What Is Terrorism? - Definition, History, Types & Examples

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  • 0:03 Terrorism
  • 0:53 A Brief History of Terrorism
  • 3:41 Types of Terrorism
  • 5:57 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Terrorism is a major buzzword in today's society, but how much do you really know about it? In this lesson, we'll look at the history of terrorism and see how it turned into the threat we know it as today.


If there's one word that future historians will be unable to avoid when talking about the early twenty-first century, it's terrorism (also memes, but let's focus on the serious issues here). Terrorism is the use of extreme public violence to intimidate and cause terror, in the goal of achieving a political aim. Basically, terrorists attempt to create political and social change by threatening the welfare of their opponents. In general, this isn't a clearly issued threat like two nations declaring war but through unprovoked acts. Live in fear - that's the basic message of terrorism. But, where did this ideology come from and how did it become such a big part of our world? To understand that, we need to look back further in history than you might suspect.

A Brief History of Terrorism

People today often think of terrorism as a modern threat, but there's nothing modern about it. People have been using extreme and public displays of violence to scare and intimidate their opponents for most of human history. First-century Jews, called the Zealots (the origin of that term), tried to overthrow Roman rule through intimidation and assassination. Assassination on holy days was a popular form of intimidation during the era of the crusades, the preferred method of the sect who became known as the assassins (the origin of that term).

The word 'terrorism' as we know it, however, originated in France during the regime de la terreur, the Reign of Terror. From 1793 to 1794, The French Revolution descended into madness, as the revolutionary leaders started rounding up and publicly executing dissidents by guillotine. Revolutionary leader Robespierre stated that terror is nothing other than justice, thus justifying the unlawful execution of 40,000 people.

The tactics of modern terrorism appeared a little later, in 1870s Russia. Those who sought to overthrow the czar decided to weaken his government through extreme and public actions of violence, intended to do three things:

  • Destabilize the government
  • Divide the population
  • Provoke authorities to overreact out of fear

These tactics quickly spread out of Russia, where they were adopted by anarchists, revolutionaries, and dissidents oppressed by the Ottoman and British empires. Thus, terrorism first became a global phenomenon as a way to fight imperialism by destabilizing colonial governments, dividing the loyalty of the population, and provoking colonial authorities to overreact. Of course, the concept of terrorism only grew from there.

In the early twentieth century, anarchist groups starting using terrorist tactics to weaken governments. Fascist governments terrorized their own populations to maintain order. After World War II, terrorism became part of the continuing anti-imperialist struggle of Africa and West Asia. This is where the history of terrorism as many people imagine it today began. Radical groups, often funded by either the U.S. or U.S.S.R, started utilizing increasingly extreme tactics to weaken communist or capitalist regimes, respectively.

The Cold War eventually ended between the U.S. and U.S.S.R., but radical terrorists kept fighting, emboldened by extremist ideologies and years of financial support from global super powers. This introduced a new form of terrorism in which suicide became a tool of terror, demonstrating the resolve of new terrorist organizations and the length they would go to.

Types of Terrorism

In looking through our history of terrorism, we have to acknowledge that this phenomenon is not as easy to define as you'd think. The concept and practice of terrorism has changed at many points throughout history, but in general, we can organize terrorist actions into two types.

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