Terrorism Essay

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Since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, and the subsequent ongoing war on terror, people have become very aware of the problem of terrorism. Terrorism is not new; it is an age-old phenomenon. However, since the 1980s and the rise of new religious fundamentalist groups, there have been profound changes in the nature of terrorism. There have been fundamental changes in the structure of terrorist organizations, their mode of operation, motives, and the mind-set of terrorists themselves. The new terrorist groups operating in the 21st century pose a far greater threat than traditional groups did because they have a wider global span and operate with far greater lethality.

What Constitutes Terrorism?

An accepted definition of what constitutes terrorism is needed for the scope of law, international treaties, and cooperation, both nationally and internationally, in the fight against terrorism. However, there is no single universally accepted definition of terrorism. This, in part, arises because one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter, depending on if one sees the underlying cause as justified. Nelson Mandela was seen by many as a “freedom fighter,” while to others he was a terrorist. Some viewed Osama bin Laden as a freedom fighter when he fought against the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, but he is now regarded as a terrorist by the West.

Another reason for the lack of a concrete definition is the wide array of the types of terrorism and the evolving nature of their organizations and activities. Since 2005, the National Counterterrorism Center in the United States has used the following definition when reporting incidents of terrorism: “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.”

Even this widely used definition is challenged. For example, it is debatable whether cyberterrorism and the use of weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, bio- logical, and chemical) constitute violent acts. The inclusion in the definition of noncombatant excludes military personnel killed or injured in a war zone, such as members of the armed services in Iraq and Afghanistan. The criterion of being politically motivated excludes criminals, so a serial killer or rapist causing terror in a neighborhood does not constitute terrorism. Additionally, the state may terrorize its people when it imposes a reign of terror, such as the events that occurred in the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin and in Chile under Augusto Pinochet. This type of state terrorism is excluded from the definition.

Terrorists can be classified into domestic and international groups. Domestic secular terrorism involves indigenous groups operating on home territory, such as animal rights activists in the United Kingdom, and antiabortionists in the United States. The Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 is an example of domestic terrorism, as are Irish Republican Army (IRA) operations in the United Kingdom. Although domestic groups are responsible for the majority of acts globally, attention is now being focused on international religious terrorist groups that operate within a different paradigm and across continents.

There are hundreds of terrorist organizations; for example, Hamas, Hezbollah, Real IRA, Shining Path, and the most famous of all, Al Qaeda. Most countries have domestic terrorist groups, for instance, the viet Union has problems with Chechen terrorists. Some terrorist leaders are well known, such as Osama bin Laden and Che Guevara.

Terrorist Acts

What constitutes a terrorist incident is somewhat open to interpretation, as the perpetrators do not always claim responsibility, unlike traditional groups such as the IRA in the United Kingdom. Counting the number of incidents is complex, especially now with the trend toward a number of related events occurring in swarms. According to the Country Report on Terrorism, published annually by the U.S. Department of State, in 2006 there were 14,338 incidents of terrorism worldwide, and 74,543 individuals were killed, injured, or kidnapped as a result of incidents of terrorism. The largest number of incidents occurred in the Near East and south Asia, with many taking place in Iraq.

Looking at the trend in terms of number of events is not very meaningful. An event now is not comparable to past events, as modern terrorists aim for a spectacular event with maximum lethality and damage. The worst terrorist act in history were the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. There had been a previous attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 when a car bomb exploded. Other major terrorist incidents include train bombings in 2004, the Lockerbie plane bombing in 1988, the suicide attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000, and the Bali bombings in 2002.

The purpose of acts of terrorism is not merely to cause physical damage and to kill or injure people, but also to terrorize the population at large and disrupt normal societal activities. The psychological impact of causing fear matters, as well as causing death and destruction. In addition, media coverage of an event draws attention to the group’s particular cause and improves recruitment. The acts themselves are simply a means to achieve an end objective, such as a change in government policies or, with the religious fundamentalist groups, to bring about fundamental change in an economic system and the existing world order.

Why Terrorism?

Terrorism as a strategy is dictated by circumstances. Terrorist acts are not spontaneous, but well planned and premeditated, taken as part of an overall strategy of systematic and deliberate actions sustained over a long period of time. Violence is used because legal and political methods are thought to be ineffective. This violence takes the form of terrorist acts because asymmetrical military strength means the terrorists would stand no chance of winning an outright war. All terrorist groups, regardless of their wealth, possess relatively few resources compared to governments. Terrorist tactics put those few resources into effective use by targeting a few, yet impacting many. Therefore, terrorism is a rational strategy, as it is the easiest and most efficient form of insurgency, given the circumstances.

The increasing trend in suicide terrorism is because it is a very effective and cost-efficient method. It can be used for precision targeting and to inflict mass casualties and cause extensive damage. It is a very effective way of spreading terror because it is extremely difficult to prevent and, therefore, is usually successful. The Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka killed two heads of state in the early 1990s using suicide terrorists.

The chance of any terrorist group achieving their ultimate objective is very low. Terrorist organizations may achieve interim goals, such as the withdrawal of military personnel from a specific area, the release of political prisoners, and so forth, but few achieve their end goals. The African National Congress (ANC) and, to an extent, the IRA were successful, but groups seeking fundamental change, such as the downfall of capitalism or the demise of Christianity, are thought to be unlikely to succeed.

