The idea that the world confronts a "new" terrorism completely unlike the terrorism of the past has taken hold in the minds of policy makers, pundits, consultants, and academics, especially in the US. However, terrorism remains an intrinsically political rather than cultural phenomenon and, as such, the terrorism of today is not fundamentally or qualitatively "new", but grounded in an evolving historical context.1 The idea of a "new" terrorism is often based on insufficient knowledge of history, as well as misinterpretations of contemporary terrorism. Such thinking is often contradictory. For example, it is not clear when the "new" terrorism began or the old ended, or which groups belong in which category.

Shifting the Goals

First, the ends of the "new" terrorism are presumed to be unlimited and non-negotiable. Such terrorists are said to have no "red lines." In this view, their goals are derived exclusively from religious doctrines that emphasize transformational and apocalyptic beliefs, usually associated with Islam, although present in all monotheistic religions. The "new" terrorists are presumed to hate Western, and especially American, values, culture, civilization and existence. Their violence is expressive, not strategic or instrumental. Destruction is an end in itself, rather than the means to an end.
The goals of the "old" terrorism, by contrast, are thought to have been negotiable and limited. The past aims of terrorism were understandable and tangible, typically related to issues of territorial autonomy. Deals could be struck. The state could bargain with them. Conflicts could be resolved. In effect, these were sensible terrorists.
Ambitious and even unobtainable ends, however, are not unique to religion or to the contemporary political environment. Believing in the impossible is not unusual for radical movements. The European anarchists of the late 19th century sought to overthrow all government. They assassinated eight different heads of state in order to bring down the political order. Sendero Luminoso wished to establish a Maoist regime in Peru, and its demands were non-negotiable. In the 1970s, revolutionary organizations in Germany and Italy, with little to no popular support, thought they could destroy well-established liberal democracies. Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) seeks to establish a Basque state that would include parts of both France and Spain.
Furthermore, groups claiming to act in the name of religious doctrine are often more apocalyptic in their rhetoric than in their behavior. They have often shown themselves to be astute political strategists, using terrorism successfully to drive out foreign military forces or disrupt peace processes. Hezbollah and Hamas are excellent examples, and al Qaeda's activities can also be interpreted in pragmatic terms. Acting in the name of religion does not mean acting without reason.
Moreover, all "religious" terrorists are not alike. Also, just as ETA and even the Irish Republican Army (IRA) took on a socialist veneer when it was ideologically fashionable, so too nationalistic or other groups may take on an Islamic cast because radical Islamic beliefs have popular appeal and can generate international support. Ideology and religion are useful recruiting devices. While some members of radical organizations are motivated by sincere beliefs, others are less committed to group values. Individual militants may be manipulated by their leaders.

Increasing Destruction

Second, the means of the "new" terrorism are assumed to be different. The premise is that because the ends of the new terrorism are unlimited, so, too, are the means. The "new" terrorists are supposed to be eager to cause the largest possible number of casualties among their enemies and also to be willing to sacrifice any number of their own in the process. The "new" terrorism is often associated with the advent of "suicide" terrorism. These terrorists are also thought to be more inclined than secular groups to use "weapons of mass destruction." Apocalyptic motivations are said to lead to unprecedented lethality. Presumably for the "new" terrorists the means have become an end in themselves, not a way of reaching an audience other than the deity. The "new" terrorists seek only to destroy, and their deaths will result only in a place in paradise, not political change.
The "old" terrorism is considered to be much more restrained and specific in targeting. The traditional terrorist wanted people watching, not people dead, according to Brian Jenkins' now famous aphorism. These terrorists imposed restraints on their actions because they aimed to change the attitudes of popular audiences who could help them achieve their goals. Although capable of being more destructive, they chose not to be.
However, the "old" terrorists were not necessarily discriminating in their choice of targets. The French anarchists of the 1880s bombed restaurants frequented by the bourgeoisie in order to show the working class who the true enemy was. Had they possessed more powerful bombs, they would undoubtedly have killed more people. The concept of "propaganda of the deed," which is still at the heart of terrorism, was invented by Peter Kropotkin. During the Algerian war, the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) attacked Europeans indiscriminately, leaving bombs in cafes, on beaches, in soccer stadiums and at bus stops in Algiers during the famous "Battle of Algiers." Their bombs often killed Algerians as well as Europeans. (At the time, some French writers assigned such ruthlessness to a specifically Arab mentality, an early resort to a cultural explanation of terrorism.) The FLN also considered bombing the Eiffel Tower, in a campaign to bring the war home to France. In the late 1960s, secular groups (including the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) conceived of hijacking civilian airliners and kidnapping and assassinating diplomats, both serious breaches of international norms. (The existence of normative prohibitions, of course, makes the target more rather than less attractive to terrorists.) A Sikh extremist group bombed an Indian airliner in midair in 1986, and the secular regime of Colonel Qaddafi bombed Pan Am flight 103 in 1988. A main practitioner of "suicide" terrorism has been the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka. Far-right extremists were also prone to causing large numbers of casualties; for instance, 85 people were killed in the bombing of the Bologna railroad station in 1980. In sum, one could argue that the "old" terrorism was limited more by lack of capabilities than by self-imposed and principled restraint.
Moreover, the highly destructive, or potentially highly destructive, attacks seen in the past decade may be the exception rather than the rule. They may not be typical. Among examples of the "new" terrorism, Aum Shinrikyo's attack on the Tokyo subway is the only example of use of chemical weapons2. The September 11 hijackings caused the highest number of casualties of any single terrorist attack in history, but other al Qaeda terrorism has fallen within a more normal range3.


