What Is Terrorism?

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What Is Terrorism?

W hat exactly is "terrorism"? It is a word with many different definitions—some legal, some political. It has been used to describe crimes as well as to discredit political opponents.

In its broadest practical sense, terrorism is the use of violence to further a political or social cause. Individuals and organizations that use violence to achieve their political goals are called "terrorists" when they aim their attacks at civilians who are not directly involved in shaping government policy. For example, a terrorist might set off a bomb in a crowded store, restaurant, or office building, hoping to persuade the government to outlaw abortion. Or a terrorist might hijack a plane to force another country to change its foreign policy or set a prisoner free. Terrorism is the most extreme way of demanding that people pay attention to a cause. Terrorists are often "true believers," convinced of the rightness of their actions. Where the rest of the world sees empty violence and senseless destruction, terrorists see themselves as heroes fighting for a noble purpose, one based on high ideals.

Legal definitions of terrorism

Most violent acts committed by terrorists—such as planting a bomb that kills or injures people or kidnapping a government official—are crimes. Murder, kidnapping, and bombing are illegal whether they are committed to achieve a political goal or simply to obtain money or personal revenge. People disagree about whether a murder carried out to achieve a political goal should be treated differently from murder committed for a more personal reason.

In the United States, the law defines terrorism as the illegal use of force or violence to accomplish a political or social goal. Such goals could include changing a government's policy on a particular issue or preventing certain persons from voting in an election. In 1984 the U.S. State Department described terrorism as "premeditated [planned], politically motivated violence perpetrated [committed] against noncombatant targets [civilians] who are not involved in fighting by subnational groups or clandestine [secret] state agents." (A subnational group is one that does not represent a recognized country.) Under this definition, an act carried out by an undercover government agent would qualify as "terrorism," while the same act by a uniformed army officer or policeman would not. Some writers argue that government attempts to control the population through terror and violence amount to "state terrorism."

Words to Know

unselfishly concerned with the good of others.
opposed to democracy.
Civil liberties:
the basic rights guaranteed to individual citizens by law (freedom of speech and action, for example).
ordinary citizens, not members of the armed forces.
undercover, secret.
characterized by free and equal participation in government or in the decision-making processes of an organization or group.
part-time soldiers who operate in small bands behind enemy lines.
an Arabic word meaning holy war.
Natural rights:
rights that are seen as inherent (present) at birth.
Subnational groups:
organizations that do not represent a recognized nation, such as ethnic minorities, tribes, or people who speak a common language.

These definitions are important for two main reasons. First, they help one understand the significance of the perceived threat of terrorism. If someone planting a bomb in a crowded theater is described as a terrorist, people may become alarmed that more bombs will follow. If a bomber is described as a deranged murderer, it may be viewed as a mental health problem instead, and the risk of more bombs seems less likely. Second, they determine how the government responds to violence. A government's response to an act of terrorism may depend on how the act is perceived. When the World Trade Center in New York City was bombed in 1993, it was treated as a criminal act: the police investigated the attack, investigators hunted for and captured the bombers, and the government tried them in a criminal court, where they were convicted and sent to jail. After the much larger attack on the same buildings on September 11, 2001, the United States declared that it was at war with terrorists, and sent its armed forces to bomb targets in Afghanistan and eventually sent in ground troops.

Political definitions of terrorism

Another way of viewing terrorism is to see it as the violent side of politics. Some terrorists have referred to themselves as the "military branch" of a political party. People outside government who resort to force to oppose government policy or actions are considered terrorists, even if the government itself is using violence to enforce, defend, or carry out a political or social policy.

As early as 1937, the League of Nations (the international organization that came before the United Nations) described terrorism as "criminal acts directed against a state and intended or calculated to create a state of terror in the minds of particular persons or the general public." However, the definition of terrorism can vary depending on which side one is on.

During World War II (1939–45), the German military occupied many countries in Europe. Often, the German troops were attacked by people who described themselves as "freedom fighters" or guerrillas. The Germans, on the other hand, labeled the attacks "terrorism" and responded by executing uninvolved civilians in the area. In various countries of the Middle East, people who use violence to establish governments that observe Islamic law (ones in which society is governed by the religious principles of Islam) are condemned as "terrorists" by some and praised as "holy warriors" by others.

