(From Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia)


Terrorism is the sustained, clandestine use of violence to achieve a political purpose. Murder, kidnapping, and bombings are common terrorist tools. Definitions in the U.S. Intelligence and Surveillance Act of 1979 and the United Kingdom Prevention of Terrorism Act of 1976 stress the use of violence to coerce or intimidate the civilian population in order to affect government policy.


The terrorist label is loosely and often unjustifiably attached to revolutionaries and armed insurgents in civil conflicts. Not all orchestrated domestic political violence, however, is terrorism. International law separates irregular warfare waged by insurgency movements against military targets from terrorism. Terrorism involves the deliberate killing of civilians, indiscriminate bombings of nonmilitary targets, and violence or threats of violence against the population at large. The 1977 Protocol I to the Geneva conventionsof 1949 solidified the distinction; it granted prisoner-of-war status to captured guerrilla fighters provided they had not committed crimes against civilians.

As a practical matter, a number of well-known events were clearly terrorist acts. They include the destruction by Arab agents of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988; the World Trade Center bombingin New York City by an Arab Muslim fundamentalist group in 1993; the car bombing outside the Uffizi Palace, in Florence, presumably by the Mafia in 1993; a subway gas attack in Tokyo by members of a religious cult in 1995; the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995; the bomb attacks on the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998 (most of the casualties were African civilians); and above all, the large-scale assault on U.S. targets on September 11, 2001. The repeated Hamas and Hezbollah attacks on Israel; car bombings by drug cartels in Colombia; and the slaughter of Andean villagers by the Shining Path in Peru also fall into this category. Most historians would not, however, pin the terrorist label on the Polish and French resistance fighters of World War II. Terrorism was one of the weapons used by the National Liberation Front (FLN) in Algeria. It was also used by the Viet Minh and Viet Congin Indochina; in this instance, however, terrorism was only one aspect of a "war of national liberation."

Whether political assassination is a terrorist act depends on its association with a broader program of political violence. The assassinations of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy were undoubtedly politically motivated. Nevertheless, they cannot properly be called terrorism. On the other hand, the assassinations of Tsar Alexander II of Russia and of Indira Gandhi, prime minister of India, were part of concerted programs of political violence; they therefore fit the terrorism definition.

Governments engage in terrorism. From a statistical standpoint, they were the major perpetrators of politically motivated murder, imprisonment, and mass intimidation in the 20th century. The outstanding examples were Nazi Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. In relation to the much smaller civilian populations involved, the murderous tactics of state security services and military "death squads" in El Salvador and Guatemala would run the totalitarian giants a close second. The sinister practice of mass "disappearances" adopted by the junta in Argentina from 1976 to 1982 established a new low in government terrorism.

One characteristic of revolutionary terrorism has been its quest for spectacular effects. Such effects attract media coverage and dramatize a political cause. Despite the horror occasioned by the hostage taking and murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, this and other atrocities by Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) terrorists elevated the Palestinian cause to a high level of world consciousness. The same was true of Irish Republican Army (IRA) bombings in Britain. The terrorist activities of the rebels in the Russian republic of Chechnya drew world media attention. In September 2004 the latter took hostage an entire school in North Ossetia; the incident resulted in more than 300 deaths.

Obstacles to Control

The principal obstacles to dealing with modern terrorism arise from its international dimension. Much Palestinian and Islamic fundamentalist terrorism has been funded and based outside the target area, notably in Libya, Syria, Iran, and Sudan. Basque terrorist attacks in Spain and many IRA attacks in Northern Irelandhave been mounted from across an international frontier. The 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro took place in international waters off Egypt. The victims, terrorists, crew, and vessel registration were of different nationalities. Aircraft hijackings and sabotage almost always transcend national boundaries.