The organization of the new terrorism is also thought to be fundamentally different from earlier organizational structures of terrorism. The "new" terrorists are said to be decentralized, with a "flat" networked apparatus rather than a hierarchical or cellular structure. Sub-units are supposed to have substantial autonomy, and the organization is genuinely transnational. By contrast, the "old" terrorist structure was known to be centralized and top-down. Individual leaders mattered less.
There is much to be said for the organizational distinctiveness of al Qaeda, but there are problems with the assumption that it is entirely different from the past or that it is necessarily a model for the future. First, al Qaeda is the only example of such a network or franchise/venture capital operation. Other "religious" terrorist groups are more traditional (Hezbollah, Hamas, or Egyptian Islamic Jihad). Second, even the intelligence agencies do not completely understand how al Qaeda is organized. There may be more centralization than appears to the public eye. Certainly, extensive face-to-face communication occurred within the group, at least prior to September 11. It is also important to remember the importance of the shared experience and socialization in Afghanistan, a factor in the organizational development of al Qaeda that is unlikely to be present in the emergence of other "new" terrorists.
Furthermore, the organization of the "old" terrorism was not always centralized. In fact, most groups experienced serious fragmentation. Peter Merkl, for example, has argued that the apparently monolithic quality of the Red Army Faction in West Germany was a myth4. The 19th century anarchists formed a transnational conspiracy, linking activists in Russia, Germany, Switzerland, France, Spain, Italy, and the US. The essence of anarchism was antipathy to central direction, and much terrorism was locally generated. In addition, some of the more hierarchical groups actually allowed significant local autonomy. The Active Service Units of the IRA, for example, sometimes acted autonomously, without the approval of the Army Council. The Italian Red Brigades were organized in independent "columns" in different cities. The French Action Directe was actually two groups, one limited to France and the other operating internationally. The latter was linked to groups in Belgium.
Thus the distinction between the "new" and the "old" terrorism is not as fundamental as proponents of the "new" terrorism view would have it. Differences among groups and over time do exist, but they may be attributable to a changing environment (processes associated with what is termed globalization, in particular), specific opportunity structures, and evolutionary progression, even learning. Observations about a "new" terrorism often lack a basis in sustained and systematic empirical research, and they tend to neglect history. Perhaps the question that should be asked is, why are analysts so attracted to the idea of a qualitatively different "new" terrorism rather than the idea of continuity and gradual change?

1 See Stathis N. Kalyvas, "'New' and 'Old' Civil Wars: A Valid Distinction?" World Politics 54 (October 2001), 99-118. The idea of a "new" terrorism is most often associated with the assumption that "religious" terrorism is a distinct and novel phenomenon. The idea gained credence not only with the growth of radical Islam post Iranian revolution but after the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway. Examples of the literature include Walter Laqueur, The New Terrorism: Fanaticism and the Arms of Mass Destruction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), and Ian O. Lesser, et al., Countering the New Terrorism (Santa Monica: The Rand Corporation, 1999). On the subject of religious terrorism, see Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).
2 Another possible example is the LTTE's use of chlorine gas in an attack on a Sri Lankan army base, but their use appears to have been circumstantial and opportunistic, not planned. See in general Jonathan B. Tucker, ed., Toxic Terror: Assessing Terrorist Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000). Also Richard A. Falkenrath, Robert D. Newman, and Bradley A. Thayer, America's Achilles' Heel: Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Terrorism and Covert Attack (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998).
3 This is not to imply that we should ever regard terrorism as "normal." Also, some observers would count the actions of states as terrorism, and would point to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I am focusing on nonstates and on the conspiratorial covert behavior of states in peacetime, rather than acts of war.
4 See Peter Merkl, "West German Left-Wing Terrorism," in Terrorism in Context, ed. Martha Crenshaw (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995.)