A Brief History of Terrorism

This article originally appeared on the Center for Defense Information's website, July 2, 2003, and was authored by then-CDI Research Analyst Mark Burgess.

To begin any history of terrorism (however brief) without first defining what the term means might appear to be putting the cart before the horse.  Despite this, no such definition shall be proffered here. [1]  Partly, this is for reasons of brevity, but mainly because any effort to first define terrorism would mean restricting any ensuing narrative to this definition.  As such, this is not so much a brief history of terrorism as much as a brief history of examples of that which has been (or arguably could be) generally accepted to constitute terrorism.  Not everyone will agree that all these examples do so, and there are other instances that could be so construed that are not mentioned at all.

One point is less debatable: terrorism is not new.  Indeed, in some respects, that what is today known as terrorism predates by millennia the modern term used to describe it.  This is not to say that the act of terrorism has remained static.  Rather, as the difficulties involved in defining it reflect, terrorism has evolved considerably over the years, even if retaining some of the same characteristics that have historically typified it.

While it is impossible to definitively ascertain when it was first used, that which we today call terrorism traces its roots back at least some 2,000 years.  Moreover, today’s terrorism has, in some respects come full circle, with many of its contemporary practitioners motivated by religious convictions – something which drove many of their earliest predecessors.  It has also, in the generally accepted usage of the word, often possessed a political dimension.  This has colored much of the discourse surrounding terrorism ‑ a phenomenon which is, according to Paul R. Pillar, ‘a challenge to be managed, not solved.’[2]

Religious Roots[4] 

Such killings usually took place in daylight and in front of witnesses, with the perpetrators using such acts to send a message to the Roman authorities and those Jews who collaborated with them – a tactic that would also be used by subsequent generations of what would become known as terrorists.

Adherents of other religions also resorted to methods which might today be termed terrorism, such as the Assassins – an 11th century offshoot of a Shia Muslim sect known as the Ismailis.  Like the Zealots-Sicari, the Assassins were also given to stabbing their victims (generally politicians or clerics who refused to adopt the purified version of Islam they were forcibly spreading) in broad daylight.[5]  The Assassins ‑ whose name gave us the modern term but literally meant ‘hashish-eater’ ‑ a reference to the ritualistic drug-taking they were (perhaps falsely) rumored to indulge in prior to undertaking missions – also used their actions to send a message.[6]  Often, the Assassins’ deeds were carried out at religious sites on holy days – a tactic intended to publicize their cause and incite others to it.  Like many religiously inspired terrorists today, they also viewed their deaths on such operations as sacrificial and a guarantor that they would enter paradise.

Sacrifice was also a central element of the killings carried out by the Thugees (who bequeathed us the word ‘thug’) – an Indian religious cult who ritually strangled their victims (usually travelers chosen at random) as an offering to the Hindu goddess of terror and destruction, Kali.  In this case, the intent was to terrify the victim (a vital consideration in the Thugee ritual) rather than influence any external audience.

Active from the seventh until the mid-19th centuries, the Thugees are reputed to be responsible for as many as 1 million murders.  They were perhaps the last example of religiously-inspired terrorism until the phenomenon reemerged a little over 20 years ago.  As David Rapport puts it: “Before the 19th century, religion provided the only acceptable justifications for terror.”[7]  More secularized motivations for such actions did not emerge until the French Revolution, as did the first usage of the term now used to describe them.

Nationalists and Anarchists

The English word ‘terrorism’ comes from the regime de la terreur that prevailed in France from 1793-1794.  Originally an instrument of the state, the regime was designed to consolidate the power of the newly-installed revolutionary government, protecting it from elements considered ‘subversive.’  Always value-laden, terrorism was, initially, a positive term.  The French revolutionary leader, Maximilien Robespierre, viewed it as vital if the new French Republic was to survive its infancy, proclaiming in 1794 that: “Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue; it is not so much a special principle as it is a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to our country's most urgent needs.”[8]

Under such justification, some 40,000 people were executed by guillotine ‑ a fate Robespierre and his top lieutenants would themselves suffer when later that same year, his announcement of a new list of subversives led to a counter-inquisition by some in the Revolutionary government who feared their names might be on the latest roll of ‘traitors.’  Before long, the Revolution devoured itself in an orgy of paranoiac bloodletting.  Meanwhile, terrorism itself began taking on the negative connotations it carries today (terrorists do not generally tend to describe themselves thus), helped initially by the writings of those like the British political philosopher Edmund Burke, who popularized the term ‘terrorism’ in English while demonizing its French revolutionary practitioners.

