Terrorism is an indispensable component of people’s lives. Terrorism has already become a convenient way to achieve the desired political objectives. Technologies, globalization and sophisticated strategies change the nature of terrorism; but does it differ from the terrorism as it was many centuries ago? This is the question to be answered in this paper. The paper includes a brief definition of terrorism and the context in which it evolved. The main features of the old terrorism and new terrorism are described. The paper shows that, despite the dramatic changes in the nature of terrorism, its main features and goals are still the same.

Old versus New Terrorism: The Power of Continuity

Terrorism remains one of the central objects of professional and theoretical discussion. Unfortunately, much of what was written and said about terrorism ignores the historical perspective. A historical approach to the analysis of terrorism and its evolution result in two erroneous notions: first, many people believe that the degree of modern terrorism makes it overtly different from the so-called old terrorism; second, Al-Qaeda is often claimed to be an entirely new phenomenon (Mockaitis, 2008). In reality, the connections, similarities and distinctions between the historical and the new terrorism are much more complicated. Despite the rapid advancement of technologies, the Internet, urbanization and globalization, present day terrorism builds on the successes and achievements of earlier terrorist organizations, their approaches, methods and mistakes. Despite the emergence of new forms, terrorism retains most of the features of historical terrorism, with a strict hierarchical organization, well-allocated resources, sophisticated strategy and the goal of causing mass casualties to achieve well-defined political objectives.

Terrorism: Defining the Phenomenon

Terrorism remains one of the most popular subjects of professional analysis, but difficulties with defining the scope and boundaries of modern terrorism continue to persist. Garrison (2003) suggests that “terrorism is the use of violence to create fear in the larger audience in order to create change in that larger audience” (p.40). Although reasons for using terrorism may vary, the desired effect of public fear, terror and panic is the main factor that distinguishes terrorism from other acts of warfare. Unlike wars and military conflicts, terrorism always involves violence against innocent people and noncombatant targets (Garrison, 2003). Therefore, terrorism is always a serious violation of domestic and international law.

No matter how defined, terrorism is often claimed to be an entirely new phenomenon. The 1990s are believed to have given a rise to ‘new’ terrorism that involves different aims, tactics, motivations and actions compared to the so-called ‘historical’ terrorism (Spencer, 2006). In reality, a brief historical analysis suggests that, despite the novelty of certain terrorist forms and structures, the terrorism phenomenon remains mostly unchanged. This being said, understanding the differences and continuities between the historical and new terrorism requires considering it within the given historical context (Mockaitis, 2008). Through the prism of history, the change and continuity of historical and new terrorism become easily recognizable. Such historical analysis has the potential to reveal the patterns and trends in the evolution of terrorism and the fundamental tensions between its new and old forms.

‘Historical Terrorism’ and ‘New Terrorism’: Looking Back into the Future

There is a growing consensus that terrorism is a relatively new instrument of achieving political objectives. In reality, the history of terrorism dates back to at least 2000 years ago (Garrison, 2003). Long before Al-Qaeda, states and empires developed terrorist groups to intimidate their enemies and move towards their political objectives (Mockaitis, 2008). Historical terrorism was founded on political and secular motives and was a rational response to the political and territorial tensions among various national and sub-state groups (Spencer, 2006). More often than not, historical violence was claimed to be proportionate in intensity and scope to the political and territorial objectives pursued by terrorist groups (Spencer, 2006). Historical terrorism was associated with state support and even sponsorship, although states’ involvement in terrorism requires further analysis (Spencer, 2006). Old terrorist groups had a clear hierarchical structure and well-developed lines of command (Spencer, 2006).

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At the end of the 20th-the beginning of the 21st centuries, everything changed. Terrorism came to exemplify an entirely new form of violent fight for various political and religious objectives. Of particular prominence is the use of technologies in new terrorism and increased interdependence of geographically scattered terrorist agents. Technology is one of the most important conditioning factors of the so-called ‘new terrorism’: the development of biological, chemical and nuclear arms has resulted in huge destructive power, turning terrorists into a real danger and a threat to millions of people all over the world (Smelser, 2002). Complex technological networks have become a convenient object of terrorist attacks, making the whole society excessively vulnerable to technical disruptions (Smelser, 2002). The growing interdependence, globalization, internationalization, and urbanization of the world have become essential components of many terrorist ideologies and currently constitute a serious advantage for terrorists in their striving to access those communities which used to be inaccessible (Smelser, 2002).

However, can technology, globalization, and Al-Qaeda suffice to confirm that ‘new’ terrorism is really a new phenomenon? Is it correct to say that ‘new’ terrorism is absolutely different from the terrorism that existed for centuries in Europe and other parts of the world? Objectively, the influence of culture and technology on terrorism cannot be easily dismissed, but even in the age of the Internet and globalization terrorism has retained most of its historical features. For example, the predominantly religious character of ‘new’ terrorism has a long historical legacy that dates back to the times of the Roman rule (Mockaitis, 2008). Zealots’ attacks on their enemies, assassinations and poisoned wells are widely discussed in the contemporary literature on terrorism (Mockaitis, 2008). Religious terrorism used to be a common instrument of public attacks in India between the eighth and the nineteenth centuries (Mockaitis, 2008). When Morgan (2004) writes that “the categorical fanaticism that is apparent in terrorist organizations across a spectrum of belief systems is a major part of the change” (p.40), he also forgets about the dozens and hundreds of religious fanatics that attacked European travelers in India in the eighth-nineteenth centuries (Mockaitis, 2008). Even with all religious elements considered, contemporary terrorism continues to rely on a sophisticated political agenda and well-defined political goals. For example, Al-Qaeda emphasizes the importance of spreading the politics of Islam and the creation of a pan-Islamic Caliphate in the Middle Eastern lands (Spencer, 2006).

In a similar vein, terrorism remains a highly structured, hierarchical phenomenon, with complex chains of command as it used to be years ago. Al-Qaeda’s hatred of Western ideologies is also rooted in the history of continuous opposition between the East and the West, as well as the legacy of the Cold War that used to be a serious ideological issue in the system of international relations in the 20th century (Halliday, 2004). Even technologies and information availability are not new to terrorists: since the 20th century, handbooks and newsletters had been used as the source of strategic and tactical advice for terrorists all over the world (Spencer, 2006). In light of these continuities, no wonder that more and more researchers start questioning the validity of the term ‘new terrorism’. History is cyclical, and so is terrorism. Despite the emergence of new technologies and forms, most of the features of historical terrorism are still present in the modern world, including a strict hierarchical organization, well-allocated resources, sophisticated strategy and the goal of causing mass casualties to meet well-defined political objectives.

Terrorism is hardly a new phenomenon. The history of terrorism dates back to the beginnings of human civilization. Despite the emergence of new forms, terrorism retains most of its features, with a strict hierarchical organization, well-allocated resources, sophisticated strategy and the goal of causing mass casualties to achieve well-defined political objectives. Certainly, the Internet, globalization, communication and urbanization have greatly influenced the nature of terrorism. New technologies and weapons of mass destruction have turned terrorism into a real danger and a threat to millions of people around the world. Nevertheless, most features of contemporary terrorism have deep historical roots and deny the validity of the ‘new terrorism’ phenomenon. 

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