The Roots of Modern Terrorism


Elizabeth Hall

The Roots of Modern Terrorism
Terrorism has been used as a tactic in conflicts for centuries.  Beginning with the French Revolution, and referring to the policies and tactics of the French Government, this first period lasted for ten years beginning in 1789 and ending in 1799.  These are the roots of modern terrorism and the interpretations of what is considered terrorism have changed drastically over the years.
  Over time, the concept of terrorism has evolved to include much symbolism involving religious and or political overtones.  We will examine how this concept took root, the historical perspectives that have changed over time, and the symbolism involved with the interpretations in an attempt to understand and relate this concept with what is going on with current events.  (White, 2006)
Historical Perspectives
The first historical perspective on terrorism began in 1789 in France during the French Revolution.  The perspective at that time was that the French government was the terrorists and the citizens used the governmental policies and practices as their platform for the definition.  In 1848, that perspective had changed to describe the revolutionaries of the time who used violence as a tactic to revolt against their governments.  In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s the term had come to represent the violent activities of groups including labor organizations, anarchists, and patriotic groups revolting against their governments.  (White, 2006)
The perspective on what constitutes terrorism did not really change again until after WW II, when everyone was concerned with European domination and perceived nationalistic groups as terrorists.  In 1964, the viewpoint changed again only to add the violent democratic left wing extremist groups to the interpretation.  In the late 1980’s, the perspective changed again to include violent hate groups into the definition in America and to change the international perspective to sub- national groups funded by unscrupulous, corrupt regimes such as the Al-Qaeda groups headed by Osama Bin Laden.  This brings us to the millennium, which facilitated our current perspective of what constitutes terrorism, which now includes large independent groups, violent religious fanatics, and environmentalist fanatics who use terror to further their causes.  (White, 2006)
Gupta (n.d.) holds that there have been four major waves of international terrorism in the world.  These waves of terrorism, are characterized by, and begin with cycles of growth and reduction that cover several countries.  This is “driven by a common predominant energy that shapes the participating groups’ characteristics and mutual relationships”.  Since the 1880’s, these waves have been energized by widespread ideological intensity that shapes the individual group’s perspective on mutual relationships and recognizable features.  (Gupta, n.d.)
 It is these interpretations and inclusions to the perspective that changes the meaning depending on what is going on around the terror faction at the time.  For example, in the 1700’s, terrorism referred to the actual government, in the 1800’s it was used to describe religious zealots and political assassins involved in the turmoil that Europe was going through.  By the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, the interpretations changed as political views changed.  The divine right of rulers changed to political views being more of a social construct.  Anarchism and Marxism were the first to philosophies to embrace violence as a means to social change.  Marxism eventually turned into communism, while anarchism simply rejected any and all forms of government.  (Terrorism Research, n.d.)
Currently the interpretations are either supporting nationalism or revolutionary in nature.  It was the Treaty of Versailles, acknowledging the fundamental idea of nationalities and ethnic groups’ right to fight for independence and sovereignty after WWI, which shaped our current interpretation of terrorism.  Arab nations felt put upon when they did not get the independence they thought was promised, particularly when England and France were both granted power over their lands and territories and Britain allowed the immigration of Jews into Palestine.  (Terrorism Research, n.d.)
Importance of Symbolism
According to Zumwalt (2010), all Muslims understand symbolism, and while some attempt to disguise this by calling themselves moderates the argument over the mosque at ground zero is just another clear example of this.  If we think back clearly to the Muslim reaction as a whole to the attack on the World Trade Center, September 11, 2001, there were Muslims all over the world cheering at the blow dealt to the United States.  This was because the Muslims understood the symbolism of the attack, and to them it was like cutting the head off the dragon of the mighty infidels.  The same goes for the mosque.  While we are busy believing that we are promoting tolerance by allowing the mosque, the Muslim world understands that what is intended is to establish a grip on ground made sacred to us by the sacrifices people made at the World Trade Center.  (Zumwalt, 2010)
The head of the organization funding the mosque, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, along with the Prime minister of Turkey RecepTayyip Erdogan both share the same similar views.  Erdogan went so far as to say the “Mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets, and the believers our army” notes Zumwalt (2010).  Rauf believes that he and his wife are both moderate Muslims; however, actions such as refusing to sign a treaty with former Muslims to promise them no harm, and refusing to condemn violent Muslim actions as terrorist actions, seem to tell a different story altogether.  It seems that the title “moderate” is just that, a title.
.  Even though over time, the concept of terrorism has evolved to include much symbolism involving religious and or political overtones, in examining how this concept took root, it is fairly easy, to track the changes in the meanings and perspectives of the word.  The concept is continually evolving to encompass current events and political views of people involved in religious or political conflict.  The conflict in the Muslim world has been going on since the aftermath of WWI when the Arab world felt slighted by the results of the war.  This was caused by political leaders taking over their territories when they thought that they were promised sovereignty.  Western countries such as the United States have tried to appease them, work with them, and promote peace in the region, but is seems that nothing will make them happy, short of declaring sharia law worldwide as the only form of government.

