In addition to commenting on post-Cold War terrorism in general, Prof. Wilkinson puts forth some very specific views on terrorism in the Middle East, threats from the extreme right, and issue-specific terrorism as well. He concludes with five principles “which have the best track record in reducing terrorism”.

Disclaimer: Publication of an article in the COMMENTARY series does not imply CSIS authentication of the information nor CSIS endorsement of the author’s views.

Despite the end of the Cold War and the faltering beginnings of a peace process in the Middle East, terrorism still remains a serious threat in many countries, not surprisingly, given that the underlying causes of the bitter ethnic and religious struggles which spawn terrorism pre-dated the Cold War, and most of these conflicts remain unresolved.

While the former Soviet Union sponsored terrorism on an opportunistic basis, the idea that all international terrorism was concerted by the KGB during the Cold War is clearly an over-simplification. The overthrow of the communist dictatorships did remove an important cluster of state sponsors of terrorism. However, one of the main attractions of terrorism to its perpetrators is that it is a low-cost but potentially high-yield weapon, and it is generally possible to find weapons and cash from alternative sources, including militant supporters and sympathizers in your own home base and those living and working in prosperous countries in the West, as well as from racketeering, extortion and other forms of criminal activity, and in some cases, alternative state sponsors. Moreover, the end of the Cold War has also had a major negative effect on political violence: the removal of communist one-party rule has unleashed numerous long-suppressed, bitter ethnic conflicts.


In Western Europe it is the historic separatisms of Irish republicanism in Northern Ireland and Basque nationalism in Spain that have spawned the most lethal and protracted terrorism. In Northern Ireland the IRA and Loyalist cease-fires are still holding, and the British and Irish governments and the Social Democratic and Labour Party leader, John Hume, deserve credit for their efforts towards peace. But the cease-fire is still extremely fragile, and it is going to be very difficult indeed to convert it into a lasting and honourable peace. The declared objectives of IRA/Sinn Fein and the Unionists are as far apart as ever, and the terrorist para-militaries still have their stocks of weapons and explosives. In Spain ETA has been greatly weakened by improved Franco-Spanish police co-operation, but the terrorists show no signs of giving up.


In the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe the removal of communist dictatorship has taken the lid off many simmering ethnic rivalries and hatreds. The most horrific example of mass terror being used as weapon is Bosnia. Less well-known in the West are the conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh and Georgia. The recent attempt by the Russian Army to suppress Chechen separatism is a dramatic reminder that the Russian Federation itself is full of ethnic groups that bitterly reject Moscow’s right to rule them.


The most tragic examples of conflicts in which mass terror has been used are to be found in Africa. In Rwanda it has been seen on a genocidal scale, causing hundreds of thousands to flee or to face massacre at the hands of their tribal enemies. Typically, ethnic wars of this kind are waged by armed militias and are marked by extreme savagery towards the civilian population, including the policy of “ethnic cleansing” to terrorize whole sectors of the civilian population into fleeing from their homes, and the use of massacre, rape and torture as weapons of war.

Ethnic conflict is the predominant motivation of political violence in the post-Cold War era. It is important to recognize that the concept of the “security dilemma”, conventionally applied by realists solely to relations between states, applies equally well to the rivalries of ethnic groups. When one group looks at its neighbours and decides to enhance its weapons and security forces in the name of self-defence of the group, neighbours are likely to see such moves as a threat to their own security, and will set in train the enhancement of their own power, thus very probably triggering the conflict they sought to avoid.

International spillover of such conflicts in the form of terrorist attacks in other countries will vary according to political and strategic circumstances. Where an ethnic group believes it may be in danger of being suppressed or driven out of its base area, and especially when it has militant supporters with access to weapons and explosives based in foreign countries, an international terrorist campaign is far more likely. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries ethnic conflicts in the Balkans did generate a considerable amount of “spillover” terrorism. Sikh, Tamil and Kashmiri extremists have also developed a substantial overseas infrastructure for terrorism and its logistic support. Conflicts in the Caucasus and in Central and Southern Africa, though highly lethal and protracted, have not shown these tendencies.


