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II. Definition of Terrorism
III. State-Sponsored Terrorism
IV. Nonstate Actors: Their History, Goals, and Strategies
V. Technology and Globalization
VI. Terrorist Financing and Counterterrorism
VII. Future Directions
The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon were the first in a series of dramatic and destructive terrorist attacks in which Islamist extremists sought to coerce Western and pro-Western governments into changing at least some of their policies. Subsequently, there were major attacks in the United Kingdom, Spain, Algeria, Egypt, and Jordan by Islamist radicals. Thousands of people perished in the September 11 attacks alone, and hundreds died after trains were bombed in London and Madrid.
These attacks made terrorism a front-and-center issue in the United States and Western Europe, but terrorism has been a major concern for many decades in many different parts of the world. Israel, Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Japan, for example, have also experienced serious terrorist incidents since the mid- 1990s. Indeed, terrorism in various forms has existed for centuries. Perhaps the earliest organized terrorist movement was by the Zealots in the first century. The Zealots used public assassinations as a tactic for frightening Jewish residents into refusing to cooperate with the Roman occupiers of the Holy Lands.
Terrorism was particularly widespread in 19th-century Europe. Anarchist and nationalist groups all resorted to violence against government officials and/or average citizens suspected of collaborating with the authorities. Anarchists sought to topple governments by killing key leaders—hoping that this would usher in an era of self-governance by the people themselves. Nationalists as far apart as Armenia (in the Ottoman Empire), Bosnia (in Austria-Hungary), and Ireland (in the British Empire) used violence against nonmilitary targets, including civilian infrastructure like the London subway, to do what the Zealots had attempted to do centuries earlier: compel an imperial power to withdraw and grant their territories independence.
II. Definition of Terrorism
It is ironic that despite the international concern over terrorism, the states of the world have been unable to agree on a single definition of the term. The primary reason is political. Some states believe that certain forms of violence should not be categorized as terrorism, merely because it suits their foreign policy interests, or because they believe that “Western” definitions of terrorism are hypocritical. This is particularly the case with the violence perpetrated by Palestinian groups against targets in Israel. Often these attacks consist of suicide bombings on Israeli streets or the firing of small rockets into Israeli villages from the Gaza strip. Arab states believe that these actions should be considered a legitimate form of resistance against an occupying power. (Israel occupied Gaza until recently and still occupies much of the West Bank.) Often this view is associated with the perception that Israel is not a legitimate state in the first place—despite the fact that it was recognized by the United Nations 60 years ago and that some Arab states and the Palestinian Authority have acknowledged Israel’s legitimacy.
Arab and Muslim states, in general, also believe that the United States and other Western powers should recognize that the actions taken by the Palestinians are not so different from the violent acts performed by American and European revolutionaries in the 18th and 19th centuries or by the anti-Nazi resistance in World War II. They maintain that it is hypocritical to label Palestinian violence as terrorism but attacks on nonmilitary targets during the American or French Revolutions as acts of heroism. Of course, it is equally hypocritical for these same Arab states to deny—as they do in statements by the League of Arab States—that anti-regime violence directed at them by domestic revolutionaries is terrorism, not a legitimate form of resistance.
The differences about whether Palestinian violence should or should not be classified as terrorism will persist for the foreseeable future—so there may not ever be a common, international definition. There has, nevertheless, been a consensus among scholars and statesmen in most of the world that terrorism is
violence against nonmilitary or civilian targets that is designed to create fear outside the immediate circle of victims, in order to promote a political objective.
This definition provides important criteria for distinguishing among “ordinary” crime, psychotic behavior, and terrorism. The definition also allows us to distinguish between terrorism and insurgency or guerrilla warfare, although in practice there is overlap, as insurgents often use terror tactics. For our purposes, though, an insurgency is an organized attempt by a group of people to confront the military forces of a state and to secure control over a specified territory. Insurgents usually are also organized in an overt and military-like manner. Terrorists typically avoid direct confrontation with military forces and are organized more like criminal gangs—secretive and smaller in number—and rarely chose to directly confront military forces. Terrorists also ordinarily do not seek to directly control and administer territory.