The newly defined notions of nationalism and citizenship, which both caused and were a result of the French Revolution, also saw the emergence of a new predominantly secular terrorism.  The appearance of political ideologies such as Marxism also created a fertile sense of unrest at the existing order, with terrorism offering a means for change.  The Italian revolutionary Carlo Pisacane’s theory of the ‘propaganda of the deed’ – which recognized the utility of terrorism to deliver a message to an audience other than the target and draw attention and support to a cause – typified this new form of terrorism.[9]

Pisacane’s thesis – which was not in itself new and would probably have been recognizable to the Zealots-Sicari and the Assassins ‑ was first put into practice by the Narodnaya Volya (NV).  A Russian Populist group (whose name translates as the People’s Will) formed in 1878 to oppose the Tsarist regime.  The group’s most famous deed, the assassination of Alexander II on March 1, 1881, also effectively sealed their fate by incurring the full wrath of the Tsarist regime.  Unlike most other terrorist groups, the NV went to great lengths to avoid ‘innocent’ deaths, carefully choosing their targets – usually state officials who symbolized the regime – and often compromising operations rather than causing what would today be termed ‘collateral damage.’

The NV’s actions inspired radicals elsewhere.  Anarchist terrorist groups were particularly enamored of the example set by the Russian Populists (although not, it must be noted, their keenness to avoid casualties among bystanders).  Nationalist groups such as those in Ireland and the Balkans adopted terrorism as a means towards their desired ends.  As the 19th century gave way to the 20th, terrorists attacks were carried out as far a field as India, Japan, and the Ottoman empire, with two U.S. presidents and a succession of other world leaders victims of assassination by various anarchists and other malcontents ‑ often affiliated to groups but operating without their explicit knowledge or support.[10]

As with Europe, terrorism arrived on America’s shores before the 20th century.  Not only were Anarchists active in America throughout the 1880s, but the country’s recent Civil War had seen acts deserving of the name committed on both sides as well as the formation of the Ku Klux Klan to fight the Reconstruction effort which followed.[11]

Terrorism and the State

Long before the outbreak of Word War I in Europe in 1914, what would later be termed state-sponsored terrorism had already started to manifest itself.  For instance, many officials in the Serbian government and military were involved (albeit unofficially) in supporting, training and arming the various Balkan groups which were active prior to the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914 in Sarajevo – an act carried out by an activist from one such group, the ‘Young Bosnians’ and credited with setting in progress the chain of events which led to the war itself.[12]  Similarly, the IMRO (Macedonian Revolutionary Organization) survived largely “because [as Walter Laqueur reminds us] it became for all intents and purposes a tool of the Bulgarian government, and was used mainly against Yugoslavia and well as against domestic enemies.”  As such examples illustrate, state-sponsored terrorism is not a new phenomenon.

The 1930s saw a fresh wave of political assassinations deserving of the word terrorism. This led to proposals at the League of Nations for conventions to prevent and punish terrorism as well as the establishment of an international criminal court (neither of which came to aught as they were overshadowed by the events which eventually led to World War II).[13]  Despite this, during the interwar years, terrorism increasingly referred to the oppressive measures imposed by various totalitarian regimes, most notably those in Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Stalinist Russia.  More recently, other governments, such as those military dictatorships which ruled some South American countries in recent years, or the current regime in Zimbabwe, have also been open to charges of using such methods as a tool of state.  Such considerations notwithstanding, some commentators, such as Bruce Hoffman, argue that “such usages are generally termed ‘terror’ in order to distinguish that phenomenon from ‘terrorism,’ which is understood to be violence committed by non-state entities.”[14]  However not everyone agrees that terrorism should be considered a non-governmental undertaking.

For instance, Jessica Stern insists that in deliberately bombarding civilians as a means of attacking enemy morale, states have indeed resorted to terrorism.  Per Stern, such instances include not only the Allied strategic bombing campaigns of World War II, but the American dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended the Pacific phase of that conflict.[15]  This issue remains a contentious one, with individuals such as the World War II British Air Chief, ‘Bomber’ Harris alternatively defended and reviled for their belief in the utility and morality of strategic bombing.

