Citation for Terrorism

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Norton, Augustus Richard and A. Kéchichian Joseph. "Terrorism." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. May 20, 2022. <>.


Norton, Augustus Richard and A. Kéchichian Joseph. "Terrorism." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, (accessed May 20, 2022).


Terrorism is a deliberate, unjustifiable, and random use of violence for political ends against protected persons. Obviously, there is no inextricable connection between Islam, or any other religion, and terrorism. In fact, there is often a great confusion between the phenomenon of political violence and terrorism. The term terrorism applies to a special category of opprobrious acts rather than to all acts of politically inspired violence. Muslims have engaged in terrorism in the modern era, and just as Jews and Christians engaging in terrorism, they have sometimes claimed a justification based in religion. In point of fact, however, the sharīʿah (the divine law) does not condone the use of violence except to combat injustice, and noncombatant immunity is a prominent feature of Islamic literature on jihād (religiously sanctioned warfare). In warfare, necessity might justify putting noncombatants at risk, but harm to innocents should neither be intentional nor excessive. Thus, phrases such as “Islamic terrorism” significantly misrepresent the religious roots of violence committed by Muslims, except to encourage Islamophobia.

Nationalist Rationales for Terrorist Acts.

Since World War II, the Middle East has become infamous as a cockpit for terrorism, although many of the perpetrators have not purported to act in the name of Islam. Arguably, the first modern act of political terrorism in the region was the bombing of the King David Hotel in 1947, an act carried out by Jewish terrorists led by Menachem Begin, then leader of the Irgun. Following the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, Begin became leader of the political opposition, and in 1977, acceded to the prime ministership of Israel. In the 1960s and 1970s, Palestinian guerrillas (fidāʿyūn) launched dozens of horrendous acts of violence against innocent bystanders, all in the name of gaining recognition for Palestinian nationalism. These acts included the slaughter of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972, a long series of hijackings, including four in 1970 that helped precipitate the civil war in Jordan, and several bloody attacks on air travelers both inside Israel and in Europe. Significantly, the Palestinian perpetrators were inspired by a secular irredentist ideology, not by religion. The same can be said for Kurdish guerrillas who, in the 1980s and early 1990s, committed a number of vicious acts of violence in Turkey as part of their quest to win an independent Kurdistan.

Political Violence with Islamic Rationales.

Muslims, claiming a religious rationale for their violence, are also noteworthy. In Egypt, in 1954, the Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ikhwān al-Muslimīn) allegedly attempted to assassinate Gamal Abdel Nasser, who then accelerated his suppression of the organization. In 1981, Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat was assassinated by extremist Muslim conspirators serving in the army. Muslim revolutionaries, intent on toppling the regime of Hosni Mubarak have, since the late 1980s, engaged in escalating acts of violence, including terrorism, to destabilize the Egyptian government. Many of these acts have been egregiously indiscriminate, targeting innocent foreign tourists, in addition to state officials, soldiers, and police officers. These acts illustrate the scope of activities that constitute contemporary political violence; whether they all constitute acts of terrorism is another question.

Thus, terrorism is notoriously difficult to define, since the term is often used to refer to generic acts of violence committed by political adversaries. Nevertheless, it is a useful epithet with which to bludgeon one 's adversaries, even if the moral indictment is often debased, because there is a tendency to apply the label selectively to foes while turning a blind eye to equally contemptible acts carried out by friends or allies pursuing congenial goals.

The quest for a definition of terrorism has bedeviled diplomats and international lawyers, and there is no internationally accepted definition. Although terrorism is frequently decried, the standard practice in international law has been to proceed inductively, criminalizing specific acts such as air piracy, attacks on diplomats, or the theft of nuclear materials. Nonetheless, there is general agreement that hijacking of commercial aircraft or vessels constitutes a form of terrorism when carried out by non-state perpetrators.

Acts of violence carried out within the borders of a state are more problematic to characterize, since illegal acts of violence might be legitimate, especially when the state authorities harshly repress dissent and when the illegal acts do not target protected persons. To argue that an act of political violence is unlawful (a factual statement) is not the same as arguing that it is illegitimate (a normative conclusion). It is important to distinguish between those political systems in which citizens can effectively voice their demands and those in which whole categories of citizens are disenfranchised. In the second category of states, that is deaf to its citizens and residents, violence might be justifiable and legitimate even though it is deemed illegal by the authorities. In contrast, in the first category of states, political violence is both illegal and illegitimate, because the enfranchised citizen need not resort to violence to be heard or to enjoy the protection of the state.

