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The New Species of Terrorism

by David Greenberg on Sep 20, 2001

David Greenberg

With the horrific assault of Sept. 11, “terrorism” has become the new American watchword and scourge. Yet as George W. Bush declares a “war on terrorism,” neither he nor anyone else has defined what terrorism is or where it comes from. Doing so may help us to face a frightening reality: the violence of Sept. 11 represents terrorism of a new, more challenging kind than what we have come to know.

Not all political violence, it should be specified, amounts to terrorism. Unlike simple war, it is committed by stateless organizations against established powers. Unlike guerrilla warfare, it doesn’t attack military centers to seize power. Rather, it specifically targets random, unsuspecting victims to publicize a grievance and sow panic among the strong.

The word “terrorism” comes from the French Revolution’s “Reign of Terror” (1793-94), when Robespierre’s Jacobins executed, often for flimsy reasons, some 12,000 people deemed enemies of the Revolution. Since the Jacobins governed the state, we wouldn’t call them terrorists today; they were authoritarian dictators. Still, their vision of a violent purge in the name of Utopia provided a model for later insurgents.

Over the next century the Jacobin spirit infected Russia, Europe and the United States. Radical anarchists — Leon Czolgosz, who killed William McKinley in 1901; Alexander Berkman, who shot steel magnate Henry Frick in 1892; the Russians who assassinated Czar Alexander II in 1881 — targeted powerful leaders to foment popular revolution. Magnified by bombings such as the one at Chicago’s Haymarket in 1886, these killings created publicity and popular panic. Yet the anarchist revolution never came.

In the mid-20th century, native peoples from Egypt to Vietnam rebelled against colonial regimes. They, too, used dramatic acts of destruction — called terrorism by some — to win attention. But it was Algeria’s Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN), seeking independence from France, that defined modern terrorism by deliberately spilling the blood of random French civilians.

After France executed two Algerian rebels in 1956, the FLN slaughtered 49 Frenchmen in three days. FLN terrorists bombed Algerian beachside cafes where they knew French families would perish. They wanted to raise the price of colonialism to intolerable levels. They did.

Their success inspired others: Basques in Spain, Quebecois in Canada, Palestinian and Irish nationalists, Marxist cabals in Africa and Latin America. By the 1960s, the killing of civilians to sow fear and produce political gains was widespread, even in developed nations — from the Weather Underground in the United States to the Marxist Baader-Meinhoff Gang in West Germany to the Red Brigades in Italy.

But Western terrorism of the ’60s and ’70s paled next to the violence in the Middle East. It need not call into question Yasser Arafat’s recent peacemaking moves to recall that for years his Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) unabashedly murdered civilians while committing some of the world’s most shocking deeds.

The constituent groups of Arafat’s PLO pioneered hijacking and hostage-taking to win global recognition for their statehood demands. The 1972 murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics and the 1985 killing of the wheelchair-bound American Leon Klinghoffer during the commandeering of the cruise ship Achille Lauro remain etched in public memory — and helped highlight Palestinian grievances.

Like such contemporaneous groups as South Africa’s African National Congress, the PLO’s goals were political, not religious. Courting world opinion, these groups realized that if you live by the car bomb, you die by the car bomb; terrorism could alienate the very people whose respect its perpetrators sought. Indeed, Arafat, Nelson Mandela, and others had to distance themselves from terror to prove they could lead new governments.

As the PLO’s terrorism abated, Islamic fundamentalism swept the Middle East. Starting in 1979 — the year of the Israel-Egypt peace agreement, the Iranian revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan — terrorists began hailing from overtly religious, as opposed to strictly political, groups: Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, Algeria’s Islamic Armed Group.

Espousing a warped vision that most Muslims emphatically reject, many of these religious radicals believed the United States to be the symbol and stronghold of satanic Western values. Inevitably, some fanatics, such as the Saudi exile Osama bin Laden, made the United States their actual target.

Unlike the violence of the 1960s and 1970s, the attacks on the United States are not secular or Marxist. Unlike the nationalist terror of the FLN, they aren’t aimed to achieve a negotiated political settlement. They are neither part of a war of rebellion, nor a form of left-wing anarchism, nor a barbarous exercise of state power, as were the forms of terrorism we used to know.

The new terrorism springs from an unswerving conviction that to destroy the United States is to do God’s work. Since it doesn’t play to world opinion, world opinion cannot act as a brake upon it.

We should expect it to strike again.


Historian David Greenberg is a visiting scholar at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge, Mass.