As the nineteenth century ended, it seemed no one was safe from terrorist attack. In
1894 an Italian anarchist assassinated French President Sadi Carnot. In 1897
anarchists fatally stabbed Empress Elizabeth of Austria and killed Antonio C novas, the
Spanish prime minister. In 1900 Umberto I, the Italian king, fell in yet another anarchist
attack; in 1901 an American anarchist killed William McKinley, president of the United
States. Terrorism became the leading preoccupation of politicians, police chiefs,
journalists, and writers from Dostoevsky to Henry James. If in the year 1900 the
leaders of the main industrial powers had assembled, most of them would have insisted
on giving terrorism top priority on their agenda, as President Clinton did at the Group
of Seven meeting after the June bombing of the U.S. military compound in Dhahran,
From this perspective the recent upsurge of terrorist activity is not particularly
threatening. According to the State Department's annual report on the subject, fewer
people died last year in incidents of international terrorism (165) than the year before
(314). Such figures, however, are almost meaningless, because of both the incidents
they disregard and those they count. Current definitions of terrorism fail to capture the
magnitude of the problem worldwide.
Terrorism has been defined as the substate application of violence or threatened
violence intended to sow panic in a society, to weaken or even overthrow the
incumbents, and to bring about political change. It shades on occasion into guerrilla
warfare (although unlike guerrillas, terrorists are unable or unwilling to take or hold
territory) and even a substitute for war between states. In its long history terrorism has
appeared in many guises; today society faces not one terrorism but many terrorisms.
Since 1900, terrorists' motivation, strategy, and weapons have changed to some
extent. The anarchists and the left-wing terrorist groups that succeeded them, down
through the Red Armies that operated in Germany, Italy, and Japan in the 1970s, have
vanished; if anything, the initiative has passed to the extreme right. Most international
and domestic terrorism these days, however, is neither left nor right, but
ethnic-separatist in inspiration. Ethnic terrorists have more staying power than
ideologically motivated ones, since they draw on a larger reservoir of public support.
The greatest change in recent decades is that terrorism is by no means militants' only
strategy. The many-branched Muslim Brotherhood, the Palestinian Hamas, the Irish
Republican Army (IRA), the Kurdish extremists in Turkey and Iraq, the Tamil Tigers of
Sri Lanka, the Basque Homeland and Liberty (ETA) movement in Spain, and many
other groups that have sprung up in this century have had political as well as terrorist
wings from the beginning. The political arm provides social services and education, runs
businesses, and contests elections, while the "military wing" engages in ambushes and
assassinations. Such division of labor has advantages: the political leadership can
publicly disassociate itself when the terrorists commit a particularly outrageous act or
something goes wrong. The claimed lack of control can be quite real because the
armed wing tends to become independent; the men and women with the guns and
bombs often lose sight of the movement's wider aims and may end up doing more harm
Terrorist operations have also changed somewhat. Airline hijackings have become
rare, since hijacked planes cannot stay in the air forever and few countries today are
willing to let them land, thereby incurring the stigma of openly supporting terrorism.
Terrorists, too, saw diminishing returns on hijackings. The trend now seems to be away
from attacking specific targets like the other side's officials and toward more
indiscriminate killing. Furthermore, the dividing line between urban terrorism and other
tactics has become less distinct, while the line between politically motivated terrorism
and the operation of national and international crime syndicates is often impossible for
outsiders to discern in the former Soviet Union, Latin America, and other parts of the
world. But there is one fundamental difference between international crime and
terrorism: mafias have no interest in overthrowing the government and decisively
weakening society; in fact, they have a vested interest in a prosperous economy.
Misapprehensions, not only semantic, surround the various forms of political violence.
A terrorist is not a guerrilla, strictly speaking. There are no longer any guerrillas,
engaging in Maoist-style liberation of territories that become the base of a
counter-society and a regular army fighting the central government -- except perhaps in
remote places like Afghanistan, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka. The term "guerrilla" has
had a long life partly because terrorists prefer the label, for its more positive
connotations. It also persists because governments and media in other countries do not
wish to offend terrorists by calling them terrorists. The French and British press would
not dream of referring to their countries' native terrorists by any other name but call
terrorists in other nations militants, activists, national liberation fighters, or even "gun
The belief has gained ground that terrorist missions by volunteers bent on committing
suicide constitute a radical new departure, dangerous because they are impossible to
prevent. But that is a myth, like the many others in which terrorism has always been
shrouded. The bomber willing and indeed eager to blow himself up has appeared in all
eras and cultural traditions, espousing politics ranging from the leftism of the
Baader-Meinhof Gang in 1970s Germany to rightist extremism. When the Japanese
military wanted kamikaze pilots at the end of World War II, thousands of volunteers
rushed to offer themselves. The young Arab bombers on Jerusalem buses looking to be
rewarded by the virgins in Paradise are a link in an old chain.