Structure Of Terrorist Organizations

The structure of terrorist organizations has changed. Domestic terrorist organizations formed an identifiable group, with a hierarchical structure and clear leadership. The new terrorist organizations now have a much bigger, more dispersed lateral network that spans the globe. Al Qaeda literally means “the base.” It is an umbrella organization where different groups may come for help with funds, training, and logistical support. There can be thousands of terrorists in a group, operating in many cells, all pursuing the same cause. Groups are split into small cells of approximately six to seven members for flexibility, mobility, and security reasons. Larger organizations have specialist personnel, such as financiers dedicated to dealing with the management of funds.

The old terrorist groups were motivated by ideology or liberation with clearly defined objectives, usually taking credit for their actions, whereas the new religious groups are motivated by religion, and their objectives are more diffuse and seek fundamental changes. They do not usually claim credit for their actions, justifying their actions as pursuing God’s will.

Combating Terrorism

There are two main approaches to combating terrorism. One is a defensive approach, when measures are introduced to preempt attacks and limit risk. The second is a proactive approach, when measures are taken to make it more difficult for terrorists to operate by reducing and hindering their capabilities to mount attacks. A further possible solution is to address the underlying causes, although this may be difficult or even impossible in practice, especially with the new groups.

Changes in the nature and type of terrorism are hampering the ability of authorities to act both defensively and proactively. The defensive approach now requires global surveillance and intelligence gathering, and, while developments in technology have helped, it has been hindered by the difficulty of infiltrating the international religious terrorist groups to conduct covert intelligence operations. Key targets are more heavily secured, the most obvious being screening at airports and the erection of concrete barriers around some buildings to prevent car bomb attacks. The new terrorist groups, however, are less discriminating about their targets and merely move to less-secure areas.

One policy, aiming to make it harder for terrorists to operate, is to confront state sponsorship. Economic and other sanctions are imposed on countries harboring and assisting terrorists to pressure them to stop giving terrorists protection and resources. Sudan has long been a haven for terrorist groups, but in 1996, under pressure from the United States, Osama bin Laden was ordered to leave the country. However, sanctions have a very limited impact, as terrorists are now less dependent on state sponsors. International terrorist groups have access to both private finance and income from criminal activities, particularly the trafficking of narcotic drugs. The remaining state sponsors of terrorism listed in the Country Report on Terrorism (2007) are Iran, Syria, North Korea, Sudan, and Cuba.

Counterterrorist policies appropriate for the new type of terrorism require a comprehensive approach, using a combination of economic, military, intelligence gathering, and diplomatic tools. They also require cooperation and coordination of these policies at a national and international level. In 2004, the United States created the National Counterterrorism Center as the primary organization for compiling and coordinating all intelligence pertaining to terrorism.

Democratically elected governments are constrained in their choice of counterterrorist policies, not only by the availability of financial and physical resources, but also by having to comply with civil liberty requirements, human rights laws, and their inability to restrict freedom of the press.

How Great Is The Threat Of Terrorism?

To date, the favored weapons of terrorists have been bombs and guns, but authorities engaged in the abatement of terrorism are concerned that terrorists may turn to using weapons of mass destruction and cyberterrorism. With the growth in religious terrorist groups operating in a war paradigm and intent on mass destruction of their enemies, the possibility of terrorists using weapons of mass destruction in the future is thought to be much higher than before. Even if only one such act is not deterred, it could have catastrophic consequences. There have been only a few examples to date, such as the release of sarin gas in the Tokyo subway in 1995 and the anthrax postal attacks in the United States after 9/11.

The most well-known terrorist group, Al Qaeda, is proving to be highly adaptable and flexible, quickly evolving new methods in response to countermeasures. As counterterrorist policies become successful and restrict the movement of terrorists, they are changing their strategy in response. For example, groups used to train terrorists in one country and then insert cells into the target country to prepare for an attack. They have responded by recruiting nationals of the target country through propaganda (especially via the Internet) and expatriate immigrant populations. The 2005 attacks on London public transport and the thwarted 2006 attacks on planes from UK airports all involved British-born Muslim terrorists. The hotel and train terrorist attacks in Mumbai proved that developing nations are terrorist targets as well.


  1. Dean C. Alexander, Business Confronts Terrorism: Risks and Responses (University of Wisconsin Press/ Terrace Books, 2004);
  2. Dean C. Alexander and Yonah Alexander, Terrorism and Business: The Impact of September 11, 2001 (Transnational Publishers, 2002);
  3. Tilman Brück, The Economic Analysis of Terrorism (Routledge, 2007);
  4. Cindy C. Combs, Terrorism in the Twenty First Century (Prentice Hall, 2003);
  5. Thomas A. Cook, Managing Global Supply Chains: Compliance, Security, and Dealing with Terrorism (Auerbach Publications, 2008);
  6. Bruno S. Frey, Terrorism and Business (Institute for Empirical Research in Economics, 2007);
  7. Bruce Hoffman, Inside Terrorism (Columbia University Press, 2006);
  8. Walter Laqueur, New Terrorism (Phoenix Press, 2002);
  9. National Counterterrorism Center, www.nctc.gov (cited March 2009);
  10. Ronald W. Perry and Lawrence D. Mankin, “Preparing for the Unthinkable: Managers, Terrorism and the HRM Function,” Public Personnel Management (v.34/2, 2005);
  11. S. Department of State, Country Reports on Terrorism, www.state.gov (cited March 2009).

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