever more violent terrorism of the last 100 years, from anarchists' assassinations to hijackings and suicide bombings.

3. Who and where are terrorists today?

According to the U.S. State Department, there are at least 45 terrorist groups outside the United States. Currently, at least seven "rogue states" -- Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, Sudan, North Korea, Cuba and now Afghanistan -- are accused by the U.S. of "supporting terrorism."

But the label of who is and isn't a terrorist is still fuzzy. Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat was a terrorist, and now isn't. Jerry Adams of Ireland's Sinn Fein and Nelson Mandela of South Africa were terrorists, now they're statesmen. At least three Israeli Prime Ministers were either self-avowed terrorists or could be legitimately accused of engaging in terrorist activities. Our newest ally in the war against terror, Russian President Vladimir Putin, continues to lead a dirty war in Chechnya that could be described as terrorist in the ferocity of its atrocities against civilians.

Thirty years ago Noam Chomsky reminded us that two thirds of the national-security states using torture and terrorism were clients of the United States. Moreover, almost every Middle Eastern government, including our strongest allies, engage in state-terrorism against its people or its neighbors. To cite just one small example, Pakistan, our major security partner in Central Asia, is about to execute Dr. Yunis Shaikh, a leading humanist and peace activist [ go to for more information and to help free him ] on concocted charges of "blasphemy," precisely in order to stifle any dissent against the government's policies. And yet President Bush has ignored this human rights abomination, waved American sanctions imposed after the detonation of the Pakistani bomb and is putting together new aid packages for the Pakistan government.

4. From where does the trail of Osama bin Laden, and terrorists more generally, originate?

We are only beginning to understand the incredibly complex logistical, financial and personnel network behind the likes of Osama bin Laden. This complexity suggests the deeper we dig, the wider the circle grows. What has long been clear is that bin Laden's main support comes from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, both major U.S. allies and pivots in our Middle Eastern and Central Asian security system.

The U.S. remains the lead arms supplier and patron of the Saudi regime, and was close to Pakistan during the Afghan war, while the dictator Zia ul-Haq (one of the world's more ruthless) was in power. The CIA was a main funnel of over $3 billion in funds to the Afghan resistance, which became the core of the current terrorist network. The Soviet Union was likewise a supporter of the previous generation of Arab terrorists, such as Abu Nidal, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and other Palestinian groups.

The U.S. alliance with the Saudi royal family goes back to the 1940s, when the Roosevelt administration pledged to ensure the survival of the royal family as long as it ensured a supply of cheap oil. Thus was born the petrodollar-arms cycle, in which dollars sent to the Saudis in the form of oil revenues were recycled back to the U.S. through arms purchases. To understand the finances of terrorism it is important to keep in mind this petrodollar cycle, which keeps the vast majority of oil revenue in the hands of corrupt regimes and thus out of reach of most citizens of the region.

If we turn to the question of who is harboring and financing terrorists, once again the West and its allies in the Middle East and global south are implicated. For its part, the U.S. is involved, through foreign aid and weapons sales totaling hundreds of billions of dollars during and since the Cold War (from just 1993 to 1997, the U.S. government sold, approved or gave away $190 billion in weapons to virtually every nation on earth). The same has been true for the Soviet Union, though on a smaller scale. Whether in Latin America, Africa, Asia or the Middle East, regimes that have engaged in acts of terror could not have survived without the support of the two (and now one) superpower and our G-8 allies.

But blame cannot just be laid with superpowers. If bin Laden could not survive without the Taliban, the Taliban could not exist were it not for Pakistan's patronage and support of hundreds of "madrasas," or religious schools, that train thousands of young men to do little else other than hate and kill in the name of God. In fact, the major financiers of the bin Laden and the Taliban have been Saudi intelligence and eminent Saudis such as the Governor of Riyadh and the Grand Mufti of the country. Ironically, bin Laden has been linked to Saddam Hussein.

Yet it is not only princes and sheiks who are to blame: average people through small donations have helped to sustain myriad terrorist organizations, whether its Arabs giving to duel-function groups like the Muslim Brotherhood or the Hamas that provide social services and support violent activities, or poor Pakistanis who still manage to give a rupee or two to add to bin Laden's millions. It could also be argued that average citizens in France, Israel or the U.S. do likewise through their tax dollars that pay our policies.

