Terrorism is the use of violence (often against civilian targets) to instill fear, generate publicity, and sometimes destabilize governments. Generally speaking, small groups fighting against powerful states practice terrorism, but governments also have the ability to practice terrorism. Throughout history, terrorism has taken many forms. Just in the last two centuries, for example, terrorism has been used by Russian nihilists, nationalists in Israel, Nazi forces, environmentalists worldwide, left-wing guerrillas in Europe, discontented radicals in the United States, Latin American death squads, and Islamic fundamentalists. Terrorism is not tied to any one particular ideology or group.

Types of Terrorism

Scholars generally classify terrorism into two types: terrorism practiced by governments and terrorism practiced by groups not affiliated with a government. Ideological terrorism aims to promote a particular belief system through acts of violence; it may be practiced by both governments and groups.


Terrorism Practiced by Governments

  • State terrorism: A government commits acts of terror against its own citizens.
  • International terrorism (also known as state-sponsored terrorism): A government supplies and trains terrorists to make attacks in other countries.

Terrorism Practiced by Groups

  • Antistate terrorism: Any terrorist act not committed by a government
  • Domestic terrorism: A group with no ties to another country or government commits terrorist acts within its own country.

Some types of terrorism fit into more than one of these categories. Suicide bombings in Israel, for example, are ideological (promoting a Palestinian state and sometimes also promoting Islamic fundamentalism), state-sponsored (a number of Arab governments fund the bombers), and domestic (many are carried out by Arabs living in Israel).

The Purpose of Terrorism

Terrorist acts ultimately aim to undermine governments and disrupt societies. Many terrorists are young, frustrated men who feel that they have been treated unjustly. Sometimes terrorists try to destabilize a government directly, via assassinations, kidnappings, and the bombing of government buildings. Terrorists can also work to undermine governments indirectly by showing people that their leaders are too weak to prevent the attacks and that an active resistance movement exists. Sometimes, terrorists attack in order to provoke a strong response from the government, hoping that the response will alienate more people from the government and foster even more political discord.

Example: Many scholars and political analysts have argued that President George W. Bush played into al Qaeda’s hands by passing the Patriot Act in 2001 and by invading Iraq in 2003. The Patriot Act gave the federal government more power to detain and question suspected terrorists—often without trial—and to monitor suspicious activity. The Iraq War, meanwhile, deeply divided Americans when it became clear that Saddam Hussein had no connection with al Qaeda and was not harboring weapons of mass destruction. The federal government’s suspension of some civil liberties along with the specter of deceit has shattered much of the unity Americans felt in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks.

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