In very general terms, terrorism involves the use of violence (or the threat thereof) against mainly civilian targets for political ends. The goal is to either coerce a government into radically altering policy or to intimidate the public into abandoning support for the existing regime. Specific definitions of terrorism vary depending on the particular governmental or scholarly agendas, and terrorists themselves often claim to be revolutionaries, reluctant warriors, or freedom fighters. Additionally, some scholarship—primarily leftist in orientation—seeks to define virtually all military action as terrorism, but to do so only obfuscates the issue. Illegitimate state-sponsored violence can more appropriately be classified as either war crimes or genocide.
Terrorism throughout the Cold War impacted all regions of the world, but it can best be grouped into three distinct yet overlapping categories: the nature of Cold War competition made ideological groups, predominantly Marxist groups, most prevalent; several prominent ethnonational separatist groups must be considered; and a host of Middle Eastern terrorist groups emerged, most of which were initially motivated by Arab nationalist causes but became increasingly Pan-Islamic or religiously based as the Cold War evolved. In addition, state-sponsored terrorism was an aspect of the Cold War, but it is an issue that deals more with sources of funding and support for terrorism rather than being a motivating factor for political violence.
Widespread student revolts in Europe and the United States in the late 1960s signified the ascendancy of the New Left, which was young, radical, and founded upon an ideology that was revolutionary rather than reformist. The terrorists who emerged from this movement had romantic notions of working-class struggles, even if they themselves were almost exclusively from middle-class backgrounds.
Typical of this lack of proletarian credentials was the Weather Underground Organization (also known as the Weathermen) in the United States. An offshoot of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Weathermen were essentially embroiled in an identity crisis, motivated by boredom and a desire for excitement. This was in direct contrast to members of the Black Panthers, who as products of America's inner cities were more authentically radical and could more genuinely connect their struggle with the plight of the oppressed in the developing world.
In Europe, several groups established a sort of European International, a loose but coordinated federation of leftist groups united against North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) imperialism. These groups often received logistical and matériel aid from the Soviet Union via its East European satellites. In the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, West Germany), the Red Army Faction (RAF), also known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang, grew out of a rejection of postwar capitalist consumerism but also considered itself the champion of the oppressed developing world. Aligned with the RAF was France's Action Directe (AD). Together these two groups sought to establish a network of West European revolutionaries who would fight on behalf of developing-world victims of Western imperialism. The Italian Red Brigades was also included in this milieu, but it went further by attempting to form alliances with terrorists in Ireland and Spain (whose causes were entirely different in nature). An organization known as November 17 (N17) followed the Marxist, anti-Western model in Greece but had an additional and more specific grievance against the United States, which they blamed for the Turkish occupation of Cyprus. In Eastern Europe, however, strong police states effectively negated any chance for the rise of such revolutionary movements.
The Japanese Red Army (JRA) shared N17's explicit anti-Americanism. Founded in large part upon a rejection of the United States–Japan Security Treaty, the JRA had explicit ties to European terrorists but also maintained connections with Middle Eastern terrorists. The JRA was more internationalist in its worldview than its European counterparts.
Communist revolutionary fervor was quite evident in Latin America, where virtually every nation was affected. Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela were all plagued with guerrilla armies, but in contrast to European terrorism, violence in Latin America was founded upon genuine peasant uprisings. A more organized urban guerrilla warfare substituted for the clandestine student-oriented groups in Western Europe. Colombia watched guerrilla warfare quickly turn from revolutionary insurgency into the narcoterrorism that defines the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) today, whereas in Peru, Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) remains and is often cited as the prototype of a Marxist insurgency group. Shining Path can also be likened to the many ethnonational groups, but their claims in this regard were always secondary to the group's revolutionary goals.
In the United States, Western Europe, and Latin America, the revolutionaries overestimated the salience of their Marxist ideology, and as a result they never received significant public support. Russian revolutionaries Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky had warned against the use of revolutionary terrorism because, they believed, it lacked a genuine connection to the working-class struggle. The radical terrorists of the late 1960s favored immediate action. In the end, because of often indiscriminate violence, such movements tended to reduce rather than increase popular support for the Left.
The second category of Cold War terrorism, ethnonational separatists, typically operated within an existing state but made irredentist claims based on the shared perception that the territory was the group's ancestral homeland. During the Cold War, many of these groups claimed some form of Marxist solidarity, but in fact their true motivations were entirely nationalistic. Ethnonational groups have been far more prolific than their ideological counterparts, and their longevity has been generally greater. In several cases, however, they have operated in democratic nations, which limited the amount of public sympathy they received, even among coethnics.
Perhaps the earliest Cold War example of this type of terrorism are the Zionist terrorists of the Irgun and Stern Gang, who undertook terrorist operations against both British and Arab targets in Palestine prior to the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 but disbanded after 1948 because such clandestine groups are unnecessary once they achieve their goal.
