Terrorism: An Overview

From: http://www.calea.org/newweb/newsletter/No80/terrorism.htm

This article was the source of a training session presented by John Race at the CALEA Conference in Jacksonville (FL), March 2002. Mr. Race served in law enforcement for over 28 years including service as the Chief of Police in three cities as well as nearly all operational areas of law enforcement, including investigations, narcotics, intelligence, SWAT, and patrol. Mr. Race taught terrorism related subjects to law enforcement officer as a Senior Staff member, BDM Federal, Inc. He is currently a member of the faculty of the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh in the Administration of Justice program.

Before September 11th, terrorism was considered an issue of concern only in the Middle East or Europe. Average Americans did not easily understand the concept of terrorism even though 168 people died in a terrorist attack in Oklahoma City in 1995. The attack on the Murrah Federal Building was viewed as the actions of a small group of malcontents with obscure and ill-defined grievances. This incident was not universally threatening since it appeared to be an isolated incident. Once the main perpetrator was apprehended, convicted, and finally executed with extensive media attention, the incident was relegated to history. Barriers were erected around government buildings, safety zones were established to prevent future damage from attacks of this type, and the threat was considered neutralized.

Very little attention was paid to the motive for the attack, other than to ascribe the actions of the bombers to discontented misfits seeking to blame the government for various grievances. Once Timothy McVeigh was executed, the problem was solved.

On September 11th, the issue of terrorism was resurrected by the destruction of the World Trade Center. This incident was far more threatening than the Oklahoma City bombing for several reasons other than the obvious numbers of people killed. First, the use of commercial aircraft with civilian passengers as weapons horrified the country because citizens could identify with the passengers killed in the attack. Secondly, the target of the attack (as symbolic to the attackers as the building in Oklahoma City was to McVeigh) was a public commercial site, not a government building. Lastly, foreign nationals, who were members of a large international group who could plan and carry out further attacks, carried out the attack.

Both of these incidents were conducted with the intention of causing death and injury to innocent people, to redress real or imagined grievances. Each of the attackers thought he was a soldier, thus justifying the bloodshed as a necessary component of a war. In both cases, symbolic structures were chosen and the infliction of maximum casualties sought. It can be assumed that, because of the time of day of both attacks, the injury or death of large numbers of people was planned and was not merely a secondary effect of the destruction of the building.

Infliction of casualties has always been a component of terrorism. Purposeful deaths and injuries suffered by innocent and unsuspecting people have an unsettling effect on society, which is heightened by the media attention given to such events.

To understand terrorism, one must be able to define it. There are several definitions of terrorism. The most common are as follows:

The U.S. Department of State, 1990: The unlawful use of, or threatened use of, force or violence against individuals or property to coerce and intimidate governments or societies, often to achieve political, religious, or ideological objectives.

The FBI: The unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.

An Academic Definition: The politically, socially, and/or religiously motivated criminal intimidation of the innocent.

Generally Defined: The violent criminal intimidation of innocent people for political, religious, or social objectives.

Regardless of which definition one accepts, three elements are needed to classify an action as being that of a terrorist.

1. There must be violence or the threat of violence.

2. The targets of this action must be innocent.

3. The action must have been taken to accomplish some political, religious, or social goal.

Terrorist actions, once taken, become criminal. Classic terrorist events, such as kidnapping, hijacking, bombings, and assassinations, are criminal in nature. These events are designated as terrorist incidents when the motivation for the action is established. For example, the hijacking of an airplane or the kidnapping of an executive, when undertaken for ransom, is a crime but not a terrorist act, when the motive is financial gain if no religious, political, or social goal is identified. Terrorism is a means to an end, not the end itself.

Warfare v. Terrorism

Warfare differs from terrorism in that the violent actions in war are generally aimed at the combatants on each side. Terrorist acts target innocent people. In warfare, innocents are generally not the primary targets, since the enemy’s combatants poise the greater threat and also because many nations have signed the various treaties and accords which outlaw the targeting of innocent people in formally declared war.

One of the tactics in warfare is to apply overwhelming force to an enemy thus forcing his capitulation because he no longer has the resources to continue. Since terrorists do not possess the weapons or troops to deliver overwhelming force, they must rely on the fear and confusion caused by their attacks against symbolic targets and innocent people.

Terrorists may declare themselves at war with the targets of their violence as evidenced by the repeated declarations of Jihad by bin Laden and others. Acts committed under these exhortations, although violent, are acts of terrorism, not war. Terrorism, when conducted in behalf of or sponsored by a nation against another nation, can be viewed as warfare if the targets include recognized combatants.

