The issue of terrorism, Walter Laqueur remarks, attracts an inordinate amount of attention in the US. Compared to the major problems of our time, such as global debt and third world hunger, terrorism, he writes, has been “a side-show.” It has directly affected the lives of only a handful of people, caused no major political, economic, or cultural upheaval; it has cost fewer American lives than, say, highway traffic accidents.

Yet terrorism has been a subject of countless presidential speeches and of a major international initiative by the secretary of state. The high drama of terrorist-inspired events attracts enormous attention in the press and on television. There are journals devoted entirely to problems of terrorism, and a great many books have been written on the subject.

The televised Iran-contra hearings might even help get some of these books read. During the hearings we learned that President Reagan read and was much impressed by Terrorism: How the West Can Win, edited by Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli ambassador to the UN. Officers of his cabinet later dutifully reported that they too had read the book—whose essays not only advocate an uncompromising stand against terrorists but argue, in one case, that “under our written constitution, law is not supreme.” Members of the congressional panel used their precious question time to recommend other books on terrorism—to witnesses, to their colleagues, and, presumably, to the nationwide television audience.

Even a limited sampling of the recent literature on terrorism suggests that the issues on which the “experts” and students of terrorism focus are by now well defined. There is considerable interest, as there should be, in explanations for the rise of terrorism, the ideology and structure of terrorist groups, the psychology and social background of those attracted to terrorist movements, the extent of state-sponsored terrorism, and the links between terrorist organizations. Most books touch on the subject of counterterrorist measures. Indeed, the problem of “What is to be done?” is central to much of the literature.

On many of these subjects, there is considerable disagreement. There is not even a consensus on the definition of terrorism. Most authors feel compelled to summarize for the reader the various controversies over definitions before providing their own. And no wonder. As Richard Rubenstein points out, definitions of terrorism are, at least in part, encoded political statements. To describe the bomb-throwers of Lebanon as terrorists and the Nicaraguan contras as freedom fighters, or to reverse these labels, he suggests, is to define not these groups but one’s own political perspective. To trace the source of international terrorism to Moscow and Tehran is to deny the indigenous causes of terrorist unrest.

Walter Laqueur’s The Age of Terrorism first appeared (under a slightly different title) ten years ago. He has now rewritten the book to incorporate new information and to reexamine his original findings in the light of recent developments. He has also used the occasion to consider and respond to earlier criticisms: that he underestimated the importance of the threat posed by terrorism, ignored “state” terrorism, drew too sharp a distinction between terrorist activity and guerrilla warfare, attached insufficient weight to political, social, and economic discontent as a source of terrorism, and took insufficiently seriously the efforts of political scientists to provide a scientific theory of terrorism.

On these questions he has not basically revised his views. The book, in the new as well as in the original version, provides much information on the historical and more recent manifestations of terrorism; but it is Laqueur’s interpretation that, ten years after the original publication of Terrorism, remains relevant to the debate.

Laqueur is still deeply skeptical that there is any comprehensive explanation for terrorism, that a scientific sociopolitical theory of terrorism is remotely within reach, or that a definition of terrorism on which most people will agree is possible. Most terrorist organizations are small, he writes, and “the movement of small particles in politics, as in physics, often defies explanation.” The following passage summarizes Laqueur’s view and clearly demonstrates his approach:

Terrorism…has been waged by national and religious groups, by the left and by the right, by nationalist as well as internationalist movements, and it has been state-sponsored…. Terrorist movements have frequently consisted of members of the educated middle classes, but there has also been agrarian terrorism, terror by the uprooted and the rejected, and trade union and working-class terror…. Terror has been directed against autocratic regimes as well as democracies; sometimes there has been an obvious link with social dislocation and economic crisis, at other times there has been no such connection. Movements of national liberation and social revolution (or reaction) have turned to terrorism after political action has failed. But elsewhere, and at other times, terrorism has not been the consequence of political failure, but has been chosen by militant groups even before other options were tried.

The passage is revealing both of Laqueur’s analytic style and of the basis for his conclusions. Whatever aspect of terrorism Laqueur examines, he is struck most by its variety, by the wide range of motives, intentions, participants, organizational structure involved, by the varied degrees of failure and effectiveness. He considers attempts to construct a “profile” of the typical terrorist and concludes that virtually the only common characteristic is youth. “The search for a ‘terrorist personality,’ ” he writes, “is unlikely to result in a common denominator spanning various countries, periods, cultures and political constellations.” He looks at the organization of national-terrorist movements and concludes that differences in constitution, membership, and motives “are so wide that [these movements] must be considered separately in order to point to their specific character.”