The purpose of most violent crime is, obviously, financial gain for the perpetrator. Other violent crime may be intended to satisfy some personal agenda or emotional need—for example, revenge against someone for a real or perceived slight. Clearly, such forms of criminal violence can instill fear in the victims, their families, and perhaps entire neighborhoods, but unlike the case with terrorism, this fear is not created in order to serve a political purpose. Violence by a mentally unbalanced individual ordinarily can also create fear, but it is not designed to achieve a rational political goal.
Another form of politically motivated violence against civilian targets is terror practiced by the state against its own population or the population of an occupied territory. One of the most infamous examples is the violence of Nazi Germany against German Jews and others as well as against civilian populations in much of Europe during WorldWar II. An equally infamous example was the Great Terror in the Soviet Union, notably under Joseph Stalin, where millions of average citizens were killed or sent to labor camps and even government and military functionaries were jailed or executed, even though they were innocent of any crimes against the state. In both cases, the purpose of the violence was political: to eliminate opposition to the regime and its policies. Thus, the practice of state terror differs from terrorism in important respects. It is conducted by the state itself and is designed to prevent policy or regime changes, whereas terrorism is conducted by nonstate actors (individuals or groups that are not employed by a state and are thus free to act independently of any state) who are seeking change.
Because of their nonstate status and the fact that their violence is illegal, terrorists ordinarily organize into conspiratorial groups with internal discipline necessary to evade the authorities in the states where they commit their acts of violence. As noted below, there are exceptions, as some groups have become so large and so entrenched that they have essentially two wings: a political or social services wing that operates in public and another wing that undertakes terrorist operations.
Some important distinctions need to be made when discussing state terror and terrorism. One is that states occasionally use violence to further their national interests. When the violence is conducted by the military against the armed forces of another state, it is war—not state terror or terrorism. When the violence is covert (as in the assassination of a foreign leader), it is technically an act of war— not state terror or terrorism. When states in effect use terrorist groups (nonstate actors) to engage in acts of violence against civilian targets in another country, that is state-sponsored terrorism.
III. State-Sponsored Terrorism
Sponsorship can take various forms, but usually it consists of a state providing financial support, equipment, or technical assistance to a client terrorist group or groups. The support can be passive, as would be the case when a state allows a terrorist group or groups to operate headquarters and perhaps even run its own training camps inside the state’s borders. Or, the support can be active, as would be the case when a state actually trains the terrorists and/or provides them with weapons, money, and travel documents. In some cases, a state may even pay the terrorists to conduct specific operations in another country.
Some states sponsor terrorist groups because it enables them to commit acts of violence against a rival state without having to go to war. Typically, a state would do this in order to weaken the other state or create political discord inside it. States may also sponsor terrorist groups because they are in ideological agreement with the group’s objectives. For example, during the Cold War, communist East Germany supported leftist terrorists in West Germany to help further the spread of communism and weaken West Germany’s attachment to NATO. Domestic political pressures may also be factor. For example, after losing the 1948 war against Israel, Egypt supported the fedayeen (Arabic for self-sacrificers or freedom fighters), who infiltrated and attacked Israel. Egypt was too weak to directly attack Israel, but its support of the fedayeen allowed it to demonstrate to the Egyptian people that it was still standing up to Israel. Syria is another example. The Syrian government in Damascus allows Islamist terrorist groups to maintain headquarters in the country, in part so that the regime can tout its Islamic credentials (the regime of President Assad is dominated by Alawites, a sect that many Muslims regard as heretical) and claim that it too is standing up to Israel despite having been defeated on the battlefield.
The bottom line is that states sponsor terrorism because they are unwilling or too weak to confront another state militarily. In effect, the states use the terrorist groups for the purposes of the state—a fact that is amply demonstrated by Syria’s efforts to divide the Palestinian movement by playing one group off against another and by its use of violence against Palestinian groups that did not adhere to Syrian foreign policy in the 1980s. In 1988, Syria helped the Amal militia in Lebanon attack the strongholds of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) because the PLO had become too powerful and too independent. Thus, accepting state sponsorship can be something of a Faustian bargain for a terrorist group, as the sponsor can restrain the group from pursuing its own goals or can even take action against a group it once sponsored.
