Historical Approaches to the relationship between terrorism and armed conflict




Autor: Stein Tønnesson, Director,
International Peace Research Institute,
Oslo (PRIO),
Institut for fredsforskning.
Paper presented at Workshop on Terrorism & Armed Conflict,
organised by SIPRI and PRIO,
Oslo , 8-9 December 2002.

Historical Approaches to the relationship between terrorism and armed conflict

International Peace Research Institute, Oslo.



Como medidas pasivas de seguridad
están de moda las murallas ?. * 88 )
Por qué regresan, cuando ya las creíamos despedidas para siempre?

Stein Tønnesson.
Historical Approaches to the relationship between terrorism and armed conflict.
Terrorism and Armed Conflict.
Paper presented at Workshop on Terrorism & Armed Conflict,
organised by SIPRI and PRIO,
Oslo, 8-9 December 2002.



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Historical Approaches to the relationship between terrorism and armed conflict

Stein Tønnesson

  Historical approaches to the relationship between terrorism and armed conflict Paper presented at seminar at seminar on "terrorism and armed conflict", organised by SIPRI and PRIO at Voksenåsen, Oslo , 8-9 December 2002.

Hipercor, Spain


As organisers of this seminar, SIPRI and PRIO have not considered it necessary to seek agreement on the difficult question of how to define ‘terrorism'. Or intention is to focus on linkages between such acts or behaviour that each of us clearly identify as ‘terrorist' and another kind of acts or behaviour called ‘armed conflict' or ‘war'. We include both internal and international conflicts. It is our belief that differences in the definition of ‘terrorism' do not preclude any meaningful discussion of linkages, if only the participants in the debate make clear how they use the term. This paper will follow Bruce Hoffman's definition of terrorism as ‘the deliberate creation and exploitation of fear through violence or the threat of violence in the pursuit of political change'.1 It is thus clear a) that terrorism is a kind of deliberate act or behaviour involving the use or threat of violence, b) that it seeks to create fear, and c) that it has a political aim. Bruce Hoffman adds to his definition that only violence perpetrated by ‘a subnational group or non-state entity' should be considered as terrorist. This proposition will not be accepted in this paper, since it would exclude from consideration multiple terrorist acts perpetrated by regimes against their own populations (such as during the French Revolutionary Wars), and also against enemy populations in international warfare (such as the utilisation by Napoleon of terrorist attacks against Britain during the British blockade).

The need for systematic inquiries

The author of this paper is a post-September 11 novice in the study of terrorism, and has not made a satisfactory survey of the literature. It seems, however, that there are few systematic inquiries into the relationship between terrorism and war. If this is true, then it is high time to undertake such inquires, from multiple angles. We should try to establish patterns of when and how wars do or do not lead to terrorism, and find out when and how terrorism does or does not lead to war. To start such inquiries is the aim of the seminar. The rest of this paper will look briefly at some prominent historical cases where war and terrorism have occurred together or in sequence, and look for patterns of interlinkage. Instead of first establishing a sample of patterns, and then seek out cases, the paper will try to induce patterns from each case.

The French Revolutionary Wars

The French National Assembly declared war against the Habsburg Empire on 20 April 1792 . The Prussian monarchy joined up with the Habsburgs, and Prussian forces invaded France . This pressure from the outside provided the background for the demise of the French monarchy, the popularly organised September massacres in Paris, and the formal proclamation of the Republic shortly after the victory of the 1 Bruce Hoffman, 1998. Inside Terrorism. ( London : Victor Gollancz): 43. French against the invading Prussian forces at Valmy on 20 September 1792 . The revolutionary leaders now opted for state-organised terror in order to forestall a return of spontaneously organised uncontrollable massacres of the September 1792 kind.

On 1 February 1793 , after the French Republic had invaded Belgium and less than two weeks after the execution of Louis XVI, France also declared war on Great Britain and the Netherlands . In March it went to war against Spain . That same month, a civil war broke out in Vendée between monarchist and republican forces. In 23 August came the famous ‘levée en masse', mobilizing the population against external and internal enemies, and against a background of renewed uncontrollable rebellion in Paris including a near-attack on the National Convent, the assembly put ‘terror' explicitly on its agenda in September. Capital punishment had already been widely used since the outbreak of the Vendée uprising and the wars with Britain and Spain , but it was not till September 1793 that it became part of a revolutionary programme.

