From RationalWiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search
1980 bombing of an Italian train station by the neo-fascist group NARWikipedia.
It never changes
Icon war2.svg
A view to kill
Virtue, without which terror is destructive; terror, without which virtue is impotent. Terror is only justice prompt, severe and inflexible; it is then an emanation of virtue…
—Maximilien Robespierre, On the Principles of Political Morality (1794)

Terrorism, in popular parlance, is the tactic of killing civilians or non-combatants to achieve certain ends by creating terror in an affected populace.[1] Acts of terrorism (in Russian: теракты - terakty) can range from (for example) random assassinations by non-state actors to (for example) fire-bombing campaigns by multinational coalitions. Such acts aim to force changes in the policies of a government in the pursuit of ideological or political ends.

A secondary aim may be to trick a government to overreact by introducing indefinite detention or torture, or by resorting to war crimes and other decisions that would play into the terrorist state/group's aims. The British governments of the 1970s and '80s fell into this trap, for example, particularly by using "internment" in Northern Ireland in response to attacks on UK civilians by the Irish Republican Army (rather than in response to attacks on UK civilians by the Ulster Volunteer Force). The Bush administration in the USA responded to the attack on 11 September 2001 by invading Afghanistan, despite it being one of the aims of the attack in the first place, thereby bogging itself down into guerrilla warfare in a mountainous country for almost two decades.

"Terrorism" is both a legal term and a political swear-word that one can deploy either accurately or inaccurately against a foe. The difference between "terrorism" and "criminal activity" boils down to a matter of rhetoric - calling a deed "terrorism" gets politicians a bigger budget to spend on weapons and oppression.

Terrorism as a term is recently used in West[edit]

This highlights the ugliest propaganda tactic on which the War on Terror centrally depends, one in which the U.S. media is fully complicit: American and Western victims of violence by Muslims are endlessly mourned, while Muslim victims of American and Western violence are completely disappeared.
—Glenn Greenwald[2]

Remi Brulin, a Research Fellow and professor at New York University, and whose doctoral dissertation was titled The US Discourse on Terrorism Since 1945, and how The New York Times has Covered the Issue of Terrorism, documents the evolving Western use of the term over the course of the 20th century and into the 21st. No universally agreed international definitions exist, and multiple definitions are used even within nation-states.

For the West, frequent use of the term appears when Israel began referring to its Arab enemies in the 70s as "terrorists," and by the 80s had persuaded the U.S. to follow suit — Americans "[began] to talk about terrorism in ways similar to how Israel had been talking about it for 10 or 15 years."[3] But in the U.S. under Reagan, the word was largely restricted to groups in Latin America and Central America.

In due course, the U.S. would also apply "terrorism" to Arab actors and to Iran. But it ran into the problem that if nations were going to be listed as "state sponsors" of terrorism, then U.S. ally Saudi Arabia would have to go on the list, and that would not do.[note 1] Not to mention it could have applied to the US too, given state support of groups like the Nicaraguan Contras etc. who fit virtually any definition of "terrorist". The result has been that multiple definitions of terrorism are used in U.S. statutes and policies, as well as in everyday discourse, and the Western nations are opposed to any attempt to settle on an international definition:

Since ’87 [every other year] there has been a proposal at the UN to convene an international conference to define terrorism and differentiate terrorism from struggles of national liberation....the majority of member states votes in favor of it, and every other year, the Western world, every single Western state votes against it....the rest of the world they want to have a conference, and that tells you a lot about how power is wielded in the world, and of course for those countries that are not powerful, the UN is the one place where they have a voice, where they feel like they have some power, so of course they do want the definition. We don’t, because it serves our interests to not have [it].[4]

Fascinating case of Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK)[edit]

In recent years, many powerful Americans took lavish compensation for speaking fees and services from the Iranian group MEK[note 2] while it sat with Al Qaeda on the U.S. State Department's list of terrorist organizations.[5] MEK assassinated multiple Iranian nuclear scientists, are "financed, trained and armed by Israel’s secret service," and had assisted in overthrowing the Shah, killing Americans, and holding Americans hostages in the Iranian embassy.[6] Notwithstanding a federal statute severely penalizing providing "material support" to any groups on that list, the following people all took money to speak to and/or advocate for MEK: Rudy Giuliani, Howard Dean, former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D), Louis Freeh, Tom Ridge, former US Attorney General Michael Mukasey and John Bolton. None have been charged with a crime.

