Skip to main content
Select Source:



Although the terrors of war and criminal violence have been known since the dawn of human existence, the concept of terrorism as a form of political violence originated in le terreur of the French Revolution. Initially a word for the brutal excesses of a revolutionary government (some forty thousand persons were guillotined), by the late nineteenth century "terrorism" referred almost exclusively to the antigovernment violence of groups such as the Russian Narodnaya Volya ("Will of the People"). Since then, the designation of particular groups and actions as terrorist has varied with political assumptions and aims.

To defenders of government, almost any violence by opponents may be defined as terrorism. To opponents, virtually any governmental effort to restrain or repress opposition may be defined as terrorism. Whether "oppositional" or "state" terrorism, the distinction itself is embedded in a snarl of issues raised by the intersection of ideological and analytical concerns.

Defining terrorism

After noting that more than one hundred definitions have been offered, Laqueur (1999) concludes that the only generally accepted characteristic of terrorism is that it involves violence or the threat of violence. Nonetheless, most observers also include political motivation and some notion of an organization that accepts and fosters violence as a political tactic.

Political motivation may vary from a scarcely articulate resentment of felt obstructions and sensed antagonists to a highly developed consciousness and analysis of political relationships. Mob violence against despised racial or ethnic groups typically has no specific political rationale and goals, despite the tendency of politicians and media commentators to impute responsibility for such violence to agitators and conspirators. At a somewhat higher level of political consciousness are planned attacks by individuals aroused by ideological messages warning them of some threat (e.g., extinction of the white race, loss of national sovereignty, environmental catastrophe, economic ruin) and blaming it on some population (e.g., Jews, Arabs, nonwhites, whites) or institution (e.g., the American "Zionist Occupation Government," the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund). Revolutionary strategists such as Che Guevara and Carlos Marighela, as well as counterrevolutionary strategists such as East Germany's Markus Wolff and Argentina's General Augusto Pinochet, exemplify the application of reason to planning and justifying the systematic use of terrorism and other forms of violence for political ends. Whether in the revolutionists' manuals of guerrilla warfare and bomb-making or the counterrevolutionists' manuals of "low intensity warfare" and antiterrorist operations, the rationales for violence are derived from quite explicit (though sometimes bizarre) understandings of the historical and social dimensions of the conflict situation.

Whether individuals acting on their own initiative may be terrorists depends on how one defines political organization. Wardlaw is one of the few analysts to allow for the possibility of a lone terrorist who uses or threatens violence to coerce a target group, beyond the immediate victims, into acceding to political demands. Theodore Kaczinski (the Unabomber) might be seen as an example. However, the Unabomber acted in awareness that a great many people agreed or sympathized with his views on the environmental threats posed by corporate greed aided and abetted by irresponsible scientific research and governmental corruption. Similarly, the fugitive Eric Robert Rudolph, wanted for abortion clinic bombings as well as for the Atlanta Olympics bombing, acted with at least the tacit (and probably some material) support of antiabortion and antigovernment extremists. That their views were drawn from or coincided with the ideologies of terrorist organizations (ranging from Earth First and the May 19th Communist Organization (M19CO) to Aryan Nations and The Order) indicates that they acted in an organizational context, from which they drew inspiration, orientation, and justification.

The notion of organizational context implies that terrorists may be more or less loosely organized, and that particular organizations may be indirectly as well as directly responsible for terrorist incidents. For instance, while the Saudi Arabian exile Osama bin Ladan cannot possibly be directly responsible for every attack by Islamic fundamentalists, his ideological and financial support for their cause encourages terrorism far beyond the operations of his own organization. Indeed, bin Ladan's organization appears to be more accurately described as a network of quasi-independent militant groups who benefit from his capacity to provide inspirational leadership and logistical support.

So far we have observed that terrorism is politically motivated violence for which organizations are directly or indirectly responsible. What remains to be settled is just how terrorism differs from other political violence. To begin, no definition of terrorism has included rioting, civil war, revolution, or international war, though analysts have agreed that terrorist incidents may occur in conjunction with or as a part of such violence. The consensus is that terrorist violence is more organized and deliberate than rioting, lesser in organization and scale than war. And though guerrillas are often pictured as terrorists by their government opponents (e.g., the Zapatista rebels in Mexico), guerrilla resistance to governmental forces does not necessarily involve terrorist acts.

Differentiating assassination and terrorism is more problematic. Ben-Yehuda argues strongly that terrorism must be distinguished from assassination, but has been unable to pin down the exact nature of the presumed differences. He suggests that terrorism is indiscriminate killing aimed at a general target while assassination targets specific individuals, but is admittedly unable to maintain the distinction in his own case analyses (pp. 38, 4647). As the number of victims rises, observers appear to be increasingly likely to describe the incident as terrorism rather than assassination. And insofar as "innocents" such as children, café patrons, and passing motorists are victims, the violence is more likely to be viewed as terrorism. But the difficulty is that deliberate attacks on specific individuals because of their political importance may harm people who just happen to be in the line of fire or nearby when the bomb explodes. Moreover, "innocents" may be victimized by assassins not only accidentally but sometimes deliberatelyfor example, to eliminate witnesses, distract pursuers, or intimidate bystanders.

Perhaps the best working solution is to accept Ben-Yehuda's general point: that assassination is targeted at specific persons even though others may be harmed, while terrorism is characterized by essentially random targeting. Both aim at maximum political impact, but differ in the rationale for target selection: the assassin believes that killing one or more specific persons will be effective in weakening the will of the opposition; the terrorist believes that the randomness of victimizationespecially if casualties are maximizedwill be effective, particularly by spreading the perceived risks of victimization.

To summarize, terrorism is defined as politically motivated violence, for which organizations are directly or indirectly responsible, that is intended to weaken the will of the opposition by using random targeting to spread the fear of victimization.

Terrorism and law

There is no established legal definition of terrorism. Internationally, efforts within and outside the United Nations have failed in the face of widely divergent perceptions of what constitutes terrorism and who are terrorists. In 1972 the General Assembly formed an Ad Hoc Committee on Terrorism that met for seven years. There were prolonged debates on whether it is necessary or possible to reach a definition (Higgins). Moreover, it became clear that terrorism cannot be defined in terms of specified acts, targets, purposes, or actors. For instance, the shooting of a high official by an individual may be motivated by personal jealousy or envy; a plane may be destroyed in a plot to collect insurance; a diplomat may be kidnapped to force payment of a ransom. Beyond the apparent technical impossibility of defining terrorism as a distinct criminal offense, international rivalries make it politically impossible.

Probably the most intractable political issues have been whether a legal definition should or can include (1) violent actions by a state, and (2) violent resistance to internal or foreign oppression. On the question of state terrorism, governments have adamantly rejected any legal definition that might apply to their own acts of violence against external or internal enemies. On the second issue, governments have sharply disagreed on whether the concept of terrorism might extend to violence on behalf of such causes as "national liberation" from colonial rule or imperial domination, "progressive" opposition to capitalism, resistance to "cultural genocide," or impeding "assaults on the environment." The outcome has been a consensus to abandon the quest for a legal definition of terrorism in favor of a piecemeal strategy: the ad hoc prohibition of carefully delimited acts against specified targets such as skyjacking commercial airliners.

Apart from the United Nations, there have been other multinational attempts to establish a legal basis for cooperation against oppositional (including state-sponsored) terrorism. Most such efforts involve operational agreements among states to help one another in such ways as sharing intelligence, apprehending and extraditing suspects, and joint training of special police and military units. The most ambitious such arrangement is the 1992 agreement (the Maastricht "third pillar") institutionalizing cooperation among the twelve members of the European Union in combating "terrorism, drug trafficking, and serious organized crime" (Chalk, p. 3). The treaty commits the members to eliminating internal border controls, while leaving the definition of terrorism to the discretion of the operational executive (the "K4 Committee"). Given the greater freedom of movement and the lack of oversight by either national parliaments or elected EU institutions, there is some concern that Western Europe is becoming more vulnerable to terrorism while at the same time weakening democratic legal controls over antiterrorism policy decisions (Chalk).

Within the United States, the legal status of terrorism is similarly unsettled. Although it is the subject of a growing stream of congressional committee hearings, presidential statements, and reports from the cabinet level down through the complex of intelligence and investigative agencies, terrorism is as much a term of convenience in American legal discourse as it is in international law. A statutory definition is found in the United States Code, Section 2656f(d): "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetuated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience." However, it is used by the State Department as a guideline for compiling incidence reports, but not by either the Defense Department or the F.B.I., which have their own definitions reflecting the differences in agency priorities and interests (Hoffman, pp. 3738). Though crimes of violence believed to be politically motivated are given the highest investigative priority, the F.B.I. emphasizes specific criminal conduct in developing evidence on which charges are based. Accused persons are indicted not for terrorism but for "a plethora of traditional and, occasionally, exotic criminal offenses" (Smith, p. 7). Two sets of guidelines have been issued by the Attorney General: domestic terrorism investigations are conducted under explicit public guidelines, "foreign-based" terrorism investigations under classified guidelines allowing greater leeway. Increased federal powers (including controversial restrictions on habeas corpus) to deal with both domestic and foreign terrorism were provided in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (Kappler). It is increasingly clear that although political motivation is typically avoided as an element in the prosecution of terrorists, conviction does result in significantly longer sentences (averaging 167 months) than for comparable conventional offenders (averaging 46 months)with identification as "terrorist" being the most powerful predictor of sentence severity (Smith and Damphousse).

Because of their openness and commitment to the rule of law, democracies are indeed more likely than dictatorships to suffer terrorist attacks, and tend under attack to increase police discretionary powers. (For the classic review of the issues, see Wilkinson.) It appears highly unlikely that democratic institutions can be protected from oppositional terrorism without sacrificing, at least temporarily, some freedoms. Whether and how far antiterrorism measures can proceed without themselves contributing to the permanent weakening of democracy is the subject of continuing debate.

Explaining terrorism

Research aimed at explaining terrorism has focused on the psychological characteristics of individual terrorists, the nature of terrorist organizations, and the social or cultural environments in which terrorist organizations emerge.

The psychology of terrorists. In a useful summation of the literature, Ross has identified seven psychological approaches that have been used in efforts to understand terrorists: psychoanalytical, learning, frustration-aggression, narcissism-aggression, trait, developmental, and motivational/rational choice. Finding some merit in each, though none is satisfactory in itself, he proposes an integration of their key features in a model consisting of five "etiological features of terrorism listed in increasing order of importance" (p. 182). First: the development of facilitating traits, with the most often reported being fear, hostility, depression, guilt, antiauthoritarianism, perceived lack of manliness, self-centeredness, extreme extroversion, need for high risks or stress, and alienation. Second: frustration or narcissistic rage resulting in aggressive behavior. Third: associational drives arising from social marginality and isolation. Fourth: learning opportunities to which members of terrorist organizations are exposed, through which orientations and behaviors are shaped. Fifth: cost-benefit calculations by which terrorist acts are justified as the only or most effective means to achieve political goals.

To his credit, Ross argues that these psychological factors constitute a process inclining, though not determining, an individual to become a terrorist. Further, he embeds the psychological model in a larger model of historical and structural factors that define the contexts, either facilitating or inhibiting, in which the processes operate. The full model incorporating both psychological and structural factors summarizes numerous hypotheses about causal paths. This is an ambitious and commendable effort to organize all that has been learned about terrorists and terrorism, as the basis for further research. However, the vast body of research on which it is based is extremely uneven in quality, in terms of both conceptual and methodological rigor. In particular, the psychological studies have generally ignored the political and ideological clashes in which terrorists and terrorism are defined. The assumption of psychopathology has dominated the field of terrorist research, and the measurement of psychological variables has been characterized by low reliability and dubious validity.

The potential value of psychological studies of individual terrorists appears to be quite limited at best. Perhaps the most promising line of inquiry is to follow Crenshaw's lead in recognizing that terrorist behavior is a matter of strategic choice. In Hoffman's words, the "terrorist is fundamentally a violent intellectual, prepared to use and indeed committed to using force in the attainment of his goals" (p. 43). Whatever one thinks of the content and implications of terrorist reasoning, it is clear that terrorists do base their decisions on what they know, or believe they know, about the realities of the political situations in which they operate. That their knowledge and the conclusions to which it leads may be mistaken or even bizarre in the eyes of outsiders is a function not of psychopathology but instead of the information and analyses to which they have access. Among the most important determinants of what terrorists can know and believe are the organizations to which they belong, or at least from which they receive inspiration and direction.

The nature of terrorist organizations. Terrorist organizations vary from the classic secret "cell" structure to loosely defined networks of persons with essentially the same political ideology who have adopted terrorist tactics. Examples of tightly organized (and extensively researched) groups are the Irish Republican Army, the Italian Red Brigade, the German Baader-Meinhof Group (Red Army Fraction), and the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN). There are fewer examples of terrorist networks, and less has been written about them, partly because they have proven to be more difficult to locate and study and partly because the shift toward less tightly knit and identifiable organizations is a relatively recent development. (Debates in the 1960s1980s era over the existence of a worldwide terrorist network dominated by the former USSR were driven by cold war politics rather than any real evidence.) Perhaps the prototypical network internationally is that associated with Osama bin Ladan, widely considered ultimately responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing in New York, the 1996 destruction of an American military housing complex in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, and the 2000 attack on the U. S. S. Cole while berthed for refueling at Aden, Yemen.

Within the United States, there is an emerging network of right-wing terrorists, many of whom are sometime members of an assortment of militias, secessionist communities, white supremacy organizations, and morality movements, most of them adherents to some variant of Christian Identity ideology. The main impetus for shifting to more loosely organized domestic terrorism is the success of the F.B.I. and other law enforcement agencies in obtaining criminal convictions of leaders and members of such organizations as the Ku Klux Klan and Richard Butler's Aryan Nations, which have also been bankrupted by civil suits. To date, the most deadly incident linked to the rightist network is the 1995 bombing of the Murrah federal office building in Oklahoma City (in which 168 people died) by Timothy McVeigh, with help from a few associates and at least tacit approval of many others.

Becoming a terrorist appears to be a "process of radicalization" (Turk) in which politically aware individuals move through blurred and overlapping stages of alienation, searching, recruitment, commitment, and action. Whether a particular individual will in fact become a terrorist cannot be predicted because of the myriad factors affecting the transitions at every point. One of the few safe generalizations is that the many who begin the process become a relative few by its end. And it should be kept in mind that what is known about the radicalization process is based almost entirely on studies of "cell" organizations.

The trajectory begins with a vaguely disturbing sense that "our" kind of people and values are threatened, combined with the assumption that one can "do something about it." This level of political consciousness tends to reflect the individual's perceptions of social divisions and conflicts, with the most common being those associated with class, ethnic, racial, nationalist, and ideological distinctions. Accordingly, it is very likely that a particular group will be seen as the threat which needs to be countered. Conventional political activities such as helping in elections and signing petitions may result in perceived failures to improve the situation. Repeated experiences of political failure lead to frustration with conventional politics: the resentment of threatening others is now heightened by alienation from "the system."

Searching for alternatives may take the alienated individual through a range of ideological and organizational possibilities. Reading, listening to speeches and debates, going to meetings, arguing with others: the search may lead from one version of truth to another, from one group to another, in what some searchers find a confusing odyssey that they wish to end in a clear resolution. They feel the need to believe and do "something." Some of the options will at least raise the issue of whether and when it is right to use violence to further political objectives. And some will offer convincing justifications for violence. Whatever the form of violence advocated or encouraged, eventually the killing of opponents will be the key issue in deciding how serious are one's political concerns. Taking up the gun or bomb is at this point the test of commitment.

The searcher will by now probably have been noticed by those already committed to terrorism. Whether the individual will become a terrorist is problematic, as terrorist organizations screen out the great majority of potential recruits. Regardless of their fervor, individuals seen as lacking the potential for total commitment and disciplined action will not be recruited. Those who are selected will have to "cross the bridge" to be accepted as members of the terrorist organization, which usually means they will be given the assignment of murdering a police officer or committing some other deadly act. The test serves both to confirm the recruit's willingness and ability to carry out an act of illegal violence and to give the organization the power to turn the offender over to the authorities if necessaryfor example, in the event of a refusal to obey orders or a future change of heart.

Commitment is ensured by a strict regimen of internal discipline combining isolation, blackmail, coercion, and indoctrination. Physical and social isolation is accomplished by persuading or forcing the individual to cut off ties to family, friends, and anyone else outside the organization. In rare instances, a contact may be authorized, usually in order to obtain funds, supplies, information, target access, or something else of use to the organization. Movements from place to place are tightly controlled. Members are required to turn over all financial and other personal assets to the organization. Blackmail is a constant threat should the member become seriously troublesome. More often, members who are thought to be weakening in their commitment or to be insubordinate, careless about security, or losing their nerve are punished by beatings, confinement, deprivation of food or other amenities, torture, rape, or murder.

