Terrorism has taken on new importance for most people since the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., on 11 September 2001. In three daring attacks using airliners (as well as a fourth that failed when passengers forced the plane to crash land), terrorists took ten times more lives than they had in any previous incident in the U.S. and did so in a manner so audacious that it shocked virtually everyone around the world.
But, terrorism is not new. Historians debate when the first instance of terrorism occurred. However, it was no later than the 1790s, when the revolutionary government in France used the term to refer to the way they treated members of the nobility and clergy as well as others who opposed their regime.
Scholars also disagree about what terrorism actually entails, as the cliche, "one person's terrorist is another's freedom fighter" suggests. As the Council on Foreign Relations' Terrorism Question and Answer project has put it, most definitions of terrorism include the following:
It involves premeditated violence aimed at civilians and designed to provoke fear in a much broader target population.
It is political and not criminal in nature.
It is not carried out by an army or other officials of a state.
A large number of observers also claim that terrorism is a weapon used mostly by weak groups who believe that they have no effective way of addressing their grievance by working "inside the system." The point here is not that terrorist groups are not necessarily objectively weaker than their opponents, but participants in them are convinced they are in a relatively powerless position.
Defining terrorism is made all the more complicated by the fact that people almost never define themselves as terrorists and the use of the label by others often has political overtones. Consider the events of 28 November 2002. In Kenya, teams of activists blew up a hotel owned and frequented by Israelis and fired missiles at (but missed) an Israeli charter airliner. Few observers had any doubts that these were terrorist acts; the only question was whether or not al Qaeda was involved. Later that day, members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade attacked an Israeli village killing a number of civilians before they themselves were killed by Israeli forces. While U.S. President George Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon were quick to condemn this as a terrorist attack, many Palestinians would claim that this violence was a legitimate use of force in an undeclared war for their liberation.
One of the most widely cited lists of terrorist organizations compiled by the United States State Department listed 31 such groups in 2001. Some, such as al Qaeda or the Real IRA (which broke from the main IRA when the latter supported the talks which led to the Good Friday Accords of 1998) unquestionably belong on any such list. Others are more problematic, including the Israeli Kach, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and the GAM movement seeking independence for Aceh from Indonesia.
Finally, deciding who is a terrorist is complicated by the fact that many states are involved. The United States government, for instance, has long complained about state-sponsored terrorism, actions by its adversaries, which, it claims, support the activity of the groups on its annual list of terrorist organizations. However, there are those who argue that some American allies, including Israel today, the United Kingdom during the height of "the troubles" in Northern Ireland, and South Africa during the apartheid years all engaged in activities that smacked of terrorism.
Why Terrorism Is Important
Anyone who didn't think terrorism was important realized it was when watching the twin towers of the World Trade Center collapse on 9/11. The fact that an organization few people had heard about the day before could carry out such a devastating and daring act proved to be the cliched "wake up call" terrorism experts had been worrying about for years.
But the importance of terrorism goes far beyond the death and destruction its perpetrators produce. Thus, if terrorists succeed in instilling fear in the mass public, they can cause major disruptions in people's daily lives if not their political activities. Thus, in the aftermath of 9/11 Americans experienced everything from a sharp decline in air travel to a more than one hundred fold increase in hate crimes directed at people of Arabian and South Asian origins in the United States.
Terrorism is now an important component of many intractable conflicts. And, the presence of active terrorist movements makes conflicts all the more difficult to solve.
When the IRA and later the Protestant paramilitaries took up weapons and started killing British troops and each other, it became all but impossible to hold talks, let alone, reach an agreement to end "the troubles."
What Can Be Done About Terrorism
Most of the modules in the Intractable Conflict Knowledge Base end with three sections on what individuals, governments, and third parties can do about the subject at hand. Here, it makes sense to take a slightly different approach which covers those three levels but explores the available options through the lens of two "voices" discussed by John Paul Lederach in a remarkable essay he wrote and widely circulated just after 9/11. The rest of this module builds on Lederach's ideas and additions I have made to them at greater length in a chapter in a book on terrorism published by the Department of Defense's Threat Reduction Agency.
A First Voice: Traditional Justice
The first voice is the desire, indeed the demand, for justice in the traditional sense of the term in which the perpetrators of terrorism are held accountable for their actions.
