What's So New about the "New Terrorism"?

Thirteen Dead And Dozens Injured As Van Hits Crowds in Barcelona's Las Ramblas Area
Van Hits Crowds in Barcelona's Las Ramblas Area. Nicolas Carvalho Ochoa / Getty Images

The term "new terrorism" came into its own after the September 11, 2001 attacks, but the phrase itself is not new. In 1986, the Canadian news magazine, Macleans, published "The Menacing Face of the New Terrorism," identifying it as a war against the "perceived decadence and immorality of the West" by Middle Eastern, "mobile, well-trained, suicidal and savagely unpredictable...Islamic fundamentalists."

More frequently, "new" terrorism has focused on a perceived new threat of mass casualties caused by chemical, biological or other agents. Discussions of "new terrorism" are often highly alarmist: it is described as "far more lethal than anything that has come before it," "a terrorism that seeks the total collapse of its opponents" (Dore Gold, the American Spectator, March/ April 2003). The UK writer is correct in thinking that when people do make use of the idea of a "new terrorism," they mean at least some of the following:

  • The "new terrorism" aims at destruction as an end in itself, while the "old terrorism" used violent destruction as a means to a political end;
  • The "new terrorism" aims, therefore, at as much destruction as possible, whether through devastating forms of weaponry or techniques such as suicide terrorism, whereas the "old terrorism" sought to create a dramatic spectacle with as little damage as possible;
  • The "new terrorism" is organizationally distinct from the "old terrorism." It is heterarchical (has many equally authoritative points of authority) and horizontal, rather than hierarchical and vertical; it is decentralized rather than centralized. (You might notice that corporations, social groups and other institutions are also frequently described in "new" terms, these days);
  • The "new terrorism" is justified on religious and apocalyptic grounds, while the "old terrorism" was rooted in political ideology.

New Terrorism Not So New, After All

On its face, these simple distinctions between new and old terrorism sound rational, especially because they are tightly bound to discussions of al-Qaeda, the most highly discussed terrorist group of recent years. Unfortunately, when held up to history and analysis, the distinction between old and new falls apart. According to Professor Martha Crenshaw, whose first article on terrorism was published in 1972, we need to take a longer view to understand this phenomenon. In the March 30, 2003 edition of the Palestine Israel Journal she argued:

"The idea that the world confronts a "new" terrorism completely unlike the terrorism of the past has taken hold in the minds of policy makers, pundits, consultants, and academics, especially in the US. However, terrorism remains an intrinsically political rather than cultural phenomenon and, as such, the terrorism of today is not fundamentally or qualitatively "new", but grounded in an evolving historical context. The idea of a "new" terrorism is often based on insufficient knowledge of history, as well as misinterpretations of contemporary terrorism. Such thinking is often contradictory. For example, it is not clear when the "new" terrorism began or the old ended, or which groups belong in which category."

Crenshaw goes on to explain the flaws in broad generalizations about "new" and "old" terrorism. Speaking generally, the problem with most of the distinctions is that they aren't true because there are so many exceptions to the supposed rules of new and old.

Crenshaw's most important point is that terrorism remains an "intrinsically political" phenomenon. This means that people who choose terrorism act, as they always have, out of discontent with how society is organized and run, and who has the power to run it. To say that terrorism and terrorists is political, rather than cultural, also suggests that terrorists are responding to their contemporary environment, rather than acting out of an internally coherent belief system that has no relationship to the world around it.

If this is true, then why do today's terrorists often sound religious? Why do they speak in divine absolutes, while the "old" terrorists spoke in terms of national liberation, or social justice, which sound political?

They sound that way because, as Crenshaw puts it, terrorism is grounded in an "evolving historical context." In the last generation, that context has included the rise of religiosity, the politicization of religion, and the tendency to speak politics in a religious idiom in mainstream circles, as well as in violent extremist ones, both East and West. Mark Juergensmeyer, who has written much on religious terrorism, has described bin Laden as "religionizing politics." In places where political speech is officially muted, religion can offer an acceptable vocabulary for voicing an entire range of concerns.

We might wonder why, if there isn't really a "new" terrorism, so many have spoken of one. Here are a few suggestions:

  • The first efforts to describe a 'new' form of terrorism, in the 1990s, were generally by professional students of terrorism attempting to make sense of phenomena that did not fit into the model that evolved in the 1970s and 1980s out of left-leaining national liberation movements. Attacks such as that of the religious cult Aum Shinrikyo did not make sense without a reconsideration of the model;
  • Clear schematics such as "old" and "new" make complex phenomena seem simple, which is intellectually satisfying and emotionally comforting in a complicated world;
  • When people do not know the historical or cultural context of a phenomenon, anything that they do not recognize may indeed look "new." In reality, it is simply new to them;
  • Although individuals who write about "new" terrorism after 9/11 may not be aware of it, their claim of unprecedented lethality is a political argument that favors putting more resources into terrorism (which does not kill as many people as heart disease, or poverty) precisely because it is so lethal;
  • It is difficult for any cause to draw attention in crowded media space. Claiming "newness" is one way to distinguish a phenomenon, and it is easier to digest than explanations of complicated historical facts;
  • Identifying a new phenomenon can help a writer gain attention or build a career.