National Geographic Magazine Online Extra, November 2004,
World of Terror
Walter LaqueurAs the new century began, an epidemic of terrorism spread panic around the globe. In world capitals, leaders fortified their security and curtailed public appearances. Ordinary citizens felt unsafe walking the streets of major cities, while the terrorists themselves were like phantoms—everywhere and nowhere at the same time, seemingly able to strike at will. Terrorism became the preoccupation of police and politicians, bankers and business leaders.
Headlines screamed out news of the latest outrage: "WASHINGTON STUNNED BY THE TRAGEDY" in one paper, "IN GREAT PERIL" in another. One horrific September terrorist attack, in the United States, sent the stock market reeling and sparked anti-immigrant sentiment. Another attack, in Madrid, plunged Spanish politics into turmoil over issues of war and peace. Politicians in the U.S. took to describing the war on terror as a struggle of good versus evil, while some religious leaders, quoting scripture, proclaimed that the end of the world was at hand. The year was 1901.
As frightening as modern terrorism is, the bitter fear it generates would have been familiar to those alive at the turn of the 20th century. A few decades before, Russian revolutionaries had killed Tsar Alexander II with a bomb in St. Petersburg. In 1894 an Italian anarchist stabbed French president Sadi Carnot. In 1897 the Spanish prime minister was assassinated just as Cuba's drive for independence was boiling over; within a year, Spain was at war with the United States. And in 1901 William McKinley, President of the U.S., was assassinated by a 28-year-old anarchist, Leon Czolgosz. Thirteen years later, of course, a Serbian terrorist shot and killed Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria—and triggered World War I.
Obviously terrorism—defined here as the systematic use of murder, injury, and destruction, or the threat of such acts, aimed at achieving political ends—has the power to alter the course of history, as the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington, last spring's train bombings in Madrid, and bloodcurdling headlines from Israel and Iraq remind us today. And with the additional threat posed by weapons of mass destruction, it does seem that humanity has crossed into a perilous new era, in which a new breed of terrorist, armed with fearsome new weapons, has acquired the means to challenge even the most powerful
nations on Earth.
How did the world come to this point? What in the world has changed?
Terrorism is as old as the story of mankind. It appears in the history of ancient Greece and Rome—the murder of Julius Caesar was an act of terror—and in practically every century since then, and in every part of the world. But much has changed in just the past century, starting with the choice of targets. In the past the typical victim of terrorism was an emperor or a king, a president, a general, or at least a government official. Terrorists would actually call off an attack in order to spare innocent lives, because indiscriminate killing was considered both immoral and politically unwise. Many of today's terrorists feel no such inhibitions. Motives have also changed. A century ago terrorism was mainly used by groups and individuals whose aims were either revolutionary or anarchist or, in the case of Ireland and the Balkans, nationalist. A look at the geography of terror around 1970 still showed the same basic trends—left-wing terrorism in Europe and Latin America; nationalist or separatist terrorism in Northern Ireland, Spain's Basque region, and the Middle East; and a few right-wing terrorist groups in Italy, Turkey, and other countries.
Today, however, extreme Islamist groups such as al Qaeda have moved to the vanguard of global terrorism. According to the CIA, al Qaeda or affiliated groups are operating in 68 countries worldwide. And while the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington represent their most spectacular success to date, other attacks have occurred in Morocco, Tunisia, Spain, Indonesia, the Philippines, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Iraq, and Russia—all since 9/11. According to Osama bin Laden and other leaders, al Qaeda is motivated by the Islamic tradition of jihad, or holy war, to defend the faith against nonbelievers. They see themselves as engaged in a global struggle against a corrupt and oppressive enemy, the West.
Compare this with the motives of the Russian anarchists of 1881, or the Oklahoma City bombers, or Peru's Shining Path, or the Irish Republican Army, or the Unabomber. Obviously, terrorists have very little in common ideologically. What they share is willingness to use the same brutal tactics to achieve their goals.
They also are not, despite a popular misconception, driven to terrorism by personal poverty. The leaders and many of the foot soldiers in the Islamist movements come from solidly middle-class backgrounds, and some, like bin Laden, from very wealthy families. That's not to say that social factors like poverty and despair don't radicalize populations. But hunger by itself does not necessarily lead to political violence; many of the world's poorest nations report little or no terrorism.
Nor is it true that terrorism occurs in the most repressive regimes. There was little terrorism in Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, or Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Terrorism needs a certain amount of freedom to mobilize its supporters and to get organized; it suffocates in a dictatorship, which itself practices a form of terrorism, but wearing uniforms and insignia.
Hundreds of national and religious minorities in the world are persecuted; there are few nations, in fact, in which minorities do not feel oppressed. But only a handful resort to terrorism, and here cultural and social traditions seem to play a role. Certain human societies seem to tolerate violence more readily than others. Why did the radical Basques in Spain choose terrorism while the Catalans followed a more peaceful path? Why did the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka engage in one of the longest and bloodiest terrorist campaigns in history, while the Muslims of Sri Lanka, also repressed, did not?
Terrorism also seems to require charismatic leaders capable of inspiring recruits to face danger or death, and also to win the sympathy of the surrounding population. In post–World War II Palestine, the Zionist terrorist groups Irgun and Stern Gang enjoyed support from parts of the Jewish community in Palestine and the U.S. and helped in driving out the British; an Irgun commander, Menachem Begin, was later elected prime minister of Israel. Conversely, leaders of the Japanese group Aum Shinrikyo, which attacked the Tokyo subway with poison gas in 1995, had little support beyond their ranks—and today they languish in jail.
What can be done to counter, or at least to defuse, the danger of terrorism in the future? Some movements are open to political solutions—especially those demanding greater political autonomy, such as the Kurds in Turkey and the Chechens in Russia. But the more radical groups like al Qaeda are not interested in compromises; they demand total victory.
In the long term, such white-hot fanaticism may burn out and even disappear, making way for new kinds of zealotry. But in the meantime, we are faced with one of the most dangerous passages in human history. For the first time ever, terrorists—these small and unpredictable groups of people, stateless, tethered to no morality other than their own—have a potential for harm that defies the imagination, should weapons of mass destruction fall into their hands. Civilization will prevail—it always has—but there can be no final victory in the "war on terror," which, in one form or another, will continue as long as there are conflicts on Earth.