5. What do Judaism, Christianity and Islam have to say about terrorism?

The concept of terrorism arose centuries after the classic texts of the three religions were handed down to humanity, so it is difficult to discuss the concept of terrorism in this sense. However, all three Abrahamic faiths allow war and set limits on when, how and against whom it can be waged.

If we start with Judaism, certainly the Bible, in the Ten Commandments, admonishes "thou shalt not kill," which clearly would prescribe any sort of violence against non-combatants. Indeed, the Prophet Hosea warned Israel that her sins would cause "the tumult of war [to] arise among your people, and all your fortresses shall be destroyed… mothers dashed in pieces with their children." Yet the Bible also describes the Lord as "a man of war" who orders Israel to "go and smite Am'alek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass." In one sense, this is not an act of terrorism, since the goal isn't political. Yet in the larger context of teaching a lesson to Israel's enemies by making Am'alek an example, it would seem to meet the criteria. Moreover, if we consider the Egyptians' killing of all the first born of the Hebrews, and God's doing likewise to Egypt as the tenth plague preceding the Exodus, both could be interpreted in a modern context as "terroristic" because they involved the killing of innocent non-combatants for political ends -- i.e., the changing of attitudes and policies on each side.

Of course, by definition God cannot engage in an act of evil, yet when Job questioned God, He did not answer directly, but instead replied, "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell me, if you understand... Would you discredit my justice? Would you condemn me to justify yourself?" Even the prophets could not answer the question of evil and innocent suffering in a world created in God's image.

If we turn to Christianity, the example of Jesus's doctrine of blessing peacemakers and turning the other cheek has influenced pacifist movements to this day. Instead of an "eye for an eye," Jesus said, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." Yet he did not challenge the Roman soldiers to give up their profession—which certainly included "terrorism" as a matter of course—while Paul in Romans exclaims that "He beareth not the sword in vain: for he is God's minister, an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil."

As Christian theology developed with Augustine and later Aquinas, the doctrine of "just war" helped define the rules and limits of war, and are now being used by the Vatican to indicate its support for the war against terrorism. Augustine explained, "We do not seek peace in order to be at war, but we go to war that we may have peace. Be peaceful, therefore, in warring, so that you may vanquish those whom you war against, and bring them to the prosperity of peace."

Such solipsisms are easily distorted to justify any sort of barbarity, even as the just war doctrine prohibited "private individuals" (like Osama bin Laden) from "summoning together the people," to quote Aquinas. Yet Augustine's definition of a just war as "one that avenges wrongs, when a nation or state has to be punished, for refusing to make amends for the wrongs inflicted by its subjects, or to restore what it has seized unjustly" sounds just like the justifications offered by terrorists everywhere for their extreme actions. And indeed, the commonly accepted contemporary criteria for a just war -- having a "just case," being under "proper authority," fighting for justice and not reasons of self-interest or aggrandizement -- can all be claimed by terrorists as well as "just" states. Finally, we should remember that the Crusades or Inquisition, which were executed largely through terroristic means, were authorized directly by the Church.

Arriving at Islam, the concept of Jihad, or "struggle," which in recent decades has been at the theological core of justifying Muslim acts of terrorism, traditionally meant the spiritual and moral struggle of an individual Muslim against his or her evil inclinations. The lesser jihad, that is, war against other human beings, is in classical Muslim sources a "defensive" war with limits that cannot be "transgressed," even when fighting those who "try to force you to adopt another religion or to leave your home." In fact, the conservative Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of Iran just called the fight against terrorism a "holy war" -- that is, a jihad.

Yet while the Koran has plenty of verses that talk about peace, even with Muhammad's enemies, there are also verses that advocate war and violence. Indeed, God exclaims in Sura 8:12, "I will instill terror into the hearts of the Unbelievers: smite ye above their necks and smite all their finger-tips off them." Moreover, while the Koran prohibits suicide, and the Prophet clearly prohibited killing noncombatants, women and children, destroying property or even poisoning wells (the precursor to chemical warfare), there are hadith (prophetic sayings) that list jihad as among the highest religious duties, higher even than performing the pilgrimage to Mecca, which is one of the five pillars of the faith. And although it is not always clear which jihad is being spoken of, the fact that the Prophet is quoted as saying that booty will be the reward for "Jihad for God," and that women should make the pilgrimage instead of jihad, one can assume that the martial sense of jihad is intended at least some of the time.

