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What Has Happened to Terrorism?

Lukáš Holub / Ed. 17. 12. 2015


The aim of this essay is to discuss the major changes in terrorism since the end of the Cold War. As terrorism has many features, I concentrate only at several of them. The particular interest of this paper is in the change from instrumental terrorism during the Cold War towards terrorism with existential elements. The argument and the structure of this essay are also related to it. The aim of this essay is to demonstrate that after the Cold War terrorism became more existential. Although it is possible to observe the trend from instrumental to existential features of terrorism, the last section of the paper shows that one has to be careful not to overstretch this argument. The reason is that careful analysis points out that today’s terrorism is not merely existential. Additionally, it is important to underline that the essay does not deal with all terrorist organizations, but the primary focus is on Al Qaeda.

1. Classical Terrorism

There is little doubt that terrorist events from the past influence our understanding of terrorism and of its motivations. Inevitably, this is reflected in multiple definitions of terrorism, which exist in literature. One of them is the governmental definition of terrorism in the UK. Terrorism is “‘the use or threat of serious violence against persons or serious damage to property, designed to influence the government or intimidate the public or a section of the public … for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause’” (Gearson, 2002: 9).2 In this definition it is possible to clearly identify instrumentality of terrorism, which is also one of the major features of this phenomena in the period prior to the end of the Cold War. Political terrorism in Western Europe during the Cold War can be highlighted as a good example. IRA, ETA, Red Brigades or Red Army Fraction pursued relatively clear political objectives. Although the terrorist acts were brutal and appalling they remained relatively limited in both scale and targeting (e.g., targeting of governmental officials or businessmen). The aim was for example to change regime, and thus the society (e.g., aims of terrorist acts committed by the Red Brigades) or to gain independence from the central government (e.g., acts of ETA). The aim was to affect only limited number of people. The result was that the daily life of general public had remained relatively unchanged (Coker, 2004: n. p.). In this respect Gearson points out that “[h]istorically, terrorism has been seen as a tactical phenomenon which fluctuates according to geography and culture…” (Gearson, 2002: 10; stress added). To put it differently, it was a tool of revolutionaries, nationalists and sometimes even of governments. As these terrorist organizations were part of certain society and they wanted to change the society or circumstances in which the society lived, they must have been discriminative in targeting. The reason was not to inflict mass killing, and thus to alienate the population the support of which they needed or the views of which they wanted to change.

In this respect, it is important to mention that as the classical terrorism was part of certain culture (state or region), it was possible to understand its aims and motives within this particular culture. The terrorists were seen as criminals whom one can either socialize or put them into jail (Coker, 2004: n. p.).

2. Today’s Terrorism: From Instrumentality to Existentiality

After the Cold War it is possible to observe development towards new elements in terrorism, which – according to some authors – change terrorism from instrumental (classical) terrorism to existential.3 This development is observable particularly in the studied case – Al Qaeda. During the Cold War, Al Qaeda was fighting the Soviet occupiers in Afghanistan. It was a fight against occupation of a country, against suppression of religious freedom of Muslims4 and for establishment of certain type of government in Afghanistan – Taleban regime. One can label it as instrumental terrorism, which is understandable in Western cultural background. Another feature of classical terrorism was that the fight of Al Qaeda concentrated on the territory of Afghanistan. Yet, after the withdrawal of the Soviet troops from Afghanistan and after the end of the Cold War one can observe several substantial changes in the activities of Al Qaeda.

2.1 New Warriors and Their Unreachable Aims

The first change is that Al Qaeda became a source of professional warriors whose “job” was to be a fighter – terrorist. As a result of this development, the warriors originating from Al Qaeda became fighters on the global scale. They have been involved in conflicts in Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya and most recently in Iraq. Even though such terrorists fight for living (existentialism) it is worth reminding that they are not deployed to conflicts as terrorists, but as liberators (Whittaker, 2004: 34). Hence, the individual goes to the conflict and makes terrorist attacks for existential reasons, but the conflict itself does not have to be necessarily existential and can have instrumental underpinning (e.g., Kosovo and its independence from Serbia).

Nonetheless, some authors push the change of Al Qaeda even further and use specific concept of warrior. Coker uses Nietzschian concept of “unconcerned warrior who is not interested in ends, but means” (Coker, 2004: n. p.). To fight war is his purpose and by his acts he mocks our type of society, which is goal oriented. Bin Laden is interested in Islam and he considers himself a warrior of God. To some, his aims appear as a religious liberation of himself (Coker, 2004: n. p.). It seems that the idea of religious liberation of oneself is also behind the motives of some terrorists who do terrorism for living. In hard-line Muslim theological schools – madrasas – they are thought narrow and violent version of Islam and trained to join Jihad and not a practical life (Hippel, 2002: 29). Coker points out that in such cases human identity is derived from war. This concept, however, is opposed by the Western culture (Coker, 2004: n. p.). Thus, Western societies have difficulties to understand the motives behind such life and behind the acts.