Laqueur displays a similar skepticism toward all single-factor explanations for terrorism. There is evidence for state, and Soviet, support for terrorism in some countries, he notes, but it is one of many factors. Social discontent has given rise to terrorism, but it is hardly the only cause. Terrorists have sometimes been impelled by ideology; but often they give no evidence of ideological motivation. Laqueur’s contribution to a theory of terrorism is that there is no overarching theory. To those who seek to know the causes, he replies that the causes are many and varied.

However, on four major issues relating to terrorism, Laqueur’s views are not in doubt. First, he remains persuaded that terrorism does not pose an overwhelming threat to Western governments. “There has not been so far a single case,” he notes, “of a society dragged down to destruction as a result of terrorism, nor has there been inexorable growth [in terrorist atrocities].” Secondly, he concludes that terrorism has been singularly ineffective as a technique for seizing power. It does not work against strong dictatorships and does not exist in the Soviet bloc. Where terrorism occurs, determined states can always muster sufficient force to crush it; and while state-sponsored terrorism poses a more serious problem, governments will act against the sponsoring states when it appears sufficiently threatening.

Thirdly, he does not believe that redress of grievances is a remedy for terrorism. This conclusion springs partly from his sense of the varied causes of small-scale violence and partly—although this is only implicit—from his belief that, given the nature of human folly, the terrorists, like the poor, will always be with us. It derives also from his view that the issues that give rise to terrorist activity are often simply not soluble. Turkey cannot grant a separate homeland to the Armenians or India to the Sikhs; and the satisfaction of one ethnic or minority claim will inevitably lead to another.

Finally, while he argues that political violence or terrorism can sometimes legitimately be used to correct social or political injustices, he has little sympathy for the current practitioners of terror, especially those who operate in democracies where other means for the redress of grievances exist. This emerges clearly in his comparison of nineteenth-century and present-day terrorists. Emma Goldman, he writes, has no resemblance to Ulrike Meinhof and Patty Hearst. Nineteenth-century terrorists, he writes,

would not have abducted children and threatened to kill them unless ransom was paid. They would not…have given parcels with explosives to unsuspecting fiancées or tourists. They would not have sent parts of their victims’ bodies with little notes to their relatives…. They would not have tormented, mutilated, raped and castrated their victims, nor would they have engaged in senseless wholesale slaughter of their own ranks.

Laqueur’s work can be read profitably in conjunction with Richard Rubenstein’s new book, Alchemists of Revolution. Like Laqueur, Rubenstein, author of Rebels in Eden: Mass Political Violence in the United States, doubts the efficacy of terrorism and small-scale violence as instruments for seizing power or bringing about social transformation. He also notes that terrorism serves a purpose as a part of a wider strategy of opposition, not as a substitute for it. He cites as an example the Vietcong’s assassination of thousands of Vietnamese village headmen in the 1960s. And he too finds that despite the radical rhetoric of national-terrorist movements, their ethnic or national ideologies override their social radicalism.

Readers will find much to admire in both books. But they cannot, ultimately, agree with both; for Rubenstein’s analysis is very different from Laqueur’s and he reaches very different conclusions. Because he finds terrorism to be rooted in particular social dislocations of our time, Rubenstein sees no reason why, in the absence of major shifts in the policy of governments, it will not continue, both in the third world and the industrial states. He believes the staying power of serious “terrorist” movements—the PLO, the IRA, and the Shi’ites of the Hezbollah and Amal movements in Lebanon—is to be explained by genuine social or political grievances and broad-based popular support rather than by external manipulation or anything so comforting as the “international terror network” theory. And he draws on this analysis to suggest not so much a “solution” as a perspective through which to understand and respond to terrorists.


His is a book bound to ruffle many people. He is not queasy about depicting mass violence, in some circumstances, as a legitimate instrument of social transformation. He refuses to differentiate between the violence of states and the violence of terrorist groups. “There is no force,” he writes, “more terroristic than a national state at war.” He would see an equivalence between, say, the terrorist bombing of Lod Airport in Israel and the US bombing of Hiroshima. Rather than dismiss terrorists as psychopaths, wildeyed fanatics, and ruthless killers, he describes them as “people in many ways like us,” “the guy next door.”

