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by Holger Schrader

From a German university student comes a structured look at types of terrorism in a changed world and an interesting attempt to explain why these forms of international intimidation have come about. The author opines that governments have yet to devise adequate defenses against new terrorist tactics —Ed.

The fact that Terrorism is a form of political violence that affects all of us, everywhere and always was demonstrated by the total destruction of the World Trade Center in New York. Using hijacked aircraft as bombs, terrorists caused thousands of victims and shocked the world. It was impossible to predict the enormous political and economic consequences of these attacks. Although terrorism for a long time seemed to be a minor problem in the industrialized world, as the attacks in the United States demonstrate, this assumption was wrong.

There is no universally-accepted definition of terrorism. This article will work with the definition of Walter Laqueur. He wrote:

Terrorism, interpreted here as the use of covert violence by a group for political ends, is usually directed against a government, but it is also used against other ethnic groups, classes or parties…. Terrorists seek to cause political, social and economic disruption, and for this purpose frequently engage in planned or indiscriminate murder. (Laqueur, Walter (1987), The Age of Terrorism, Boston: Little, Brown and Company: 72)

Terrorists do not accept the available opportunities to reach their goals peacefully by participating in political processes. They know that they are not strong enough to attack the state openly. Therefore they use particular weapons and methods to destabilize the government and go underground. To illustrate this fact, I will describe several examples of terrorist acts that fit the definition of “traditional terrorism”.

Types of Terrorism
One very famous example of an act of terrorism is the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 in Sarajevo, which triggered the First World War. Franz Ferdinand was shot by a nationalist from Bosnia-Herzegovina who had joined a youth organization that wanted to end Hapsburg control. The organization was a loose group of students with a rural background. They were inspired by revolutionary theories and wanted to free Bosnia-Herzegovina from Austrian government.

Peter Waldmann has noted that this terrorist movement is a typical example of ethnic terrorism. Terrorists are often members of ethnic minorities which are oppressed by the government. Their goal is to build an autonomous political system. Most terrorists of this type are young, male, educated and come from a poor and rural background. They intend to undermine or destroy the regime, but often have no idea how to establish an alternative political system.

Today the Basque Euzkadi ta Azkazatuna (ETA) and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) are examples of this type of terrorism. But these modern movements have different targets. Not only do they kill high representatives of the system they hate, but they murder members of the army, the police, other officials, and even by-standers. The Basque terror organization has placed bombs in shopping centers and the Irish Republican Army has often bombed underground stations, pubs, or other public places. By using bombs they have no objection to killing anyone who is nearby and that is why they threaten everyone.

The second type of terrorism occurs in highly industrialized nations and aims at changing the system by revolutionary methods. The German Red Army Faction (RAF) is one example of this type. A small heterogeneous group of left-wing students tried to change the capitalist regime which was, in their opinion, dominated by fascists. In contrast to separatist movements, members of these organizations have an urban background and about 30 per cent are female activists. Hostage taking in order to free members of the group, for example, and attacks on high representatives of the system are typical actions of left-wing terrorism.

The third type is right-wing terrorism which often intends to establish an authoritarian fascist regime or just to fight Marxist ideologies. Although the radical nationalist Timothy McVeigh had other motives, one example of this type is the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. The terrorist act was his answer to the goverment’s siege at the ranch of the Branch Davidian sect in Waco. Obviously McVeigh couldn’t understand the government’s reaction and the use of armed force against a religious group. The explosion in Oklahoma City killed 168 people. Right-wing terrorism is typically characterized by attacks from individuals or small radical groups that do not fit a particular profile like the other types. Their targets are often foreigners and Jewish institutions. The attacks normally do not affect many people. The bombing in Oklahoma City is not typical, but constituted a most tragic act of modern right-wing terrorism.

In order to reach their goals, terrorists use different methods and instruments. One example is assassination as in the case of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Damage to property, robberies, hijacking, bombings and hostage-taking are other methods. They all have one common goal: terrorists want to influence public opinion and cause an unreasonable reaction by the government. They hope that this governmental action results in the loss of legitimacy and finally the collapse of the regime. That is why the media is very important for terrorists. It allows them to extend their threat to the whole world. Dramatic terrorist attacks attract the attention of the world media and make the political aims of the organization public.

Ted Koppel of the ABC Network has talked about a symbiotic relationship between the media and terrorism: “Without television, terrorism becomes rather like the philosopher’s hypothetical tree falling in the forest: no one hears it fall and therefore it has no reason for being”.

