Historical Overview of Terrorism

Terrorism can be traced back to the early ages when human beings were willing to use violence to achieve certain objectives. The word terrorism was first used in France at the end of the eighteenth century in a post-revolution to mean “a regime of terror”. Ironically, the term was by then used to refer to a legitimately installed government that used terror as a form of asserting itself. The inspiration of terror was first experienced between 1793 and 1794 when Robespierre’s devoured the revolutionary France. Terrorism continued to grow in Paris when the concept of taking hostage became common a century later. The concept of hostage-taking is a common attribute of today’s terrorism.  

Definition of Terrorism

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The concept of terrorism has experienced an overhaul in its definition. In the olden days, terrorism was perceived as a system or a rule of terror. However, today, terrorism has taken a different form and is defined as an act of aggression performed by a non-state group with the intention of igniting fear among the people for the purpose of undermining the national government (O’Kane, 2016). The distinction of the size and legitimacy of those employing terror often raises issues of what is and what is actually not terrorism. Some people argue that the outcome of an event is what constitutes to terrorism and not the intention. Others argue to the contrary. Terrorism, therefore, can only be defined on the basis of who is defining it. For example, when a person sets a bomb in a vehicle and it kills several hundreds of people, it creates a chill of terror. When a military plane or a tanker drops a bomb that destroys lots of property or lives, the act also creates terror. These two acts can be referred to as terrorism only under a different disguise. This can be said to be the reasoning behind the famous phrase “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”. This can be said to be the basis of the attempt by the revolutionary movements to legitimize the use terror to achieve certain objectives (O’Kane, 2016).

Contexts of Terrorism

The confusion what is and what is not terrorism continues to be an unanswered question as the adaptability and flexibility of terrorism continues to advance. People seeking to reorder or to change the status quo have continued to look for more methods of achieving their goals. The techniques used to achieve these goals have therefore changed a great deal as the reasons and the causes of terrorism also continue to widen (Huq, 2007).

One of the contexts of terrorism is the political context. Over 100 years, terrorism has continued to commit extremist activities such as taking lives and destroying property and taking people hostage for political reasons. The different political ideologies range from the far East to the far west. Revolutionary groups such as Marxists and Leninists as lead by the revolutionary Elites can form one of the sides of political terrorism. On the other hand, dictatorial leadership which instills fear to its citizens is the other form of terrorism. This is normally instigated by rogue business leaders with an aim of remaining at the top of business (Huq, 2007).

Nationalism is another context of terrorism. Nationalist have a strong belief or a strongly devoted to the interests of their ethnic, culture or group to the point of using violence and terror to achieve self-determination. The self-determination may range from achieving autonomy to establishing a completely independent state. The nationalist terrorism can be said to be the most recent form and most prevalent form of terrorism in the 21st century (Rumsey, 2011).

A religious context is also a form of terrorism that has been around for a very long time. According to the global terrorism index, religious terrorism has overtaken the separationist as the main drive of terrorist activities. Time immemorial, various terrorist activities has always been connected to various religious groups such as “Zealots”, “Assassins” and “thug”. Religious extremists have been often seen to reject the authority of the secular governments. They view this kind of rule to be illegitimate as they don’t conform to the religious beliefs. They have in particular been to reject any form of modernization and often see it as an effort to corrupt their traditional culture (Rumsey, 2011).

     Other contexts of terrorism involve groups of people who participate in terrorism for legitimate reasons such as radical environmentalists, anti-abortion and animal rights. These extremists often resort to using terror and violence to achieve their objectives if they feel that their grievances are being neglected or are not being considered. They believe that the use of terror is morally justifiable as other methods have proved futile (Rumsey, 2011).

