Causes of Modern Terrorism


Every terrorist needs a particular cause to justify the use of terror tactics both to his own psyche and to the audience he hopes reach. Most terrorists are not deranged or psychotic individuals. From their point of view, terror tactics are logical, valid activities to achieve a particular goal. These individuals do not consider themselves insane nor do they want the world to consider them insane.

The modern wave of global terrorism that began in the second half of the 20th century is rooted in specific economic, social and political grievances. The validity of these grievances is of course debatable. This page will profile origins of terrorist movements in three parts of the world—the Middle East, Europe and Latin America.

 Middle East Terrorism

The current global wave of terrorism, in many ways, originated and was fueled by events in the Middle East, particularly the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict. Some of the world's most violent terrorist acts have been committed in the name of Palestinian self determination and the destruction of Israel.

Israel's official creation in 1948 began an intermittent conflict which lasts to this day. Palestinians maintain Israeli lands were promised to them by British colonial authorities. Israel's Arab neighbors failed to destroy Israel by conventional military means, so radical Palestinians believed terror tactics were the only other choice. Even prior to Israel's formation, Jewish settlers used terrorism against British colonial authorities and Palestinian Arabs living in the area to affect the creation of a Jewish state. Consequently, Arabs reciprocated. In 1964, the major Palestinian terrorist groups formed a coalition called the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) under the leadership of Yasser Arafat. The PLO's stated mission included the annihilation of Israel and establishment of a Palestinian state. The terror escalated to a global scale after the 1967 Six Day War when Israel annexed Palestinian lands on the west bank of the Jordan River and Gaza Strip near the Sinai Peninsula.

The causes of Middle East terrorism are mainly political. The dispute is over possession of land. Palestinians considered the territory occupied by Israel rightfully theirs. Aside from the land dispute, a social element is also present in this situation. Israel is the only non-Muslim nation in the Middle East, therefore it vividly stands out as "different," or an "invader." Islam is more than just a religion to its faithful. It is a prescription for life; dictating social norms in addition to civil and criminal law. The existence of Israel is viewed as an invasion of the western world's "corrupting" influence.

To fundamentalist Muslims the West, led by the United States, is characterized by the inequity and exploitation of capitalism, a philosophy centered on the individual. Islam on the other hand, is based on a more egalitarian and group-focused philosophy. But the main reason Muslims are opposed to Western influence concerns the attractiveness of capitalism. While Marxists have attempted to paint capitalism as evil and decadent, they have failed to account for its comparative efficiency in allocating resources and generally raising living standards. Coupled with the fact that life in the West is often glamorously portrayed by the media, religious leaders fear Muslims will be corrupted by Western greed and forsake their Muslim faith. This fact is one explanation for the increase in Muslim fundamentalism in the Middle East.

Fundamentalist terrorist groups like Hizballah and Hamas are infamous for their fanatical tactics, most notably suicide bombings. Religious zealots will be recruited by these groups to take explosives, either strapped to their bodies or in vehicles, and detonate those explosives, killing themselves, and destroying the assigned target. In 1983, a Hizballah suicide bomber drove the bomb-laden truck which destroyed the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon killing over 200 Marines. More recently, Hamas suicide bombers have blown-up a number of buses in Israel. The Muslim fanatics are convinced killing themselves in the process of killing their enemies is a path to martyrdom and eternal salvation.

Middle East terrorism has fueled the global wave of terrorism because a variety of terrorist groups (IRA, ETA, Japanese Red Army, Baader-Meinhof Gang, etc.) have received training and support from Palestinian terrorist groups, particularly the PLO.

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 European Terrorism

A number of rather small, elitist terrorist movements evolved in Europe between the late 1960's and early 1980's. Most were left-wing Marxist-Leninist or nihilist movements which grew out of the activism and student protests of the 1960's. Their motivations included economics and idealism. Western Europe suffered an economic downturn and high unemployment in the 1960's, which European Marxist scholars assailed as evidence of capitalism's failure. Graduating college students, who encountered flat labor markets, blamed governments and business leaders for the economic hardship.

Extremists in these left-wing student movements felt violence was necessary to destroy the industrialized capitalist structures they found detrimental to society. These groups were mainly composed of well educated idealistic individuals seeking to "reform" society. Examples of groups include Italy's Red Brigades (BR), West Germany's Baader-Meinhof Gang (also known as the Red Army Faction) and France's Direct Action (AD). These groups wreaked havoc throughout the 1970's, targeting business and political leaders. The most notorious terrorist act was committed by the Red Brigades, when they kidnapped then murdered former Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro in 1978.

The oldest of Europe's recent terrorist insurgencies also have far different motivations for their respective struggles. Northern Ireland's Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) and Spain's Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA) wish to secede from their nations.

In 1922 Ireland was granted independence from Britain with the stipulation that its six predominantly Protestant northeastern counties (known as Ulster) would remain part of the United Kingdom. Many Irish never truly accepted a division of their nation. The Catholic minority that remained in Ulster was then discriminated against in terms of employment, housing and effective political participation. Catholics launched a civil rights movement in 1968 which was violently repressed by Protestants. The stage was then set for a pattern of violence that continues today. Radical Catholic nationalists called for Ulster's secession from the U.K. and union with the Republic of Ireland.

Extremist elements of the Irish Republican Army (IRA—guerrilla group formed in 1919 to secure Ireland's independence from Britain) then split to form the PIRA, or "Provos," in 1969 and embraced terrorism, claiming IRA's tactics were too timid to be effective in reuniting Ireland.

Social, political and economic elements led to this conflict. First and foremost, economic and political discrimination led to Catholics in Ulster becoming an underclass. Second, Catholic Irishmen wanted to be reunited with the rest of the Irish nation. These factors culminated in the Irish civil rights movement and the choice to use terrorism to affect reunion.

The Basque ETA was formed in 1959 as a political movement against General Franco, the fascist leader of Spain. The movement's goal was the creation of an independent state for Spain's Basque ethnic group. The Basques have been oppressed and their culture attacked under Franco. Initially the group received a great deal of support in its anti-fascist efforts, particularly from France. But Western support waned as the ETA made greater use of terror tactics.

The ETA's struggle stemmed from political oppression the Basques had suffered, and the Spanish government's attempt to destroy their culture and assimilate them into Spanish culture. Although many Basque grievances were settled after the end of Franco's rule, the ETA vows to maintain its struggle until Basques are given a sovereign homeland.

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 Latin American Terrorism

Terrorism in Latin America is essentially a product of class conflict. Until recently, nearly all Latin American nations were controlled by corrupt authoritarian regimes who gave little consideration to the welfare of their people. The result—a majority of Latin Americans live in poverty. The undereducated and impoverished people were very receptive to the egalitarian Marxist, Leninist and Maoist philosophies espoused by extremists.

Nearly every Latin American nation has had, or currenlty has, an active guerrilla or terrorist insurgency. The driving force behind most of these groups has been a desire to reorganize society along socialist lines, remove foreign business interests and redistribute land and wealth.

Major Latin American terrorist groups include Peru's Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) and Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA), Colombia's National Liberation Army (ELN) and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and Chile's Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front (FPMR).

Click here or the image to view a video clip allegedly showing MRTA terrorists preparing to seize the Japanese ambassador's residence in Lima, Peru on December 17, 1996.

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Please proceed to the next section - Goals of Terror Tactics; an analysis of typical goals of terrorists and how they hope to achieve them, including a discussion of the relationship between terrorism and the media.You may also proceed to the index for this site's contents.

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