Just before 9am local time on September 11th, 2001, the world changed. Few will ever forget the images from that day of terrorist-piloted airliners ploughing into New York’s World Trade Center towers, and that was exactly the intention.
The global response to these atrocities was immediate and unified. There was almost universal condemnation of the act and of the perpetrators. The global media spoke of entering an era of heightened security concerns due to a ‘new’ breed of terrorism. The aim of this essay is to investigate the definition of ‘new terrorism’ and to question whether there is a justification for this separate classification, or whether terrorism, regardless of its manifestation, is universal.
Terrorism in its most simple guise may be described as the employment or threat of violence to instil intense fear and anxiety in a populace, in order to bring about a particular political or ideological end due to public pressure. These objectives often have an historic grounding, for example the Palestine Liberation Organisation, PLO, whose objective is simple, the total destruction of Israel and the return of the territory to the Arabs. The methods employed by terrorists are often civilian-targeted although military or governmental installations are also seen as legitimate targets. The US State Department’s definition of terrorism, since 1983, is ‘premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by sub national targets by sub national groups or clandestine agents usually intended to influence an audience’ (USA, 1983). Terrorists rely traditionally on asymmetrical tactics for their attacks in order to have the most impact. Asymmetrical attacks could perhaps be best summed up using the David vs. Goliath analogy where a considerably stronger adversary is felled using a carefully planned strike on a soft target. The asymmetrical nature of the attacks enables the terrorists to take on a much more substantial force than themselves and it is the so-called ‘soft targets’, which the terrorists seek to exploit. Take for example a bombing attack, where a bomb planted at or near a military installation. Without warning, the bomb may inflict far more casualties than if the terrorists were to engage their enemy in a traditional firefight.
Walter Laqueur argues that terrorism has been with us for centuries, and it has always attracted inordinate attention.(Laqueur, 1999) Historically, terrorism may be traced as far back as the Islamic Assassins attempting to repel the Christian crusaders in Palestine in the middle ages. The French Revolution also saw a reign of terror imposed over the revolutionaries in order to suppress dissent in the ranks. Public use of the guillotine was used to spread fear among the populace. In more recent times, the French resistance, fighting the Nazi occupation of France during World War II, could be argued to have been terrorists, although the distinction between a terrorist and a resistance or guerrilla fighter is a separate issue which will not be covered in any great depth in this essay.
These incidences of terrorism, if classified by the media following the attacks of 9/11 would fall squarely into the bracket of old or traditional terrorism. They are very much motivated by political, territorial or ideological goals and preoccupied with the legitimacy of their action. Objectives such as the overthrow of an incumbent government, or the emancipation of a population are commonplace among traditional terrorist groups and the methods that they employ show certain similarities, too.
Perhaps the best known and certainly the most recent example of this old style of terrorism to us in the British Isles is the Irish Republican Army, or IRA. Opposed to the British occupation of Northern Ireland and, critically, seeing themselves as a legitimate guerrilla campaign (Kay, 2006) mounted a campaign of terror initially aimed at British military infrastructure and personnel in Northern Ireland itself, but later moving towards civilian targets both in Ulster and on the British mainland. However, the ultimate aim of Irish Republican terrorism was to further their campaign to overthrow the British from Northern Ireland. Conscious of the idea of legitimacy, in all but a few notable exceptions, telephoned warnings were given prior to any civilian attack. The threat of attack from Irish Republicans played on the British psyche and created a state of fear. It was this state of fear which the terrorists needed. Throughout the 1970s the IRA hoped that by creating a fearful population, they might also generate votes for any political party proposing withdrawal from Ireland. However, on the few occasions where warnings were inadequately, or not at all issued before bombings, and civilian casualties resulted (notably at Enniskillen and Omagh), the IRA (or subsidiary of) actually did themselves a disservice. Such was the outrage at the killings, that the public became more resolute in their opposition to Irish republican terrorism. However, it was not only the human cost. The attacks that took place both on the British mainland and in Northern Ireland caused huge amounts of economic damage. The
In contrast, the term ‘new terrorism’ used to describe particular terrorist activities post 9/11 refers almost exclusively to religious terrorism. These new terrorists are not fighting for their political beliefs, but rather to further their own religious cause. Believing themselves to be divinely driven is one of the most obvious differences between traditional terrorism and its more recent successor, and also one of the most dangerous. A terrorist organisation under the impression that they are fulfilling religious obligations is unlikely to enter into negotiations with the target of their aggression.
In the immediate aftermath of the attacks of September 11th, intelligence agencies from around the world began to uncover evidence incriminating the Al-Qaeda network, figure headed by Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden, a Saudi national, had been resident in Afghanistan since the 1980s where he assisted the Mujahideen in overthrowing the Soviet occupation. Bin Laden went from relative obscurity around this time to allegedly masterminding the most prolific terrorist attack off all time. How was this possible, given the global experience of terrorism and why were the attacks unforeseen?