While the elements of isolation, blackmail, and coercion place the individual terrorist in a highly vulnerable controlled environment, real commitment is achieved by indoctrination. Access to unauthorized sources of information is prohibited, exposure to authorized sources is required. Increasingly, the terrorist develops a perspective shaped only by the organization's ideology. Factual assertions cannot be checked, explanations cannot be tested, assumptions and implications cannot be debated. Dissensus becomes an impossibility as well as an offense within the organization. Not surprisingly, the world view promoted by indoctrination typically exaggerates the salience and resources of the organization and the effectiveness of its actions. The major themes are that the cause is just, the organization's power is growing, the struggle is the foremost political reality for opponents as it is for the terrorists, the opposition is weakening, and victory is assured.

The end product of the radicalization process is a dedicated terrorist, whose convictions are nonetheless real even though based as much on isolation and lack of knowledge as much as on collegial support and knowledge of political realities. To the terrorist, responsibility for terrorism and its casualties lies with the opposition, whose threats and intransigence have forced adoption of the terrorist option. The struggle is not a "fantasy war" but a real one.

Environments of terrorism. Excepting the most ruthless dictatorships, terrorist organizations have emerged in virtually every kind of society: democratic and authoritarian, developed and developing, ethnically or racially diverse and homogeneous societies. The diversity of social and cultural environments of terrorism has, so far anyway, defeated efforts to explain terrorism by pointing to class, racial, or other social inequalities; economic exploitation or decline; political oppression; demographic imbalances; or other social structural factors. (For exhaustive reviews of general theories of terrorism and other forms of political violence, see Schmid and Jongman, and Zimmermann.) If theories focused on political and economic factors have achieved little, their failure has at a minimum encouraged the questioning of the common assumption that violence is a political abnormality somehow caused by political and/or economic inequities. That violence may well be not just a potential aberration but an ever-present option in political conflicts is suggested by Laqueur's observation that terrorist organizations usually arise from "a split between the moderate and the more extreme wings of an already-existing organization" (p. 104).

A far more promising path to explanation is suggested by the increasing significance of religious elements, and the declining importance of secular materialist notions of class and power struggles, in the ideologies of terrorism. Juergensmeyer has in a monumental study opened up the implications of this historic shift, demonstrating that the meaningfulness of their struggle for most contemporary terrorists derives from religious traditions and innovations (seldom acknowledged as such) that constitute, or are compatible with, "cultures of violence" (pp. 1012). The thesis is developed through case studies of "social groupings" (encompassing huge and small networks as well as tight organizations) whose ideologies express themes found in five major religious traditions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Sikhism, and Buddhism.

In each case it is shown that the terrorist ideology cannot be cavalierly dismissed as simply a distortion or deviation. Christian antiabortionists such as Michael Bray justify the bombing of clinics and the murder of surgeons by complex theological arguments against killing the innocent and for establishing a new moral order. Yoel Lerner's 1995 assassination of Israel's prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was justified by Rabbi Meir Kahane as a religious act to ensure the survival of the state of Israel, which is the essential fore-runner of the biblical Israel to be fulfilled through divine redemption (the coming of the Messiah). The World Trade Center bombing and other violence against the United States and its allies is defended by invoking the Koran's prescription of violence to defend the faith against its enemies, including whoever threatens the material and cultural survival of the faithful. Sikh terrorism in India and abroad is similarly justified by such leaders as Simranjit Singh Mann as protecting the faith from the corrosive effects of secularism and Hinduization. And despite Buddhism's pacifist teachings, Shoko Asahara found justification for releasing sarin gas in the Tokyo subway in traditional Buddhist teachings that the rule of nonviolence can be broken when five conditions are satisfied: "something living must have been killed; the killer must have known that it was alive; the killer must have intended to kill it; an actual act of killing must have taken place; and the person or animal attacked must, in fact, have died" (Juergensmeyer, p. 113). Force may be used to defend the faith and to establish a peaceful moral order.

In each case, religious ideas provide an explanation of the believer's sense of loss and threat in this world; define in cosmic terms the need to struggle against those responsible; and give the believer's life a wonderful new significance as a holy warrior in a just cause. Doubt, confusion, and hopelessness are overcome by a transcendent truth that makes sense of what for many have been "real experiences of economic destitution, social oppression, political corruption, and a desperate need for the hope of rising above the limitations of modern life" (Juergensmeyer, p. 242). Increasingly, the religious ideologies driving terrorist movements resonate with widely held feelings that the secularism of the modern world order is threatening the nonmaterial values (family, morality, faith, caring, sharing) on which human societies depend for meaning and survival.

Three conclusions are drawn from reviewing efforts to explain terrorism. First, terrorists are not psychologically much different from the rest of us. Second, their organizations are shifting toward looser networks rather than the tight hierarchies of the past. Third, the environments inspiring terrorism are increasingly cultural, and specifically religious. The implications for the future appear to be grim.

The future of terrorism

Because individual terrorists and their organizations are becoming harder to keep track of, and given the difficulties of identifying terrorists and terrorism in the first place, the policy assumptions of the past are likely to be counterproductive in the future. Containment, in particular, does not seem to be a promising strategy when the ease of travel and communication are helping to make anachronisms of international borders. Similarly, efforts to control investments and limit technology transfers appear to be not only failing but also aggravating the fears of people around the globe who distrust the motives of multinational economic and political entities. The 2000 demonstrations in Seattle and elsewhere against the International Monetary Fund are harbingers of what we can expect as the development-investment programs of the Western power centers sharpen the great differences between those favored by the programs and those disadvantaged by them.

The "new terrorism" of religiously dedicated holy warriors is less vulnerable to being deterred by military and law enforcement threats. Indeed, the use of violence has not only failed to diminish international and domestic terrorism but also provided the ideologists of terrorism with useful ammunition. Rightist domestic terrorism in the United States has been strengthened by such incidents as the Waco assault, as has Islamic terrorism by the attempted assassinations of Osama bin Ladan and other leading figures. Though understandable and perhaps even appropriate in some instances, military tactical responses to terrorist threats and attacks have given credence in the eyes of believers to religious depictions of Western, particularly American, societies as satanic. The new terrorists are convinced of divine approval of their actions and of ultimate victory, even if it is to be a supernatural one. As Laqueur emphasizes, the new terrorists are so dangerous precisely because they "are not primarily interested in gain or glory, but instead want a state or a society in their own image, cleansed of their enemies" (p. 277).

Such warriors can be expected to show little reluctance to use weapons of mass destruction. Although governments have concentrated investigative resources on reducing the threat of major nuclear attacks, most analysts are more concerned with the growing possibility of small-scale yet spectacularly alarming weapons being used. Small nuclear devices are perhaps less likely to be used than chemical or biological weapons, but in any event the casualties of the future will probably be much greater on average than in the past. Meanwhile, conventional weapons continue to be readily available, along with instructions on how to make and use them. The portent is more incidents, more deaths and injuries, and more terrorist challenges to established social orders.

Austin T. Turk

See also Crime Causation: Political Theories; International Criminal Law; Political Process and Crime; War and Violent Crime; War Crimes.


Ben-Yehuda, Nachman. Political Assassination by Jews. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.

Chalk, Peter. West European Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996.

Crenshaw, Martha. "The Logic of Terrorism: Terrorist Behavior as a Product of Strategic Choice." Origins of Terrorism. Edited by Walter Reich. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Higgins, Rosalyn. "The General International Law of Terrorism." Terrorism and International Law. Edited by Rosalyn Higgins and Maurice Flory. New York: Routledge, 1997. Pages 1329.

Hoffman, Bruce. Inside Terrorism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

Juergensmeyer, Mark. Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

Kappler, Burke W. "Small Favors: Chapter 154 of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, the States, and the Right to Counsel." Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 90, no. 2 (2000): 467598.

Laqueur, Walter. Terrorism. Boston: Little, Brown, 1977.

. The New Terrorism: Fanaticism and the Arms of Mass Destruction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Ross, Jeffrey Ian. "Beyond the Conceptualization of Terrorism: A Psychological-Structural Model of the Causes of This Activity." Collective Violence: Harmful Behavior in Groups and Government. Edited by Craig Summers and Eric Markusen. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999. Pages 169192.

Schmid, Alex P., and Jongmanlbert J. Political Terrorism. New York: North-Holland Publishing Company, 1988.

Smith, Brent L. Terrorism in America: Pipe Bombs and Pipe Dreams. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994.

Smith, Brent L., and Damphousse, Kelly R. "Punishing Political Offenders: The Effect of Political Motive on Federal Sentencing Decisions." Criminology 34, no. 3 (1996): 289321.

Turk, Austin T. "Political Crime." Major Forms of Crime. Edited by Robert F. Meier. Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1984. Pages 119135.

Wardlaw, Grant. Political Terrorism: Theory, Tactics, and Counter-Measures, 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Wilkinson, Paul. Terrorism and the Liberal State. London: Macmillan, 1977.

Zimmermann, Ekkart. Political Violence, Crises, and Revolutions: Theories and Revolutions. Cambridge, Mass.: Schenkman Publishing Company, 1983.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Terrorism." Encyclopedia of Crime and Justice. . 17 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Terrorism." Encyclopedia of Crime and Justice. . (December 17, 2017).

"Terrorism." Encyclopedia of Crime and Justice. . Retrieved December 17, 2017 from

Terrorism and Counterterrorism

Terrorism and Counterterrorism

Brian Michael Jenkins

Terrorism was a matter of growing international concern during the last three decades of the twentieth century, but following the 11 September 2001, attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., it became the paramount issue of U.S. foreign policy. On that day Middle Eastern terrorists hijacked four U.S. commercial airliners. They seized the controls and crashed two of the planes into the World Trade Center and one plane into the Pentagon. Passengers fought to regain control of the fourth plane, which then crashed in Pennsylvania, missing any symbolic targets but killing all those on board. These attacks, unprecedented in the annals of terrorism and unparalleled in American history in the magnitude and concentration of casualties, provoked an equally unprecedented declaration of war against terrorism.

Terrorist tactics themselves are nothing new. Political intrigues and wars throughout history have involved murder, hostage taking, and sabotage. Deliberately savage and cruel, even by eighth-century standards, Viking berserkers spread terror throughout the British Isles. Muslim assassins provoked terror among Christian crusaders and Arab leaders in the twelfth century. Julius Caesar, King Richard the Lionhearted, and Miguel de Cervantes were all held for ransom.

The word "terror" entered the political lexicon during the French Revolution's "reign of terror" and in the twentieth century was associated with oppression by totalitarian governments. The term "terrorism" emerged in the nineteenth century when bomb-throwing revolutionaries who wanted to obliterate property and terrorize the ruling classes acknowledged themselves to be terrorists. Revolutionary terrorism continued into the early twentieth century and reemerged following World War I. From the late 1940s to the early 1960s, terrorism often accompanied armed struggles for independence, especially in Algeria and Palestine.


Terrorists continued to use the tactics of their historical predecessors: setting off bombs in public places, assassinating officials, kidnapping individuals to demand political concessions or ransom payments. But a new phenomenon, international terrorism, began with a series of spectacular attacks in the late 1960s. In 1968, Palestinians hijacked an El Al jetliner and flew it to Algeria, where they demanded the release of Palestinian prisoners. This began a wave of hijackings to obtain political concessions. In 1969 urban guerrillas in Brazil kidnapped the U.S. ambassador, later releasing him in return for the release of fifteen comrades imprisoned in Brazil. The tactic quickly spread throughout the world. In the following twelve months, diplomats were kidnapped in Uruguay, Argentina, Bolivia, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, and Jordan.

In February 1970 members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) sabotaged a Swissair flight to Tel Aviv, killing all forty-seven persons on board. In September 1970 the same group hijacked three airliners bound for Europe and diverted them to Jordan. In May 1972 three members of the Japanese Red Army, a group allied with the PFLP, attacked passengers at Israel's Lod Airport, killing twenty-five and wounding seventy-six. And in September of that year, members of Black September, another Middle Eastern group, seized nine Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. Five of the terrorists and all nine of the hostages were killed in a disastrous rescue attempt by German police. The three surviving terrorists were traded for hostages aboard a Lufthansa flight hijacked the next month.

International terrorism emerged from a confluence of political circumstances and technological process. In the Middle East, Israel's defeat of the Arab armies in the Six-Day War of 1967 and the inability of Palestinians to mount an effective resistance movement in the territories newly occupied by Israel pushed them toward the use of terrorist tactics. Their mentors were the Algerian revolutionaries who in the fight for independence had carried their own terrorist campaign to France itself. For the Palestinians, anyone anywhere in the world who supported Israel's continued existence became a potential target, greatly broadening the theater of operations.

Inspired by the success of the Cuban revolution but unable to replicate its success, Latin America's guerrillas moved their struggle from the countryside into the cities. They replaced traditional guerrilla warfare with bombings, assassinations, and kidnappings, which guaranteed them national and international attention. Spectacular action took the place of patient political mobilization. At the same time, the Vietnam War sparked a new wave of revolutionary fervor that spread through the universities of Europe, Japan, and the United States. Mass protest movements spawned small groups on their extremist fringes that were determined to pursue a more violent struggle. These extremist groups emulated the tactics of their ideological counterparts in Latin America and the Middle East.

Changes in the technological environment during the 1970s also facilitated international terrorism. Jet air travel offered terrorists worldwide mobility and, with it, opportunities to strike targets anywhere. Television and the deployment of communications satellites offered terrorists almost instantaneous access to a global audience. By choreographing dramatic incidents of violence and hostage situations in which human life hung in the balance, terrorists could guarantee worldwide press coverage for their acts and their causes. The diffusion of small arms around the world and of increasingly powerful explosives and sophisticated detonating devices took terrorists far beyond the capacity of the early bomb throwers. Modern technology-dependent societies offered numerous vulnerabilities, from power grids to jumbo jets.

The relationship of all these incidents to one another was not self-evident at the time. Beyond the similarity in tactics, there was no obvious connection between a kidnapping in Uruguay, a bombing in Germany, and a hijacking in Africa. Why should actions carried out by persons who called themselves Tupamaros, Montoneros, the Red Brigades, or the Japanese Red Army be addressed within the same analytical and policy framework? International terrorism was an artificial construct useful for policy purposes. While recognizing the diversity of the terrorists and their causes, it identified their actions in the international domain as a mutual problem for all nations.


Concern about international terrorism on the part of the U.S. foreign policy community was driven by two overlapping issues: the use of tactics that fell outside the accepted norms of diplomacy and armed conflict and the spillover of terrorist violence into the international domain. The latter was particularly important, since the prominence of the United States in world affairs and its involvement in many contentious areas made Americans and American interests frequent targets. Hundreds of terrorist attacks have been directed against the United States, its diplomats, and its diplomatic facilities.

Major incidents have included the kidnappings of U.S. diplomats in Latin America in the late 1960s and early 1970s; the multiple hijacking to Jordan's Dawson Field in 1970; the attack on arriving American passengers at Israel's Lod Airport in 1972; the terrorist seizure of the Saudi Arabian embassy in Khartoum, Sudan, and the subsequent murder of two American diplomats in 1973; the terrorist takeover of the U.S. consulate in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 1975; the 1979 takeover of the American embassy in Tehran; the suicide bombings of the American embassy and U.S. marine barracks in Beirut in 1983; the bombing in 1983 of the American embassy in Kuwait; the kidnappings of Americans and the protracted hostage crisis in Lebanon, which lasted from 1984 to 1991; the hijackings of TWA flight 847 and of the cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985; the Libyan terrorist campaign in 1986; the sabotage and crash of PanAm flight 103 in 1988; the assassination plot against former President George H. W. Bush in 1993; the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993; the suicide bombing of the American military residential facility in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, in 1996; the bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998; the suicide bombing of the destroyer USS Cole in 2000; and the attacks in 2001 on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The attacks in the 1980s increasingly involved truck bombs, huge amounts of explosives on wheels, often driven by suicide drivers. These attacks manifested a fundamental change in terrorism. Traditionally, terrorists wanted a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead. Wanton violence was seen as counterproductive. But with the replacement of ideological causes by ethnic hatreds and religious fanaticism, large-scale, indiscriminate violence became the reality. Terrorists wanted a lot of people dead. But while truck bombs increased death tolls, they could not easily push the number of victims above several hundred. The terrorist solution was multiple attacks. In 1994 terrorists plotted to sabotage twelve U.S. airliners in the Pacific, and the 1998 attacks on the American embassies in Africa as well as the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon involved multiple targets. These large-scale operations have also led to fears that terrorists will incorporate chemical, biological, or possibly even nuclear weapons in future attacks.


It is clear that efforts to combat terrorism depend on international cooperation, but international politics has complicated attempts even to define international terrorism. Discussions in international forums have inevitably bogged down in futile debate. Some see terrorism as an alternative mode of warfare used by nations or groups that lack the conventional means of waging war, not as something to be outlawed. Some, believing that the ends justify the means, seek to exclude from the definition anything done by those engaged in wars of liberation. Others have wanted to broaden the definition to include acts of violence and other repressive acts by colonial, racist, and alien regimes against peoples struggling for liberation.