The draconian "material support" law has been used to savagely punish other people, mostly Muslims, including a Pakistani sentenced to almost six years in prison for the "crime" of including a Hezbollah news channel in the cable package he offered to television viewers in Brooklyn.[7] American civil libertarians are up in arms over the statute's prohibition of political speech and expression.[8] But, not one of the well-connected people materially supporting MEK had to be concerned. Rather, their influence succeeded in getting MEK removed from the State Department's terrorism list. That is, their (bountiful) material support worked:

...here we have a glittering, bipartisan cast of former US officials and other prominent Americans who are swimming in cash as they advocate on behalf of a designated terrorist organization. After receiving their cash, Howard Dean and Rudy Giuliani met with MEK leaders, and Dean actually declared that the group's leader should be recognized by the west as President of Iran. That is exactly the type of coordinated messaging with a terrorist group with the supreme court found, in its 2010 Humanitarian Law v. Holder ruling, could, consistent with the First Amendment, lead to prosecution for "material support of terrorism" ...

In sum, there are numerous American Muslims sitting in prison for years for far less substantial interactions with terror groups than this bipartisan group of former officials gave to MEK. This is what New York Times Editorial Page Editor Andrew Rosenthal meant when he wrote back in March that the 9/11 attacks have "led to what's essentially a separate justice system for Muslims".[9]

Terrorist vs. Freedom Fighter[edit]

In theory, the terms "terrorist" and "freedom fighter" are orthogonal: the latter describes an objective (achieving freedom), the former is an embrace of specific tactics. In practice, whether a group is labeled "terrorists" or "freedom fighters" usually depends on whether they are on the side of the labeler. These terms are now so loaded that the Western press employs a range of other designations, but these also vary in connotation. Where "militants" is negative, "rebels" is positive. The same reporter will even switch between the labels depending on the official view of the actors.[10] As discussed, no one definition of terrorism exists. However, the set of criteria generally used in international relations is:

  1. Violence[note 3]
  2. Non-state or covert actions[note 4]
  3. Targets civilians[note 5]
  4. Clandestine[note 6]
  5. Political agenda[note 7]

Notable terrorist groups[edit]


Flag used by various Al-Qaeda factions.

Religious fanatics of all faiths have long used extreme violence to promote the end of the world, kill unbelievers, or achieve a place in heaven via martyrdom. Islamist terrorism is the most well-known form, although it is comparatively recent, dating to the 1980s Russian-Afghan War, with the 1993 World Trade Center attacks the first notable incident in the West.[11]

Emblem often used by members of the KKK.


One of the earliest forms of recognisably modern terrorism was the nihilist movement from Russia founded in the 1860s, a radical left-anarchist movement.[12] In the 20th and 21st centuries, both far-left and far-right groups have used terrorism as an attempt to overturn the government, make a country ungovernable, and promote revolution.

ELN banner.
  • Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) and Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) — leftist, populist, drug dealing, Colombia (de facto control over a region of the country)
  • Nihon Sekigun (Japanese Red Army) — leftist, Japan
  • Mujahedin-e Khalq — leftist, Iran
  • The fascist MVSN (Blackshirts) — right-wing, Italian
  • The Nazi SA (Brownshirts) — right-wing, German
  • National Socialist Underground — right-wing, German
  • Proud Boys — right-wing, American
  • Red Shirts — right-wing, American
  • Sandinistas in Nicaragua during the 1980s — formerly communist
  • Shining Path — leftist, Peruvian
  • Sovereign citizens — right-wing, American
  • Symbionese Liberation Army — leftist, American
  • Three Percenters — right-wing, American
  • United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) — right-wing, populist, drug dealing
  • Ustaše — right-wing, Croatia (controlled a puppet state during WW2 under German occupation)
  • Weather Underground — leftist, American
  • Westland New Post — right-wing, anti-communist, Belgian
  • White League — right-wing, American


Flag of the Viet Cong.