Disagreements arise about the motives of individuals or groups who resort to criminal acts—such as kidnapping famous people or politicians—to raise money for their cause. Are their motives political and social, or are they "just" criminals? The distinctions are not always clear. Carlos the Jackal (the nickname of Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, one of the most notorious terrorists of the 1970s and 1980s) was accused of pocketing a large ransom paid to free oil ministers from the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). The ministers had been kidnapped in 1975 during a meeting in Vienna, Austria, to draw attention to the plight of the Palestinian people, who had been displaced when the nation of Israel was formed on part of their land in 1948. Did his decision to keep the money make Carlos' actions merely criminal, and not political?

Origins of terrorism and terrorists' philosophy

The word "terrorism" originated in the French Revolution (1789–99). The revolution was inspired in part by ideals of equality in an age when kings ruled with little regard for the common people. But between 1793 and 1794 a political group called the Jacobins (pronounced JACK-uh-bihns) gained control of the revolutionary government in Paris, France. They sentenced an estimated seventeen thousand people to death for political crimes; many more died in prison or without a trial. Those put to death were mostly accused of plotting to overthrow the revolution and to restore the French king to the throne. Many of them were convicted in secret trials and were publicly executed by guillotine.

The period from 1793 to 1794 is called the "Reign of Terror." It lasted only a year, but the idea of using violence to achieve political change in society endured much longer.

Most terrorists are motivated by an idea of how society should be organized. Some fight to establish a different form of government. Others want to found a separate country for their nationality or ethnic group. Leaders of terrorist groups usually study the writings of philosophers or theorists who describe ideal forms of society or government and the best way to achieve them. Some of these writers have concluded that violence is a good way to achieve social goals.

It was said that Maximilien Robespierre (1758–1794), the leader of the Jacobins during the Reign of Terror, slept with the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) under his pillow. Rousseau was a Swiss-born philosopher who believed that all men are born as equals with "natural rights" to freedom. He argued that people voluntarily form governments to protect their rights, not to limit them. Rousseau saw the ideal person as one who was a "revolutionary" to the core, constantly struggling to restore mankind's natural rights, which kings had taken away. Other political writers have urged people to become radical revolutionaries, prepared to sacrifice their lives to overturn an antidemocratic government.

Religious writers have also encouraged followers to adopt terrorist tactics. Some Islamic religious teachers especially have urged believers to launch a "holy war" to force society to obey the religious rules laid out in the Muslim holy book, the Koran (also spelled Qur'an; see Chapter 9).

The practice of terrorism

Unlike traditional warfare, which is a contest of strength between two sets of armed forces, terrorism treats warfare as a political or social phenomenon that involves the entire population. In the terrorist's view, there are no "innocent civilians." Civilians can influence government officials—or sometimes vote them out of office. Civilian tax dollars support the military or police. Realizing they lack the physical or financial resources to defeat military forces using conventional tactics (such as tanks or warplanes, for instance), terrorists often use fear to bring about change in society. Fear in the minds of civilians is the terrorist's most powerful weapon.

Attacking civilians to generate fear

Tactics that cause widespread fear among civilians are the trademark of terrorism. These tactics include bombing, kidnapping, hijacking, and murder. Just as regular armies do, terrorists use the best weapons they can afford. A small bomb that fits in a car is one example; hijacking a civilian airplane is another. These attacks do not require many people or much money to carry out.

Terrorists also choose targets with highly symbolic importance as a means of generating publicity and spreading fear even more widely. On September 11, 2001, for example, Al Qaeda (pronounced al KAY-duh) terrorists targeted the World Trade Center and the Pentagon building outside of Washington, D.C., two widely famous symbols of American economic and military power. They thus communicated their anti-American message to the whole world.

An attack against an undefended civilian target may require only a few terrorists armed with cheap and readily available weapons. But such an attack generates enormous publicity and can create the impression that a powerful force is at work. (In reality, a terrorist "force" may consist of fewer than a dozen people.) By creating fears that more attacks could come, anywhere and at any time, terrorists weaken public confidence in a government's ability to protect its citizens. In democratic states, people may insist that the government give in to the terrorists' demands. During the 1950s and early 1960s Algerians seeking independence from France attacked targets in both countries in hopes of making French citizens so fearful that they would pressure the government to grant Algeria independence. To a large degree, they succeeded: France granted Algeria the right to vote on independence in 1962. (During the same period, ethnic French citizens who opposed Algerian independence attacked ethnic Algerians in both Algeria and France.)

