There is no exact definition of terrorism that all parties agree upon. Terrorism can be considered the manifestation of an organized plan for violence intended to threaten or kill a given number of human beings, but there are other more modern aspects of terrorism that might not perfectly fit this definition. Nevertheless, any violent act or intimidation that has the goal of forcing a person, community or government to do to do something they do not desire to do can be considered an act of terrorism. While in recent decades, it may seem that terrorism has become more frequent, more violent and perhaps even more effective in achieving its goals, the truth is that terrorism as an activity aimed at producing certain results has been going on for centuries. One only need look at the gunpowder plot perpetrated by Guy Fawkes and his compatriots to see that this is the case (Fraser, 1996). The late 19th and early 20th century saw bombings and assassinations of kings and presidents across the globe by anarchist terrorists promoting their own political ideology. The following will examine the definitions of terrorism, the goals of terrorism and the various types.
Terrorists have frequently been described as individuals engaging in a politically or religiously motivated violent or aggressive action. This action usually has two closely related components: violence and fear creation. Terrorists generally operate in small groups with the short-term goal of creating a “state of terror” among specific individuals or groups at the long-term goal of ensuring that certain specific changes occur either in society or within government. United States Army describes terrorism as the “unlawful use of violence or threat of violence, often motivated by religious, political, or other ideological beliefs, to instill fear and coerce governments or societies in pursuit of goals that are usually political” (Joint Chiefs of Staff, 2014). According to the CIA, terrorism is best described as the use of (or threat to use) violence for political ends in a way that is designed to influence or alter the current behaviors and positions of the group being targeted.
Of course, terrorism can also be a matter of perspective. While the above definitions make clear that terrorism is viewed by the mentioned organizations is the unlawful use of weapons to injure, kill and intimidate a populace and its government, those carrying out and supporting the terrorist activities view them very differently. Often, terrorists and terrorist supporters view terrorism as patriotic and heroic. When terrorism is based on religious motivations and objectives, terrorists are frequently seen as martyrs to the cause who will be ultimately rewarded in the hereafter (Catherwood, 2006). Thus, it is clear that an understanding of terrorism is not necessarily the same for everyone.
According to Chalmers Johnson, terrorism can be viewed as involves the use or threat of extreme violence carried out for maximum psychological impact. Thus, terrorism is by definition openly defined of existing laws and mores, since it attempts to demoralize a nation’s citizenry and the destabilize or overthrow its current government through a revolution or anarchy. Terrorists fully believe in Mao’s statement that “power grows from the barrel of a gun” (Lawson, 1983). Thus, blackmail, coercion and the imposition of their own will (even as a minority) over the will of the majority is seen by them as perfectly acceptable if it makes it possible for them to force the government to accede to their illegal and frequently immoral demands.
Johnson goes on to subdivide terrorism into four major types, which are: ethnic terrorism, nationalist terrorism, ideological terrorism, and pathological/religious terrorism. Furthermore, Johnson and many other experts recognize that terrorism can take on a number of different forms (Johnson, 2001), including biology based terrorism, nuclear based terrorism, cyber based terrorism and gene based terrorism.
Biology based terrorism is generally referred to as bioterrorism. It involves the use of biological weapons to inflict large numbers of casualties. While biological weapons have been used in the past, such as during the experiments carried out by the Japanese in order to, bioterrorism itself only became a concern during the anthrax attacks that took place in the United States following 9/11. The principal goal of terrorists who make use of bioterrorism seems to be to generate panic among the general population.
Terrorists have (as of yet) not been able to obtain nuclear weapons for their purposes. However, they have certainly made attempts to obtain such weapons. Manuals and other documents belonging to Al Qaeda were found in Kabul by the United States and its allies during their operations there. These documents make clear that Al Qaeda carried out research aimed at obtaining and making use of U-235, which is a principal fissionable material used in many nuclear weapons. Beyond making atomic bombs themselves, Al Qaeda had looked at the employment of radioactive materials themselves as weapons of terror (Jonas & Swift, 2008).
Cyber terrorism is a much more recent concern than either nuclear or biological terrorism. The goal of cyber terrorists would be to damage a nations defenses, interfere with its militaries logistics and to damage its economy. While hackers are most often seen breaking into either corporate or government computer systems for the purpose of releasing information to the public, the same actors could carry out much more aggressive and damaging attacks designed to cause actual harm. Preventing such attacks and tracing them after the fact has become a major goal of many governments throughout the world.
Gene based terrorism (gene terrorism) is a more theoretical concept at this time, but represents a looming and serious threat in the future. Terrorists with sufficient facilities and knowledge could alter the DNA of bacteria and viruses to create a biological weapon far more devastating than standard biological weapons. Such weapons might be seen as representing such a grave threat to the entire world that the terrorists would be reluctant to use them. However, extremists and religious zealots often disregard their own safety and even that of their own families in order to carry out terrorist attacks. Thus, acts of gene terrorism are a definite possibility in the future.
In conclusion, policymakers around the world doing with threat of terrorism on a national and international level need to fully understand the things that motivate terrorists and the different forms terrorism can take. It is only by doing so that we have any hope of either preventing such attacks or punishing the culprits in those instances where the attacks succeed. Terrorism can be based on political, ideological religious or other factors, but at its core, the purpose of terrorism is to force a society, organization or individual to bend its will to that of the terrorists. Defeating this purpose requires fully understanding the nature of modern terrorism.
Catherwood, C. (2005). Religion and terrorism. Cambridge: Polity.
Fraser, A. (1996). The gunpowder plot: Terror & faith in 1605. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
Johnson, C. (2001). Blowback. Nation, 273(11), 13-15.
Jonas, D. S., & Swift, C. (2008). Reformulating the nuclear nonproliferation regime: al-qaeda, global terrorism, and the rogue state paradigm. UCLA Journal Of International Law & Foreign Affairs, 13(2), 337-367.
Lawson, D. (1983). The Long March: Red China under Chairman Mao. New York, N.Y: Crowell.
U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. Counterterrorism. Joint Publication 3-26. Washington,
DC: U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, October, 2014.