Has the nature of terrorism changed over the last thirty years? Answer this question with reference to three specific examples of terrorist campaigns. This essay will endeavour to give an historical analysis of contemporary terrorism and its changing nature by focusing on three specific terrorist campaigns over the last thirty years. The essay will begin by first presenting a definition of terrorism and will move on to provide a brief account of the geographical shift in terrorism by discussing the movement from territorial based terrorism to more ideological focused campaigns.
In addition, it will give a concise discussion on the theory of globalisation in relation to terrorism and the impact it has had on the growth of international terrorism. The essay will then move on to discuss three separate but equally significant terrorist campaigns within the last thirty years and will highlight how each of these terrorist campaigns became turning points in the evolution of international terrorism and evaluate how each one played a significant role in the evolution of contemporary terrorism.
The three individual campaigns this paper will focus on is the 1979 Iranian revolution, the Russian intervention in Afghanistan and the September 11 attacks instigated by Al- Qaeda; this essay will highlight the importance of each of the afore mentioned terrorist campaigns and also the scale of impact they each had on international terrorism. The importance of the question this paper will endeavour to address is that terrorism is a major issue of contemporary societal life; this paper will demonstrate how terrorism is a borderless, faceless threat and as the nature of terrorism changes so too does the extremity and lethality.
It is important to begin any discussion on terrorism by attempting to provide a definition of what constitutes terrorism. A crime such as car theft is somewhat simple to determine, terrorism however, is much more complex to classify in criminological terms (Furedi, 2005). For a crime to be categorised as a terrorist act Jenkins (2003) argues it is not so much the specific form of violence but is the underlying motivation behind the act which may lead to a crime being classified as terroristic.
In spite of such inherent difficulties, Mythen and Walklate (2005) provide an adequate account of what can constitute a terrorist act: ‘Terrorism is generally understood to be the use of violence and intimidation to disrupt or coerce a government and/or an identifiable community. Terrorism has traditionally been distinguished from routine criminal violence because it is driven by a particular political and/or religious motivation’. (Mythen and Walklate, 2005:381)
Commonly, terrorist acts target civilians with the intention of creating fear, panic and insecurity among the targeted population. Whilst it is agreeable that the aforementioned components define what may be considered an act of terrorism it is imperative to note that to brand someone a “terrorist” is one of moral and subjective judgement with one persons “terrorist” being another’s “freedom fighter” (Lodge, 1998:2). According to ex Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat “the difference between the revolutionary and the terrorist lies in the reason for which each fights.
For whoever stands by a just cause and fights for the freedom and liberation of his land from the invaders, the settlers and the colonialists, cannot possibly be called a terrorist…” (quoted in Hoffman 1998, 26). In addition to the difficulty in providing a universal definition of what constitutes an act of terrorism there are also ‘many different styles of terrorism that are driven by different motivations, undertaken by different actors and have different targets’ (Mythen and Walklate, 2005: 381).
A significant shift in the nature of terrorism is the transition from state terrorism to international terrorism; prior to the 1960s terrorism was generally restricted within specific geographical locations and was very much localised. New terrorism it seems, is opposed to a hierarchal structure and operating within a locality with united ideological objectives; it seems “new terrorist” groups are ‘defined by their amorphous aims, disparate organization and capacity to strike across different continents’ (Mythen and Walklate, 2005: 382).
Due to rapid expansions in both transportation and communication technology, terrorism has become an international threat and is now a serious global risk. Beck (2002: 9) states that the ‘risk of terrorism exponentially multiply with technological advancement. With the technologies of the future-genetic engineering, nanotechnology and robotics, we are opening a new Pandoras box’. This suggests that as more sophisticated technology is introduced new terror risks proliferate at an exceedingly fast pace.
For Cronin (2002), international terrorism is not only a reaction to globalisation; globalisation is also a facilitator of international terrorism; suggesting that globalisation is a vital component in the structure and mechanisms of international terrorism. With advances in technology and particularly transportation, terrorist activity is no longer restricted to particular geographical jurisdictions. For many academics, a new form of terrorism has emerged over the last thirty years, not only has the locality of terrorism changed so too has the number of casualties.
Since the late 1960s, the number of casualties at the hands of terrorist attacks has increased considerably; from 1968 through to 1979 the average amount of casualties per international terrorist attack was 2. 08, increasing to 3. 83 in the 1980s and rising to 10. 38 during the 1990s through to around 10. 89 during the period 2000-05 (Piazza, 2009). As statistics alarmingly suggest, as the nature of terrorism changes and evolves so too does the amount of innocent victims.
