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Back to: >> Terrorism

Revised Dec 2005

Terror has always embraced multiple spheres, religious, secular, economic and special interests. Jihad movements of recent history have sent religious terrorism to historic highs. Al Qa'ida and especially 9/11, have provided a blueprint that bodes ill for humanity. That blueprint was responsible for the Casablanca, Madrid, and London attacks among others. These were the works of locally inspired and organized cells. There was no wide-area network, only private communications.

This feature alone makes it all the more imperative that we understand the radicalization process and do something specifically about that. The picture is vastly more complex than any public organ has so far admitted, even if they do have the insight. The Adminstration so far has shown no evidence that it has any grasp at all of the most basic features that radicalize individuals and societies. The most prominent example is the use of the military in Iraq which has served primarily to motivate several groups into escalated terrorism. Al Qa'ida gained leverage for radicalizing Islamic youth they did not have before. And it is remote; no need to call home. In this context, the Administration's eavesdropping on American citizens calling overseas becomes laughable -- if it weren't such a tragic step, however small, toward tyranny.

Terrorism as a word or concept has no clear definition that all societies can agree on, but we each know what we mean by the word. Terrorism is most of all an extreme form of intimidation, a means to leverage fear. We will use the following definitions and purposes on this page:

  • Terrorism, nounuse of terror and violence to intimidate and subjugate, especially as a political weapon or policy.
  • Terrorism in action grabs attention and is perpetrated by one person or group upon another person or group.

One primary purpose is to instill terror in the targeted person or people. Another purpose is to gain political and/or religious power.

One of the earliest accounts of terrorism was carried out by religious fanatics two millennia ago. Terrorism was practiced by a Jewish Sect who called themselves Zealots in CE 66-73. The Zealots (sicari) were ruthless and dramatic. They relied on daggers, but effectively called attention to their cause nonetheless. They employed very public acts of murder of Roman legionnaires or Jewish citizens they considered guilty of apostasy or betrayal. Remarkably, the Zealots took lessons from the Romans and the Punic Wars with their chemical warfare by poisoning wells, granaries, and the water supply of Jerusalem. All this is very much the model for what is going on today, especially in the Middle East.

The Assassins (hashahsin) held sway from CE 1090 to CE 1272 in what is now Syria and Iran. They were a radical offshoot of the Muslim Shi'a Ismaili sect who fought the Christian Crusaders. Banishing the so-called Christians was one motive; another was the promise that should the terrorist perish during an attack, he would immediately ascend to a glorious heaven. History once again is repeating this promise.

Both the Zealots and Assassins are legendary and many of their techniques and motivations are evident today. Both were motivated more by religious than by secular causes.

Maximilien Robespierre, during the French Revolution, was first to codify "terror" as the systematic use of violence to attain political ends. The reign of terror by his ruling Jacobins claimed thousands of victims without regard to gender, age, or state of health. State sponsored terror in France to and in 1794 with Robespierre's fall from power.

Religious ritual murder was practiced in India by a Hindu sect called Thugs (Thuggee) for some 200 years before finally being suppressed in the 1830s. Their acts of random ambush and murder were designed to serve Kali, the Hindu Goddess of terror, destruction, and death. Their motive however was plunder and occasionally revenge. They comprised both Muslims and Hindus, sometimes in the same gang. They were basically land-based pirates.

State sponsored terror (read genocide) in the 20th Century was practiced in Russia (Lenin & Stalin), Germany (Hitler), Cambodia (Pol Pot), Uganda (Amin), Rwanda (Bisengimana) and Iran (Khomeini).

Until the 19th Century, religion provided the most common "justification" for terrorism. As the 20th Century dawned, the political changes in Europe and the rise of radical thinkers espousing new secular economic systems gave rise to politically motivated terrorism. This transformation was encouraged by the anti-colonialist/national liberation movements. Radical groups embraced Marxist ideologies and the idea that all existing social institutions had to be destroyed to make way for the new. This event also helped cloak terrorism in a political format. The Gulag was perhaps the epitome.

After the Second World War, National Liberation Fronts in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East challenged Western rule. Much of the terror had become, or soon would be, international in character. The European empires collapsed.

In 1968, terrorism was primarily secular; in none of the eleven known international terrorist groups was religion the primary motivation.

