WALTER LAQUEUR is Chairman of the International Research Council at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Terrorism promises to continue for years to come as the prevalent mode of conflict--sometimes in its "pure" form, sometimes within the framework of civil war or general lawlessness. Nonetheless, much rethinking must occur since the terrorist acts of the past do not necessarily offer a reliable guide for the future. Only an examination of the changing face of terrorism and an analysis of current trends can offer valuable insights into future outbreaks. For a long time, conventional wisdom held that terrorists were idealistic, courageous young patriots and social revolutionaries driven to desperate actions by intolerable conditions, oppression, and tyranny. This assessment was not entirely wrong; it was buttressed by the existence of oppression and social conflicts to which violence seemed the only effective response.
Terrorism in Transition
While some terrorists are still patriots and genuine revolutionaries, this pattern is no longer typical. Any survey of the world map of terrorism--the parts of the world where the most casualties occur--reveals the emergence of other features. It reveals not only growing fanaticism but also the growth of indiscriminate murder, the desire to exercise power, and sheer bloodlust.
For many years, assessments of terrorism overrated the role of ideology as an underlying motive. Once considered the all-important factor in terrorist acts, ideology now takes second billing. Aggressive and militant individuals, not activists, tend to be those most convinced of the righteousness of their cause. For example, the investigation into the 1997 murders of foreign tourists at Luxor, Egypt, established that the six Islamic perpetrators were not poor, desperate, or deeply religious, but merely misanthropic students from middle-class families eager to find an outlet for their aggression. Wordsworth once wrote about the "motive hunting of a motiveless malignity," and the truth of his words has been ignored for too long. In many instances, a leftist terrorist could easily have turned to the extreme right or to some sectarian group, but for some biographical accident or outside influence. Carlos the Jackal was a precursor of this type, as were the Afghani hired guns now involved in terrorism from Algeria and Bosnia to the Philippines.
This emerging pattern of a new breed of terrorism did not fit the stereotypic assumptions of the earlier age, which held that evil was banal, jihad was an Islamic synonym for the Salvation Army, and all criminals were sick people who needed medical attention. Evil and malignancy were used infrequently, and aggression was considered the consequence of an unhappy, deprived childhood or some other unfortunate social circumstance. In this pluralist world, the grievances of terrorists seemed to some as legitimate and as deserving of a hearing as all others. This argument had its seductions, especially if one happened to live thousands of miles away from the site of bloodshed.
More recently, perceptions of human nature have become more pessimistic. Gaining ground are convictions that genes can predispose people to aggressive behavior, that few truly peaceful societies exist, that even primitive man often disemboweled his victims and regarded outsiders as enemies. In effect, evil has become a genetic problem against which civilization has struggled in vain. Human beings have fought an uphill battle to sublimate this insidious instinct and to replace it with the gospel of love, or at least of peaceful coexistence.
Given this orientation, conventional terrorism is becoming increasingly difficult to justify. St. Thomas once asked whether it was always sinful to wage war, and based on earlier authorities, he concluded that it was not, given three preconditions: the authority of the sovereign (for private individuals had no business declaring war); a just cause; and a rightful intention (namely, the advancement of good or the avoidance of evil). …