Political terrorism

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Political terrorism is a form of terrorism (a tactic of violence that targets civilians) used to influence socio-political events so that gains occur that might not have otherwise happened by peaceful means. There are obviously different types of psychic terror, from religious and magical terror, to fear of the natural world. Criminal terrorists — those who use blackmail, intimidation, and the promotion of fear — are differentiated from political terrorists because the former seek to enrich themselves, whereas for the latter, it is a sine qua non that terrorist action is motivated and justified by the furtherance of an objective cause.


Terrorist action and thought

Terrorist action is indiscriminate, arbitrary and unpredictable; the rules of war are disregarded; and non-combatants, men, women, and children, are all seen as potential victims. An action is considered to be terrorist when its psychological influences are out of proportion with its physical consequences. Terrorism is not a single random act, nor it is number of interspersed violent acts; it is a sustained, organized policy of terror that one group of some sort wages on another, usually more powerful, group. Terrorists either reject current moral values as the ideology of the status quo or they hold an amoral outlook, and they claim with their actions that humanitarian considerations can be sacrificed along with human life for a greater political end. They are the ultimate Hitlerians: might is right, and terror is the weapon of the expedient. In the early stage of an insurgency, a terrorist group may use symbolic violence (such as assassinations) to advertise their cause and alert a population to their threat, but, by necessity, will become more clandestine.

Justifications of terrorism

The term counter-terrorism is misleading because it implies that a state is not the initiator of violence. The terrorist justifies his action with three arguments that have a moral context.

  • The just-vengeance doctrine: Often represented as "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth", the terrorist group believes that the original group deserves to experience actions similar to what they may have previously dealt.
  • The theory of lesser evil: It may be claimed that a violent action can deter an even more violent consequence. The dropping of atomic bombs is one example of this argument in practice, although nobody who has studied the issue, and who is not blinded by jingoism, would accept this.
  • The ultima ratio argument: The terrorist group may justify its actions by stating that no other means, such as the media or effective political representation, were available to them to express their discontent. The state uses similar arguments to legitimize its violence, and this is why it should always be borne in mind when thinking about terrorism. It is a didactic concept, used by victors, the powerful and the dominant, to isolate its opponents and vilify them as official enemies. It is often said that terrorism is the weapon of the weak, but if terrorism means using overt, destructive violence to create a climate of fear and to subjugate people to powerful abstractions, then it is obviously the weapon of the strong as well.

Types of political terrorism

Revolutionary terrorism

Revolutionary terrorism is the use of systemic, terroristic violence to bring about a revolution. Most groups that succeed in doing so use similar tactics to maintain their rule. Revolutionary terrorism has its origins in reactionary ideas, and in the purported cycles in human societies that rotate the allocation of power. Only with the French Revolution — the Reign of Terror — in the 19th century did the idea evolve of a revolution that could bring about democratic will, participation and collective freedoms, that could carve utopia out of earth, rise to prominence. This type of terrorism is associated with groups, however small they may be, which use ideological and revolutionary constructs to change the existing social order in someway.


Against indigenous autocracy

In contrast to the 18th century and before, when uprising were inspired and justified by religions, the French Revolution provided a secular justification for agitation on behalf of the public will, and also for visiting vengeance upon the aristocrats of the old ecclesiastic, absolute ancient regime. In the early stages of the insurrection, violence was sporadic and mostly an expression of class revolt. Violence was turned into a policy of terror with the Jacobins, who during the Reign of Terror (17731774), passed the Law of Suspects that enabled the Revolutionary Tribunal to arrest anybody for the flimsiest of reasons, and to carry out grotesque mass executions (including gunnings and drownings). The innovations of this movement were the suppression of potential enemies — not only individuals, but whole groups — and the use of ideological terror. It is anti-clericalism, which was manifested as the confiscation of churches, execution of priests and destruction of once sacred religious insignia, marked a changed from individual assassinations to the use of whole scale terrorist violence to carry out the collective will with an attendant ideological rationalization. The violence of the revolutionaries was waged against tradition and the autocratic state.

