Is Terrorism New?

History Q & A

Mr. Greenberg is a columnist for and teaches history at Columbia University.

With last Tuesday's horrific assault,"terrorism" has become the new American watchword and scourge. Yet as George Bush declares a war on terrorism," neither he nor anyone else has defined what terrorism is or where it comes from. Doing so may help us to face a frightening reality: the catastrophe of September 11 represents terrorism of a new, more challenging kind.

Not all political violence, it should be specified, amounts to terrorism. Committed by stateless organizations against established powers, terrorism doesn't attack military centers to seize power, like guerrilla warfare. It specifically targets random, unsuspecting victims to publicize a grievance and sow panic among the strong.

The word comes from the French Revolution's"Reign of Terror" (1793-94), when Robespierre's Jacobins executed 12,000 people deemed enemies of the Revolution, often for flimsy reasons. Since the Jacobins ran the state, we wouldn't call them terrorists today. Still, their vision of a violent purge in the name of Utopia provided a model for later insurgents.

Over the next century the Jacobin spirit infected Russia, Europe and the United States. Radical anarchists - Leon Czolgosz, who killed William McKinley in 1901; Alexander Berkman, who shot steel magnate Henry Frick in 1892; the Russians who assassinated Tsar Alexander II in 1881 - targeted powerful leaders to foment popular revolution. Alongside bombings such as the one at Chicago's Haymarket in 1886, these killings created publicity and popular panic. Yet the anarchist revolution never came.

In the mid-20th century, native peoples from Egypt to Vietnam rebelled against colonial regimes. They too used dramatic acts of destruction - called terrorism by some - to win attention. But it was Algeria's Front de Libération Nationale, seeking liberation from France, that defined modern terrorism, deliberately spilling the blood of random French civilians.

After France executed two Algerian rebels in 1956, the FLN slaughtered 49 Frenchmen in three days. FLN terrorists bombed beachside cafés where they knew families would perish. They wanted to raise the price of colonialism to intolerable levels. They did.

Their success inspired others: Basque and Quebecois separatists, Palestinian and Irish nationalists, Marxist cabals in Africa and Latin America. By the 1960s, the killing of civilians to sow fear and secure political gains was rampant, even in developed nations - from the Weather Underground in the U.S. to the Marxist Baader-Meinhoff Gang in West Germany to the Red Brigades in Italy.

But Western terrorism of the '60s and '70s (like recent right-wing variant of Timothy McVeigh) paled next to the violence in the Middle East. It need not diminish Yasser Arafat's recent peacemaking moves to recall that for years his Palestinian Liberation Organization unabashedly murdered civilians amid some of the world's most shocking deeds.

The constituent groups of Arafat's PLO pioneered hijacking and hostage-taking to win global recognition for their statehood demands. The 1972 murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics and the 1985 killing of the wheelchair-bound American Leon Klinghoffer during the commandeering of the Achille Lauro remained etched in public memory. Nonetheless, they helped highlight Palestinian grievances.

Like such contemporaneous groups as South Africa's African National Congress, the PLO's goals were political, not religious. Courting world opinion, they realized that if you live by the car bomb, you die by the car bomb; terrorism could alienate the very people whose respect its perpetrators sought. Indeed, Arafat, Nelson Mandela and others had to distance themselves from terror to prove they could lead new governments. As the PLO's terrorism abated, Islamic fundamentalism swept the Middle East. Starting in 1979--the year of the Israel-Egypt peace agreement, the Iranian revolution, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan--Mideast terrorists began hailing from overtly religious groups: Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, Algeria's Islamic Armed Group.

Espousing a warped vision most Muslims emphatically reject, many believed the United States to be the symbol and stronghold of satanic Western values. Inevitably, some, such as the Saudi exile Osama bin Laden, made the U.S. their actual target.

Unlike the violence of the 1960s and '70s, the attacks on the U.S. are not secular or Marxist. Unlike the nationalist terror of the IRA or the FLN, they aren't aimed to achieve a negotiated political settlement. They are neither part of a war of rebellion, nor a form of left-wing anarchism, nor a barbarous exercise of state power.

This new terrorism springs from an unswerving conviction that to destroy America is to do God's work. Since it doesn't play to world opinion, world opinion cannot act as a brake upon it. And since it failed to destroy America, we should expect it will strike again.

A version of this piece appeared recently in

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nick w niznik - 9/29/2005

The history of terrorism extends much further back than the Reign of Terror and the Revolutionary Tribunals during the French revolution. It even preceeds the Ancient and Medieval Middle East times of the Jewish rebelion against Roman occupation (A.D.66-73) with the sicarii and the Zealots.