The main reason it seems is that terrorists are no longer concerned with causing the maximum amount of damage and the least amount of casualties, it seems terrorists today are intent on causing the maximum amount of damage and casualties (Cronin, 2002). From an historical analysis of contemporary terrorism, four significant years are marked as key turning points in the evolution of terrorism, 1968, 1979, 1983 and 2001 (Chaliand and Blin, 2007). This paper will focus on the separate terrorist campaigns of the three latter key years starting with the Iranian Revolution in 1979.
A watershed year for the evolution of terrorism was 1979, which saw the Iranian revolution and the Russian intervention in Afghanistan (Chaliand and Blin, 2007). The Iranian revolution came to fruition on February 1st 1979 when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini the exiled father of the revolution landed at Tehran airport (Lehr Wagner, 2010). Khomeini, a radical Shiite Islamist leader, received a hero’s welcome having been in exile for fourteen years; the hopes of an entire nation rested on his shoulders, for he had been a hugely respected advocate who actively spoke out against the regime of Iran’s ruler, Shah Reza Pahlavi.
The fundamentalist hatred surrounding the pro-American Shah and his repressive regime saw months of strikes and protests and saw the Shah’s government collapse around him, prompting himself and his wife to flee Iran (Lehr Wagner, 2010) On April 1st 1979, ‘Khomeini declared that Iran was now an Islamic republic state’ (Lehr Wagner, 2010:13). In his years of exile, Khomeini had spoke out against the authoritarian regime suffered by his people at the hands of the Shah, he spoke of the need for democracy and freedom for the people of Iran.
However, within two years of his return from exile, Khomeini had radically transformed Iran into a strict Islamic state, governed by strict Islamic law; with the Iranian people subjected to a ‘dour, puritanical faith, policed by petty theocrats and religious commissars’ (Zakaria, 2003: 145). Ayatollah Khomeini was at the head of this reconstructed Iranian society and considered the supreme leader of Iran (Lehr Wagner, 2010).
The significance of the Iranian revolution is extremely important when analysing the changing nature of terrorism, firstly, radical Shiite Islamism was marked as the striking success behind the Iranian revolution, ‘its influence was both direct, as with Hezbollah in Lebanon, and indirect, facilitating the rise of suicide bombings by the traditional glorification of martyrdom’. This tradition motivated radical Sunni Islamist’s of Hamas, Al Qaeda and others (Chaliand and Blin, 2007: 221).
Khomeini’s regime not only inspired many Shiite fundamentalist groups across the Middle East, it also assisted these Islamic terrorist campaigns in countries such as Lebanon where the notorious Hezbollah came into existence (Rapoport, 2004). Backed by Iran, Hezbollah’s suicide bombings of American marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 saw 241 American soldiers lose their lives along with 53 French Paratroopers in a separate suicide bombing (Chaliand and Blin, 2007); America sustained more losses in this single incident than they did in any other single incident throughout the two decades beginning in 1980 (Pillar, 001). The aforementioned suicide bombings resulted in the withdrawal of western troops and was arguably the most significant triumph for international terrorism, ‘in this instance, the psychological impact was equalled and perhaps even surpassed by the consequence of the attacks: the enemy’s retreat’( Chaliand and Blin, 2007:222). Through the Iranian revolution and the Islamic fundamentalist Ayatollah Khomeini being practically handed the power to run his country, terrorism now had a new ‘able and active state sponsor’, a position which Iran would retain throughout the 1990’s (Pillar, 2001: 46).
The Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, also in 1979, saw Afghan resistance fighters backed financially and logistically by the United States, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan (Chaliand and Blin, 2007); the war lasted a decade ending in 1989 with the withdrawal of Soviet troops. Radical Islamists from all over the Middle East joined the war, willing to participate in the jihad in any way possible. The significance of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan is prominent both during and after the war.
Firstly, the Afghan war was a key component in the rise of Islamist terrorism and the evolution of terrorism on a whole, for it ‘provided terrorist- related skills and experience (in the use of firearms and explosives) to large numbers of non-afghan militants’ (Pillar, 2001: 46). In addition, during the war, men such as Osama Bin Laden were able to make contact with like-minded Muslim men, which would serve him in good stead in creating his terrorist network of Al Qaeda.
