The History of Terrorism

Maximilien Robespierre
The word terrorism comes from the Reign of Terror instigated by Maximilien Robespierre.

Stringer / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Terrorism is the unlawful use of violence to achieve political gains, and its history is as old as humans' willingness to use violence to achieve political power. The history of terrorism is a long one, and defining it is not a straightforward matter.

The First Terrorists

Early zealots and assassins such as the Sicarii and the Hashhashin frightened their contemporaries but were not really terrorists in the modern sense. The Sicarii, a first-century Jewish group and one of the earliest, organized groups of assassins, murdered enemies and collaborators in a campaign to oust their Roman rulers from Judea. They were used small daggers (sicae) hidden in their cloaks to stab people in crowds, then melt quietly away in the throng.

The Hashhashin, whose name gave us the English word "assassins," were a secretive Islamic sect active in Iran and Syria from the 11th to the 13th century. A small ascetic group who wanted to maintain their way of life against the Seljuks, they killed prefects, caliphs, and crusaders, making assassination a sacramental act.

Terrorism is best thought of as a modern phenomenon. Its characteristics flow from the international system of nation-states, and its success depends on the existence of a mass media to create an aura of terror among large groups of people.

1793 and the Origins of Modern Terrorism

The word terrorism comes from the Reign of Terror instigated by Maximilien Robespierre (1758–1794) in 1793, following the French revolution. Robespierre, one of twelve heads of the new state, had enemies of the revolution killed, and installed a dictatorship to stabilize the country. He justified his methods as necessary in the transformation of the monarchy to a liberal democracy:

Subdue by terror the enemies of liberty, and you will be right, as founders of the Republic.

Robespierre's sentiment laid the foundations for modern terrorists, who believe violence will usher in a better system. For example, the 19th century Narodnaya Volya hoped to end Tsarist rule in Russia.

But the characterization of terrorism as a state action faded, while the idea of terrorism as an attack against an existing political order became more prominent.

1950s: The Rise of Non-State Terrorism

The rise of guerrilla tactics by non-state actors in the last half of the twentieth century was due to several factors. These included the flowering of ethnic nationalism (e.g. Irish, Basque, Zionist), anti-colonial sentiments in the vast British, French and other empires, and new ideologies such as communism.

Terrorist groups with a nationalist agenda have formed in every part of the world. For example, the Irish Republican Army grew from the quest by Irish Catholics to form an independent republic, rather than being part of Great Britain.

Similarly, the Kurds, a distinct ethnic and linguistic group in Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq, have sought national autonomy since the beginning of the 20th Century. The Kurdistan Worker's Party(PKK), formed in the 1970s, uses terrorist tactics to announce its goal of a Kurdish state. The Sri Lankan Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam are members of the ethnic Tamil minority. They use suicide bombing and other lethal tactics to wage a battle for independence against the Sinhalese majority government.

1970s–1990s: Terrorism Turns International

International terrorism became a prominent issue in the late 1960s when hijacking became a favored tactic. In 1968, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacked an El Al Flight. Twenty years later, the bombing of a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, shocked the world.

The era also gave us our contemporary sense of terrorism as highly theatrical, symbolic acts of violence by organized groups with specific political grievances.

The bloody events at the 1972 Munich Olympics were politically motivated. Black September, a Palestinian group, kidnapped and killed Israeli athletes preparing to compete. Black September's political goal was negotiating the release of Palestinian prisoners. They used spectacular tactics to bring international attention to their national cause.

Munich radically changed the United States' handling of terrorism: "The terms counterterrorism and international terrorism formally entered the Washington political lexicon," according to counterterrorism expert Timothy Naftali.

Terrorists also took advantage of the black market in Soviet-produced light weaponry, such as AK-47 assault rifles created in the wake of the Soviet Union's 1989 collapse. Most terrorist groups justified violence with a deep belief in the necessity and justice of their cause.

Terrorism in the United States also emerged. Groups such as the Weathermen grew out of the non-violent group Students for a Democratic Society. They turned to violent tactics, from rioting to setting off bombs, to protest the Vietnam War.

The Twenty-First Century: Religious Terrorism and Beyond

Religiously motivated terrorism is considered the most alarming terrorist threat today. Groups that justify their violence on Islamic grounds- Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah—come to mind first. But Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and other religions have given rise to their own forms of militant extremism.

In the view of religion scholar Karen Armstrong, this turn represents terrorists' departure from any real religious precepts. Muhammad Atta, the architect of the 9/11 attacks, and "the Egyptian hijacker who was driving the first plane, was a near alcoholic and was drinking vodka before he boarded the aircraft." Alcohol would be strictly off-limits for a highly observant Muslim.

Atta, and perhaps many others, are not simply orthodox believers turned violent, but rather violent extremists who manipulate religious concepts for their own purposes.

The 2010s

According to the independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank Institute for Economics & Peace, since 2012, the largest percentage of the world's terrorist activities have been conducted by four jihadist groups: Taliban, ISIL, the Khorasan Chapter of the Islamic State, and Boko Haram. In 2018, these four groups were responsible for over 9,000 deaths, or about 57.8% of the total deaths for that year. 

Ten countries accounted for 87% of the total terrorist deaths: Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Syria, Pakistan, Somalia, India, Yemen, the Philippines, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. However, the total number of deaths from terrorism declined to 15,952, a 53% reduction since the peak in 2014. 

Sources and Further Information

  • National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). "Global Terrorism Index: Measuring and Understanding the Impact of Terrorism." Sydney, Australia: Institute for Economics & Peace, 2019. Print.
  • Armstrong, Karen. "Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence." New York NY: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2014. Print.
  • Chaliand, Gérard, and Arnaud Blin, eds. "The History of Terrorism: From Antiquity to Isis." Oakland: University of California Press, 2016. Print.
  • Laqueur, Walter. "A History of Terrorism." London: Routledge, 2001. Print.
  • Mahan, Sue, and Pamala L. Griset. "Terrorism in Perspective." 3rd ed. Los Angeles CA: Sage, 2013. Print.
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Zalman, Amy, Ph.D. "The History of Terrorism." ThoughtCo, Sep. 24, 2020, Zalman, Amy, Ph.D. (2020, September 24). The History of Terrorism. Retrieved from Zalman, Amy, Ph.D. "The History of Terrorism." ThoughtCo. (accessed January 22, 2021).