State-sponsored terrorism has not disappeared. Terrorists can no longer count on the
Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies, but some Middle Eastern and North
African countries still provide support. Tehran and Tripoli, however, are less eager to
argue that they have a divine right to engage in terrorist operations outside their
borders; the 1986 U.S. air strike against Libya and the various boycotts against Libya
and Iran had an effect. No government today boasts about surrogate warfare it
instigates and backs.
On the other hand, Sudan, without fanfare, has become for terrorists what the Barbary
Coast was for pirates of another age: a safe haven. Politically isolated and presiding
over a disastrous economy, the military government in Khartoum, backed by Muslim
leaders, believes that no one wants to become involved in Sudan and thus it can get
away with lending support to terrorists from many nations. Such confidence is justified
so long as terrorism is only a nuisance. But if it becomes more than that, the rules of the
game change, and both terrorists and their protectors come under great pressure.
Opportunities In Terrorism
History shows that terrorism more often than not has little political impact, and that
when it has an effect it is often the opposite of the one desired. Terrorism in the 1980s
and 1990s is no exception. The 1991 assassination of Rajiv Gandhi as he campaigned
to retake the prime ministership neither hastened nor inhibited the decline of India's
Congress Party. Hamas' and Hezbollah's stepped-up terrorism in Israel undoubtedly
influenced the outcome of Israeli elections in May, but while it achieved its immediate
objective of setting back the peace process on which Palestine Authority President
Yasir Arafat has gambled his future, is a hard-line Likud government really in these
groups' interests? On the other side, Yigal Amir, the right-wing orthodox Jewish
student who assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin last fall because he
disapproved of the peace agreement with the Palestinians, might well have helped elect
Rabin's dovish second-in-command, Shimon Peres, to a full term had the Muslim
terrorists not made Israeli security an issue again.
Terrorists caused disruption and destabilization in other parts of the world, such as Sri
Lanka, where economic decline has accompanied the war between the government
and the Tamil Tigers. But in Israel and in Spain, where Basque extremists have been
staging attacks for decades, terrorism has had no effect on the economy. Even in
Algeria, where terrorism has exacted the highest toll in human lives, Muslim extremists
have made little headway since 1992-93, when many predicted the demise of the
unpopular military regime.
Some argue that terrorism must be effective because certain terrorist leaders have
become president or prime minister of their country. In those cases, however, the
terrorists had first forsworn violence and adjusted to the political process. Finally, the
common wisdom holds that terrorism can spark a war or, at least, prevent peace. That
is true, but only where there is much inflammable material: as in Sarajevo in 1914, so in
the Middle East and elsewhere today. Nor can one ever say with certainty that the
conflagration would not have occurred sooner or later in any case.
Nevertheless, terrorism's prospects, often overrated by the media, the public, and
some politicians, are improving as its destructive potential increases. This has to do
both with the rise of groups and individuals that practice or might take up terrorism and
with the weapons available to them. The past few decades have witnessed the birth of
dozens of aggressive movements espousing varieties of nationalism, religious
fundamentalism, fascism, and apocalyptic millenarianism, from Hindu nationalists in
India to neofascists in Europe and the developing world to the Branch Davidian cult of
Waco, Texas. The earlier fascists believed in military aggression and engaged in a huge
military buildup, but such a strategy has become too expensive even for superpowers.
Now, mail-order catalogs tempt militants with readily available, far cheaper,
unconventional as well as conventional weapons -- the poor man's nuclear bomb,
Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani called them.
In addition to nuclear arms, the weapons of mass destruction include biological agents
and man-made chemical compounds that attack the nervous system, skin, or blood.
Governments have engaged in the production of chemical weapons for almost a
century and in the production of nuclear and biological weapons for many decades,
during which time proliferation has been continuous and access ever easier.ffi The
means of delivery -- ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and aerosols -- have also become
far more effective. While in the past missiles were deployed only in wars between
states, recently they have played a role in civil wars in Afghanistan and Yemen. Use by
terrorist groups would be but one step further.