The existential element of today’s terrorism is further stressed by the fact that very often the terrorist act is not for a purpose. Yet, it is a theatre act – power put on display. It is for exhibition. Therefore, it is visually stunning and it “burns an image to our mind” (Coker, 2004: n. p.). The result is that person with Western cultural background does not understand these acts and considers them irrational.

Similarly to Coker, Gearson also points at the change of terrorism away from terrorism as a tactical means to terrorism as a strategy (Gearson, 2002: 8). The point here is that terror becomes an end in itself. In this respect one could argue that terrorism of Bin Laden’s movement can be defined in this way. Gearson stresses that although Bin Laden claims that he defends Muslims everywhere in the world, he does not. Due to this, the new terrorism has different objectives than the traditional one. The objectives are not necessarily end oriented. Yet, the goal is to punish the West (Gearson, 2002: 11, 23).

The existential element of the present day terrorism, or in other words terror for terror, not for a purpose, is also underlined by its “unreachable” aims. Today’s terrorism is considered to be politically vague. According to Wilkinson, the goals of new terrorism (including Al Qaeda) are less limited and practicable than those of the “traditional” terrorism. Among others, Whittaker lists aims such as “[s]tand and fight for the Truth of Islam, crusading against those who defile it …; [c]leanse the sacred Arab lands of heathen invaders …; “continue a jihad until these forces [unbelievers – Jews and Americans in particular] are crushed to naught … and wiped from the face of earth5 ” etc. (further see Whittaker, 2004: 34-35; 72). All this is underlined by Al Qaeda’s absolutist and grandiose ideology (Wilkinson, 2003: 22), which should help to spark worldwide Islamic revolution (Martin, 2003: 249).

2.2 Cultural Motivations and Suicide Terrorism

As I have already hinted, according to some scholars the present day terrorists do not fight, according to the Western perception, for understandable and relatively clear political ends. Yet, it appears that they fight for revenge to the West (Coker, 2004: n. p.). This moves us towards the existential terrorism underpinned by cultural motivations. Anti-globalization and anti-Western motives (in cultural sense) can be identified behind Islamic suicide terrorism promoted by Al Qaeda. It is fighting “in the name of holy cause against perceived evil emanating from the West [mainly from the US]” (Martin, 2003: 15). The point here is that local should prevail over the global (Coker, 2004: n. p.). In this regard Ditzler points out that “the motivation for these groups to commit violent acts typically derives from an almost primordial fear of cultural extermination or the loss of cultural identity. The essential question for them is this: How can I use terrorist tactics to stop the threat to my culture/ faith/ ethnic group/ clan/ tribe?” (Ditzler, 2004: 203).6 Additionally, religion, in our case Islam, gives these groups specific spin, which idealizes religion and creates self-perception of being absolutely right. According to Ditzler this characteristic is also suitable for Al Qaeda (Ditzler, 2004: 204). The question of how to use terrorist tactics to stop the threat to a culture, faith, etc., may appear to be evidently instrumental. However, if we connect it with suicide terrorism it is not the case. The reason is that suicide terrorists are not instrumental. Yet, as Coker points out, they express anger and resentment (Coker, 2004: n. p.; for similar point see Gearson, 2002: 11). Moreover, religious spin is usually included in their actions. In this respect, Martin argues that the 19 Al Qaeda terrorists from September 11 “were on a suicidal ‘martyrdom mission’” (Martin, 2003: 15; stress added). Hence, one can observe shift from political objectives prevailing during the Cold War to “unlimited or retributive objectives reinforced by promises of rewards in other world” (Nye, 2003: 6).

The previous part of this essay finished with possibility to socialize traditional terrorists or to put them into jail. Yet, in the case of suicide terrorism none of these ways can be used to cope with this problem. Additionally, suicide terrorism is not anymore limited to certain region or country, as the September 11 attacks showed. Hence, this type of terrorism with different cultural underpinning is even less understandable in other region, in our case in the West.

3. Instrumentality of Today’s Terrorism

Although the aim of this part is not to completely argue against the existentialist view of the post-Cold War terrorism the goal here is to draw attention to the instrumental side of it, which is hidden by previous account. To remind of Crenshaw’s view made already in 1996, “[t]errorism is not purely expressive violence; it is also instrumental. We are thus dealing with individuals who are extremely goal oriented …” (Crenshaw, 1996: 385).