This desire for what can only be considered vengeance is not a common desire among people who work on either conflict resolution or in peace studies. However, it is one of the truisms in the study of terrorism that once an attack touches close to home, one's reaction becomes personal and this first voice is an inescapable part of any person's reaction. To that end, consider the words of Miroslav Volf who, along with Lederach, is one of the world's leading experts on reconciliation:
I felt very strange. I had been inside talking about reconciliation with our enemies at the same time that a terrorist attack was taking place and the World Trade Center Towers were collapsing.
I felt we needed to go after them that they needed to pay. The naming of the deeds as evil and the protection of those that are innocent is extraordinarily important.
There have been many proposals put forward to deal with terrorism non-violently, including in response to 9/11. Frankly, however, few of them hold much promise in dealing with men and women who are prepared to make such tremendous sacrifices for their causes -- at least in the short run. Indeed, it may well be the case that attacks of the magnitude of 9/11 require the use of force in reply, however distasteful it might be to members of the conflict resolution community or however counterproductive it might be in the long term.
talks about common misconceptions associated with terrorism.
The Second Voice: Addressing the Root With Restorative Justice
Lederach's first voice calls on the skills of the soldier and traditional diplomat, not the conflict resolution practitioner. It requires the use of coercive diplomacy, at best and, more often than not, the imposition of force as in the post 9/11 war on terrorism.
However, as at least some national security scholars and policy makers now acknowledge, force alone will not bring terrorism to an end. To do that, we need to use the tools which conflict resolution professionals have been developing during the last generation or so and address the root cause of terrorism: empathic listening, reframing, dialogue, analytical problem solving, coalition-building, among others.
But none of these things means we should not also seek to forgive the offender and reconcile with the offender. One of the points in my talk at the U.N. was that we, as Christians, must develop a will to embrace and be reconciled with our enemy. This will must be absolutely unconditional. There is no imaginable deed that should take a person outside our will to embrace him, because there is no imaginable deed that can take a person out of God's will to embrace humanity.
suggests in order to deal with extremism one must understand its underlying causes and the mechanisms that support it.
These tools are the ones we can use in answering the question first posed by President Bush in an address to Congress shortly after 9/11. "Why do they hate us?" People who resort to terrorism are almost certainly desperate; many of them may also suffer from psychological problems, which lead them to take such extremely violent steps. Nonetheless, terrorism only thrives and survives in contexts where a far larger number of people feel deeply aggrieved by their political, social, or economic situation. "They" attack "us" because "they" hate "us."
It seems highly unlikely that such anger can be overcome with force alone, if by force at all. That requires the kind of long-term commitment to conflict resolution and reconciliation, which the likes of Lederach and Volf specialize in. There is no roadmap to follow to make that happen. Nonetheless, it is fairly clear that any long-term response to terrorism will have to include:
- Creatively developing programs to redress the inequalities and other social conditions, which give rise to the anger in the first place.
- Finding ways to convince the angry young "terrorists of tomorrow" to forego violence and pursue peaceful pathways to profound political change.
- To the degree that the conflict between Israel and Palestine helps trigger terrorism, forging a lasting agreement that satisfies the interests of both parties.
- Treating at least potential terrorists with dignity and respect and not the arrogance that so often characterizes the rhetoric and reality of Western foreign policy.
- This probably also requires apologizing for past wrongs and making a sincere commitment to new approaches to the world's problems.
 Terrorism Question and Answers. Web site produced by the Council on Foreign Relations in cooperation with the Markle Foundation. http://www.terrorismanswers.com/home/. Accessed 8-29-2003.
 Designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations, United States State Department Web site: http://www.state.gov/s/ct/rls/pgtrpt/2000/2450.htm. (Accessed 29 August 2003.)
 Lederach's remarks were originally published in an essay entitled "Quo Vadis? Reframing Terror from the Perspective of Conflict Resolution" which is available at http://www.nd.edu/~krocinst/sept11/ledquo.html. (Accessed?29 August 2003).
 Volf, Miroslav (2001). "To Embrace the Enemy." Christianity Today. 17 September. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2001/138/53.0.html.?Accessed 1 August 2002.
 "Addressing the Root Causes of Terrorism," Matthew Hersey and Charles Hauss. Available online at http://classweb.gmu.edu/chauss/search/terrorism.htm.
Use the following to cite this article:
Hauss, Charles (Chip). "Terrorism." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: September 2003 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/terrorism>.