Terrorist tactics can also backfire. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001 enraged the population of the United States, boosted the popularity of President George W. Bush (1946–), and made it possible for him to launch a deadly military assault on the Taliban government in Afghanistan, which had been protecting the leaders of Al Qaeda. In this and other instances, frightened civilians have demanded that their government take stronger action against terrorists, even if this meant restricting civil liberties, like freedom of speech. (The tactics of terrorists are discussed in more detail in Chapter 2.)

Goals of terrorists

During the past two centuries, the world has seen hundreds of terrorist attacks in Europe, the United States, the Middle East, South America, and Asia. Most share similar characteristics: unexpected, violent attacks on nonmilitary targets. But the motivations behind these terrorist attacks have varied greatly.

In general, terrorist groups fall into six main categories:

  1. National or ethnic independence movements
  2. Political-economic warfare
  3. State-sponsored terrorism
  4. Social causes
  5. Individuals with grievances
  6. Religion

National or ethnic independence movements

Around the world, many different people who are citizens of one nation would prefer to found a separate, independent country. These new countries might be based on speaking the same language, practicing the same religion, or belonging to the same ethnic group.

Terrorism has been widely used as a tactic to achieve independence. Terrorism by national liberation (setting free) movements in the Middle East especially has drawn much attention since the 1950s. To the Europeans and Americans who were the targets of these attacks, they were seen as criminal acts. To those seeking an independent homeland, though, such acts seemed the equivalent of the Boston Tea Party or the Battle of Lexington and Concord during the American Revolution (1775–83), incidents in which armed Americans attacked British troops or merchant vessels to promote American independence.

Examples of such independence movements include Muslims (followers of the religion Islam) who lived in Algeria during the first half of the twentieth century, when it was governed by France; Arabs living in Palestine (which largely has been occupied by the Jewish nation of Israel since 1948); the Basque (pronounced bask) people of northern Spain, who want to break away to form their own country; and Kurdish people who want to create an independent state from parts of Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. In Northern Ireland some residents want to become part of the Republic of Ireland while others want to remain part of Great Britain. In Kashmir, an area in the northwest corner of India, Muslims have long fought to achieve independence from India, which is dominated by Hindus, people who fillow the Hindu religion. (Details of the main nationalist terrorist efforts are in Chapter 4.)

Political-economic warfare

People have used violence to achieve a wide range of political and economic goals. On a smaller scale, workers have turned to violence to demand higher pay, while employers have used violence to keep from paying workers more. At the other end of the scale, revolutionaries have used terror to over-throw a government and completely change a political system.

Early in the nineteenth century, craftsmen in England who had lost their jobs as a result of new textile (cloth) factories went out at night to destroy machines in the new factories or attack the homes of factory owners. In a few cases, they murdered the owners. They were called Luddites, and they were among the earliest "terrorists" fighting for a political-economic cause. In the United States, the Molly Maguires were a group of mostly Irish immigrant miners who resorted to violence to protest poor working conditions and discrimination in hiring.

Since the French people overthrew their king in 1789, the idea of starting a revolution to change society has appealed to many. In the 1800s some people wanted to change the economic system and to replace private ownership of factories with government ownership. In particular, a group called anarchists (pronounced AN-are-kists) thought that large central governments should be replaced by smaller, voluntary associations. Some anarchists turned to violence to try to bring down the government. (These topics are discussed in more detail in Chapter 5.)

State-sponsored terrorism

Terrorism can be a form of underground warfare secretly conducted by one government against another. During the 1970s and 1980s some Middle Eastern governments provided support to terrorist groups as a means of attacking Israel without starting a full-scale war. (Israel has had a history of conflict with its Arabic neighbors since its founding in 1948.)

Three governments in particular—Iran, Libya, and Syria—were closely connected with terrorist groups and actions during that period. More recently, the Taliban government of Afghanistan had close ties to the Al Qaeda terrorist organization. (State-sponsored terrorism is discussed in more detail in Chapter 6.)

Social causes

Terrorism has often been used to support social causes. A social cause is a policy regarding a specific behavior that some people believe should be changed. One example is legal abortion, the medical termination of a pregnancy, which some people strongly oppose. In the United States opposition to abortion has led terrorists to bomb abortion clinics and murder doctors. Attacks against racial minorities—especially African Americans—by terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, a secret group of white men active in the South, have resulted in scores of deaths from bombings and lynchings. (A lynching is when a person is executed by a mob without a trial.) Religious minorities, especially Jews, have also been subject to terrorist attacks in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East. In the United States, much terrorism has resulted from conflicts over the country's many ethnic, religious, and racial differences.