One of the more recognizable of all terrorist groups is the Irish Republican Army (IRA), perhaps because its demand that Northern Ireland be reunified with the Republic of Ireland calls into question two of the pillars of Western Cold War dogma: the pluralist assumptions of representation and self-determination. Similarly, Euzkadi ta Askatasuna (ETA, Basque Homeland and Liberty) seeks an independent state in the Basque region of Spain (and a small portion of France), but their suppression under Spanish dictator Francisco Franco and Spain's subsequent granting of semiautonomy to the region lessened the appeal of their cause.
It is inexplicable that the most deadly of all terrorist groups, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, Tamil Tigers), is relatively unknown. The LTTE seeks to annex the northern portion of Sri Lanka, a territory they claim as the Tamil homeland. It is estimated that the Tamil Tigers have killed more than 50,000 people to date, most notably two world leaders, Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993.
Equally inexplicable is that there is one terrorist group that was entirely successful in achieving its political goals, which were anticolonial rather than separatist. The National Liberation Front (FLN) managed to drive French colonial forces out of Algeria and established itself as the new Algerian government.
While it is true that most, if not all, ethnonational separatist groups have relied on one another in a type of international network of matériel support, it is a mistake to conclude from this that during the Cold War they were not completely autonomous. Connections and mutual support existed, but this was not international terrorism as it is properly defined.
The third category of Cold War terrorism, Middle Eastern terrorism, is perhaps the most difficult to define because violence in the Middle East has been based on a combination of ideology, Arab nationalism, and what is aptly described as political religion. Contrary to popular belief, much Middle Eastern terrorism has until relatively recently been limited to Arabs attacking other Arabs. Palestinians have attacked Jordanians, Iraqis and Syrians have fought one another, and the Lebanese Civil War pitted Iranian and other Shiite Muslims against Lebanon's Christian majority as well as Sunni Muslims. Iranian support gave rise to Hezbollah (Party of God), which in a 1983 act of international terrorism killed 241 U.S. servicemen in a truck bombing at a Marine barracks in Beirut. Thus, the distinction between terrorist typologies is easily blurred.
One group that especially typifies the difficulty in categorizing Middle Eastern terrorist groups is the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which is at once Marxist, separatist, and Arab nationalist (not Islamic) in orientation. There is also the Abu Nidal Organization (ANO), which operated much like a terrorist contractor or gun for hire and was often employed by one Middle Eastern interest against another.
However, the more obvious and virulent strain of such violence is that between Arabs and Jews. After World War II, several hundred thousand Palestinians (estimates range from 500,000 to more than a million) were forcibly removed from their homes to facilitate the creation of Israel. Thus, it is no surprise that much Middle Eastern antipathy is aimed at Israelis and Americans, who are seen as Israel's unstinting benefactor.
Throughout the Cold War, the most prominent of these groups was the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and its ancillary organization, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). While there had been prior attacks against Israeli settlements and minor border skirmishes, Palestinian groups began their campaign in earnest after the 1967 War and the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. The PLO acted as an umbrella organization, receiving funds from Arab oil states and channeling them to its secondary partners. Most notably, Black September, a commando unit of the PLO and PFLP, was responsible for the deaths of eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. This event effectively brought the Palestinian cause as well as international terrorism to the attention of the global community. Objectively, though, Palestinian terrorism has been highly ineffective. Any tactical/operational successes were mitigated by Israeli (and others') countermeasures. Yet Palestinian terrorism was effective in unifying among the Arab peoples the anti-Israeli and anti-American sentiments that continue today.
While the universal hope was that the end of the Cold War would usher in a new era of peace, the fall of the Soviet Union simply eliminated the financial support and ideological validation for one particular type of terrorism. It did nothing, however, to alter the nature of the grievances of the working classes or the genuinely oppressed, and it actually may have removed some constraints on violence, allowing terrorists to become more global and deadly in scope. Indeed, Middle East-based terrorism expounding political religion as its ideological basis may have been aided and emboldened by the end of the Cold War. Whereas both the Soviets and Americans sought to restrain violence in the Middle East during the Cold War, with the Soviet Union gone, an important countervailing force has been lost. Politically motivated violence has not abated but instead has merely changed forms.
Hudson, Rex A. Who Becomes a Terrorist and Why. Guilford, CT: Lyons, 2002.; Laqueur, Walter. The New Terrorism: Fanaticism and the Arms of Mass Destruction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.; O'Neill, Bard E. Insurgency & Terrorism: Inside Modern Revolutionary Warfare. Dulles, VA: Brassey's, 1990.; Whittaker, David J. The Terrorism Reader. New York: Routledge, 2003.