Sociological And Political Aspects Of Terrorism (I)

Oriental Review
by Vladislav B. SOTIROVIC


The world, especially the Western part, became suddenly interested in studying the phenomenon of terrorism after September 11th, 2001 (9/11) when at 8:45 am a passenger airplane on its standard flying route across the USA became hijacked by terrorists and flown into the North Tower on the WTC in the NYC. Some minutes later, another, as well as hijacked passenger airplane, hit the South Tower of the WTC. Within an hour, both buildings collapsed and killed some 3000 people who just started their working day. Some hour later a third hijacked airplane hit the building of Pentagon in Washington, the HQ of the US military, killing hundreds of more people. There was and a fourth plane which was believed to be heading for the White House in Washington, DC, the seat of executive power (President) of the USA, that was crashed into a field in rural Pennsylvania after passengers took on their hijackers.

All those airplanes to be hijacked on 9/11 have been owned by one of two US airways companies: United or American Airlines. The targets to be selected by the terrorists – the WTC, the Pentagon, and the White House – have been chosen for a very purpose: to hit at the heart of the US political, military, and economic structures.

The response by the US administration was quick: the declaration of a “War on Terror”. The US President, George W. Bush, described the attacks as an act of war. It was followed of a month later by the first major military response: an attack by a US-led coalition of countries on Afghanistan in Asia in October 2001 – a country that was at that time governed by a fundamentalist Islamic authorities of the Taliban, which had often supported the actions of al-Qaeda, the terrorist organization supposed to carry out the 9/11 terror act and where many of its members have been trained. However, the coming years after 9/11 experienced some further brutal terror acts across the world for which al-Qaeda was accused to do them. There was a terror attack on a nightclub in Bali (Indonesia) in October 2002 when more than 200 people lost their lives. Many of them have been young foreign tourists on holiday from Australia. It was followed by the bombing inside a train in Madrid (Spain) in March 2004 during the rush hour in the morning when circa 200 people were killed. In London (GB), 52 people were killed and several hundred more have been injured when a coordinated series of explosions happened on three metro trains and one public bus in July 2005.

In November 2002, President G. W. Bush created a National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States that is better known as the 9/11 Commission. The focal task of the commission was to investigate the facts and all circumstances which are in relation to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The official report was published in July 2004 and it presents a detailed account of the events leading up to the attacks. Besides, the report addresses the failure of the US Government in imagination, policy, capabilities, and management which allowed the terror acts to take place. The report was critical of both the FBI and the CIA with the claim that the US administration and especially the security system failed to recognize the threat posed by the al-Qaeda terrorists. Nevertheless, the recommendations led to the establishment of the position of Director of National Intelligence whose office was opened in 2005. The Director of National Intelligence is charged with the oversight of the US intelligence community, and providing advice to the President, the National Security Council, and the Department of Homeland Security.


Shortly, terrorism after 9/11 reflects a totally new security environment and counterterrorism instruments and strategy. In such a new security environment, a new form of terrorist actions with more casualties compared to earlier times are possible. It now arose the imperative to deal with the concept of terrorism which includes the historical origins of both phenomena: terror and terrorism.

Terrorism, terror & terrorists

Terrorism is a term within the principle of no precisely agreed definition at least among Governments, state authorities, or academic analysts. Etymologically, it means fear or threat and therefore, all of those who are spreading the fear/threat can be called terrorists. Nonetheless, the term terrorism is commonly used in a pejorative sense and mostly in order to describe life-threatening actions committed by politically inspired self-proclaimed sub-state groups. However, if such “terrorist” actions are carried out on behalf of a widely approved cause (fight for liberation or against oppression), then the term terrorism is in majority of cases simply avoided and replaced by some more “democratic” and friendly words. Politically, therefore, in practice, one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter.

The term terrorism historically originates from the time of the 1789 Great French Revolution when thousands of people (at the beginning the nobles, but soon many more ordinary people) have been hunted down by the political authorities and executed by a special French-mind killing instrument – the guillotine. The word terror, however, has not been invented by the French revolutionaries themselves. Rather, it was invented by the counter-revolutionaries, i.e., by the people who opposed the 1789 Great French Revolution and what it stood for, and who believed that the blood-shedding which went on was a form of terrorizing the population of France.