The U.S. government has formally designated four states as state sponsors of terrorism: Syria, Iran, Sudan, and Cuba. Until 2006 and 2008, Libya and North Korea, respectively, were also on the list.A state that has been designated is subject to a variety of economic sanctions by the United States, the most important of which are restrictions on foreign assistance, a ban on defense-related sales, and controls over exports of “dual use” items (systems that can be used in both commercial and military applications, such as advanced computers). There is some controversy about the efficacy of these sanctions—some of the designated states have been on the list for more than 20 years; the duration obviously suggests that the sanctions have not caused those states to change their policies. This certainly seems to have been the case with respect to Iran, which continues to provide training and financial support to Hezbollah, a terrorist group that has effectively taken over southern Lebanon. A primary reason for the apparent ineffectiveness of the sanctions is that they are not universal. For a variety of reasons, few other states apply economic pressure on the states that the United States has designated as state sponsors.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Libya adopted the unusual policy of openly supporting a wide variety of terrorist groups. (Most state sponsors officially deny that they support terrorist groups or claim that the groups they support do not engage in terrorism.) Libya supported groups as disparate in their ideology as the politically conservative Irish Republican Army, the leftist Japanese Red Army, and assorted Palestinian factions by them providing with training camps, technical assistance, and financing. The Libyan leader, Muammar Qaddadfi’s apparent intention was to destabilize the status quo, which favored the United States and Europe, and in so doing increase Libya’s influence at least in North Africa. Ultimately, Qaddafi’s support for terrorism and his erratic foreign policy alienated neighboring states and made Libya a pariah even in the region.
Libya’s role in a terrorist attack on a Berlin night club frequented by American servicemen led to a retaliatory attack by the United States in 1986. This attack consisted of bombing runs by U.S. warplanes over some Libyan government facilities and terrorist camps. The attacks did not cause Libya to reduce its support to terrorists (there actually was an increase in Libya-supported terrorism immediately after the attacks), but it did help convince European states that they should cooperate with the United States in tightening economic sanctions against Libya’s only important industry, energy.
By the late 1980s and 1990s, oil prices had fallen sharply and the sanctions prevented Libya from getting the drilling and refining equipment it needed to expand production and offset its loss of revenue from lower oil prices. The result was the gradual erosion of the Libyan economy and an increase in dissatisfaction with the status quo among the Libyan people. Eventually, these developments caused Libya to take the steps it needed to convince the West that it no longer supported terrorism. North Korea was also driven by a combination of economic distress and diplomatic pressure to abandon its sponsorship of terrorism and, more important, its nuclear weapons programs in 2008.
The oil markets in the 21st century are quite different than they were in the 1990s. Prices are high and supplies tight. Thus, it seems unlikely that economic sanctions can have similar effects on Iran, which has both the world’s third-largest oil reserves and an ideological commitment to the Islamist groups it has been supporting. Indeed, Iran has officially stated that it shares the objectives of these groups, that is, the destruction of Israel and the return of the territory occupied by the Jewish state to Islam in general and to the Palestinians in particular. As long as Iran shares these objectives and is able to support its economy through oil exports, it will likely continue to sponsor Hezbollah and Hamas, two groups that have been designated by the United States and most European states as terrorist organizations. Iran rejects that designation, claiming instead that both groups are engaged in legitimate resistance against an occupying power.
There is, as well, controversy about the “stickiness” of the “state-sponsored” designations. What this means is that it is sometimes politically difficult to remove a state from the list of designated states. Cuba, for example, has remained on the list, even though the U.S. government concedes that in recent years its biggest offenses have been that it failed to take a strong stand on counterterrorism and that it has maintained relations with Iran and North Korea. The reason that Cuba has remained on the list is concern about the political symbolism of taking it off the list as long as the Castro regime (Fidel Castro’s brother assumed the presidency in 2006) is still in power in Havana.
IV. Nonstate Actors: Their History, Goals, and Strategies
The major terrorist threat in the early 21st century is not from the states that sponsor terrorism, but rather from nonstate terrorist groups—organizations operating as independent actors even though they may occasionally accept support from states. Al Qaeda is the most notorious example of a nonstate terrorist group, but there are many others, and nonstate terrorist groups have been a serious law enforcement and foreign policy issue for at least the past two centuries.
