Reviewing Terrorism And Old Human Civilization Criminology Essay


'Terrorism is as old as human civilization…and as new as this morning's headlines' (Randal 2009: 1). As this quote suggests, this paper will focus on discussing a much controversial phenomenon which defines our age, namely terrorism. The essay first considers the concept of terrorism and its definition. It further examines some perspectives and debates that might explicate the attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon, USA, on September 11, 2001 (hereafter 9/11) and beyond as an era of 'New Terrorism'. Whilst discussing the methods and key features that terrorists utilize in order to achieve their goals, this paper also compares the characteristics of recent terrorist attacks and those conducted prior to 9/11.

The essay will refer to research carried out by academics on potential causes of terrorism. In this regard, the notion of terrorism is weighted against Beck's thesis of risk society and the work on technical disasters from a perspective of risk, crisis and disaster management. Throughout the discussion, the possible causes that fuel terrorists will be discussed in order to support the arguments. Referring back to terrorist activities, the essay also addresses some of the problems that terrorism poses in the context of risk management. Considering that terrorism presents a serious violation of peace and the values of human dignity, this paper observes possible responses to counter-terrorism and emergencies as these might affect the core principles of democracy and human rights.

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In conclusion this essay suggests that the terrible events of 9/11 and beyond are not a wholly new phenomenon in terms of terrorism, or at least needs further consideration in order to attach the term 'new' to terrorism. Despite providing a notion that terrorism is a global threat requiring a global response, this paper suggests that one of the main problems faced in addressing terrorism lay in the lack of involvement of the public in political dialogue and economic decisions that impose risks of terrorist attacks on society.

Terrorism - Definitional issues and historical perspectives

Defining terrorism has proven to be very difficult, mainly due to the old adage of 'one mans terrorist is another mans freedom fighter' (Institute of Lifelong Learning 2009: 7-9). Simon observed at least 212 different definitions of terrorism used by 90 governments and different organizations around the globe (1994: quoted in Spencer, 2006: 3). It appears while most agree that terrorism exists, there are few who can agree on what it actually is. Indeed, controversy in defining terrorism might be best illustrated by the fact that even the United Nations Security Council failed to agree on the term. In the light of conceptual issues surrounding terrorism, the Centre of Excellence Defence Against Terrorism puts forward:

'For any discussion of terrorism, we must recognize that there will never be a universally agreed upon definition. Every country and every agency within a country has its own perspective and its own rationale for defining terrorism in its own way.'

(Freeman, 2008: 96)

However, for the purposes of this essay, despite there being no firmly agreed definition of terrorism a study of 73 definitions carried out by Weinberg, Pedahzur and Hirsch-Hoefler in 2004 concluded that:

'[t]errorism is a politically motivated tactic involving the threat or use of force or violence in which the pursuit of publicity plays a significant role.'

(Weinberg, Pedahzur and Hirsch-Hoefler, 2004: quoted in Spencer, 2006: 3)

Taking a closer look at the definition one might observe it contains some interrelated, yet key components that define terrorism. Firstly terrorism, as implied by the definition is a tactic. Therefore, as Grayling puts forward '…is not a nation, a state, an army or anything with a habitation local enough to aim a missile at. It is a philosophy' (2004: quoted in Institute for Lifelong Learning, 2009: 7-7). Other elements that mainly define the act of terrorism are:

a) Political motivation

b) Threat or act of violence; and

c) Apprehension of public attention which gives sense to the afore mentioned.

Beside or in the context of all of the three components, according to Freeman, this paper suggests also strong coercive goals to change certain decisions or policies, where the element of coerciveness often distinguish terrorism from acts of organized crime, which generally does not seek a change in policy.

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To summarize, without a threat or act of violence, political acts can barely, if ever be considered as terrorism. It is these components that distinguish terrorism not only from acts of crime but also warfare, guerrilla war, politics and anything else (Centre of Excellence Defence Against Terrorism, 2008: 96).

No matter what definition one might advocate, as the essay's opening sentence indicates the history of terrorism may be traced far back, and yet others might perceive it as having been around for only a few decades (Randal, 2009: 1). According to the House of Commons, the first appearance of terrorism dates back to the Sicarii in the first century [AD] Palestine (2001: quoted in Institute of Lifelong Learning, 2009: 7-5). The Sicarii people of Judea were used by the Roman patrician as a tool to provoke a war with the Romans. The use of daggers at close range by the Assassins willing to die in pursuit of their missions in the Middle Ages reflects the suicidal approach to terrorism seen today (Gearson, 2002: quoted in Spencer, 2006: 21). These are some of the examples that signify a long history of dissimilar groups applying similar motives and tactics in pursuit of their goals. Therefore, one might conclude, as Spencer (2006: 5) argues, that '[t]errosim as a form of political violence is by no means a new phenomenon'

In more recent times terrorists like the Irish Republican Army (IRA), Bader Meinhoff of Germany in the 1970s and ETA of Spain have craved media attention for their cause by, as the House of Commons puts forward:

'…often avoiding mass fatalities by providing warnings of bombs to allow evacuation to take place, producing property damage and publicity but avoiding losing popular appeal by killing innocent people.'

