The rise of terrorism, as we know it, correlates with the rise of the industrial society. Yes of course, there have been incidents of assassinations, sabotage and covert warfare ever since mankind emerged from the caves and started to compete and fight with one another. However, terrorism as a means of individuals for advancing a political agenda did start not sooner than during the 19th century, when the rapid growth of urban and industrial society in Europe and North America fostered a myriad of political ideologies – most notably, doctrines of Socialism which target the unjust distribution of material wealth in a society thoroughly reshaped by capitalism going rampant. It was from this grievance that the first terrorists of modern history struck back; attempting to assassinate political leaders, causing social unrest and fostering a revolution that would eventually topple the old regime and thus manifest an egalitarian society.
Nationalism was another ideology on the rise in the late 19th century, and it became a force to be reckoned with once the particular ethnic and cultural character of different peoples was widely acknowledged: peoples divided by state borders or without a state to call their own, at all. Numberless acts of terrorism were perpetrated for the sake of national independence, among others. When Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo, in 1914, it was his act of terrorism that culminated in the outbreak of World War One and thus changed the course of history for good. As much as terrorism appears to be an exercise in futility more often than not, causing nothing but bloodshed but accomplishing none of the political ideas in which name terrorists have murdered and maimed the life of others, it can’t be dismissed as having no effect whatsoever on the way the world does spin. Without Sarajevo, without – almost a century later – 9/11, we would live in a very different world indeed.
Regardless of the ideology – be it a secular doctrine like Anarchism, Nationalism, etc., or a religious doctrine like Salafism – the terrorists do have a target list that usually spares the life of a majority. They go after political and religious leaders, or security personal or certain institutions linked to the stability of the regime they are at war with. The assassination or bomb detonation shall carry a message to the public, signaling the vulnerability of a regime that might not be able to provide sufficient security for its top echelons anymore. Terrorists need the media, as a medium to communicate to the public and thus to influence public opinion too. Every act of terrorism is carefully orchestrated as to don’t appear random or arbitrary, and lengthy communiqués distributed to the media outlets are supposed to explain what happened, why it happened, and to what end it happened. The terrorist is dependent on public approval, as odd as that seems. If the public – a certain percentage of it, that is – doesn’t understand the context in which terrorism is being carried out, they won’t subscribe to the agenda of the terrorists and thus fail to provide any support in terms of funds and logistics that is vital to the terrorist campaign. When such support can’t be secured, terrorists are likely turning to intelligence agencies of foreign states for funds and provisions; if they weren’t conceived and sent by those very agencies in the first place. Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, known as “Carlos”, was the prime example of the mercenary type of terrorist; a gun for hire. Also al-Quaida, as well as other terrorist groups subscribing to Wahhabism, is said to have been CIA-sponsored in the beginning and it’s still being funded by officials in places such as Saudi-Arabia.
Many Salafist and Wahhabite offshoots appear to target, for the first time in the history of modern-day terrorism, entire groups of people based on their religious or ethnic background; aiming at considerable body count by the use of massive force or even weapons of mass destruction. However, arbitrary violence against a hostile, ethnic and/or religious community is frequently committed during warfare (civil wars, first and foremost) and it adds just another dimension to terrorism, rather than re-defining this militant movement as a whole. There is now a sharp distinction between “they” – the hostile enemy from another nation, culture and civilization – and “us” – the community on which behalf the terrorist does believe to fight for, and which he hopes to win over to his cause eventually. As much as the mayhem perpetrated by a suicide bomber does appear to be arbitrary and directed at just about anyone who happens to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, this terrorism still follows the logic of those Anarchists and Nihilists who attempted to assassinate the Russian Czar in the late 19th century: The act of terrorism does carry a message which shall resonate with a perceptive audience; thus making more people aware of the terrorists’ agenda, give support to and join their movement. It’s just that this terrorist aims his message at a narrow audience he does share the same creed or ethnic identity with; everyone else is of no concern to him and can be deemed to be legitimate target rather than innocent civilian.
That being said, the many different forms and offshoots of terrorism from the 19th century until today have a few characteristics in common actually:
- They subscribe to a distinctive ideology that does require popular support to succeed,
- It is imperative to communicate to the public via mass media, to explain the terrorists’ agenda and to defend his militant and violent actions,
- The target list is not chosen at random but includes certain symbolic figureheads and institutions of the very regime that stands in the way of the terrorists’ victory.