History of Terrorism

Terrorism is not a new phenomenon but has been registered throughout the length of recorded history. Extreme Jewish factions were active in Jerusalem during the Roman occupation of Palestine. Known as sicari, because of their use of a short dagger (sica), to commit assassinations, they gave us the word zealot. These zealots attacked the Roman government until their destruction in the year 70 AD.

Another early example of terrorists is the Order of Assassins. In the eleventh century, this group, an offshoot of an extreme Shiite Muslim sect was active in Persia, Syria, and Palestine, conducting attacks against both Christians and Sunni Muslims. These attacks included the assassinations of the Sultan of Bagdad and other political figures. The Order of Assassins used disguises and secrecy to accomplish their missions. The word Thug is derived from the followers of Thuggee in India, whose followers conducted murders with silk cords as a sacrifice to the goddess Kali.

Terrorism has been conducted worldwide virtually continuously since these early examples. Through the mid 19th century and the early 20th century, assassinations and bombings were the chosen tactics, particularly in Europe. Terrorism was, in some instances, a precursor to either guerilla warfare or revolutionary events.

Before Israel became a nation, two groups, the Irgun and the Stern Gang, committed terrorist acts against the then British government. Both groups ceased to exist after the creation of Israel as a state. It is interesting to note that two former prime ministers of Israel, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, were members of these groups. Shamir was one of the leaders of the Stern Gang, while Begin was the leader of Irgun.

Following periods of terrorist activity in Europe between World Wars I and II, terrorist action shifted to the Middle East and Asia. Nearly continuous terrorist activity has occurred in the Palestinian and other regions of the Middle East, particularly since the 1967 Six Day War.

In the late 1960's to 1970's, leftist groups appeared both in the United States and Europe. These groups, such as the Weathermen and the Black Panthers, engaged in violent acts including bombings and robberies because of radical political ideologies.

In the 1980's, domestic groups such as the Aryan Nation, the Order, CSA, and others, engaged in violence due to their white supremacist ideals. In Europe, the Bader-Meinhoff Gang, the Red Brigade, and others were beginning to lose the impact they had made in the 1970's largely due to changing political structures and the values of society.

During the early to mid 1990's, traditional terrorism had lost most of its impact except in the Middle East, in Northern Ireland (with the ongoing and longstanding conflicts involving the IRA), and Spain, with the Basque Separatists. It took on a new face in evolving nations in Africa which were beset by terrorism disguised as guerilla warfare, as well as in South America where the agreements of convenience between South American terrorist groups and their now business partners, the drug cartels, were established.

By the late 1990's, the focus on terrorism was concerned with the possibilities that weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, could be obtained or developed by terrorists. Very little attention was paid to, or preparation made for, such events as cyber-terrorism by governments until almost the year 2000 when the fears of the Y2K computer problem arose. It was not known that in the year 2001, mass casualties would be caused in the United States by terrorists.

Terrorist Motivation

Terrorists commit reprehensible violent acts simply because they believe they have sufficient justification for their actions, be it political, social, or religious reasons. The motivation usually is to either prevent a perceived injustice of some sort from occurring or continuing, or to seek vengeance for a prior injustice. Since terrorist groups lack the resources to mount a direct military attack on those groups or countries with which they have grievances, they employ tactics designed to cause disruption, fear, and chaos to publicize their cause while garnering wider support.

The goals of individual groups range from easily understood to bizarre. The goals of national or religious identity, which are held by the IRA and Palestinian groups, if not agreed with, can at least be understood. In March 1995, the Japanese cult, Aum Shinri Kyo, caused the deaths of 12 people and injuries to 5,500 more by placing Sarin gas, a nerve agent, aboard five trains in the Tokyo underground rail system. It was later discovered that this group had attempted to spread botulism and anthrax throughout Tokyo on at least eight separate occasions with no effect. The leader of this group was convinced that the United States was preparing to bomb Japan as part of a worldwide conspiracy, which would mark the Apocalypse, and his group was trying to defend itself. This group had earlier visited Russia and Japan in attempts to locate a death ray they understood was in the archives of a deceased inventor. Since this group was well funded and composed of educated individuals, the reasoning behind these actions is unclear except that they believed the final battle of Armageddon was at hand.

