What is terrorism?
Although it has likely been with us in some form or fashion since time immemorial, its precise definition is curiously elusive. The UN has not succeeded in conjuring one despite trying for decades. The official US definition for terrorism, “premeditated, politically or ideologically motivated violence against noncombatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine state agents,” omits its critical psychological dimension.
Is terrorism, then, akin to pornography, or something we only recognize when we see it? Bruce Hoffman, author of the engaging Inside Terrorism, doesn’t think so. It just requires analytical rigor to suss out its exact meaning.
To understand terrorism is to understand what it’s not. Unlike conventional war, terrorism isn’t fought between two defined groups, nor do rules like the Geneva Conventions, however unevenly enforced, govern its application. Terrorism is also unlike guerrilla warfare whereby large units of armed individuals who operate openly seize, hold, and even govern territory.
By contrast, terrorism involves violence or the threat thereof by subnational groups, individuals, or non-state entities that function clandestinely. Such distinctions disqualify groups like Hamas or the Taliban from the terrorist taxonomy, though they and others can and do employ terrorist tactics. Most critically, terrorism is designed to sow fear and, in so doing, publicize a cause.
Terrorism is now associated with religious fundamentalism, specifically Islamic extremism, but terrorist groups come in many guises—secular, nationalist, anarchist, and, of course, all religious stripes. Terrorism can also “work.” The Irgun and Stern Gang (the former led by future Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin) effectively conducted a terrorist campaign against English authorities in Palestine, thereby hastening the British exit from the region. Likewise, Ethniki Organosis Kyprion Agoniston (EOKA) and the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN) waged bitter and ultimately successful anti-colonial struggles in Cyprus and Algeria, respectively.
However, the exemplar of modern terrorism may be sundry Palestinian militant groups operating under the aegis of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). According to Hoffman: “The success achieved by the PLO in publicizing the Palestinians’ plight through ‘internationalization’ of its struggle with Israel has long served as a model for similarly aggrieved ethnic and nationalist minority groups everywhere, demonstrating how long-standing but hitherto ignored or forgotten causes can be resurrected and dramatically thrust onto the world’s agenda through a series of well-orchestrated, attention-grabbing acts.”
Those acts included the daring assault by the PLO’s Black September Organization (BSO) on a dormitory housing Israeli athletes competing in the 1972 Olympic games in Munich. Although the operation failed to achieve its ostensible objective—the release of hundreds of Palestinian hostages in custody in Israel and Germany—and while it ended in a bloody firefight that killed a number of BSO operatives, along with nine Israeli athletes (two more had been killed in the initial dormitory assault), it energized the Palestinian cause. Eighteen months later, PLO leader Yasir Arafat was invited to address the UN General Assembly. By the end of the 1970s, the PLO had gained formal observer status at the UN as well as formal diplomatic relations with scores of countries. “It is doubtful whether the PLO could have achieved this success had it not resorted to international terrorism,” Hoffman soberly concludes.
That terrorism can work doesn’t imply that it usually does. It doesn’t. A study by David Rapoport found the life expectancy of 90 percent of terrorist organizations to be less than one year, while nearly half of those that remained viable after 12 months ceased to exist within a decade. Moreover, terrorism can be spectacularly counterproductive, firming governments’ resolve and turning populations against the extremists and their cause. (The Palestinians may well have achieved statehood long ago had they turned to non-violent means).
That terrorist groups like al-Qaeda seek to obtain weapons of mass destruction necessitates the international community pay attention to violent extremism. But how big a threat is terrorism? Certainly, it’s not existential like, say, that posed by a nuclear exchange during the Cold War. Not even close: Allergic reactions to peanuts, accidents involving deer, and lightning strikes all have killed more Americans than terrorists since the 1960s, according to Ohio University’s John Mueller. (Just 15 Americans died from terrorism in 2010).
Why, then, do we pay terrorism so much attention? The answer is that, by definition, terrorism sows fear, and fear causes irrational responses. Bin Laden said it best: "All that we have to do is to send two mujahedeen to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qaeda, in order to make generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses without their achieving anything of note other than some benefits for their private corporations."
Bin Laden is dead, of course, but the costly “War on Terror” continues—and will continue in perpetuity.