Terrorism in the 21st century is very different than terrorism in the 20th century. In the past, acts of terrorism, which can be defined as attacks on civilian targets rather than military targets, were often committed as part of a campaign of independence or to achieve a nationalist goal.
They were often geographically limited and did not cause large-scale civilian casualties. Today, terrorism is a global threat motivated by a very different ideology and is much more deadly. It truly is a scourge—one that haunts leaders and policymakers around the world. In the course of this essay I will examine three aspects of terrorism then and now by looking at different groups with different aims.
In the course of these examinations or comparisons, many of the salient differences between old terrorism and new terrorism will become evident. In the first case I will examine the Algerian-French conflict in the middle of the 20th century. In this conflict, the French fought an urban guerrilla war against Algerian nationalists who wished to liberate their country from French colonialism. The brutal reprisals of the French were responded to by acts of terrorism such as blowing up mailboxes in Paris.
While the conflict elicited a cri du Coeur from other colonial subjects around the world and inspired a great many anti-colonialist thinkers, it did not, for example, draw in foreign fighters or radicalize a generation of extremists. Furthermore, terrorism was to some extent a last resort for Algerians who were consistently refused real political influence or power over their country. Their aim was clear and their methods—while highly objectionable—were coherent and connected to their aim. The Algerian terrorists of the time, while ruthless, could and did negotiate with the French. Indeed, the terrorist/freedom fighters were able to secure the independence of Algeria in 1962.
In the second case I will examine the conflict in Afghanistan from 1979, what many analysts believe is the genesis of the new terrorism. While issues raised by this very long conflict began with the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, which provoked a somewhat traditional form of terrorism in the form of freedom fighters and guerrillas, as in the Algerian in the 1950s, the form of resistance morphed dramatically by the 1990s and into the 2000s. These years saw the rise of a new form of terrorism, funded and inspired in part by Saudi Wahhabism, and an ideology of global jihad (Coll 2004, 87).
These new terrorists did not have clear or rational aims but instead a hodgepodge of grievances against Western states, and foremost against American. Where the Algerian conflict had been limited to Algeria and to French urban centres, the new terrorists sought to expand their war to the entire world. They thought nothing of killing huge numbers of civilians and of engaging in suicide bombing. A political and moral nihilism lay at the heart of their terrorist credo.
The world has changed a great deal over the last century. Empires have come and gone, and political movements have changed the face of the world. One of the greatest changes has been the kind of terrorism that Western governments face today. In the past terrorist activity was usually nationalistic and rational. Terrorists could be more closely related to freedom fighters. They were usually small groups who fought insurgent or guerrilla warfare. Often they were members of liberation organizations and based in a single country. The freedom fighter/terrorists of Algeria are a perfect example of this. They had limited aims—independence for Algeria—and limited means to accomplish this goal. They may have been influenced by Marxism and resentment against the West but this were, in the final analysis, ancillary motives for their actions. They were nationalists with rational goals. Today, in Algeria, they are celebrated as heros for standing up and defending their country.
But the terrorism of today is very different. In its most virulent form—represented for example by Al Qaeda, Taliban, Hamas, and Hezbollah—it is transnational and very difficult to deal with. It uses modern technology, has sleeper cells in Western countries, and closely resembles a death cult. It got its start in Afghanistan in the 1980s and into the 1990s, climaxing with the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. This form of terrorism can’t be negotiated with or rationalized with. Its promoters and supporters are people with a skewed moral compass. Any idea of self-interest is non-existent or alien to them. Indeed, they have no problem killing innocent fellow Muslims to achieve their aims. They have warped the peaceful teachings of the Koran to create a monstrous ideology of hated. In the past, terrorism was a political phenomenon—now it has become a religious or fantastical one.