(2001: quoted in Institute for Lifelong Learning 2009: 7-5)

This type of terrorism was primarily secular in its orientation and inspiration and used violence as a means to a political end. As such, referred to by many as traditional or 'old terrorism' (Spencer, 2006: 9; Institute of Lifelong Learning, 2009: 7-5). On the other hand, these days the events of 9/11 would be foremost in the minds of the public. The Institute of Lifelong Learning (2009: 7-5) suggests the terrorism since 9/11:

'…has developed into a far more sinister form -what could be referred to as the 'New Terrorism', with the apparent promotion of religious fanaticism pitching one form or culture or civilization (Islam) against another form or culture or civilization (the "imperialist capitalist" countries of the West).'

To better understand the meaning of 'new terrorism' as described above and seen in the 9/11 attacks, one should ask what constitutes or personifies 'new' in comparison to earlier or 'old' terrorism.

The 9/11 and beyond - an era of "New Terrorism"

Many scholars and researchers advocate that the evolution of 'new terrorism' can be traced back to the mid 1990s with the occurrence of two significant events; the bombing of the World Trade Centre in New York in 1993 by the Islamic extremists hoping to cause mass civilian casualties through the destruction of the towers; and the sarin gas attack in Tokyo underground by the Aum Shinrikyo cult in 1995 in an attempt to hasten the impending apocalypse (Neumann, 2009: 2; Spencer, 2006: 9). It is argued that these events set new standards in terrorism when compared with 'old' terrorism as previously mentioned above. However, bearing the events of 9/11 in mind this paper highlights some key features that might depict a line between 'old' and 'new' era of terrorism as also some main problems in regard to management of terrorism risks.

On the morning of September 11, 2001 the United States of America was shocked by a calamitous terrorist attack carried out by nineteen hijackers taking over control of four airliners. As we know, two of them were deliberately crashed in to the World Trade Centre (WTC), one into the Pentagon and one crashed in a field in Southern Pennsylvania - apparently after passengers attempted to regain control from hijackers. Nearly 3,000 people lost their lives, more than 2,600 at the WTC including emergency responders after the towers collapsed; 125 at Pentagon and 256 in all four planes, including all 19 hijackers (The 9/11 Commission Report, 2004). Inflicted damage and disruption cost the USA many trillions of dollars (Wilkinson, 2006: 121). Unprecedented coverage by the international media services through live broadcasting of the attacks attracted the attention not only of USA citizens, but also many around the globe who watched in disbelief as events unfolded. Soon after the attacks, US president Bush placed responsibility on Osama Bin Laden (Al Qaeda) and declared a state of war against international terrorism together with partners in the later formed Global Coalition Against Terrorism (Weinberg & Eubank, 2006: 2).

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Some argue that the mass murder of innocent civilians demonstrated on 9/11 by no means presents a new turn in the history of terrorism. For supporters of the term 'new terrorism' this might to some extent sustain the argument Laqueur puts forward, that:

'the new terrorism is different in character, aiming not at clearly defined political demands but at the destruction of society and the elimination of large sections of the populations.'

(1999: quoted in Spencer, 2006: 9)

Indeed, considering the above described 'old terrorism' avoiding mass fatalities, and referring to RAND Terrorism Incident Database (Spencer, 2006: 28-29), the casualties of 9/11 vastly surpassed any single terrorism incident from the past.

The high fatality rate of 9/11 can be largely prescribed to the fact that no warning was issued prior the attacks. The 9/11 Commission Report (2004: xv) outlines: 'September 11, 2001, was a day of unprecedented shock and suffering in the history of the United States. The nation was unprepared.' The tactic that al Qaeda chose was unambiguously the tactic of surprise, giving little, if any possibility to evacuate occupied buildings selected as targets. This contravenes the 'old' terrorist tactics, explicitly illustrated in the cases of London bombings of the 1990s, in outlined examples by the Institute of Lifelong Learning (2009: 9-8, 12), the St Mary Axe bomb in 1992 and the Bishopsgate bomb in 1993. In both cases, warnings - however effective were given by the IRA prior to the detonation of large vehicle borne devices, whether sufficient or not the police and emergency services were able to an extent evacuate the areas thereby limiting the loss of life and reducing damage to property through secondary sources such as fire and water.