Recent Terrorist Acts
After these general reflections about terrorism as one form of political violence, I will point out recent trends. Do the terrorist acts we are confronted with fit the types Peter Waldmann highlighted? What is new and what are the consequences? To answer these questions it is necessary to work with examples of recent terrorism.

In April 2000 the Abu Sayyaf rebels in the Philippines took twenty-one tourists hostage. For over a month no serious negotiations took place because the terrorists did not have clear political or economic goals except the idea of gaining independence from the Philippine Republic. After months in the hands of the terrorists the victims were set free because the Muslim separatists received money from a foundation belonging to Moamar Ghaddafi’s son. It is a paradox that a regime, known as a sponsor of terrorists, helped Western governments free their citizens. These rebels seem to be something in between terrorists and guerrillas. Guerrilla groups are paramilitary groups that normally control rural areas of a state’s territory and which act publicly. They wage war on the government’s army as well as on civilians. Another example is the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which controls large areas in rural Colombia that are de facto accepted by the government and the people. The Abu Sayyaf are militarily organized, but in contrast to FARC, they do not really control significant parts of the state’s territory, as does the FARC. By taking hostages from different Western countries, they have achieved one important goal: gaining attention all over the world.

In February 1993, militant Muslims bombed the World Trade Center in New York the first time to protest against U. S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Six people who worked in the building died and more than a thousand were injured. The U. S. government suspects the assassins were in collaboration with Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden, the most-wanted terrorist. He has built a network of Islamic terror organizations into a multinational support group that funds and orchestrates the activities of Islamic militants world-wide. This organization grew out of the Afghan war against the Soviets and sees the United States as the prime enemy of Islam. That is why bin Laden’s terrorists bombed several U. S. institutions, such as the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and more recently an American warship, the USS Cole. The September attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center appear also to have been executed by bin Laden’s Al Queida group. Few, if any, other groups in the world have the resources to carry out such a highly coordinated sequence of actions. Bin Laden runs several training camps in Afghanistan which were also used by the Abu Sayyaf rebels and is said to have good relations to the Sudan, a state known as sponsor of terrorist groups. The bin Laden network has made extensive use of the internet to communicate; it is reported to hide maps and photographs of terrorist targets and post instructions in sports chat-rooms and on pornographic websites.

In Tokyo the Aum Shinrikyo Sect released toxic gases in underground stations in 1995, killing twelve passengers and injuring thousands. It is not clear why the sect carried out this act, except to attract attention. It was the first known terrorist use of weapons of mass destruction. The use of nuclear weapons by terrorists has been shown by Hollywood movies, but until the end of the Cold War nuclear terrorism was not a probable threat. In the 1990s, the possibility began to be discussed in the media because the fall of the Soviet Union made the trade of nuclear material and the proliferation of nuclear weapons more likely.

More realistic than the use by terrorists of nuclear weapons is their use of biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction; the latter in particular are easy to produce, unproblematic to transport and difficult to detect. Because these weapons are colorless and odorless they cannot be detected until citizens show symptoms. Accordingly, it is extremely difficult for the government to protect their people — and it is almost impossible for individuals to protect themselves. For these reasons chemical and biological weapons are ideal instruments for terrorist organizations: they draw attention and terrorize people by undermining the personal security of the citizens of the country attacked.

The first known act of cyber-terrorism directed at the general population also occurred in Japan. The computer system for local trains has been attacked by terrorist hackers, causing total chaos for hours. From 1993 to 1996, banks in New York, London, and other European financial centers were targets of more than forty hacker attacks by terrorist organizations. The banks paid about $600 million to these organizations to prevent further depredations. The Irish Republican Army tried to bomb computer systems of several banks in London in order to hit the world-wide financial system and bombed the BBC in March 2001. These examples demonstrate that modernization and globalization have made it relatively easy for terrorists without high risk to target people and to cause considerable chaos. Although cyber-terrorism until now has not caused dangerous situations, it is a threat which the Bush Administration reportedly intends to face with a $30 billion program because attacks on computer systems of the Pentagon, flight control centers or power plants clearly could have serious consequences for the national security.