Al Qaeda (Arabic for “the base”) is the perpetrator of perhaps the most infamous terrorist attack of all times: the September 11, 2001, destruction of the World Trade Center in New York City and the extensive damage at the Pentagon, the headquarters building of the U.S. Department of Defense. The September 11 attacks were remarkable for the number of casualties they caused, the high profile of the targets, and the sophistication of the terrorists’ methods. They hijacked four airliners roughly simultaneously and crashed them into the two World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. The fourth hijacked plane did not reach its target, apparently because the passengers realized what was happening and fought with the hijackers. This plane crashed in a rural area of Pennsylvania, killing all aboard. Overall, more than 3,000 people were killed in these incidents, excluding the hijackers themselves who, of course, also perished. By way of comparison, 2,400 people were killed in the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor that propelled the United States into World War II.
Headed by Osama Bin Laden, Al Qaeda was established at the end of the Soviet-Afghan war in 1988. This war was fought by so-called mujaheedin (Arabic for strugglers or warriors)—groups of Afghan refugees infiltrated back into the country from Pakistan, tribal groups inside Afghanistan, and foreign fighters from other Muslim countries—who were supplied with weapons and equipment by the United States and Saudi Arabia. The weapons were distributed through the Pakistanis, thus the myth that the mujaheedin defeated the Soviets without help from the West was allowed to grow.
After the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, most of the foreign fighters (also known locally as Afghan Arabs) returned to their homelands, but some chose to continue fighting those whom they perceived to be the enemies of Islam. Bin Laden and his closest allies were prominent among this group, and they built Al Qaeda both as a terrorist organization and as supporter of other terrorist organizations.
Among Bin Laden’s inner circle were a number of Egyptian radicals who wanted to return to Egypt to fight against the secular regime in Cairo; others chose to follow Bin Laden’s strategy of fighting the “far enemy”—the United States, the nation that was supporting many of the regimes in the Middle East that Al Qaeda and other Islamic radicals regarded as the “near enemy” for their failure to adhere closely enough to fundamental Islam, corruption, and the repression of domestic opposition.
Bin Laden and his group left Afghanistan and settled in Sudan, where they operated training camps for Al Qaeda recruits and planned various terrorist operations. Pressure on the Sudanese government by the United States and others caused Sudan to expel Al Qaeda, so Bin Laden and company relocated back to Afghanistan, where they helped the Taliban win the civil war that had broken out after the Soviet withdrawal. Once the Taliban was in power, they allowed Al Qaeda to set up bases and operate extensive training camps in the country. It was from the Al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan that the September 11 attacks were orchestrated, and thousands of young men were trained in terrorist tactics and weapons handling.
The Taliban and Al Qaeda are often referred to as Islamist or Salafist, and they are not the only groups to which these labels have been applied. Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad have also been labeled this way. Islamist refers to the ideology (Islamism) that the tenets of Islam should control all aspects of human behavior. Salafist is a reference to the early followers of the prophet Muhammed, who are collectively known as the “Salafi,” and they represent a supposed golden era of adherence to the tenets of Islam. Salafists want to get modern society to similarly adhere to the religion—thus their objectives are basically the same as those of Islamists.
What this means in practice is that Islamists and Salafists agree that there should be no division of church and state, and that Islamic holy law or sharia should become the law of the land. They also agree that governments that do not adhere to sharia, or are corrupt, must be replaced, although only a minority believes that they should be replaced by force. Many Islamists and Salafists also believe that all Muslim states should be consolidated into a single community of believers known as the Caliphate, essentially a resurrection of the Ottoman Empire or one of its predecessor empires in the Middle East and North Africa. Bin Laden has said that the Caliphate should include not only Israel, but also Spain and Portugal, because those lands were once controlled by Muslims.
Al Qaeda and other Islamist terror groups justify their use of violence in a couple of ways. One is denying that their victims are truly innocent, because the victims are somehow complicit in the supposed mistreatment of Muslims. Indeed, these groups tend to see Western policy in the Middle East as part of a grand conspiracy to undermine Islam that started with the Crusades 1,000 years ago. They also see the state of Israel as the embodiment of the conspiracy, because it occupies land in the heart of the Muslim world and because it was able to defeat Arab armies only because of assistance given to it by the United States, which now is the leading state in the West.