Legality and Legitimacy.

Of course, legality and legitimacy are not always easy to disentangle, as the case of Algeria illustrates. The Islamic Salvation Front, often referred to by its French acronym, FIS, was on the verge of attaining an overwhelming parliamentary majority following its impressive victory in the first stage of a two-stage set of elections. Instead of allowing FIS its electoral victory, the Algerian army, fearful of Islamist intentions that were supported by approximately half of the Algerian population, seized power in January 1992. Understandably, the membership of FIS reacted with fury to the army 's action, and a civil war ensued, with thousands of FIS adherents arrested and detained under martial law conditions. Moderate leaders in FIS were thoroughly discredited, and the Islamists launched a campaign of insurrection and violence that respected few moral boundaries and targeted not only government officials but also intellectuals deemed unsympathetic to the Islamists, and individuals who favored western dress or styles of behavior. Some have accused government forces of instigating, or at least condoning, violence that was then blamed on the Islamists. In a striking throwback to the Algerian revolution of the 1950s and early 1960s, when French rule was overthrown, terrorism again became the coin of the realm for both sides in Algeria, thoroughly polarizing Algerian society.

The right of a people to resist foreign occupation is widely, if somewhat erratically, upheld. A clear majority of world governments—including Egypt, France, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United States—supported Afghan Muslims struggling violently against Soviet occupation. Relatively few observers outside the Soviet Union described the Afghani mujāhidīn as terrorists, even though their attacks were often condemned as terrorism by the Soviet Union. As long as the mujāhidīn directed their efforts against the Soviet presence in Afghanistan, right was literally on their side. By the same token, though agreement is less general, the resistance by Lebanese Muslims and Christians to the Israeli occupation of a portion of southern Lebanon, which it had occupied between 1978 and 2000, was similarly sanctioned, despite Israel 's description of those who attacked its soldiers and client-militiamen as terrorists.

A sounder test addresses the moral legitimacy of the means rather than the technical legality of the ends. If the Afghan or the Lebanese resistance forces broaden their campaigns to encompass protected categories of noncombatants, their actions tend to lose privileged status. Whatever the politics of the observer, it is significant to distinguish between attacks on soldiers occupying foreign lands and attacks on persons in universally accepted protected categories, such as children, or more broadly, noncombatants. As long as a resistance force is discriminate in its methods and targets, it is not objectively justified to affix the terrorist label.

A Definition of Terrorism.

Deliberate and random uses of violence for political ends against protected groups constitutes terrorism. This is a functional and non-polemical definition that has the merit of parsimony and universality. The perpetrators can be states, agents of states, or individuals acting independently. Indeed, the Iraqi government 's al-Anfal Campaign in the 1980s to intimidate and exterminate major segments of its Kurdish population, or the actions taken by the Tunisian, Egyptian, Yemeni, and Syrian governments against civilians during the Spring 2011 uprisings in those countries, clearly constituted acts of state terrorism. The record shows, sadly, that states have often been able to commit murderous feats with impunity—acts that dwarf the deeds of horror committed by non-state terrorists. There are many examples, including Indonesia 's bloody suppression of East Timor in the early 1960s; Syria 's annihilation of more than twenty thousand people in Hama in 1982; and Sudan 's savage campaign in the south to squash resistance to Islamization in the 1990s.

In general, militant opposition movements of Muslims have focused their violence domestically on the authoritarian state, which is typically characterized as thwarting the imposition of the sharīʿah as the sole legitimate source of law. The writings of Sayyid Quṭb (executed in 1966 by the Egyptian government) and his rejuvenation of the terminology of jāhilīyah (literally, a state of ignorance of the truths of Islam) as a description of contemporary Muslim societies have provided some contemporary groups with a rationale for acts of violence as part of a jihād to reestablish Islamic society.