The United States has tried to define terrorism objectively on the basis of the quality of the act, not the identity of the perpetrators or the nature of their political cause. The rationale is that all terrorist acts are crimes, and many would also be war crimes or "grave breaches" of the rules of war even if one accepted the terrorists' assertion that they wage war. Terrorist acts involve violence or the threat of violence, sometimes coupled with explicit demands and always directed against noncombatants. The perpetrators are usually members of an organized group whose purposes are political. And the hallmark of terrorismactions that are carried out in a way that will achieve maximum publicity and cause major alarmintroduces a distinction between the victims of the violence and the target audience. Indeed, the identity of the victims may be secondary or even irrelevant to the terrorist cause. "Pure terrorism" is entirely indiscriminate violence.

The U.S. position never won universal endorsement, but ultimately, the international community has come to achieve a rough consensus on terrorism. Although the community of nations could not reach an agreement on a precise definition, it did denounce terrorism as a form of political expression or mode of armed conflict and managed to construct a corpus of conventions that identified and outlawed specific tactics: airline hijacking, the sabotage of commercial aircraft, attacks on airports, attacks on diplomats and diplomatic facilities, the taking of hostages, bomb attacks on civilian targets, and so on. This tactic-by-tactic approach gradually extended to cover virtually all the manifestations of international terrorism.


A continuing U.S. policy issue has been whether terrorism should be considered as a crime or a mode of war. The question is not merely one of a choice of words. The two are different concepts with entirely different operational implications. If terrorism is considered a criminal matter, the appropriate response is to gather evidence, correctly determine the culpability of the individual or individuals responsible for the incident, and then apprehend and bring the perpetrators to trial. This has been the primary approach taken by the United States, and it has received wide international acceptance. To enhance this approach, the United States extended the jurisdiction of American courts to cover all terrorist acts against U.S. citizens and facilities anywhere in the world, thereby giving the Federal Bureau of Investigation legislative authority to investigate terrorist crimes and apprehend terrorists anywhere. Although not all nations accept this assertion, a number of terrorists have been turned over to U.S. authorities for prosecution in the United States.

Public trials of terrorists keep terrorism firmly in the realm of crime, strip terrorists of their political pretensions, and allow the United States to make a public case against those terrorists still at large. Dealing with terrorism strictly as a criminal matter, however, presents a number of problems. Evidence is extremely difficult to gather in an international investigation where some countries might not cooperate, and apprehending individual terrorists is extremely difficult. Moreover, the criminal approach does not provide an entirely satisfactory answer to a continuing campaign of terrorism waged by a distant group, and it does not work against a state sponsor of terrorism.

If, on the other hand, terrorism is viewed as war, there is less concern with individual culpability; only proximate responsibilityfor example, the correct identification of the terrorist groupneed be established. Evidence does not have to be of courtroom quality; intelligence reporting will suffice. The focus is not on the accused individual but on the correct identification of the enemy.

The United States has at different times taken both approaches, and recently began to orchestrate the criminal and military approaches, combining conventional evidence gathering and intelligence reporting to indict and prosecute terrorists, then combining that with information gained at trial to support further indictments, which were then utilized to justify military action.


U.S. policy on terrorism has been largely driven by events. Indeed, policy is rarely created in the abstract. It responds to events that create a requirement to do something. Policy is reactive, an accumulation of statements and actions that then become precedents. And it is constantly evolving. Ask some official to explain the reasoning behind a certain policy and, if he knows his history well enough, he will cite the exact incident that prompted the reaction. This is especially true of a diverse, multifaceted phenomenon such as terrorism.

Much of the early U.S. counterterrorist policy focused on dealing with hostage incidentshijackings and kidnappings. In addition to increasing security at airports, the United States sought to improve international cooperation in returning passengers and aircraft and prosecuting or extraditing the hijackers. Gradually, use of this tactic became less frequent, but it never disappeared. In the cases of kidnappings of American diplomats by urban guerrilla organizations in Latin America, the United States initially took the position that the host country must do whatever is necessary, including yielding to the kidnappers' demands. As kidnappings continued, however, resistance grew and the policy moved toward one of no concessions. That policy was sealed in blood in March 1973 with the murder of two American diplomats by members of Black September who demanded, among other things, the release of the convicted assassin of Senator Robert F. Kennedy. The no-concessions policy has remained one of the pillars of the U.S. response to terrorism, although at times creative ways to bend it have been sought.

The same hard-line policy was applied to embassy takeovers. Improved security made such takeovers more difficult and governments were increasingly willing to use force. Faced with declining prospects of achieving their demands and growing risks of capture or death, terrorists gradually abandoned the tactic in the 1980s.

American presidents have learned that hostage situations can be politically perilous. Frustration over the inability of the United States to rescue or negotiate the release of American hostages held for more than a year in Iran probably contributed to President James Earl Carter's defeat in the 1980 presidential elections. Six years later, the revelation that the United States, in contradiction to its own no-concessions policy, had secretly sold weapons to Iran in return for the release of American hostages in Lebanon deeply embarrassed the Reagan administration.

Since the late 1970s, the question of how to deal with state sponsors of terrorism has been a major policy issue. Under pressure from Congress, the U.S. Department of State identified Iran, Syria, Libya, Iraq, Sudan, North Korea, and Cuba as state sponsors of terrorism, a list that has changed little in the past quarter century. In 2000, the National Commission on Terrorism recommended that Afghanistan be added to the list and that both Pakistan and Greece be identified as countries that were not fully cooperating with the United States, a suggestion that provoked howls of protest.

Middle East conflicts have motivated most of the major terrorist crises, and most of the states identified by the United States as state sponsors of terrorism are in that part of the world. The region's secular extremists and, increasingly, its religious fanatics have seen themselves as being at war with America. America's steadfast support for the State of Israel has angered many, but even U.S. attempts to broker agreements between Israel and the Palestinians have provoked reactions by hard-liners who oppose any accord. America's close relationship with the shah of Iran, overthrown by Islamic revolutionaries in 1979, was a further source of antagonism. Some Muslim fanatics have come to see the American commitment to the principles of freedom, democracy, and equality and what they regard as a subversive and libertine American popular culture as a dangerous influence to be eradicated. The fanatic terrorists' beliefs require them to strike violently at the American presence and influence, and no reconciliation is in sight. One continuing foreign policy challenge for the United States has been to keep efforts to combat terrorism from appearing to be a war on the Arab world or Islam. The United States opposes the violent tactics of terrorism, not any system of beliefs.

Countries identified as state sponsors of terrorism are subject to economic sanctions that deny U.S. assistance and prohibit trade with the United States, but sanctions are only effective if they are universally enforced. International compliance has been patchy at best, although Syria's blatant involvement in a 1986 plot to plant a bomb aboard an airliner departing London led to further European sanctions against that country. Largely to appease an angry United States, Europe went along with some sanctions against Libya in 1986, and suspected Libyan involvement in the sabotage of PanAm 103 in 1988 and a French airliner in Africa in 1989 resulted in more stringent sanctions being imposed until Libya agreed to turn over two Libyans suspected of involvement in the PanAm incident to a tribunal in The Hague. U.S. sanctions on Libya remained in effect for other reasons. To ensure more universal compliance, the United States has sought to have the United Nations impose sanctions. In 2000 Afghanistan became subject to UN sanctions for its refusal to turn over known terrorists.

Additional sanctions were imposed on Iraq as a consequence of that country's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the subsequent Gulf War. However, the issue transcends Iraqi sponsorship of terrorism and involves that country's suspected secret efforts to manufacture chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. Sudan entered into productive discussions with the United States in mid-2000 and became a possible candidate for removal of American sanctions.

Sanctions, however, have been criticized as blunt, ineffective instrumentsthe modern economic equivalent of medieval siege warfare. They inflict more suffering on ordinary people than on the governments in which the people have no say, and efforts have been initiated to develop more precisely targeted sanctions that hurt rulers, not the general populace. Nonetheless, economic sanctions have stunted economic development in these countries and probably have moderated, if not reversed, the behavior of their governments, although that would be hard to prove.


The United States has used military force in response to terrorism on a number of occasions. U.S. forces bombed Libya in 1986 in response to a Libyan-sponsored terrorist attack in Germany and indications of further attacks being planned; an Iraqi intelligence facility was bombed in 1993 in response to Iraqi involvement in the thwarted assassination attempt on former President Bush during a visit to Kuwait; and, in response to terrorist attacks on American embassies in Africa in 1998, U.S. forces bombed terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan suspected of manufacturing chemical weapons.

While terrorists themselves offer few lucrative targets for conventional attack, military action may still be useful. It can disrupt the terrorists' operations, forcing them to move their camps, tend to their own security, and worry about the possibility of further strikes. It can also be used to reinforce diplomacy. Military force serves as a warning to states that sponsoring terrorism is not without serious risks. It demonstrates resolve and it clearly signals that the country initiating it regards terrorism as a very serious issue. It also carries with it an invitation to states to cooperate.

Military force may also be viewed in some cases as necessary for domestic political purposes, not as a cynical ploy to garner political support or distract the public from other issues, but as a way to demonstrate to an alarmed public that something is being done. The British suffered terribly during the Battle of Britain, and their ability to take the punishment without a complete collapse of morale depended in part on the fact their British forces were fighting to destroy the enemy. The absence of military action could reinforce feelings of national impotence that could, in turn, lead to popular support for draconian measures to ensure security that might imperil civil liberties.

The opportunities for military action against terrorism, however, are limited. It is necessary to focus and carefully calibrate the response; otherwise, the use of force becomes capricious. A military response, moreover, must be delivered soon after the terrorist incident that provokes it. It has been difficult to sustain military operations beyond the first strike. The United States may have wanted the terrorists to fear that it might attack them again, but in fact it never did. That may change in light of the attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C.


There were possible alternatives to the policies that have been chosen. The United States might have tried to pay less attention to the issue of terrorism, putting it lower on the foreign policy agenda, deliberately adopting a more phlegmatic posture and using less bellicose rhetoric. But given the spectacular nature of terrorist attacks and the public outrage they provoke, it would have been extremely difficult to sustain a deliberately phlegmatic policy.

The United States could have followed a more flexible policy in dealing with hostage situations, as did some European nations. However, the private sector's practice of routinely paying ransom for company executives kidnapped abroad suggests that compliance only encourages further kidnappings. And research suggests that it is the ability of the local government to apprehend, convict, and punish kidnappers and destroy their gangs, whether they are politically motivated or common criminals, that determines the frequency of kidnappings. Politically motivated kidnappings have declined. The United States could have adopted a policy of assassinating foreign terrorist leaders, as Israel did in 1972. While this policy may have led to the removal of some effective terrorist leaders, it has had little discernible effect on the level of terrorism aimed against Israel.

The United States did not have to officially designate state sponsors of terrorism and automatically impose sanctions, thus depriving itself of more flexible forms of diplomacy. As noted earlier, the record of sanctions is at best a mixed one. The United States could have rejected the use of military force altogether, relying instead exclusively on a criminal justice approach. However, few other nations extend the jurisdiction of their courts and send law enforcement officials abroad to investigate terrorist crimes against their citizens.

Persuading other nations to support sanctions, America's use of military force, and the rendition of foreign terrorists to the United States for trial have all required vigorous American diplomacy. The willingness to impose sanctions and use military force, as well as offer assistance in other areas, has in turn reinforced that diplomacy.


American policy has historically been pragmatic. Efforts to combat terrorism were just that. American diplomats paid little attention to root causes and conflict resolution, lest counterterrorism efforts become mixed up with judgments of causes. At the same time, the United States has devoted considerable effort to resolving the Middle East conflict, helping to bring about an end to the violence in Northern Ireland, and intervening to prevent ethnic cleansing and other atrocities in the Balkans that, if left to fester or produce vast new semi-permanent populations of refugees, could have become new sources of terrorist violence.

Progress has been made. Intelligence has improved through unilateral efforts and improved liaison with other intelligence services. An international legal framework has been created and international cooperation has increased. Countries would rather not be identified as state sponsors of terrorism. The volume of international terrorism, as it is defined by the United States, has declined, and certain tactics have declined significantly. All this could have been seen as a measure of success on 10 September 2001. However, the terrorist attacks on the following dayattacks on American soil that caused far more casualties than all of the previous terrorist incidents put togetherovershadowed any sense of achievement.


The 11 September 2001 attacks have provoked a more formal expression of belligerencya presidential declaration of war on those responsible for the attacks. The declaration clearly indicates the intention of the United States to use military force again and again at times and places and with means it deems appropriate. More terrorist attacks against Americans, abroad and in the United States, are possible. Exactly how the continuing campaign will be conducted, whether allies of the United States will participate, and what effect it will have are unknown at this time. Whether the counterattack will divide the nation politically remains to be seen.

Within the shadow of this tragedy, however, lie opportunities for even greater international determination and cooperation, if not to end terrorism once and for allan unrealistic objectiveat least to significantly reduce its practice. Whether such determination and cooperation materialize will depend on whether the rest of the world sees this event as an attack on the United States or as a threat to the international system as it exists.


Bass, Gail, et al. Options for U.S. Policy on Terrorism. Santa Monica, Calif., 1981.

Evans, Ernest. Calling a Truce to Terror: The American Response to International Terrorism. Westport, Conn., 1979.

Heymann, Philip B. Terrorism and America: A Commonsense Strategy for a Democratic Society. Cambridge, Mass., 1998.

Hoffman, Bruce. Inside Terrorism. New York, 1998.

Jenkins, Brian Michael. International Terrorism: A New Mode of Conflict. Los Angeles, 1975.

. International Terrorism: The Other World War. Santa Monica, Calif., 1985.

. Terrorism: Policy Issues for the Bush Administration. Santa Monica, Calif., 1989.

Lesser, Ian O., et al. Countering the New Terrorism. Santa Monica, Calif., 1999.

Long, David E. The Anatomy of Terrorism. New York, 1990.

Pillar, Paul R. Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy. Washington, D.C., 2001.

Simon, Jeffrey D. The Terrorist Trap: America's Experience with Terrorism. Bloomington, Ind., 1994.

U.S. Department of State. Patterns of Global Terrorism. Washington, D.C. Published annually.

See also Covert Operations; Embargoes and Sanctions; Intelligence and Counter Intelligence.


On 9 September 1969 a small team comprised of members of two leftist urban guerrilla organizationsthe October 8 Revolutionary Movement and Action for National Liberationkidnapped Charles Burke Elbrick, the recently arrived U.S. ambassador to Brazil, the first of many kidnappings of diplomats. They selected him as their target because, in their words, "If we had selected the Turkish ambassador, nobody would have paid any attention." The kidnappers' communiqué gave more details. "Mr. Elbrick represents in our country the interests of imperialism, which maintain the regime of oppression and exploitation." Elbrick's kidnappers never told him that in return for his safe release they had demanded the release of fifteen prisoners, mostly student and labor leaders, one old Communist Party leader, and several of those allegedly involved in the earlier assassination of American diplomat. It was a deliberately mixed group chosen to inspire unity among Brazil's revolutionaries.

The United States urged the government of Brazil to do everything necessary to ensure the ambassador's release. In fact, the triumvirate of military officers ruling Brazil during the president's illness had already decided to meet the kidnappers' demands, not because of U.S. pressure, but because they saw it as an opportunity to make a humanitarian gesture and give Brazil the chance to disprove accusations of widespread torture. This line of reasoning did not win unanimous approval through the Brazilian armed forces, and one local commander briefly ordered his forces to surround the airport where the prisoners had been assembled to be flown to political exile in Mexico, but higher-ranking officers intervened and the exchange plan proceeded.

Once the prisoners arrived in Mexico, Elbrick was released in good condition. His captors had washed and pressed his bloodstained shirt and tie (he had been hit on the head with a pistol during the abduction), and they gave him a copy of a book on revolution by Ho Chi Minh, in which they had inscribed, "To our first political prisoner, with the expression of our respect for his calm behavior in action."

In the following months the guerrillas kidnapped the Japanese consul general in Sao Paulo and the ambassadors of Germany and Switzerland. In each case the government freed prisoners in exchange for release of the diplomats but subsequently cracked down hard and brutally, ultimately destroying the urban guerrilla groups. But the tactic of kidnapping diplomats spread to other countries. Local governments and the governments of the diplomatic representatives became increasingly resistant to meeting the demands of those holding hostages. The term "terrorist" increasingly replaced the more neutral term "urban guerrilla."

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Terrorism and Counterterrorism." Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy. . 17 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Terrorism and Counterterrorism." Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy. . (December 17, 2017).

"Terrorism and Counterterrorism." Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy. . Retrieved December 17, 2017 from



Violence directed primarily and randomly against civilians with the aim of intimidating them, achieving political goals, or exacting revenge for perceived grievances.

