Modern terrorism, including suicide bombings and attacks on civilian targets, has its origins in the campaign conducted by the Irgun and the Stern Gang against the British Mandate in Palestine. Both organizations benefited from information provided by the Haganah, the Jewish Agency’s intelligence branch, and combat experience with the British army during World War II, when a Jewish Brigade was raised and armed to fight the Nazis.
The pattern of anticolonialist movements adopting terrorist tactics was to be established by Chinese Communist insurgents in Malaya, who had received wartime training with the Far East branch of Special Operations Executive, Force 136. During the Malaya Emergency, the terrorists depended on weapons donated originally by Force 136 to fight the Japanese occupation, but the insurgency was successfully suppressed with the application of unorthodox strategies, including the deployment of countergangs, developed in Palestine.
The era of anticolonialist terrorism effectively ended with the defeat of the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya, settlement in Cyprus, and the British withdrawal from Aden, but political radicalism in Europe at the end of the 1960s created a climate in which the Irish Republican Army (IRA), dormant since the previous upsurge in sectarian violence in Northern Ireland in 1956, reemerged. During the 1970s, anarchist groups in Germany, Japan, Italy, Belgium, Greece, Portugal, and France engaged in uncoordinated terrorism, which manifested itself in political assassination, bomb atrocities, and abductions. Although the Central Intelligence Agency suspected some of the most notorious terrorist leaders—such as Ilych Ramirez Sanchez, alias “Carlos the Jackal”; Dr. George Habbash; and Abu Nidal—were receiving Soviet sponsorship, there was never sufficient evidence to persuade the CIA’s professional analysts, despite intensive studies and political pressure during President Ronald Reagan’s administration.
The university-based terrorist groups of the 1970s, including the Baader-Meinhof gang and the Red Army Faction in Germany, the Italian Red Brigade, Action Directe in France, the Angry Brigade in London, the Weather Underground in the United States, and N17 in Greece, all of which had vague political motives, eventually succumbed to law enforcement. However, the separatist movements with territorial objectives—from Armenia (Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia), the Basque Country (Euskadi ta Askatasuna), Brittany (Armée Revolutionnaire Bretonne), Corsica (Armée de Libération Nationale Corse), Croatia (Croatian Freedom Fighters), Molluca (Mollucan Liberation Front), Quebec (Front de Libération du Québec), Scotland (Scottish Liberation Army), and Wales (Meibon Glyndr)—proved more enduring. Factionalism within the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s Al-Fatah spawned numerous extremist groups, such as Black September, Force 17, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine–General Command, which in 1970 globalized their activities by seizing airliners, a tactic borrowed from Cuba, which had pioneered a policy of offering sanctuary to the hijackers of U.S. aircraft. Having witnessed the success of air piracy and the strategy of taking passengers hostage, extremists with territorial grievances copied the tactic in such disparate areas as Indonesia, Kurdistan, Sri Lanka, Chechnya, and Kashmir. The terrorists saw the advantages of making their disputes international, and often the economic implications encouraged the adversaries to engage in negotiations. Political accommodations achieved peace in Uruguay with the Tupamaros, in Argentina with the Montoneros, in Peru with the Shining Path, in Turkey with the Grey Wolves, and in Northern Ireland with the Provisional IRA. Uneasy truces have also been reached with the Tamil Tigers and the PKK (Partiya Karkaren Kurdistan/Kurdistan Workers Party) but in Colombia narcoterrorism—with ostensibly political movements such as MI9 and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) taking control of entire provinces to enhance drug production—contaminated successive legitimate governments with corruption.
Whereas conventional, state-sponsored terrorism could be combated by the application of sanctions to those countries such as Libya, Iran, and Syria proven to have supported terrorist groups, transnational movements without any obvious refuge have been impossible to eradicate. While terrorists with territorial goals can be persuaded to abandon the armed struggle through political compromise, those with global cultural or religious motives are harder to contain or eliminate, although following the attack on Manhattan and Washington, D.C., on 11 September 2001, the United States partially neutralized Al-Qaeda in April 2002 by leading an international coalition that invaded Afghanistan, deposed the Taliban regime, and destroyed Osama bin Laden’s training camps.
The extent to which the war on terrorism declared by President George W. Bush in 2002 really succeeded remains hard to evaluate, but in the four years that followed, a high proportion of the Al-Qaeda leadership was killed or detained, its communications disrupted, its financial support networks dismantled, and its safe havens eliminated. With the West’s huge intelligence advantage gained through the examination of captured documents and computers, the interrogation of prisoners, and the comprehensive intercepting of telephone, email, and internet communications, the Al-Qaeda structure was virtually decapitated, leaving individual sympathizers to develop their own cells and act independently. Major atrocities committed in the four years following 9/11 in Casablanca, Bali, Madrid, Istanbul, and London demonstrate that while the United States has escaped any significant terrorist incident on its own territory, interdicting several attempts, Islamic extremists continued in a campaign fueled by a religious zealotry that has taken root in immigrant ghettoes, especially among alienated Muslim youth in Europe. In addition, the continuing insurgency concentrated in the Sunni Triangle north of Baghdad has served to attract jihadists from across the globe, possibly diverting attention away from the American homeland.
Public attitudes to terrorism have altered since the African National Congress (ANC), founded as a political movement in 1912, embraced sabotage during the apartheid period in South Africa, and when the organization was banned in April 1961 it engaged in terrorism through a surrogate, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation).
However, as a means of achieving power democratically, the ANC renounced political violence. Counterterrorism agencies have also altered their perspective, and now categorize animal rights extremists,
white supremacist militias, and some fringe antiabortion campaigners as terrorists.