However, Rubenstein’s purpose is not to defend or condemn terrorism. His interest is in effective forms of political and revolutionary action; and he asks whether terrorism—“small-group violence for which arguable claims of mass representation can be made”—is an effective means to the goal of social revolution, such as occurred in China or Vietnam.

Rubenstein locates the sources of terrorism primarily among the “disaffected intelligentsia,” the “ambitious idealists without a creative ruling class to follow or a rebellious lower class to lead.” He argues that preconditions for terrorist action are created in periods of rapid, uneven economic development and the weakening of connections between social classes. When hopes for social transformation are shattered and there is no militant mass party to win the allegiance of the intelligentsia, then the conditions are propitious for the rise of terrorists. At such a time, members of the intelligentsia cannot play their customary and socially useful roles as intermediaries between the ruling and the lower classes. They turn to violence in a desperate attempt to reconnect with the masses whom they aspire to lead.

“Where the mass organizations are not militant and the militants are not influential,” Rubenstein writes, “the stage is set for a terrorist response to economic and political crises.” Thus he observes that the Red Brigades emerged in Italy in the 1970s during a period of economic dislocation and at a time when the Communist party, abandoning radical politics, declared itself a party of moderate reform. In West Germany, Rubenstein argues, the Baader-Meinhof group emerged after the Social Democrats ceased to offer a clear alternative to the parties of the center and the right. In Uruguay, Brazil, and Argentina, a rapid expansion of the educated classes coincided with economic downturn. The failure to pursue opportunities for radical reform, according to Rubenstein, led members of the intelligentsia to look to violence in order to realize their radical political goals. Terrorists in this view, then, are lapsed reformers “sprung loose for violent action” by changing social conditions and the failure of radical politics. “Terrorism,” Rubenstein writes, “remains the violence of the intelligentsia.”

But Rubenstein finds no historical evidence that terrorism of the vanguard can by itself lead to power, or that there is a natural progression from small guerrilla bands to guerrilla armies, or from guerrilla armies to a mass revolutionary movement. Drawing on Trotsky and Lenin, he argues that social transformation or revolution requires political organization and education, and the mobilization of the masses on the basis of class interest, pitting class against class. In China, for example, peasant uprisings had occurred before Mao arrived in Hunan in 1927. He was, Rubenstein points out, able to organize the nucleus of the Red Army—already numbering twenty thousand in 1927—from local peasant recruits and mutinous Kuomintang soldiers. The Japanese occupation allowed Mao to extend the area under Communist control, establish civil administration, and prove the superiority of Communist rule to that of nationalists and the Japanese.

Always, Rubenstein argues, Mao engaged in political work, organizing the landless and the petty landholding peasants against the large landowners and warlords, and organizing the indigenous businessmen against the foreign or foreign-linked business community. However, those committed to small-scale violence or to guerrilla operations are precluded by the clandestine and conspiratorial nature of their activities from engaging in political organization. Unable to lead a mass movement, they are generally condemned to failure.

A generation of would-be Latin American revolutionaries who dreamed of reenacting the Chinese or Vietnamese experience by taking the nucleus of a guerrilla band into the hills failed to understand this fundamental lesson. In both China and Vietnam, terrorist activity was an adjunct to, not a substitute for, political work. In Cuba (and later in Nicaragua) a guerrilla army was able to take advantage of already widespread disaffection in the cities. Castro in any case came to power at the head of a national anti-Batista coalition with liberal support, not a revolutionary movement. Social revolution came later, after the Castro regime consolidated its power.

Terrorism has been more effective when linked to nationalist or ethnic movements, such as the PLO, because class interests can be subsumed, unity achieved, and group loyalties broadly mobilized against the foreign, national, or cultural enemy. But this very need to create broad coalitions, to concentrate on national unity rather than class interests, makes nationalist movements essentially conservative and causes them to veer to the right. Thus the PLO has abandoned the substance and retained only the rhetoric of its socialist program. “The principles of nationalism and social revolution,” Rubenstein remarks, “are ultimately incompatible.”

Rubenstein thus concludes that the answer to terrorism lies in politics, not in military retaliation or the explanations offered by experts in abnormal psychology or by the proponents of international conspiracy theories. “No solution to the problem of terrorism is conceivable,” he writes, “that does not reconnect politicized young adults to society by involving them in mass-based movements for change.” Rubenstein’s is a well-constructed argument, delivered with clarity and conviction.