Between 1800 and 1860, there were more than 500 peasant uprisings in Russia against Tsarist regimes. The revolutionaries of the 19th century were pitted against probably the most oppressive autocracy of the century and, following two armed revolutions (March 812 and October 2425), overthrew the imperial order and established the USSR in 1917.

Against foreign rule

Numerous groups seeking independence from British colonial rule most visibly occupy this classification. It should be noted that most nationalists achieved independence through political pressure and negotiation from a Britain that, in the post war period, realized that it was expedient for its inevitable transition from imperial ruler to be as inconspicuous as possible. These countries were freed from military domination only to be straitjacketed by economical and ideological neo-imperialism. The recourse to terrorism was the exception and not the rule for anti-colonialist struggle.

The Mau Mau Rebellion of Kenya, a secret society that embarked upon a course of violence in the early 1950s, against Europeans who held land that the Mau Mau claimed rightfully belonged to them. The British announced a state of emergency, sent in troops to suppress the threat of a liberationist movement developing, and imprisoned more than 80,000 Kĩkũyũ — the main ethnic group in Kenya — in detention camps which have been unfavourably compared to those of Nazi Germany. Violence was also used against British rule in Ireland, Palestine, Malaya, Cyprus, Aden, and elsewhere.

Against totalitarian states

A totalitarian state is one which not only outlaws what it forbids, but which tries to control the minds of its subjects, and to strike fear into their hearts with the use of secret police. In this context, it should be differentiated from a dictatorship or a tyranny. The success of an attempt to indoctrinate the public mind with the story of a particular regime explains the isolation that the internal dissident faces in a totalitarian nation, and also the ferocity with which the individuals of an invaded country will, at first, resist their invader. The infamous failed bomb plot of July 1944 against Hitler is one example of terroristic violence pitted against totalitarianism, others abound.

Sub-revolutionary terrorism

Sub-revolutionary terrorism is violence that is motivated by political and social concerns other than the ouster of a government, such as for land reforms, for desired legislation, or simply in vengeance for governmental intervention into a particular way of life. Its origins lie in feuding groups who took the law into their own hands to defend their resources, and in assassinations and sultanism (the wiping out of political rivals). In contrast to revolutionary terrorists, the motives of the sub-revolutionary actor are often blurred, so that it difficult to say whether he assassinates for authentic political reasons or because he is a deranged psychopath. This form of terrorism is highly unpredictable and even more dangerous than revolutionary terrorism because it is not retrained within any determinable ideological paradigm.


The Zealots were a 1st century Jewish group who refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Roman rule in Judea, which they felt, was akin to repudiating the authority of god. The most extreme Zealots, the Sicarii (dagger men), carried out assassinations of Romans and moderate Jews.

The word assassination derives from the Muslim sect, the Assassins, who were probably the first organized group to use violence for a cause it considered righteous, and who belonged to the larger, dissident Shiite Ismaili sect. Some scholars claim that the word assassin itself derives from the Syrian "hashishi", which, of course, refers to narcotics, the Assassins being almost certainly addicts. They believed that their salvation lied in killing the unrighteous Sunni Muslims, and developed guerrilla tactics, such as a code of secrecy, raiding, and the dissemination of their beliefs among peasants, that struck fear into townspeople and made them the first, prototypical terrorist organization.

Against liberal democracy

The liberal democracy is a recent (19th century) system that allows greater scope for political opposition than the autocracies and tyrannies which it developed from; the latter being the historical method for organizing any large social system. Yet it has not been immune from terrorism, and its inherent features — freedom of the press, freedom of association, freedom of expression, etc. — allow terroristic organization, recruitment, and operations to be mounted with greater ease than ever before.

Anarchists are, of course, opposed to all forms of governance and see liberal democracy as a mask for the manipulation and oppression of the masses by the bourgeois order. A number of anarchists who believed that violence in the name of the cause — or "propaganda of the deed" — was legitimate, such as Brousse in France and Malatesta in Italy, who supported assassination attempts. Ravachol of France, who choose to live in poverty, held that property was immoral and that criminal acts, such as robbery and forgery, furthered the anarchic cause. He murdered an aged miser, Jacques Brunel, and used the 15,000 Francs he stole from him to help the families of anarchists who had been sentenced for resisting arrest. He also blew up the homes of the prosecutors who had handed out the punitive sentences, and when sentenced to death himself for the murder of the old man shouted "Vive l'anarchie!" ("Live anarchy!"). Other examples abound in France in the years 18921894, and considering the repression of anarchic practice and the blackening of its thought that followed, all that they indicate is the futility and the counter-productiveness of trying to create a new social order with explosives. Although it is erroneous to associate anarchism with violence, many groups claming to be anarchic, such as the United Kingdom's Angry Brigade in the 1970s, declared that revolutionary violence was a crucial tactic in any social struggle and subsequently developed, expertise in explosives. So did the following two groups:

