Questioning Terrorism

Assessing Terrorism

excerpted from the book

The No-Nonsense guide to


by Jonathan Barker

New Internationalist / Verso, 2002, paper

President George W Bush, in his speech to Congress on 20 September, proclaimed 'a war on terror' that 'begins with al-Qaeda, but... will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.' 'And,' he added, 'we will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism. Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.'

A writer for a publication of the Hoover Institution, a conservative think-tank with many connections to President Bush's inner circle, praises the President for identifying the targets of the US as 'the evil ones'. He explains, 'our enemy has ) already dehumanized himself... You do not try to appease them, or persuade them, or reason with them. You try, on the contrary, to outwit them, to vanquish I them, to kill them. You behave with them in the same manner that you would deal with a fatal epidemic - you try to wipe it out."

The words 'terrorism' and 'terrorist' are themselves pejorative. Nowhere is the political loading 11 more evident than in the refusal of governments to recognize their own terrorist actions. Those who -) speak for governmental authority speak with conviction about fighting the evil of terrorism. They enumerate the death and damage perpetrated by terrorist bombs while holding silence about the death and damage to civilians and bystanders caused by the bombs used to fight terrorism. Moreover, government agencies and their proxies all too often kill and frighten their own citizens, as happened when France's revolutionary government began devouring its own makers. Such killing can be a core policy of relatively stable governments as political philosopher Hannah Arendt pointed out in her analysis of Nazi Germany and Stalinist USSR in her book Origins of Totalitarianism. "

In recent years many governments are known to have supported death squads to eliminate and frighten opponents and some employ similar techniques against the people of other countries in order to weaken regimes they do not like or to assist regimes they favor that face internal opposition.

The US has been unusually open in admitting its use of secret operations. A law Congress passed in 1991 requiring the State Department to release documents about covert operations 30 years after the events has brought many interventions to light. For example, a document written by US Ambassador Marshall Green during the killings of hundreds of thousands of alleged communists in Indonesia in the wake of the US-approved coup that brought General Suharto to power in 1965 reveals that a list of communist leaders prepared by the US Embassy was given to the Indonesian Government in December 1965. Green writes, it 'is apparently being used by Indonesian security authorities who seem to lack even the simplest overt information on PKI [Indonesian Communist Party] leadership'. Another document shows that on 2 December 1965, Green endorsed a covert payment of 50 million rupiah to the Kap-Gestapu movement leading the repression. US officials usually defend such operations as legitimate responses to requests for help from friendly governments or legitimate self-defense against foreign threats. They certainly do not call them terrorism.

Writers on terrorism frequently imply that laboring to define the term is pointless. They complain that hundreds of definitions have been proposed. They like to cite the dictum 'one person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter', suggesting that to call someone a terrorist is to say no more than that one opposes their motivating cause. Much popular understanding, encouraged by common political use, takes the same position. People understand that the planners of the political violence carried out by non-governmental groups or by government agencies or their proxies claim their cause is just. Regimes that employ the ugly arts of murder and sabotage, often via proxy organizations, will never acknowledge that they are using terrorism. Those who speak for organizations that regularly use terror tactics avoid the term and claim they are resisting oppression and fighting for justice.

Fortunately there is a simple and straightforward definition that corresponds to the idea of terrorism that most people hold. It has three elements: violence threatened or employed; against civilian targets; for political objectives. The writer Boaz Ganor, who has argued forcefully that an analytically useful definition is possible and imperative, proposes that 'terrorism is "the intentional use of, or threat to use violence against civilians or against civilian targets, in order to attain political aims.' Unlike many other definitions this one applies to governments (and their agencies and proxies) as well as to non-governmental groups and individuals. It excludes nonviolent political actions, such as protests, strikes, demonstrations, tax revolts and civil disobedience. It also excludes violent actions against military and police forces. Many acts of guerrilla warfare or urban insurrection are not terrorism.

Definitions that exclude state terrorism remain blind to a major source of the violence and fear that is visited on civilians around the world. State terrorism and group terrorism, it is true, have rather different features, but their effects on people and politics are similar and they are often closely linked. They both fit the basic idea of terrorism that most people hold: violence and threats of violence against civilians for political ends.