There are evident linkages between the widespread use of massive arrests and capital punishment by the Republic during ‘the terror' (‘la terreur') and the external and internal wars. Although the utilisation of capital punishment by a revolutionary regime is highly different from the utilisation of assassinations or bombs by subnational groups, it may still be possible to discern interesting parallels in the linkages they have with war. The word ‘terrorism' itself has much of its background in the French Revolution, and it would be a loss if the terror during the French Revolutionary Wars were excluded from a discussion of linkages between terrorism and war. Moreover, there are evident similarities between the use of terror in the French Revolution and the use of terror by later revolutionary regimes in Russia , China , Cambodia , and Iran .

If one looks at the statistics of French revolutionary terror, for quite some time after the mass arrests and capital punishments began in earnest in March 1793, the number of executions reflected the intensity of external and internal warfare. Public capital executions were a way of enforcing national and revolutionary discipline and deterring people from supporting the external and internal enemy. And the internal and external wars were part of the same struggle. The Habsburg Emperor was the brother of the French queen, who was executed, and the Vendée revolt was promonarchist.

France became a Republic in the same month it won the first major battle at Valmy. The revolutionary terror in the period until the end of 1793 happened throughout the areas controlled by the revolutionary forces, and particularly in the areas most strongly affected by civil war. However, the terror also became a part of the factional infighting in the Convent. After the Vendée uprising had suffered a major defeat in December 1793, this aspect of the Terror became much more pronounced. On a national level, the number of executions reached its apex in January 1794, just after the Vendée armies had suffered their great defeat, and then it fell abruptly. From March to July 1794, however, the number of executions again increased significantly, with a great number of executions in the revolutionary capital Paris . This time the increase did not reflect renewed warfare, but a radicalisation of the revolutionary regime, and factional fighting inside it.2 The Terror more or less ended after these factional struggles were temporarily resolved with the execution of Robespierre in late July 1794, and the Hébertistes shortly thereafter. The following post-terror year saw the French Republic reach several peace agreements: a ceasefire in Vendée on 17 February 1795 , a peace agreement with Prussia in April, with the 2 See table in Donald Greer, 1935.

The Indidence of the Terror during the French Revolution. A Statistical Interpretation. ( Cambridge MA : Harvard University Press): 113. Netherlands in May, and with Spain in July. The revolution had now reached its period of consolidation. The incidence of the French revolutionary terror is hardly imaginable without the external and internal wars. War between states became mixed up with a larger European war between a trans-national revolutionary movement and the old monarchic and aristocratic order. Even before the wars started, a radical discourse of nationalist warfare was introduced in the French National Assembly, with Brissot as the main orator, and this became mixed up with more and more frenzied attacks against traitors. Already in January 1792, the National Assembly introduced in replacement of the crime of ‘lèse majesté' the new term ‘lèse nation', thus providing a part of the conceptual and legal basis for the Terror.3 The mechanism leading from war to terror was therefore one where a) external and internal war became mixed up with each other, b) a new nationalist and revolutionary language provided a conceptual basis for Terror in the name of the People, and c) capital punishment became a tool used in factional struggles within the revolutionary regime. Similar patterns may be recognized in the Russian Civil War 1917-21, the Chinese Civil War 1927-49, the Cambodian genocide after 1975, and the Iranian Islamist terror during the war with Iraq 1980-88.

The First and Second World Wars

If we now move to the European War 1914-18 (generally known as the ‘First World War' although it was not really a World War), it had its origin in a terrorist act, the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand, but the rest of the First World War is not normally associated with terrorism. It rather marked the end of a period with multiple political assassinations carried out by anarchist or nationalist groups. These assassinations did not have their background in wars, but created much fear in leading political circles, and led to summits trying to establish international cooperation in surveillance and repression of terrorism. Anarchist and nationalist terrorism did not, however, cost many lives. It was feared by the governments because so many kings, princes, presidents and ministers were killed. This kind of terrorism bears some resemblance to what happened in Japan during the 1920s, and in Italy , Germany and Japan during the 1970s, with extreme leftist and rightist groups conducting terrorist acts targeted against specific powerful individuals.