Another cause that may become a more important source of terrorist attacks in the future is the environment. Environmental activists have carried out attacks on logging operations in California, for example, in the name of saving ancient forests there. This movement is sometimes called "ecoterrorism" (a combination of "ecology" and "terrorism"). (This topic is discussed in more detail in Chapter 7.)

Individuals with grievances

Some individuals turn to terrorist acts to achieve their social or political goals. Assassinations (the murder of a public figure or government official) and bombings are the most frequently used tactics. Sometimes these terrorists are disturbed individuals such as Theodore "Ted" Kaczynski (pronounced kuh-ZIHN-skee; 1942–), the "Unabomber," who sent bombs through the mail to individuals he thought were bringing about a dangerous technological future. Other times they are individuals seeking revenge for an act by the government. This was the case with Timothy McVeigh (1968–2001), who in 1995 bombed a federal office building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. He later said his action was in retaliation against the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for killing dozens of members of a religious cult, the Branch Davidians, in Waco, Texas, in 1993. (This topic is discussed in more detail in Chapter 8.)


Religion has long been a leading source of terrorist activities. Between about 1915 and 1925 in the United States, which was predominantly Protestant at the time, the Ku Klux Klan was strongly biased against Roman Catholics. (During that period, many immigrants to the United States from southern Europe were Catholics.) The Klan's hatred toward Catholics, Jews, African Americans, and other groups was expressed through intimidation, beatings, and lynchings.

More recently believers in a radical, fundamentalist version of Islam have resorted to terrorist attacks to achieve their goal of Islamic rule in the Middle East and beyond. The attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, were motivated by a philosophy called Islamism, the belief that religious and government institutions should be united. (This topic is discussed in more detail in Chapter 9.)

Categories overlap

These categories of terrorism often overlap. Sometimes terrorists from two different categories will ally to achieve a common goal, sometimes terrorists have more than one motivation, and sometimes one motive transforms into another.

Terrorist groups may decide they share a common enemy; often, in the twenty-first century, it is the U.S. government or American corporations. These alliances can bring together widely different organizations. For instance, the Irish Republican Army (IRA), a group seeking to free Northern Ireland from British rule, has set up training camps in the largely Islamic country of Jordan; both groups regard the British government as their enemy.

Political terrorists have sometimes formed alliances with other types of organizations as well, such as organized criminal gangs. This has happened in Colombia, where terrorist groups fighting for political and economic change have

become allied with drug gangs, which finance terrorist activities against the government and provide protection against the Colombian army.

Other times terrorists have more than one motive. For example, Algerian independence fighters were mainly Muslims, while their opponents—descendents of French settlers—were largely Christians. The Algerian War of Independence (1954–62) was fought to establish an independent state in which Muslims would have the political rights that France had denied them. In Northern Ireland residents of six northern counties, called Ulster, are mostly Protestants who want to remain part of Britain, while the Irish Republican Army wants to unite Ulster with the Republic of Ireland, where most citizens are Catholics. These dual motives can give terrorists broader appeal among the people of affected countries.

Occasionally one motive overwhelms the other. In the 1990s a bitter internal war in Algeria pitted Islamist terrorists against the secular (nonreligious) government in the capital of Algiers. Similarly, during the 1970s and 1980s Palestinian terrorists were fighting to establish an Arab state alongside (or in place of) Israel. Some of the most active Palestinian terrorists were Christians. (For example, both founders of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, one of the leading Palestinian guerrilla organizations, are Christian Arabs.) But by 2002 the importance of establishing an Islamic Palestinian state (as opposed to simply a Palestinian state) had become of equal or greater importance. The battle for a Palestinian nation had turned into a religious struggle.

Support for terrorism

Using violence to achieve political ends may seem unnecessary in democratic countries, where people who are upset over a government's policies can express their discontent while voting in the next election. But many terrorists live under, and fight against, governments that do not allow voting—or dissent of any kind.

In this kind of repressive society terrorists can find allies among people who oppose the government but who are not willing to commit violence. Such supporters may provide money, hideouts, transportation, or weapons.

Sympathetic governments sometimes support terrorists by providing a safe place to hide or operate training camps. These governments can also supply significant sums of money and weapons, such as rockets, that are hard for terrorists to acquire. The Taliban government in Afghanistan, which represented an extreme Islamist government, provided a haven for Osama bin Laden's (1957–) Al Qaeda terrorist organization from the mid-1990s until the U.S. military drove the Taliban from power at the end of 2001.

Who becomes a terrorist?