Since the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks that destroyed the twin World Trade Center skyscrapers in New York City and killed nearly 2,800 persons, terrorism arising out of conflicts in the Middle East has been a focus of international media attention. Concern about violence undertaken by groups and states it considered to be terrorists prompted the United States to declare a war on terrorism, two manifestations of which have been the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Despite this close association of terrorism with the Middle East, with the notable exception of the year 2001, the majority of terrorist incidents committed worldwide and the majority of victims of terrorism have been outside of or unrelated to political conflicts in the Middle East. Nevertheless, it is true that civilians somewhere in the Middle East have been victims of politically motivated violence every year since at least 1992.

Defining Terrorism

In trying to assess the significance of terrorism, the most difficult problem is the lack of an agreed-upon understanding of what the word terrorism means. Political scientists tend to restrict terrorism to acts of violence carried out by nonstate actors against civilians. Historians, sociologists, and experts in international humanitarian law, however, tend to use a broader definition that includes all premeditated acts of violence against civilians, whether carried out by nonstate political groups or by states. Governmentsespecially those confronting armed opposition groupsand the media generally use the political-science definition of terrorism, often expanding it to include violent acts against military as well as civilian victims. In contrast, the nonstate perpetrators of violence consider their actions to be legitimate forms of resistance to state terrorism aimed at suppressing self-determination, even though they may be directed against civilians (Kimmerling, p. 23). The notion of a legitimate right to resist state oppression is controversial, and no international legal convention addresses this matter. Nonstate groups generally cite the 1960 United Nations General Assembly Resolution on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples as recognizing their right of resistance. Indeed, that resolution declares, "forcible resistance to forcible denial of self-determination . . . is legitimate," and it says that nonstate groups may receive external support from other governments.

Giving a measure of international legitimacy to resistance struggles has complicated the problem of defining terrorism because it essentially has become a political decision whether a nonstate actor is deemed a terrorist or a genuine national liberation movement fighting for independence from foreign control or occupation. During the Cold War rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States (19471991), such decisions tended to be based more on ideological factors than on objective assessments of the goals and motives of particular nonstate groups. For example, the Soviet Union provided clandestine support for the South Yemen independence movement (19631967) and for the Dhufar liberation movement in Oman (19651971) primarily because both areas at the time were under the control of Britain, a major U.S. ally. Similarly, the United States provided covert assistance to the Kurds in Iraq (19701975) and the Mojahedin in Afghanistan (19791989) primarily because in both cases the nonstate groups were fighting for independence from Soviet client regimes. The Soviet Union and the United States condemned as
terrorists those nonstate groups that were fighting against regimes the other country favored, and they praised as national resistance heroes those groups fighting against governments they opposed.

Over time, a special vocabulary of terrorism emerged. For instance, the term state terrorism came to be used for violent acts used by disfavored states to suppress resistance movements. The Soviet Union used this term to describe the policies of two U.S. allies: Israel, for the repression of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip after 1967; and Turkey, for the repression of its Kurdish minority after 1984. The United States, in turn, used state terrorism as early as the mid-1970s to describe the repressive domestic policies of states it considered to be Soviet allies, such as Iraq, Syria, and South Yemen. During the 1980s another term, state sponsor of terrorism, emerged to describe the support for nonstate groups provided by countries that clearly were not allied to either the Soviet Union or the United States. Iran and Libya were identified as the main state sponsors of terrorism, the former because of its assistance after 1982 to Hizbullah in Lebanon. In the case of Libya, the United States accused that country of supporting Palestinian groups that targeted U.S. and Israeli interests in Europe and of assisting several terrorist groups operating in north and central Africa.

Origins of Terrorism in the ArabIsrael Conflict

The superpower rivalry in and rhetoric about the Middle East tended both to obscure the local origins of terrorism and to frustrate efforts to address the multifaceted consequences of violence. This problem is best revealed in the ArabIsrael conflict, which began in 1948 separately from but in tandem with the Cold War and still continues unresolved even though the superpower conflict has ended. One significant legacy of the Cold War relationship to the ArabIsrael conflict has been a great volume of partisan literature, especially in the years after the formation of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1964. The IsraeliPalestinian struggle over pre-1948 Palestine (which became Israel plus the territories of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank in 1948) is the core of the ArabIsrael conflict. The literature on this aspect of the conflict illustrates the controversies in trying to achieve any relatively objective consensus on what groups merit designation as terrorists and what kinds of violent acts constitute terrorism. For this reason, it is a useful case to study.

For nearly thirty years prior to the signing of the Oslo Accord in September 1993, the State of Israel proclaimed the PLO and the various Palestinian resistance groups that comprised its membership to be terrorist organizations. Inevitably, there emerged a body of writings that supported the Israeli position, not just in Israel but also in Europe and North America. Although some of these studies were sophisticated and scholarly analyses of the PLO's goals and methods, other accounts were merely polemical denunciations of PLO tactics. Beginning in 1968 and continuing for more than a decade, armed Palestinian groups known as fidaʾiyyun (guerrillas) carried out numerous, violent operations that resulted in the deaths of civilians. Many of their actions were sensational incidents that attracted considerable media attentiona PLO objective, as the guerrillas hoped publicity would further their cause. The several international airplane hijackings, for example, culminated in September 1970 (known as Black September) with the hijacking of four planes in as many days, precipitating a civil war between the PLO and the army of Jordan. Attacks on Israeli interests abroad culminated in the seizing of Israeli athletes as hostages at the 1972 Olympic games in Munich, an incident that left eleven athletes dead. Sporadic cross-border raids into Israel (from Jordan and Lebanon) culminated in the temporary seizure of buildings in the northern Israeli towns of Kiryat Shmona and Maʿalot (April and May 1974) and the deaths of thirty-eight civilians, including many children. Rather than winning sympathy for the Palestinians as the perpetrators expected, such incidents created and reinforced a public image of the PLO as a terrorist organization.

In contrast to the official Israeli and U.S. views, the PLO saw itself as a national liberation movement dedicated to achieving Palestinian rights and resisting what it termed Israeli state terrorism. Its fighters were lauded as heroes and martyrs, and its operations against Israeli civilians were justified as defense of, or reprisals for, Israeli attacks on Palestinian refugee camps and assassinations of PLO leaders. The Soviet Union, the primary international backer of the PLO after 1968, tended to remain silent about many of the more sensational acts of violence by Palestinian guerrillas, but it continued to promote the PLO as a national liberation movement. Soviet support was especially significant after 1974 when Moscow encouraged diplomatic recognition of the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Quite separate from the Soviet backing for the PLO, a few academic studies and advocacy articles appeared that were sympathetic to Palestinian claims and rights. Although these writings were scarcer than the volumes of pro-Israeli literature and never achieved a similar impact on the mainstream U.S. media, they did have some influence on intellectuals in Africa, Asia, and Europe.

The IsraeliPLO conflict affected both regional and international politics by the late 1970s. This is because the PLO used Lebanon, where a large number of Palestinian refugees had lived since 1948, as a base for operations against Israel throughout the 1970s, and Israel responded with retaliatory raids against what it termed "terrorist nests"suspected PLO facilities in refugee camps. Many Lebanese and Palestinian civilians died in these raids, and their deaths were described officially as "collateral damage" in a larger operation against "terrorist infrastructure." The PLO condemned Israeli air strikes as further evidence of state terror and also cited them as justification for its own continuing attacks across the Lebanon-Israel border. The escalating cycle of attacks and reprisals contributed to the civil war in Lebanon (19751989) and also led to an Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon in 1978. Israeli forces occupied a 6-mile-wide security strip, ostensibly to prevent attacks into Israel; this occupation lasted until 2000. A second Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 resulted in a war with the PLO, its forced withdrawal from Lebanon under international protection, and the Israeli occupation of Beirut and all of southern Lebanon. However, almost as soon as the threat from the PLO seemed to be contained, Israel faced a new source of terrorism that stemmed directly from its occupation of Lebanon (which lasted until 1985).

A Lebanese group, Hizbullah, was formed in late 1982 with the initial aim of expelling Israeli forces from Lebanon. Hizbullah's tactics, which included suicide bombings against French and U.S. military forces in 1983 and, beginning in 1984, the kidnapping of European civilians to use as hostages for the release of its members held in Israeli jails, earned it an international reputation as a terrorist organization. Hizbullah, however, neither sought nor received any support from the Soviet Union. Like the revolutionary government that assumed power in Iran in 1979, Hizbullah was equally hostile to Soviet and U.S. policies in the Middle East. Although its objectives were first and foremost political, Hizbullah also was inspired by its own interpretation of Shiʿite Islam. Its frequent use of religious rhetoric to explain or to justify its actions tended to alienate the Soviet Union even more than its direct criticisms did. Thus, Hizbullah became one of the first major nonstate groups in the Middle East to lack a superpower patron. Despite or perhaps because of this status, Hizbullah succeeded in establishing a permanent presence in Lebanon's politics and in becoming a nonstate group whose actions Israel neither could control nor ignore.

Meanwhile, the removal of the PLO to Tunisia did not end its political influence among Palestinians, and when an intifada (uprising) erupted in December 1987 among Palestinians living under Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the PLO gradually emerged as a main coordinating force for the resistance. New groups unaffiliated with the PLO also emerged during the intifada, principally HAMAS and Islamic Jihad. Unlike the PLO, which claimed to be inspired by secular ideas, HAMAS and Islamic Jihad cited religious ideals and percepts as at least partial justification for their resistance against Israeli rule. Concern about the increasing influence of groups such as HAMAS and Islamic Jihad may have prompted the leaders of Israel's Labor Party to begin negotiations with the PLO to end the long conflict. The political rapprochement between Israel and the PLO in 1993 not only was unexpected, but it also necessitated a re-evaluation of the negative ways each side had depicted the other. However, the years of intellectual and emotional investment in the terrorism paradigm made it difficult for some people on both sides to view formerly hated terrorists as legitimate partners in peace negotiations.
Thus, from the outset of the Oslo peace process, some Israelis and Palestinians were skeptical of the agreement and even were determined to overturn it. The assassination of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995 (by an Israeli opposed to the Oslo Accord) and the first suicide bombings undertaken in 1996 by HAMAS were significant terrorist incidents that led to multiple actions and reprisals that cumulatively undermined popular support for the peace process among both Israelis and Palestinians.

It was in this increasingly tense atmosphere that Israeli politician Ariel Sharon intervened in a manner that would have the effect (albeit at the time, unforeseen) of overturning the peace process. Sharon was one of those Israelis who distrusted and even opposed the Oslo Accord, and it is plausible that he never had changed his conviction that the PLO was a terrorist organization. When in September 2000 he led a group of Knesset members, under armed escort, into the Muslim religious complex in Jerusalem known as al-Haram al-Sharif, his intention was to assert Israeli sovereignty over a site that Jews claim is the Temple Mountthe location of their ancient temple destroyed by the Romans more than 2,000 years agoand thus to prevent its possible return to Palestinian sovereignty, which had been proposed by some members of the Labor Party. The incident provoked clashes with Palestinian worshipers, and the next day Israeli police killed four protesting Palestinians as they emerged from Friday prayers at the al-Aqsa Mosque in al-Haram al-Sharif complex. The situation escalated rapidly as Palestinian policemen, in an effort to protect civilians, clashed with Israeli soldiers at checkpoints in the West Bank. The al-Aqsa intifada thus began, and subsequently its characteristic features included targeted assassinations of suspected Palestinian resistance leaders by Israel and retaliatory Palestinian suicide bombings at crowded civilian sites inside Israeli cities. By early 2001, Israel and its supporters were labeling all acts of violence from the Palestinian side as terrorism.

The U.S. "War on Terrorism"

Middle East terrorism, except for incidents such as the attack at the Munich Olympic games in 1972, generally has stayed within the region. However, Middle Eastrelated terrorism acquired a global dimension with the 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States by nineteen members of the al-Qaʿida network. Al-Qaʿida is a political organization founded by Saudi Arabian national Osama bin Ladin, and its objectives after 1991 were to attack the United States and its interests because it viewed the U.S. government as the main sponsor of regimes that it defined as "unjust," oppressive, and illegitimate. Ironically, bin Ladin collaborated with U.S. officials during the 1980s when he and the United States shared the same goal of forcing the Soviet Union to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan. But when the United States dispatched troops to Saudi Arabia in 1990, bin Ladin viewed this development as being no different from the situation of Soviet troops in Afghanistanin both cases the army of an "imperialist" superpower occupying a weaker and Muslim country. Furthermore, the presence of U.S. military forces in Saudi Arabia meant that a non-Muslim army for the first time in more than 1,400 years was occupying the religiously sacred land in which were located Islam's two holiest sites, the cities of Mecca and Medina. Even though bin Ladin believed and practiced a very conservative interpretation of Sunni Islam, his primary objectives vis-à-vis the United States are political, not religious. Beginning with the bombing in the underground parking garage of the World Trade Center in 1993, persons close to his al-Qaʿida organization were implicated in several terrorist attacks. The most sensational incidents included suicide bombings outside the barracks housing U.S. military personnel in Saudi Arabia in 1996 and outside two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998. The 2001 attacks prompted the United States to declare a "war on terrorism," and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan became the first target because it provided sanctuary to al-Qaʿida and rejected requests for the extradition of bin Ladin and other leaders.

Its war on terrorism policy led the United States to focus on groups it designated as terrorist to an unprecedented extent. One consequence of this new preoccupation was that after 2001 Washington accepted the argument of Israeli prime minister Sharon that PLO chairman and Palestinian Authority president Yasir Arafat was condoning terrorist actions by groups such as HAMAS, Islamic Jihad, and his own Al-Fatah movement. When in spring 2002 the Israeli army reoccupied West Bank towns and villages that were supposed to be under the control of the Palestinian Authority, the United States effectively did not protest. Thus, the peace process between Israel and the PLO, seriously ailing since fall 2000, became an indirect but fatal casualty of the war on terrorism.

The war on terrorism is cause for concern among legal experts in the field of international humanitarian law, especially because states identified as sponsors of terrorism, such as Iraq, become legitimate targets for attack because they are thought to possess weapons of mass destruction that they might provide to terrorist groups. The experts believe that civilians, who have been the primary victims of violent conflicts since the early 1990s, will be the main victims again, and they cite statistics that demonstrate that this has been the case in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

The phenomenon of terrorism has prompted the drafting of several conventions, most notably the Rome Statute, that would make the intentional killing of civilians a war crime, no matter who is responsible (i.e., a government or a nonstate group). The intent is to criminalize violence against civilians so that individuals can be prosecuted. The European Union generally, and its member states such as Belgium specifically, have made the most progress in terms of accepting the idea that violence against civilians, whether undertaken by a state or nonstate organization, is terrorism and needs to be punished. Other states, including major countries such as China, Israel, Russia, and the United States, reject categorically the notion of state terrorism and insist that international laws pertaining to terrorism must limit definitions to nonstate groups that target civilians. Ultimately, one of the most effective ways of reducing terrorism is for states to identify and remove the causes that motivates terrorists, such as the denial of freedom and political participation, repressive political occupation, and poverty and despair.

see also aqsa intifada, al-; arafat, yasir; bin ladin, osama; black september; fidaʾiyyun; hamas; hizbullah; hostage crises; islamic jihad; palestine liberation organization (plo); popular front for the liberation of palestine; qaʿida, al-.


Davis, Joyce M. Martyrs: Innocence, Vengeance, and Despair in the Middle East. New York: Palgrave, 2003.

Falk, Richard. "Azmi Bishara, the Right of Resistance, and the Palestinian Ordeal." Journal of Palestine Studies 31, no. 2 (Winter 2002): 1933.

Hirst, David. The Gun and the Olive Branch: The Roots of Violence in the Middle East, 3d edition. New York: Thunder Mouth's Press/Nation Books, 2004.

Picco, Giandomenico. Man without a Gun: One Diplomat's Secret Struggle to Free the Hostages, Fight Terrorism, and End a War. New York: Times Books/Random House, 1999.

Ron, James. Frontiers and Ghettos: State Violence in Serbia and Israel. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

Shlaim, Avi. The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World. New York: Norton, 2000.

Stern, Jessica. Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill. New York: Ecco, 2003.

Victor, Barbara. Army of Roses: Inside the World of Palestinian Women Suicide Bombers. Emmaus, PA: Rodale, 2003.

eric hooglund

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Terrorism." Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa. . 17 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Terrorism." Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa. . (December 17, 2017).

"Terrorism." Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa. . Retrieved December 17, 2017 from



The unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property in order to coerce or intimidate a government or the civilian population in furtherance of political or social objectives.

Since the september 11th attacks on the United States in 2001, which resulted in the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York City and severe damage to the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., the United States has changed its priorities to focus upon eradicating terrorism in the world. Terrorism involves the systematic use of terror or violence to achieve political goals. The targets of terrorism include government officials, identified individuals or groups, and innocent bystanders. In most cases terrorists seek to overthrow or destabilize an existing political regime, but totalitarian and dictatorial governments also use terror to maintain their power.

