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18 September 2014
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The Changing Faces of Terrorism

By Professor Adam Roberts
Beyond the state

Osama Bin Laden
Osama Bin Laden ©
In the 1990s, a new face of terrorism emerged. Osama Bin Laden, son of a successful construction engineer, became leader of a small fanatical Islamic movement called Al-Qaida (The Base). Its public statements were an odd mixture of religious extremism, contempt for existing Arab regimes, hostility to US dominance, and insensitivity to the effects of terrorist actions. Many of its leaders, having helped to free Afghanistan of Soviet occupation in the 1980s, now developed the broader ambition of resisting western dominance, especially in Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. In pursuit of these ambitions they killed hundreds in bombings of US embassies in Africa in August 1998. Here was a new kind of terrorist movement that had a cause, and a network, that was not confined to any one state, and whose adherents were willing to commit suicide if they could thereby inflict carnage and destruction on their adversaries, as they did on September 11. Since their aims were vague and apocalyptic, there was little scope for any kind of compromise or negotiation.

'very few people apart from the Russian Tsar-killers have actually called themselves terrorists'

Can the huge variety of forms of action be categorized under the single label of 'terrorist'? The term is contentious: very few people apart from the Russian Tsar-killers have actually called themselves terrorists. Yet there are some common factors that can be detected behind the many changing faces of terrorism. First, it usually has an unofficial character, claiming to be the result of an upsurge of public feeling. (Of course many governments secretly instigate or support it.) Second, terrorism is based on a naïve belief that a few acts of violence, often against symbolic targets representing the power of the adversary, will transform the political landscape in a beneficial way. Third, terrorism has become increasingly involved in attacking innocent civilians - often with the purpose of demonstrating that the state is incapable of protecting its own people. Fourth, terrorists generally underestimate the strong revulsion of ordinary people to acts of political violence.

Wreckage of the US embassy in Tanzania, 8 August 1998
Wreckage of the US embassy in Tanzania, 8 August 1998 ©
There is a further common factor - the tendency of terrorism to become endemic in particular countries and regions. Started by the Left, it has been continued by the Right, and vice versa. Started in a nationalist cause, it is then employed in resistance to the resulting state. Started to cleanse society of corruption and external control, it continues in support of the drug trade and prostitution. If violence becomes a habit, its net effect can be to prevent economic development, to provide a justification for official violence, and to perpetuate existing patterns of dominance and submission.

Published: 2002-08-27

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