These examples demonstrate that some terrorists’ goals, instruments and ideas do not fit into the traditional pattern. They highlight the fact that we are confronted with a new type of terrorism differing in various aspects from the traditional forms:

  • Terrorism today is not necessarily only an instrument of oppressed groups trying to fight for their rights. It can be an instrument of individuals, of governments, organizations, and indeed ethnic or oppressed groups. Terrorists are extremely mobile, no longer organized in defined groups. They do not use violence to free members of their organization, to use one example, but rather more to terrorize the world and gain world-wide attention.
  • New terrorism often has no clear political goal and this makes it hard to fight. In order to solve ethnic conflicts, there may be a political solution but there is no way to stop someone like bin Laden or even predict what he will do next. Bin Laden represents a new development of ethno-religious conflicts in international terrorism.
  • Terrorist organizations use modern technology to communicate, to coordinate their actions, and to attack governments and organizations.
  • Terrorists have new methods and weapons, including those of mass destruction. The consequence of this development is that although the number of terrorist attacks from 1989 to 1999 declined significantly, it had no effect on the number of victims, which fluctuates extremely from year to year.

Why are We Confronted with a New Type of Terrorism?
The reasons for these developments in international terrorism are obvious. It is basically the changes in the international system since the end of the Cold War. First of all, those changes resulted in the end of ideological conflicts in the Third World, where the two superpowers competed. The consequence was the end of numerous sponsored conflicts and the de facto democratization of regimes all over the world. The uni-polar post-Cold-War world, dominated by the United States, has meant the spreading of American ideas and values. The dominating influence of U. S. ‘soft power’, as Joseph Nye puts it, provokes anti-American sentiments especially where people do not benefit from these values. (See his Bound to Lead. The Changing Nature of American Power (1990) p. 188). The World Trade Center as a symbol of the American way of life and the capitalistic economic system therefore was a most attractive target for these terrorists.

The second reason for the change are the rise of regionalism and globalization, i. e., the growing interdependence within both regional and global markets. Borders are more open for goods and people, making efficient control of their movement impossible. In addition, globalization facilitates the free, world-wide exchange of information. To communicate via telephone and internet in real time makes coordination of terrorist groups feasible. The members do not even have to know each other and may work independently.

The new methods of modern terrorism are a real threat to the national security of states. To face this threat governments have tried to develop various countermeasures, but with questionable success.

First, governments react to terrorist attacks by collecting information on them using intelligence services. But there are limits to those agencies’ capabilities. It is nearly impossible to control terrorist groups or to collect data about groups that have not yet turned to violence. Second, Governments enact legislation in order to tighten punishment and to be able to control suspicious movements. Also, many states create special programs to protect principal witnesses who provide valuable information about terrorist organizations. Finally, there are tendencies, especially in Germany, to restrict civil liberties in order to defend democracy. The German parliament, for example, has authorized the police to tap telephones even if there is only slight suspicion.

Governments also try to prepare for terrorist attacks by simulating potential situations in order to train police, army and other officials. But these programs often include neither realistic scenarios nor the most important persons. If an attack with biological weapons occurs, it is not the army, but the medical services that have to deal with the problem and detect the origin of the symptoms.

Terrorism cannot be handled autonomously by governments. As terrorism becomes more and more an international phenomenon, one that affects international structures and organizations, as well, the answers to the threat have to be international, as well. UN Resolution 52/164 of 1998 contains the “International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings” and is one example of multilateral action in this area. In signing the Convention, states agreed to cooperate, adapt their legislation, and exchange information in order to fight terrorism, considered to be “a matter of grave concern to the international community as a whole” [(UN Resolution 52/164 1998)].

The foreign ministers of the G-8 nations dealt with terrorism as an international problem during their July 2000 meeting in Japan. In the final communiqué the ministers called for coordinated and rigorous action of the member states and the international community.

International cooperation seems to be the only possible way to fight modern terrorism, but the declaration of intent is not a sufficient reaction to the problem. There should be strong cooperation between related national institutions, and international treaties should lay down specific actions against terrorists and sponsoring states.

Terrorism is no longer an instrument to influence political decisions by threatening members of elites or attacking governmental institutions, as the Red Army Faction did. Governments’ monopoly on the use of force is now also challenged by new terrorist interests, methods, and goals. It is a new kind of terrorism which affects innocent bystanders. People at work or on holiday are the targets. The destruction of the World Trade Center demonstrates that although terrorism is a growing threat for the security of citizens, governments have no adequate answer to this danger as yet.


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The author is a political science academic assistant at the University of Passau, Germany. He has concentrated on questions of terrorism, U. S. foreign policy, democratization in Latin America, and the Media. Holger Schrader regularly contributes to PIN (, a German online magazine

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