The Oklahoma City Bombing

In June 1997 the murder and conspiracy trial of Timothy J. McVeigh ended in the death sentence. The 29-year-old former Army sergeant was convicted of bombing the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. The blast, which claimed 168 lives, was the worst terrorist act ever committed on U.S. soil. McVeigh pleaded not guilty, but the elaborate case mounted by federal prosecutors led to a swift jury verdict of guilty on all 11 counts.

After a nationwide manhunt, investigators from the federal bureau of investigation (FBI) had linked McVeigh to the blast using remnants of a Ryder rental truck believed to have carried the bomb. At trial, prosecutors established further ties: telephone records and testimony by the owner of the rental office suggested McVeigh had rented the truck under an alias in Junction City, Kansas, two days before the bombing. Residue from explosives had also been found on McVeigh's clothing.

Prosecutors portrayed McVeigh as an anti-government extremist. The defendant's sister, Jennifer McVeigh, told the court that he was angry over the government's destruction of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, in April 1993, and that he had hinted at taking action. Personal correspondence was introduced as evidence in an effort to round out the portrait of McVeigh as a follower of far-right politics, who was disillusioned and willing to commit acts of terror. Key testimony came from Michael J. Fortier, an Army friend and co-conspirator who had surveyed the Federal Building with McVeigh, and his wife, Lori Fortier. The Fortiers said that McVeigh wanted the bombing to start a civil war.

Led by Oklahoma attorney Stephen Jones, the defense team was critical of every phase of the prosecution. Defense attorneys attacked the methodology of the FBI in preparing physical evidence as well as the government's witnesses. In particular, they charged that the Fortiers were liars who hoped to escape prison time and to profit financially from their testimony. Maintaining that McVeigh was railroaded, the defense pointed to the existence of a human leg found in the ruins of the building to suggest that the actual Oklahoma City bomber had died in the explosion.

After the jurors returned a guilty verdict on June 2, the trial moved into an unusual penalty phase. The defense, seeking leniency, made a lengthy presentation about the Waco siege, at which McVeigh had been present, in what seemed to observers an odd effort to explain his motives in Oklahoma City. It also called to the stand William McVeigh, who made an emotionally charged appeal for his son's life. But the statements of survivors who had lost family and friends in the Oklahoma massacre apparently swayed the jurors, who decided on execution.

further readings

Gottman, Andrew J. 1999. "Fair Notice, Even for Terrorists: Timothy McVeigh and a New Standard for the Ex Post Facto Clause." Washington and Lee Law Review 56 (spring).

Hoffman, David. 1998. The Oklahoma City Bombing and the Politics of Terror.Venice, Calif.: Feral House.

"Responding to Terrorism: Crime, Punishment, and War." 2002. Harvard Law Review 115 (February).

Rodgers, Jim, and Tim Kullman. 2002. Facing Terror: The Government's Response to Contemporary Extremists in America.Lanham, Md.: Univ. Press of America.


Venue "Venue and the Oklahoma City Bombing Case" (Sidebar).

Domestic Terrorism

The attacks of September 11, 2001, constituted the most severe terrorist attacks ever committed

on U.S. soil. However, these were certainly not the first acts of terrorism carried out against the United States by foreign terrorists, nor were they the first attacks carried out against the World Trade Center. In February 1993, a bombing of the World Trade Center killed six people and injured more than a thousand others. The bomb left a crater 200 by 1,000 feet wide and five stories deep. The federal bureau of investigation (FBI) and the Joint Terrorist Task Force identified and helped bring to trial 22 Islamic fundamentalist conspirators. The trial revealed extensive plans for terrorist acts in the United States, including attacks on government facilities.

During the 1990s, the United States also became more concerned about domestic terrorist activities carried out by U.S. citizens without any foreign involvement. Beginning in 1978, an individual who came to be known as the Unabomber targeted university scientists, airline employees, and other persons he associated with a dehumanized, technology driven society. The suspect killed three people and injured 23 others with package bombs. At the Unabomber's insistence, major newspapers published his 35,000-word manifesto describing his anti-technology philosophy. In April 1996, a suspect, Theodore Kaczynski, was arrested for crimes associated with the Unabomber. After a rather bizarre trial, in 1998, Kaczynski pled guilty in exchange for a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.

However, it was the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, on April 19, 1995, that galvanized concerns about domestic terrorism. The bombing killed 168 people and injured more than 500 others. The FBI arrested Timothy J. McVeigh and Terry Nichols, who were charged with murder and conspiracy. McVeigh and Nichols were connected to the right-wing militia movement, which opposes the powers held by the federal government and believes in the right of its members to bear arms.

In June 1997, McVeigh was found guilty of murder and conspiracy, and sentenced to death. He attempted to appeal his conviction for three years, but gave up in late 2000. On June 11, 2001, McVeigh was executed by lethal injection. Nichols faced similar charges in his 1997 trial. He was acquitted on charges of first- and second-degree murder, but was found guilty of conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction and involuntary manslaughter. A federal judge sentenced Nichols to life in prison without the possibility of parole. However, at the state level, Nichols faced 161 counts of first-degree murder, which could result in the death penalty. The Oklahoma state trial was scheduled to begin in March 2004.

A year after the Oklahoma City bombing, a bomb erupted at Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park during the celebration of the Olympic Games in July 1996. The bomb killed one woman and injured 111 others in what President bill clinton called an "evil act of terror." The initial investigation focused on Richard Jewell, a security guard at the park. At first Jewell was considered to be a hero when he alerted authorities to a knapsack containing a pipe bomb. Shortly thereafter, however, he was considered a prime suspect. After a later investigation cleared Jewell of wrongdoing, he sued a number of media outlets for defamation.

During the next seven years, the Atlanta bombings remained largely unresolved. On May 31, 2003, authorities arrested Eric Rudolph, who is considered the primary suspect. Authorities also suspect Rudolph of bombing abortion clinics in Atlanta and Birmingham, Alabama, as well as the bombing of a gay and lesbian nightclub in Atlanta.

Congress has responded to the threat of domestic terrorism with the enactment of several laws. In 1996, Congress passed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, Pub. L. No. 104-132, 110 Stat. 1214. The law allocated $1 billion to fund federal programs to combat terrorism. The act also established a federal death penalty for terrorist murders and strengthened penalties for crimes committed against federal employees while performing their official duties. In addition, the act increased the penalties for conspiracies involving explosives and for the possession of nuclear materials, criminalized the use of chemical weapons, and required plastic explosives to contain "tagging" elements in the explosive materials for detection and identification purposes.

Following the attacks of September 11, Congress, at the urging of President george w. bush, moved swiftly to enact the Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act (usa patriot) Act of 2001, Pub. L. No. 107-56, 115 Stat. 272. The act seeks to enhance domestic security against terrorism by setting up a Counterterrorism Fund in the U.S. Treasury, and appropriating money for combating terrorism to the FBI's Technical Support Center. It also increases the president's authority to seize the property of foreign persons, organizations, or countries that the president determines have planned, authorized, aided, or engaged in hostilities or attacks against the United States. Other provisions of the act focus on enhancing surveillance procedures used by federal law enforcement personnel, and attempts to control money laundering, which is believed to be a major source of income for terrorist organizations.

One year later, Congress enacted the Homeland Security Act of 2002, Pub. L. No. 107-296, 116 Stat. 2135. The act formally endorsed the establishment of the homeland security department, which had been created through executive order by President Bush in 2001. The Homeland Security Act reorganized several federal agencies to fall under the authority of the Homeland Security Department in an effort to coordinate the government's efforts. The American public has become familiar with the new department because of the color-coded Homeland Security Advisory System, which indicates the likely threat of terrorist attacks against the United States. The two lowest levels are low (coded in green) and guarded (coded in blue). The other three levels include elevated (yellow), high (orange), and severe (red). Throughout much of 2003, the level was set at elevated or high due to a number of threats identified by department officials.

International Terrorism

The September 11 attacks have been viewed as a continuation of a series of deadly terrorist activities that had taken place overseas. In the late twentieth century, terrorism became a tool of political groups in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. The growth of international terrorism led to kidnappings, hijacking of airplanes, bombing of airplanes and buildings, and armed attacks on government and public facilities. In the 1980s, several countries, including Libya, Iran, and Iraq, were identified as supporting international terrorism by providing training, weapons, and safe havens.

Interests of the United States overseas were major targets of terrorism. In November 1979, a group of Islamic students overran the U.S. embassy in Iran and took many hostages. Although some of the hostages were later freed, the Iranians detained 52 American hostages for a period of 444 days until they were released in January 1981, just after the swearing-in of Presidentronald reagan. In 1983, a 12,000-pound truck bomb exploded in a U.S. compound in Beirut, Lebanon, killing 241 American soldiers.

By the 1990s, the terrorist organization al Qaeda (Arabic for "the Base"), led by Saudi dissident Osama Bin Laden, developed as the primary culprit in terrorist attacks on U.S. interests at home and abroad. Al Qaeda is believed to be responsible for the 1993 attacks on the World Trade Center and, later, the September 11 attacks. On August 7, 1998, truck bombs exploded nearly simultaneously at the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya. The blasts killed 224 people, including 12 Americans, and injured another 4,600. Four members of al Qaeda were later convicted for their part in the bombings. In October 2000, an al Qaeda operative conducted a suicide attack on the U.S.S. Cole, resulting in the deaths of 17 sailors and injuries to over 30 others.

The activities of Bin Laden and al Qaeda were well known prior to the September 11 attacks. Bin Laden had issued a religious edict, known as a fatwah, calling for attacks on U.S. troops and civilians.

Although many members of al Qaeda are Middle-Eastern, U.S. officials, in 2001, captured John Philip Walker Lindh, a U.S. citizen who had trained with terrorist organizations in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Lindh fought for the Taliban government of Afghanistan even after the September 11 attacks. Lindh, who became known as the "American Taliban," was indicted on ten counts, including conspiracy to murder U.S. nationals. He reached a plea bargain with federal prosecutors and pleaded guilty to supplying services to the Taliban. In October 2000, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

The United States has responded to international terrorist organizations and the nations that support them through a variety of military actions. In March 1986, President Reagan ordered the military to conduct a strike on Libya, which was believed to have been responsible for the bombing of a nightclub in Germany as well as other terrorist acts. After the embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998, President Clinton ordered strikes on al Qaeda military camps in Afghanistan. However, these attacks appeared to have little effect upon the terrorist activities of the organizations that perpetrated the violent acts.

Following the September 11 attacks, the United States changed its strategy regarding terrorists significantly. President Bush announced that the United States would consider nations that harbor terrorists as equally responsible for terrorist activities. In the latter part of 2001, the United States led an international coalition that removed the Taliban regime from power in Afghanistan. In March 2003, the United States led another coalition in an attack on Iraq, which the Bush administrated asserted had supported terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda. Within weeks, Iraq's leader, Saddam Hussein, was removed from power.

The attacks on Iraq did not receive support from a number of nations, including traditional U.S. allies Germany and France. Moreover, the removal of the regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq did not appear to end the threat of terrorism in the Middle East or elsewhere. In May 2003, shortly after the United States declared that the active phases of its armed military operations in Iraq had concluded, terrorists bombed residential compounds in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, killing at least 34 people, including nine Americans. Four days after the Saudi Arabia attacks, bombs erupted in Casablanca, Morocco, killing 43 people. Authorities suspect that al Qaeda operatives were responsible.

further readings

Abrams, Norman. 2003. Anti-terrorism and Criminal Enforcement. St. Paul, Minn.: West.

Alexander, Yonah, and Edgar H. Brenner, eds. 2001. Terrorism and the Law. Ardsley, N.Y.: Transnational Publishers.

"Backgrounder: Terrorism." 2003. Federal Emergency Management Agency. Available online at <> (accessed November 21, 2003).

"Domestic Terrorism."1997. Close Up Foundation. Available online at <> (accessed November 21, 2003).

Noone, Michael F., and Yonah Alexander. 1997. Cases and Materials on Terrorism: Three Nations' Response. Boston: Kluwer Law International.

Piszkiewicz, Dennis. 2003. Terrorism's War with America: A History. Westport, Conn.: Praeger.

Shanty, Frank, and Raymond Picquet, eds. 2003. Encyclopedia of World Terrorism. Armonk, N.Y.: Sharpe Reference.


War on Terrorism.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Terrorism." West's Encyclopedia of American Law. . 17 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Terrorism." West's Encyclopedia of American Law. . (December 17, 2017).

"Terrorism." West's Encyclopedia of American Law. . Retrieved December 17, 2017 from



Terrorism, as defined by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), is "the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives."

The destruction inherent in any act of mass terrorism inevitably causes secondary environmental pollution effects, many of them serious. Acts of terrorism can also be directed against the environment itself, or specific natural resources such as freshwater, oil, or agricultural products.

Terrorist Attack on the World Trade Center

The secondary environmental effects of terrorism can often be as significant as its primary effects. The attack on the World Trade Center (WTC) in New York City on September 11, 2001, had negative health consequences beyond the staggering loss of life. The collapse of the structures and subsequent fires spewed an enormous cloud of dust and toxins into the air over the city. Pulverized concrete, building materials, heavy metals, and human remains were inhaled by residents and rescue workers in lower Manhattan until a heavy rain three days later washed away most of the dust.

The immediate environmental fallout from the WTC collapse contained asbestos and fibrous glass from the building structure; mercury, dioxins, furans, and other cancer-causing toxins from the burning of fluorescent light bulbs and computer screens; heavy metals such as cadmium and lead and volatile organic compounds like benzene. Federal, state, and local agencies went right to work monitoring air quality and cleaning up dust and debris from the WTC collapse, but these actions themselves have serious environmental consequences. One in four cleanup workers at Ground Zero reportedly
suffer from asthma and respiratory illness brought about by dust inhaled at the site. Some airborne pollutants and dust were resuspended as a result of ongoing cleanup efforts.

The secondary pollution concerns include possible contamination of waterways around lower Manhattan as well as the challenge of where to dispose of the catastrophe's 1.2 million tons of waste. Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island has been accepting WTC debris, some containing asbestos and other toxic materials, despite being slated to close December 31, 2001. Since Fresh Kills was not designed to accept hazardous waste, there is concern about whether or not contaminants could leach from the landfill into surrounding groundwater.

contaminant health effects source
source: adapted from environmental health perspectives, vol. 109, no. 11, november 2001.
asbestos carcinogenic. causes tissue damage in the lungs when inhaled over long periods and can lead to asbestosis, mesothelioma, and lung cancer. used as an insulator and fire retardant, applied to steel beams.
benzene flammable and carcinogenic. short-term effects include dizziness, headaches, and tremors. long-term exposure can lead to leukemia. combustion of plastics.
biohazards exposure to blood and body parts can transmit infectious diseases such as hepatitis and aids. human remains.
chromium carcinogenic when inhaled at high concentrations; can cause skin ulcers. video and computer monitors.
copper can cause dizziness, headaches, vomiting, liver and kidney damage. electrical wiring and cables.
diesel fumes asthma trigger. can aggravate symptoms in asthmatics. truck traffic and heavy machinery.
dioxins chloracne is a short-term effect of exposure. strong evidence for carcinogenic, teratogenic, reproductive, and immuno-suppressive effects. combustion of polyvinyl chloride found in electrical cables and other insulating materials.
freon damages the ozone layer. when burned, can produce phosgene, a potent cause of severe and life-threatening pulmonary edema. refrigeration and air-conditioning equipment.
lead neurotoxin. damages the central nervous system, especially in children. can also cause kidney damage and reproductive damage in adults. video and computer monitors, rustproofing paint used on steel beams.
mercury neurotoxin. damages the peripheral nervous system, especially in children. thermometers and other precision instruments.
particulate matter asthma trigger. can also aggravate cardio-vascular disease. pulverized concrete and other materials, smoke, dust and soot.
polychlorinated biphenyls carcinogen. may also cause reproductive and developmental abnormalities. electrical equipment.
sulfur dioxide pulmonary toxicant. can cause severe airway obstruction when inhaled at high concentrations. combustion.

With the passage of time, and through the cleansing effect of rainfall and the specialized cleanup efforts of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), air quality in lower Manhattan has now returned roughly to pre-9/11 levels. However, despite reassurances from the EPA and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), residents of lower Manhattan worry about the long-term health effects of dust and particulates deposited on rooftops and windowsills, and in the ventilation systems of nearby buildings. Only now are the long-term effects of exposure to Ground Zero being studied.

Renewed Efforts to Protect Environmental Infrastructure

After the attacks of September 11, 2001, federal and state authorities began to wonder what else might offer a tempting target for terror attacks. New York City and other large cities immediately took steps to protect their water systems by guarding the infrastructure and testing the water for known contaminants. In 2002 President George W. Bush's administration passed the Public Health and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act, which required, among other actions, that all water utilities across the country conduct security assessments to gauge possible vulnerability and take steps to protect their water.