Nationalist terrorism has a long history: in the 20th century numerous European separatist movements attempted campaigns of violence, generally with limited political success. In the Middle East, Palestinian terrorists (or freedom fighters) nearly achieved independence from Israel. Elsewhere, terrorism overlapped with guerrilla warfare in many colonial or post-colonial struggles for autonomy or independence, under the influence of thinkers such as Frantz FanonWikipedia, who argued for the "cleansing" power of violence in post-colonial independence movements.[13]

  • African National Congress during the apartheid period (i.e. 1983 Church Street bombing) — South Africa
  • ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna) — Basque country
  • Fatah / PLO / PFLP — secular alternatives to Hamas; all but the last one have rejected violence in recent years and are no longer regarded as terrorists by the US and Israel
  • Hamas — nationalist, wrapped in religious package
  • Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê — Abbreviated PKK meaning Kurdistan Workers Party, fighting insurgency against Turkey since 1974 for the independence of Kurdistan
  • Irgun and the Stern Gang - Zionist terrorist organizations responsible for the bombing of the King David Hotel in 1946, ethnically cleansing Arab villages, assassinating a UN mediator and innovating the letter bomb
  • The Irish Republican ArmyRoman Catholic as a reaction to British Protestant oppression, based largely on religion
  • Tamil TigersIndia and Sri Lanka, fought for an independent Tamil state, defunct from 2009 after defeat by Sri Lankan government
  • Timothy McVeigh and the American militia movement more generally
  • Ulster loyalist groups such as Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and Ulster Defence Association (UDA) in Northern Ireland
  • The Viet Cong ("Victor Charlie")
  • Most "national liberation organizations" you disagree with

Domestic terrorism in the USA[edit]

Aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing.

Liberals and humanists in the US have begun to adopt the phrase "domestic terrorism" when addressing attacks motivated by hatred of one group for a specific trait. Laws that limit acts which are generally categorized as "hate crimes" by so-called "hate groups" are more easily understood as "terrorism" than "hate".

Legal experts legitimately ask, "how can you legislate hate?" Perhaps we cannot. But advocates of the term "domestic terrorism" would say that the goal of the terrorists (be they KKK members, people who shoot ob-gyns who perform abortions, or someone killing a gay man just for being gay) is not acting out hatred, but causing the entire community who share that trait to be afraid to go on with their daily lives — the attempt to control a class of people through fear of violence.

The global jihad has also brought the phenomena of homegrown jihad to the United States. Between September 11, 2001 and December 2012 the Congressional Research Service reports 63 homegrown violent jihadist terrorist plots and attacks. They are occurring with increasing frequency, with 42 in the last two and half years of that period. In at least 36 cases, the jihadists received or intended to receive training abroad.[14]

Right-wing terrorism[edit]

In the United States there is an increasing number of terrorist attacks motivated by right-wing views. According to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism And Responses to Terrorism (START), during the 2010s there has been a "sharp increase" in the number of terrorist attacks carried out by right-wing extremists.[15] White supremacism, anti-Muslim extremism and anti-abortion extremism were among the most deadly forms of right-wing terror.

Civilian terror trial[edit]

A civilian terror trial is the colloquial name given to a trial in civilian courts for those accused of terrorist acts against the United States of America. Those currently held as terrorists or enemy combatants by the US Government can be tried in military tribunals or in the civilian courts, as the jurisdiction of the crime is still an uncertainty in US law.

According to a November 2009 Rasmussen poll, most citizens of New York City, where the proposed civilian terror trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four alleged accomplices were to be held, did not want the trial to occur in their city.[16] This NIMBY approach has given a smaller, upstate city called Newburgh some national attention, when its mayor, Nicholas Valentine, offering to hold the civilian terror trials in his jurisdiction.[17]

How terrorist groups end[edit]

In 2008 the RAND CorporationWikipedia released a study that examined terrorist activities, looking specifically at how terror-wielding organizations are ultimately destroyed or self-destruct. The report suggested that any US policy truly grounded in the idea of ending terrorism and not just "playing politics" should focus on measures to either remove adherents' reasons for being in terrorist groups or provide better options for adherents to address their grievances. Specifically, the study found that membership in terrorist cells and organizations declined for the following reasons:

  1. 43% of membership loss happened when members converted to mainstream political/religious movements.
  2. 40% of the decline happened because of law enforcement activities and apprehension.
  3. 10% of membership left because the group achieved their stated or perceived goals.
  4. 7% exited by being neutralized through military action.
Death rate comparison for terrorism, motor vehicle accidents, drunk driving, gun homicides, gun accidents, tuberculosis, tornadoes, and lightning
The threat of terrorism.[note 8]

Under the George W. Bush administration (2001-2009), virtually all US anti-terrorism spending went to fund the single least-effective method of ending terrorism: military action.