Terrorism has been used by a wide range of organizations in many different cultures. Even within the same terrorist organization, a variety of personalities exist. Nevertheless, many terrorists have some characteristics in common.


Terrorists tend to be young, often in their twenties and sometimes in their teens. One reason is that the nature of terrorist acts requires them to be in good physical shape. Another reason is that the belief that the world can be changed tends to appeal more to young people than to older ones. (However, some leaders of terrorist groups start as young men and fight for their causes for decades. One example is Yasir Arafat [1929–], head of the Palestine Liberation Organization [PLO], the leading Palestinian political organization.) A third reason is that terrorists tend to have a shorter life expectancy due to the violence that is part of their daily lives.


In the past the majority of terrorists have been males, but this probably reflects cultural biases. In the nineteenth century, women were generally not allowed equal roles with men. (Among Russian terrorists during this time, however, about one-fourth were female, perhaps reflecting the fact that gender equality was one of the goals of Russian anarchists.) In the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s there has been a noticeable increase in the number of female terrorists; women have even led some terrorist groups. In the Middle East, Islamic culture often discourages women from playing a role outside the home. This may explain why there have been only a handful of women active in Islamic terrorist organizations. The leaders of two of the most notorious terrorist organizations in the late twentieth century, the Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany and the Weather Underground in the United States, were both women.

Social background

Terrorists come from all social classes. However, many founders and leaders of terrorist organizations have come from well-educated, well-off backgrounds. In Algeria, for example, Muslims educated in French schools who tended to be relatively wealthy formed the core of the independence movement, including its terrorist branch.

In Russia during the 1880s about half of the people arrested as "revolutionaries" came from the upper classes. In South America terrorists have traditionally come from the middle-or upper-middle class.

In the United States and Western Europe in the 1970s, terrorists of the "New Left" movement came mostly from middle-class families. Many got started on the road to political radicalism while in college.


Many terrorists have strong religious beliefs. This is obviously the case with those who fight to establish Islamic governments. These terrorists describe themselves as "holy warriors" engaged in a jihad (pronounced JEE-hahd; an Islamic holy war). But terrorists motivated primarily by political, economic, or national causes often have strong religious beliefs as well. For example, the Algerian revolutionary movement of the 1950s, while mainly interested in achieving independence from France, was also concerned with gaining equal rights for Muslims.


Terrorists fighting for economic or political goals see themselves as acting on behalf of the powerless members of society: poor workers or peasants. Others, fighting for independence from a colonial ruler, see themselves as patriots. Thinking of themselves as idealists may make it easier for terrorists to justify, at least to themselves, the fact that their actions hurt and kill innocent civilians. It also serves as a powerful attraction to recruit new members.

Psychological studies of captured terrorists have found few common threads. Some terrorists had unhappy childhoods; others came from close-knit, happy families. On the other hand, the very nature of terrorism indicates a tendency toward fanaticism. A fanatic is someone motivated by extreme dedication to a cause. Fanatics are difficult or impossible to reason with, and they usually believe they are altruistic, or concerned with the welfare of others. Fanatical altruism has led people to smuggle bombs into crowded shopping centers and blow themselves up in hopes of killing the people around them. They are seemingly blinded to the fact that children and other innocents may die. They are so convinced their cause is just that other considerations simply do not enter their minds.

Another characteristic that seems to be shared by terrorists is a strong sense of rage. Rage is a feeling of anger that is not directed against any specific person or institution. Instead, rage is directed against society, the government, or the economic system as a whole. A person feeling such rage may be inclined to direct it against a symbolic target. A bomb set off at an office building can thus be aimed at "corporations" in general rather than the particular business occupying the building.

Sometimes a fine line divides fanaticism and rage from delusion (a false or mistaken idea or belief about something) and madness. Terrorists sometimes deceive themselves into thinking they are widely admired. When Carlos the Jackal spoke to reporters who were covering his kidnapping of oil ministers from OPEC, he declared, "I am a celebrated man." Even more eccentric was the behavior of the "Unabomber" Ted Kaczynski. He lived as a hermit in Montana and mailed deadly bombs to people involved with technology (such as scientists and university professors), which he thought posed a danger to the future of society. Some thought he suffered from mental illness, but he pleaded guilty in a plea-bargain agreement (saving him from standing trial and possibly execution) and was sentenced to life in prison.

Terrorism and the United States

Two forms of terrorism have affected the United States: attacks by Americans trying to change conditions from within and attacks against the country by foreign terrorists.

