Changing Face of Terrorism

Bindu Sandhir*

Terrorism is not new, and even though it has been used since the beginning of recorded history it can be relatively hard to define. Terrorism has been described variously as both a tactic and strategy; a crime and a holy duty; a justified reaction to oppression and an inexcusable abomination. That is why preemption is considered to be so important. In some cases, terrorism has been a means to carry on a conflict without the adversary realizing the nature of the threat, mistaking terrorism for criminal activity.

Terrorism is a criminal act that influences an audience beyond the immediate victim. The strategy of terrorists is to commit acts of violence that draws the attention of the local populace, the government, and the world to their cause. The terrorists plan their attack to obtain the greatest publicity, choosing targets that symbolize what they oppose. The effectiveness of the terrorist act lies not in the act itself, but in the public’s or government’s reaction to the act. For example, in 1972 at the Munich Olympics, the Black September Organization killed 11 Israelis. The Black September Organization used the high visibility of the Olympics to publicize its views on the plight of the Palestinian refugees. Similarly, in October 1983, Middle Eastern terrorists bombed the Marine Battalion Landing Team Headquarters at Beirut International Airport. Their immediate victims were the 241 U.S. military personnel who were killed and over 100 others who were wounded. Their true target was the American people and the U.S. Congress. Their one act of violence influenced the United States’ decision to withdraw the Marines from Beirut and was therefore considered a terrorist success.

The earliest known organization that exhibited aspects of a modern terrorist organization was the Zealots of Judea. Known to the Romans as sicarii, or dagger-men, they carried on an underground campaign of assassination of Roman occupation forces, as well as any Jews they felt had collaborated with the Romans. Their motive was an uncompromising belief that they could not remain faithful to the dictates of Judaism while living as Roman subjects. Eventually, the Zealot revolt became open, and they were finally besieged and committed mass suicide at the fortification of Masada.

From the time of the Assassins (late 13th century) to the 1700’s, terror and barbarism were widely used in warfare and conflict, but key ingredients for terrorism were lacking. Until the rise of the modern nation state after the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, the sort of central authority and cohesive society that terrorism attempts to influence barely existed. Communications were inadequate and controlled, and the causes that might inspire terrorism (religious schism, insurrection, ethnic strife) typically led to open warfare. By the time kingdoms and principalities became nations, they had sufficient means to enforce their authority and suppress activities such as terrorism. During the late 19th century, radical political theories and improvements in weapons technology spurred the formation of small groups of revolutionaries who effectively attacked nation-states.

Gradually, as nations became closely tied to concepts of race and ethnicity, international political developments began to support such concepts. Members of ethnic groups whose states had been absorbed by others or had ceased to exist as separate nations saw opportunities to realize nationalist ambitions. Several of these groups chose terror as a method to conduct their struggle and make their situation known to world powers they hoped would be sympathetic. Nationalism intensified during the early 20th century throughout the world. It became an especially powerful force in the subject peoples of various colonial empires. Although dissent and resistance were common in many colonial possessions, and sometimes resulted in open warfare, nationalist identities became a focal point for these actions. In Europe, both the Irish and the Macedonians had existing terrorist campaigns as part of their ongoing struggle for independence, but had to initiate bloody uprisings to further their cause. The Irish were partially successful, the Macedonians failed.

The French Revolution provided the first uses of the words “Terrorist” and “Terrorism”. Use of the word “terrorism” began in 1795 in reference to the Reign of Terror initiated by the Revolutionary government. The agents of the Committee of Public Safety and the National Convention that enforced the policies of “The Terror” were referred to as ‘Terrorists”. The French Revolution provided an example to future states in oppressing their populations. It also inspired a reaction by royalists and other opponents of the Revolution who employed terrorist tactics such as assassination and intimidation in resistance to the Revolutionary agents. The Parisian mobs played a critical role at key points before, during, and after the Revolution. Such extra-legal activities as killing prominent officials and aristocrats in gruesome spectacles started long before the guillotine was first used.

The age of modern terrorism might be said to have begun in 1968 when the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) hijacked an El Al airliner en route to Rome from Tel Aviv. While hijackings of airliners had occurred before, this was the first time that the nationality of the carrier (Israeli) and its symbolic value was a specific operational aim. Also a first was the deliberate use of the passengers as hostages for demands made publicly against the Israeli government. The combination of these unique events added to the international scope of the operation, gained significant media attention. The founder of PFLP, Dr. George Habash observed that the level of coverage was tremendously greater than battles with Israeli soldiers in their previous area of operations. “At least the world is talking about us now.”

Another aspect of this internationalization is the cooperation between extremist organizations in conducting terrorist operations. Cooperative training between Palestinian groups and European radicals started as early as 1970, and joint operations between the PFLP and the Japanese Red Army (JRA) began in 1974. Since then international terrorist cooperation in training, operations, and support has continued to grow, and continues to this day. Motives range from the ideological, such as the 1980’s alliance of the Western European Marxist-oriented groups, to financial, as when the IRA exported its expertise in bomb making as far afield as Colombia.

