The History of Terrorism: From Antiquity to Al Qaeda

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The History of Terrorism: From Antiquity to Al Qaeda, edited by Gerard Chaliand and Arnaud Blin. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. 474 pp. $24.95.

The History of Terrorism: From Antiquity to Al Qaeda, edited by Gérard Chaliand and Arnaud Blin, is a worthy contribution to the literature on sub-national terrorist activity. Cast as a volume about the use of terrorism over the centuries, it contains a wealth of information in its numerous individual chapters covering subjects ranging from the first century Zealots, to anarchist groups of the 19th century, to the history of suicide operations. Especially important contributions include a revised version of Ariel Merari's seminal paper, "Terrorism as a Strategy of Insurgency" and essays by Chaliand and Blin on the numerous manifestations of terrorism throughout history and on the "modern" history of terrorism from 1968 to the present.

Yet The History of Terrorism is more than a collection of essays on significant periods in the long history of terrorist activity. The book's real goal is to place the modern threat posed by al Qaeda and related jihadist groups in historical perspective. Chaliand and Blin's argument (the two wrote eight of the seventeen chapters, including all of those designed to summarize significant trends within defined historical periods) is that the current terrorist threat differs from previous ones in that modern jihadist groups are more interested in killing as an end in itself. While this point has been made by many others, the argument that emerges from the book is that the interest in inflicting harm on others is only partly the result of the Al Qaeda network's fanatical attachment to its particular brand of Islam. Also important, but frequently overlooked, is that the nature of target selection by terrorist organizations underwent a lengthy transformation in conjunction with the rise of mass politics and the development of technologies (e.g., dynamite) that made indiscriminate killing possible. In the past, terrorist organizations focused on tyrannicide because the key to influencing politics was influencing leaders, not citizens. Technological barriers also made relatively large-scale attacks difficult. The emergence of politically influential civilian populations and the weapons capable of injuring or killing several people at once ushered in a period in which civilians, nor leaders, became the preferred targets for terrorist violence.

Chaliand and Blin's argument about the changing nature of terrorist activity echoes, but does not fully adopt, Walter Laqueuer's thesis in his widely read 1977 book, Terrorism. Whereas Laqueuer is famous for arguing that there are no historical constants when it comes to terrorism, Chaliand and Blin suggest that what has really changed are the particular tactics terrorists use to achieve their goals and the conditions under which they use them. …