In a crude form you can find terrorism in ancient warfare. Terrorism is a political tactic that uses violence against civilians to breed, well, terror. Ambushing a foot-patrol or leaving a mine in the way of a convoy is guerilla warfare. Blowing up a crowded marketplace is terrorism.
Ancient armies didn’t burn fields and sack villages just to gather loot. Done with the appropriate panache it could in theory make further conquests easier. This necklace of severed heads I’m wearing doesn’t just accent the colors in my tunic. It a powerful fashion statement. You should consider doing what I say.
Terrorism was a key element of Jim Crow politics. The Ku Klux Klan often operated as a de facto arm of local government, with sheriffs and local law enforcement either looking the other way, or participating in their raids. Burning crosses, beatings and murders were a way to make clear to African-Americans that there was no authority to which they could appeal for help. Terror helped keep the newly “free” in their old place.
It wasn’t until modern times that terrorism came to be thought of as a weapon of the weak. This happened as technology placed greater and greater firepower at the disposal of the average Joe. Or Paddy.
It was the Irish who first honed the tactic to genuine political effect. The Irish Republican Brotherhood was formed in the late 19th century and carried out attacks in Britain. But it was after the failure of the Easter Rising in 1916 that the attacks intensified and became more sophisticated. Irish terrorists harried the British and murdered civilians until independence was achieved in 1922. Then, the Irish learned the first great lesson of terrorism. A terrorist campaign, once initiated, doesn’t end. They are still wrestling with the consequences.
Jewish Zionists and Arabs in British-Occupied Trans-Jordan in the interwar period refined the tactic further in their complex, three-way conflict with the British authorities. Through WW2 Zionists and Arabs kept the British flank constantly stirred up. In 1944, Zionists assassinated the British High Commissioner in Cairo. After the war the Jewish Irgun pulled off what is still one of the world’s most dramatic terrorist attacks when in 1946 they destroyed the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, killing 91 people. One of the participants that attack, Menachem Begin, would go on to become Prime Minister of Israel.
After World War II, terrorism would become an occasional weapon of anti-Imperialist movements, but wouldn’t really take off until picked up by the Algerians. Algerian Nationalists seeking independence from France launched a massive series of civilian bombing in the Casbah 1954. The French counter-terrorism campaign was legendary for its barbarity, its short-term success, and its contribution to France’s eventual humiliating failure. It is now referred to as the Battle of Algiers. Algeria gained its independence in 1962. It remains plagued by terrorism to this day.
After Castro took power in Cuba America saw a rash of airplane hijackings, mostly flights diverted to the island and peaking by about 1970. Few of these incidents were violent and they marked America’s first large-scale experience with hijackings.
But it was in the Middle East that hijackings became terrorism. The Arabs’ monumental failure in the Six-Day War against Israel in 1967 not only tripled the land under Israeli control, but brought down the entire Pan-Arab order. Any hope for the Palestinians to destroy Israel through conventional military means was dashed. This might have been a good time to try negotiate a settlement around the original 1947 UN Mandate. That didn’t happen.
A group of dashing young PLO (technically PFLO) guerillas, inspired by the Algerian rebels and the broader leftist anti-imperial movement decided to take control of the agenda. In 1970, PLO guerillas simultaneously hijacked four jetliners and flew them to a remote airstrip in Jordan. Several days of grandstanding and demand-issuing followed in which the guerillas enjoyed rock-star celebrity. Yasser Arafat and his boys brought us the brief era of the glamorous terrorist – terrorism in dark shades and sports cars.
When the negotiations failed, the new terrorists took the remaining hostages and sent them off to Amman where they would soon be freed. With television cameras rolling they blew up the empty planes on the tarmac. No one was killed. The terrorists, protected by the PLO which held a stranglehold on Jordanian politics at the time, walked away. And the world had a new terrorist tactic to deal with.
In response the Jordanians, sick to death of dealing with the PLO, launched the Black September campaign which would force the PLO to shift its headquarters to Lebanon.
Hijackings briefly boomed, and compared to today’s terrorism they were peaceful incidents of grandstanding instigated by leftist playboys. But terrorism was growing steadily more serious and bloody. The murders of eleven Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972 steeled Israeli public opinion on the subject and set up an incident that would ratchet up the seriousness even further.
When hijackers seized an Air France plane in 1976 and flew it to Idi Amin’s Uganda, they were about to experience the end of an era. The plane sat on the ground at Entebbe for several days while the Israelis feigned negotiations. Then on the night of July 4, Israeli commandos landed secretly at a remote section of the airport. They killed the terrorists, released the hostages, and flew them 3000 miles back to Israel, with only one soldier and four hostages killed.
The next decade would see terrorist incidents becoming more violent and less effective as civilized nations all over the world became increasingly intolerant with the tactic. Israeli security measures and counter-terrorism activity transformed the showboat business of high-profile terrorism into a deadly-serious game that the Palestinians could not hope to win.
Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 forced Arafat to flee in a humiliating negotiated exile and the PLO’s ability to mount wide-scale attacks was broken. In 1986, Reagan launched an unprecedented airstrike on Libya in response to a Libyan-sponsored terrorist bombing in Berlin. His comment on the attack sent a crucial message – “if necessary we shall do it again.” The strike put a chill on state-sponsored terror as perpetrator nations began to recognize that the Soviets could not protect them from retribution.
Up to that point in history, modern terrorism remained the preserve of leftist, anti-imperial resistance forces. And yes, that included both the Irish and the early Zionists Israelis. Terrorism had become a common weapon in the Cold War arsenal from Djakarta to Dublin. But events in the ’80’s would change that dynamic, creating the nihilistic, largely apolitical, slaughterhouse terrorism that we are fighting today.
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