Another feature that characterizes 'new terrorism' and might illustrate the causes for perpetrating the tragic events of 9/11 by al Qaeda is one of religious fanaticism frequently associated with Islamic fundamentalism and the increasing willingness to use excessive indiscriminate violence, where the potential use of weapons of mass destruction is considered as real and fundamental threat (Spencer, 2006: 9, 10). Antonio Elorza (in Juergensmeyer, 2005: 28) maintains that in particular for al Qaeda and other Islamic groups the 'pre-eminence of the religious factor is undeniable'. The 9/11 Commission Report puts forward the message of Osama Bin Laden in 2002, justifying the attacks by blaming Americans for all conflicts involving Muslims, for their godlessness and immorality, calling the Americans to abandon the Middle East and to convert to Islam. Noncompliance would result in a war with Islamic nation, a nation (the report quotes) 'that all al Qaeda leader's said 'desires death more than you desire life'' (The 9/11 Commission Report, 2004: 51-52).

Beside the sheer magnitude of 9/11, the important characteristic of suicide terrorism, a culture of martyrdom where extreme acts of violence are justified by religious authority (Post, 2005: 8) can be displayed. One might suggest the 19 hijackers were undoubtedly willing to give their lives in sacrifice of their higher goals, in comparison with 'old" terrorism which usually had an escape plan available, can support the argument above.

In addition to 9/11 one might also refer to at least two terrorist attacks perpetrated after 9/11 with apparently similar characteristics; the suicide terrorist attack of four trains in Madrid in 2004 that claimed the lives of 191 and wounded 1,841; and 7/7 London bombing of the public transportation system in 2005 which killed 52 people and injured nearly 800. Both attacks were motivated by the fact that the UK and Spain were supporting the USA in the 'War on Terror" (Friesen, 2007). Despite the magnitude of these two events they were not comparable to the carnage of 9/11. However, both attacks were the first of their kind in Western Europe, and were characterized by similar motivations and tactics of surprise as those of 9/11.

Lessons learnt from the 9/11 Commission Report (2004: xvi) showed that the enemy is sophisticated, disciplined, patient and lethal. An important characteristic of "new" terrorism may be the availability of new technologies that were previously unavailable to terrorist groups of the past. Third world terrorists are also taking advantage of western technologies and their liberal freedoms and way of life (Crenshaw, 2005: 13). As the Institute of Lifelong Learning (2009: 9-6) suggests the main change in recent years is the advanced technology available to terrorist, with potential to cause far larger destruction than technology of the past, further explored bellow.

Terrorism - associated problems in management of risks

Terrorism presents an extremely complex and diverse phenomenon and should be considered in the context of political, historical, cultural, economic, ideological and religious perspective (Post, 2005: 7). Although it is beyond the scope of this essay to examine all perspectives suggested, some major concerns are addressed bellow.

Madrid 2004, London 7/7 and USA 9/11 were above all disastrous events, devastating both the public and private sector. It is believed that in pursuit of publicity, these terrorist attacks created overwhelming terror, fear and changed the perception of terrorism in the eyes of the global population. Trust in institutions responsible for detecting and preventing terrorist attacks was shattered and people recognized that existing anti-terrorist policies and emergency plans often do not suffice and address current terrorist threats. Governments, in particular those involved in the war on terror realized that new methods are needed to respond to terrorism risks and reduce and prevent the possibility of future terrorist attacks.

In any liberal democracy the criminal justice system presents the main framework for tackling terrorism (Institute of Lifelong Learning, 2009: 7-20). While the military is considered by governments to be one of the services that respond to emergencies, it will usually be activated as a last resort when a situation has gone beyond the capabilities of the civilian police. Therefore, the civilian police should be seen as the main agency responsible for prevention and detection of terrorist crime (Wilkinson, 2005: quoted in Institute of Life Long Learning, 2009: 7-20).

An important problem facing the police today in their attempt to manage terrorist activity is the loose, hierarchical structure that characterizes the organizational setup of modern terrorist groups (radical Islamic in particular). As some believe, in the lack of a state sponsors terrorist group today's factions operate mainly on part time basis and do not drop out of society totally and come together only to conduct their action and than disband (Spencer, 2009:11). Loose networked and hierarchical structure, where communication with leadership is possible but not fundamental, provides more space to manoeuvre and gives potential to adapt and react more easily to different situations. Such organizational setting is considered much more problematic to identify and penetrate than traditional hierarchical structure (Spencer, 2009; 12).