The term terror, in the sense of the use of violence to intimidate, was used extensively in the 20th century as for instance in relation to the German Nazis or the Soviet secret police in the Stalin time. Nevertheless, such sort of use of violence predates the origins of the term during the Great French Revolution of 1789−1794. As a matter of fact, the term terror did not exist before the fall of 1789, but the practice of terrorizing the people by using violence existed from the time of Antique onward. For instance, in ancient civilizations, when one army invaded an enemy’s city, it was common practice in many cases to raze the entire city to the ground (as the Romans did with Carthagena after the Third Punic War in 149−146 BC) and exterminate all the citizens regardless of their sex and age. However, the crucial point of such terrible practice was not just physically to destroy the enemy, but, in fact, to create terror (fear/threat) in those living in other cities and demonstrate the power which that terror represented. In other words, the phenomenon of using violence with the idea of terrifying especially civilian populations is surely older than the term itself.

“State” and “State-sponsored terrorism”

Terrorism from a very pejorative viewpoint is time to time applied, however, to the deads of Governments or other state authorities but not only to those actions committed by some kind of sub-state organizations or individual actors. In other words, we can politically speak about “state terrorism” or “state terror” as well. Unfortunately, there is plenty of historical examples of “state terrorism” at least from a de facto point of view. For instance, the term “state terrorism” is usually used in order to describe the actions and politics of some officially state-sponsored groups, institutions, or organizations such as Gestapo, the KGB, East Germany’s Stasi of Titoist Ozna/Udba in socialist Yugoslavia. Their acts of terror can be directed against political dissidents, ethnic (minority) groups, religious groups or so among their own citizens.

Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright were greeted in Pristina where a statue of Albright was unveiled in the city centre for the occasion, joining one of Clinton erected earlier on a boulevard named after him.

In Western academic literature of historiographic and political science nature, the term “state-sponsored terrorism” is commonly used for the purpose to describe the actions of the state authorities in more or less directly and openly organizing or assisting various types of group or individual perpetrators of violent acts in other states. However, on the ground, it can be in many cases to be simply a form of low-intensity undeclared warfare between two or more sovereign and internationally recognized states. For instance, in 1998−1999, the US administration of Bill Clinton financially and by all other means supported the separatist Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army in its warfare against the state of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Nonetheless, during the last decades, there are many countries of different ideological orientations be engaged in the business of “state-sponsored terrorism” but other similar cases firmly condemning others for doing the same. During the Cold War 1.0, it was a very illustrative case of such politics of the US administration of Ronald Reagan which denounced many regimes in the world (Libya, Iran, etc.) in their connections with the “state-sponsored terrorism” but at the same time Washington even openly was sponsoring direct sub-state violence of terror against the state of Nicaragua having with her even full diplomatic relations. The irony is that on the banknotes of $US you can see the portrait of George Washington who was, in fact, the perpetrator of politically motivated sub-state violence (terrorist) against the UK.

Sociologists and the moral connotation of terrorism 

Sociologists, followed by many other social scientists, usually are in disagreement over the question of whether the term terrorism can be a scientifically useful concept. In other words, it is a question of whether the term can be used in a reasonably objective way as it is a very difficult term to define. On one hand, the problem concerns the shifting moral criteria people make of terrorism and the perpetrators as, for instance, it is a well-known practice that a technical perpetrator at the same time for some people is a terrorist but for others is a freedom fighter. On other hand, it is as well as well-known in reality that some people who have been terrorists and even mass-killers at one point themselves can later come to condemn terror just as violently as they previously practiced it (for example, Kurt Waldheim – former Nazi officer in WWII and later both the 4th General Secretary of the OUN and the President of Austria). One of the classic examples taking the states into account can be the case of Zionist Israel as the 20th-century history of Israel (est. 1948) was punctuated by terrorist (and ethnic cleansing) activity but in the next century the Governments of Israel self-declared itself as part of the US-sponsored “War on Terror” policy regarding (potential Iranian-sponsored) terrorism as its focal enemy. The former President of the Republic of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, was previously considered as a potential terrorist and, therefore, jailed. Nevertheless, concerning terrorism as terminology, firstly it has to be freed from a moral valuation that is practically shifting during the time or/and from the personal (political, ideological) perspective of the observer.

