Implications for World Peace

Paul Wilkinson

January 2003

"Professor Paul Wilkinson CBE (May 1937 – August 2011) was a terrorism expert and an Emeritus Professor of International Relations and Director of the University of St Andrews Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence. Dubbed "Britain's leading academic specialist in the study of terrorism", he was a frequent commentator in mainstream British media and an advisor to the UK government."
source: wikipaedia
Scilla Elworthy


Professor Wilkinson’s lecture considers the types of terrorisms (including state-sponsored terrorism) and their objectives. It also considers the efficacy and strategic limits of such actions. He asks whether terrorism achieves its objectives and concludes that, except for a small number of special cases, the answer is no.


His final analysis is that “...it is a dangerous illusion to believe that [the many different types of terrorism] can all be eradicated by ‘the war on terrorism’ or by some simple military or political solution.”

Terrorism: the Concept


Alex Schmid and Albert Jongman have produced impressive evidence [1] of the extent to which a minimum consensus definition of terrorism has become accepted among the international community of social scientists who study conflict. Equally significant is the development of a whole body of international resolutions, conventions, and agreements dealing with aspects of prevention, suppression and punishment of acts of terrorism [2], in which there is near universal acceptance of the terminology used to describe the form of behaviour to be condemned or prohibited. Contemporary international academic, diplomatic, and juridical debates no longer become bogged down in days of definitional debate. The major disputes that arise concern culpability for specific attacks or for sponsoring or directing them, and over the kind of international measures that should be taken in response.


Terrorism is neither a political philosophy nor a movement, nor is it a synonym for political violence in general. It is a special means or method of conflict, which has been employed by a wide variety of factions and regimes. It is premeditated and systematic, and aims to create a climate of extreme fear or terror. The modern word terror and terrorism are derived from the Latin verb terrere, to cause to tremble, and deterre, to frighten from. Terrorism and terrorist did not come into use until the period of the French Revolution in the 1790’s. The term was used by Edmund Burke in his polemic against the French Revolution, and came to be used to denote those revolutionaries who sought to use terror systematically either to further their views or to govern, whether in France or elsewhere.


A key feature of terrorism is that it is directed at a wider audience or target than the immediate victims. It is one of the earliest forms of psychological warfare. The ancient Chinese strategist, Sun Tzu, conveyed the essence of the method when he wrote, ‘kill one, frighten ten thousand’. An inevitable corollary is that terrorism entails attacks on random and symbolic targets, including civilians, in order to create a climate of extreme fear among a wider group. Terrorists often claim to be carefully selective and discriminating in their choice of targets, but to the communities that experience the terrorist campaign the attacks are bound to seem arbitrary and indiscriminate. In order to create the wide spread sense of fear he seeks, the terrorist deliberately uses the weapons of surprise and disproportionate violence in order to create a sense of outrage and insecurity. As Raymond Aron observes:’ an action of violence is labelled “terrorist” when its psychological effects are out of all proportion to its purely physical result.... The lack of discrimination helps to spread fear, for if no one in particular is a target than no one can be safe’ [3] It is this characteristic which differentiates terrorism from tyrannicide and individual political assassination.


As Hannah Arendt has observed, the belief that one could change a whole political system by assassinating the major figure has clearly been rendered obsolete by the transition from the age of absolutist rulers to an age of governmental bureaucracy [4]. In all but a handful of regimes today real power is wielded by the bureaucratic elite of anonymous or faceless officials. Arendt provides a powerful explanation for the fact that the age of bureaucracy has coincided with burgeoning of political terrorism. Terrorism has become for its perpetrators, supporters and sponsors, the most attractive low-cost, low-risk, but potentially high yield method of attacking a regime or a rival faction. The bomb plot against Hitler, had it succeed, would have been an act of tyrannicide not terrorism. Who could deny that Hitler was the linchpin of the Nazi system? Is it possible to find an analogous case today where the removal of an all-powerful dictator would dramatically change the system? Some have argued the Saddam Hussein is one such case, but others have suggested that if he were assassinated he would be succeeded by a powerful Ba’thist general of comparable brutality.