Islamist terror groups also attempt to justify their use of violence through the concept of jihad. Jihad is also used to justify other forms of violence, such as insurgency and interstate war—for example, the Ottoman Empire declared jihad when it entered World War I.
There are five pillars of Islam: profession of faith in one god, Allah; daily prayers; alms giving; ritual fasting during Ramadan, a month in the Muslim calendar; and pilgrimage to Mecca, Islam’s holiest city. Jihad is considered a sixth pillar by some Sunnis, and it is one of the ten required practices by many Shi’ites. (Sunnis and Shi’ites are the two main sects in Islam—more than 80% of all Muslims are Sunni.) All Muslims recognize jihad as a requirement, but there are different interpretations of jihad among Muslims.
Technically, the word jihad means struggle. The term is interpreted to mean both the struggle to live a good life consistent with the faith (the so-called greater jihad) and a struggle against the enemies of Islam (the lesser jihad), in effect a holy war. Holy war can be offensive, for the purposes of spreading the faith or expanding a Muslim state. It can also be defensive—defending the believers and their state against invaders, as during the Crusades. The most common usage is defensive holy war, but terrorists have creatively interpreted the concept in ways that attempt to justify violence against nonmilitary, civilian targets.
The traditional consensus has been that jihad can only be declared with the approval of religious authorities, but Islam does not have a unified hierarchy like the Roman Catholic Church, which can issue rulings that are generally recognized as authoritative by all Catholics. Islam has instead a variety of religious scholars and leaders, some of whom are recognized as the most important scholar in a particular country; others can be self-proclaimed experts in religious law. As a result, jihad has been authorized by a wide variety of religious leaders and for a wide variety of causes. For example, Osama Bin Laden declared jihad on the West using the status he cultivated as a religious scholar, even though most Muslims do not regard him as having the necessary credentials. Indeed, many other Muslim scholars have specifically rejected Bin Laden and his declaration of jihad.
Islamic law articulates rules of war that should be followed whenever holy war is declared. Among those rules is the proscription against killing or hurting women and children—a rule to which Muslim terrorists obviously do not adhere. Again, extremists sometimes try to justify these violations of the holy law by claiming that when women, children, and the elderly are victimized, it is either inadvertent—even though that is obviously not the case when a terrorist explodes a bomb on a crowded bus or in a restaurant—or unavoidable collateral damage. Extremists sometimes also assert that holy law does not apply when the women and children are part of a militarized society. This last argument has often been used in reference to attacks in Israel, where there is universal conscription and many people work for the Israeli government or a defenserelated industry.
Hamas is a Sunni group based in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah is a Shi’ite group based in southern Lebanon. Each combines nationalist and religious ideologies. That is to say, both believe that the state of Israel should be eliminated and that the lands occupied by Israel must be returned to the Palestinian people. They also believe that the Palestinian state that would replace Israel should be governed by Islamic law. Both of these two groups are more entrenched in their communities than the typical terrorist organization. Indeed, both operate nonviolent branches that provide social services (schooling and medical care) to their constituents, and both also function as political parties. In branching off into legitimate social and political pursuits, these two groups are following in the footsteps of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (indeed, Hamas is an offshoot of the Brotherhood). The Muslim Brotherhood also offers social services and stands candidates for parliamentary elections. Unlike Hamas and Hezbollah, the Brotherhood in Egypt recently renounced violence.
In the 2005 election, Hezbollah won 14 seats in the 128-seat Lebanese parliament; Hamas actually won a majority of the seats in the Palestinian Authority’s parliament in the 2006 elections. Since the 2006 elections, Hamas fought a mini–civil war with the other leading party, Fatah, with the result that Hamas took over Gaza entirely and administers it separately from the West Bank. Hamas and Hezbollah even operate their own satellite television stations through which anti-Israeli propaganda is routinely broadcast.
Of the two, Hezbollah has been the greater international threat. Its operatives are suspected of bombing Israeli and Jewish facilities in Europe and as far way as Argentina. Hamas, on the other hand, has concentrated its violence on Israel and other Palestinian factions. One of Hamas’s preferred methods is firing rockets into Israel—the rockets are handmade, small, and lack guidance mechanisms. Another is the employment of suicide bombers. Other Palestinian groups use the same tactics—for example, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group also has an arsenal of improvised rockets that it fires into Israel. Literally hundreds of such rockets are fired into the Jewish state every year.