The second problem in the process of searching for the appropriate connotation of terrorism regards the role of the state. In fact, this is a focal dilemma of can state as such practice terrorism especially if it is concerned to be of the inner democratic organization? In principle, state by definition has to be responsible for far more deaths in human history compared to any other social organizational type as the state has full power over all kinds of organized armed/security forces (police, army, military police, gendarmerie, carabinieri, home guard, etc.). In history, states in many cases brutally killed their own civilian populations. In contemporary history, states were committing even genocides within their territories (Armenian, Greek, or Assyrian genocide in the Ottoman Empire, Serbian genocide in the Independent State of Croatia in WWII, etc.). In the 20th century, states committed the razing of cities that occurred in traditional civilizations. Just one illustrative example. In February 1945, Anglo-Americans by firebombs destroyed Dresden in East Germany – one of the most beautiful cities in Europe (open museum city) killing at least 70.000 citizens. The point is that many historians argue that the air-attack on Dresden (full of German refugees from the East and proclaimed as an open-air city) occurred at a point when it was of no strategic advantage to Anglo-Americans (what is of absolute truth). In essence, all critics of Anglo-American action argue that the purpose of the destruction of Dresden was to create terror and fear within the German society and, therefore, weaken the stubbornness of Germans to continue resistance. The cases of Hiroshima and Nagasaki from the same year are well-known done with the same purpose as the Dresden case.

Dresden after the allied firebombing of February 13, 1945

It is suggested to differentiate the notion of terrorism from groups or organizations working outside the state. The reason is that in another case, the concept of terrorism becomes very close to that of war from the most general viewpoint. Consequently, many researchers are in the opinion that a kind of neutral definition can be found. In principle, terrorism can be labeled as any violent action by a non-state organization that has the ultimate aim to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-military, when the purpose of such an act, by its context, is to frighten the population or to force the Government or some international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act. To say in other words, terrorism as a phenomenon concerns attacks on civilians with the purpose of forcing a Government to alter its policies.

By a very academic definition within the umbrella of sociologists, terrorism is the calculated use of violence against innocent civilians for political purposes, especially to gain public attention in mass-media. To make a historical comparison, the case of 9/11 in 2001 immediately attended the audience in mass-media of some two billion watchers who watched this terror act on TV in real-time. However, some 140 years ago, in 1865, the actor John Wilkes Booth killed US President Abraham Lincoln in a Washington theatre but it took 12 days before the news reached Europe (London). The ship carrying the message from New York was met by a smaller boat off the south coast of Ireland and the news was telegraphed to London from Cork, still beating the ship by three days. We have to keep in our mind concerning this case that it was not until the 1950s that a dedicated trans-oceanic (Atlantic) cable existed in order to carry telegraph messages fastly across the Atlantic–although long-wave radio transmission between continents became possible in the early 20th century.

In short, in social sciences in general, there is a common-sense notion of the term terrorism as the deliberate use of violence by non-state actors usually but not exceptionally for political tasks when this is typically directed at noncombatants. However, in principle, many significant questions emerge from such common sense. The focal question is why should states who kill civilians for (geo)political purposes not be concerned terrorists as well? In the fields of sociology and IR, it is a well-known idea that one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. Historically but without the burden of contemporary events, it can be seen that very often it is exactly those with power who can say who is and who is not the terrorists. We have also to keep in mind that history often makes a different judgment as power shifts. In other words, one cannot be quite sure that today’s terrorists will not become tomorrow’s freedom fighter or vice versa. For instance, the Afghan Taliban have been in the 1980s freedom fighters for the US administration of Ronald Reagan but after 9/11 the G. W. Bush proclaimed them as terrorists and even invaded Afghanistan in order to eliminate their regime. However, for the Soviet authorities in the 1980s, the Taliban were the terrorists and today for many Islamic fundamentalists Taliban, al-Qaeda, or ISIS are freedom fighters against either Western (US) imperialistic ambitions in the Middle East or/and for the genuine Islamic values according to the Quran.

To be continued


Oriental Review