Terrorism compared to other risks of death 1996-1999


1996 1997 1998 1999
Africa 80 28 5,379 185
Asia 1,507 344 635 690
Eurasia 20 27 12 8
Latin America 18 11 195 9
Middle East 1,097 480 68 31
Western Europe 503 17 405 16
United States 0 7 0 0
World Total 3,225 914 6,694 939

 Other causes (US only)

  1996 1997 1998 1999
Rabies Infectons 6,982 8,105 7,259 na
Road Traffic Deaaths 42,065 42,013 41,501 41,611
Pedestrian Deaths 5,449 5,321 5,228 4,906
Murder 19,650 18,210 16,970 15,530

Michael Ignatieff, 'The Lessons of Terror: All War Against Civilians Is Equal', The New York Times Book Review, 17 February 2002

As for the futility of terrorism itself, who could say with confidence that Jewish terrorism - the assassination of Lord Moyne and then of Count Bernadotte, the bombing of the King David Hotel, followed by selective massacres in a few Palestinian villages in order to secure the flight of all Palestinians - did not succeed in dislodging the British and consolidating Jewish control of the new state? Though terror alone did not create the state of Israel - the moral legitimacy of the claim of the Holocaust survivors counted even more - terror was instrumental, and terror worked.

John Downey, 'The West against terrorism',, 25 April 2002

President Bush and his spokespeople have repeatedly assured us that, if we are resolute, terrorism cannot succeed. But the actual record of guerrilla warfare or terrorism since the Second World War is that it has always brought colonial, occupying powers to the negotiating table. That was so for the British Empire in Kenya, Cyprus, Aden and twice in Ireland; for the French in Vietnam, Algeria and recently even in Corsica; for the Spanish vis-a-vis the Basques; for the Dutch in the East Indies; and for the Americans themselves in Vietnam. Indeed the Americans used the tactic in the 18th century against the British. And it seems likely that in the end the Israelis will reap the same reward in Palestine.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysiaa at the meeting of the foreign ministers of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) in March 2002.

'Whether the attackers are acting on their own or on the orders of their governments, whether they are regulars or irregulars, if the attack is against civilians, then they must be considered as terrorists."

Religious militants
Some of the earliest episodes of terrorism are connected with religious movements. Well before the establishment of modern, secular nation-states the ambition to give political expression to religious commitments was a source of conflict and a problem that plagued pluralistic states and empires. Three words common in the vocabulary of reporting on terrorism derive from religious activism: zealot, assassin and thug. Stories associated with these words illustrate forms and motives of violence that still are found at the edge of politics.

Zealots. The zealots were radical defenders of a purist version of Jewish religion and political autonomy after Rome established its rule over Judaea. They stood firmly against the legalistic and scholarly Pharisees and the elitist Sadducees, who compromised with Roman rule. They used guerrilla and terrorist tactics against the Romans and members of competing political and religious groups among the Jews.

'Hashish takers' (hasashin) was the name given by their political detractors to the Nizari Ismailis. A kinder etymology says they called themselves 'assassiyun' designating people faithful to the 'assass' or foundations of Islam. Late in the 11th century the group broke off from the Shi'a branch of Islam that had established a caliphate in Cairo to rival the Sunni Abissid caliphate in Baghdad. For almost two centuries it disputed the legitimacy of both caliphates and kept alive an Ismaili resistance to the domination of the Seljuk Turk overlords. Under its founding leader, Hassan Sabbah, the group seized the large mountain fort at Alumat in Persia. They collected tolls from caravans in return for protection. Their purist doctrine of Islam emphasized submission to the leader's authority and the justice of murdering prominent enemies. Trained killers armed with daggers were sent to commit the murders, fully expecting to be caught and executed for their pious action.

.As the colonial government in India consolidated its hold on the subcontinent in the early 1830s, it faced a persistent problem of robbery and murder. British investigators attributed a large part of the crime to a special category of criminals known as 'thugs' or 'thuggees', members of an enduring secret society of devotees of the Hindu deity of destruction, Kali. The British believed that the religious commitment of this hereditary sect required that they strangle travellers in a ritually prescribed manner. The ritual side of their violence seems to have displaced any political goal it may have once had. A recent review of the evidence concludes that thuggee was by far the longest-lasting and most murderous of all terrorist organizations, killing some half-million people over a period of at least 400 years.

The internationalist version of the movement for l purified Islam received a great boost after 1979, the year of the Iranian revolution and the hostage-taking at the US embassy in Teheran. The US, in an effort to turn some of the energy of the Islamic revival against Soviet power in Central Asia, became one of the main boosters. Pervez Amir Ali Hoodbhoy explains: 'With Pakistan's Mohammed Zia ul-Haq as America's foremost ally, the CIA openly recruited Islamic holy warriors from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Aigeria. Radical Islam went into overdrive as its superpower ally and mentor funneled support to the mujaheddin; Ronald Reagan feted them on the White House lawn."' The Saudis and Pakistan's Inter Service Intelligence Agency (ISI) collaborated in the project. The US saw a double payoff. Thwarting the Soviets in Afghanistan was as attractive as diverting militant Islam away from the Middle East to fight in Afghanistan. The withdrawal of the Soviets from Afghanistan in February 1989 was a dramatic turning point. What appeared to be an unalloyed victory for the US-Saudi strategy of diverting and controlling the new energies of militant Islam was in reality the beginning of a newly transnational terrorist force.