The environment can also be a conduit for terrorism. Biological elements such as disease-causing bacteria and viruses can become potent weapons when taken out of their natural environment. Shortly after the attack on the WTC, several pieces of mail in and around Florida, Washington, D.C., and New York City tested positive for the biocontaminant anthrax. Anthrax is a bacterium that, in its most potent inhaled form, has a fatality rate of over 90 percent. Over ten thousand people may have been exposed, and five people died of inhalational anthrax before the contaminated mail was quarantined. The FBI and the Postal Service have offered a $2.5 million reward for information leading to those responsible, and medical researchers have been working on a cure. Authorities have not yet determined if the anthrax-contaminated mail is connected to al-Qaeda and the events of September 11, but the combined effect of these two attacks occurring in close proximity served to heighten the perception that America is under siege.

Nuclear Terrorism

Biocontamination is not the only threat to safety in the United States. One of the most frightening terror scenarios that government officials must consider is the possibility of a nuclear device, or "dirty bomb," being detonated in a U.S. city. Quite separate from the direct human health consequences, the environmental effects of even a low-yield (five kiloton) nuclear weapon are severe: The shock wave will disperse radioactive fallout over a wide area, poisoning wildlife and groundwater. The heat (thermal radiation) will destroy plants and trees. And although the global nuclear winter theory (cooling of the earth's surface due to airborne fallout, thus blocking sunlight) has largely been discredited, this phenomenon can have devastating effects on local agriculture and ecosystems.

Relationship between Resource Competition and Terrorism

The United States is often a target of asymmetrical warfare , such as terrorism, because of its military superiority and worldwide economic interests. Many scholars studying peace have reasoned that, in order to defeat terrorism, we must remedy the conditions that give rise to it.

One of the most pressing American national security interests is ensuring continued global access to natural commodities such as oil, minerals, and timber. However, the United States already consumes approximately 30 percent of all raw materials consumed by humans in a given year and is perceived as a nation that seeks more than its fair share of the world's resources. One concern is that as the world population grows and resources are stretched to cover its needs, supplies will fall and prices will rise, making necessary commodities available only to wealthy countries or the upper class within a country. This means that the rich would get richer and the poor poorer, and such inequity of supply and distribution might give rise to unilateral actions on the part of those who feel they are on the losing end of this globalization gap.

To reduce this potential for conflict, developed societies are being encouraged to recognize that global resource consumption and international security are connected, and that obtaining resources cooperatively rather than competitively will enhance long-term security. International agencies can help to ensure the equitable distribution of critical resources both between and within countries. In addition, nations can contribute their relative expertise to finding new sources of natural resources, to developing substitutes for commodities such as oil and natural gas, and to enhancing conservation and efficiency technology to certify that existing resources are used to their maximum benefit. If poorer citizens can be assured they have access to the resources needed to live, they are less likely to adopt combative ideologies that lead to terrorism.

see also Ecoterrorism; War.


gugliotta, guy, and matsumoto, gary. (2002). "fbi's theory on anthrax is doubted." washington post, october 28, 2002, a1.

hawley, t.m. (1992). against the fires of hell: the environmental disaster of the gulf war. new york: harcourt brace jovanovich.

klare, michael t. (2001). resource wars: the new landscape of global conflict. new york: henry holt.

makhijani, arjun; hu, howard; and yih, katherine, eds. (2000). nuclear wastelands: a global guide to nuclear weapons production and its health and environmental effects. special commission of international physicians for the prevention of nuclear war and the institute for energy and environmental research. cambridge, ma: mit press.

nordgren, megan d.; goldstein, eric a.; and izeman, mark a. (2002). the environmental impacts of the world trade center attacks: a preliminary assessment. new york: natural resources defense council.

internet resources

federation of american scientists. (2002). "special weapons primer: biological warfare agents." available from

new york state department of environmental protection. (2001). "statement on water supply security." available from

u.s. environmental protection agency web site. further information on the environmental and human health effects of 9/11 available from

Elizabeth L. Chalecki


Although there is some debate among scholars about the difference between war and terrorism, the retreating Iraqi army committed two particularly wanton acts of environmental destruction during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. First, they released six million barrels of oil from the Kuwaiti Sea Island offshore loading terminal, and scuttled five fully loaded oil tankers at the Mina Ahmadi terminal. They also set fire to 732 oil wells across Kuwait. These burned for months before they were extinguished. The combined oil pollution output from these acts totaled 1.5 billion barrels, or 6,000 times the amount spilled from the Exxon Valdez.

The environmental effects of these acts were clearly immense. A plume of soot and oil droplets spread over 1.3 million square miles, contaminating the air with pollutants such as nitrous oxides, sulfur dioxide, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and vast amounts of CO2. The oil lakes on land have contaminated the fragile desert ecosystem, virtually guaranteeing that it will not regenerate for decades. The oil in the Gulf itself destroyed mangrove thickets, fish, shrimp, marine mammals, and sea birds. Ten years after the war, this region is still environmentally degraded.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Terrorism." Pollution A to Z. . 17 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Terrorism." Pollution A to Z. . (December 17, 2017).

"Terrorism." Pollution A to Z. . Retrieved December 17, 2017 from

Terrorism and Counterterrorism

Terrorism and Counterterrorism. Terrorism is defined in Title 22 of the United States Code, Section 2656f(d) as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.” Terrorism falls into the spectrum of low intensity conflict, relying upon the methods and strategies of unconventional warfare in targeting businesspeople, tourists, and other civilians to gain exposure, pressure governments, and extort concessions.

It is important to differentiate among state terrorism, state‐supported terrorism and sub‐state terrorism.

“State terrorism” refers to the use of terror by a government, using the resources of the state—including the police, judiciary, military—against its own citizens to quell domestic opposition to its policies, as exemplified by the “dirty war” in Argentina during the 1970s and early 1980s in which an estimated 15,000 to 30,000 regime opponents were killed or disappeared. “State‐supported terrorism” refers to situations where states provide logistical, financial and training support for a terrorist organization. In 1998, the U.S. Department of State designated Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria as state sponsors of terrorism. Sub‐state terrorism refers to acts of terrorism perpetrated by non‐state actors.

In considering sub‐state terrorism, one can distinguish between five principal varieties:

Social revolutionary terrorism, also known as terrorism of the left, includes those acts perpetrated by groups seeking to overthrow the capitalist economic and social order and was typified by the European “fighting communist organizations” active throughout the 1970s and 1980s (e.g., the Red Army Faction in Germany and the Red Brigades in Italy), though social revolutionary groups have been active around the world, including the Shining Path in Peru and the Japanese Red Army Faction in Japan.

Religious extremist terrorism is characterized by groups seeking to maintain or create a religious social and political order and has included groups representing established religious doctrines as well groups representing “new religions.” Traditional groups include Christian, Jewish, and Islamic extremists, while new religions include groups like Aum Shinrikyo, responsible for the 1995 subway sarin attack in Tokyo, Japan.

Nationalist‐separatist terrorists, also known as ethno‐nationalist terrorists, includes those groups fighting to establish a new political order or state based on ethnic dominance or homogeneity. The Irish Republican Army, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) of Sri Lanka, the Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA) in Spain, and the various groups representing Palestinian causes are prominent examples.

Right‐wing terrorists comprise those groups seeking to maintain an extant political order or to return society to an idealized “golden age” of the past. Examples include neo‐Nazi terrorist groups and groups espousing fascist ideology.

Single‐issue terrorism, as the label suggests, represents groups acting on a single issue, such as the environment or animal rights.

The era of modern terrorism was ushered in by the dramatic slaying of Israeli athletes by the Palestinian group Black September during the globally televised 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany. While terrorism prior to 1972 principally had been a domestic phenomenon, the Munich attack emphasized the expansion of tactics and targets to include exploitation of global mass communications networks and international aviation, internationalizing terrorism.

The relationship between terrorism and the media has been extensively studied (Nacos, 1994), and has been found to influence the tactics and strategies of modern terrorist groups. According to one estimate (Jenkins, 1985: 12), 95% of all terrorist attacks are designed to maximize exposure and influence through the media. The hijacking of airlines (“skyjackings”) was particularly prevalent during the 1970s and early 1980s, as were hostage taking episodes. All received extensive media coverage.

The terrorist threat to the United States has traditionally come from two distinctly different strains of political terrorism: the leftist social revolutionary terrorists of Western Europe, attacking representatives of the United States as symbols of capitalism and Western militarism in the form of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO); and the national‐separatist and religious fundamentalist groups of the Middle East—especially those connected with the liberation movements in Palestine—who attack U.S. forces and civilians first as supporters of Israel and second in connection with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.

The German Red Army Faction (RAF) was responsible for numerous bombings of U.S. military installations. U.S. forces have also been targeted in Italy by the Red Brigades and in Greece by the Revolutionary Organization “November 17.” Apart from bombings, European social revolutionary groups have been engaged in assassination and kidnapping attempts against U.S. military and NATO leaders stationed in Europe.

While terrorism committed by the European leftist groups against U.S. targets in Europe remained fairly localized, terrorists operating out of the Middle East, especially those organizations supported by states hostile to U.S. interests, such as Syria, Libya, and Iran, have operated on a more global setting, taking advantage of air travel and modern mass communications to pressure the United States and its allies into withdrawing support for Israel and diminishing U.S. and Western influence in the region.

America's first prolonged experience with terrorism began in 1979 with the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran, and the ensuing hostage crisis in which U.S. diplomats were held for 444 days. U.S. airliners have been susceptible to skyjackings, such as the 1985 Trans World Airlines (TWA) flight 847 skyjacking by Abu Nidal terrorists resulting in the deaths of 2 Americans, and bombings, the most spectacular of which was the 1988 bombing of PAN AM flight 103 by suspected Libyan terrorists.

Terrorists operating out of the Middle East frequently target U.S. military personnel. PLO splinter groups were responsible for the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, killing 86 and wounding 100, and the car‐bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks at Beirut airport, resulting in the deaths of 241 U.S. servicemen. U.S. servicemen were targeted by Libyan terrorists in the 1986 bombing of a nightclub in Berlin, Germany. Following the Persian Gulf War in 1991, U.S. military bases in Saudi Arabia have become targets of Islamic groups heavily opposing U.S.‐Saudi Arabian cooperation and the continued presence of U.S. forces on Saudi Arabian soil. The bombing of the Khobar Towers military residence in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, resulted in 19 deaths and 500 wounded.

Evidence suggests changing trends in terrorism as the twentieth century draws to a close. First, there is a trend toward fewer, but more lethal acts. Second, there are fewer claims of responsibility being made for attacks, perhaps reflecting the growing prevalence of religious extremist terrorism and transnational terrorism. Third, the collapse of the Soviet Union has raised concern that poorly guarded nuclear, chemical, and biological materials might find their way into the hands of terrorists. Finally, international terrorists have for the first time attacked targets within the territorial United States with the World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and the subsequent conspiracy to bomb several other New York City landmarks by Middle East terrorists. The U.S. has also experienced its most devastating case of domestic anti‐government terrorism with the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, resulting in 168 deaths.

To combat terrorism, the United States' counterterrorism policy follows three general rules: the U.S. does not negotiate with terrorists; the U.S. will treat terrorists as criminals and pursue them aggressively; and the U.S. will apply maximum sanctions upon states supporting terrorism and encourage other states to do so as well (U.S. Department of State, 1996:iv). Accordingly, the U.S. has responded to the threat of modern international terrorism with a multi‐tracked approach, including diplomatic and legal efforts and military interdiction and deterrence. The United States is a party to nine major multilateral conventions that define states' responsibilities toward countering terrorism. Among them are treaties protecting diplomatic personnel and the safety of civil aviation and maritime navigation; outlawing the taking of hostages; the physical protection of nuclear materials; and the marking of explosives for identification.

Following the passage of the “long arm” anti‐terrorism statute in 1984, the Department of Justice has been empowered to arrest foreign nationals who have committed acts of terrorism against U.S. citizens for trial in the U.S. court system. Fawaz Younis (1987) and Mohammed Al Rezaq (1995) were arrested abroad by agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and successfully tried in the U.S. The Department of Defense and U.S. military forces have played a mixed role in support of the United States' counterterrorism policy. Delta Force, the United States' secretive military unit specifically designed to counter terrorism, was founded during the Carter Administration (1976–1980). Modeled on the British Secret Air Services (SAS), Delta Force is comprised of elite commandos skilled in hostage rescue and incident interdiction. However, Delta Force's first deployment, Operation Eagle Claw (1980) to rescue the U.S. diplomats held hostage in Iran, proved a disastrous failure. Delta Force was joined in 1980 by a Navy counterpart, Seal Team 6, also tasked primarily with hostage rescue.

In addition to hostage rescue, U.S. military forces have been used to retaliate against states which have sponsored terrorist attacks against U.S. targets, such as the 1986 bombing raid on the Libyan capitol Tripoli in response to Libyan involvement in several dramatic acts of international terrorism in 1985 and 1986.

In a triumph of timely intelligence and coordination with the U.S. military, the aircraft carrying the hijackers of the Achille Lauro was intercepted by U.S. warplanes and forced to land at a U.S. Air Force base in Italy in October, 1985. The standoff at the airport between Italian and U.S. forces claiming jurisdiction over the captured terrorists, however, emphasizes the difficulties of pursuing U.S. counterterrorism policies abroad.

This entry is being updated.


James M. Poland , Understanding Terrorism: Groups, Strategies, and Responses, 1988.
Alex P. Schmid and and Albert J. Jongman , Political Terrorism, 1988.
Martha Crenshaw , The Logic of Terrorism: Terrorist Behavior as a Product of Strategic Choice, in Walter Reich, ed., Origins of Terrorism: Psychologies, Ideologies, Theologies, States of Mind, 1990.
Jerrold M. Post , Terrorist Psycho‐Logic: Terrorist Behavior as a Product of Psychological Forces, in Walter Reich, ed., Origins of Terrorism: Psychologies, Ideologies, Theologies, States of Mind, 1990.
R. Kingston , The American Approach to Combating Terrorism, Terrorism and Political Violence, Autumn 1992, pp. 102–106.
M. Gunter , Countering Terrorism: The Reagan Record, Conflict Quarterly Spring 1994, pp. 7–10.
Brigitte L. Nacos , Terrorism and the Media: From the Iran Hostage Crisis to the Oklahoma City Bombing, 1994.
Jerrold M. Post,, E. Shaw,, and and Keven G. Ruby , From Car Bombs to Logic Bombs: Information Systems Terrorism, in John Harrald and G. Shaw, eds., Disaster and Emergency Management: International Challenges for the Next Decade, 1998.
U.S. Department of State , Patterns of Global Terrorism, 1997, 1998.

Jerrold M. Post and and Keven G. Ruby

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Terrorism and Counterterrorism." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . 17 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Terrorism and Counterterrorism." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . (December 17, 2017).

"Terrorism and Counterterrorism." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Retrieved December 17, 2017 from




The study of terrorism is complicated by the fact that terrorism is a political rather than an analytical concept. The concept is closely related to major power conflicts, such as the cold war, nationalist conflicts, andmost recentlyreligious-political polarization; and its political use and academic definitions have changed accordingly. As a result, scholars of terrorism have not only looked at terrorism as a particular kind of political violence, such as assassinations, hijackings, ormost recentlysuicide bombings, but have also been sensitive to the discursive use and impact of the term terrorism. What both lines of study have in common, however, is the notion that terror-ismboth as a practice and a discourseis meant to terrify. Both the perpetrators of terrorist violence and those who have the power to name a particular kind of violence as terrorism do so to create fear. The study of terrorism has therefore not only focused on those branded as terrorists but also on those who do the naming, such as the media, policymakers, and academics, as well as on how the term terrorism is itself a highly contested label.

Precisely because terrorism is a political term, there is little consensus on how to define the phenomenon. According to an often-used definition, terrorism resembles guerrilla warfare to some extent while being distinctively different from it in others. Both are unconventional forms of warfare in which the state is attacked by groups of combatants lacking a fully armed military apparatus in order to bring about political change. However, whereas guerrilla fighters primarily target military objects, terrorists also attack soft civilian targets in order to paralyze society. According to this definition, the Oklahoma City bombing by Timothy McVeigh in 1995 is terrorist, whereas the suicide attack by Shia combatants on American and French U.N. troops in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1983, killing 241 marines, is an act of guerrilla warfare. Similarly, the Viet Cong fighting the U.S. army in Vietnam or the Algerian Front de Libération Nationale fighting the French colonial army in the 1950s were guerrilla fighters, whereas the Irish IRA, the Basque ETA, or the West German Red Army Faction also attacked civilians and are therefore defined as terrorist.

Scholars who have focused on the perpetrators of terrorist violence have used various perspectives. Richard Rubenstein (1987), among others, analyzes terrorism as a political strategy with a particular genealogy rooted in the French Revolutions regime de la terreur and nineteenth-century anarchism. Maximilien Robespierre and Louis Antoine Saint-Just as well as Sergej Nechaev and Michael Bakunin thus appear as the ideologues of terrorism. The thinking of the latter as to how to fight the all-powerful modern state, including the notion of the revolutionary vanguard, the provocation of the state, and the revolutionary moment, has subsequently influenced nationalist militants and left-wing revolutionaries of the twentieth century.