During the First and also the Second World War terrorist acts more or less drowned in the tragedies of military warfare. When wars make everyone fearful, terrorist acts do not add significantly to the fear. The worst tragedies during the First World War happened in the trenches. In the Second World War, the ratio of civilian victims was much higher, and genocide and terrorist bombing from the air ( Dresden , Hiroshima ) became significant parts of international warfare. Many civil wars took place ‘inside' the two world wars, and terrorist methods were widely used both by states and subnational armies. This fact has not drawn much attention, however, in studies either of terrorism or of the two world wars. In times of general warfare, the threshold of ‘acceptable' atrocities tends to be high. The encyclopaedia Oxford Companion to the Second World War (1995) does not even contain an article on ‘terror' or ‘terrorism'.

3 TCW Blanning 1986. The Origins of the French Revolutionary Wars. ( London : Longman): 107. One significant aspect of the two world wars is the long term effect they had on some of the countries whose civil wars were part and parcel of the world wars. The First World War led to the break-up of the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires, and to the fall of the Russian Empire. Out of the war experience came two momentous political movements: Communism and Fascism. Communism was at first a revolt against war, and the communist leaders also marked a distance to the irrational terrorism of the pre-war anarchist groups. Communist violence was supposed to be rational, and to target real class enemies. As we know the regime of Lenin and Stalin soon degenerated into using terror on a much larger scale than during the French Revolution. Fascism arose as a continuation of frustrated nationalist sentiments during the First World War, and fascist groups made massive use of terrorist acts against labour movements and ethnic minorities in the 1920s and 30s. Neither communist nor fascist terrorism is conceivable without their background in the First World War.

One very obvious reason for the after-effects of the great international wars is that so many young men learned how to use small arms, and also kept some of their weapons. The great wars generated a culture of violence in some of the countries affected. Here we may discern what could be called a ‘blowback pattern'. ‘Blowback' is the pressure back against the shoulder from a gun when it is being fired. In the Norwegian language the normal term is ‘boomerang effect'. Germany helped the Bolsheviks in order to destroy the warring capacity of Tsarist Russia. This contributed to the spread of international communism, to revolts in parts of post-war Germany and to the creation of an influential German Communist Party.

Such ‘blowback' effects were also significant in the aftermath of the Second World War, notably in Southeast Asia , where Britain and the United States had sustained local sub-national anti-Japanese armies, some of which were led by communists. Weapons and training provided to groups in Burma and Malaya would be used in several decades of internal warfare after 1945.

The Wars of Decolonisation in Southeast Asia

The Second World War destroyed the European colonial empires in Southeast Asia . After the war, France and the Netherlands were unable to re-establish the colonial order in Indochina and Indonesia . Britain decided to let Burma have independence, but also to keep control of the far more significant Malaya and Singapore until it could manage a controlled decolonisation. In all of these colonial territories the wars of decolonisation contained elements of civil war between factions of the national movement, and some groups used terrorist means.

Indochina and Indonesia both started out, just after Japan capitulated on 15 August 1945 , with the proclamation of new national regimes, in Indonesia led by Sukarno, in Indochina by Ho Chi Minh. The wars of decolonisation in these two countries became primarily a conflict between new national armies with a background in organised groups from the period of Japanese occupation, and the returning forces of France and the Netherlands . The two main antagonists in these wars did not primarily use terrorist means, but fought their struggle in the manner of insurgency and counter-insurgency warfare, and at the same time diplomatically. Indonesia won a diplomatic victory in 1949 because the Netherlands lost international support, whereas the Indochinese communists had to fight a drawn-out guerrilla struggle and obtain Chinese military support before they could win major battles in 1950 and 1954.