It should be clear that he proposes an antidote to terrorism, not necessarily to political violence. On the contrary, he implies that mass violence frequently and often inevitably accompanies revolutionary change. He is certainly correct that broad-based movements, such as that of the Palestinians, are rooted in genuine social grievances and cannot be wished away. But I doubt he makes an equally convincing case for the West European terrorist movements of the 1960s, whose base of social support, in fact, proved very thin. There is still little evidence to challenge Laqueur’s conclusion that terrorism in Europe and America will remain a fringe activity so long as most people believe that change can be brought about through the political process.

Governments, moreover, have greater leverage against state-sponsored terrorism than Rubenstein believes. Contrary to popular belief, governments can, over the long term, make such measures as diplomatic isolation and denial of arms, technology, and markets work more effectively against state-sponsored terrorism than military retaliation. States such as Syria and Iran sponsor terrorism outside their own frontiers for a number of reasons: to satisfy the inclinations of constituencies at home, to extend spheres of political and cultural influence, to secure leverage against competing or threatening powers. All these factors apply, for example, not only in the case of Iranian and Syrian involvement in Lebanon, but in Indian involvement with the Bengalis of Pakistan and the Tamils of Sri Lanka. But governments must also make rational calculations. If the losses incurred as a result of such involvement begin to outweigh the benefits, then governments will have to reconsider. The radical edge of Iraq’s foreign policy and its inclination to support the most radical of Palestinian terrorist groups were considerably blunted, for example, once the war with Iran made the Baath regime dependent on money from the conservative Persian Gulf oil states and on American diplomatic support.

Rubenstein thinks that radical mass movements based on class could be an alternative to ethnic-based mass movements. But is this a realistic possibility in much of the third world, where European (or Marxist) categories of class do not apply and the sense of individual and group identity and of personal worth is deeply imbedded in and expressed through religion, language, and ethnicity? One reason, perhaps, why clerics in Iran, Egypt, and Lebanon are proving so much more successful in mobilizing the masses than the secular intelligentsia is that the clerics appeal to a religious identity that has far more powerful attraction than any appeal to “class.” Moreover, where the majority in an ethnic group is socially and politically disadvantaged, as for example the Shi’ites in Lebanon, then ethnic-based movements are also about the politics of the underclass.

An underlying, and unexamined, assumption in Rubenstein’s book is that the linking of the intelligentsia and the masses somehow will lead to a kind of progressive politics. But what if the intelligentsia itself is divided and of many minds, and mass politics only produces another form of repressive rule? Consider Iran today. Members of one part of the formerly disaffected intelligentsia, along with the clerics (who must be considered part of the intelligentsia), are in power. Politicized young adults carry the guns and influence policy. Since the overthrow of the monarchy, the rich have been expropriated, lands have been seized, large sectors of the economy have been nationalized. At the same time, women as a group are persecuted, and political freedoms have been suppressed; those among the intelligentsia who profess a commitment to human rights, tolerance, and political liberties are under threat; and the state seeks to impose ideological and social norms to which all must conform. Instead of terrorism carried out by the few, a generalized terrorism is enforced in the name of the many. Does this represent a politics that can be easily labeled “radical” or “reactionary”? Or does it represent a curious but wholly predictable amalgam that grew out of an alliance between some elements of the intelligentsia and some elements of the mass of the people?

Finally, Rubenstein calls for an American policy designed “to uproot the causes of terrorism by putting an end to American-sponsored oppression of classes, nations, and ethnic communities, and by permitting young intellectuals to be reunited…with their people.” But it is not clear what changes he would like to see in American foreign policy, whether in Latin America, in the Middle East, or in Africa. Is it really within America’s capacity to permit “young intellectuals to be reunited…with their people” in third world countries? Can any outside power determine how the complexities of social and political conflict in alien lands and cultures should be worked out?

However, the strength of Rubenstein’s book is precisely that it is thought-provoking. It invites us to reexamine easy assumptions and to engage in debate. It brings an original perspective to a difficult problem and suggests an original response. This is an important book that deserves to be read and discussed.

“Deep Throat,” the knowledgeable and unnamed source of numerous leads on the Watergate scandal, advised the journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to “follow the money.” This is what James Adams attempts to do in The Financing of Terror. The business of terror, he suggests, is also big business. The successful terrorist organization has learned to handle money as well as guns and, in its financial dealings, is likely to resemble a multinational corporation. Adams examines the finances of the PLO, the IRA, and two Colombian opposition organizations, M-19 and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC).