Gupta, D.A. (2002).  Accounting for the Waves of International Terrorism.  Retrieved From: http://www.terrorismanalysts.com/pt/index.php/pot/article/view/55/html
Terrorism Research, (n.d.).  The Evolution of Terrorism.  Retrieved From: http://www.terrorism-research.com/evolution/
White, J.R. (2006).  Terrorism and Homeland Security (6th ed.).  Mason, OH.  Cengage Learning
Zumwalt, J. (2010).  Muslims Know the Symbolism of the Ground Zero Mosque.  Retrieved From:

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  1. It seems that this post evolved from the history of terrorism to just the terrorism done by a few people in a single religion...? Terrorism is defined as: The unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence by a person or an organized group against people or property with the intention of intimidating or coercing societies or governments, often for ideological or political reasons.

    Nowhere does it say anything about Al Quaeda or Hamas or any such organization. It also does not include anything such as the IRA, or the drug dealing gangs of Mexico. Those two organizations have little to do with islam...?

    The best example of terrorism in recent years is obviously 9/11, I believe? but you cannot just condemn an entire people because of a few's outrageus actions that are truly not part of the Quran.

  2. Adam,
    I believe that you must have misinterpreted the article. This piece is a scholastic article intended to educate the general public on how terrorism began and how it has evolved to include an ever broadening definition depending on the social standards of the times and what is deemed acceptable due to the changing nature of what people will stand behind. Nowhere in this article did I "condemn an entire people because of a few's outrageous actions that are truly not a part of the Quran" Also Al Qaida and Hamas were used as examples of groups and was stated as such.

  3. Elizabeth - A few points come to mind. 1. All religions believe they have cornered the truth, all religions condemn others (Christ Himself stated that He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life - as did all others)in fact if you read the Koran, Bible, and Torah - all of their non-believers end in a place called Hell/hades, etc.). 2. Terrorism is not "modern" it has been around thousands of years - maybe by "modern" one means that the way in which it is now carried out by new and improved weapons & electronics - and then instantly broadcasted around the world that everyone sees it "firsthand" certainly increases the impact of the violence, thus yes the Media advertises the terrorist acts. 3. The cursades (on all sides) were thus defined as terrorists acts, the Catholic church during WWII, and during their cleasning policies during their purgings -leading to Luthers thesis be nailed to their front door. 4. All nations have sponsored acts that can be defined as terrorist acts, state sponsored terrorism, so the group your rootin' for - are they called FREEDOM FIGHTERS or TERRORISTS?

  4. First, its an academic work and she probably only has a few pages. Second, terrorism has been Islamized over the last 20 odd years but is responsible for far more death and destruction, with a few exceptions. Terrorist or freedom fighter depends on one's PoV. Remember what George Orwell said, history is written by the winners. And most importantly, she's new to the discipline of terrorism and crime. Let her learn. There's constructive criticism, criticism, and being a jerk about it. Last, anyone studying the history of terrorism in general should look for the following:
    Jackal: The Complete Story of the Legendary Terrorist, Carlos the Jackal by John Follain
    If there was any "likable" terrorist its Carlos.
    The Trial of the Haymarket Anarchists: Terrorism and Justice in the Gilded Age by Timothy Messer-Kruse (Aug 16, 2011)
    Excellent work on the age of the anarchists.
    The History of Terrorism: From Antiquity to al Qaeda by Gérard Chaliand and Arnaud Blin (Aug 1, 2007)
    Hefty work but about as much fun to read as the instructions for your Ikea furniture.
    The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright (Aug 21, 2007)
    The definitive work on 9/11.
    Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism by Robert Anthony Pape (Jul 25, 2006)
    The Globalization of Martyrdom: Al Qaeda, Salafi Jihad, and the Diffusion of Suicide Attacks [Paperback]
    Anything by Jessica Stern, Martha Crenshaw, or Walter Laqeur.

