Back To CourseAP World History: Exam Prep
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Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.
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.
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.
9/11, as the event is now colloquially referred to, began an era of new awareness in the West of global terrorism. Shortly after the attacks, President George W. Bush declared a War on Terror. The U.S. then assembled an international coalition to invade Afghanistan where the Talibani government supported bin Laden and his terrorist cells. The U.S.-led invasions overthrew the Talibani government and destroyed or forced into hiding many of al-Qaeda's Afghanistan-based cells. However, at the same time, Western incursions in Central Asia and the Middle East angered many and instigated the proliferation of new and varying Islamic extremist terror cells around the globe.
Furthermore, al-Qaeda and others launched various terror attacks across the Western world in retribution for coalition attacks. For example, attacks in London, Madrid, and Mumbai in the 2000s collectively killed and injured thousands. The eventual killing of Osama bin Laden in a U.S. raid on a compound in Pakistan in 2011 took out the world's most notorious terrorist, but in reality was little more than a symbolic strike against the burgeoning ranks of Islamic extremists and their campaigns of global terrorism.
In recent years, the leaders and tactics of global terrorism have changed, but their motives and goals have not. For example, arguably 2015's most notorious terrorist establishment, the Islamic State, aims to set up a caliphate based in the Middle East that is governed by Sharia Law. To this end, they have waged guerrilla wars against Western-supported governments in the Middle East and carved out an amorphous territory in eastern Syria and western Iraq, in addition to supporting terrorist attacks abroad.
Most recently, the Islamic State and other terrorist groups have begun encouraging lone wolf terrorist attacks by Muslims who already live in Western countries and may not even have had contact with terrorist cells. Attacks, such as those in Quebec, Canada and an attack against the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa in 2014, are examples of such attacks. This relatively new prospect, the idea of self-radicalization by citizens of Western states, is only now beginning to be understood and may present the most chilling prospect to the security of Western nations since the beginning of the era of Islamic extremism and terrorism. How the global community confronts the ever-evolving world of global terrorism will have an enormous impact on the 21st-century world.
Terrorism is by no means a recent phenomenon, but the Islamic extremism that has funded and fueled many of the world's terrorist attacks since 1990 is. The most notorious group, Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda, got its start in the Afghani mujahideen in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They struck against U.S. and Western governments in the 1990s and made their largest attack on September 11, 2001, when nearly 3,000 Americans died in New York City, Washington D.C., and rural Pennsylvania.
Afterward, the United States and the Western world began fighting terrorist cells and those governments that supported them in the Middle East and Central Asia as large scale attacks continued in London, Mumbai, Madrid, and elsewhere. Despite bin Laden's death in 2011 by a U.S.-led strike, terrorism has continued to proliferate, merely changing its forms and functions. The most important current threat is that posed by the Islamic State, but it's only the most recent, and terrorism is sure to play a major role in 21st-century geopolitics.
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Back To CourseAP World History: Exam Prep
31 chapters | 283 lessons | 29 flashcard sets