By 1980, terror had become the "in thing". Eleven international terrorist groups had expanded to 64. Two were classified as being driven by Islam: the Iran-supported Shi'a organization's al-Dawa and the Committee for Safeguarding the Islamic Revolution.

The 1990s have a bloody history, especially in the Middle East and Africa. By 1992, two islamic-religion-based terror groups had become eleven who also found other major religions and sects as sponsors. The ethno/separatist terrorist groups declined in number. In 1995 nearly half of the fifty-six known international terrorist groups were religious in character and motivation.

1992 Algerian Islamic extremists claimed a reported 75,000 lives in their own homeland in just five years.

1993 Bombay India suffered thirteen near-simultaneous truck bombings that killed 400 in reprisal for the destruction of an Islamic shrine.

1993 An Islamic radical bombed the World Trade Center, an omen of things to come.

1994 Islamic terrorists from the Algerian Armed Islamic Group hijacked and plottedunsuccessfullyto blow up an AirFrance passenger jet over Paris.

1995 A four-month wave of bombing by Algerian Armed Islamic Group claimed eight lives and left 180 injured.

1995 Timothy McVeigh and an accomplice blew up an Oklahoma City federal office building killing 168. They were reported to have had ties with the Christian Patriots seeking to foment a national revolution.

1995 Israeli extremist Baruch Goldstein killed 31 Muslim men in prayer at the Cave of the Patriarchs.

1995 Yitzhak Rabin assassinated by a Jewish religious extremist in an attempt to disrupt the peace process.

1995 Tokyo subway suffers sarin nerve gas assault by Japanese religious cult; 12 are killed and 3,796 are injured.

1996 US Air Force barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, blown up by religious militants opposed to the rulers of Saudi Arabia killing 19.

1996 A string of Hamas suicide bombers kills 60 and turns the tide of the Israeli elections.

1996 Islamic militants kill eighteen tourists outside their Cairo hotel.

See Terror Groups for further listings. See Monotheism and Violence for the religious angle.


2001 Al Qaida group of nineteen terrorists hijack four passenger airliners and crash two of them into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York, crash one into the Pentagon, and lose the other to a passenger revolt over Pennsylvania that killed everyone on board.

Since Osama bin Laden has declared a Jihad (religious war) against the United States, there is no point in calling it anything else. In fact, the current wave of terror has its roots in conflicts over the ages between Islam and the infidels (non-Muslims). For a half millennium, the tide has been against Islam. Those conflicts were not all-embracing of believers. They were led by fringe extremists on both sides.

It goes against the grain to think that one sect would want to void the religious freedom of another, but such is history. That might be said of other freedoms as well. Until recently, we in the United States preferred to celebrate our individual differences rather than fight over them. But we still harbor pockets of bigotry and they are now in ascendance. That will remain the case until the American public has the realization and finds the fortitude to do something about it. Meanwhile, having effectively repealed the Fourth Amendment, our home-grown extremists are hot after doing away with the First Amendment as well. Nevermind that it is the First Amendment that has provided and still provides our liberty and freedoms. Lest we forget, Germany's transition to the Third Reich occurred in just this way.

We have the most successful pluralistic society the world has ever known. It is a primary source of our strength. We should be in the vanguard for encouraging similar experiences elsewhere, for nations as well as individuals.

Of course our very strength makes us a target. We only make that worse when we invade Iraq, hand terrorists a new platform from which to spring, walk out on or ignore international women, environmental, and racism accords, refuse to pay our share for the UN, support despots, ignore genocide, and alienate allies. All this while we weaken economically toward becoming a debtor nation by handing tax cuts to the rich.

There seems to be a disconnect from reality here, on both sides. As long as propaganda from either side is shaded toward "blaming the victim" we will not make progress toward winning individual hearts. Such propaganda alienates the moderates who would otherwise be pulling for Peace. Police action is indicated against terror, not war. War may have a place in our national policy if justified by genocide or nuclear threats if there is no other way to resolve the issue. But guns and bombs will not resolve Terrorism. Only society revolutions can accomplish that by bringing equality to all people in all its meanings: ethnic, gender and economic, among the more important.

For a change in mood see Solutions, Hope and Ode to America.


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