The Tupamaros of Uruguay derived their moniker from Tupac Amaru, an Incan who staged an agrarian rebellion in 1780, later executed for doing so. The Tupamaros launched an urban, guerrilla campaign with the aim of bringing about a redistribution of wealth and land. They also kidnapped Uruguayan leaders and foreign diplomats but avoided harming them because they had the intention of provoking the powers-that-be into harsh, violent repression that would turn the population against them and in favour of the Tupamaros' revolt. They raided police stations and telephone exchanges, robbed banks, expropriated weapons, and established their own mobile transmitter to counter their exclusion from the media. The government waged an internal war on the Tupamaros, and by 1972, 3,000 members of the organization were in prison (and 300 had been assassinated) and the group thus lacked the ideological sophistication and resources to continue as a serious threat. In 1985, after most of its leaders had been released, the Tupamaros became a legitimate, democratic political party.

Harvard educated Theodore Kaczynski (the Unabomber), a quirky former mathematics professor who became a hermit, planted and mailed sixteen homemade bombs between 1978 and 1995, mostly targeting university professors. He opposed all scientific progress, industrialization, and technology, believing that human suffering is the outcome of not living under the conditions with which we evolved, and he outlined his views in a 35,000 worded manifesto that the Washington Times published. This document, entitled Industrial Society and Its Future[1] (http://www.panix.com/~clays/Una/), has been dismissed as a rehash of the counter-cultural thought of the 1960s and praised for its lucid intelligence in equal measure. Kaczynski was sentenced to four life terms in prison, plus thirty years, in 1998.

Repressive terrorism

Repressive terrorism is the use of systematic, centralized violence to suppress, put down, and restrain certain groups, such as dissidents, or even an entire population. It is considered always unpredictable and arbitrary. Secret police, state agents, and informers support the tyrannical rule, whose harsh methods, such as the use of torture, liquidation, and purges, strikes fear into a population.


The Nazis who used mass terror in combination with electoral propaganda are an obvious example that warrant no further comment. Along with Mussolini's regime, the Nazis funded the Croatian fascist Ustashi organization, and the Rumanian Iron Guard, both of which held ultra-right wing nationalist philosophies. With the Ustashi, for example, this included massacring large numbers of Serbs and others, and establishing several concentration camps.

Determining political terrorism

There is no adequate scientific or objective understanding of political terrorism. Although it is thought to be the tool of small movements, who lack any power base, and is most successful when waged against an indigenous oppressor, this thinking is too general. There are three main ways of conceptualizing terrorism.

  • Frustration-aggression relative deprivation theory: The motivator for civil conflict is the awareness of a discrepancy between what one group (or individual) has and what is the general baseline of the collective. Rising expectations may overtake capabilities, or capabilities of bringing about a change may remain static while expectations are raised. Conflict often arises from the reluctance — or inability — of leaders to fulfil the demands of insubordinate groups, especially when that group is organized and armed with an ideology that sanctions violence as a means to an end.
  • A focus on the terrorist: Existential satisfaction that a person gains from serving a cause when he lacks belief in anything but his power to destroy is another conceptualization. This idea can be found in the plays of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, and risks portraying the terrorists as a romantic outsider, as a man who uses his own will, actions and freedom, to resolve the tension he feels from living in a fundamentally philistine society. The flipside of this is, of course, seeing the terrorist as a sociopath who is responsible for his actions and must live with their consequences.
  • The notion of internal war: Terrorism is the first stage of a conflict that will develop into full-scale guerrilla operations. The idea here is that terrorism is part of the fabric of dynamic social progression.

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