Another line of study has considered terrorism in relation to utopian belief systems and political eschatology. Rather than a strategy, terrorism is seen as a testimony, an act of faith, and the outcome of radical collective fantasies about ideological, ethnic, or religious purity. These studies focus on processes of radical othering and satanization, the political use of traditions of martyrdom and sacrifice, and the mytho-logics of political violence. Specific attention is given to the symbolism of the time and space of terrorism, such as the symbolism of particular days, buildings, or public spaces.

Partly in response to this, others have argued that while terrorism is usually informed by strong convictions, it should also be understood in terms of ulterior motives such as status, glamour, friendship, and money. Martha Crenshaw (1988) argues that terrorist groups can be analyzed as communities accommodating a variety of individual needs, such as the needs for recognition, excitement, and material benefits. The militant group is as much driven by the need to maintain itself as by its ideological objectives. These observations are used to argue that those militant groups whose existence is threatened by internal friction or outside aggression are usually the most violent. Others examine individual motives for joining a militant organization. Joseba Zulaika (1988) in a study on the ETA describes militant groups as the continuation of friendship in already existing peer groups. In a similar vein, recent terrorism has been explained as an attempt by religiously inspired militants to overcome existential anxieties caused by alienation, humiliation, and marginalization.

A growing body of work concerned with aspects of terrorism is the study of state terror. Michael Taussig (1984) has used the term cultures of terror to denote societies that are under constant threat of state violence and intimidation. This line of work focuses on the systematic use of torture and death squads, rumors, secret intelligence, and other forms of intimidation by state institutions, as well as on individual and collective coping strategies used by the victims of state terror. State terrorism can also include the deployment of terrorist actions by one state against another state, as shown, for example, by Libyas involvement in the explosion of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. In terms of numbers of victims, state terror is a much more serious problem than the terrorism of revolutionary or religiously inspired militants.

The study of terrorism-related discourse focuses on the use of the terrorism concept in the media, by policy makers, and by terrorists themselves. Studies on the symbiotic relationship between terrorists, the media, and state propaganda portray terrorist violence as spectacle, as theater and performative, or as ritual. Without denying the reality of death and destruction, these studies focus on how the media frames terrorism in terms of Good and Evil, leaving little room for anything other than one-dimensional conceptions of terrorism and counterterrorism. The way terrorism was reported on during the cold war, for example, created a fear of totalitarianism and of incomprehensible technology. More recently, and especially since the attacks of September 11, 2001, terrorism discourse resonates with the fear of religious fanaticism. Most of these studies also trace the complex relations between the media and state policy. Governments often brand their enemies as terrorist in order to legitimize an excessive use of force and the violation of human rights. At the same time, the perpetrators of terrorist violence themselves evoke collective fears and fantasies associated with terrorism in an effort to become larger than life.

Following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the study of terrorism has changed significantly, not only in quantitative terms, but also substantively. Book titles like Terror in the Mind of God (Juergensmeyer 2000) and Terror in the Name of God (Stern 2003) indicate an increased interest in the relationship between terrorism and religion. Studies of religious militancy largely fall into one of three categories. A culturalist approach tries to explain recent Islamist militancy in terms of long-standing traditions of violence and intolerance in Islam. A more empirical approach examines religious extremism per se, comparing Islamist militants with, for instance, American antiabortionists and Zionist extremists. Rather than being rooted in age-old and supposedly unchanging traditions, recent religious militancy is said to draw inspiration from renewed and redefined notions of purity and holy war, fostered by anxieties and inequalities caused by globalization and political or social marginalization. A historical approach examines religious radicalism as political ideology and religious militant groups as political organizations. Such studies analyze the rise of Islamic radicalism, the history of Al-Qaeda, or the life of bin Laden against the backdrop of geopolitical developments in the Middle East and Asia since the 1980s. Gilles Kepel (2002), for instance, explains the 911 attacks by Al-Qaeda as a sign of disillusion and an attempt to reverse a process of decline after various failed attempts to retain political power for the Islamist ideology.

Post-911 studies of terrorism not only center on religion, but also focus on the sites, the organization, and the methods of modern terrorism. Todays terrorism is often transnational in scope, objective, and organization, and transcends the boundaries of the nation-state. Stephen Graham (2004) studies modern terrorism explicitly as an urban phenomenon, exploring the ways in which terrorism and counterterrorism are shaped by, and transform, the public life of global cities. As for the study of terrorist organizations, the emphasis has shifted from cell-structured and network organizations to the rhi-zomatic character of transnational terrorism. Some of the best-known terrorist phenomena like Al-Qaeda are franchises, allowing loosely connected freelancers to operate in their name, as much as they are organizations or networks. Finally, Walter Laqueur (1999), among others, in a book predating 911, explores the ways in which terrorist methods may evolve from the traditional methods of assassinations and hijacking to new forms of chemical, biological, nuclear, and cyber terrorism.

SEE ALSO Fundamentalism, Islamic; Guerrilla Warfare; Revolution; Terrorists; Violence; Violence, Frantz Fanon on; War


Crenshaw, Martha. 1988. Theories of Terrorism: Instrumental and Organizational Approaches. In Inside Terrorist Organizations, ed. David C. Rapoport, 1331. London: Frank Cass.

Feldman, Allen. 2002. Ground Zero Point One: On the Cinematics of History. Social Analysis 46 (1): 110117.

Graham, Stephen. 2004. Cities, War, and Terrorism: Towards an Urban Geopolitics. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Juergensmeyer, Mark. 2000. Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kepel, Gilles. 2002. Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam. London: Tauris.

Laqueur, Walter. 1999. The New Terrorism: Fanaticism and the Arms of Mass Destruction. New York: Oxford University Press.

Rubenstein, Richard E. 1987. Alchemists of Revolution: Terrorism in the Modern World. London: Tauris.

Stern, Jessica. 2003. Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill. New York: HarperCollins.

Taussig, Michael. 1984. Culture of Terror, Space of Death: Roger Casements Putumayo Report and the Explanation of Torture. Comparative Studies in Society and History 26 (3): 467497.

Zulaika, Joseba. 1988. Basque Violence: Metaphor and Sacrament. Reno: University of Nevada Press.

Oskar Verkaaik

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Terrorism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 17 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Terrorism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . (December 17, 2017).

"Terrorism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved December 17, 2017 from



Terrorism refers here to the public health consequences and the methods for prevention of the purposeful use of violence or threats of violence by groups or individuals in order to serve political or personal agendas. This article does not include what has been termed "state terrorism," the use of violence by a nation-state without clear necessity for self-defense and without the authorization of the United Nations.


Use or threat of use of violence has long caused concern among those responsible for public health. Examples include indiscriminate violence, such as the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City and the 1995 bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, and targeted violence, such as attacks on facilities for the termination of pregnancy or on those who work in such facilities. The primary responsibility for response to the health consequences of such violence has resided largely in emergency medical services and the primary responsibility for prevention in agencies concerned with public order and safety, such as the police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Recent instances of use or threatened use of biological or chemical agents in terrorism have raised interest in the role of public health agencies and public health personnel in primary or secondary prevention. Documented episodes, although extremely rare, have been dramatic. In Japan, the chemical warfare agent Sarin was released by the Aum Shinrikyo cult in Matsumoto in 1994 and in the Tokyo subway in 1995. In 1984, an Oregon cult allegedly contaminated salad bars with a biological agent, salmonella. These episodes, and recent hoaxes concerning anthrax release, have led to well publicized, costly responses by public health and public safety officials. Chemical terrorism could include the purposeful contamination of water and food supplies or the aerosolization of toxicants within enclosed public spaces. Biological terrorist actions could include purposeful contamination with infectious materials, as well as the purposeful release of insects or other vectors infected with a transmissible disease.


Underlying concern about bioterrorism is the long history of use of chemical and biological weapons (CBW) in war. Since World War II, worldwide military forces have built up major stockpiles of such weapons and tested them at a number of sites around the world. Although the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) and the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) outlawed the development, production, stockpiling, and transfer of these weapons, large stockpiles of chemical weapons still await destruction in several nations, and it is alleged that stockpiles of biological weapons are still maintained in a few nations. Although the technical knowledge and materials needed to produce CBW are relatively available, the ability to "weaponize" and target these materials remains extremely limited. The risk of their use appears to be small, but any use constitutes a threat to public health.


There are at least seventy types of bacteria, viruses, rickettsiae, and fungi that can be weaponized, including tularemia, anthrax, Q fever, epidemic typhus, smallpox, brucellosis, Venezuelan equine encephalitis, botulinum toxin, dengue fever, Russian spring-summer encephalitis, Lassa fever, Marburg, Ebola, Bolivian hemorrhagic fever (Machupo), and Argentinean hemorrhagic fever (Junin). Antibiotic resistant strains of anthrax, plague, tularemia, and glanders have allegedly been developed. Viruses and toxins can be genetically altered to heighten their infectiousness, permitting the development of pathogens capable of overcoming existing vaccines. It is estimated that no more than 20 to 30 percent of the diseases the aforementioned agents cause can be effectively treated.


In 1994 U.S. president Bill Clinton issued an Executive Order asserting that the potential use of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons "by terrorist groups or rogue states" represents "an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy and economy of the United States." This Order, renewed annually, makes it illegal for anyone in the United States to help anyone to acquire, design, produce, or stockpile CBW. The Order was amended in 1998 to include penalties for trafficking in equipment that could indirectly contribute to a foreign biological warfare program.

In 1995 President Clinton announced a new policy against "superterrorism"terrorism involving weapons of mass destruction. The Departments of Defense, Energy, and State, together with the FBI and the CIA, were to oversee a wide network of military and civilian agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, dedicated to identifying CBW attacks and to coping with their consequences. In 1997, a $52.6 million Domestic Preparedness Program was authorized for emergency response teams in 120 selected cities, whereby police, fire departments, and public health officials were to receive special training and equipment to help them combat biological and chemical terrorism.

In 1998 President Clinton announced new initiatives to address bioterrorism. Hearings before a committee of the U.S. Senate in 1998 included witnesses who stated that such proposals were misguided because so many resources were being assigned to military rather than to medical or public health authorities. Ethical questions raised include whether such funds could be better spent on providing adequate public health measures, preventive medicine, and treatment for endemic illness to the population.


Overall, there is little evidence that specific vaccine programs or other technical defensive programs are effective or ethical preventive measures against the use or threat of use of biologic weapons. Many public health experts argue that the best defenses against use of biological weapons lie in ethical proscription of work on them by health professionals and scientists and protection of the global population against all serious infectious disease, not just diseases caused intentionally, by ameliorating poverty and inadequate nutrition, housing, and education.

As part of this effort, it is argued, industrialized countries should enable developing countries to build capacity for detection, diagnosis, and treatment of all disease by providing technical information and needed resources. Article X of the BWC, encouraging the exchange of information and materials for peaceful purposes, should be strengthened. Research organizations, professional societies, and individual scientists should pledge not to engage knowingly in research or teaching that furthers the development and use of biological weapons. Furthermore, all countries could prohibit the development of novel biological agents that do not have an unambiguously peaceful purpose, even if these activities are promoted for defensive purposes.

An important reason that a few nations, groups, or individuals may continue to develop or stockpile chemical or biological weapons, known as "the poor nation's nuclear weapons," lies in the massive stockpiles of nuclear weapons maintained by the United States and other nuclear powers. As long as these nations fail to recognize their obligations under the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to move expeditiously toward nuclear weapons abolition, biological and chemical weapons will remain a threat.

Victor W. Sidel

Robert Gould

(see also: Arms Control; Genocide; Violence )


Alibek, K. (1999). Biohazard. New York: Random House.

Carter, A.; Deutch, J.; and Zelikow, P. (1998). "Combating Catastrophic Terrorism." Foreign Affairs (Nov/Dec):8094.

Cohen, H. W.; Gould, R. M.; and Sidel, V. W. "Bioterrorism Initiatives: Public Health in Reverse?" American Journal of Public Health 89:16291631.

Gould, R., and Connell, N. D. (1997). "The Public Health Effects of Biological Weapons." In War and Public Health, eds. B. S. Levy and V. W. Sidel. Washington, DC: American Public Health Association.

Lifton, R. J. (1999). Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorism. New York: Henry Holt.

Lockwood, A. H. (1997). "The Public Health Effects of the Use of Chemical Weapons." In War and Public Health, eds. B. S. Levy and V. W. Sidel. Washington, DC: American Public Health Association.

Piller, C., and Yamamoto, K. R. (1990). "The U.S. Biological Defense Research Program in the 1980s: A Critique." In Preventing a Biological Arms Race, ed. Susan Wright. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Sidel, V. W; Nass, M.; and Ensign, T. (1998). "The Anthrax Dilemma." Medicine and Global Survival 5:97104.

Tucker, J. B. (1997). "National Health and Medical Services Response to Incidents of Chemical and Biological Terrorism." Journal of the American Medical Association 278:389395.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Terrorism." Encyclopedia of Public Health. . 17 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Terrorism." Encyclopedia of Public Health. . (December 17, 2017).

"Terrorism." Encyclopedia of Public Health. . Retrieved December 17, 2017 from



TERRORISM is a political tactic that uses threat or violence, usually against civilians, to frighten a target group into conceding to certain political demands.

The term "terrorism" was first used to describe the state terrorism practiced by the French revolutionaries of 1789–1795. Through kangaroo courts, executions by guillotine, and violent repression of political opponents, the revolutionaries tried to frighten the population into submission. Two great terrorist states of the twentieth century, Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, also practiced the threat and use of violence to keep their own citizens in line.

In the nineteenth century, terrorist tactics were adopted by individuals and groups that used assassinations, bombings, and kidnappings to undermine popular support for what the terrorists saw as unjust policies or tyrannical governments. Terrorist acts were first committed on a wide scale in the United States during the latter part of the nineteenth century. On 4 May 1886, an anarchist bomb killed eight policemen during a demonstration in Chicago's Haymarket Square, and on 16 September 1920, an anarchist bomb hidden in a wagon on Wall Street killed thirty people and seriously injured more than two hundred.

Although anarchist violence received the most newspaper coverage during this period, the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan (KKK) was the most important terrorist group in the United States from 1850 to the 1960s. The KKK used marches, beatings, and lynchings to intimidate

African Americans who wished to vote or otherwise participate in the political process.

Beginning in the late 1960s, extreme-left groups like the Weathermen engaged in kidnapping and bombings to protest the Vietnam War, while groups like the Symbionese Liberation Army engaged in armed actions against civilians or the police, hoping thereby to provoke a "people's revolution." These groups disappeared in the 1970s and 1980s only to be replaced by extreme-right terrorist organizations.

On 19 April 1995 a truck bomb exploded outside the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City, destroying the building and killing 168 people. An act of domestic terrorism, the Oklahoma City Bombing was the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history at the time. Testifying before the U.S. Senate in 1998, FBI Director Louis J. Freeh stated that, "The current domestic terrorist threat primarily comes from right-wing extremist groups, including radical paramilitary [militia] groups, Puerto Rican terrorist groups, and special interest groups."

The period after 1960 saw the rise of international terrorist attacks on Americans in the Middle East and in Latin America. The most dramatic instance of terrorism during this period was the 4 November 1979 attack by

Iranian students on the United States Embassy in Teheran, when sixty-six diplomats were held hostage until their release on 20 January 1981. According to the U.S. State Department, seventy-seven U.S. citizens were killed and 651 injured in international terrorist attacks between 1995 and 2000.

By the mid-1970s, international terrorists began to carry out operations on American soil. On 24 January 1975, the Puerto Rican Armed National Liberation Front killed four people when bombs exploded at the Fraunces Tavern in New York City. Eleven months later, on 29 December 1975, a bomb exploded in the TWA terminal at La Guardia Airport, killing eleven. No group ever claimed responsibility. The next major incident occurred on 26 February 1993, when a truck bomb exploded in the basement of New York's World Trade Center, killing six and wounding thousands. At his 1997trial, bombing mastermind Ramzi Yousef stated, "I support terrorism so long as it was against the United States government and against Israel."

On 11 September 2001, in the most murderous terrorist attack American history had yet witnessed, almost three thousand people were killed. Nineteen Middle Eastern terrorists hijacked four airplanes; one crashed into the Pentagon, two destroyed the twin towers of New York City's World Trade Center, and one, possibly headed for the White House, crashed in a wooded area of Pennsylvania. Although the hijackers left no message, they were clearly motivated by hatred of the United States and by a desire to force a change in American policy in the Middle East.

The enormity of the attack pushed terrorism to the top of the American political agenda, with President George W. Bush declaring "war on terror" in his 20 September 2001 address to a joint session of Congress. President Bush predicted that this new war could last for years or even decades. The World Trade Center attack also led to a major change in the way the United States deals with terrorism. Before 11 September 2001, the United States followed a police-justice model whereby police and intelligence agencies identified and apprehended terrorists and then turned them over to the justice system. After those attacks, however, the Bush Administration adopted a preemptive-war model, whereby the United States intends to strike at individual terrorists or terrorist groups anywhere in the world and has threatened to use all means necessary, from special forces to massive military force, to attack what it identifies as "terrorist states" that support international terrorism.