Terrorism Since World War II

By contrast, the preponderance of non-state groups in the terrorism that emerged in the wake of World War II is less debatable.  The immediate focus for such activity mainly shifted from Europe itself to that continent’s various colonies.  Across the Middle East Asia and Africa, nascent nationalist movements resisted European attempts to resume colonial business as usual after the defeat of the Axis powers.  That the colonialists had been so recently expelled from or subjugated in their overseas empires by the Japanese provided psychological succor to such indigenous uprisings by dispelling the myth of European invincibility.

Often, these nationalist and anti-colonial groups conducted guerilla warfare, which differed from terrorism mainly in that it tended towards larger bodies of ‘irregulars’ operating along more military lines than their terrorist cousins, and often in the open from a defined geographical area over which they held sway.  Such was the case in China and Indochina, where such forces conducted insurgencies against the Kuomintang regime and the French colonial government respectively.  Elsewhere, such as with the fight against French rule in Algeria, these campaigns were fought in both rural and urban areas and by terrorist and guerilla means.

Still other such struggles like those in Kenya, Malaysia, Cyprus and Palestine (all involving the British who, along with the French, bore the brunt of this new wave of terrorism – a corollary of their large pre-war empires) were fought by groups who can more readily be described as terrorist.  These groups quickly learned to exploit the burgeoning globalization of the world’s media.  As Hoffman puts it: “They were the first to recognize the publicity value inherent in terrorism and to choreograph their violence for an audience far beyond the immediate geographical loci of their respective struggles.”[16]  Moreover, in some cases (such as in Algeria, Cyprus, Kenya and Israel) terrorism arguably helped such organizations in the successful realization of their goals.  As such these nationalist and anti-colonial groups are of note in any wider understanding of terrorism.

Through the 1960s and 1970s, the numbers of those groups that might be described as terrorist swelled to include not only nationalists, but those motivated by ethnic and ideological considerations.  The former included groups such as the Palestinian Liberation Organization (and its many affiliates), the Basque ETA, and the Provisional Irish Republican Army, while the latter comprised organizations such as the Red Army Faction (in what was then West Germany) and the Italian Red Brigades.  As with the emergence of modern terrorism almost a century earlier, the United States was not immune from this latest wave, although there the identity-crisis-driven motivations of the white middle-class Weathermen starkly contrasted with the ghetto-bred malcontent of the Black Panther movement.[17]

Like their anti-colonialist predecessors of the immediate post-war era, many of the terrorist groups of this period readily appreciated and adopted methods that would allow them to publicize their goals and accomplishments internationally.  Forerunners in this were the Palestinian groups who pioneered the hijacking of a chief symbol and means of the new age of globalization – the jet airliner – as a mode of operation and publicity.  One such group, Black September, staged what was (until the attacks on America of Sept. 11, 2001) perhaps the greatest terrorist publicity coup then seen, with the seizure and murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games.  Such incidents resulted in the Palestinian groups providing the inspiration (and in some cases mentorship and training) for many of the new generation of terrorists organizations.

Many of these organizations have today declined or ceased to exist altogether, while others, such as the Palestinian, Northern Irish and Spanish Basque groups, motivated by more enduring causes, remain active today – although some now have made moves towards political rather than terrorist methods.  Meanwhile, by the mid-1980s, state-sponsored terrorism reemerged ‑ the catalyst for the series of attacks against American and other Western targets in the Middle East. Countries such as Iran, Iraq, Libya and Syria came to the fore as the principle such sponsors of terrorism.  Falling into a related category were those countries, such as North Korea, who directly participated in coverts acts of what could be described as terrorism.[18]

Such state-sponsored terrorism remains a concern of the international community today (especially its Western constituents), although it has been somewhat overshadowed in recent times by the reemergence of the religiously inspired terrorist.  The latest manifestation of this trend began in 1979, when the revolution that transformed Iran into an Islamic republic led it to use and support terrorism as a means of propagating its ideals beyond its own border. [19]  Before long, the trend had spread beyond Iran to places as far a field as Japan and the United States, and beyond Islam to ever major world religion as well as many minor cults.  From the Sarin attack on the Tokyo subway by the Aum Shinrikyo in 1995 to the Oklahoma bombing the same year, religion was again added to the complex mix of motivations that led to acts of terrorism.  The al Qaeda attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, brought home to the world, and most particularly the United States, just how dangerous this latest mutation of terrorism is.