More typically, terrorism is undertaken to publicize a cause or to address a grievance by attacking targets important to those considered being the enemy by the terrorists. Often these targets will be symbols of the enemy’s military, political, or economic strength, an example being the 1983 suicide bombing of the U.S. Marine Barracks in Beirut, which costs the lives of 241 Marines. The attack, which was attributed to the group Hezbollah (Party of God), was an obvious response to the presence of US peacekeeping troops in Lebanon. The 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City by Timothy McVeigh was a response by the bomber to perceived injustices perpetrated by the government.

Terrorists generally do not view any philosophy other than their own as being valid. Often, terrorist groups attract discontented individuals who have suffered personal failures such as job loss, divorce, or unsatisfactory military discharges. These individuals are looking for someone to blame for their situations and are seeking vengeance. Domestic right wing groups in the United States tend to have large numbers of these disaffected people within their groups.

Economic and educational statuses are factors in the membership of some groups, such as the IRA, which attracts relatively uneducated young men who are either unemployed or working at menial jobs.

Sometimes the motivation for terrorism is personal, as evidenced by Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, (a.k.a. Carlos the Jackal). Sanchez is the son of wealthy Venezuelan parents who, although indoctrinated into leftist politics, committed terrorist activities on behalf of Libya, Syria, and Iraq for profit. He is said to be a humorless psychopath, overweight, and unattractive to women. His terrorist activities were conducted to finance his love of the nightlife and his opulent lifestyle as well as to reinforce his need for recognition and his sense of self-importance.

Middle Eastern terrorists are motivated by both religion and nationalism, as these are fundamentally the same thing in Islamic countries. These groups view the United States as the great enemy because of the U.S. support of Israel and a perception that hardships suffered in Middle Eastern countries is caused by U.S. exploitation of resources in the region. Islamic fundamentalists consider the exportation of U.S. culture and influence to their region as being anti-Islamic and disrespectful of their religious heritage. These groups are motivated by a deeply held sense of rage which they feel is caused by western humiliation of their culture and religion. Young men, with no jobs or education, and no prospects for either in the future, are easily led into participation in terrorist activities against the western groups, who they believe are responsible for their plight. Terrorist leaders who need foot soldiers easily exploit Young Palestinians who throw rocks at armed Israeli soldiers.

Some Middle Eastern terrorist leaders are highly educated, multi-lingual, and have access to large amounts of money and other resources. Nearly all terrorists are male and most are under 35 years old. The followers of these leaders tend to be less educated and younger. Some followers are attracted by the adventure and excitement of terrorist operations and are not necessarily as committed to the political or religious struggle as the leaders.

Dr. Frederick Hacker has categorized terrorists as one of three types. The first type is the Crusader. This type includes those who are ideologically inspired and want prestige and power for a collective goal or common cause. A second type is the Criminal. This type of terrorist uses terrorist activities to further criminal goals such as robbery, kidnapping, or narcotic trafficking. The third type includes the Crazies. This type has a wide range of characteristics and may be impulsive and unpredictable. This type plans actions in detail, may be delusional, and believe they are agents of God, or some cases, believe they are themselves God.

Terrorists may not be members of an organized group and may even be a single individual. The Unabomber, Ted Kacynski, and Eric Rudolph, the Atlanta Olympic Bomber, acted as solitary individuals driven by fanaticism.

Terrorist Groups

Middle Eastern Terrorist Groups

Although Middle Eastern terrorist groups come from different countries and different branches of Islam and do not always cooperate with each other, they do have common enemies in the United States and Israel.

In the year preceding the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, two meetings were held which representatives of different terrorist organizations and members of Middle Eastern intelligence agencies attended. These conferences, known as The Jerusalem Project, were held in Beirut, Lebanon and Tehran, Iran. The conferences were attended by 400 participants, and included representatives from Al-Qaeda, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, and individuals from Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, Sudan, Yemen, and at least one person living in the United States. Attendees included Iranian diplomats and intelligence officials. During the meeting, the participants pledged support for the Palestinians and agreed to seek Arab control over Jerusalem. It can reasonably be inferred from this event that communication and cooperation is likely to increase among these formerly disparate groups.

Middle Eastern terrorist groups, which are designated by the U.S. Department of State as being active, include the following:

· Abu Nidal Organization

The Abu Nidal Organization is an international organization that split from the PLO in 1974 and is headed by Sabri-al-Banna. The Abu Nidal Organization has carried out attacks in 20 countries. Targets have included United States interests, the United Kingdom, France, Israel, moderate Palestinians, and the PLO. It has several hundred members and has not attacked western targets since the late 1980's.

