I don’t have many clear memories from the distant year of 2001. However, one specific image is still alive in my head. I recall spending one of my last late summer holiday days watching cartoon shows on TV, when the title “Breaking News” suddenly appeared on every single TV channel. I clearly remember the pictures of two planes crashing in two identical skyscrapers in New York City. The date, of course, was the 11th of September. As a boy that hadn’t even reached the 10th year of his life, I couldn’t have understood the significance of this event, an event that was going to shape the history of the 21st century.
During the following years and through the course of the ‘war on terror’, words like ‘terrorists’ and ‘terrorism’ were becoming more and more frequent in the vocabulary of the western societies. Although al-Qaeda, the terrorist organization responsible for the 9/11 attacks was almost completely defeated after the US-led invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq, its role has been quickly filled by the so-called ‘Islamic State’ or ‘ISIS’. ISIS has recently executed a series of bloody terror attacks in major European cities, while several incidents in US cities are believed to be inspired by it. The fear of terrorist attacks is nowadays well embedded in the everyday lives of western populations. However, terrorism is definitely not only a post-9/11 phenomenon. Western societies have been confronted with major terrorist attacks long before Islamic fundamentalism was on the rise.
Terrorism is not an ideology. It is a method to reach political goals and objectives. Throughout the course of history, and especially during the 20th century, this method has been incorporated by a wide array of actors. These actors have for instance included ethno-nationalist and separatist movements, radical left-wing and right-wing groups and religious fanatics.
David Rapoport, a professor at UCLA maintains that the first wave of modern terrorism emerged as early as the 1880s. What he calls the ‘Anarchist Wave’ begun in Russia and quickly spread throughout the rest of the world. The terrorist tactics of that period were characterized by the assassination of prominent political or military figures, while bank robberies were a common way for terrorist groups to finance their activities.
Throughout the 20th century terrorist tactics have been widely utilized for national liberation and separatist purposes. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) is one of the oldest and probably most recognizable national liberation terrorist movements. The IRA played a crucial role in the Anglo-Irish war, after which Ireland gained its independence from Britain. Instead of engaging in conventional war, IRA volunteers favored hit-and-run attacks, destruction of government property and assassinations of prominent individuals. Although initially such actions shocked the civilian population, the harsh responses from the British government resulted to a heightened civilian sympathy towards the terrorists. Indeed, it is in such contexts that the distinction between ‘terrorist’ and ‘freedom fighter’ becomes increasingly blurry.
IRA’s role was not limited to the Anglo-Irish war. During the Troubles, a thirty-year conflict in Northern Ireland, the Provisional IRA was one of the main fighting parties. Its tactics included, among others, the use of car bombs and plastic explosives. Although the IRA claimed to mainly target security forces, in certain occasions civilians were also deliberately targeted. A well-known incident of that period is IRA’s attempt to assassinate Margaret Thatcher in the Brighton hotel bombing in 1984. The British Prime Minister survived the attack, but five people were killed and more than thirty injured.
The case of Ireland and the IRA is not unique in Europe. Another organization that has acted in a relatively similar context is ETA. For over forty years, ETA has waged a bloody campaign for the independence of the Basque Country, a region located in northern Spain and south-west France. This long campaign has resulted in over 820 deaths. Many of the victims were members of the Spanish national police force and politicians who opposed ETA’s separatist demands.
While both the IRA and ETA had very specific territorial goals, during the late 1960s and 1970s a wholly different wave of terrorism developed. This wave was mainly associated with extreme left-wing movements. Amid growing public discomfort for the US involvement in Vietnam, numerous such movements emerged in the United States and in several European countries.
In the United States, a prominent example was the anti-war radical far left group Weather Underground. During its seven years of existence, the organization, which comprised mainly of young college students, was involved in several bombings of government buildings and corporation headquarters. The most spectacular were the bombings of the Capitol, the Pentagon and the State Department. The organization’s activities caused the FBI to commit vast resources for its pursuit, while some of its leaders made it to the Bureau’s Most Wanted list.
Europe had its share of radical left terrorist organizations as well. The West German Red Army Faction, the Italian Red Brigades and the French Action Directe are only a few of the many examples. The tactics of such groups included, apart from the traditional assassination and bombing campaigns, the kidnappings of prominent political and business figures. Hostages were taken in order to gain political leverage, but at the same time they constituted a source of cash, necessary for the continuation of their operations. Plane hijackings was also a distinctive tactic of terrorist organizations of that period.
During the 1970s western societies also witnessed several incidents of terror attacks that were not associated with radical left groups. The kidnapping and killing of a group of Israeli athletes in the 1972 Munich Olympic Games by the Palestinian terrorist group Black September and the kidnapping of a whole OPEC meeting, including 11 oil ministers, in Vienna comprise two of the most distinctive terror attacks of the decade. The 1970s have been described by Peter Bergen, national security analyst at CNN as the “Golden age of terrorism”. The Global Terrorism Database at the University of Maryland seems to support this claim. As the database suggests, although the situation is bad in the West nowadays, it was even worse during the 1970s and the 1980s.
Does this mean that peoples’ fear is unjustifiable? Of course not. The recent series of attacks suggest exactly the opposite. Even though terrorism in the West is rare compared to previous times and other parts of the world, attacks have certainly become deadlier with the incorporation of new tactics like suicide bombings. As such attacks do not show any signs of stopping in the near future, despite the courageous efforts of the several counter-terrorist units, it’s ultimately up to societies to deal with this serious issue. People should not let fear become an integral part of their everyday lives. After all, terrorists’ success is dependent on the levels of fear they instill in the society. If societies manage to build strong resilience and learn how to cope with fear, then the terrorists’ campaign is bound to fail.