Terrorism—attacks on civilians and noncombatants for political purposes—has an ancient history. In earlier eras, terrorism was often religiously motivated. In the first century c.e. Jewish Zealots fought the Romans; the Assassins, a Shi’i sect of Islam, killed Muslims who disagreed with their practices in the 11th century; and Hindu Thugees in India killed innocents as part of ritualistic practices from the 7th to the 19th century.
From the 18th to the late 20th century, most terrorists were motivated by nationalist or political causes. Contemporary terrorism is systematic, political, conveys a message, and generates fear. Terrorism may be committed by a state or by individual groups, although some dispute the use of the term for governmental actions. In
English the term terrorism derives from the French revolutionary reign of terror under Maximilien Robespierre, when thousands were sent to their deaths, often at the guillotine, in 1793–94.
After World War II nonstate groups often adopted terrorist tactics to achieve political goals. Terrorism was usually the tactic of the weak and disaffected who lacked access to or possession of high technology and sophisticated weapons of war. In the modern era, the media and instant communications provided terrorists with ready platforms to publicize their programs and grievances. Publicity on a global scale permitted terrorists to have a psychological impact far beyond single deeds, thereby greatly magnifying their effects.
In their struggles against imperial powers, Third World liberation movements sometimes adopted terrorist tactics by attacking civilians as well as colonial armed forces to achieve national independence. Third World leaders often argued that these tactics were no less “terrifying” or horrific than the bombing of villages, the use of napalm, or the imprisonment of thousands in concentration camps. However, governments tended
The Pentagon in Washington, D.C., was damaged by a terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, concurrently with attacks on the World
Trade Center using hijacked airliners filled with passengers. Nearly 3,000 people lost their lives in the attack. to apply the term terrorist only to those groups they disliked or opposed, and to ignore or downplay those groups or countries that used similar tactics against their own citizens or enemies.
During the 1960s–70s leftist groups were responsible for numerous terrorist attacks in Europe. The Baader Meinhof Gang, militant German anarchists, bombed U.S. military installations and police stations and attempted to assassinate Alexander Haig, the supreme Allied commander of NATO, as well as bankers and media moguls. After most of their leaders had been imprisoned or had died, the Meinhof Gang’s attacks ended in the 1990s. The communist Italian Red Brigades also kidnapped and killed leading establishment figures. In its struggle against the British, the nationalist Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) planted bombs in shopping malls and killed Lord Louis Mountbatten, first earl Mountbatten of Burma, and narrowly missed killing British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Similarly, the nationalist Basque party (ETA) attacked Spanish leaders and placed bombs at targets with heavy civilian use.
In the Middle East small Palestinian Marxist-Leninist groups skyjacked civilian airliners in dramatic and well-publicized attacks that brought world attention to the Palestinian national cause. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) also launched terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians as well as the military. At the 1972 Munich Olympic Games, Palestinians attacked and killed Israeli athletes. Israel retaliated by killing Palestinian leaders in Beirut and in Europe. The Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), under Abdullah Ocalan, mounted a separatist insurgency against Turkey; the PKK placed bombs on buses and other civilian sites and was outlawed by the Turkish government.
In Asia the nationalist Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka attacked civilians, and the Japanese Red Army, a leftist paramilitary group, launched attacks in Europe and elsewhere. In 1995 the group Aum Shinrikyo released the poison gas sarin in the Tokyo subway.
Terrorism escalated throughout much of South America and Latin America in the 1970s–80s. During the 1970s the Argentina military junta and right-wing death squads terrorized and killed opponents. In Chile General Augusto Pinochet’s regime tortured and “disappeared” opponents. The Pinochet regime was also implicated in the car bombing assassinations of a Chilean diplomat and Pinochet opponent, Orlando Letelier, and a U.S. colleague in downtown Washington, D.C., in 1976. During the same period, the Shining Path terrorized villagers and political leaders in Peru, while narco-terrorism by criminal drug cartels killed judges, police, and others in Colombia. Similarly, leftwing guerrilla forces and right-wing death squads killed thousands of civilians as well as religious and nongovernmental volunteers from the international community in El Salvador. The government in Guatemala used terrorism to repress its Amerindian population.
From the 1960s onward a wide variety of political groups opposing the Vietnam War and the conservative establishment or struggling for civil rights in the United States also adopted terrorist tactics. The Weathermen and other groups kidnapped high-profile individuals, bombed military and research installations, and sometimes killed law enforcement officers. In 1995 terrorists from the far right bombed a federal office building in Oklahoma City, killing over 100 people and wounding 400.
There was a revival of religiously motivated terrorism beginning in the later part of the 20th century. As Yugoslavia split apart, sectarian violence escalated. Similarly, clashes among Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs in India proliferated. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was killed by her Sikh bodyguard, and the Mumbai stock exchange was bombed. The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran provided the impetus and support for numerous Islamist groups in the Middle East, including Hizbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the occupied Palestinian territories of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Both of these groups used suicide bombers in an attempt to achieve their goals.
When their governments failed to provide the means for legitimate political dissent or jobs, many disillusioned Muslim young people around the world joined Islamist organizations that used encouraged jihadis (fighters of holy war) to use terrorism to oust corrupt regimes and establish regimes based on sharia, Islamic law. Many Islamic groups were hostile to the West, particularly the United States. Much of their anger was fueled by the spread of Western culture, which threatened or undermined old traditions and practices. Many young jihadis gained military training and experience fighting with the Taliban and other Islamic mujahideen groups against the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan in the 1980s. After the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan, the Taliban managed to wrest power from its rivals and established an extreme theocracy. Its leader, Mullah Omar, provided a safe haven for one of the most extreme Islamic groups, al-Qaeda, which was led by a disaffected Saudi Arabian, Osama bin Laden. In 1998 bin Laden issued a fatwa (religious proclamation) urging jihad against the United States.
Al-Qaeda members placed bombs that killed hundreds in Nairobi, Kenya, and attacked a U.S. military ship in Yemen.
On suicide missions al-Qaeda members skyjacked planes that crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001. These were the most devastating terror attacks that the United States had ever experienced on its home territory. The United States and coalition forces retaliated and successfully overthrew the pro–al-Qaeda Taliban regime in Afghanistan; however they failed to destroy either the Taliban or alQaeda. Osama bin Laden managed to escape and continued to orchestrate terror attacks against U.S. forces and supporters. These included suicide bomb attacks on trains in Madrid, Spain, and the transit system in London, England.