terrorism RESEARCH

Early History of Terrorism


Terror in Antiquity: 1st -14th Century AD
The earliest known organization that exhibited aspects of a modern terrorist organization was the Zealots of Judea. Known to the Romans as sicarii, or dagger-men , they carried on an underground campaign of assassination of Roman occupation forces, as well as any Jews they felt had collaborated with the Romans. Their motive was an uncompromising belief that they could not remain faithful to the dictates of Judaism while living as Roman subjects. Eventually, the Zealot revolt became open, and they were finally besieged and committed mass suicide at the fortification of Masada.

The Assassins were the next group to show recognizable characteristics of terrorism, as we know it today. A breakaway faction of Shia Islam called the Nizari Ismalis adopted the tactic of assassination of enemy leaders because the cult's limited manpower prevented open combat. Their leader, Hassam-I Sabbah, based the cult in the mountains of Northern Iran. Their tactic of sending a lone assassin to successfully kill a key enemy leader at the certain sacrifice of his own life (the killers waited next to their victims to be killed or captured) inspired fearful awe in their enemies.

Even though both the Zealots and the Assassins operated in antiquity, they are relevant today: First as forerunners of modern terrorists in aspects of motivation, organization, targeting, and goals. Secondly, although both were ultimate failures, the fact that they are remembered hundreds of years later, demonstrates the deep psychological impact they caused.

Early Origins of Terrorism: 14th -18th Century
From the time of the Assassins (late 13th century) to the 1700s, terror and barbarism were widely used in warfare and conflict , but key ingredients for terrorism were lacking. Until the rise of the modern nation state after the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, the sort of central authority and cohesive society that terrorism attempts to influence barely existed. Communications were inadequate and controlled, and the causes that might inspire terrorism (religious schism, insurrection, ethnic strife) typically led to open warfare. By the time kingdoms and principalities became nations, they had sufficient means to enforce their authority and suppress activities such as terrorism.

The French Revolution provided the first uses of the words "Terrorist" and "Terrorism". Use of the word "terrorism" began in 1795 in reference to the Reign of Terror initiated by the Revolutionary government. The agents of the Committee of Public Safety and the National Convention that enforced the policies of "The Terror" were referred to as 'Terrorists". The French Revolution provided an example to future states in oppressing their populations. It also inspired a reaction by royalists and other opponents of the Revolution who employed terrorist tactics such as assassination and intimidation in resistance to the Revolutionary agents. The Parisian mobs played a critical role at key points before, during, and after the Revolution. Such extra-legal activities as killing prominent officials and aristocrats in gruesome spectacles started long before the guillotine was first used.

Entering the Modern Era: The 19th Century
During the late 19th century, radical political theories and improvements in weapons technology spurred the formation of small groups of revolutionaries who effectively attacked nation-states. Anarchists espousing belief in the "propaganda of the deed" produced some striking successes, assassinating heads of state from Russia, France, Spain, Italy, and the United States. However, their lack of organization and refusal to cooperate with other social movements in political efforts rendered anarchists ineffective as a political movement. In contrast, Communism's role as an ideological basis for political terrorism was just beginning, and would become much more significant in the 20th century.

Another trend in the late 19th century was the increasing tide of nationalism throughout the world, in which the nation (the identity of a people) and the political state were combined. As states began to emphasize national identities, peoples that had been conquered or colonized could, like the Jews at the times of the Zealots, opt for assimilation or struggle. The best-known nationalist conflict from this time is still unresolved - the multi-century struggle of Irish nationalism. Nationalism, like communism, became a much greater ideological force in the 20th century.

The terrorist group from this period that serves as a model in many ways for what was to come was the Russian Narodnya Volya (Peoples Will). They differed in some ways from modern terrorists, especially in that they would sometimes call off attacks that might endanger individuals other than their intended target. Other than this quirk, we see many of the traits of terrorism here for the first time; clandestine, cellular organization; impatience and inability for the task of organizing the constituents they claim to represent; and a tendency to increase the level of violence as pressures on the group mount.

 Terrorism in the 20th and 21st Century