Qatar based television Al Jazeera released tape made by Bin Laden.7 Bin Laden claims that his group does not “kill for the sake of killing” (BBC News 2, 2004: n.p.), as the existential view of the new terrorism would suggest. This points at the fact that Al Qaeda and Bin Laden do not necessarily have to be warriors involved in terror for the sake of terror. Yet, they have political aims, which they think are rational and reachable although it does not have to appear so to the Western societies. Bin Laden also explains the reasons for Al Qaeda’s terrorism:

“The killing of the Russians was after their invasion of Afghanistan and Chechnya; the killing of Europeans was after their invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan; and the killing of Americans on the day of New York [reference to 11 September] was after their support of the Jews in Palestine and their invasion of the Arabian Peninsula” (BBC News 2, 2004: n.p.).

Clearly the aims such as US withdrawal from the Arabian Peninsula and ending support to Israel, toppling the Arabic governments, which “collaborate” with the US and its allies, etc. are instrumental. The religious language usually used by Bin Laden in his messages can be seen as a method to legitimize both the ends he wants to achieve and the means he uses for it.

Additionally, the new terrorism does not have to be merely strategic as Gearson suggests (see Gearson, 2002: 8). The reason is that terrorist attacks in Madrid and Iraq have substantial tactical value. Targeting the allies of the US, Al Qaeda can reach (in the case of Spain with good timing and planning quite successfully) divisions in the coalition, which would make Americans weaker as well. Bin Laden said that Europeans should “[s]top spilling our [Muslim] blood so we can stop spilling your [European] blood” (BBC News 1, 2004: n.p.). Hence, the targeting of weaker members of the coalition (e.g., Spain or Italy) is very logical and rational approach to asymmetrical warfare. The objective is to break the coalition from within and by such approach to weaken the US. Due to the skepticism of Italians and Spaniards towards involvement in Iraq, this approach seems to be quite successful.

Beside the tactical underpinning of some terrorist acts, it is possible to identify greater political goals of Al Qaeda and instrumental power struggle, from which Al Qaeda could benefit. The point is that the fight is not only against the presence of the Western troops in the countries of Middle East, but also against the regimes which are perceived to collaborate with the US (e.g., House of Saudis). The aim of Al Qaeda seems to be the destabilization of these countries and willingness to gain control. From the Western perspective it may appear that terrorism and Al Qaeda do not offer alternative to the present regimes in these countries. Yet, we should remember that the retreat of Soviets from Afghanistan created power vacuum and Taleban with the support of Al Qaeda gained control. This scenario is applicable both for sudden retreat of the American troops from Iraq and for the replacement of the present regimes in countries such as Saudi Arabia by chaos. Simply, power vacuum is favorable to political and power gains of Al Qaeda.

3.1 Extent of Terrorism: Existential or Instrumental?

One of the novelties of today’s terrorism is the extent of terrorist attacks, which according to some, points at the existential nature of it – terror for the purpose of terror or performance (Coker, 2004: n. p.). However, one has to bear in mind that there is a difference in objectives between the traditional and the present day terrorisms.8 The point is that the traditional terrorism usually aimed to change something within certain society and needed certain support of the population of the given society. Therefore, the attacks were more discriminative and limited. Yet, the terrorism of Al Qaeda is concerned with the foreign policies of the states/societies, which would not support Al Qaeda under any circumstances. It is not about the change of regime or political change within these states, but about their involvement in certain regions of the world. Therefore, the lack of legitimization of the terrorist acts by the populations of these states does not play a role. On the contrary, it requires negative reaction of the population in order to change the course of states’ foreign policy. Hence, the number of casualties and spectacular attacks stressed by the media9 in the US or in any other country (e.g., Spain) should deter/compel these states from involvement in certain regions and from pursuing certain foreign policies in these regions.

In this respect one could raise a point that Al Qaeda is committing terrorist attacks also within Muslim or Arabic world. This seems to be the case. However, this acknowledgement does not undermine the above-mentioned reasoning. On the contrary, it supports it. The reason is that in the Arab world the extent of the terrorist acts and its targeting is more similar to the classical terrorism. As in the case of traditional terrorism, the terrorists are trying to obtain support of masses. Therefore, they are targeting the leadership of the given country or other “collaborators” with either the corrupt regime or with the West.10 On the other hand, one could argue that the terrorist attacks in Iraq are quite massive and very often aimed against Iraqis. However, in this respect, Iraq is a different case where it is easy to blame the US for all problems including terrorist attacks against the Iraqis. Additionally, it seems that the power struggle is under way within the Iraqi elite and that the foreign terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda are involved in it as well. To sum up, the analysis shows that Al Qaeda uses very rational and instrumental approach (political and even power calculations) to different conflicts and objectives. Hence, one should be careful in judging terrorist attacks as existential ones.