This international dimension creates formidable jurisdictional hurdles to effective counterterrorist action. Domestic terrorism is the province of local law-enforcement authorities. The problems of dealing with it are not much different from a legal standpoint than dealing with organized crime. When the site of the terrorist crime is overseas, or the suspects have fled to another country, traditional concepts of sovereignty severely limit the reach of national criminal law and jurisdiction. In practice, extradition proceedings run up against the long-standing political offense exemption. In addition, except in the Anglo-American world, evidence derived from plea-bargaining of others is viewed as too tainted to support a fugitive's extradition. Radically different rules of trial procedure, admissibility of evidence, and defendants' rights often make convictions for crimes committed overseas difficult to sustain in U.S. appellate courts.

Since the rise of political terrorism in the 1960s, there has been a concerted international effort to transcend these obstacles. This effort includes the Tokyo, Hague, and Montreal conventions of 1963, 1970, and 1971, respectively, and the United Nations conventions of 1973 and 1979. These agreements have made aircraft sabotage and hijacking, hostage taking, and attacks on diplomats international crimes. Like piracy, such acts are punishable by any state. Together with the 1977 European Convention on Suppression of Terrorism, they aim to provide a juridical foundation for the rule "prosecute or extradite." They have undoubtedly energized transnational pursuit of suspects. Some governments, however, have viewed military reprisal as the only effective response to flagrant or repeated attacks. Examples are the 1986 U.S. bombing raid on Libya; Israeli commando raids on PLO bases in Lebanon and Tunisia; and the more recent Israeli air and ground retaliation to Hamas suicide bomb and Hezbollah rocket attacks on Israel. Another is the August 1998 U.S. cruise-missile attack on sites in Khartoum (Sudan) and Afghanistan associated with Osama bin Laden.

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, like many terrorist incidents of the 1990s, were attributed to bin Laden and his shadowy Al Qaeda (al-Qaida) organization. The United States responded by declaring a "war on terrorism." The first action in that war was military strikes against Afghanistan, where bin Laden continued to hide. The Taliban government of Afghanistan was quickly overthrown, but bin Laden remained at large. U.S. advisors were also sent to Yemen, the Republic of Georgia, the Philippines, and other countries to help fight Al Qaeda members or sympathizers. Antiterrorist measures were stepped up in Indonesia following an October 2002 terrorist attack on a nightclub on the island of Bali; more than 200 people, many of them Australian tourists, died.

Allegations that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was supporting terrorism formed one of the justifications for his ouster in the U.S.-led Iraq War. In August 2003, terrorists bombed the UN headquarters and the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad and a mosque in the holy Shiite city of Najaf. More than 160 people were killed; the dead included the senior UN administrator in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and one of Iraq's most prominent Shiite Muslim clerics, Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim. The bombings were seen as an effort to destabilize the U.S. occupation by keeping Iraq in a state of chaos. Subsequent terrorist attacks targeted occupation forces and Iraqis cooperating with them. Since that time, the Iraq War has grown into an even larger and more controversial front in the war on terrorism.

Meanwhile, in the United States, an unknown number of persons (perhaps as many as 1,200, most of them immigrants from Middle Eastern countries) were arrested and detained on suspicion of being terrorists. The U.S. government was also reorganized to enable it to better meet the terrorist threat . In March 2004 a coordinated bomb attack on commuter trains in Madrid, Spain, took the lives of 191 people. And in July 2005 another coordinated attack occurred in London; explosions on three subway trains and a bus killed more than 50. These acts, attributed to groups affiliated with Al Qaeda, stimulated European efforts to cooperate in meeting the terrorist threat. So did the foiled 2006 plot to detonate explosive devices smuggled on board airplanes flying from Britain to the United States.

Democratic states face difficulties in securing evidence and proving conspiracy. They also have an overriding need to protect intelligence sources and surveillance techniques. The emphasis of counterterrorism methods has therefore shifted from deterrence to prevention. Today the prevailing method of frustrating terrorist plans is through detailed intelligence from deep-cover agents and penetration of terrorist networks and support systems. In early 2004, with Libyan cooperation, a network of illegal transfers of nuclear technology from Pakistan to North Korea, Libya, and Iran was uncovered. In 2008 the Colombian military freed several high-profile hostages from FARC terrorists via an elaborate ruse.