Adams writes on a subject on which the documentation is necessarily thin. Most of his information on the size and sources of the revenues of these organizations, and on the uses to which they put their money, comes primarily from newspaper reports and material submitted to various congressional committees. The reliability of much of this information is itself difficult to determine. FARC has often been alleged to provide narcotics dealers in Colombia with protection, but we learn little more about FARC’s financial operations. Adams notes various ways in which FARC, the IRA, and similar organizations have traditionally raised money: kidnapping for ransom, selling protection, arm-twisting, smuggling, and activities on the borderline of legality. He is interesting on the commercial ventures of the IRA in Northern Ireland, particularly its taxi companies, for which, he writes, the IRA prepared the way by firebombing the Belfast bus system.

Adams’s most detailed knowledge and therefore his best chapters concern the finances of the PLO. He estimates current PLO assets, controlled through the agency of the Palestinian National Fund, at $2 billion and the total assets of all groups affiliated with the PLO at as much as $5 billion. But even these figures are mere estimates. More interesting is Adams’s attempt to show that, through careful investment and management, an organization like the PLO can become to a large degree financially self-sustaining. The PLO, he estimates, now obtains five-sixths of its annual expenditures of $600 million from its own operations. Some of its assets are in liquid funds and negotiable instruments, but it has also invested in factories, farms, the import-export business, and real estate. These investments provide revenues and jobs, and they make the PLO part of the local economy in which the enterprises are located. They give members of the organization valuable experience as managers and money men. The same could be said of the IRA enterprises, such as its taxi companies—although they are on a smaller scale and less successful. Adams tends to see something underhanded in all this; and because he too is concerned with the question of “What is to be done?” he argues for policies directed against the financial resources of terrorist organizations. “Destroy the economic base and a terrorist group will wither and die,” he writes. In the case of an organization like the PLO, Adams’s own evidence suggests that the task would be far from simple.

Indeed, from what little we really know, the PLO and the IRA seem to endure at least in part by minimizing financial dependence on their backers, developing community services and organizations, and creating links between their own followers and the larger community in which these followers are located. Much more needs to be known about the commercial side of the terror groups, however, and particularly their use of violence to advance their business interests.

Desmond McForan has sought to write a book on international terrorism along the lines of Claire Sterling’s The Terror Network. According to him, a pernicious triangle of forces aims at nothing less than the complete annihilation of Western civilization. Moscow directs this effort, the Palestine Liberation Organization provides the terrorist network that will destabilize the Western world, and Arab oil finances the operation. This relationship “has not been exposed until now.” A diagram on page 120, in which the three angles of a triangle are defined by the hammer and sickle, Arab oil, and a grenade-throwing Palestinian fighter, shows how this nefarious conspiracy works. Startling information, suitably highlighted in boldface type, appears on virtually every page. The reader will learn, for example, that the Soviet Union centrally coordinates the work of fifty different terrorist movements, with “two million trained and armed destabilisers.” KGB agents are manipulating this alliance of terror in democratic states. The ultimate battleground between the Western democracies and the Triangle of Terror is the Third World War.

Other “facts” readers might not easily find elsewhere are that Libya spends fully 70 percent of its oil income on the support of terrorism. One $12 billion arms shipment from the USSR to Libya in 1976 fanned the flames of chaos and revolution “across two-thirds of the entire globe.” It was actually George Habash of the PFLP who masterminded the takeover of the US embassy in Tehran in 1979. Khomeini secretly supports Israel. Although Iranians “do not traditionally regard themselves as part of the Arab world,” Iran, if the table of contents is a guide, is an Arab country.

However, all is not lost. A postscript on the final page, dated April 21, 1986, and written after the US bombing of Libya, reports (in boldface type) that both the United States and England “have shed their ambivalence and have come down firmly against terrorism.” The European countries “are being dragged along in their wake.” The Western democracies must now “stand up to the anti-Western terrorists.” Western leaders must organize an “Anti-Terror Summit of world Pact leaders.” Among the measures they must adopt is one requiring all Shi’ites, Sikhs, and Palestinians to “stand guarantor and undergo thorough security screening” whenever one of their compatriots commits a terrorist act against a Western democracy. But the democracies must act quickly. Otherwise it will be too late.

This Issue

September 24, 1987