Terrorism, Middle East

views updated


While terrorism has arisen in a variety of cultures and historical periods, much of the world's attention on this phenomenon in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries has centered on the Middle East. Middle Eastern terrorism emerged in Western consciousness during the 1970s, primarily through the rise of secular leftist and nationalist groups among Palestinian exiles, which targeted Israelis and their supporters both within and outside of Israel. Some (such as Yasir Arafat's Fatah movement and George Habash's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) were part of broader political movements within the umbrella of the Palestine Liberation Organization, while others (such as Abu Nidal's Fatah faction) operated outside the PLO. Palestinian nationalists were inspired in part by the success of the Algerian revolution, which used terror as a tactic to free that North African nation from French colonialism in 1962, and by the case of Israel, which won independence from Britain in 1948 in part through the efforts of terrorist groups led by future prime ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir. Without a recognized government or territory, terrorism appeared to many Palestinians to be a more realistic option than conventional or guerrilla warfare.

The rise of Palestinian terrorism was concomitant with the rise of Palestinian nationalism, where successive betrayals and defeats by Arab governments had led Palestinians to take leadership in their own national struggle. The use of such high-profile tactics as airline hijackings and embassy takeovers helped call attention to the plight of the Palestinian people, most of whom were living under Israeli military occupation or in forced exile in refugee camps in neighboring Arab states. Though such tactics led the West to belatedly recognize the Palestinians as a distinct people with national aspirations, it also gave Israel and the United States the excuse to thwart these goals on the grounds that the nationalist movement was led by terrorists.

The fratricidal Lebanese civil war (19751990) brought to the fore a number of ethnic-based militias that utilized terror, including the right-wing Phalangists, based in the Maronite Christian community, andfollowing the 1982 Israeli invasion and subsequent U.S. interventionShiite Islamic groups, some of which coalesced into the Hizbollah movement.

Turkey has been subjected to widespread terrorism by extreme leftist and extreme rightist groups, particularly during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Also during this period, Armenian terrorists would periodically assassinate Turkish diplomats in retaliation for the 1915 genocide and the refusal of Turkey's government to acknowledge their culpability. Kurdish nationalists, under the leadership of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), engaged in a series of terrorist attacks in Turkey through the 1990s in an effort to secure greater autonomy.

Leftist and Islamic groups used terror on a limited scale against the shah's repressive regime in Iran during the 1970s. During the early 1980s, following the shah's ouster in a largely nonviolent revolution and the subsequent consolidation of power by hardline Islamists, there was an upswing in terrorism that included assassinations of top officials of the revolutionary government.

In recent decades, the failure of secular nationalist and leftist movements in the Middle East has given rise to Islamic groupings, some of which have engaged in terrorism. Many were Arab veterans of U.S.-and Pakistani-backed mujahideen groups fighting the Communist Afghan government and its Soviet backers during the 1980s. This period saw the beginning of a tactic (which had previously been utilized primarily by Hindu Sri Lankan Tamils) where assailants, carrying explosives in a vehicle or strapped to themselves, would blow themselves up along with their targets, a phenomenon that became known as suicide bombings.

Several autocratic Arab regimes, long accused of corruption and abandonment of Islamic values, have become targets of Islamic radicals. Egypt was a hotbed of such movements throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, with terrorists targeting government officials (including President Anwar Sadat), wealthy Egyptian elites, and foreign tourists. Conservative monarchies in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain, along with their Western supporters, became targets of radical Islamists during this period as well. Algeria became the site of the most deadly acts of terrorism in the region beginning in the early 1990s, when the radical Armed Islamic Group (GIA) arose following a military coup that short-circuited scheduled national elections. During the 1990s, when the PLO's renunciation of terrorism and peace talks with Israel failed to end the occupation, Palestinian Islamic groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, later joined by a renegade Fatah faction known as the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, commenced a suicide bombing campaign against Israel.