The concept of terrorism used in the contemporary academic literature is essentially political. What about the use of terrorism in the name of religious causes? Or in the pursuit of criminal gains? It is true that militant religious fundamentalists have often throughout history waged holy terror as part of a holy war, and there is much concern about the rise of contemporary fanatical Islamic fundamentalists groups such as Hizbollah, Hamas, and Al-Gama’a Al Islamiyya. and Al-Qaeda. But the major reason why moderate Muslim leaders and secular movements see these particular fundamentalist groups as such a threat is precisely because their revolutionary Islamic agenda aims not merely at the purifying of religious practice but at the overthrow of existing governments and their replacement by fundamental theocracies. Hence these movements are inherently religious and political. The worrying trend whereby powerful criminal gangs, such and the Italian Mafia [5] and the Latin American narco-barons [6] have adopted some of the tactics and weapons of terrorist groups, does pose grave problems for the relevant law-enforcement authorities. But it does not detract from the value of the core concept of political terrorism. In reality the overwhelming majority of perpetrators of contemporary terrorism use the weapon to influence political behaviour.




It is important to note the above defining criteria of political terrorism are broad enough to encompass states’ use of terror as well as that performed by groups. Typologically it is useful to distinguish state from factional terror. Normally, in the literature, a state’s use of terror is referred to as terror, while sub-state terror is referred to as terrorism. This distinction is employed throughout this chapter. Historically, states have conducted terror on a far more massive and lethal scale than groups. They have employed terror as a weapon of tyranny and repression and as an interment of war. Another important distinction can be made between international and domestic terrorism: the former is terrorist violence involving the citizens of more than one country, while the latter is confined within the border of one country, sometimes within a particular locality in the country. This distinction is useful for analytical and statistical purposes. However, in reality, it is hard to find an example of any significant terrorist campaign that remains purely domestic: any serious terrorist campaign actively seeks political support, weapons, financial assistance and safe haven beyond its own borders. Once we move beyond these very broad categories it is useful to employ a basic typology of contemporary perpetrators of terrorism based on their underlying cause or political motivation.


Nationalists terrorists

These are groups seeking political self-determination. They may wage their struggle entirely in the territory they seek to liberate, or they may be active both in their area and abroad. In some cases they may be forced by police or military action or by threat of capture, imprisonment or execution to operate entirely from their place of exile. Nationalist groups tend to be more capable of sustaining protracted campaigns and mobilizing substantial support than ideological groups. Even those nationalist groups that can only claim the support of a minorityof their ethnic constituency (e.g. IRA (Irish Republican Army) ETA (Basque Homeland and Liberty)) can gain political resonance because of their deep roots in the national culture for which they claim to be the authentic voice. There is no sign that groups of this kind are disappearing from the terrorist scene.


Ideological Terrorists

These terrorists seek to change the entire political social and economic system either to an extreme left or extreme right model. In the 1970’s and 1980’s studies of ideological terrorism focused on the extreme left, because of the preoccupation with groups such as the Red Army Faction in Germany and the Red Brigades in Italy. Yet, as Walter Laqueur observes in his magisterial general history of terrorism [7], the dominant ideological orientation of European terrorism between the world wars was fascist. And it is neo- Nazi and neo-fascist groups that are behind so much of the racist and anti-immigrant violence in present day Germany and other European countries. The Red Army groups so active during the 1970’s and 1980’s have now largely faded away, the victims of their own internal splits, determined law enforcement by their respective police and judicial authorities, and changing political attitudes amongst young people in the post-Cold War era. However, in Latin America and parts of Asia and Africa extreme left organizations using terrorism remain a significant challenge to governments.


Religio-political terrorists

The most frequently cited examples of this type of terrorism are groups such as Hizbollah and Hamas. Usama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network is clearly religio-political. At its core his agenda is political though it is dressed up in language of Islamic holy war [8]. But it is important to bear in mind that militant fundamentalist factions of major religions other than Islam have also frequently spawned their own violent extremist groups. Striking examples can be found among Sikhs, Hindus, and Jews, and there is a well documented link between certain Christian fundamentalist groups and extreme right-wing terrorism [9] in North and Central America.


Single Issue terrorist groups

These groups are obsessed with their desire to change a specific policy or practice within the target society, rather than with the aim of political revolution. Examples include the violent animal rights and anti-abortion groups.