Nationalists without a state

Nationalism, like religion, can rouse intense political passions. The redrawing of political boundaries as empires were reformed into nation-states, first in Europe and then in Europe's colonial empires inaugurated a long period of bloody political turmoil. The question of which group's cultural identity will gain political expression is still hotly contested in many places. Most existing states are home to a plurality of cultures and language groups. Some members of some of these groups hear the voice of national destiny and agitate for their own new separate state.

Bent on achieving nationhood, movements usually organize much like states, with governing committees administrative hierarchies and armies. Conflict with the existing state is inevitable and the pull toward violent conflict is strong. It tends to take the form of guerrilla warfare, but terrorism is an ever-present possibility. In some places it becomes an important, even defining, element in the struggle.

Western Europe and North America, despite their relatively old and well-established nation-states, harbor several unresolved nationalist claims. The movements that have made the greatest use of violence against civilians are the Irish Republican movement (the IRA and its offshoots) and Basque Homeland and Liberty (Euzkadi Ta Azkatasuna or ETA). Other movements like the Front de Liberation de Quebec (FLQ) and the National Liberation Front of Corsica (FLNC) have resorted to terrorism from time to time.

The case of ETA illustrates how nationalist terrorism comes about. ETA grew out of the Basque Nationalist Party that since 1894 had stood for preserving and increasing the legal autonomy that the Basque regions of Spain and France had retained since the Middle Ages. The nationalists suffered heavy repression under Franco's authoritarian and centralizing rule in postwar Spain. Basque autonomy was abolished and the nationalist leadership went into exile in Paris. When political demonstrations and other nonviolent action produced no gains, a group of younger nationalists in 1959 founded ETA with the intention of using the tactics of anti-colonial nationalist movements to win Basque independence. As long as ETA was fighting Spain's fascist government the use of violence had much support in the Basque region and from democrats in other regions of Spain and in other countries. That did not prevent the organization from splitting into nationalist and revolutionary socialist wings with the revolutionaries willing to use sabotage and assassination as tactics of struggle. Their main targets were government officials, politicians and military forces.

In a dramatic action in 1973 ETA assassinated Franco's presumed successor, Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco. Their action probably hastened the end of the fascist dictatorship. It also initiated what ETA calls the 'action-reprisal-action' cycle. The regime sent in the troops to punish the perpetrators and set off a lengthy regional war. A decade of active terrorism ensued. In 198O, their bloodiest year, ETA killed 118 people. Once democratic rights were established in Spain and once the Basque region was accorded some autonomy, ETA's policy lost public support and became disputed within the movement. Yet a core of die-hard fighters for independence refused offers of amnesty and eluded arrest.


Influenced by the experience of the Irish Republican Army, ETA declared a ceasefire in September 1998 and called upon the political wing of Basque nationalism to negotiate self-determination. By then they had killed almost 800 people, more than half of them Spanish soldiers and police. The Spanish Government continued making arrests and ETA proceeded with attacks against property and raids on arms depots.

After little more than a year ETA declared the peace process 'blocked and poisoned' and announced that after 3 December 1999 it would 'reactivate the armed struggle.' Although the organization is estimated to comprise only about 20 active members and 100 supporters. It claims to have killed 38 people since ending the ceasefire. Each attack now provokes a counter demonstration. On 2 March 2002 organizers said that 50,000 demonstrators marched in the Basque coastal town of Portugalete to protest an attack attributed to ETA: a bomb placed in a shopping cart that injured socialist politician Esther Cabezudo and her bodyguard Enrique Torres.

Movements of the Left and Right

Groups moved by political ideology are not trying to redraw state boundaries; their goal is to change the institutions and policies of government and to put new kinds of people m power. Disputes between dissidents and governments on such matters is the stuff of normal political conflict, but oppositional groups sometimes choose to employ terror in addition to or instead of other forms of action. During the Cold War groups in several Western capitalist countries adopted sabotage assassination and bombings as forms of action.