The ouster of Saddam Hussein's regime by invading U.S. forces in 2003 has resulted in Iraq's becoming a major center of terrorism. Though most of the Iraqi resistance to the U.S. occupation has targeted occupation forces, there has also been a series of bombings against civilians by both Iraqi and foreign terrorists.

The late 1990s saw the emergence of the Islamist Al Qaeda network, led primarily by Saudi exiles such as Osama bin Laden, who have targeted a number of Arab and Western targets, particularly the United States. Chief among their grievances have been U.S. support for Arab dictatorships; the American-led sanctions, bombings, and invasion of Iraq; U.S. support for Israel; and the ongoing U.S. military presence in the heart of the Islamic world. Al Qaeda's financial resources and sophisticated organization has taken terrorism to unprecedented levels, most dramatically illustrated by the devastating September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States that killed over three thousand people.

State-Sponsored Terrorism

Most governments and peoples of the Middle East categorically oppose terrorism. The taking of innocent human life is proscribed under Islam just as it is under Christianity and Judaism. However, a number of radical Middle Eastern statessuch as the Islamist military government in Sudan, the Libyan regime of Muammar Qaddafi, the Baathist government of Syria, the former Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and Saddam Hussein's former regime in Iraqhave provided or continue to provide funding and logistical support for terrorist groups.

Such activities have contributed to these governments' international isolation, although the United States has at times exaggerated the extent of support these regimes have provided terrorists in order to further advance other policy goals. U.S. forces bombed Libya in 1985, Iraq in 1993, and Sudan and Afghanistan in 1998 because of their governments' alleged support for terrorism, although some of these air strikes resulted in widespread civilian casualties themselves. In 2001, the U.S.led air strikes played a decisive role in the ouster of the Taliban government in Afghanistan, which had provided sanctuary for Al Qaeda. Some intelligence and military officers and other officials in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are believed to have quietly supported Islamist terrorists, although top government leaders largely support antiterrorism efforts.

Far more consequential, however, both politically and in terms of civilian lives, have been acts of state terror stemming directly from armed forces of governments themselves. For example, the Kurdish minorities in Iraq (particularly during the 1980s) and in Turkey (particularly during the 1990s) were subjected to widespread massacres, destruction of villages, and forced relocation, with civilian death tolls in the tens of thousands. In the former case, the United Nations Security Council set up a safe haven for Kurds in the northern part of Iraq following a devastating 1991 Iraqi offensive, the first time the UN had restricted the right of the armed forces of a sovereign country to operate within its internationally recognized borders on human rights grounds. During the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, hundreds of ethnic Greek civilians were killed, and ethnic cleansing uprooted the majority of the population in the northern one-third of the island; killings and forced relocations on a lesser scale occurred in other parts of Cyprus during this period against ethnic Turks. Successive Arab-dominated Sudanese governments contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Christian and animist blacks in the southern part of the country through massacre and forced starvation, more recently targeting black Muslims in the Dafur region in the west. Algerian forces killed thousands of civilians in counter-insurgency operations in the early to mid-1990s. In southern Iraq, Saddam Hussein's armed forces were responsible for the deaths of thousands of civilians following an uprising by Shiite Arabs in 1991. In Iran, too, under both the U.S.-backed shah and the Islamic regime that replaced it, thousands of Iranians have been killed by secret police and other government forces. The U.S. bombing of Afghanistan during the fall of 2001 appears to have killed more civilians than the September 11, 2001, attacks against the United States that prompted it.

Decades of Israeli bombing and shelling of civilian areas in Lebanon are believed to have resulted in the deaths of more than twenty thousand people. The number of Palestinian civilians killed in Israeli assaults in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip far surpasses the number of Israeli deaths from Palestinian terrorists. Israeli maltreatment of Palestinians under occupation, which has included widespread violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention, has been the subject of a series of UN Security Council resolutions demanding that such practices be halted, although the United States has blocked their enforcement and vetoed dozens of similar resolutions. Reports from reputable human rights organizations have also accused Moroccan occupation forces in Western Sahara of widespread abuses, particularly during the initial conquest of the former Spanish colony in 1975.

