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The FBI defines terrorism as the “unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”

What distinguishes terrorism from conventional warfare is the degree to which its efforts are focused on creating public panic. While conventional military forces also make frequent use of psychological tactics, including acts of terror and various forms of propaganda, they seek to achieve victory principally through strength of arms directed against military, rather than civilian, targets.

Terrorists, by contrast, often believe that they cannot win the battle by sheer force of arms because they are fighting a technologically and militarily superior foe. Thus they focus their efforts on covert actions designed to strike the constant fear of unpredictable violence into the hearts of all – particularly civilians. This has led some social scientists to refer to terrorism as the “weapon of the weakest.” Attacking civilians has been the modus operandi, for example, of the thousands of Palestinians who have murdered and maimed Israeli women and children in crowded markets, schools, restaurants, train stations, plazas, nightclubs, and buses, among other places. These terrorists pursue their political goals by striving to make life unbearable for the population at large – and thereby win political concessions.

In some cases, however, terrorism is a tool of the mighty – such as when it has been the official policy of totalitarian states like Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. Those states used unjustified arrest, imprisonment, torture, and execution to create a climate of intense fear, and to encourage subservience to the declared political, social, and economic goals of the state.

In order to attract and maintain the publicity necessary to generate widespread fear, terrorists commonly engage in increasingly dramatic, violent, and high-profile attacks. Toward this end, they often target buildings or other locations that are important economic or political symbols, such as embassies or military installations. Most notable were the 9/11 attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Technological advances in the weaponry of recent decades, coupled with the efforts of terrorist organizations to acquire such arsenals (particularly chemical, biological, and nuclear), give present-day terrorists an unprecedented potential for lethality. Moreover, it is clear that Islamic terrorist groups in particular are willing and eager to use weapons of mass destruction. This was expressed in a 2002 al Qaeda manifesto that candidly declared: “We have not reached [military] parity with them [the Americans]. We have the right to kill 4 million Americans -- 2 million of them children -- and to exile twice as many and wound and cripple hundreds of thousands. Furthermore, it is our right to fight them with chemical and biological weapons.”

The RESOURCES column located on the right side of this page contains links to articles, essays, books, and videos that explore such topics as:

  • Islamic terrorism and its relationship to the doctrine of jihad;
  • how terrorist organizations and operatives obtain the funding that enables them to carry out their work;
  • a running, up-to-date catalogue of the latest acts of terrorism around the world; and
  • a detailed analysis of the key events that occurred before, during, and after the September 11, 2012 Islamic terrorist attack against the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.



* For recommended books on this topic, click here.

                                 SEE ALSO

* Terrorists and Their Supporters

* Terrorist Groups

* Jihad

* Islamo-Fascism

* Radical Islam

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