Bin Laden of Saudi origin assisted the mujahideen with help in setting up training camps for new afghan resistance fighters which in turn introduced him to Muslim men with similar beliefs as himself (Sinclair, 2003). This helped Bin Laden establish himself as an extremely influential figure in the Islam world and would only serve him well in the years to come when he declared war on the Western world. Although there were many diverse movements supporting the Afghan resistance, the United States chose to back the most radical of Islamists ‘Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of Hezbi Islami, or Islamic Party’ (Chaliand and Blin, 2007:222).
Once the Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan it allowed the Afghan mujahideen to boast of defeating the Soviet forces (Chaliand and Blin, 2007). The withdrawal of Soviet forces gave the many different Islamic movements involved in the war the belief that with violence and Islam anyone could be defeated (Pillar, 2001). Through the Soviet union’s failed war it persuaded the ‘guerrilla’s there to export their religious influence over the borders’ (Sinclair, 2003: 340) and with Afghanistan left awash with armoury, money and war-hardened men it became an ideal base for fundamental Islamic extremists.
The final turning point in the changing nature of terrorism is the September 11th attacks in 2001. Radical Islamism, ‘having been exploited as a tool by the United States to weaken the Soviet Union’ (Chaliand and Blin, 2007: 223) perceived Western societies such as the United States as enemies of Islam. In February 1998, Osama Bin Laden, head of the terrorist organisation Al Qaeda declared ‘war on the crusaders and the Jews’ (Chaliand and Blin, 2007: 223).
That same year U. S embassies were targeted in East Africa and two years later, the USS Cole was bombed in the port of Aden (Chaliand and Blin, 2007). On the morning of September 11th 2001, Al Qaeda launched simultaneous attacks against the United States using passenger airline jets, a feat, that would not have been possible without the willingness of several fanatical Islamic extremists who flew the planes into the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington.
The desire of terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda to capture the media and the public’s attention by creating devastating terroristic attacks against civilians (Piazza, 2009) is a vital component of ‘new terrorism’. The 9/11 attacks, hailed by radical Islamists as a great defeat against the Western world, was perceived by the rest of the world as sickening atrocities. As the 9/11 attacks highlighted, ‘new terrorist groups are willing to launch spectacular high-lethality acts which directly target civilians’ (Mythen and Walklate, 2005: 4).
The 9/11 attacks propelled terrorism to a new level, not only was the lethality the highest rate ever, unique tactics were instigated with the combined usage of airline passenger jets and fanatical Islamists prepared to die for their ideologies (Piazza, 2009). This strategy had the maximum effect as it not only caused catastrophic damage to civilian lives, it also had a severe psychological impact as the U. S, normally seen as a world super power, suffered the most extreme terrorist attack in history.
This was a highly significant victory for radical Islamists as they had demonstrated to the world that no one was impenetrable and if they could attack the U. S on home land then they could strike and succeed anywhere in the world. As this essay has demonstrated, there have been significant changes to the nature of terrorism over the last thirty years. Key changes have seen a shift in the locality of terrorism as it is no longer restricted to specific geographical locations and has become borderless in its reach to inflict fear, panic and insecurity to both governments and civilians.
Globalisation is another highly important factor in the growth of international terrorism, as this paper highlighted; with advances in technology and transportation, it seems such advances have been highly advantageous to terrorists and their campaigns. An example of this would be the Madrid train bombings, where mobile phones, a key symbol of capitalism, were manipulated into detonation devices for the bombs (Mythen and Walklate, 2005).
Although the geographical changes and technological advances have been significant in the evolution of contemporary terrorism, as this paper demonstrated, there have also been specific terrorist campaigns over the last thirty years that have been of paramount importance to the structure and nature of international terrorism. As this essay shown, each terrorist campaign had a huge impact on the evolution of terrorism and played key roles in the growth of international terrorism.
Alarmingly, while the number of terrorist attacks has been decreasing over the last twenty years, the number of fatalities has more than doubled (Pillar, 2001). Suggesting that while the frequency of terrorist attacks has lessened the magnitude of impact has grown considerably. Mythen and Walklate (2005) echo this when they note, that while ‘new terrorism’ is of a high consequence, it is also of a low probability. Although terrorist attacks are not as frequent as they may once have been, the fear and insecurity surrounding terrorism is very much evident in contemporary society.
The different strategies used by terrorists nowadays such as the bombing of public places and transport, creates an air of uncertainty around terrorists; for the general public have no clue about neither the nature of future attacks or the locality of future attacks. This is a strategic objective of contemporary terrorists, for without actually committing acts of terror, just the constant reminder from sources such as the media, terrorists and their ideologies are never far from one’s mind which one could argue is a victory for terrorists in itself.