The area of conflict which has generated the most significant and ruthless spillover of terrorist violence since 1968 is, of course, the Middle East. This may seem surprising in view of the astonishing breakthrough in negotiations between Israel and the PLO, the agreement on the Declaration of Principles in September 1993, the agreement between Israel and Jordan, and the continuing efforts by Israel and Syria, encouraged by the USA, to resolve the prolonged dispute over the Golan Heights. Nonetheless, if one defines the Middle East as including Algeria and Turkey, both of which have spawned conflicts involving considerable terrorist violence, including some international spillover, this region remains the most dangerous source of terrorist challenges to the wider international community, accounting for over 21% of all international terrorist incidents worldwide in 1992, and over 23% in 1993.

Middle East Terrorism

There are four basic motivations for terrorism in the Middle East.

1. Bitter opposition by Rejectionist Palestinian groups to the agreement between Mr. Arafat and the Israeli government. These groups see Arafat as a traitor who has betrayed the cause of Palestinian self-determination. Moreover, the dominant hard-line opposition to Arafat and Israel now comes not from the old secular Marxist revolutionary groups like George Habash’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, but from the Islamic fundamentalist movements — Hamas and Islamic Jihad — driven by religious fanaticism as well as ethnic hatred for Israel. The Palestinian Islamic groups are rapidly winning mass support in the Occupied Territories at Mr. Arafat’s expense. All indications are that they are likely to intensify their use of terrorism against Israeli targets within the Territories and within Israel’s own borders, as the Peace Process moves forward, in a desperate effort to derail it. Most of this terrorism is likely to be mounted in Israel and the West Bank. But the recent bombings in Buenos Aires and London against Israeli and Jewish community targets, involving a massive loss of life in the case of the Buenos Aires attacks, provide tragic evidence that the Islamic fundamentalist Rejectionists, their main state sponsor, Iran, and their militant sympathizers abroad are willing and able to wage international terrorism in an effort to destroy the peace process.

2. In almost every Moslem country there are groups of extreme Islamic fundamentalists, inspired and actively encouraged by the Islamic revolutionary régime in Iran, ready to wage Jihad against pro-western Arab régimes, with the aim of setting up Islamic republics in their place. As demonstrated by the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) and the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) in Algeria and the Islamic Group in Egypt, these groups are not confined to Shia populations. The primary targets of these groups’ campaigns are the incumbent régimes and their military, police and officials and the intellectuals identified with the régime.

3. However, the Islamic fundamentalist challenge is not directed solely at incumbent régimes in the Moslem world. Frequently they widen their range of targets to include westerners within their country. For example, the GIA in Algeria has deliberately targeted French citizens in Algeria since September 1993, because they allege that France is providing covert support and assistance to the Algerian military régime, and is historically responsible for the situation in Algeria. But, as the GIA’s hijack of the Air France Airbus A300 on Christmas Eve 1994 demonstrates, the Islamic terrorist groups are also prepared to take their terrorist war to France itself. There is little doubt that the terrorists fully intended to crash the Airbus over Paris. France is, of course, not the only foreign target of such groups. All these groups are bitterly anti-American and hostile to all the Western countries.

There is a further highly dangerous aspect to the threat of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism against Western targets. The findings of the FBI and the judiciary in America indicate that the group responsible for blowing up the World Trade Centre building in February 1993 was operating as a type of independent or freelance group of Islamic fundamentalists, inspired and encouraged by their spiritual mentor, Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, but not directly controlled by a state sponsor or other known major terrorist player. “Amateur” or “freelance” groups of this type pose a particularly difficult problem for the intelligence and police agencies, as they have no known political identity, no identifiable organizational and communications infrastructure and no previous track record. Moreover, as they are able to recruit fanatical members from the expatriate community, including those who have lived and worked in the host country for some time, the possibility exists of many such groups emerging spontaneously in western countries with substantial Moslem minority populations, such as the USA, Canada, France, Britain, Germany and Australia.

4. The Middle East is also the major region of state sponsors and supporters of terrorism: Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan and Libya. The position of the USA as the sole remaining superpower and the desire of President Assad of Syria to improve relations with America to gain better diplomatic leverage in the Middle East peace process have undoubtedly helped to mute Syria’s terrorist efforts for the time being. But Damascus has not discarded this weapon: it is still giving safe haven to a variety of groups which it might be useful to unleash at some future time. Meanwhile, Iran remains far and away the most important state sponsor. As mentioned above, it is the leading sponsor of Islamic and Palestinian Rejectionist groups, and provides them with weapons, funds, training and intelligence. Nor are their sponsorship activities confined to the Middle East and Western Europe. They have been extremely active in Pakistan and Turkey, for example, and have been linked to the car bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires on 17 March 1992, in which 29 people were killed and 242 injured. In addition to using terrorism as a weapon to back Islamic fundamentalism and Palestinian Rejectionism, Iran has over a considerable period targeted Iranian dissidents abroad. Iranian operations have been linked to the murders of dissidents in France, Germany and Switzerland.