The adoption of this model led President Bush in his 29 January 2002 State of the Union address to talk about Iran, Iraq, and North Korea together as an "axis of evil" and to threaten military action against Iraq. This statement led to much uneasiness among allies of the United States, who feared that the administration's war on terrorism signaled a move toward unilateralism in U.S. foreign policy and the destabilization of international relations.


Harmon, Christopher. Terrorism Today. Portland, Ore.: Frank Cass, 2000.

Laqueur, Walter. The New Terrorism: Fanaticism and the Arms of Mass Destruction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Wilkinson, Paul, Terrorism and the Liberal State. New York: New York University Press, 1986.

Harvey G.Simmons

See also9/11 Attack andvol. 9:George W. Bush, Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People (As Delivered Before Congress), 20 September 2001 .

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Terrorism." Dictionary of American History. . 17 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Terrorism." Dictionary of American History. . (December 17, 2017).

"Terrorism." Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved December 17, 2017 from



Terrorism refers to the illegitimate use of violence or intimidation to advance a group's interests. Examples include detonating explosives in public places, taking hostages, or assassinating politicians. Central to the concept of terrorism is that its objective is primarily ideological. Terrorists typically do not employ violence to gain wealth but rather to bring attention to political causes.

Because the term terrorism hinges on a distinction between legitimate and illegitimate use of violence, controversy often accompanies its use. For example, governments routinely use force to advance their interests, but do not characterize their actions as instances of terrorism. The bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City is readily identified as a terrorist act because it was undertaken by a very small group of individuals and not an entire government. Yet much more violent attacks directed against large cities during World War II are not characterized as acts of terrorism. Within a single conflict use of the term "terrorist" in news reports can reveal the political sympathies of the broadcaster or the government that released information about the attack. For example, in the American press violent events undertaken by Palestinians are far more likely to be characterized as acts of terrorism than equally or more violent actions taken by the Israeli military. This political component became very clear in the United States during the Reagan administration, which aided the Contra rebels who were waging a campaign of violence against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Officials in the American government characterized the Contras as "freedom fighters" while supporters of the Sandinistas portrayed them as terrorists.

The use of violence by small groups to advance their interests is not a twenty-first-century development. The term terrorism first appeared during the French Revolution and the Jacobin Reign of Terror. Similarly, many other words associated with terrorism (i.e., thug, assassin, and zealot ) derive from groups alleged to have used violence and death to advance their political objectives.

Historically terrorism is thought to have passed through several distinct stages, from its origin among religious groups fighting to defend or advance their organization's beliefs, to secular groups, whose objectives were clearly political. Traced by some historians to the French Revolution, this process of the secularization of terrorism continued throughout the twentieth century. Modern technology's ability to expand the audience for violent actions is thought by some analysts to have fueled terrorism's appeal, making nations with a free press particularly susceptible to the quest for media coverage. Twentieth- and twenty-first-century accounts of terrorism argue that it may have moved into a new period, as new technology allows small groups of individuals the ability to wield tremendous destructive power, and permits even faster coverage of that destruction to a wide audience, as evidenced by the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001. Experts warn that such attacks are not limited to religiously motivated groups but can also include assaults stemming from personal grudges or psychopathological conditions.

In contrast to individual acts of violence, the use of terrorism by small political organizations is thought to serve several functions: (1) It makes the group committing the terrorist act appear large and powerful, thus intimidating outsiders and boosting morale of the terrorist group's members; (2) it reveals the vulnerability of the target, whose apparent strength is thereby placed in doubt and whose authority may become undermined; (3) it can eliminate opposition; (4) it may start a chain reaction of assaults undertaken by sympathetic political groups; and (5) it cements the terrorists to the organization because individuals who commit acts of terror cannot leave the organization very easily.

The impact of media coverage of terrorist acts is mixed. On the one hand, most Americans greatly overestimate the threat of terrorism, probably due to media coverage of the subject. In fact, the chances of being killed in an automobile accident are more than one hundred times higher than the chance of being killed by a terrorist action while overseas. On the other hand, sustained terrorist attacks can produce a backlash against the perpetrator's cause, as occurred in 1999 when bombings of Moscow apartment buildings increased the hostility of Russian citizens toward Chechens, who were thought to be responsible for the blasts.

Attempts to combat terrorism include use of metal detectors and dogs at locales thought to be likely targets for attack. While these methods are effective at reducing the frequency of terrorist acts, it appears impossible to protect targets completely against determined terrorists. Ironically, methods to offset terrorism exaggerate the public's perception of threat and thus advance one of terrorism's main objectives.

See also: Death Squads; Terrorist Attacks on America


Crenshaw, Martha. "The Logic of Terrorism." In Walter Reich ed., Origins of Terrorism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Fleming, Dan B., and Arnold Schuetz. "Terrorism, Assassination, and Political Torture." In Daniel Leviton ed., Horrendous Death, Health, and Well-Being. New York: Hemisphere Publishing, 1991.

Laqueur, Walter. The New Terrorism: Fanaticism and the Arms of Mass Destruction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Laqueur, Walter. Terrorism. Boston: Little, Brown, 1977.

Shurkin, Joel. "Modern Terrorists Are 'Anemic.'" Stanford Observer, 6 February 1988, 1ff.

Stern, Jessica. The Ultimate Terrorists. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Stohl, Michael. The Politics of Terrorism. New York: Marcel Dekker, 1983.


Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Terrorism." Macmillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. . 17 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Terrorism." Macmillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. . (December 17, 2017).

"Terrorism." Macmillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. . Retrieved December 17, 2017 from


terrorism, the threat or use of violence, often against the civilian population, to achieve political or social ends, to intimidate opponents, or to publicize grievances. The term dates from the Reign of Terror (1793–94) in the French Revolution but has taken on additional meaning in the 20th cent. Terrorism involves activities such as assassinations, bombings, random killings, and hijackings. Used for political, not military, purposes, and most typically by groups too weak to mount open assaults, it is a modern tool of the alienated, and its psychological impact on the public has increased because of extensive coverage by the media. Political terrorism also may be part of a government campaign to eliminate the opposition, as under Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, and others, or may be part of a revolutionary effort to overthrow a regime. Terrorist attacks also are now a common tactic in guerrilla warfare. Governments find attacks by terrorist groups difficult to prevent; international agreements to tighten borders or return terrorists for trial may offer some deterrence.

Terrorism reaches back to ancient Greece and has occurred throughout history. Terrorism by radicals (of both the left and right) and by nationalists became widespread after World War II. Since the late 20th cent. acts of terrorism have been associated with the Italian Red Brigades, the Irish Republican Army, the Palestine Liberation Organization, Peru's Shining Path, Sri Lanka's Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the Weathermen and some members of U.S. "militia" organizations, among many groups. Religiously inspired terrrorism has also occurred, such as that of extremist Christian opponents of abortion in the United States; of extremist Muslims associated with Hamas, Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda, and other organizations; of extremist Sikhs in India; and of Japan's Aum Shinrikyo, who released nerve gas in Tokyo's subway system (1995).

In 1999 the UN Security Council unanimously called for better international cooperation in fighting terrorism and asked governments not to aid terrorists. The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by Al Qaeda on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon—the most devastating terrorist attacks in history—prompted calls by U.S. political leaders for a world "war on terrorism." Although the U.S. effort to destroy Al Qaeda and overthrow the Afghani government that hosted it was initially successful, terrorism is not a movement but a tactic used by a wide variety of groups, some of which are regarded (and supported) as "freedom fighters" in various countries or by various peoples. So-called state-sponsored terrorism, in which governments provide support or protection to terrorist groups that carry out proxy attacks against other countries, also complicates international efforts to end terror attacks, but financial sanctions have been placed by many countries on organizations that directly or indirectly support terrorists. The 2001 bioterror attacks in which anthrax spores were mailed to various U.S. media and government offices may not be linked to the events of September 11, but they raised specter of biological and chemical terrorism and revealed the difficulty of dealing with such attacks.

See B. Hoffman, Inside Terrorism (1998); M. Carr, The Infernal Machine: A History of Terrorism (2007); S. Nathanson, Terrorism and the Ethics of War (2010); M. A. Miller, The Foundations of Modern Terrorism (2013).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"terrorism." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 17 Dec. 2017 <>.

"terrorism." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (December 17, 2017).

"terrorism." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved December 17, 2017 from


terrorism, notoriously difficult to define, is the deliberate attempt by self-appointed groups to employ violence, often indiscriminately, to attain their objectives, national, political, religious, or criminal. Its object is to create panic, weaken resolve, destroy opponents, discredit governments, and produce political and economic dislocation. In Britain, an early terrorist attempt was the Gunpowder plot of 1605 which would have killed the king and many members of Parliament. Edmund Burke claimed that the French Revolution of 1789 had introduced a new concept of terror, supported by governments themselves. The Cato Street conspirators of 1820 intended to murder the British cabinet at dinner as the prelude to an insurrection.

Britons became familiar with terrorist outrages—the maiming of cattle, destruction of crops, burning of houses, and murder of opponents—during the Irish agitations of the 19th cent. Great indignation was felt in 1867 at the murder of a policeman by Fenians, though the perpetrators, who were hanged, were regarded by Irish nationalists as the ‘Manchester martyrs’. The later 19th cent. saw an increase in assassinations, often by anarchists. In the USA, Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley were killed (1865, 1881, 1901); Alexander II of Russia was blown up by a bomb in 1882; the empress of Austria shot in 1898; King Humbert I of Italy murdered in 1900; and Stolypin, the Russian reformer, shot at the opera in 1911. The murder of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in 1914 led directly to the First World War.

After 1945, terrorism acquired new dimensions, with links between international groups, and growing disregard for the loss of innocent lives. Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated in 1948, President Kennedy in 1963, Aldo Moro, a former prime minister of Italy, kidnapped and murdered by the Red Brigade in 1978, Lord Mountbatten killed by the IRA in 1980, and Indira Gandhi killed by one of her own bodyguards in 1984. Car-bombs and aircraft hijacking became increasingly common and, in the Middle East, suicide-bombers proved hard to stop. In 1988 nearly 300 people died when Pan Am flight 103 was destroyed over Lockerbie; the Real IRA killed 26 people and injured 200 more with a bomb at Omagh in 1998. These atrocities were dwarfed on 11 September 2001 when the World Trade Centre at New York was destroyed by supporters of Osama bin Laden with the loss of nearly 3,000 lives. Britain joined in the coalition to root out the al-Qa'eda terrorist network in Afghanistan, and in the 2003 campaign in Iraq which overthrew Saddam Hussain. In Britain itself, international terrorism moved closer with the attack in 2005 on London's transport system, which left more than 50 people dead.

J. A. Cannon

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"terrorism." The Oxford Companion to British History. . 17 Dec. 2017 <>.

"terrorism." The Oxford Companion to British History. . (December 17, 2017).

"terrorism." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Retrieved December 17, 2017 from



A half-century of Russian history was bloodstained by revolutionary terrorism. Its first outburst was the abortive April 1866 assassination attempt against Tsar Alexander II by Dmitry Karakozov. From then on, extremists of different ideological persuasions, with varying degrees of success, resorted to acts of terror as part of their struggle against the contemporary sociopolitical order.

Terrorist activity had a particularly strong impact on the country's life during two distinct periods. The first was the so-called heroic period, between 1878 and 1881, when the Party of the People's Will (Narodnaya Volya )the first modern terrorist organization in the worlddominated the radical camp. Its campaign against the autocracy culminated in the assassination of Alexander II on March 1, 1881. Alexander III's government succeeded in disintegrating the People's Will; yet, after a twenty-year period of relative and deceptive calm, a new wave of terrorism erupted during the reign of Russia's last tsar, Nicholas II (18941917). Its perpetrators were members of various newly formed left-wing organizations, who implicated themselves in terrorist acts even when their parties in theory rejected terrorism as a suitable tactic. As radical activity reached its peak during the 19051907 crisis, terrorism became an all-pervasive phenomenon, affecting not only the elite civil and military circles but every layer of society. During the first decade of the twentieth century, the terrorists were responsible for approximately 17,000 casualties throughout the empire. Their attacks were indiscriminate, directed at a broad category of alleged "watchdogs of the old regime" and "oppressors of the poor."

Although terrorism subsided by late 1907, largely as a result of severe repressive measures employed by Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin, until the collapse of the imperial order in 1917 it remained a threatening weapon in the hands of extremists seeking the demise of the tsarist regime.

See also: nicholas ii; people's will the; red terror; zhelyabov, andrei ivanovich


Footman, David. (1968). Red Prelude: A Biography of Zhelyabov. London: Barrie & Rockliff.

Geifman, Anna. (1993). Thou Shalt Kill: Revolutionary Terrorism in Russia, 18941917. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Anna Geifman

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Terrorism." Encyclopedia of Russian History. . 17 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Terrorism." Encyclopedia of Russian History. . (December 17, 2017).

"Terrorism." Encyclopedia of Russian History. . Retrieved December 17, 2017 from


636. Terrorism

  1. Al Fata Palestine Liberation movements terrorist organization. [Arab. Hist.: Wigoder, 186]
  2. Baader-Meinhof gang German terrorists. [Ger. Hist.: Facts (1978), 114115]
  3. Black Panthers militant black revolutionists and civil-rightists. [Am. Hist.: Flexner, 46]
  4. Gestapo Nazi secret police; executors of Final Solution. [Ger. Hist.: Wigoder, 211]
  5. IRA the Irish Republican Army; long history of terror and violence. [Irish Hist.: NCE, 13651366]
  6. Ku Klux Klan post-Civil War white supremacist organization used terrorist tactics against blacks. [Am. Hist.: NCE, 1505]
  7. Nazis (National Socialism) spread fear and terror throughout Hitlers Germany. [Ger. Hist.: NCE, 1894]
  8. Red Brigade Italian terrorist group; assassinated Aldo Moro (1978). [Ital. Hist.: Facts (1978), 133]
  9. Reign of Terror (17931794) revolutionary government made terror its means of suppression, by edict (September 5, 1793). [Fr. Hist.: EB, IX: 904]
  10. Symbionese Liberation Army small terrorist group that kid-napped Patty Hearst (19741975). [Am. Hist.: Facts (1974), 105]
  11. Weathermen American terrorist group against the Establishment. [Am. Hist.: Facts (1972), 384]

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Terrorism." Allusions--Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. . 17 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Terrorism." Allusions--Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. . (December 17, 2017).

"Terrorism." Allusions--Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. . Retrieved December 17, 2017 from


ter·ror·ist / ˈterərist/ • n. a person who uses terrorism in the pursuit of political aims. DERIVATIVES: ter·ror·is·tic / ˌterəˈristik/ adj. ter·ror·is·ti·cal·ly adv. ORIGIN: late 18th cent.: from French terroriste, from Latin terror (see terror). The word was originally applied to supporters of the Jacobins in the French Revolution, who advocated repression and violence in pursuit of the principles of democracy and equality.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"terrorist." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . 17 Dec. 2017 <>.

"terrorist." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . (December 17, 2017).

"terrorist." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved December 17, 2017 from


terrorism Use of violence, sometimes indiscriminately, against persons and property for the nominal purpose of making a political statement. Intending to inspire terror, terrorists act principally in the name of empowering political minorities, and to publicize perceived political grievances.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"terrorism." World Encyclopedia. . 17 Dec. 2017 <>.

"terrorism." World Encyclopedia. . (December 17, 2017).

"terrorism." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved December 17, 2017 from


terrorist •tantrist •guitarist, scenarist, tsarist •sitarist • memoirist • belletrist •centrist • Marist • sacrist •lyrist, panegyrist •equilibrist • interest •optometrist, psychometrist, sociometrist •satirist •afforest, florist, forest, Forrest •rainforest • folklorist •careerist, querist, theorist •plagiarist • meliorist • apiarist •topiarist • diarist • psychiatrist •jurist, purist, tourist •obituarist • caricaturist • pedicurist •manicurist • sinecurist • naturist •miniaturist • futurist •agriculturist, apiculturist, arboriculturist, horticulturist, pisciculturist, sericulturist, silviculturist, viniculturist, viticulturist •acupuncturist • welfarist • allegorist •Eucharist • artillerist • secularist •particularist •colourist (US colorist) •amorist • ephemerist • mesmerist •consumerist, humorist •mannerist • tenorist • seminarist •terrorist • adventurist • detectorist •documentarist • militarist •monetarist • lepidopterist •motorist, votarist •scooterist • voluntarist • zitherist •Everest • aquarist • auteurist

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"terrorist." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . 17 Dec. 2017 <>.

"terrorist." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . (December 17, 2017).

"terrorist." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Retrieved December 17, 2017 from