In a sense, the rockets and suicide bombers are the quintessential terrorist weapons. The rockets are plainly designed to do little more than create fear among Israeli civilians. They are too small and too unreliable (many land without exploding, or explode in unpopulated desert) to have any material effect on Israel’s ability to defend itself, but they obviously frighten residents in Israel’s southern municipalities. Similarly, suicide bombings on a bus or train or of a restaurant have no effect on the Israel military. Instead, such attacks are intended by the terrorist leaders to frighten the Israeli people and to convince them that the Palestinians are so implacable that reconciliation is impossible. The theory is that this will cause the Israeli people to leave Israel or compel their government to make major concessions—concessions that many Israelis argue would never really satisfy Hamas or Hezbollah, whose stated objectives are to destroy Israel.
Not all terrorism in the Middle East or in Muslim lands has been related to Islamism. Indeed, until the mid-1990s, most of the terrorism in the Middle East was conducted by nonstate groups that espoused secular, nonreligious ideologies. During the Cold War, many Palestinian groups espoused Marxist ideologies. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, for example, espoused socialist revolution and the liberation of Palestinian lands from Israel but not the imposition of Islamic Holy Law.Yassir Arafat’s Fatah movement, which became the centerpiece of the umbrella Palestine Liberation Organization, also demanded the liberation of Palestinian lands without the imposition of sharia.
During the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, most of the terrorist groups outside the Middle East were similarly motivated by nationalism or Marxism. Typical of the nationalist groups are the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA). The IRA was committed to the end of British rule in Northern Ireland and of the systematic discrimination against Irish Catholics by the Protestant power structure there. The ETA sought independence for the Basque region of Spain. Leftist groups included the Red Army Faction in West Germany, the Red Brigades in Italy, the Japanese Red Army, the Tupamaros in Uruguay, and in Colombia the Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional (ELN) and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC). Each of these groups resorted to bombings, kidnappings, and murders in order to disrupt capitalist enterprises, frighten the citizenry, and lead their respective countries down the path to socialism.
The FARC and ELN are still in existence, although they seem to be much less ideologically motivated than in their early years. Indeed, FARC is generally thought to be a prime example of the phenomenon of convergence, wherein terrorist groups and criminal organizations collaborate and eventually become more and more like each other. That is to say, the FARC started out earning money by taxing cocaine producers and protecting them from the Colombian government, other producers, and private militias. Over time, FARC became less interested in socialist revolution and more interested in maximizing profits from drug operations. Roughly the same can be said for Abu Sayyaf and the Abu Nidal Organization (ANO). Abu Sayyaf is a Philippine-based terrorist group that nominally espouses an Islamist ideology but in fact spends most of its energies in criminal activities that are designed only to increase the funds available to the group and its members. The ANO originally conducted assassinations in order to help eradicate the state of Israel, but over time it devolved into a murder-for-hire criminal gang. Other terrorist groups work with criminal organizations to obtain weapons, bomb-making materials, and forged travel documents and identification cards without losing their ideological fervor.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam are another important terrorist group. Based in Sri Lanka, the Tamil Tigers are similar to nationalist groups, such as the ETA and IRA, in that they want an independent homeland for a minority population (the Tamils). But in some respects, the Tamil Tigers have been more ruthless and innovative. They were the first to adopt the technique of suicide bombing, and they developed an all-woman elite unit of dedicated fighters. The Tamil Tigers also pioneered terrorist operations at sea—using small boats laden with explosives to crash into commercial or military ships. They have also been adept at fund-raising from overseas Tamils, particularly in Canada and the United Kingdom.
Other terrorist groups worthy of note for the severity of their violence include the following:
- Aum Shinrikyo, a millenarian group in Japan, attempted several chemical attacks on U.S. military and civilian targets. Only the last attempt, a 1995 chemical release during rush hour in the Tokyo subway system, was successful. Although only a small number died, thousands sought medical treatment, and there was widespread panic in the city.