· Islamic Group, IG (al-Gama’al-Islamiyya)

The Islamic Group, IG, is a militant Egyptian group that signed Osama bin Laden’s Fatwa and has called for attacks against US citizens. It has threatened to retaliate against the U.S. for the incarceration of Shaykh al-Rahman. The primary goal of this group is to overthrow the Egyptian Government. The group has conducted attacks against tourists in Egypt and attempted to assassinate Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak in 1995. The group has several thousand members.

· Hamas (Islamic Resistance Movement)

Hamas was formed in late 1987 to pursue the goal of an Islamic Palestinian State. It has held a political presence in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and has conducted large-scale suicide attacks against Israeli civilian and military targets. Membership numbers are unknown, but this group has deep support from sympathizers in the occupied territories.

· Hezbollah (Party of God),

The Hezbollah is a radical Shia group formed in Lebanon. Closely aligned with Iran, it is dedicated to the removal of all non-Islamic presence from the area. Hezbollah is strongly anti-West and anti-Israel. It has conducted numerous anti-U.S. attacks, including the suicide truck bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 and the US Embassy in 1984. It has several thousand members and receives support and aid from Iran and Syria.

· al-Jihad

al-Jihad is an Egyptian Islamic extremist group headed by Ayman-al-Zawari, who is currently one of bin Laden’s key leaders. The group was involved in the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981. The group’s spiritual leader, Abd al-Rahman, is currently in jail in the US for his involvement in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.

· Palestine Islamic Jihad

The Palestine Islamic Jihad consists of militant Palestinians committed to the creation of an Islamic Palestinian state and the destruction of Israel. It has identified the U.S. as an enemy and has conducted suicide bombings in the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel. Their membership strength is unknown.

· Al-Qaeda (The Base)

Osama bin Laden formed al-Qaeda in 1988. This group is a conglomerate of semi-independent Islamic terrorist organizations with cells located in as many as 60 countries. Bin Laden formed this group from Arabs who had fought the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda is structured with bin Laden as the emir-general at the top of the organization. Immediately below bin Laden is the Shura, which is a council consisting of four councils: military, religio-legal, finance, and media. Al-Qaeda is thought to have several thousand members worldwide in addition to alliances with other terrorist groups.

Bin Laden’s associate, Ayman al Zawahiri, an Egyptian surgeon who was imprisoned for the 1981 assassination of Anwar Sadat, is the head of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad group. Another associate, Mohammed Atef, who was killed by an air strike in Afghanistan, was a former Egyptian policeman thought to be involved in the embassy bombings, the training and directing of Somali personnel involved in the killing of U.S. servicemen, and is thought to be highly involved in the September 11th attacks.

The organization has numerous commercial enterprises throughout the Middle East ranging from import-export businesses to construction companies. Bin Laden has personal wealth of an estimated $200-300 million dollars that he inherited. His organization is adept at financial investments. In fact, his organization is suspected of profiting from the September 11th attacks by short selling airline and insurance industry stocks the day before the attacks. His organization receives significant funding from donations to funds thinly concealed as charities. His organization is strongly suspected of profiting from the trafficking of opium grown in Afghanistan.

The Al-Qaeda group is suspected of attempting to buy weapons grade plutonium and other nuclear materials on the black market. They have been known to experiment with the use of cyanide in their training camps and are likely to try to develop biological or chemical weapons.

The Al-Qaeda organization is suspected of involvement in numerous terrorist actions including:

1993 Killing of U.S. service members in Somalia.

1993 Involvement in the bombing of the World Trade Center.

1994 Unsuccessful plots to bomb U.S. and Israeli Embassies in Manila.

1994 Unsuccessful plot to assassinate Pope John Paul II in Manila.

1995 Bombing of U.S. military barracks in Saudi Arabia killing 22 U.S. service members.

1995 Unsuccessful plot to bomb multiple U.S. trans-pacific flights.

1995 Unsuccessful plot to assassinate President Clinton.

1996 Declaration of holy war against Americans to drive them from the Arabian Peninsula.

1998 Bombing of U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania killing over 220 people including 12 Americans.

1998 Fatwa issued in which bin Laden encouraging the killing of Americans, including civilians, anywhere in the world.

1998 Issues statement that stated it was the duty of Muslims to prepare as much force as possible, including nuclear weapons.