Ultimately, the theological roots of terrorism or war in general would seem to be moot, for religion has long been used to justify politics and warfare. Nonetheless, this has not stopped the terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center and Pentagon from considering themselves to be good Muslims, nor the Jews who uproot Palestinian homes or Serbs who kill Muslims in Bosnia from considering themselves to be good Jews or Christains. Arguing with them about the "true" nature of their religion is a waste of time. They might indeed by "good" Christians, Muslims or Jews, but are in the end bad human beings.

6. What are the most common acts of terrorism?

Since 1968, when the United States government began keeping such statistics, more than 7,000 terrorist bombings have occurred worldwide. The State Department currently lists 30 "designated foreign terrorist organizations" and another 14 as "other terrorist organizations". [ report containing full list at ]

According to the State Department, the number of terrorist acts has hovered between 300 and 500 per year during the 1980-1999 period. Perhaps surprisingly, about two thirds of all acts of terrorism are against business, numbering five-fold more than attacks on diplomatic, military and government personnel or property, or civilians. Moreover, while the Middle East dominates media coverage of terrorism, in fact Latin America, followed by Western Europe, suffered the most attacks in 1999 (96 and 30 respectively out of a total of 169), with bombings the most popular method of attack, followed by firebombing, kidnapping, arson, and hijacking.

But the State Department numbers are misleading, because an incident is classified as international terrorism only if it involves the citizens or territory of more than one country; thus terrorism within countries not harming foreign nationals is not counted. A more accurate accounting comes from Pinkerton Security's Annual Risk Assessment, which show an average of almost 5,000 incidents per year during the last decade, with terrorism confined to one country. Yet even these numbers don't account for terrorist actions by governments. Indeed, while hijackings and suicide bombings get the most attention, the fact is that the most common act of terror is torture committed by states against their own citizens, as Amnesty International reports that tens of thousands of cases of torture and extra-judicial killings occur each year (and complains that more often than not, the U.S. "shares the blame" for them).

7. What are the most renowned acts of terrorism?

The attacks of September 11 may become the most famous acts of terror ever perpetrated, and are linked to other terrorist attacks apparently sponsored by bin Laden on U.S. embassies in Africa and the USS Cole in Yemen. Yet many of the most famous terrorist attacks of the modern era were attacks on individual political leaders. The turn of the 20h century, like today, was rife with terrorism, as evidenced by anarchist killings of a French and Spanish Prime Ministers (Sadi Carnot and Antonio Canovas), Empress Elizabeth of Austria, Italy's King Umberto I, and the assassination of the Arch Duke Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, which sparked the first World War. Anarchist mail bombs in the U.S. started the Palmer Raids in 1920, one of the worst violations of civil liberties by U.S. government in U.S. history.

In the post-war period, acts of terrorism have included the Munich Olympic massacre in 1972, plane hijackings and airport shootings throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the 1993 World Trade Center attack, the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City and the murderous acts of the Ted Kazinsky, the "Unibomber," the latter three of which signaled the arrival of large-scale terrorism as permanent fact of life on American soil.

Finally, the Tokyo sarin subway attack by Aum Shinrikyo in 1995 has augured a new era in terrorism, now crowned by the September 11 attacks. Yet while we focus on high-tech problems and responses, these attacks reveal that the new dynamics of terror combine devoted militants, often well-educated, using relatively primitive means to commit acts of extreme and indiscriminate violence.

8. Does terrorism work; and if so, how can it be stopped?

Terrorism by the IRA, the PLO and other Palestinian groups, Sikhs, Tamils, Basques, Philippino Muslims -- none of these has succeeded in altering the policies of the affected states. Neither has state-sponsored terror by Rogue states led to the defeat of an enemy. However, if the goal of terrorist acts by these groups is to prevent peace and reconciliation, terrorism has worked.

The variables determining the success or failure of acts of terror are thus indeterminate and complex. Perhaps the most we can say is that terror can help the stronger party in a conflict win more quickly and with less loss of life on its side (the rationale underlying the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombings or the massacre of Palestinians in 1948). Yet as perpetrators of terrorism move away from single issue causes (freeing Northern Ireland or Palestine) and become more apocalyptic, hoping like Osama bin Laden to start war on a global scale, the standard for measuring success changes, as the worst possible scenario on all sides is exactly what is hoped for.

