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18 September 2014
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The Changing Faces of Terrorism

By Professor Adam Roberts

'Princip could not believe that the assassination had triggered the outbreak of world war...'

During the 19th century terrorism underwent a fateful transformation, coming to be associated, as it still is today, with non-governmental groups. One such group - the small band of Russian revolutionaries of 'Narodnaya Volya' (the people's will) in 1878-81 - used the word 'terrorist' proudly. They developed certain ideas that were to become the hallmark of subsequent terrorism in many countries. They believed in the targeted killing of the 'leaders of oppression'; they were convinced that the developing technologies of the age - symbolized by bombs and bullets - enabled them to strike directly and discriminately. Above all, they believed that the Tsarist system against which they were fighting was fundamentally rotten. They propagated what has remained the common terrorist delusion that violent acts would spark off revolution. Their efforts led to the assassination of Tsar Alexander II on 13 March 1881 - but that event failed completely to have the revolutionary effects of which the terrorists had dreamed.

Austrian Archduke Ferdinand
Archduke Ferdinand ©
Terrorism continued for many decades to be associated primarily with the assassination of political leaders and heads of state. This was symbolized by the killing of the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand by a 19-year-old Bosnian Serb student, Gavril Princip, in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914. The huge consequences of this event were not the ones that Princip and his fellow members of 'Young Bosnia' had envisaged. Princip could not believe that the assassination had triggered the outbreak of world war in 1914. In general, the extensive practice of assassination in the 20th century seldom had the particular effects for which terrorists hoped.

In the half-century after the World War Two, terrorism broadened well beyond assassination of political leaders and heads of state. In certain European colonies, terrorist movements developed, often with two distinct purposes. The first was obvious: to put pressure on the colonial powers (such as Britain, France, and the Netherlands) to hasten their withdrawal. The second was more subtle: to intimidate the indigenous population into supporting a particular group's claims to leadership of the emerging post-colonial state. Sometimes these strategies had some success, but not always. India's achievement of independence in 1947 was mainly the result, not of terrorism, but of the movement of non-violent civil disobedience led by Gandhi. In Malaya, communist terrorists launched a major campaign in 1948, but they failed due to a mixture of determined British military opposition and a programme of political reform leading to independence.

Published: 2002-08-27

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