  5. Russ, Well said, there are a gazzillion terrorism books out there, it might be also reasonable to read:

    Terrorism an introduction - White
    Terror in the Mind of God - Juergensmeyer
    Insurgency & Terrorism Bard O'Neill
    Not particularly about terrorism but worth the tactical read: Special Forces Guerilla Warfare Manual - Wimberley

    Adam has a clear generally accepted definition of terrorism. I think what Elizabeth was doing was setting out a historical context for what has come to be known as modern terrorism which I do think that there is some consensus around it being termed as such during the periods of the French and American Revolutions that occurred in a very similar time frame.

    I would caution SKI on the issues of taking something that has become a term in the current and applying that to observations of the past. Certainly, one can look back through history and find many analogies to what we now categorize as modern terrorism, but it has evolved as has COIN. It is not totally translatable but there is something in the intelligence community called hindsight biases, this feels a bit like that. I said it isn't totally translatable so don't slay me introducing this notion here.

    Mikail Bakunin can be credited with laying the groundwork for the structure of modern terrorism. At the time that he developed the concept he was applying it to how a country would be run however later it turned out perfectly suited to the terrorist task. It is a group of groups loosely coupled yet autonomous. We see it with the Palestinian organizations, the Hezbollah Militia, and al Qaeda. I am sure there are other examples. The convergence of the violence, the cult like extremist analogy with religion and the groups that form the organization providing a terrorist nation without a country also providing security for their operations. A collaborative of collaboratives! Often currently referred to as cells, or umbrella organizations etc. It is this organizations structure so foreign in concept to the West that has been as enigmatic to analysis as Bakunin initially proved to be for me.

  6. Another thing to consider is: what is it that makes the collaborative within this anarchistic non-structure coalesce? It is the cause, in each case the American revolution, the French revolution, the Russian revolution all groups coalesced into one group to fight the enemy and when that enemy was gone as in the case of the Russian revolution then the groups fought amongst themselves. Bakunin provides us with a model that for the purposes of terrorism helps us to understand yes there is communication among the collaboratives however by design for a host of reasons including security we don’t want those collaboratives to physically coalesce only to coalesce around a cause. The cause is what provides the cohesive links for example the Vietnam war or more appropriately the Anti-Vietnam war, the anti-Israel, anti-Christian, anti-West.

    At the same time that the anarchists were fighting for their ideas of a new society, nationalists were fighting for their countries that were under foreign control. Nationalists hoped through there efforts to achieve a greater level of support from their compatriots. The nationalists adopted the tactics of the anarchist terrorists in order to fight the foreign powers occupying their country. They did not reject the notion of governmental control but like the IRA in Ireland, they believed they were entitled to self-government. Despite being different in their objective, their moral justification for terrorism was essentially the same.

    The SF Guerrilla Warfare Manual reference should allude to the nature that the meaning of terrorism fluctuated around the various types of war. Where the tactics even during conventional warfare can look very much like terrorism.

    To SKI's point, Terrorism in the 1950 and 60’s took on a new dimension that carries through to today. The basic philosophy remains the same but the media, communications, and weapons technology have changed its face significantly. In addition to anarchistic and nationalistic motivations, terrorism is also being motivated by religious fanaticism. Terrorist acts through the media and communications are known instantly around the world improving their impact. Communication improves the terrorists’ ability to deliver weapons. Religious fanaticism has spawned the use of human guided bombs exacting ever more violent and indiscriminant acts often times with the death and maiming of civilians as the primary target of the terrorist acts.

  7. With the advent of new media outlets this is even more amplified.

    None of what I have here is original material other than perhaps the clear interpretation of the parallels between al Qaeda and Mikail Bakunin structure. To that end I would direct the reader to White. That being said, looking to construct a taxonomy or framework for understanding Insurgency and Terrorism, Bard O'Neill's Book is precious.

    One final note is there is the notion of understanding terrorism and its motivations and then there is the notion of combating it, quite literally, all options need to be on the table. What actions do we take today that foment the terrorists of tomorrow.

    Counterterrorism isn't just tactical like the killing of Bin-laden, it needs to be strategic there a complete spectrum of proactive and reactive capabilities that needs to be brought to bear over both the diffusion of currently existing groups as well as the proactive mitigation of other groups with other ideals motivating them.

    Adam's generally accepted definition said:

    The unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence by a person or an organized group against people or property with the intention of intimidating or coercing societies or governments, often for ideological or political reasons.

    How do we ensure that individual and group ideological and political motivations do not compel them to instill terror in innocent non-combatants?

  8. Just re-read, noticed several typos, for this I apologize.


All comments and feedback appreciated!

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