1999 Plot to bomb millennium celebration in the U.S.

2000 Bombing of USS Cole in Yemen resulting in 17 sailors killed.

2001 Attacks on World Trade Center and Pentagon.

One of bin Laden’s goals is certainly to create a Pan-Islamic conflict that pits the worldwide Islamic population against non-Islamic people. Large numbers of Middle Eastern civilian casualties will enhance this goal. To this end, other Islamic groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah could become larger threats. Domestic right-wing groups such as the Aryan Nation, the Order, or the various militias could become problematic if internal security in the United States becomes tighter. Some of these groups, although certainly no friends of Islam, have applauded the actions of September 11th because of their dislike of what they term the Zionist Occupation Government of the U.S. since they feel Jews control the U.S. economy. One of these groups’ spokesperson said he was gratified by the attacks on “Jew York City.” Additionally, ongoing military action with civilian casualties could cause the reappearance of leftist domestic groups, particularly if the military campaign results in Vietnam-like military losses.

Domestic Terrorist Groups

Domestic terrorism is activity that is conducted by persons or groups who come from within the target county and who operate with no foreign direction, support, or assistance. An IRA terrorist who confines his actions to his home country is a domestic terrorist. For our purposes, we will consider domestic terrorists to be those who are from the United States and who confine their activities to American soil. We should remember that, prior to September 11th, the largest numbers of casualties suffered in the United States were caused by a domestic terrorist attack. Domestic terrorist groups in the United States tend to be smaller than international groups. Domestic terrorists may be members of hate groups, militias, extreme religious organizations, or individuals who may or may not be sympathizers with these types of groups.

There are numerous groups nationwide which profess extremist views and who are capable of violent actions to further these views. These groups include animal rights radicals, environmental extremists, anti-abortion activists, and anti-government militia and patriot groups. Known current groups, with the exception of animal rights and environmental groups, tend to be ultra-conservative. One group, the Patriot’s Council, produced ricin, a nerve agent, from castor beans. This agent was to be placed on doorknobs and car steering wheels in an attempt to assassinate federal officials. Law enforcement officers infiltrated the group and at least one of the members was convicted in federal court of producing weapons of mass destruction.

Domestic terrorists are often proponents of various government conspiracy theories. These beliefs allow them to justify their violent actions as a necessary defense of their particular political, social, or religious beliefs. Violent anti-abortion groups believe that the numbers of unborn babies they perceive themselves as “saving,” justifies killing abortion providers and bombing clinics. Violent patriot or militia groups view themselves as being the defenders of the common man against government repression. A common theme espoused by ultra-conservative extremist groups is their opposition to the perceived illegal seizure of power by either religions other than their own (the Zionist Occupation Government) or by international groups (New World Order).

Extremist groups and sympathizers exist in virtually every state in the country. These groups provide breeding grounds for terrorist activity through reinforcement of extremist views, training, and logistical support. Some groups, finding no audience for their extremist views and rhetoric, turn to violent activities to get attention. Eco-terrorist groups, such as the ELF (Earth Liberation Front) are made up of extreme environmentalists who have become radicalized by the refusal of society to listen to their message.

It is understandable, given the events of September 11th for law enforcement agencies to view international groups as being the largest terrorist threat, but it is dangerous to ignore the threat posed by domestic groups and organizations as well the threat that exists with individual terrorists.


The United States enjoyed relative freedom from international terrorist attacks until September 11th. Since the attacks have now occurred on our soil, it is unrealistic to expect no other incidents to happen here. The country is vulnerable to serious damage from further terrorist attacks in several areas. First, our critical infrastructure, such as power generating plants, water treatment facilities, and transportation and communication networks, are unprotected from serious attack. A determined attack on critical computer systems could cause chaos. Our economy is based on confidence that would be severely tested by a catastrophic failure of systems caused by conventional attacks disrupting large power transmission facilities. A spectacular event, such as a large bomb detonated at a professional sporting event, would cause fear and stress even among non-involved people.

Concern over the possibility of biological or chemical attacks has caused a run on gas masks and other protective devices, even though these would be of little use in the event of an actual attack. Even the small-scale use of a chemical or biological weapon could cause panic.

The goals of terrorists are to create exactly these types of feelings and reactions by any means. One must remember the goal of the terrorist is terror. To this end, nearly all terrorists succeed to some degree. Terrorism has been an historic problem throughout the world and will continue as long as it continues to be an effective method for groups or individuals to gain attention, publicize grievances, or wage surrogate warfare.


Bodansky, Yossef, Bin Laden, The Man Who Declared War On America, Roseville, CA, Prima Publishing, 1999.

Laqueur, Walter, A History of Terrorism, Piscataway, NJ, Transaction Publishers, 2001.

Laqueur, Walter, The New Terrorism: Fanaticism and The Arms of Mass Destruction, New York, NY, Oxford University Press 1999.