History of Terrorism

The Zealots – Sicarii were Jewish resistance fighters active between the years 66-73A.D. Their main objective was to stimulate a Jewish revolt against their Roman conquerors, hoping to expel the Romans from Judaea. To the Zealots, the Roman presence in Judaea was an obstacle to the arrival of the Messiah. Thus, to incite revolt against the Romans, the Zealots would attack Romans and those who sympathize with them, targeting those who were well-known public figures. These murders would typically take place in large, public gatherings on days that would draw the largest crowd. The Zealots would stab their targets with a small dagger (called sicae, hence Sicarii) and disappear back into the crowd. Ultimately, the Sicarii succeeded in inciting a revolt. Unfortunately, the revolt ended in failure. The Romans sacked Jerusalem, burning the Second Temple to the ground. As the Romans cornered the last of the Sicarii, they committed suicide rather than surrender to their conquerors.

Contrary to what Assassin’s Creed might suggest, the Order of the Assassins were a Shia Islamic sect, also known as the Nizari Ismaili, or by their proper name the Fedayeen (translated as the self-sacrificers. They were active between the years 1090-1273A.D. The Fedayeen were indoctrinated to believe their sacrifice would earn them rewards in Heaven. The goal of the Fedayeen was to accelerate the coming of the Messiah by sanctifying the collective Muslim people. In layman’s terms, the Fedayeen wanted to eliminate all impurity to prepare for the Messiah. Due to their religious fanaticism, the Fedayeen, after infiltrating into the inner circles of the powerful and important Muslims and politicians of their time, would stab their targets to death and wait at the side of the corpse(s), willingly accepting the punishment of the authorities (i.e., execution). Thus, the concept of suicide terrorism was pioneered, which still inspires terrorists today. Fun fact: the word “assassin” comes from a corruption of the Arabic term for Hash smoker, which was a very twisted image of the Assassins as they were an extremely disciplined fighting force.

It might surprise many of you that the first time the word “terrorism” enters the lexicon was as a tool used by a democratic government to control their population. The French Revolution was one that entirely remade the socio-political system of France. As such, the revolution was particularly brutal and violent. To maintain control over the nation after the successful establishment of Les États-Généraux, the Jacobins commissioned a man by the name of Robespierre to consolidate power, prevent counter-revolution, and defend against foreign agitators. During the Reign of Terror (1793-1794), thousands of people were executed by Guillotine, a spectacularly gruesome beheading machine. Many of these people were simply frustrated by the lack of improvement in their livelihoods and living conditions. The wars of Louis XV and extravagant lifestyle of Louis VXI had left the people famished and angry, largely leading to the revolution itself. In defense of his killing spree, Robespierre famously said, “Terror is only justice that is prompt, severe, and inflexible.” Eventually Robespierre would grow too comfortable in his power, threatening even those in the government. This led to his own turn at the Guillotine, thus ending the Reign of Terror.

Unlike their counterparts in the UK, the Tsar in Russia had no need to answer to any of his nobles. Numerous anarchistic groups emerged resulting from years of autocratic rule, such as Land and Liberty (Zemlya I Volya, 1876), and the People’s Will (Narodnaya Volya, 1879-1894). The central contribution to terrorism of these groups was the concept of the “Propaganda of the Deed”. This concept essentially says that at some point, talking becomes useless and actual actions must be taken towards achieving their goal. True to the concept, they successfully assassinated Tsar Alexander II. The concept of Propaganda of the Deed provides ideological inspiration for anarchists and leftist groups long after the end of the People’s Will.


Unlike their anti-state counterparts, the number of victims in state terrorism is of a whole different order. Nazi Germany’s pursuit of the Aryan race, which they believed to be the most pure and dominant race, led to over 12 million deaths. Meanwhile, Stalin’s policy of forced rapid industrialization of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR)’s economy led to widespread death and starvation, with estimates anywhere between 4 – 12 million. During the famine years, Stalin also grew paranoid of fellow Communist Party members, leading to a “Purge” of Communist Party members and non-members alike. This would account for an addition 600 thousand – 1.2 million deaths. Following Stalin’s lead, Mao also introduced a policy of rapid industrialization between 1951 – 1961. During this period, deaths resulting from starvation, forced labour, and executions range from 14 million – 46 million. Following the Great Leap Forward, Mao instituted the Cultural Revolution, which was designed to eliminate all “capitalist” elements and traditional Chinese culture from society to preserve communist ideology. Approximately 36 million people were persecuted, with anywhere between 2 million to 7 million deaths.


During the late 1960s to the 1980s, terrorism begins to resurface in the West in the form of peoples demanding independence. The Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA; the more militaristic branch of the IRA) conducted bombings, kidnappings, and assassinations of soldiers and police officers throughout Ireland. The Basque of Spain also formed Askatasuna, committing single-shot assassinations of police and military officers. The Kurdish worker’s party (PKK) represented the Kurdish people, who are the largest stateless nation today. The PKK are still currently active, and can often be found fighting the Islamic State (IS). Prior to the IS crisis, the PKK primarily targeted cities in Turkey. This is because a large geographic swathe of the proposed Kurdish homeland, Kurdistan, forms part of modern-day Turkey.

In 1968, the hijacking of the El Al Airlines (the national Israeli Airline) was committed by Palestinian terrorists. It was following this event that hijacking airplanes became a popular terrorist tactic. The importance of this event can be explained with simply “9/11”. However, another landmark terrorist attack occurred only four years after – the Munich Olympics. Also, carried out by Palestinian terrorists, 11 Israeli athletes and coaches as well as one West German police officer were killed. This proved to be a landmark even because, in an era of few television channels and no internet, almost all news outlets would have been broadcasting the Olympics. Ultimately, five of eight terrorists were killed. This event taught future terrorists the power of utilizing mass media in spreading their message.

Left-wing terrorism became prominent and pronounced during the Cold War. These ideologies are heavily influenced by Marxism and Socialism that focuses on redistribution of wealth. Their goal is to fundamentally restructure the society via violence and wake up the mass population. In other words, terrorism is used as a precursor to revolution. The Red Army Faction in Germany organized hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 181 to Frankfurt and violently kidnap the President of the German Employers' Association. Shining Path in Peru utilized violence against peasants, trade union organization, elected officials, and general population. Despite their wide popularity during the cold war, their legitimacy has decreased considerably with the fall of Berlin Wall and Soviet Union in 1989.


In the early 1990s, the world began to see initial attacks carried out by Osama Bin Laden. Al-Qaeda, which is a terrorist organization formed by Bin Laden, wished a complete break of US influence on Muslim countries. Bin Laden’s offered his army, Mujahideen, to the Saudi Arabia, but it was declined in favor of US army. Bin Laden was outraged by the fact that holy city of Muslim, Mecca, was being protected by foreign army. This led to series of bombings like Yemen Hotel Bombings, first attempt to bomb the World Trade Center in 1993, and US embassy bombing in Kenya in 1998. 


The world was terrorized after the September 11 attacks by Al-Qaeda that bombed Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. This event killed 3,000 individuals, injured 6,000, and caused ten billion dollars of property damage. United States, in response, declared a “war on terrorism”. In addition, they opened up new discussions about privacy and religious rights and the appropriate response to fight terrorism. The world, however, is still living in fear. As of today, the world is facing religious extremists, right-wing white supremacists, and Syrian crisis. The threat is imminent and we need collective actions to combat extremism.