This week in terrorism history: Sept. 11-17


For Americans, and frankly a lot of others, this week is “the big one” in terms of our consciousness of terrorism and the awareness of our own vulnerability.

As noted at The Atlantic’s website yesterday, prior to Sept. 11, 2001, few Americans thought much about terrorism, let alone considered it a significant threat either to themselves personally or to the United States generally. With that in mind, here’s this week’s look back:

  • Sept. 11, 2001 — United States: Three hijacked passenger jets are crashed into targets in New York City and Washington, D.C., with a fourth hijacked airline crashing in rural Pennsylvania. Nearly 3,000 are killed. Al Qaeda responsible.
  • Sept. 14, 2003 — Colombia: Four Israelis, two Britons, a German, and a Spaniard are all kidnapped by the National Liberation Army (ELN) of Colombia.
  • Sept. 15, 1981 — West Germany: US Army Gen. Frederick Kroesen is injured in a rocket propelled grenade attack in Heidelberg. Red Army Faction member Gudrun Ensslin claims responsibility.
  • Sept. 16, 2009 — Afghanistan: Suicide bomber kills two civilians, wounds five others, along with three soldiers. Taliban claims responsibility.
  • Sept. 17, 1992 — Germany: Four Iranian Kurds are killed in a Berlin restaurant. No claim of responsibility.

To briefly get back to the piece at The Atlantic noted above: In it three eminent scholars of terrorism, Brian Jenkins, Martha Crenshaw, and Bruce Hoffman, engage in a discussion of what we know, and still don’t know, about terrorism. Equally unanswered is the question of what to do about it. Jenkins starts the conversation this way:

The fundamental philosophical questions remain: How much security can a government be expected to provide its citizens? What is the obligation of a nation to its citizens if they are held hostage abroad? Do targeted killings differ from assassinations? And are such killings a preferable, even more moral alternative, to less discriminate military operations? How do liberal democracies effectively deal with violent adversaries capable of great violence and remain democracies? Or will perpetual war incrementally push us toward tyranny?

Hoffman, in part, notes how little we know about why individuals become terrorists:

For decades, scholars and analysts have searched for this holy grail of terrorism studies that would unlock all the mysteries about why individuals embrace violence in this manner. I am reminded here of the massive study undertaken by the West German government in the early 1980s in hopes of divining such an answer. The result was a multi-volume, meticulously detailed compendium of years of research that, as I recall, identified no single reason or universal explanation of why someone becomes a terrorist (or, in the contemporary vernacular, how one is radicalized).

And Crenshaw reminds us that for all our fears and worries about terrorism, it remains what social scientists call a “rare event” except in a very small handful of places under very specific circumstances:

Terrorism is actually rare except in certain concentrated spaces like Northern Ireland in the past, and perhaps Iraq now. Also, there aren’t many terrorists (or jihadists in contemporary idiom). There are many people who fit whatever profile can be drawn up, and a tiny number resort to violence. And within that small subset there can still be immense variation in motivation.

The whole lengthy discussion is well worth taking the time to read. Here’s the link again in case you don’t want to scroll back up to the top.



  1. Reid Hamilton says

    I suppose that by its nature, terrorism is an activity that can be carried out by a minimal number of persons for maximum effect. Thus, our desire to understand, confront, and address (“solve”) it outstrips our ability to do so. Because the number of terrorists is small, again particularly in proportion to the terror they cause, it can hardly be surprising that their motivations are diverse, multi-faceted, possibly ill-defined even to themselves, and hence – oh ya – unpredictable. I’d be interested in your further thoughts on this Peter.

    At the same time the technology that allows terrorists to cause death and destruction expands. I predict lots more gun violence and increasing infringement of civil rights in the US. I wish I had a happier prophecy to share.