- Chechen nationalists have undertaken a number of high-profile terrorist operations in Russia. In 2004, they took more than 1,000 school children hostage in the town of Beslan. Almost 200 of the children died when security forces took the school buildings from the terrorists. Two years earlier, Chechen terrorists had taken over a Moscow theater, holding 850 people hostage. All of the terrorists and 130 of the hostages were killed when security forces retook the theater.
- In 2002, Jemaah Islamiya bombed a resort in Bali, Indonesia, killing more than 200 people. In 2005, it set off bombs in a town square and a shopping mall in Bali, killing 20. It is also suspected of bombing a Western hotel in Jakarta in 2003, killing 12.
One of the points of this discussion of nonstate terrorist actors is that this phenomenon is neither new nor confined to a particular part of the globe. Another important point to note is that nonstate actors have created mass casualty incidents on every continent. Given the trends in technology and the economy, it seems likely that terrorist groups will not only increase their capacity for causing damage but also continue to be able to conduct operations at great distance from their home bases.
V. Technology and Globalization
Terrorist groups have long been suspected of attempting to acquire weapons of mass destruction (WMD). However, only Aum Shinrikyo has actually employed such a weapon—in its poison gas attack in Tokyo. The technological information and some of the materials needed to build a nuclear, chemical, or biological weapon have been available for a price through illegal sales by governments (e.g., in Pakistan) and criminal smuggling. Aum Shinrikyo actually hired scientists to work on developing chemical weapons, and there are fears that Al Qaeda and some other groups are also actively seeking to develop their own WMD capabilities. That is one of the reasons why the United States and many other governments are working to improve controls over nuclear and other sensitive materials and to crack down on the smuggling of sensitive materials and equipment.
However, as most of the incidents described here demonstrate, substantial numbers of casualties and property damage can be caused by conventional, even simple, weapons. For example, there was nothing sophisticated about the bombs that blew up the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995 or that destroyed a Madrid commuter train in 2004. Even suicide bombers employ what is essentially rudimentary technology, and the September 11 hijackers used no technology of their own—they commandeered commercial airliners and crashed them into buildings. The point is that restrictions on WMD proliferation, as important as they are, will still leave terrorists with most of their preferred tools. Bombs, bomb-making materials, radios to trigger explosions, and a limitless variety of small arms are widely available in the global marketplace.
Further, globalization of the marketplace affects terrorism in a variety of other ways. First, it creates rich targets. Terrorists know that they can create both fear and serious economic disruption by attacking the seaports, airports, and rail terminals upon which international commerce depends. Second, international transportation of goods and people has become much easier and relatively inexpensive. This means that terrorists can readily travel from country to country or continent to continent to avoid capture, get training, or conduct a violent act. The thousands who traveled to remote, isolated Afghanistan for Al Qaeda training and then returned to Western Europe or North Africa are prime examples of the role of modern transportation in the spread of terrorism. Third, international migration for economic and other reasons has created pools of expatriates, particularly in Europe, that have been used by terrorists not only as sources of funding but also as communities into which they can blend and try to escape detection by law enforcement. Expatriate communities have also often been sources of recruitment by terrorist organizations. Finally, some analysts believe that globalization itself has increased terrorism by creating a sense of grievance in traditionalist communities whose values and beliefs are challenged by the influx of Western media and Western values—such as secularism and gender equality. Certainly, Islamist terrorists view many Western values as deeply subversive and immoral.
VI. Terrorist Financing and Counterterrorism
Terrorists raise the funds they need to maintain their organizations and conduct operations in a variety of ways. One source is donations from people sympathetic to their cause. For example, extremely wealthy individuals in the Persian Gulf have contributed to Islamist groups because they shared their religious ideology, or to Palestinian groups because they believed that the Palestinian people were being oppressed by Israel and deserved a homeland. Another example is donations by Irish Americans to the IRA, or overseas Tamils to the Tamil Tigers. Sometimes, however, such donations are supplemented by extortion and threats of violence by terrorist operatives—this was the case, for example, in South America, where Hezbollah operatives have strong-armed Lebanese expatriate merchants into making donations. It also occurred in Toronto, Ontario, where Tamil Tiger organizers coerced Tamil expatriates to contribute in order to avoid violence or damage to their places of business. Donations can also be supplemented by what amounts to embezzlement from legitimate charities. This has been a particular problem in the Middle East, where charities have only recently come under state regulation and where large sums of money are donated to charities due to Islam’s requirement that believers donate 2.5% of their income as alms for worthy causes.