The Iranian régime also continues to uphold the fatwa, issued by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, condemning Salman Rushdie to death for his alleged blasphemy against Islam in his book The Satanic Verses. A government-backed Iranian foundation has offered a reward of $2 million for the killing of Rushdie. Meanwhile attacks on publishers, translators and bookshops involved in disseminating Rushdie’s works continue, and it would be foolish to assume that any country is immune from attempts to carry out such threats.

Iraq remains potentially the most dangerous of the other state sponsors, though its efforts to persuade the international community to lift UN sanctions against Iraq and its preoccupation with internal reconstruction in the wake of the Gulf War have recently muted its activities in this direction.

Demise of left-wing terrorism

Extreme left ideological motivation for terrorism has undergone an almost complete eclipse in Europe. The West German authorities had already broken the back of the Red Army Faction by the mid- 1980s; the Italians have totally defeated the Red Brigades; and France and Belgium suppressed Direct Action (AD) and the Combatant Communist Cells (CCC) respectively. The only NATO countries with a serious domestic challenge from extreme left terrorism are Greece (17th November and ELA), and Turkey (DevSol). The demise of these groups was undoubtedly hastened by the growing professionalism of the response of the intelligence and police services and judicial authorities in the countries concerned, by imaginative modifications of temporary anti-terrorism law, such as the Pentiti legislation in Italy, and by the discrediting of Marxist-Leninist systems and their overthrow of 1990.

However, it is a mistake to write off the continuing influence of extreme left ideologies on revolutionary movements elsewhere. For example, the Shining Path movement in Peru undoubtedly sees itself as the true heir to Maoism and aspires to being the vanguard of a communist evolution in Latin America. Despite its setbacks since the capture of its founder, Guzman, the movement still poses a serious threat to life and economic and social wellbeing in many parts of the country, and is serving as a model for other violent groups in neighbouring countries.

The Shining Path is a peculiarly inappropriate name for a movement which has killed and injured thousands of its countrymen. But its lethality pales in comparison with the mass terror of the brutal Cambodian communist movement, the Khmer Rouge. Although it has suffered many major setbacks since the start of the UN peacekeeping operations in Cambodia, it is still fighting the Cambodian government forces in the northwest of the country, and is still able to use the border with Thailand and covert collaboration and smuggling activities with corrupt Thai generals.

Threats from the extreme right

The threat of violence from the extreme right has been present in many countries for decades. Neo-fascists and neo-nazi groups have been active in the United States, Canada, South Africa and Central and South America, as well as in Europe and the former Soviet Union. In South Africa extremist groups such as Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) still constitute a threat to life and social and economic wellbeing, and have shown themselves capable of political assassinations aimed at destabilization.

In Europe the problem of the resurgence of extreme right-wing violence has become a far more serious threat than ideologically motivated violence from the extreme left in the past few years. For example in Germany, the widespread disillusion with mainstream political parties, the strains of reunification on the economy, high levels of unemployment and the arrival of hundreds of thousands of immigrants have created a climate in which violent right-wing extremism thrives. In 1992 there were over 2,000 attacks by extreme right groups, causing 17 deaths and over 2,000 injured. The German Interior Ministry estimates there are some 75 extreme right groups active in Germany with 65,000 activists, roughly 10% of whom have a record of violence. Between 1991 and 1993 the extreme right groups killed 30 people. In September 1993 Chancellor Kohl rather belatedly condemned the rise of these groups and their violent actions, and said they were as much of a threat to democratic society as extreme left-wing terror had been in the 1970s and early 80s.