State-sponsored and state-supported terrorists

States use this type of terrorism both as a tool for domestic and foreign policy. For example, when the Iranian regime sent hit squads to murder leading dissidents and exiled political leaders they are doing so for domestic reasons, to intimidate and eradicate opposition to the regime. However, when the North Korea sent its agents to mount a bomb attack on the South Korean government delegation on its visit to Rangoon, the communist regime was engaged in an act of covert warfare against its perceived ‘enemy’ government in the South, designed at furthering their foreign policy aim of undermining the Republic of South Korea. State sponsors may use their own directly recruited and controlled terror squads or choose to act through client groups and proxies. They almost invariably go to some lengths to disguise their involvement, in order to sustain plausible deniability. The ending of the Cold War and the overthrow of the Eastern European communist one-party regimes and the former Soviet Union certainly removed in one fell swoop the Warsaw Pact's substantial network of sponsorship and support for a whole variety of terrorist groups. But this does not mean that state sponsorship has ceased to be a factor in the international scene. Countries such as Iraq, Iran, and Syria, are still heavily involved [10]. Others, such as Libya appear to have been attempting to distance themselves from past major involvement in state sponsored terrorism. The post-Cold War environment has made such sponsorship potentially far more costly because of the likelihood of strong US sanctions being imposed.


Effectiveness and motivation


How effective has terrorism been as a weapon for attaining political objectives since 1945? History shows that terrorism has been more effective as an auxiliary weapon in revolutionary and national liberation struggles. Most of the key modern theorists and leaders of revolutionary insurgency, such as Mao Tse Tung and Che Guevara, have recognised the dangers of depending on terrorism and have come down against giving it a major role in the struggle for revolution. The few cases where terrorism played a major part in bringing about sweeping political change arose in a limited number of colonial independence struggles against foreign rule. Included in this group would be the circumstances surrounding the end of the Palestinian Mandate after the terrorist campaign of the Irgun (National Military Organization) and Stern (Fighters for the Freedom of Israel) and the British decision to withdraw fro the Suez Canal zone base together with the campaigns which lead to the British to withdraw from Cyprus and Aden, and the French to withdraw from Algeria.


In all these cases special conditions existed which made terrorism a more potent weapon:


(i)    due to humanitarian and judicial restraints the occupying power was unwilling to carry through draconian measures to wipe out the terrorist organizations;


(ii)    in each case there were inter-communal power struggles within the colony which rendered peaceful diplomatic settlement and withdrawal difficult if not nigh impossible;


(iii)    the terrorists who succeeded in these conditions (as in Aden up until 1968) enjoyed massive if not solid support from their own ethnic groups, and this created an almost impenetrable barrier for the intelligence branches on which the government security forces depended on for success, and a vast reservoir of active and tacit collaboration and support or their terrorist operatives. Even taking into account the influence of terrorism as an auxiliary tactic in revolutionary and independence struggles and in the rise of fascism between the First and Second World Wars, the overall track record of terrorism in attaining major political objectives is abysmal.


But if this historical assessment is correct we are left with the thorny problem of explaining why, at the beginning of the new millennium political terrorism remains such a popular weapon among a wide range of groups around the world. There are at least four hypothesis that may help to provide an answer to this question.


They are by no means mutually exclusive:


(i)    some terrorists may be poor students of history and may continue to believe the they can repeat the success of groups such as EOKA (National Organization of Cypriot Fighters in Cyprus and the FLN (National Liberation Front) in Algeria, not realising that their own situations are not truly colonial in this sense, and therefore not comparable;


(ii)    some may fully recognise the severe limitations of terrorism as a means of attainting strategic goals, but may see sufficient tangible short-term rewards from terrorism, such as huge publicity, the gaining of ransoms, securing the release of fellow terrorists from gaol etc., to make it worth while to use it as an auxiliary weapon;


(iii)    some may be motivated by the expressive value of the activity rather than the instrumental/operational value, and may wish to continue the campaign primarily because it is a relative quick and easy way to express their hatred of their opponents and the justice of their cause; and


(iv)    some may be addicted to the business of terrorist operations and material gain from extortion and racketeering and may be unable to kick the habit.


Politically motivated terrorism is generally justified by its perpetrators on one or more of the following grounds:


(i)    any means are justified to realise an alleged transcendental end (in Weber’s terms, ‘value rational grounds’ [11];


(ii)    closely linked to number (i) is the claim that extreme violence is intrinsically beneficial, regenerative, cathartic and enabling deed regardless of the other consequences;


(iii)    terrorism can be shown to have ‘worked’ in the past, and is held to be either the ‘sole remaining’ or ‘best available’ method to achieving success (in Weber’s terms, ‘instrumental rational’ grounds),


(iv)    the morality of the just vengeance ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ and


(v)    the theory of the ‘lesser evil’ which assumes that greater evils will befall us or our nation if we do not adopt terror against our enemies.