Until the 1970s most observers believed that stolen nuclear material constituted the
greatest threat in the escalation of terrorist weapons, but many now think the danger
could lie elsewhere. An April 1996 Defense Department report says that "most
terrorist groups do not have the financial and technical resources to acquire nuclear
weapons but could gather materials to make radiological dispersion devices and some
biological and chemical agents." Some groups have state sponsors that possess or can
obtain weapons of the latter three types. Terrorist groups themselves have investigated
the use of poisons since the nineteenth century. The Aum Shinrikyo cult staged a
poison gas attack in March 1995 in the Tokyo subway; exposure to the nerve gas sarin
killed ten people and injured 5,000. Other, more amateurish attempts in the United
States and abroad to experiment with chemical substances and biological agents for
use in terrorism have involved the toxin that causes botulism, the poisonous protein
rycin (twice), sarin (twice), bubonic plague bacteria, typhoid bacteria, hydrogen
cyanide, vx (another nerve gas), and possibly the Ebola virus.
To Use Or Not To Use?
If terrorists have used chemical weapons only once and nuclear material never, to some
extent the reasons are technical. The scientific literature is replete with the technical
problems inherent in the production, manufacture, storage, and delivery of each of the
three classes of unconventional weapons.
The manufacture of nuclear weapons is not that simple, nor is delivery to their target.
Nuclear material, of which a limited supply exists, is monitored by the U.N.-affiliated
International Atomic Energy Agency. Only governments can legally procure it, so that
even in this age of proliferation investigators could trace those abetting nuclear terrorists
without great difficulty. Monitoring can overlook a more primitive nuclear weapon:
nonfissile but radioactive nuclear material. Iranian agents in Turkey, Kazakhstan, and
elsewhere are known to have tried to buy such material originating in the former Soviet
Chemical agents are much easier to produce or obtain but not so easy to keep safely in
stable condition, and their dispersal depends largely on climatic factors. The terrorists
behind last year's attack in Tokyo chose a convenient target where crowds of people
gather, but their sarin was apparently dilute. The biological agents are far and away the
most dangerous: they could kill hundreds of thousands where chemicals might kill only
thousands. They are relatively easy to procure, but storage and dispersal are even
trickier than for nerve gases. The risk of contamination for the people handling them is
high, and many of the most lethal bacteria and spores do not survive well outside the
laboratory. Aum Shinrikyo reportedly released anthrax bacteria -- among the most
toxic agents known -- on two occasions from a building in Tokyo without harming
Given the technical difficulties, terrorists are probably less likely to use nuclear devices
than chemical weapons, and least likely to attempt to use biological weapons. But
difficulties could be overcome, and the choice of unconventional weapons will in the
end come down to the specialties of the terrorists and their access to deadly
The political arguments for shunning unconventional weapons are equally weighty. The
risk of detection and subsequent severe retaliation or punishment is great, and while this
may not deter terrorists it may put off their sponsors and suppliers. Terrorists eager to
use weapons of mass destruction may alienate at least some supporters, not so much
because the dissenters hate the enemy less or have greater moral qualms but because
they think the use of such violence counterproductive. Unconventional weapon strikes
could render whole regions uninhabitable for long periods. Use of biological arms
poses the additional risk of an uncontrollable epidemic. And while terrorism seems to
be tending toward more indiscriminate killing and mayhem, terrorists may draw the line
at weapons of super-violence likely to harm both foes and large numbers of relatives
and friends -- say, Kurds in Turkey, Tamils in Sri Lanka, or Arabs in Israel.
Furthermore, traditional terrorism rests on the heroic gesture, on the willingness to
sacrifice one's own life as proof of one's idealism. Obviously there is not much heroism
in spreading botulism or anthrax. Since most terrorist groups are as interested in
publicity as in violence, and as publicity for a mass poisoning or nuclear bombing would
be far more unfavorable than for a focused conventional attack, only terrorists who do
not care about publicity will even consider the applications of unconventional weapons.
Broadly speaking, terrorists will not engage in overkill if their traditional weapons -- the
submachine gun and the conventional bomb -- are sufficient to continue the struggle
and achieve their aims. But the decision to use terrorist violence is not always a rational
one; if it were, there would be much less terrorism, since terrorist activity seldom
achieves its aims. What if, after years of armed struggle and the loss of many of their
militants, terrorist groups see no progress? Despair could lead to giving up the armed
struggle, or to suicide. But it might also lead to a last desperate attempt to defeat the
hated enemy by arms not tried before. As one of Racine's heroes said of himself, their
"only hope lies in their despair."