The Function of Terrorist Groups

In general, terrorism by non-state actors arises from those who are too weak to engage in more conventional forms of armed struggle or are motivated by the sheer frustration of their situation. Some individuals who enlist with radical Islamist groups may also be promoted in part by the perceived glory of martyrdom. Supporters of such terrorism justify such actions as a means of inflicting damage on political entities and societies as a whole that are seen as carrying out mass violence through government forces too strong to confront directly.

For example, Israel's occupation and colonization of Palestinian territory seized in the Six-Day War in 1967, the ongoing repression, and rejection of demands for a full withdrawal in return for security guaranteescombined with Israel's overwhelming military power and the large-scale military, financial, and diplomatic support from the world's only remaining superpowerhave led some Palestinians to support suicide bombing as a means of convincing Israel that the costs of holding on to the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip are higher than withdrawal. Such violence has actually hardened the attitudes of Israelis and their American backers, as it appears to reinforce their assumption that the Palestinians' actual goal is not just ending the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but the destruction of Israel itself.

The terrorism of previous decades in the Middle East, like terrorism practiced by leftist and nationalist movements elsewhere, was based upon the idea of "propaganda of the deed"inspiring popular struggle and demoralizing their opponents. In this regard, it was almost uniformly unsuccessful, particularly as enhanced security measures made successful terrorist operations more difficult.

Suicide bombing not only was easier to carry out, since the terrorists were willing to kill themselves in the process, but Islamist groups were abledespite Islamic prohibitions against suicide and killing innocent peopleto take advantage of the exalted role of martyrdom among Muslims to gain recruits and popular support. Such terrorist operations, with their potential for inflicting enormous casualties, appear to also be designed to provoke a disproportionate reaction from governments with superior armed forces, resulting in large-scale civilian casualties and thereby increasing support for their extreme anti-Western ideology. A number of strategic analysts have argued that the U.S. response to September 11, particularly the invasion of Iraq, have actually strengthened Al Qaeda by leading increasing numbers of alienated young Muslims to adopt bin Laden's view of a holy war between Islam and the West.

Some groups, such as Al Qaeda, function primarily to promote their causes through terrorism. Others, like Hamas, carry out civilian functionssuch as running health clinics and schools and providing social servicesas well as supporting an armed wing involved in terrorism. Some have evolved into political parties: for example, since the mid-1990s, Hizbollah has refrained from attacks against civilians, has largely restricted its armed activities to Israeli occupation forces, and has competed in Lebanese parliamentary elections.

Most contemporary Middle Eastern terrorist groups have emerged out of situations where there has been widespread social dislocation through war or uneven economic development. Virtually all have emerged in situations where legal nonviolent means of political change have been suppressed. The disproportionate level of terrorism in the Middle East appears to be less a result of anything inherent within Arab culture or within Islam than a consequence of the systematic denial by governments to allow for the manifestation of basic rights, including the right of self-determination. Given that the primary supporters and arms providers of most of these repressive Middle Eastern governments are Western powers such as the United States, the threat from terrorism is unlikely to be suppressed through military means alone.

See also Jihad ; Terror ; War .


Esposito, John L. Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Fisk, Robert. Pity the Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon. New York: Nation Books, 2002.

Halliday, Fred. Two Hours That Shook the WorldSeptember 11, 2001: Causes and Consequences. London: Saqi Books, 2002.

Sayagh, Yezid. Armed Struggle and the Search for State: The Palestinian National Movement, 19491993. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Telhami, Shibley. The Stakes: America and the Middle East. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2002.

Zunes, Stephen. Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism. Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 2003.

Stephen Zunes

About this article

Terrorism, Middle East

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article