In the early years of the 20th century nationalism and revolutionary political ideologies were the principal developmental forces acting upon terrorism. When the Treaty of Versailles redrew the map of Europe after World War I by breaking up the Austro-Hungarian Empire and creating new nations, it acknowledged the principle of self-determination for nationalities and ethnic groups. This encouraged minorities and ethnicity not receiving recognition to campaign for independence or autonomy. However, in many cases self-determination was limited to European nations and ethnic groups and denied others, especially the colonial possessions of the major European powers, creating bitterness and setting the stage for the long conflicts of the anti-colonial period.

In particular, Arab nationalists felt that they had been betrayed. Believing they were promised post-war independence, they were doubly disappointed; first when the French and British were given authority over their lands; and then especially when the British allowed Zionist immigration into Palestine in keeping with a promise contained in the Balfour Declaration.

Since the end of World War II, terrorism has accelerated its development into a major component of contemporary conflict. Primarily in use immediately after the war as a subordinate element of anti-colonial insurgencies, it expanded beyond that role. In the service of various ideologies and aspirations, terrorism sometimes supplanted other forms of conflict completely. It also became a far-reaching weapon capable of effects no less global than the intercontinental bomber or missile. It has also proven to be a significant tool of diplomacy and international power for states inclined to use it.

The seemingly quick results and shocking immediacy of terrorism made some consider it as a short cut to victory. Small revolutionary groups not willing to invest the time and resources to organize political activity would rely on the “propaganda of the deed” to energize mass action. This suggested that a tiny core of activists could topple any government through the use of terror alone. The result of this belief by revolutionaries in developed countries was the isolation of the terrorists from the population they claimed to represent, and the adoption of the Leninist concept of the “vanguard of revolution” by tiny groups of disaffected revolutionaries. In less developed countries small groups of foreign revolutionaries such as Che Guevara arrived from outside the country, expecting to immediately energize revolutionary action by their presence.

On 31 October 1984, the Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi was on her way to be interviewed by the British actor Peter Ustinov, who was filming a documentary for Irish television. She was walking through the garden of the Prime Minister’s Residence at No. 1, Safdarjung Road in New Delhi. As she passed a wicket gate guarded by her two Sikh bodyguards, Beant Singh being in the lead fired three rounds into her from his side-arm, and Satwant Singh then fired 30 rounds from his sten gun into her prostrate body as what was ‘hailed’ in revenge for Operation Bluestar Although Beant Singh was shot dead by other bodyguards at the scene of the assassination and Satwant Singh was arrested by Mrs. Gandhi’s other bodyguards, what followed begged belief. Thousands of Sikhs were massacred in the most barbaric method of burning. Encouraged by central government ministers and Members of Parliament with the connivance of the police, mobs were assembled to carry out a three day orgy of killings and plunder.

Rape that drew more coverage during the Gujrat riots had been equally widespread in the early days of the November 1984 riots. Yet it received little coverage. This may be partly because of the social stigma associated with it, and partly because the killings were so intense in some neighborhood’s that it overshadowed rape. In Trilokpuri, East Delhi, after the massacres had taken their full toll and no Sikh man was left alive, about thirty Sikh women were abducted and held captive in the nearby village of Chilla. Countless cases of systematic rape occurred but none figured in the official inquiries. H.S. Phoolka and Manoj Mitta have argued that this neatly fitted in with the government view of an ‘emotional reaction’ to Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination ‘When a tree Shook, earth shakes ’speech of Rajiv Gandhi had already been delivered .Far from this, as many of the affidavits from the victims show, there were little signs of grief or emotion over the assassination among the rampaging mobs. There was, however, a definitive pattern to ‘cause serious bodily and mental harm’ to Sikh women, as defined in Article Two of the United Nations’ Genocide Convention.

The largest act of international terrorism occurred on September 11, 2001. In a set of co-ordinate attacks on the United States of America, Islamic terrorists hijacked civilian airliners and used them to attack the World Trade Center towers in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, DC. Other major terrorist attacks have also occurred in New Delhi (Indian Parliament); Bali car bomb attack; London subway bombings; Madrid train bombings and the most recent attacks in Mumbai (hotels, train station and a Jewish outreach center for which Kasab, the only terrorist captured alive, was hanged on November 21, 2012.), The operational and strategic epicenter of Islamic terrorism is now mostly in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Terrorism is continually changing. While at the surface it remains “the calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear”, it is rapidly becoming the predominant strategic tool of our adversaries. As terrorism evolves into the principal irregular warfare strategy of the 21st century, it is adapting to changes in the world social-political environment. Some of these changes facilitate the abilities of terrorists to operate, procure funding, and develop new capabilities. Other changes are gradually moving terrorism into a different relationship with the world at large.


  • The Sikhs of the Punjab: Unheard Voices of State and Guerrilla Violence J.M. Pettigrew
  • Amritsar: Mrs Gandhi’s Last Battle’: Mark Tully & Satish Jacob
  • Bullet For Bullet: Julio Ribeiro
  • The Man Who Declared a War on America: Peter Bergen
  • How the Sikhs Lost Their Kingdom: Khushwant Singh
  • Minority Politics in Punjab: Baldev Raj Nayyar
  • Communism and Nationalism in North India: Gyanendra Pande
  • Democracy and Discontent: Atul Kohli (Wikkipidea)

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