Rise of Terrorism since 1990: Causes & Major Events

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  • 0:03 Terrorism Since 1990
  • 0:48 Beginnings
  • 3:29 9/11 & War on Terror
  • 6:24 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the diverse and dangerous rise of terrorism, specifically that sponsored by Islamic extremism, since 1990, as well as the current terrorist threats posed to the world today.

Terrorism Since 1990

A few hundred years ago the warfare Americans engaged in was pretty straightforward: thousands of men lined up across from one another and shot at each other with highly inaccurate, single-shot muskets. A cavalry or infantry charge here or there was common. From these rude beginnings to the smart bombs, machine guns, and laser-guided missiles of today, warfare has changed quite a lot. Even the targets and participants are different. And perhaps no time period has changed as rapidly as the past quarter-century, as terrorism has gone from being an isolated incident to a commonplace, global problem. In this lesson, we'll explore the rise of terrorism in the 1990s and its place in today's world.


Terrorism is the specific targeting of civilians or non-military installations for violence. It did not begin in the 1990s; far from it - terrorism has been around for centuries, and one can even find it as far back as the Roman Empire, when the Zealots of Judea conducted an assassination campaign against Roman officials and any Jews they felt had cooperated with or benefited from Roman occupation. In addition, recent terrorism has not been solely a phenomenon of the Islamic world. In fact, World War I was touched off by an act of terrorism: the 1914 assassination of Austrian Prince Franz Ferdinand by Bosnian nationalists.

However, most of the terrorism Western governments deal with today has far more recent roots. Though there still are acts of domestic terrorism against Western governments, such as the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing or the 1996 bombing of the Atlanta Olympics, the majority of recent terrorist acts have been committed by Islamic extremists. It's important to note that these Islamic extremists strike against Western governments for a wide range of reasons, from America's invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan to the encroachment of Western values upon traditional cultures, to the continued Israeli occupation of the Palestinian West Bank.

One of the first and most well-known international Islamic extremist terrorist organizations is al-Qaeda, which literally translates to the base in Arabic. al-Qaeda's leader, Osama bin Laden, and many of his followers came from the Afghani mujahideen, a group that successfully fought the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1970s and 1980s and, ironically, were funded and trained by CIA operatives.

With the Soviet withdrawal out of Afghanistan in the late 1980s, al-Qaeda began plotting for a global jihad, or holy war, against the Western world. They focused especially on Western influences in the Middle East and Central Asia, which al-Qaeda rejected as corruptible, corrosive, and anathema to their idealist plans for Muslim society. Many devotees, including bin Laden himself, foresaw the return of a Middle Eastern caliphate, a vast Muslim-controlled state that would be governed by Sharia Law, a strict religious code based on a strict reading of the Quran.

To this effect, bin Laden relocated al-Qaeda to Sudan, where he directed several terrorist attacks on the U.S. and other Western government buildings in the Muslim world and elsewhere. The 1993 bombing outside the World Trade Center in New York City killed six, while several bombings in Mumbai, India killed over 250 people in the same year. The bloodiest attack against the United States came in 1998 when the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed, killing over 200 people and injuring thousands.

9/11 and War on Terror

Throughout the 1990s, bin Laden continued to recruit new extremists and make new contacts with militant groups across the Muslim world. He relocated to Afghanistan shortly before perpetrating the largest terrorist attack on U.S. soil ever. On September 11, 2001, after several years of planning, four planes were hijacked in the air by al-Qaeda operatives. The first two were flown into the two World Trade Center towers in New York City, both of which collapsed shortly after, and the third was flown into the Pentagon. The fourth crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. Nearly 3,000 Americans died as a result.

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