Terrorist groups traditionally contain strong quasi-religious, fanatical elements, for only
total certainty of belief (or total moral relativism) provides justification for taking lives.
That element was strong among the prerevolutionary Russian terrorists and the
Romanian fascists of the Iron Guard in the 1930s, as it is among today's Tamil Tigers.
Fanatical Muslims consider the killing of the enemies of God a religious commandment,
and believe that the secularists at home as well as the State of Israel will be annihilated
because it is Allah's will. Aum Shinrikyo doctrine held that murder could help both
victim and murderer to salvation. Sectarian fanaticism has surged during the past
decade, and in general, the smaller the group, the more fanatical.
As humankind approaches the end of the second millennium of the Christian era,
apocalyptic movements are on the rise. The belief in the impending end of the world is
probably as old as history, but for reasons not entirely clear, sects and movements
preaching the end of the world gain influence toward the end of a century, and all the
more at the close of a millennium. Most of the preachers of doom do not advocate
violence, and some even herald a renaissance, the birth of a new kind of man and
woman. Others, however, believe that the sooner the reign of the Antichrist is
established, the sooner this corrupt world will be destroyed and the new heaven and
earth foreseen by St. John in the Book of Revelation, Nostradamus, and a host of
other prophets will be realized.ff
Extremist millenarians would like to give history a push, helping create world-ending
havoc replete with universal war, famine, pestilence, and other scourges. It is possible
that members of certain Christian and Jewish sects that believe in Armageddon or Gog
and Magog or the Muslims and Buddhists who harbor related extreme beliefs could
attempt to play out a doomsday scenario. A small group of Israeli extremists, for
instance, firmly believes that blowing up Temple Mount in Jerusalem would bring about
a final (religious) war and the beginning of redemption with the coming of the Kingdom
of God. The visions of Shoko Asahara, the charismatic leader of Aum Shinrikyo, grew
increasingly apocalyptic, and David Koresh proclaimed the Last Day's arrival in the
Branch Davidians' 1994 confrontation with Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms
Those who subscribe to such beliefs number in the hundreds of thousands and perhaps
millions. They have their own subcultures, produce books and CDs by the thousands,
and build temples and communities of whose existence most of their contemporaries
are unaware. They have substantial financial means at their disposal. Although the more
extreme apocalyptic groups are potentially terrorist, intelligence services have generally
overlooked their activities; hence the shock over the subway attack in Tokyo and
Rabin's assassination, to name but two recent events.
Apocalyptic elements crop up in contemporary intellectual fashions and extremist
politics as well. For instance, extreme environmentalists, particularly the so-called
restoration ecologists, believe that environmental disasters will destroy civilization as we
know it -- no loss, in their view -- and regard the vast majority of human beings as
expendable. From such beliefs and values it is not a large step to engaging in acts of
terrorism to expedite the process. If the eradication of smallpox upset ecosystems, why
not restore the balance by bringing back the virus? The motto of Chaos International,
one of many journals in this field, is a quotation from Hassan I Sabbah, the master of
the Assassins, a medieval sect whose members killed Crusaders and others in a
"religious" ecstasy; everything is permitted, the master says. The premodern world and
postmodernism meet at this point.
Scanning the contemporary scene, one encounters a bewildering multiplicity of terrorist
and potentially terrorist groups and sects. The practitioners of terrorism as we have
known it to this point were nationalists and anarchists, extremists of the left and the
right. But the new age has brought new inspiration for the users of violence along with
In the past, terrorism was almost always the province of groups of militants that had the
backing of political forces like the Irish and Russian social revolutionary movements of
1900. In the future, terrorists will be individuals or like-minded people working in very
small groups, on the pattern of the technology-hating Unabomber, who apparently
worked alone sending out parcel bombs over two decades, or the perpetrators of the
1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. An individual may possess the
technical competence to steal, buy, or manufacture the weapons he or she needs for a
terrorist purpose; he or she may or may not require help from one or two others in
delivering these weapons to the designated target. The ideologies such individuals and
mini-groups espouse are likely to be even more aberrant than those of larger groups.
And terrorists working alone or in very small groups will be more difficult to detect
unless they make a major mistake or are discovered by accident.
Thus at one end of the scale, the lone terrorist has appeared, and at the other,
state-sponsored terrorism is quietly flourishing in these days when wars of aggression
have become too expensive and too risky. As the century draws to a close, terrorism is
becoming the substitute for the great wars of the 1800s and early 1900s.
