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Introduction to Counter Terrorism

Updated on November 14, 2013

What is terrorism?

By definition, the very aim of terrorism is to promote terror. Generally speaking, the more in depth definition of terrorism defines it as the use of violence, usually against civilians, in order to achieve a political objective. While things like protests can also be used as a tool to achieve a political objective, terrorism is different in that the acts always involve either the threat of, or actual violence.

The issue with being able to properly define terrorism comes from the lack of global agreement on what terrorism actually is. Many groups are defined by their governments as terrorists, while supporters of those groups may claim that their use of violent measures to achieve their objective is merely to overthrow an oppressive or unjust government or regime. These people will label themselves freedom fighters rather than terrorists and this rings true to the saying “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”.

There are, of course, those political groups which do attach the label of terrorist to themselves as well.


History of Terrorism

Terrorism has a long history throughout the world. It has been practiced by large governments as a means of suppressing their opposition, and it has also been practiced by small groups of individuals as a means of attacking the governments they despise and wish to overthrow.

As far back as the first century, AD, Roman emperors used tactics to instil fear in others as a means of discouraging any opposition to their ruling. In the 11th century a group of individuals in Persia formed a secret society known as the Order of Assassins. This society planned and committed murders of some of the high-ranking politicians and military leaders as a way of opposing their power.

Terrorism as it is known today was not used as an instrument of policy until the French Revolution. A period of time during the revolution has come to be known as the Reign of Terror and ran from 1793-4. During this time the government sent hundreds of counter-revolutionaries to be executed. The result of this was a climate of intense fear among the population of France. The policy was then adopted by the revolutionary leader Maximilien Robespierre and was used as a tool to suppress all opposition to revolutionary plans. In 1795 the word ‘terrorism’ was coined.

Anarchist groups throughout America, Europe and Russia adopted terror tactics in the latter half of the nineteenth century through to the twentieth century. These groups believed that by assassinating political leaders and those in positions of power within the government, they could bring about the political change they wanted.

One of the most significant terrorist groups of modern times was formed in the 1960’s and called themselves the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). The movement represented the people of Palestine and they were dedicated to the destruction of Israel, as Israelis occupied their homeland. In 1967 the group adopted typical terrorist tactics as a way to advance their movement. In 1968 the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which consisted of a group of Irish nationalists who opposed the British rule in Ireland, also opted to adopt terrorist campaigns.

Throughout Asia and South America revolutionary groups also entered into violent conflict with their governments around this time. Since the 1980’s Islamic fundamentalism has been a dominant force behind international terrorism.

Counter Terrorism Forces

Psychology of Terrorism

There are many different reasons as to why an individual makes the decision to turn to terrorism. In some cases they may wish to free their country from foreign ruling, they may wish to overthrow their government who they feel are unjust to the needs of the people they are serving, or they may see terrorism as a tool to bring about a political or religious revolution.

Most terrorist groups are usually a subgroup of a larger population, for example a religious minority who feel they are being unjustly treated. In many cases these people are denied a voice in the politics of their country because they belong to a group whose political views, religion, race or economic situations do not fall in line with what the present government wants. When this occurs the group becomes angry and frustrated. There is almost always a trigger which leads the anger and frustration to turn to violence. The trigger can be an event, or even something such as impatience with the slowness of politicians bringing about the change the group desires or needs.

There is no single personality type for a terrorist.

Terrorists come from a wide range of social backgrounds, with varying degrees of education. Recently a large number of terrorist leaders have been known to be well educated and upper or middle class. The one aspect which unites all members of a terrorist organisation is their fanaticism. This trait is intensified by the lifestyles they adopt or lead, which are dangerous and often isolated from others.

Dominican Anti-Terrorism Commandos
Dominican Anti-Terrorism Commandos | Source

Usual motivations for terrorism

  • Nationalism
  • Ideology
  • Religion
  • Poverty and Desperation
  • State Sponsored

Motivation for Terrorism

A major cause of terrorism in modern times has been the concept of nationalism, which is the belief that people with a common ethnic or cultural background have the right to form their own nation. Nationalism is popular in groups where their countries have been invaded, conquered or colonised by foreign powers, as well as in cases where groups of people have been forced to leave their homeland. Nationalist terrorist groups tend to be far more successful than other terrorist groups in achieving some, if not all, of their aims.

Another strong motivation for terrorism in modern times is ideology, which is a system of political beliefs. There are three major strands of ideological terrorism; right-wing, left-wing and anarchist.

Right-wing terrorism comprises of extremist groups who are motivated by a fear of multiculturalism or social change. These groups are usually opposed to socialist or liberal democratic governments, and they are generally racist and highly patriotic. Their views are often associated with fascism.

Left-wing terrorism comprises of groups who are motivated to destroy the capitalist economic system. They believe this system is responsible for global poverty and inequality and want the current system to be replaced by communist or socialist forms of government.

Anarchist terrorism was at its peak between the 1870’s until around 1920. Anarchists believe that governments should be abolished and reject the idea that society requires a system of government.

Religion is another motivation for terrorism, and there has recently been a growth in religious terrorists. This group justifies their use of violence by viewing the violence as the will of God. They view themselves as instruments of divine justice and believe they are righting the wrongs of the world by destroying the enemies of their faith.

Poverty and deprivation is also a motivation of terrorism, and some argue that the growing inequality between the rich and the poor is the very root of modern terrorism.

Finally there is state sponsored terrorism. During the second half of the twentieth century, a number of countries decided it was in their best interest to form secret connections with terrorist organisations. The governments provided these organisations with political and financial support, weapons, training and occasionally shelter. In return, the terrorist groups launched attacks on the enemies of the government and spread their ideological or religious beliefs without outward sign of government involvement.



These are just some of the aspects of terrorism that must be understood in order to establish and maintain effective counter-terrorism campaigns.

As long as there are groups of people who remain excluded from aspects of society, whose interests or desires are ignored, or who simply feel oppressed by current governments or regimes they disagree with, there will always be terrorism. In these times, with access to advanced weaponry and other tools of terrorism, terrorists groups are more deadly than they ever have been.

In response to this, the majority of Western countries now spend far more than they previously did on security and counter-terrorism in an effort to counteract the threat.

Act of Terror - Animated Documentary


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