Although most militant movements of Muslims have concentrated on domestic goals, the revolution in Iran spawned an ideology that has been used to justify the use of violence on the international stage in the late 1980s. Not only has the Iranian government been implicated in widespread assassinations and plots against political and intellectual opponents, but it has also lent material support to militant Islamist groups. This can be observed in the case of the Lebanese Shīʿī group Ḥizbullāh (Party of God).


Ḥizbullāh is an Iranian-funded party that came to light following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Ḥizbullāh has proven to be a competent, dedicated, and well-led challenger to the more moderate Amal movement of the early 1970s. Although Ḥizbullāh spokespersons are keen to dissociate the party from acts such as the kidnappings of Westerners in the 1980s, the Islamic Jihād organization claimed credit for many of the kidnappings that conveniently masked Ḥizbullāh involvement. Ḥizbullāh played a major role in inflicting a chain of humiliations on the United States. They precipitated the 1984 departure of the American marines from Lebanon with the truck bombing of the marine barracks, helped to scuttle the U.S.-brokered May 17, 1983 agreement between Lebanon and Israel, and held the world in thrall over the fate of foreign hostages (including Terry Waite, the personal envoy of the Archbishop of Canterbury). Equally impressive was the success of the Islamic Resistance (al-Muqāwamah al-Islāmīyah) in forcing an Israeli withdrawal from most of Lebanese territory in January 1985, and completely by 2000.

In effect, the Islamic Revolution in Iran provided the substance for a new ideological framework that served to explain the causes of deprivation and suffering among the Muslim masses. This framework legitimized and commended the use of violence against the enemies of Islam, particularly the West. This comes through clearly in the remarkable “Open Letter” of Ḥizbullāh released in February 1985.

This open letter explains and justifies the use of violence by Ḥizbullāh, which, it is argued, has been trivialized in the West as “a handful of fanatics and terrorists who are only concerned with blowing up drinking, gambling, and entertainment spots.… Each of us is a combat soldier when the call of jihad demands it and each of us undertakes his task in the battle in accordance with his lawful assignment within the framework of action under the guardianship of the leader jurisprudent” (Norton, p. 15).

The letter emphasizes that the 1978–1979 revolution in Iran was an inspiration to action, a proof of all that can be accomplished when the faithful gather under the banner of Islam. “We address all the Arab and Islamic peoples to declare to them that the Muslim 's experience in Islamic Iran left no one any excuse since it proved beyond all doubt that bare chests motivated by faith are capable, with God 's help, of breaking the iron and oppression of tyrannical regimes.” (Norton, pp. 12–13). The letter described a world in which “the countries of the arrogant world” and especially the United States and the Soviet Union struggle for influence at the expense of the Third World. As a commentator in Al-ʿAhd, the ḥizbullāh newspaper, noted: “The Soviets are not one iota different from the Americans in terms of political danger, indeed are more dangerous than them in terms of ideological considerations as well, and this requires that light be shed on this fact and that the Soviets be assigned their proper place in the… forces striving to strike at the interests of the Moslem people and arrogate their political present and future” (May 9, 1987, p. 12). Nonetheless, pride of place belonged to the United States, which directly, or indirectly through its “spearhead,” Israel, has inflicted suffering on the Muslims of Lebanon: “Imam Khomeini, the leader, has repeatedly stressed that America is the reason for all our catastrophes and the source of all malice. By fighting it, we are only exercising our legitimate right to defend our Islam and the dignity of our nation.” The French were also singled out for attack, largely because of their longstanding sympathy for Christians in Lebanon, and for their arms sales to Iraq.

Ḥizbullāh also positioned itself as a force resisting the designs and games of Israel and the superpowers, whose jockeying for power, in its view, has led to subjugation and oppression throughout the Third World. “Thus, we have seen that aggression can be repelled only with the sacrifice of blood, and that freedom is not given but regained with the sacrifice of both heart and soul.” (Norton, p. 14). The objective is to free Lebanon from the manipulation and chicanery of the malevolent outside powers and, at the same time, to combat internal enemies, such as the Christian Phalange, who have, according to Ḥizbullāh, unjustly enjoyed privilege at the expense of Muslims. Ḥizbullāh has been especially intolerant of competitors for Shīʿī recruits. Moreover, the communist party, an especially appealing target given its alien and atheistic ideology, has been singled out for attacks. Dozens, if not hundreds, of party members were killed in a brutal, bloody campaign of suppression and assassination in 1984 and 1985.