The study also noted that, with regard to religion, strong religious convictions make any terrorist group harder to break up. The religious convictions are actually more likely to be realized (and this, RAND states, is good for peaceful, non-military intervention), and perhaps most obviously, rich countries are less likely to have religiously-motivated terrorism.

RAND concludes that police work and intelligence gathering, in conjunction with a disciplined and straightforward commitment to realizing and resolving a terrorist group's grievances, are not only far more likely to be successful, but are actually significantly less expensive than military action.[18]

The War on Terror unleashed after 9/11 has cost the US government almost 400 billion dollars. Within the United States, the risk of dying from a lightning strike exceeds the risk of dying as a result of airplane terrorism about 50-fold.[19] And 400 billion dollars could pay for a great many lightning conductors. According to Edward Snowden, "Bathtub falls and police officers kill more Americans than terrorism, yet we’ve been asked to sacrifice our most sacred rights for fear of falling victim to it." 17 Americans were killed worldwide by terrorism in 2011 and 14 were injured, in contrast 32,000 died of traffic accidents in 2011; you're actually more likely to get injured in a bar, a place where TSA scanners would most likely reveal enough weapons and drugs over time to justify a price tag in the jet stream.[20]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. Thorny problems like this are why the U.S. stands alone in the word, even from Israel, in holding "that state terrorism doesn’t exist but more importantly that state sponsored terrorism doesn’t exist." Brulin
  2. MEK's prime goal is the removal of Iran's government.
  3. No matter what China says, the President of Taiwan is not a terrorist for saying that Taiwan is an independent country.
  4. If a military does it, it's a war crime, not terrorism. However, this is usually considered the most debatable of the criteria.
  5. If it targets a military, it's guerrilla warfare, not terrorism. Yes, that includes the attack on the USS Cole.
  6. If it's announced, it's not terrorism.
  7. If someone shoots up a McDonald's to send a message to the US, it's terrorism. If they do so because their dog told them to, they're a (psychotic) mass murderer.
  8. Now someone needs to make a graph of the amount of money our government has spent to (ostensibly) stop each of these things.


  1. See the Wikipedia article on Definitions of terrorism.
  2. The Key War on Terror Propaganda Tool: Only Western Victims Are Acknowledged The Intercept 24 April 2015
  3. Salon Radio: Remi Brulin Transcript - The most meaningless and manipulated political word Salon 14 March 2010
  4. Salon Radio: Remi Brulin transcript
  5. Iranian group's big-money push to get off US terrorist list The Christian Science Monitor
  6. Israel teams with terror group to kill Iran's nuclear scientists, U.S. officials tell NBC News NBC News 9 February 2012
  7. Conservatives, Democrats and the convenience of denouncing free speech The Guardian 16 September 2012
  8. Supreme Court Rules "Material Support" Law Can Stand ACLU 21 June 2010
  9. Five lessons from the de-listing of MEK as a terrorist group The Guardian 23 September 2012
  10. We Have Found the Enemy and He Is Us Like the Dew 4 September 2012.
  11. See the Wikipedia article on Islamic terrorism.
  12. See the Wikipedia article on Russian nihilist movement.
  13. The Doctor Prescribed Violence The New York Times 2 September 2001
  14. American Jihadist Terrorism: Congressioanal Research Service, January 23, 2013, p.5; 138-139 pdf.
  15. Ideological Motivations of Terrorism in the United States 1970-2016, November 2017, p. 5; pdf
  16. 55% in New York Oppose Civilian Terror Trials Rasmussen Reports 20 November 2009
  17. Small-Town Mayor to Obama: Bring Terror Trial Here FOX News 29 January 2010
  18. How Terrorist Groups End: Implications for Countering al Qa'ida RAND 2008
  19. Odds of Dying in Terrorist Attack on Airline: 1 in 25 million; Struck by Lightning: 1 in 500,000 Riverfront Times 11 January 2010
  20. http://watchdog.org/90847/ten-things-more-likely-to-kill-you-than-a-terrorist-plot-and-the-government-isnt-trying-to-protect-us-from-any-of-them/