The first refernce of political violence of what today could be considered terrorism are references in the Bible not only to assassinations and conquest, but alos to the complete annihilation of enemy nations in the name of faith. As described in the story of Joshua's conquest of Canaan (Joshua 11:1, 4-8, 10-14, in the Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version) i could go on to quote it but i dont want to sound like im preaching.

To fast forward alittle past biblical times, to the Roman Empire, the world was rife with many cases of state terrorism. These include the brutal supression of Sparticus's followers after the Servile War of 73-71 B.C. and the elimination and enslavement of the Dacian nation in A.D. 106. Regicide was also fairly comming during the Roman age. i culd go on and on and bore you with facts.

Point in case is that terrorism in not a new thing it is rooted deeply in human experiance, however there is a Newer Modern Era of Terrorism.

This Modern Era of Terrorism that we face today is characterized by:
-Loose cell-based networks
-The potential acquisition of WMD's
-Politically vague, religious motivations
- "Asymetrical" Methods

With current technologies and the Internet, unprecedented opportunities are created for state and dissident terrorists.

M S Sheikh - 1/10/2003

I have read somewhere that one of the first known acts of terrorism was committed by a Jew against a Roman. After looking far and wide unsuccessfully for a written record on the internet someone pointed me to a site which led me to Mr Greenberg's contribution "Is Terrorism New? But sadly like all the other sites on the subject of terrorism contributors start from the French Revolution's "Reign of Terror" and finish with the Palestinians. Was our world free of terrorism before the French Revolution's "Reigin of Terror"? If there was terrorism before that then I request Mr Greeberg to let us know. This will satisfy all of those people who are unhappy with Mr Greenberg's rather brief history of terrorism.

h.h. mccool - 3/12/2002

mr greenberg, you have really truncated your history of terrorism. first, what about Hasan bin Sabah and his nizari ismallite hashishins way back in the 11th century?

then, what about the jewish terrorist organizations that were active in palestine in the first half of the twentieth century? the irgun (menachem Began); the stern gang (yitzhak shamir); haganah (ariel sharon). they taught the palestinians what terror is all about. why do jewish historians suffer from selective amnesia about them?

these are but a few of the historical "terrorist" groups that have populated world history that you fail to mention. perhaps, if you cannot give a full, accurate, and unbiased appraisal, you should refrain from the attempt altogether.

h.h mccool

Patrick Ryan - 10/8/2001

Isn't the deeper problem with Greenberg's "Short History of Terrorism" his inadequate definition of "terrorism?" For what reason would we want to exempt the state? When states violate the spirit of the rule of law and work to target or make life unsafe for non-combatants in order to reach political or economic goals, we should call it "terrorism." Holding this definition, and honestly evaluating the historical record one will see that the U.S. actively supports terrorist activity and they have done so with vigor over the last century in the Phillipines, Cuba, Vietnam, Korea, Chile, Central America, Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, and now Afganistan just to name the well-known examples. This tragic history, of course, says nothing to justify those terrorists sponsored by other networks, but it would bring integrity to our campaign to build a world based on the rule of law - rather than the barrel of a gun. Any serious "War on Terrorism" must begin by closing the "School of the Americas" [recently renamed] at Fort Benning, Georgia, demanding the return of the occupied territories to Palestinian autority, ending the atrocity of the blockade on the necessities of life in Iraq, and pursuing settlement of these an other conflicts through legitimate international legal and diplomatic institutions. We should all support a campaign against terrorism, but only if it is an honest one.

Pat Ryan

Sally Quinn - 10/6/2001

Jack is quite right..Conspicuously missing from the Mr. Greenberg's story are Irgun Zwei Leumi and the Stern Gang. The assassination of Count Folke Von Bernadotte and the bombing of the King David Hotel may even have direct relevance to the terrorism discussion. Zionist "madmen" or "freedom fighters"? In any case, future Prime Ministers.

Jack Neefus - 9/28/2001

In thinking about terrorism, the US, and the middle east, there are two important (and successful) terrorist campaigns that are usually not part of the frame of reference:

1 - The southern white terrorist movement that undermined and eventually reversed the gains of reconstruction. It began as an opposition to Northern military occupation, but grew to resist voting rights, education, intergration, and any other initiative or law that benefited blacks. Black and white supporters of such measures were killed, ostracized, and threatened anonymously. Attacks intended to keep blacks and liberal whites cowed continued long after reconstruction ended.

2 - The Zionist movement which eventually led the British to leave Palestine. All the tactics that have been used by the PLO and more other organzations were used by the Zionists, including setting off bombs in civilian areas. A UN negotiator was taken hostage, then killed. Almost all the leaders of the state of Israel were involved in this movement in some way. When the history of Israel and the near east is discussed, Zionist history should be acknowledged alongside Arab and Palestinian terrorism.