On Oct. 13, 2006, U.S. president George W. Bush signed the SAFE Port Act. The legislation authorized the development of high-tech inspection equipment that allows customs agents to inspect cargo containers without opening them. Subsequent counterterrorist tactics employed by the Bush administration were controversial. These included the scanning of huge numbers of telephone records and bank transactions and the failure to grant detainees at the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, the protections of the Geneva conventions or the U.S. court system. In 2006 the latter was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.

That court decision led to new legislation. On Oct. 17, 2006, President Bush signed into law regulations for prosecuting and interrogating terrorism suspects. This established a system of military commissions for trying the accused; it would allow evidence to be withheld from defendants under certain conditions. In addition, the federal courts of jurisdiction would no longer be able to hear petitions from noncitizens for writs of habeas corpus. The latter provision, in effect, would prevent detainees from challenging their confinement in court. In 2008 the Supreme Court reaffirmed the right of habeas corpus for foreign detainees.

President Barak Obama, who took office in January 2009, wanted to close the controversial detention center at Guantánamo Bay. Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, the only enemy combatant held on U.S. soil, was charged in a civilian court early in Obama's term. This postponed a decision on Bush's contention that legal U.S. residents suspected of terrorism could be detained indefinitely without trial. Nevertheless, the issue of whether some detainees could be successfully prosecuted in civilian courts remained at the center of the debate about the future of Guantánamo inmates. It illustrated, once again, the legal difficulties in dealing with terrorism suspects thought too dangerous to release.

Charles Maechling Jr.

Further Reading:

Alexander, Yonah, and O'Day, Alan, eds., Middle East Terrorism: Current Threats and Future Prospects (1994).

Benjamin, Daniel, and Simon, Steven, The Age of Sacred Terror: Radical Islam's War against America (2002) and The Next Attack: The Failure of the War on Terror and a Strategy for Getting It Right (2005).

Blakesley, C. L., ed., Terrorism, Drugs, International Law, and the Protection of Human Liberty (1992).

Bloom, Mia, Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror (2005).

Bobbitt, Philip, Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-first Century (2008).

Burleigh, Michael, Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism (2009).

Carr, Caleb, The Lessons of Terror: A History of Warfare against Citizens (2002).

Clarke, Richard A., Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror (2004).

Coll, Steve, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden—From the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (2004).

Cordesman, Anthony H., Terrorism, Asymmetric Warfare, and Weapons of Mass Destruction: Defending the U.S. Homeland (2001).

Elshtain, Jean Bethke, Just War against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World (2003).

Falk, Richard, The Great Terror War (2002).

Guelke, Adrian, The Age of Terrorism and the International Political System (1995).

Henderson, D. A., "The Looming Threat of Bioterrorism," Science, Feb. 26, 1999.

Hersh, Seymour M., Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib (2004).

Heymann, Philip B., Terrorism, Freedom, and Security: Winning without War (2003).

Hoffman, Bruce, Inside Terrorism (1998).

Juergensmeyer, Mark, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence (2000).

Lesser, Ian O., et al., Countering the New Terrorism (1998).

Lifton, Robert Jay, Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorism (1999).

Mayer, Jane, The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals (2008).

Pape, Robert, The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism (2003).

Pillar, Paul R., Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy (2001).

Posner, Gerald, Why America Slept: The Failure to Prevent 9/11 (2003).

Richardson, Louise, What Terrorists Want: Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat (2006).

Robb, John, Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization (2007).

Sageman, Marc, Understanding Terror Networks (2004).

Sheehan, Michael A., Crush the Cell: How to Defeat Terrorism without Terrorizing Ourselves (2008).

Stern, Jessica, The Ultimate Terrorists (1999).

Suskind, Ron, The One Percent Doctrine (2006).

Weimann, Gabriel, Terror on the Internet: The New Arena, the New Challenges (2006).

White, J. R., Terrorism: An Introduction, 4th ed. (2002).

Woodward, Bob, Bush at War (2002).

Wright, Lawrence, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (2006).

Zahab, Mariam Abou, and Roy, Olivier, Islamist Networks: The Afghan-Pakistan Connection (2004).

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