Since the attacks on the World Trade Center buildings on September 11, 2001, the word terrorism has gone from a rarely heard expression, to a part of everyday lexicon. After September 11th, America declared a War on Terror, but acts of terror continued to rise. In fact, some reports show the monthly average terrorism incidents increased by 167% after the World Trade Center attacks of 2001. With terrorism becoming such a constant in the news and a concern in everyday life, it is important for everyone to have an understanding of what truly constitutes a terrorist act.
Definitions for terrorism range from very narrow to all encompassing. For example, the definition in the Encyclopedia of Ethics is:
The tactic of intentionally targeting non-combatants [or non-combatant property, when significantly related to life and security] with lethal or severe violence … meant to produce political results via the creation of fear – written by C.A.J. Coady
In general, people agree that terrorism refers to a threat of violence or imposed terror from one organization, group, or person towards another, with the intent to harm or scare innocent citizens. However, different governments and organizations choose to define narrower concepts of terrorism, such as political terrorism, religious terrorism, and more. Much like pornography, most people agree that they know terrorism when they see it, even if it is difficult to define.
History of Terrorism
While terrorism seems like a relatively new phenomenon, it has actually been a part of world history for hundreds of years. Assassins in the 12th century were known to terrorize anyone who opposed them, and Genghis Khan and his Mongol army terrorized innocent people throughout the Middle East during their quest for domination.
The actual word terror was brought about during the “Reign of Terror” in France in the latter half of the 1700s. The rulers at the time, the Jacobins, decided to adjust society and human nature by killing anyone who wasn’t deemed virtuous. The plan was to strike terror in the heart of all wrong-doers, and with this fear put humanity on track to more moral and upright society. In this case, the Jacobins dubbed themselves terrorists, defining the word to be righteous and a means to a better end.
Modern Terrorism began in the 1880s in Russia, with Anarchists teaming together to assassinate prominent political figures. Terrorism quickly spread through Europe, Southeast Asia, and within decades around the world. Some of the most notable modern terrorist attacks include:
- In 1920, terrorists bombed the financial district of New York City, causing $2 million dollars of damage.
- In 1983, 241 people died in the Beirut barracks bombing in Lebanon, a terrorist attack which led to the extraction of the international peacekeeping forces out of the country.
- In 1995, the Oklahoma City Bombing shook the United States, taking 168 lives and becoming the deadliest attack in the U.S. up to that date.
- In 2004, the Philippines experienced terrorism when the SuperFerry 14 was bombed at sea, killing 116 people.
- September 11th, 2011, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centers and Pentagon led to the death of 2,997 people.
Types of Terrorism
There are six different types of terrorism.
- Civil Disorder – Violent protests are the most common form civil disorder that constitutes terrorism. Although some protests start out non-violent, often times all the emotion leads to trampling, fights, and more.
- Political Terrorism – Political terrorism is when one political group imposes violence upon or threatens another political group. For it to be political terrorism, innocent people must be targeted.
- Non-Political Terrorism – This would be any other type of violent or threatening terrorism that didn’t originate from a political background. The most common type of non-political terrorism is religious terrorism.
- Quasi Terrorism – Quasi terrorism is a terrorist act performed by someone not motivated by the typical terrorist motivators. Armed criminals who take large groups of hostages or bomb public areas for no political or religious reasons are examples of quasi terrorists.
- Limited Political Terrorism – These terrorist acts are meant to protest specific government policies.
- State Terrorism – These acts of terrorism are initiated by a country or government, rather than a rogue organization.
Civil and Criminal Terror Cases
There are different ways for governments and States to respond to terrorists. These include:
- Military action
- Humanitarian Action
- Creating specialized laws for handling terrorists
- Increasing national security
- Interrogation and detention policies
If a terrorist is caught, they can be charged and taken to court to be tried and possibly convicted. There are many arguments about how terrorists should be tried. Options include civil court, criminal court, a special terrorism court, and more. Many experts suggest that criminal prosecution is ideal. However if a terrorist’s plans were thwarted, the only crime he or she may have committed was conspiracy or something similar. The downside of using civil court is often times the information which will prove a terrorist guilty is too sensitive to be released into the public. Governments and legal systems around the world are still working out the best way to fairly try and convict terrorists. Some examples of civil and criminal terror court cases include:
February 2005 – Lawyer Lynne Stewart was convicted by a federal jury for conspiring to give information to terrorists in Egypt. The punishment was up to 20 years in prison.
July 2005 – Levar Haley Washington and Gregory Vernon Patterson were found guilty for being conspirators in a plot to attack Jewish Institutions, the airport, and military bases in the Los Angeles area.
November 2005 – Ahmed Omar Abu Ali was charged with supporting Al Qaeda and being a part of a conspiracy to assassinate the then President, President George W. Bush.
March 2006 – Syed Haris Ahmed, an American from Pakistan, was indicted for being an active part of terrorist planning, by shooting video footage of landmarks in Washington D.C. for potential future terrorist attacks.
September 2006 – Ronald Allen Grecula was found guilty for attempting to sell superbombs to terrorist organizations outside the United States. He was sentenced to up to 15 years in prison.
July 2007 – Nuradin Abdi, plead guilty to planning an attack on a shopping mall and for conspiring with terrorists in Ohio. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison, after which he will be deported to his home country of Somali.
November 2008 – Bryant Neal Vinas was found guilty for providing Al Qaeda with information about the transit system in New York City.
May 2009 – Shukri Abu Baker was found guilty of giving financial support to the Hamas terrorist organization. Baker was a leader of a large and well-known Muslim charity called Holy Land Foundation.
March 2010 – Collen LaRose was found guilty of attempting to sign-up new terrorists using online communication.
May 2011 – Michal Finton was charged with planning to bomb a courthouse in Springfield, Illinois with a weapon of mass destruction.
For additional information on terrorists, there are a range of terrorism databases available to the public. These databases are filled with information about terrorist groups, court cases, research, and more.
Global Terrorism Database – From the University of Maryland, this searchable database has information on over 98,000 terrorist attacks.