The Significance of 11th September


Prior to 11th September the conventional wisdom was that the use of terrorism was endemic in low intensity conflict around the world but that it rarely, if ever, posed a strategic threat to the security of a major powers or the international community. Some specialists in the study of terrorism did point out examples of the use of weapon of terror having a strategic impact on international politics, for example in the hastening the withdrawal of colonial powers from countries such as Cyprus and Algeria or derailing the peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians [12]. Others warned of the dangers of terrorists obtaining and using a weapon of mass destruction, but these warnings were largely ignored [13].


11th September 2001 changed these conventional attitudes towards terrorism dramatically and irrevocably. Only a simpleton could fail to recognize that these attacks had enormous strategic consequences for both the United States and the international community. At the time of writing we are still too close to these tragic events to make a proper assessment of their wider impact and long-term implications. It is possible, however, to identify some of the most significant consequences:


1   The scale of the loss of life caused in the World Trade Center attacks, unprecedented in the history of sub-state terrorism, led the US President, Government, and the vase majority of US citizens to view them as an act of war rather than as crimes of terrorism


2   President Bush decided to respond by declaring a global war on terrorism, not only against the perpetrators of the 11th September attacks but also against other terrorist groups described as having ‘global reach’. This obviously had huge implications of US foreign and security policy.


3   When President Bush took office he and his advisors created the impression that the new administration would be placing its main emphasis on domestic issues, reducing foreign entanglements, and avoiding new ones. This ‘Fortress America’ approach has been completely reversed since 11th September. America has embarked on a policy of global activism and military intervention unparalleled since the early days of the Cold War, and extending to a new doctrine of pre-emptive military attack which the Bush Administration seems determined to implement in order to secure ‘regime change’ in Iraq.


4   President Bush, with the support of Prime Minister Blair, and other close allies, has enthusiastically and with a remarkable degree of success, sought to create an international coalition against terrorism. A remarkable feature of this coalition is that it includes two major powers traditionally deeply opposed to US global activism, Russia and China. It is clear that Moscow and Beijing both view the activities of Bin Laden’s terrorism network, al-Qaeda, which perpetrated the 11th September attacks, as a grave threat to their own national security. President Putin’s demonstrated willingness to provide substantial assistance to the US in the struggle against al- Qaeda, including permission to overfly and use bases in Russia’s sphere of influence, has led to much closer relations with the US, leading to Russia becoming a full member of the G8 and strengthening its trade and financial ties with America.


5   Perhaps the most remarkable changes in the strategic environment caused by the 11th September attacks were the swift toppling of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which had provided al-Qaeda with such a valuable safe haven and base, and the decision by General Musharraf, the leader of Pakistan, to reverse his country’s policy of support for the Taliban, a policy which had helped them to seize control of most of Afghanistan. Moreover, against most predictions, the interim government in Afghanistan, set in place through the aegis of the UN, appears to have survived and is beginning the painful process of rebuilding Afghanistan’s shattered economy.


What is ‘New’ about the al-Qaeda terrorism? And why does it still pose a serious threat?


It would be foolish to try to assess the impact of the 11th September attacks and their significance for international relations without taking into account the responses of the United States, other major states, and the wider world. Yet it would also be foolish to ignore the ways in which al-Qaeda, the perpetrators, have changed the nature and severity of the terrorism threat itself.


Al-Qaeda, ‘the Base’, a global terrorist network largely created by Bin Laden, can justifiably be characterised as the Archetype of the ‘New Terrorism’ [14].


Unlike the more traditional types of terrorist groups it is transnational in its fullest sense:


Firstly, it has a universalistic ideology aimed not only at forcing the US to withdraw its forces from the Arabian Peninsula and to stop supporting Israel, but also at toppling the governments of Arab and other Muslim states it accuses of collaborating with the US and its allies, and its ultimate aim is to establish a pan-Islamic Caliphate. It is not dependent on any single regime or government for its survival and financial resources. It has a presence in at least 50 countries. Its activists are drawn from a wide range of Muslim countries, and some originate from the Muslim diaspora within Western societies.