Italy in the 1970s, for example, experienced an especially active period of violence. Its impact was greatest on 16 March 1978 when members of Italy's Red Brigades kidnapped Aldo Moro, leader of the Christian Democratic Party and five-time premier of Italy. They chose the day of the 'historic compromise' between the Christian Democrats and the Italian Communist Party (PCI), an arrangement avidly opposed by the Red Brigades who saw themselves as true followers of revolutionary Marxism-Leninism long abandoned by the PCI. Founded in Milan in 1970 by Renato Curcio and Margherita Cagol, the Red Brigades grew out of a Marxist study group at the University of Trento. Their violence started with firebombing industrial targets and then expanded to kidnapping, knee-capping and, finally, murder. The kidnapping and eventual murder of Aldo Moro was the apex of left-wing political violence in Italy, but terrorist acts continued into the 1980s. Between 1970 and 1982 the Red Brigades claimed responsibility for over 2000 illegal acts in which 161 people were killed.

The Red Brigades were only the most enduring of many similar organizations: 537 differently named groups with some continuity of existence have been counted in Italy during those years. Another 199 people were killed in terrorist acts not claimed by the Red Brigades. In the mid-1980s the Red Brigades were fading. Arrests, internal divisions, defections via amnesty and ideological crisis weakened them. In 1984 four leaders in prison published a letter abandoning armed struggle: 'The international conditions that made this struggle possible no longer exist."

The file is not closed on the Red Brigades: in March 2002 after the well-orchestrated murder of an economic adviser to Italy's right-wing government, a long document signed by the Red Brigades for the Construction of a Combatant Communist Party was published on the internet taking credit for the 'execution'. A similar crime with a similar claim was committed in 1999. Italians feared that another generation of Red Brigades violence was in the offing.

The Red Brigades are an example of left-wing terrorism that fit the ideological contestation of the Cold War. Other examples include the Red Army Faction (often called Baader-Meinhof Gang) in Germany, the Weather Underground in the US and Direct Action in Canada. The latter two tried to confine their violence to property and many of their members would deny that they were terrorists. Although these organizations identified with the Marxist Left, they broke from the old-Left idea that action must be based on an analysis of class forces and on organized support from the working class. What the old Left saw as rejecting naive 'voluntarism' looked to the new revolutionaries as a failure of nerve when social conditions demanded action.

More common in the United States has been the right-wing terrorism of white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan and Aryan Nation and populist armed militias convinced that Jewish-communist-capitalists have turned the federal government and the UN into engines of oppression. In the US Louis Beam, a prominent white supremacist, promoted a tactic of 'leaderless resistance' in which 'phantom cells' of small groups of activists or individuals acting alone take action on the basis of communications in newsletters or via the internet. There is no hierarchical organization at all, only a single-level set of like-minded activists tuned to the same network of information. It is a tactic that makes government surveillance and preventive action difficult.

In Europe, too, the rise of right-wing terrorism was the main concern of experts until the events of 11 September 2001 changed the theme. The deadliest right-wing attack in Europe was the bombing of the Bologna railway station on 2 August 1980 that killed 80 people and injured hundreds. It was the work of the neo-fascist Terza Posizione (Third Position) organization. Similar neo-Nazi groups carried out less lethal terrorist attacks in Germany at about the same time. Persistent police work reduced right-wing terrorism in Europe for several years, but in the early 1990s skinheads and neo-Nazis in Germany, Austria, France and formerly communist Eastern Europe attacked immigrants and Romas. Groups with racist, anti-immigrant and antigovernment ideologies have become more numerous and more active. Targets include synagogues, mosques, churches, interracial couples, Muslims, Jews, abortion-providers, immigrants, Roma people and gay men. The targets differ from country to country, but Russia, India, Hungary, Britain and the US have all seen numerous attacks. In 1999 alone right-wing extremists bombed a synagogue in Moscow, a black neighborhood in London (Brixton), and the car of an antifascist activist in Sweden.

In some cases the groups that engage in right-wing terror appear to be closely connected with the government or with the military. In Guatemala Mano Blanca and other death squads targeted people associated in any way with opposition to the government and in Argentina the AAA (Argentine Anti-Communist Alliance) directed its violence against Jews as well as regime opponents.

Left-wing terrorism has declined over the past four decades. Governments had some success in penetrating organizations to learn their plans and in arresting key members. With the end of the Soviet Union a major source of inspiration and support for anti-capitalist causes dried up and the victory of the last anti-colonial struggles changed militants into politicians and administrators. Left-wing political thought no longer had a well-honed analysis that supported a well-defined activist political agenda. Some of the remaining movements, like FARC in Colombia, are still powerful, but they look more and more like political gangs interested in preserving their piece of power. Others, like November 17 in Greece, seem propelled by an inner momentum that has little relation to current realities. Some observers fear that anti-globalization activism and the environmental movement will give rise to terrorist attacks, but there is no indication of any trend in that direction.

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