Terrorism from 1789 to 1968

As the age of Enlightenment bequeathed humanity, the idea of popular sovereignty entered into people. The drive to defend it brought the revolution of employing state terror where the actors claimed that the end will always justify the means. The state terrorism did not last long before the development of a new form of terrorism, a terrorism that was directed towards the state. Groups that were religious in nature such as the Assassins and the Zealots emerged (Chaliand, Blin, Schneider, Pulver, and Browner, 2007). Terrorism first was all not religious in nature. It was normally instigated by the minority groups who have no political ambitions. The late 19th-century terrorism was normally as a result of the romantic tradition, for example, the heir of enlightenment was Robespierre. The terrorist activities in this era took a geopolitical or a geostrategic context.

The geopolitical era of terrorism was the era of nationalism. It was marked by the collapse of the Treaty of Westphalia and the balance of power. A lot of independent movements arose from all over the world to fight for the rights and self-determination. During the World War II, terrorism activities were often deployed to counter the activities of resisting movements. After the war, various independent movements also followed the trail to fight for their independence (Chaliand et al., 2007).

In 1947, the British were forced to withdraw from India after the complete partition of the country. This happened after the Indian terrorists, inspired by the Russian experience combined the element of Indian culture and the western culture of violence and confronted the British. In the 1950s, in Kenya, the Mau Mau confronted the British and eventually succeeded in forcing them out of their land. On the Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist organizations were so intelligent that the British could not defeat them either in the battlefield or in the theater of politics. In the late 1950s and 1960s, the terrorist activities transited form wars of national liberation to contemporary terrorism. After 1968, the terrorist activities entered into a new historical era (Chaliand et al., 2007).   

Terrorism Since 1968

1967, 1979, 1983 and 2001 can be said to be the turning point of contemporary terrorism. In 1968, an urban guerilla strategy was launched by the Latin America (Chaliand et al., 2007). The Palestinians also initiated the tactic of terrorism as their form of publicity. This turned into very serious violent activities. in 1979, the success of the radical Shiite attack facilitated the rise of the suicide bombing as a form of glorification of martyrdom. This success also inspired other radical activities such as the Sunni Islamists of Hamas and al Qaeda. Under the financing of Saudi Arabia, the united states provided a safe haven and logistical support to the Afghan fighters. Since these fighters were Sunni-inspired and served the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan, a Shiite revolution arose in Iran, which forced fighters to rise from all over the Islamic countries to join in the Jihad (Chaliand et al., 2007). 

Another development happened in 1983 when the terrorists’ groups in Beirut used a suicide bomb on the American marines which claimed 241 lives and 53 French paratroopers. This made the Americans withdraw from their troops which made it look like the terrorists have succeeded. 2001was the final revolutionary turning point which marked the maturity of classical terrorism. This war also brought the significant war to overthrow the terrorist haven of Afghanistan. Meanwhile, even with the growth of Jihadist, the targeted regimes still continue to hold on to power such as in Egypt, Algeria, and Saudi Arabia. Only time will tell whether these radicals will achieve their objectives (Chaliand et al., 2007).


Terrorism has been the cause of unimaginable terror and suffering for a very long period of time. Terrorism is an act of aggression performed by a non-state group with the intention of igniting fear among the people for the purpose of undermining the national government. Despite the many definitions of terrorism, all forms terrorism simply leads to the fact that it involves the use of violence to cause terror and fear to people in order to achieve certain objectives. It can be concluded that the world faced by a new form of military aggression that needs urgent governmental action. Every country should, therefore, take any action against terrorism as if it has been threatened by a hostile country.


Chaliand, G., Blin, A., Schneider, E., Pulver, K. and Browner, J. (2007). The history of terrorism. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press.

Huq, A. (2007). Review of The History of Terrorism from Antiquity to Al Qaeda | Brennan Center for Justice. [online] Brennancenter.org. Available at: https://www.brennancenter.org/analysis/review-history-terrorism-antiquity-al-qaeda [Accessed 12 Nov. 2017].

O’Kane, R. (2016). Terrorism. [Place of publication not identified]: Routledge.

Rumsey, L. (2011). Terrorism: A Historical Context | History Today. Historytoday.com. Retrieved 12 November 2017, from http://www.historytoday.com/blog/2011/09/terrorism-historical-context

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