In addition to the above, a problem of 'new terrorism' might be observed in the process of modernization and globalization. As Crenshaw (2005: 15) comments that '[a]dvances in technology enhance [terrorist] mobility and their ability to communicate internally and externally. They take advantage of the weakness of state borders and the sheer volume of travel'. O'Brien in a similar vein observes that 'new terrorism' exploits the increase of intercontinental flight connection and the poor customs and immigration control in many countries to move around the globe (2003: quoted in Spencer, 2009: 12).

One of the problems faced by authorities today is the concept of the "home grown" terrorist or "clear skins" (Carlile, 2005: quoted in Institute of Lifelong Learning, 2009: 7-21) . This was apparent on the London 7/7 bombing because they were of British nationality - both born and/or resident in the UK. Due to the absence of criminal records and intelligence on these persons they were harder to detect, the problem of identifying terrorist of 9/11 might be seen in the argument above. The 9/11 Commission Report (2004) points out for 19 hijackers that border security agencies failed to recognize false statements of visa applications and passports manipulated in a fraudulent manner when entering the states.

Although globalization provides benefits to wider population, there is little doubt that to less developed countries it has had a substantial negative effect (Sassen, 2002: quoted in Institute of Lifelong Learning, 2009: 7-15). Globalization and the need to compete for ideas on a global scale feels humiliating and terrorists often use this feeling of humiliation among potential recruits (Stern, 2005: 37). Crenshaw (2005: 15) comments '[p]rolonged civil conflict and instability produce waves of refugees and immigrants who form alienated diasporas in which terrorist groups may find shelter. Economic weakness and political repression may also contribute to immigration. Dissatisfaction with local conditions is displaced onto the international system.' Liberality of laws of asylum and extradition and eased movements across the borders, predominantly characteristic of western democracies, out-screening terrorists maintains extremely difficult problem to be managed.

The shock of unprecedented loss of 9/11, caused by precisely planned and created through multiple scenarios revealed ineffectiveness of existing emergency plans. Damage inflicted to world wide insurance community was considered worst ever loss. The 9/11 Commission Report - Executive Summary (2004: 2) suggests that despite the attacks were a shock, they should not have come as a surprise. Plenty warnings were given by Islamic terrorists that they meant to kill Americans indiscriminately and in large numbers since the mid 1990's. Therefore, it can be argued that the hazard was ignored and the risk accepted, though not sufficiently quantified.

The basic assumption in risk quantification is that the frequency of occurred events in the past can be used to predict or measure the probability of their occurrence in the future (Institute of Lifelong Learning 2009: 5-15). However, the lack of available data and dynamic uncertainty make mathematical evaluation of probability of terrorism extremely complex, and more often than not, impossible (Kerjan, 2005: 31). As observed immediately after the attacks of 9/11, the loss potential of a single event was so enormous that overwhelmed entire insurance industry (Frenkel et. al., 2005: 332, 333). Despite open to many debates, for insurance of catastrophic risks such as terrorism, the state interventions in financing such risks seems to be of predominant importance in terms to enable an adequate recovery.

According to the examples so far it is apparent that terrorism presents a threat of major untoward incidents and should be considered from a holistic perspective of RCDM. In order to minimize the risk and effects of such incidents, three main objectives are suggested by the Institute of Lifelong Learning (2009: 8-5); a) minimisation of risk, b) protecting people and the environment, and c) ensuring the survival of the organisation.

A modern governmental approaches to tackle these objectives is required and may be best observed in response to civil protection or emergency or contingency planning in the Civil Contingency Act 2004 (hereafter CCA 2004), adopted by the UK government. Indeed, the act in two parts provides flexible statutory framework for integrated approach of emergency responders and determines the measures that might be necessary to deal with the effects of the most serious emergencies (Institute of Lifelong Learning, 2009: 1 - 13-15). However, the modernization and development of terrorist tactics also raise concerns about an appropriate counter-terrorism response (or vice-versa). As Clive & Broderick (2006: 2.77) puts forward:

'[a]s befits the notion of reflexivity in the risk society, legislation about risk carries risk - the danger of excessive or inappropriate invocation'.

While CCA 2004 attempts to provide a well defined, comprehensive and generic risk management regime (Clive & Broderick, 2006: 1.38), also some major concerns have been raised in regard to grave powers the act may invoke. The flexibility of definition of emergencies provides effective respond to unforeseen events. However, as Clive & Broderick (2006: 3.34) puts forward it also allows 'ambiguity and misinterpretation of events and the abuse of powers for political convenience rather than public protection.'