In addition to donations, embezzlement from charities, and extortion in expatriate communities, some terrorists raise funds by accepting support from a state and/or by participating in criminal activities. As noted above, some terrorist groups are so immersed in criminal activity that they have essentially been transformed into criminal organizations that no longer seriously seek political change, even though they may still claim that their goals are socialist or Islamist revolution. Other groups, however, treat crimes such as drug and weapon smuggling, robberies, and kidnappings for ransom (even smuggling tobacco products from a low-tax state to a high-tax state in the United States) only as a means to the end of political change.
One of the major elements of counterterrorism is an international effort to restrict terrorist financing. There is, indeed, a United Nations convention that commits signatory states to develop the legal authorities and systems they need to prosecute individuals who help finance terrorist groups. The U.S. government has also been working quite closely with other governments on restricting money laundering—financial transactions whose purpose is to prevent the authorities from knowing where the funds came from (e.g., a criminal activity) or where they are ultimately being sent. The vehicle for this effort is the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). FATF was initially established to deal with organized crime, but it has since evolved to include terrorist financing. There are 33 member states and several regional task force members, including the Middle East and North Africa FATF that was created in November, 2004, which includes all the states in this region except Iran.
Another major element in counterterrorism is government surveillance of citizens and residents. Analysis of surveillance data about how citizens spend their time and money is used to identify and interdict terror plots. Although increased surveillance has been politically controversial in the United States, where it has been seen by many as an infringement on traditional civil liberties, similar measures have been in place in other countries for many years. Related to this is citizen awareness and alertness—that is to say, much valuable intelligence about nascent terror plots has come from citizens who observe unusual behavior and report it to the local police. This is something that Israel, in particular, emphasizes in its counterterrorism program.
There has also been considerable international cooperation among intelligence and police agencies, although little of this can be described due to its sensitive nature. There have, as well, been international partnerships between the United States and many of its trading partners in order to improve the screening of cargo shipments so as to prevent terrorists from exploding conventional or mass destruction weapons in a port or en route on a cargo ship or aircraft.
Finally, there is an important military aspect to counterterrorism. Military force has been used by the United States, Israel, Pakistan, the Philippines, and many other countries to capture or kill suspected terrorists.
VII. Future Directions
Terrorism is a phenomenon that will never be completely eradicated, but it can be minimized, not only by counterterrorism strategies, but also by economic and political reforms in societies where grievances create pools of discontent or where terrorist leaders and criminal organizations troll for recruits.
This is not to suggest that poverty or some other social ill actually causes people to become terrorists—the record is quite clear that many terrorists are from well-off families and that hardly any poor people are terrorists. Yet, discontent surely seems to be a contributory factor, and people are often more discontent with their economic situation than anything else. Thus, the indirect relationship between economic factors and terrorism is an area in which more research should be done.
Other important areas for future research involve the question of metrics. The specific questions are how progress should be measured in the “war on terrorism” and how much is enough in terms of spending on counterterrorism measures. These are not easy questions to answer, and even though the answers are necessarily going to be strongly influenced by politics, objective criteria should inform the political debate. For example, it seems plain that the number of terrorists killed or captured is as telling a standard as the amount of drugs seized at the border— both measure the success of a tactic and neither measures the success of the strategy. The number of terrorists killed and captured says nothing about the number of terrorists still at large, just as drug seizures say nothing about the volume of drugs that were actually smuggled into the country. Similarly, a reduction in the number of terrorism incidents over time may indicate nothing more than that the terrorists are regrouping or that they are keeping their powder dry while planning an unusually violent attack.
Answering the second question about how much spending is enough is equally vexing. The question should not be answered without first evaluating the effectiveness of previous spending—yet, there are no standards for such an evaluation. Assessing national preparedness for future crises is something that the military has learned to approximate reasonably well through war games, readiness evaluations of units, and inspections of platforms and equipment, but there is no systemic evaluation of the many parts of government that have roles to play in counterterrorism and homeland security.
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