Contemporary Terrorism

Today, terrorism influences events on the international stage to a degree hitherto unachieved.  Largely, this is due to the attacks of September 2001.  Since then, in the United States at least, terrorism has largely been equated to the threat posed by al Qaeda ‑ a threat inflamed not only by the spectacular and deadly nature of the Sept. 11 attacks themselves, but by the fear that future strikes might be even more deadly and employ weapons of mass destruction.

Whatever global threat may be posed by al Qaeda and its franchisees, the U.S. view of terrorism nonetheless remains, to a degree, largely ego-centric – despite the current administration’s rhetoric concerning a so-called “Global War Against Terrorism.”  This is far from unique.  Despite the implications that al Qaeda actually intends to wage a global insurgency, the citizens of countries such as Colombia or Northern Ireland (to name but two of those long faced with terrorism) are likely more preoccupied with when and where the next FARC or Real Irish Republican Army attack will occur rather than where the next al Qaeda strike will fall.

As such considerations indicate, terrorism goes beyond al Qaeda, which it not only predates but will also outlive.  Given this, if terrorism is to be countered most effectively, any understanding of it must go beyond the threat currently posed by that particular organization.  Without such a broad-based approach, not only be will terrorism be unsolvable (to paraphrase Pillar) but it also risks becoming unmanageable.

This article originally appeared on the Center for Defense Information's website, July 2, 2003 and was authored by then CDI Research Analyst, Mark Burgess. To see it on the internet archive of that website, click here.


[1] The question of how to define terrorism warrants deeper discussion than is possible here.  As such, a subsequent paper in CDI’s Explaining Terrorism series shall address this topic.

[2] Paul R. Pillar, Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy, Brookings Institute Press: Washington, DC, 2001, p. vii.

[3] For a fuller discussion of the three groups discussed in this section see, David C. Rapoport, ‘Fear and Trembling: Terrorism in Three Religious Traditions,’ American Political Science Review, Vol. 78, No. 3 (September 1984), pp. 668-672.

[4] Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (Merriam-Webster, 1984), p. 2657.

[5] That no contemporaneous Christian terrorist groups are considered here reflects the fact that no such group easily lends itself to a comparative analysis.  As Rapoport puts it: ‘Their [millenarian Christian groups of the late Medieval period] terror was a sort of state terror; the sects organized their communities openly, taking full control of a territory, instituting gruesome purges to obliterate all traces of the old order, and organizing large armies, which waged holy wars periodically sweeping over the countryside and devastating, burning, and massacring everything and everyone in their paths,” Rapoport, op cit. p. 660, n. 4.

[6] According to Rappoport, there is no evidence that drugs were actually taken, with the term ‘hashish-eaters’ used by orthodox Muslims in reaction to the fact that the Assassins apparently showed no feelings or remorse in carrying out murders.  Rappoport, p. 666.

[7] Rapoport, p. 659.

[8] Quoted in Modern History Sourcebook: Maximilien Robespierre: Justification of the Use of Terror, online at: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/robespierre-terror.htmli Downloaded 8 January 2003.

[9] Bruce Hoffman, Inside Terrorism, Columbia University Press: New York, 1988, p. 17.

[10]Walter Laqueur, The New Terrorism: Fanaticism and the Arms of Mass Destruction, Oxford University Press: New York, 1999, p. 20.

[11] Jessica Stern, The Ultimate Terrorists, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001, p. p. 16-17.

[12] See Hoffman, pp. 20-23.

[13] Adrian Guelke, The Age of Terrorism and the International Political System, I. B. Tauris: New York, 1998, p. 3.

[14] Hoffman, p. 25.  The opposing arguments in such an approach shall be discussed in a forthcoming article in CDI’s Explaining Terrorism on defining terrorism.

[15] Stern, p. 14.

[16] Hoffman, p. 65.

[17] Laqueur, pp. 29-30.

[18] Guelke, p. 148.

[19] Hoffman, p. 87.