In such a situation it becomes all the more important for citizens and leaders in the West and its allies in the Muslim world -- in fact, all people everywhere -- to understand the role their policies, and indeed the whole world system as presently and unequally structured, plays in the fostering and sustaining this new generation of terrorists. Yet the scope and horror of the violence inflicted by the new terrorism makes such introspection all but impossible. In this sense, Osama bin Laden and his comrades around the world might achieve their goals through their very destruction.

9. Does violence stop terrorism?

All we have to do is look at both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide to understand that violence, including terrorism by a state or occupied population, rarely stops further violence as long as the grievances motivating them are not addressed.

In that context, 15 years ago Connor Cruise O'Brien warned that "the free, or capitalist, world provides highly favorable conditions for terrorist recruitment and activity." Why? Because the number of frustrated were increasing along with their awareness of how good life was for the few and better off. Ten years later, Bill Clinton made the "war on terrorism" a lynchpin of his reelection campaign just as the neo-liberal paradigm of globalization he championed achieved unparalleled power in international policy-making. It should come as no surprise, then, that in pushing for Star Wars funds, the U.S. Space Command's pamphlet "Vision for 2020" argues that "the globalization of the world economy" will widen the gap between haves and the have-nots, and thus the U.S. government has a mission to "dominate the space dimension of military operations" in order to protect the U.S. from the rest of the world.

In the context of a world were conservative estimates declare half of humanity to be living on less than $2 a day, asking the CIA or other military agencies to fight terrorism is probably not going to work, as the "blowback" from policies that produce ever-widening gaps between rich and poor between and within countries will likely be at least as bad as the blowback produced by the CIA overthrow of the Mossadeq Government and installation of the Shah of Iran in 1953.

Even on an operational level, as former CIA officer Reuel Marc Gerecht wrote only months before the 9/11 attacks, it has proved impossible to place even the best trained Muslim operative into the tight-knit structures that constituted contemporary terrorist organizations. As for America's technological supremacy, President Clinton sent dozens of cruise missiles after bin Laden, none of which hit their target.

From a broader perspective, the ever growing world trade in arms, which fuels violence at all levels, has multiplied opportunities for anyone with a grievance to spread terror anywhere, including here. Yet our entire military-industrial system is based on the large-scale trade in arms, which helps to fund our own defense budget. Finally, since much of the rest of the world, especially citizens of the Global South, harbor deep resentments against the United States for its "cultural invasion" as much as for its economic and foreign policies, using unilateral acts of large-scale violence in the war against terrorism will only feed that hatred.

10. What are the alternatives to our current policies on terrorism?

There have been two phases of the U.S. approach to fighting terrorism. The first, lasting until September 11, has been a "defensive approach" (also called "antiterrorism") that sought to protect against terrorism through increased security measures in airports and cooperation among intelligence services. With the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. has officially changed its policy to a more "offensive approach" (called "counter-terrorism") that focuses on the "sources of violence," that is the terrorists themselves and those who harbor them. A host of bills have also been proposed, including the "Combating Terrorism Act," the "Anti-Terrorism Act" and the "Public Safety and Cyber Security Enhancement Act," all of which civil libertarians argue go well beyond any necessary response to terrorism.

However, in terms of international law, there is a clear recourse in situations of this sort: going through the UN Security Council, the only body under international law that can authorize military action, or even authorize the equivalent of an international arrest warrant. Moreover, there are at least nine international multilateral terrorism conventions that the U.S. can use as the basis for a legal war against terrorism through international law, rather than unilateral war. [ report containing list at ]

There is also the International Criminal Court in the Hague, which has the moral and legal basis to enter this process, be it state of non-state actors who are ultimately accused of engaging in and/or supporting terrorism. This would clearly constrain the range and freedom of action of the U.S. government in prosecuting its war on terrorism, but that is precisely the point of the UN -- to limit the use of violence by member nations to secure international peace and security.

In the last analysis, breaking the cycle of terrorism, and the incredible violence that fuels it, requires a radical rethinking of a world system that forces half of its members to live in abject poverty and destroys ever more of the earth that sustains it. Today we all stand under judgment: colonizer and colonized, exploiter and exploited. As the philosopher Slavoj Zizek wrote in the wake of 9/11, "the only way to ensure that it will not happen HERE again is to prevent it going on ANYWHERE ELSE." Only then will the war on terrorism see victory.

Mark LeVine is an assistant professor of history at University of California, Irvine and a contributing editor to Tikkun magazine.

- from   (October 2001)

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revised 18 November 2005