The act by no doubts possesses a potential of huge step into human rights. A generic problem in this vein was perhaps best illustrated by Lord Hoffman (quoted in Clive & Broderick 2006: 6.34), who despite inconsistency of views stated:

'Terrorist violence, serious as it is, does not threaten our institutions of government or our existence as a civil community….The real threat to the life of the nation, in the sense of a people living in accordance with its traditional laws and political values, comes not from terrorism but laws such as these. That is the true measure what terrorism may achieve. It is for Parliament to decide whether to give terrorists such a victory.'

According to Beck (1992a: quoted in Institute of Lifelong Learning, 2009: 3-6) we live in a 'Risk Society' where the 'internal risks are generated by the process of modernization which try to control them' (Beck, 1992: quoted in Clive & Broderick, 2006: 1.07). Pierre and Peters comment that dealing with risk in late modern society is adopted as a political agenda in an era when government is readily depicted 'not as solution to societal problems but instead as the very root and cause of these problems (2000: quoted in Clive & Broderick, 2006: 1.27). While Beck in his work refers mainly to risk generated by development of high technology as that of nuclear, he sees social production of risk is predominant characteristic of the advanced modernity or so called 'Risk Society'.

Considering problem of terrorism from the perspective of underlying causes one might argue that terrorism risks befit the notion of risk being socially produced, or imposed by certain political decisions. Therefore, when discussing terrorist risks one should also ask, as Reader (Juergensmeyer, 2005: 29) puts forward: 'when talking of acts of religious violence or terror the question is… what combinations or factors brought them around to thinking that violence and terror were the only feasible - and, in their view, a rational, logical or religious response - at this particular time?' Gurr (2005: 20) suggests that '[r]adicalization and a wave of terrorist attacks also may result from a specific hostile event that calls for revenge', and provides the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 as one of the examples.

Allowing for terrorism acts to be considered in the wider context of RCDM it can be argued that large scale terrorism incidents, as 'major disasters can be recognized fundamentally as system failures' (Borodzicz, 1996: 132). Rarely disasters can be ascribed to one single cause and it is often suggested that warning signals are ignored by those involved prior to the occurrence. (Toft & Reynolds, 2005:4). Such an argument can be clearly observed for the attacks of 9/11 where several warnings were given by Islamic terrorists in their attention to produce violent harms to the Americans. The same can be argued for the London 7/7 bombing where in April 2005, Osama Bin Laden in his addressing to people of Europe made a public offer to cease attacks against any European state that decides not to attack Muslims or intervene in their affairs, including participation in 'the American conspiracy against the great Islamic world' (Lawrence, 2005: 233).

It needs to be underlined that this paper firmly rejects acceptance of any violence in pursuit of whatever cause. However, it can be argued that to certain extent the risks of these attacks, or those that might occur in the future could have been anticipated, if not prevented. While such an argument can be open to many controversies it is evident that civil societies might be exposed to involuntary risks, controlled by the governments and beyond personal control (Starr, 1969: quoted in Institute of Lifelong Learning, 2009: 2-9). Possible misuse of intelligence information can create false illusions of threat (Clive & Broderick, 2006: 5.19) and if treated with high level of non-transparency as in the case of alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, public or civil defence has little possibility to influence political decisions that might result in increase of terrorism risk.


The history of terrorism indicates that acts of violence for various, political as well as religious motives have been applied since time in memorial. Therefore, it can be argued that terrorism is not a wholly 'new' phenomenon and the events of 9/11 and beyond do not foretell an era of 'new terrorism'. Even if an era of today's terrorism might be termed as 'new', it is difficult to show where the 'old' era ends and 'new' starts. Nevertheless, it is argued that certain new characteristics illustrated in the terrorist events above do differ from those of the past. As the continuous process of modernization provides increasingly advanced technology, the same modernization process provides also plenty of advantages for terrorist to use ever more complex and sophisticated technologies in furtherance of their goals. The world is evolving; therefore we should expect that terrorism do the same.

Therefore, it can be argued that the fundamental problem of terrorism risk management is not preparedness or mitigation, but rather identification of root causes and management of those. It seems evident that decisions of addressing terrorism risks in the way of, e.g. withdrawal from military interventions in Muslim countries might be constrained by different political and economic interests. However, it also appears that the main recipients of terror, civil society- victims and survivors, are mainly excluded from decisions that impose involuntary risk and increase their vulnerability. As terrorism presents a major threat to civil liberties, this paper argues the main problem of terrorism risk management is insufficient involvement of civil society in decisions that might create risk of future terrorist attacks.