Extreme right violence from skinhead and racist thugs has also been on the increase in other parts of central, Eastern and Western Europe, from Russia in the East to Britain in the West. In Russia, Zhirinovsky’s extreme right Liberal Democratic Party, and similar groupings, have the potential to generate violence on the streets. Nor is it safe to assess the danger from the extreme right purely in electoral terms. Pin-stripe neo-fascist parties have done surprisingly well in elections in Italy, Austria and several other continental countries, but in Britain, where the electoral performance of the extreme right has been abysmal, the incidence of racist attacks has grown dramatically, with a doubling of racist incidents recorded by the police over the past five years. Violent attacks motivated by extreme right ideology are likely to increase over the next few years in many countries where conditions are conducive. However, extreme right- wing terrorism is likely to remain indigenous, and shows no signs of developing a significant international dimension.

Issue-specific terrorism

Issue-group extremists are another growing source of terror violence. Recent escalations in attacks against medical staff, clinics and hospitals by anti-abortion campaigners in the USA, and against research scientists, laboratories and commercial premises by animal rights campaigners in the UK, are indications of the kinds of motivation involved. Although issue-group extremists aim at changing specific policies or practices rather than the whole socio-political system, their potential for endangering life and social and economic wellbeing should not be underestimated. For example, they have shown considerable sophistication in tactics, such as the use of product contamination and computer sabotage. Issue-group motivated terrorism shows every sign of increasing in the heavily urbanized pluralist democracies, with their complex and vulnerable systems of communications, transportation, electronic funding transfers, etc.

Likely target groups

On the basis of a statistical analysis of trends in targeting by international terrorist groups over recent years, it is not difficult to assess the most likely targets in coming years. Over half the attacks on property/facilities are likely to involve business or industrial premises, roughly 10% are likely to involve diplomatic premises, and about 5% will involve other government premises and military facilities.

It is important not to rely too heavily on terrorism incident statistics, as they do not bring out the qualitative differences in the effects of specific terrorist attacks. For example in the international terrorism figures for 1993, the single event of the World Trade Centre bombing accorded North America the highest number of victims wounded by international terrorist activity in any region of the world. Yet this does not accurately reflect the characteristic distribution of terrorist victimization internationally.

In view of the fact that attacks by terrorist groups have become increasingly lethal over recent years, it is wise to plan for a continuing trend towards massive car and truck bombings in crowded city areas, and “spectacular” terrorist attacks, for example on civil aviation, airport facilities or military or diplomatic facilities, designed to capture maximum attention from the mass media, to cause maximum shock and outrage and to effect some terrorist demands.


Faced with this scenario of future terrorism, what are the prospects of European states achieving radical improvements in their measures to combat terrorism up to 2010 and beyond? The true litmus test will be the Western states’ consistency and courage in maintaining a firm and effective policy against terrorism in all its forms. They must abhor the idea that terrorism can be tolerated as long as it is only affecting someone else’s democratic rights and rule of law. They must adopt the clear principle that one democracy’s terrorist is another democracy’s terrorist. The general principles which have the best track record in reducing terrorism are as follows:

no surrender to the terrorists, and an absolute determination to defeat terrorism within the framework of the rule of law and the democratic process;

no deals and no concessions, even in the face of the most severe intimidation and blackmail;

an intensified effort to bring terrorists to justice by prosecution and conviction before courts of law;

tough measures to penalize the state sponsors who give terrorist movements safe haven, explosives, cash and moral and diplomatic support;

a determination never to allow terrorist intimidation to block or derail international diplomatic efforts to resolve major political conflicts in strife-torn regions, such as the Middle East.

In many such areas terrorism has become a major threat to peace and stability, and its suppression therefore is in the common interests of international society.

To conclude on an optimistic note, one major aspect of advanced technology gives the democratic governments a potentially winning card in their battle against terrorist organizations. Whereas developments in terrorist weaponry and the vulnerability of modern complex societies help the terrorists, the development of sophisticated fine-grained computers and terrorism databases provide superb assets for the intelligence war against terrorism. If these developments are matched by greatly enhanced international intelligence sharing and counter-terrorism collaboration, they can lay the foundations of long-term success over terrorist organizations.


January 1995


Editors Note:

We are pleased to welcome Paul Wilkinson to the pages of Commentary this month; many readers will already be familiar with his extensive work in the areas of political violence and international terrorism. Prof. Wilkinson is currently Head, School of History and International Relations, University of St. Andrew’s, Scotland.

The views expressed herein are those of the author, who may be contacted by writing to :


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