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Terrorism has a long and violent history and incidents of terrorism have been recorded from at least 2,000 years ago. Acts of terrorism have included political assassinations, violent political revolutions, hijackings, skyjackings, and bombings intended to attract attention, shock, intimidate and instill fear. Before the 911 terror attacks the threat of terrorism, though always a potential danger, was of an episodic nature, and seemed to be under control. The devastating attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, however, have brought terrorism to the center stage of world politics and exposed the vulnerability of soft civilian targets to a small but determined group of terrorists. The issue of terrorism and home security now dominates the foreign policy of most countries including the United States. The focus on terrorism has also forced people to think deeply about its root causes, which may have historical, cultural, political, social, psychological, economic, or religious reasons. In this research paper, I shall look at what exactly constitutes terrorism, outline its history, examine the causes behind the current spate of global terrorism (specifically Islamic terrorism) that has swept many regions of the world during the past few years, besides discussing solutions for the problem.
What is Terrorism?
The well-known saying, "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter,"
underscores the difficulty of having a single and universally accepted definition of terrorism. Everyone views terrorism subjectively and their definitions of what constitutes terrorism vary greatly, reflecting their own biases, concerns and points-of-view. Most definitions, however, tend to agree that terrorism is targeted at unarmed civilians rather than at military personnel; its objective is to provoke fear and to attract wide publicity; and the motive is to achieve collective political or religious goals rather than personal goals.
Most definitions of 'terrorism' also contend that only violent acts committed by non-governmental groups can be classified as terrorism.
Others dispute the last contention. American intellectual, Noam Chomsky, for example, believes that terrorism is typically sponsored by governments through the organisation, funding or training of para-military groups often under the banner of counter-terrorism.
1. Jewish Zealots:
The earliest acts of terrorism are known to have been committed in the 1st century AD in Judea (present day Israel) by a radical Jewish sect called the Zealots who resisted the rule of the Roman Empire through acts of assassination against them. Zealot 'terrorists' carried out their attacks in broad daylight and in crowded places so that their act of violence was witnessed by most people and had the maximum effect. (Hoffman, para on "History")
2. Islamic Assassins:
In the 11th century AD, a militant Islamic group, known as the Assassins, used terrorist tactics against the Christian crusaders who had invaded what is today part of Syria. They regarded violent attacks on the enemy as a divine act and believed that if they were killed while carrying out the task, they would ascend to a glorious heaven. They present day suicide-bombers in the Middle East (as well as the 911 terrorists) also have the same belief.
3. French Revolution (1789-1799):
Terrorism was extensively used by the government that came to power during the French Revolution to 'terrify' the supporters of monarchy and to promote democracy and popular rule. It proved that the act of terrorism was not just carried out in the name of religion, nor was it an exclusive instrument of groups outside the government. It was also the first time that the word 'terrorism' was used. (Ibid.)
4. The People's Will:
A revolutionary organization known as "The People's Will" that appeared in the late 19th century Russia also adopted terror tactics and targeted the state's oppressive instruments of power. It targeted the governor general of Saint Petersburg, the head of the tsarist secret police, and even the tsar Alexander II himself who was assassinated by a member of the People's Will in 1881. (Ibid.)
5. The Anarchists:
The "Anarchist International" movement also gained prominence towards the end of the 19th century. They adopted terror tactics and assassinated a number of prominent figures such as the American president William McKinley, the President of France, Spain's Prime Minister, the Empress of Austria and the King of Italy.
6. Assassination of Francis Ferdinand:
A terrorist act, the murder of Francis Ferdinand -- the archduke of Austria -- by a Bosnian Serb radical in 1914 is believed to have been the immediate cause of the start of the First World War.
7. State Terrorism of the Totalitarian Regimes:
The period between the two World Wars (and during the World War II) saw the worst examples of 'state terrorism' unleashed by the totalitarian regimes of Hitler in Germany, Stalin in Russia, and Mussolini in Italy. These regimes employed terror tactics against their own citizens through assassinations of political opponents by "death squads," unlawful detentions, and state-sanctioned torture.
8. Anti-Colonialist Terrorism:
The post-World War II period saw the use of terrorism by various nationalist movements against the colonial powers. For example, a Jewish underground movement (the Irgun) targeted the British administration, the Palestinians, and Arabs through terrorist tactics to press for their demand of a separate Jewish state.
Other nationalist movements in Kenya, Cyprus, and Algeria also adopted terrorist tactics.
9. Terrorism in the Modern Era (1960s onwards):
The modern era of international terrorism was heralded by militant Palestinian groups to attract the world's attention towards the plight of their nation in refugee camps. Groups such as the "Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP)" carried out spectacular hijackings and the Black September kidnapped Israeli athletes during the 1972 Munich Olympics. The incidents attracted unprecedented publicity for the Palestinian cause in the television era as the hijacking and kidnapping dramas were played out before a worldwide audience.
Other Terrorist groups in the 1970s, such as the left-wing Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany and the Red Brigades in Italy, attempted to overturn the capitalist and liberal-democratic orders in their countries through violent means. Right wing neo-fascist terrorist groups also emerged, mostly as a reaction to left-wing terrorists; their impact on internal politics, however, was limited due to their limited following and ideological appeal. (Townshend 69)
10. The Islamic Terrorists:
The most significant development, relating to terrorism, in the later part of the 20th century is the emergence of the Islamic terrorists who are ideologically driven, and filled with religious zeal and anger at the Western world. The willingness of the Islamic terrorists to give up their lives through suicide bombings has given a new dimension to the threat of terrorism in the modern era.
General Causes of Terrorism
The causes of terrorism are varied and there could be historical, cultural, political, social, psychological, economic, or religious reasons for it. General causes of terrorism include:
The history of terrorism indicates that real or perceived grievances borne out of political oppression, cultural domination, economic exploitation, ethnic discrimination, and religious persecution often create conditions in which terrorists thrive. However, such grievances do not always produce terrorism, so there are other conditions, which provide the necessary catalyst for terrorism.
Most people would not resort to extreme measures even if they are extremely aggrieved provided some hope of change exists or there are avenues of protest or appeal available to them. Hence, a complete feeling of hopelessness in a society is often necessary for creating a breeding ground for terrorism. Leaders having their own agenda often mislead such people in resorting to violence.
A number of psychologists and sociologists believe that there are certain people who are genetically predisposed towards violence and to an unquestioning acceptance of authority. When such people discover an ideology that dehumanizes another group of people, they are ready to commit any amount of violence against them. Examples of such behavior include the extermination of Jews during the Holocaust, ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims in the former Yugoslavia, and the large-scale massacres in Rwanda and Sudan due to tribal and religious differences.
Sponsorship of terrorism by nation-states to further their own interests and policies is another major reason for the proliferation of terrorism around the world. Iran, for example, provides active support for Shi'ite Islamic militant groups such as the Hamas and Hezbollah to further its own policies. Radical intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky also include the state-sponsored terrorism spread under the name of counter-terrorism that polarizes a society as a major cause of terrorism. This becomes especially true when states adopt tit for tat reprisals against terrorism by adopting the same terrorist methods, i.e., indiscriminate killings of unarmed civilians under the banner of 'counter-terrorism.' (Chomsky)
Reasons for Islamic Terrorism
Since Islamic terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and the Hamas lead the current wave of global terrorism, it would be worthwhile to discuss the specific reasons behind 'Islamic Terrorism' in addition to the more general causes that were discussed above.
Palestinian Cause & American Support of Israel:
The festering problem of Palestine is one of the root causes behind the rage of Islamic militants against the United States…[continue]
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