After Al-Qaeda: Hijackings and Suicide Bombings Didn't Start, and Won't End, with Islamists

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NEW PRESIDENT DECLARES VICTORY IN WAR ON TERROR--Patriot Act to be Repealed--Department of Homeland Security for Dissolution.

This will not be a headline in 2013, or anytime thereafter, because by its nature the War on Terror can have no end. If you are fighting a war, then you can envisage a victory in which the opposing force is destroyed. In the case of terrorism, particular movements might decline or vanish--and happily, al-Qaeda itself is on a downward trajectory--but terrorism as such is not going away.

Terrorism is a tactic, not a movement. As such, it can be deployed by states, movements, or small groups regardless of ideology. It is not synonymous with Islam, nor with Islamism. That runs contrary to the thinking of many supposed experts and media commentators, who see Islamic terrorism as the definitive form of the phenomenon. As Dennis Prager writes, "A very small percentage of Muslims are terrorists. But nearly every international terrorist is Muslim." In this view, Islamist organizations are the standard by which all terror groups must be measured, the model imitated by rivals. If terror has a history, it will be found in the Islamic past--shall we start with the medieval Assassins? Or better, just list the index entry: "Terrorism: See Jihad"?

In reality, terrorism in its modern form has a long history in the West--over a century--but not until the 1980s did Islamists play any role, and virtually never as innovators or leaders. The history of terrorism is strikingly diverse, with perpetrators of every race, creed, and color. The modern phenomenon probably begins in the 1880s with Irish bomb attacks against England and with Russian leftists and European anarchists of the 1890s pursuing their cult of the bomb.

More recently, the decade or so after World War II was an era of notable creativity, as Zionist extremists pioneered many new strategies--truck bombs directed against hotels and embassies, attacks against buses and crowded public places. For a time, Zionist groups also led the way in international terrorism, with letter-bomb attacks on British soil, the bombing of the British embassy in Rome, and plots to assassinate foreign dignitaries such as German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. The Algerian struggle of the 1950s popularized these innovations and spawned yet others.

But the golden age of terrorism occurred between 1968 and 1986. Then as now, Arab and Middle Eastern causes drove a wave of global violence, making the "Arab terrorist" as familiar a stereotype as today. Baby boomers recall the horrible regularity of waking up to hear of some new massacre of Western civilians, of kidnapping and hostage taking, and (with monotonous frequency) of attacks on airliners and transportation systems. They may remember the simultaneous hijacking and destruction of five airliners in Jordan in 1970--fortunately, without fatalities--or the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Some attacks of this era stand out even today for their sadism and indiscriminate violence. In 1972, three Japanese tourists landed at Israel's Lod Airport, where their nationality prevented them from attracting suspicion. They proved to be members of the Japanese Red Army, working in alliance with the Arab Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the PFLP. Producing automatic weapons, they slaughtered everyone they could see in the terminal--26 civilians, mainly Christian Puerto Rican pilgrims. The following year, Palestinian guerrillas attacked Rome's Fiumicino airport, throwing phosphorus grenades at an airliner and burning alive some 30 civilians. In 1974, Palestinian guerrillas killed 25 hostages in the Israeli town of Maalot. Horror was piled on horror.

The most notorious terrorist of the era was Palestinian mastermind Abu Nidal, as infamous in the 1970s and 1980s as Osama bin Laden has been in recent times. His career reached gruesome heights in the 1980s with a series of attacks that wrote the playbook for al-Qaeda. …