Secondly, in addition to its central leadership and coordinating committees on military, legal, media, and other matters, al-Qaeda has a world wide network, of operational and preparative cells and affiliated organizations capable of being activated at any time and carrying out terrorist attacks on their own initiative. It is because of this that, despite the major setback of losing its safe haven in Afghanistan, the global network is still capable of continuing the terrorist campaign. This has been clearly demonstrated by a series of terrorist attacks, including a number that have been thwarted by the authorities. The use of overseas support networks and international terrorist attacks are of course nothing new in the history of terrorism. What is new about the al-Qaeda network is the scale of its diffusion around the world, and, as demonstrated in the 11th September attacks, the meticulous long-term planning and terrorist tradecraft the network has been able to deploy [15].


Last, but not least, there are major differences between the more traditional terrorist groups and al-Qaeda regarding the nature and scale of the violence the latter employs. Through its suicide airliner attacks on the World Trade Center al-Qaeda has been responsible for the most lethal acts of terrorism by a sub-state group in history. It is no accident that Bin Laden’s network should have been the first sub-state group to have carried out mass destruction terrorism. Bin Laden has called upon his followers and ‘dutiful’ Muslims everywhere to kill as many Americans as possible. Brian Jenkins, one of the pioneers of modern terrorism studies, once stated ‘terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead’. Sadly, for groups such as al-Qaeda and its affiliates this no longer holds. Hence, while such deadly terrorist cells, aimed and equipped at causing carnage on a massive scale, are still at large, the threat to the United States, the United Kingdom, Israel and other designated ‘enemies’ of the Bin Laden network remains an ever-present reality. Moreover, it is important to note that al-Qaeda has carried out, planned, or attempted terrorist attacks in a wide range of countries, including Singapore, Pakistan, India, Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan, Italy, France, Kenya, Tanzania, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia. It is also very clear that a terrorist group like al-Qaeda which sets out to kill as many civilians as possible, would have no compunction about using chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons if they manage to weaponize the appropriate materials. Hence, the threat of CBRN terrorism has been brought a step closer by 11th September attacks.


Is ‘traditional’ terrorism in decline? Does it continue to pose a serious threat?


It should be fairly obvious from the preceding discussion that al-Qaeda and its affiliates constitute a particularly intractable and dangerous challenge to governments and the international community. Indeed, the author shares the widely held view of specialists in terrorism studies that Bin Laden’s network poses the most serious threat to innocent life in the history of terrorist groups. But what of the ‘traditional’ groups? Are they being eclipsed by the new terrorism and forced to retire from the scene? Sadly there is no real evidence of this. The roots of the ethnic, ideological and religious conflicts which spawn such terrorism show no signs of withering away, and in the eyes of practitioners and sympathisers terrorism appears an attractive low-cost, low risk and potentially high-yield weapon which they are unwilling to forgo.


One positive development is that at least in a few of the cases the terrorism appears potentially corrigible, because a combination of political initiatives, diplomacy and peace processes can sometimes even resolve highly intractable conflicts. For example, against all predictions the Northern Ireland peace process, though extremely fragile, is still surviving and terrorist killings in the Province have been dramatically reduced [16]. Another remarkable example where a peace initiative has made a breakthrough is the Norwegian inspired initiative in Sri Lanka, which has led to a ceasefire between the Tamil Tigers and the government security forces and to peace talks, following a conflict which has cost over 64,000 lives.


Unfortunately there are many deep-rooted conflicts, which seem stubbornly incorrigible, for example between the Israelis and the Palestinians and the Indians and Pakistanis. In these situations terrorism not only helps polarize the conflict. In both of these cases terrorist attacks could all too swiftly escalate into full-scale wider inter-state war with a significant risk that weapons of mass destruction could be used by the belligerents.




Certain conclusions follow from this brief analysis:


  • Both ‘new’ and ‘traditional’ terrorism pose a significant strategic threat to nation-states and to international peace and security generally.


  • Because there are many different kinds of terrorism with a potentially international reach in the contemporary world it is a dangerous illusion to believe that they can all be eradicated by ‘the war on terrorism’ or by some simple military or political solution.


  • In view of the risks of terrorism triggering wider wars or escalating to the level where weapons of mass destruction are employed, it is vitally important to develop far more effective and widely-supported conflict resolution and peace-building initiatives as well as methods of more effectively preventing and combating terrorist violence.


Conflict resolution methods alone will not eradicate the terrorist violence of incorrigible groups fuelled on hatred and revenge. But by significantly reducing the underlying causes of deep-seated conflicts, giving politics and diplomacy a chance to succeed, they can save thousands of lives.


Paul Wilkinson