From about 1850 to 1861, terrorist violence was often associated with the campaign to end slavery in the United States. Abolitionists (people who sought to eliminate slavery) were generally nonviolent, but a few, such as John Brown (1800–1859), turned to direct action and violence.

In Kansas during the 1850s, pro-slavery and antislavery settlers alike used terroristic violence to determine whether Kansas would enter the United States as a slave state or a non-slave state. (It ultimately entered the union in 1861 as a free state in which slavery was not allowed.)

After the Civil War (1861–65), the Ku Klux Klan used terror to prevent newly freed slaves from claiming the civil rights guaranteed them by constitutional amendments. These amendments ended slavery, gave all citizens the right to legal protection, and gave all men the right to vote.

Individual violence to achieve political ends is also well known in the United States. The two most famous examples in the late twentieth century were Ted Kaczynski, the "Unabomber," and Timothy McVeigh, who bombed a federal office building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, in 1995 (see Chapter 8).

The United States has also long been the target of foreign terrorists, many from the Middle East but also from Asia and South America. The emergence of the United States as a world power after World War II (1939–45) made American military bases and soldiers abroad natural targets for political opponents. American support for Israel since its founding in 1948 has also made the United States a target in the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. Bin Laden, who allegedly masterminded the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, has expressed strong opposition to the U.S. presence in the Middle East (see Chapter 9).

America's role as the world's sole superpower after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 has made U.S. targets all the more tempting to international groups with radical political or religious goals.

Does terrorism work?

Some politicians like to say that terrorism never works. However, this is not always true. Many political activists believe that violence does work, even if sometimes indirectly, and point to examples in history as evidence. The French Revolution was a shining example for radicals throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and was a major inspiration for the 1917 Russian Revolution.

In modern times governments rarely admit that terrorism affects policy. But it happens. In 1983, for example, terrorists drove a huge truck bomb into a U.S. Marine camp in Lebanon, killing 241 Americans. The United States's initial response was to bomb parts of Lebanon and Syria where the terrorists were thought to be hiding. A few months later, however, the United States withdrew the Marines from Lebanon, which was the terrorists' original goal.


Almost 150 years after the French Revolution (1789–99), Algerians fighting for independence from France turned to terrorism. Their tactics eventually persuaded France to allow Algerians to vote on whether they should become an independent country. The country gained its independence in 1962, in part as a means of ending terrorist attacks in France (see Chapter 4).

Al Qaeda

The Islamist organization Al Qaeda, held responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001, helped install a radical Islamic government in Afghanistan: the Taliban. It also extended its influence throughout the Muslim world, even to countries like Saudi Arabia that already had Islamist governments. Al Qaeda's attacks on the United States caused some Palestinians to dance with joy and established their leader, Osama bin Laden, as a man powerful enough to hurt the seemingly invulnerable United States.


Although terrorism does not always achieve its goals directly, it often plays a role in the cause for which it is used. For more than thirty years many Palestinian Arabs have wanted a state of their own, either in place of Israel or alongside it. Terrorism has long been an important tactic in that struggle. Although terrorism had not brought about a Palestinian state by the end of the twentieth century, it did bring attention to the plight of stateless Palestinian Arabs, which in turn created sympathy for their cause around the world.

Irish Republican Army

Ireland offers an example of both terrorism's successes and failures. The original campaign to achieve Irish independence from English rule succeeded in 1921. But the Irish Republican Army's long terrorist campaign to unite the Protestant counties of Northern Ireland with the largely Catholic Republic of Ireland has not.

The drawbacks of terrorism

Terrorism has enormous drawbacks for both terrorists and their targets. Terrorist campaigns have caused thousands of deaths. In Algeria, for example, a campaign to establish a strict Islamic state that started in the early 1990s has resulted in up to 100,000 deaths without changing the government of that country. Such long and deadly campaigns can turn citizens against the terrorist cause.

Terrorism can also propel governments to take drastic action in curbing the violence, which sometimes makes peaceful changes in society impossible. Dictatorial (run by a dictator, a leader who runs the country with absolute power) and military governments have sometimes welcomed terrorist attacks as a convenient excuse to limit civil liberties and refuse to negotiate with reformers. Terrorist attacks on foreign targets can bring on a strong military response. The Taliban leaders of Afghanistan allowed the Al Qaeda terrorist organization to operate in their country. They refused to hand over Osama bin Laden to the United States after the attacks of September 11, 2001. The result was a military campaign by the United States that drove the Taliban from power.

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What Is Terrorism?

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