3. 2 Instrumentality behind Suicide Terrorism

In the case of suicide terrorism it is crucial to see two lines of analysis. As was mentioned in the previous section of this essay, the suicide terrorism can be existential for the suicide bombers. Yet, this is not the case for the leadership, which inspires such terrorism (e.g., Bin Laden himself). The instrumental aim of the leadership is to gain power and to keep control over these people, eventually to reach the set goals and/or to promote one’s cause or even popularity. The point is that suicide terrorism is also committed with specific objective in mind. The leadership obtains or grants ideological or theological legitimization for its use and recruits and trains volunteers who are then sent to fulfill certain objectives (Gearson, 2002: 16–17). Additionally, religion may be very often involved as well. The reason is that it gives the terrorism specific and strong spin – idealization of religion, self-persuasion of being absolutely right, etc. Interesting point is that for the Western culture suicide is unacceptable and therefore people with this background have difficulties to understand motives behind these acts. Yet, as the analysis shows it can contain deeply rational and instrumental element.


As the essay has demonstrated some approaches to the study of terrorism would like us to believe that the classical and the present day terrorisms are substantially different. The main reason is that the present day terrorism is seen as existential one in contrast to the traditional – the instrumental terrorism. Yet, the analysis of today’s terrorism showed that instrumental features were identifiable as well. Additionally, one has to be careful while analyzing this phenomenon in order not to cover by a certain view other characteristics of the problem. The point is that after the Cold War the existential element of terrorism was strengthened, but it does not mean that instrumental reasons disappeared completely.


BBC News 1. 2004. “Bin Laden Offers Europe Truce.” BBC News, 15 April 2004. Available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/3627775.stm on 15 April 2004.

BBC News 2. 2004. “Full Text: ‘Bin Laden Tape.’” BBC News, 15 April 2004. Available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/3628069.stm on 15 April 2004.

Coker, Christopher. 2004. On Terrorism. Lecture at the LSE, the course: Strategic Aspect of International Relations, on 16 January 2004.

Crenshaw, Martha. 1996. “The Psychology of Political Terrorism.” In Hermann, Margaret G., ed., Political Psychology. London: Jossey-Bass Limited.

Ditzler, Thomas F. 2004. “Malevolent Minds: The Teleology of Terrorism.” In Moghaddam, Fathali M. and Anthony J. Marsella, eds. Understanding Terrorism. Psychological Roots, Consequences, and Interventions. Washington: American Psychological Association.

Freedman, Lawrence. 2002. “Introduction.” In Lawrence Freedman, ed., Superterrorism. Policy Responses. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Gearson, John. 2002. “The Nature of Modern Terrorism.” In Lawrence Freedman, ed., Superterrorism. Policy Responses. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Hippel, Karin von. 2002. “The Roots of Terrorism: Probing the Myths.” In Lawrence Freedman, ed., Superterrorism. Policy Responses. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Martin, Gus. 2003. Understanding Terrorism. Challenges, Perspectives, and Issues. London: Sage Publications.

Nye, Joseph S. 2003. “II. A North American Perspective.” Joseph S. Nye, Yukio Satoh and Paul

Whittaker, David. J. 2004. Terrorists and Terrorism in the Contemporary World. London: Routledge.

Wilkinson, Paul. 2003. “IV. A European Viewpoint on Terrorism.” Joseph S. Nye, Yukio Satoh and Paul Wilkinson. Addressing the New International Terrorism: Prevention, Intervention and Multilateral Cooperation. A Report to the Trilateral Commission: 56.

1. The author would like to thank Mr. Hynek Holub (www.hntranslations.com) for advice on the language.

2. For the definitions of terrorism by the State Department or the FBI see Gearson, 2002: 9. These definitions also incorporate idea of instrumentality.

3. However, this does not mean that the classical terrorism has disappeared.

4. To remind the reader, the heroic fight of Afghanis with the American support against the Soviet occupiers was also a motive of one of the Rambo films with Silvester Stalone.

5. Previously in Pakistan Daily News, 19 June 2001.

6. Previously in Hoffman, B. 1993. “‘Holy Terror’: The Implications of Terrorism Motivated by a Religious Imperative.” RAND Research Paper P-7834. Santa Monica: RAND. According to Hoffman there are three types of motivations: rational, psychological and cultural (for details see Ditzler, 2004: 200-205).

7. CIA considers the voice to be Bin Laden’s voice.

8. The precondition for this is to accept that what Bin Laden says is what Al Qaeda aims for.

9. “To achieve political influence, terrorism depends on its power to arouse emotions in audiences …” (Crenshaw, 1996: 380) and the media are a good means for influencing the audience.

10. The attacks in Saudi Arabia can be mentioned as an example. The attacks targeted foreign workers although they were Muslims and Arabs.

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