War on Terrorism


terrorism, the threat or use of violence, often against the civilian population, to achieve political or social ends, to intimidate opponents, or to publicize grievances. The term dates from the Reign of Terror (1793–94) in the French Revolution but has taken on additional meaning in the 20th cent. Terrorism involves activities such as assassinations, bombings, random killings, and hijackings. Used for political, not military, purposes, and most typically by groups too weak to mount open assaults, it is a modern tool of the alienated, and its psychological impact on the public has increased because of extensive coverage by the media. Political terrorism also may be part of a government campaign to eliminate the opposition, as under Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, and others, or may be part of a revolutionary effort to overthrow a regime. Terrorist attacks also are now a common tactic in guerrilla warfare. Governments find attacks by terrorist groups difficult to prevent; international agreements to tighten borders or return terrorists for trial may offer some deterrence.

Terrorism reaches back to ancient Greece and has occurred throughout history. Terrorism by radicals (of both the left and right) and by nationalists became widespread after World War II. Since the late 20th cent. acts of terrorism have been associated with the Italian Red Brigades, the Irish Republican Army, the Palestine Liberation Organization, Peru's Shining Path, Sri Lanka's Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the Weathermen and some members of U.S. "militia" organizations, among many groups. Religiously inspired terrrorism has also occurred, such as that of extremist Christian opponents of abortion in the United States; of extremist Muslims associated with Hamas, Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda, and other organizations; of extremist Sikhs in India; and of Japan's Aum Shinrikyo, who released nerve gas in Tokyo's subway system (1995).

In 1999 the UN Security Council unanimously called for better international cooperation in fighting terrorism and asked governments not to aid terrorists. The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by Al Qaeda on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon—the most devastating terrorist attacks in history—prompted calls by U.S. political leaders for a world "war on terrorism." Although the U.S. effort to destroy Al Qaeda and overthrow the Afghani government that hosted it was initially successful, terrorism is not a movement but a tactic used by a wide variety of groups, some of which are regarded (and supported) as "freedom fighters" in various countries or by various peoples. So-called state-sponsored terrorism, in which governments provide support or protection to terrorist groups that carry out proxy attacks against other countries, also complicates international efforts to end terror attacks, but financial sanctions have been placed by many countries on organizations that directly or indirectly support terrorists. The 2001 bioterror attacks in which anthrax spores were mailed to various U.S. media and government offices may not be linked to the events of September 11, but they raised specter of biological and chemical terrorism and revealed the difficulty of dealing with such attacks.

See B. Hoffman, Inside Terrorism (1998); M. Carr, The Infernal Machine: A History of Terrorism (2007); S. Nathanson, Terrorism and the Ethics of War (2010); M. A. Miller, The Foundations of Modern Terrorism (2013).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

The War on Terror: Where We Have Been, Are, and Should Be Going
Aronofsky, David.
Denver Journal of International Law and Policy, Vol. 40, No. 1-3, Winter 2011
Taking Liberties: The War on Terror and the Erosion of American Democracy
Susan N. Herman.
Oxford University Press, 2011
Containment: Rebuilding a Strategy against Global Terror
Ian Shapiro.
Princeton University Press, 2007
The Real Price of War: How You Pay for the War on Terror
Joshua S. Goldstein.
New York University Press, 2004
The Rise and Fall of al-Qaeda
Fawaz A. Gerges.
Oxford University Press, 2011
Mission Accomplished? on May 2, Navy SEALs Killed Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan. TAC Asks Six Foreign-Policy Experts to Consider the Implications for the War on Terror
Bacevich, Andrew J.
The American Conservative, Vol. 10, No. 7, July 2011
Cultural Messaging in the U.S. War on Terrorism: A Performative Approach to Security
Polly Sylvia.
LFB Scholarly, 2013
Introductory Essay: International Law Implications of the United States' "War on Terror"
Nanda, Ved P.
Denver Journal of International Law and Policy, Vol. 37, No. 4, Fall 2009
Illusions in Truth Seeking: The Perils of Interrogation and Torture in the War on Terror
Welch, Michael.
Social Justice, Vol. 37, No. 2-3, Summer-Fall 2010
Rethinking Global Security: Media, Popular Culture, and the "War on Terror"
Andrew Martin; Patrice Petro.
Rutgers University Press, 2006
Scapegoats of September 11th: Hate Crimes and State Crimes in the War on Terror
Michael Welch.
Rutgers University Press, 2006
The New American Imperialism: Bush's War on Terror and Blood for Oil
Vassilis K. Fouskas; Bülent Gökay.
Praeger Security International, 2005
The "War on Terror" Narrative: Discourse and Intertextuality in the Construction and Contestation of Sociopolitical Reality
Adam Hodges.
Oxford University Press, 2011
Analysing the Discourse of the 'War on Terror' and Its Workings of Power
Noor, Farish A.
Human Architecture, Vol. 8, No. 2, Fall 2010
What Is the War on Terror? Framing through the Eyes of Journalists
Lewis, Seth C.; Reese, Stephen D.
Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Vol. 86, No. 1, Spring 2009
Terror and the Politics of Containment: Analysing the Discourse of the 'War on Terror' and Its Workings of Power
Noor, Farish A.
Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge, Vol. 8, No. 2, Fall 2010
The War on Terror and International Human Rights: Does Europe Get It Right?
Aronofsky, David; Cooper, Matthew.
Denver Journal of International Law and Policy, Vol. 37, No. 4, Fall 2009
Can a War against Terror Be Just? or, What Is Just War Good For?
Bell, Daniel M., Jr.
Cross Currents, Vol. 56, No. 1, Spring 2006
The War on Terrorism and the Modern Relevance of the Congressional Power to "Declare War"
Turner, Robert F.
Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, Vol. 25, No. 2, Spring 2002
American Terrorism Trials: Prosecutorial and Defense Strategies
Christopher A. Shields.
LFB Scholarly, 2012
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