Aside from the religious motivation for these ‘new’ terrorists, there are several other fundamental differences to the terrorism of the late 20th Century.
The devastating attacks on 9/11 set a precedent for the world and in particular the USA. Previously, the American homeland had been seen as an impenetrable fortress, providing sanctuary from the ‘big bad world’ outside. So vast is the American nation, that few Americans are concerned with affairs outside their own borders. Not only was a precedent set in terms of the location of the attacks, but also the scale.
Globalisation has also arguably increased this prevalence in terrorist activities. The huge increases in communication infrastructures in the latter part of the 20th Century and continuing into the current decade has afforded terrorists new organisational opportunities. Whereas terrorism of old consisted of generally small, rigidly structured groups under distinct leadership frameworks, there is thought to be a trend with ‘new’ terrorists to come together in networks of small, like-minded ‘cells’ of operation. The rise in technologies such as the Internet and email has contributed to this decentralised system of operation, providing a means for disaffected people to unite and provide information ad support to their fellows.
The rise of globalisation has not only facilitated the communication and networking of terrorists, but has also in itself provided a source of discontent. Joseph Nye’s concept of ‘soft-power’ speaks of the unipolar post-Cold-War world and how, as the hegemon, the United States’ ideas and values are disseminated throughout the world. Nye argues that this American influence can nurture anti-Americanism (Nye, 1990)The objectives of ‘new’ terrorists are also often considered vague and disconnected. Whereas the terrorists themselves are connected only in loose networks of ideas, so too are the objectives. Individual cells, with the exception of a more centralised attack such as that of September 11th, are likely only capable to attack local objectives and targets of opportunity. Attacks such as the 7/7 bombings on the London Underground are comparatively cheap to carry out and therefore require little to no extra-cellular funding and also very easy to plan within a cell of just a few disaffected people. So-called ‘new’ terrorism also relies heavily on the globalised media. Few will ever forget the graphic images from 9/11, which were disseminated across the world within minutes of the story breaking.
Perhaps the single greatest fear held of terrorism in its current form is the possibility of an attack using Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs). Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, there have been fears that the fragmented Soviet nuclear arsenal may have been left unsecured and in a doomsday scenario, may have fallen into the hands of terrorists. A number of the former Soviet states, notably Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan have seen a rise in Islam since the separation and there are fears that there may be terrorist sympathisers if not terrorists themselves with access to these nuclear weapons and they may end up being traded on the black market. However, there has been no evidence of any such transactions and arguably the fear generated by far outweighs the actual threat posed, further solidifying the terrorists’ position.
Far easier to acquire and deploy than nuclear weapons themselves are radiological devices, or so-called “dirty bombs”. These much more simple weapons rely on an explosive device combined with a source of radiation. While unlikely to kill anywhere near as many as a full-blown nuclear device, a dirty bomb would expose those in the vicinity to high doses of radiation and irradiate a large area, perhaps leaving it uninhabitable for some time afterwards. Religious cults, such as the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo, have also proved the apparent ease of releasing chemical agents into densely populated areas such as subway networks. Bruce Hoffman of the RAND Corporation believes that terrorists may employ an unconventional chemical, biological, or radiological weapon on a deliberately small scale, either alone or as part of a series of smaller incidents occurring either simultaneously or sequentially in a given location, could have disproportionately enormous consequences, generating unprecedented fear and alarm, and thus serving the terrorists’ purpose just as well as a larger weapon or more ambitious attack with massive casualties could have (Hoffman, 2001)
In conclusion, while there has undoubtedly been a change in the approach of terrorists, so too have there been changes in the world as a whole. The essay looked previously at the impact of globalisation on the terrorism phenomenon and also at the role played by the globalised media, and discovered that both of these factors have played key roles in shaping modern-terrorism. However, it is important to remember that terrorism is not a new idea and nor has it fundamentally changed. We must consider the possibility that the changes which have been observed in the terrorists’ modii operandi merely reflect the new opportunities and weaknesses afforded them under the relatively recently globalised world. Therefore it may be more appropriate to think of so-called ‘new’ terrorism more as an evolution of terrorist tactics rather than a complete revolution.
Summarised by Walter Laqueur, Yesterday’s nuisance (old terrorism) has become one of the gravest dangers facing mankind. For the first time in history, weapons of enormous destructive power are both readily acquired and harder to track… In the near future in will be technologically possible to kill thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, not to mention the toll in panic that is likely to ensue may take. In brief, there has been a radical transformation, if not a revolution, in the character of terrorism, a fact we are still reluctant to accept. (Laqueur, 1999)
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