Proliferation of the weapons of mass destruction does not mean that most terrorist
groups are likely to use them in the foreseeable future, but some almost certainly will, in
spite of all the reasons militating against it. Governments, however ruthless, ambitious,
and ideologically extreme, will be reluctant to pass on unconventional weapons to
terrorist groups over which they cannot have full control; the governments may be
tempted to use such arms themselves in a first strike, but it is more probable that they
would employ them in blackmail than in actual warfare. Individuals and small groups,
however, will not be bound by the constraints that hold back even the most reckless
Society has also become vulnerable to a new kind of terrorism, in which the destructive
power of both the individual terrorist and terrorism as a tactic are infinitely greater.
Earlier terrorists could kill kings or high officials, but others only too eager to inherit
their mantle quickly stepped in. The advanced societies of today are more dependent
every day on the electronic storage, retrieval, analysis, and transmission of information.
Defense, the police, banking, trade, transportation, scientific work, and a large
percentage of the government's and the private sector's transactions are on-line. That
exposes enormous vital areas of national life to mischief or sabotage by any computer
hacker, and concerted sabotage could render a country unable to function. Hence the
growing speculation about infoterrorism and cyberwarfare.
An unnamed U.S. intelligence official has boasted that with $1 billion and 20 capable
hackers, he could shut down America. What he could achieve, a terrorist could too.
There is little secrecy in the wired society, and protective measures have proved of
limited value: teenage hackers have penetrated highly secret systems in every field. The
possibilities for creating chaos are almost unlimited even now, and vulnerability will
almost certainly increase. Terrorists' targets will change: Why assassinate a politician or
indiscriminately kill people when an attack on electronic switching will produce far
more dramatic and lasting results? The switch at the Culpeper, Virginia, headquarters
of the Federal Reserve Board's electronic network, which handles all federal funds and
transactions, would be an obvious place to hit. If the new terrorism directs its energies
toward information warfare, its destructive power will be exponentially greater than any
it wielded in the past -- greater even than it would be with biological and chemical
Still, the vulnerability of states and societies will be of less interest to terrorists than to
ordinary criminals and organized crime, disgruntled employees of big corporations,
and, of course, spies and hostile governments. Electronic thieves, whether engaged in
credit card fraud or industrial espionage, are part of the system, using it rather than
destroying it; its destruction would cost them their livelihood. Politically motivated
terrorist groups, above all separatists bent on establishing states of their own, have
limited aims. The Kurdish Workers Party, the IRA, the Basque ETA, and the Tamil
Tigers want to weaken their enemies and compel them to make far-reaching
concessions, but they cannot realistically hope to destroy them. It is also true, however,
that terrorist groups on the verge of defeat or acting on apocalyptic visions may not
hesitate to apply all destructive means at their disposal.
All that leads well beyond terrorism as we have known it. New definitions and new
terms may have to be developed for new realities, and intelligence services and
policymakers must learn to discern the significant differences among terrorists'
motivations, approaches, and aims. The Bible says that when the Old Testament hero
Samson brought down the temple, burying himself along with the Philistines in the ruins,
"the dead which he slew at his death were more than he slew in his life." The Samsons
of a society have been relatively few in all ages. But with the new technologies and the
changed nature of the world in which they operate, a handful of angry Samsons and
disciples of apocalypse would suffice to cause havoc. Chances are that of 100
attempts at terrorist superviolence, 99 would fail. But the single successful one could
claim many more victims, do more material damage, and unleash far greater panic than
anything the world has yet experienced.'
Science fiction writers produced chemical weapons even earlier. In Jules Verne's The
Begum's Fortune, a (German) scientist aims to wipe out the 250,000 inhabitants of
(French) Franceville with one grenade of what he calls carbon acid gas, shot from a
According to Nostradamus, a "great King of terror" will come from heaven in July
1999. Millenarians face a problem when it comes to fixing the date; the Gospel of St.
Matthew says that "no one knows the day and the hour, not even the angels in heaven."
As the year 1000 approached, educated people were fully aware that the Christian
calendar was inexact and could not be corrected-hence the assumption that the world
could end almost anytime between 960 and 1040. For a comparative review of
apocalyptic influences at the end of the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, see
Walter Laqueur, "Fin de Si_cle-Once More with Feeling," Journal of Contemporary
History, January 1996, pp. 5-47.
Walter Laqueur, Chairman of the International Research Council at the Center for
Strategic and International Studies, is the author of Terrorism and Guerrilla.
Copyright 1996 by the Council on Foreign Relations, Inc.
All rights reserved.
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