Fallout of Terrorism.

The cost of terrorism is obviously most severe for its immediate victims, but there are heavy costs for the perpetrators ’ society as well. The use of terrorism stereotypes a community, thereby reducing rather than enhancing international support for its claims. The heavy moral baggage of past outrages can be a burden. Not surprisingly, many Lebanese Shīʿah have come to resent the kidnapping of foreigners, sometimes on moral grounds, but often simply on practical grounds. Many acts of terrorism are patently counterproductive. Rather than weakening the resolve of the target population, terrorists—whether agents of a state or acting independently—supply the argument, and all too often the means, for their own eradication.

Scholars are wont to emphasize that terrorism is the weapon of the weak. Although there is some truth in this observation, as illustrated by the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City in 1993 by a band of militant Muslims, the major perpetrators are not individuals or non-state actors inspired by a vision of Islam, but strong, authoritarian governments intent on maintaining or extending their power, or punishing their adversaries.

Throughout the 1990s, several serious incidents were recorded that fit the terrorist label, but are not necessarily associated with Islam: In 1993 a series of bombings killed 250 and injured more than 700 in a reaction to the 1992 Bābarī Mosque attack; in July 1994 the Jewish center in Buenos Aires was destroyed, killing 85 people; the Aum Shinrikyo sect released an impure form of sarin gas in the Tokyo metro in March 1995, killing 12; on April 19, 1995 Gulf War veteran Timothy McVeigh and several associates blew up the Oklahoma City Federal Building, killing 168 and injuring more than 800; on August 7, 1998 simultaneous attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania resulted in the death of 213 in Nairobi and 12 in Dar es-Salaam, while more than 4,000 were injured in these attacks, which al-Qaʿida claimed responsibility for. Then on September 11, 2001, the attacks against the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. resulted in the death of 2,973, with 24 missing, and several thousand injured.

Post-September 11th.

The terrorism phenomenon as it was known until September 11, 2001 changed dramatically when the United States declared a perpetual war on terrorism. Washington first retaliated against al-Qaʿida and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, with significant attacks on that hapless country beginning in October 2001, followed by a worldwide hunt of “terrorists,” or what were called “enemy combatants” when it was necessary to bypass normal procedures and whisk them past European and Middle Eastern airports in “rendition” flights to secure facilities. The second Gulf War in Iraq began in 2003, ostensibly to prevent the Baʿthist regime from utilizing weapons of mass destruction. One of the reasons for the war that started in 2003 was to prevent terrorist activities from migrating to the U.S. “Homeland”—in the words of the often quoted slogan: “if we don 't fight them there, they ’ll follow us home.”

It must be emphasized that 9/11 was not the only terrorist act that mobilized international attention. Several other terrorist activities were recorded after 2001, including the Beslan school siege in North Ossetia—involving Chechen rebels—that killed 344 and injured several hundred more. This was followed on October 12, 2002 by an attack on a nightclub in Bali, Indonesia, which killed 202 and injured another 209; on March 11, 2004 an attack on the Madrid metro killed 191 and injured 2,050; and on July 7, 2005, London transportation vehicles were targeted, with a total of 52 killed and more than 700 injured. In 2003, Saudi authorities launched a massive hunt for terrorists who attacked civilian housing complexes, or who plotted to blow up oil facilities throughout the kingdom. Many other attacks occurred throughout the world, including dozens of killings in ongoing military confrontations between Israel and the Palestinians as well as between Ḥizbullāh and Israel, which have resulted in thousands of deaths. Clearly, most terrorist attacks are designed to kill as many people as possible, although most fail, or fall short. Yet, what changed dramatically after 9/11 was the concerted effort by Western as well as Muslim governments, to respond in kind or even more forcefully in the name of “security.” On May 2, 2011, American Navy SEAL commandoes raided a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where they killed Osama bin Laden, the alleged leader of al-Qaʿida. Attempts on other putative leaders followed, as terrorism progressively evolved into an asymmetric war, given the scarce resources available to transnational movements.



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