New Versus Traditional Terrorism: Similarities and Differences

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Pantha rei – as it was stated by the Greek philosopher, Heraclites of Ephesus (sixth and fifth centuries B.C.) – everything flows, everything changes. Change in the contemporary world is an extremely fast process. Nothing remains the same as it was in the past. In political science especially, some notions (e.g. sovereignty) demand redefinition. The changing nature of all things also includes the political concept of terrorism.

The official approach to this changing terrorism is rather complicated. The terrorist of yesterday is the hero of today, and the hero of yesterday becomes the terrorist of today . There is then a great need to know what contemporary terrorism is and what it is not. Terrorism is a calculated use of power to achieve a political change, thus violence – or equally important, the threat of violence – is used and directed in pursuit of, or in service of a political aim . Terrorism is an expression of political strategy, a willful choice made by an organization for political and strategic reasons (efficacy) rather than as the unintended outcome of psychological or social factors . However, terrorism is difficult to define because the meaning of the term has changed so frequently over the past 200 years. It has morphed from positive connotation during the French Revolution (closely associated with the ideals of virtue and democracy ), through the revolutionary movement and finally to a religiously motivated act as it is mainly perceived today. Nevertheless, we have to ask ourselves whether "old" and "new" terrorism really exists, or maybe the phenomenon we are facing today reminds us an old wine in a new bottle. Two questions frame the discussed issue:

1.What is the nature of "new" terrorism?
2.What is the magnitude of threat of "new" terrorism?
"Old" and "new" terrorism are distinguishable in five points, as the table below shows . Old TerrorismNew Terrorism
IdeologicalVague or religious motivations
HierarchicalUnorganized (lone wolf, ad hoc)
therefore more difficult to penetrate
Propaganda by deed
(bringing issue to the table)More violent
(killing for the sake of killing)
Sub-nationalTransnational and International (global)
State sponsored, learning by doing, conventional weapons Better financed, trained and in pursuit of Weapons of Mass Destruction

The "old" or "traditional" terrorists used terrorism as a tool in pursuit of very traditional goals that could be understood within the arena of normal politics, even if their tactics had left this arena. It was one tool attached to an overall strategy, and it was a tightly controlled tool. In the past, terrorism was ideological (and still is today, if we remember about political Islam ). But under the old rules, "terrorists wanted a lot of people watching not a lot of people dead" . They wanted to sit at the table. "Today's terrorists are not particularly concerned about converts, and don't want to sit at the table, they want to destroy the table and everyone sitting at it". In the past, these were mainly sub – state actors implementing hit-and-run violence in order to attract attention to, and ensure publicity for themselves and their cause . The terrorism used to be the last in a sequence of choices. The most common tactics were diplomatic kidnappings, hijackings or hostage takings. They ensured efficiency since the other methods were not expected to work or were time consuming, given the urgency of the situation and government's superior resources. That is why terrorism was called "the shortcut to revolution." Pursuing extreme interests in the political area, the phenomenon called "old" terrorism", was also state sponsored from complete control at the one end of the spectrum, through providing trainings, funds and safe haven for an autonomous group, to simple support at the other end. Essentially the state was always part of the equation. The "new" apocalyptical terrorism, (or what is also called 4th generation...
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