However, in both countries there were also some rival nationalist groups who were squeezed between the colonial forces and the national army, and found that terrorist means was the only way they could draw attention to themselves. Their utilisation of terrorist methods was also a means of preventing a political compromise between the colonial power and the leading national movement. These weaker groups most likely calculated that they had a better chance of future influence if the forces of the dominant local movement were weakened in war with the colonial power. At first, however, this did not produce the desired results.

In Indonesia there was throughout the 1945-49 period a widespread dissatisfaction among radical youth movements with the moderation of Sukarno's nationalist regime. Some groups started to collaborate with gangsters, to launch terrorist attacks against Dutch civilians and Indonesian collaborators, and they also gained influence in parts of the national army.4 This established a lasting pattern in Indonesian politics, with gangsters and various kinds of youth groups being employed by certain factions of the regime whenever a need was felt to launch violent acts that could frighten certain political groups into submission. This is a different terror from the French revolutionary one. The French Terror was open and public, and in the capital Paris it was associated with the merciless but effective guillotine as its main tool and symbol. Indonesian, just as Latin American terrorism, has instead taken place in the dark. Some victims have simply disappeared. Others have been found at dawn with severed heads or otherwise mutilated.

In Indochina the communist-dominated government of Ho Chi Minh managed in March 1946 to both establish a national coalition government with leading members of the anti-communist nationalist parties, and get a preliminary diplomatic agreement with France . That summer, while the Vietnamese and French governments were negotiating, these groups conducted terrorist attacks on French civilians, clearly with the aim of interrupting the rapprochement between France and Vietnam . In the short run, the effect was the opposite, since the local French and Vietnamese authorities collaborated in repressing not only the terrorist groups, but the noncommunist parties more generally. However, the French government decided for its own reasons to not make any further concessions to the Vietnamese government. War broke out on 19 December 1946 , and amidst the turmoil of the outbreak of military fighting, gangs of released convicts murdered 30-40 French civilians. French media held the Vietnamese government responsible for the atrocities, and this did much to prevent renewed negotiations between the parties. What we see here is how terrorist acts can draw a wedge between two parties and oblige them to perpetuate their war against each other.

During the war against France and its client regimes in Saigon, Phnom Penh and Vientiane, the Indochinese communists at first used guerrilla warfare and, from 1950, more conventional military operations. The main targets of military operations were the French and its auxiliary military forces, but the communist forces also made systematic use of targeted political assassinations to eliminate village leaders who collaborated with the enemy. A main aims with these assassinations was to intimidate villages into cooperating only with the Viet Minh forces. The post-colonial noncommunist South Vietnamese regime of Ngo Dinh Diem (1954-62) would in turn use widespread murder to eradicate communist influence in the South Vietnamese countryside. In the Vietnam War from 1959, the communists took up again their same 4 Robert Cribb, 1991. Gangsters and Revolutionaries. The Jakarta People's Militia and the Indonesian Revolution 1945-1949. ( Sydney : Allen and Unwin): 57-69. old tactics, and gradually expanded its control of South Vietnam . When the USA decided, after some hesitation, to also use targeted assassinations as part of its Phoenix campaign, this contributed to a setback for the communists whose final victory resulted from a conventional military campaign (the Ho Chi Minh offensive).

The Malayan Emergency is a different story. Malaya is a clear example of ‘blowback'. Britain had supplied the communist-led ethnic Chinese Malayan People's Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) during the Second World War, and had also infiltrated the Malayan Communist Party. (Its top leader was actually a British agent.) After their return to Malaya and Singapore , Britain sought to establish a new constitution for a Malayan Union where the ethnic Chinese would for the first time have citizen rights. This failed because of ethnic Malay opposition. A political compromise between Britain , the local Malay states, and conservative ethnic Chinese was established in 1948 with the creation of a Malayan Federation. However, this alienated the left-wing Chinese. The Communist Party reformed itself, and in 1948 the communists assassinated several British plantation owners. This terrorist act provided Britain with a reason for launching a violent repression of its former allies.

Britain did not call this ‘war', but an Emergency. The way the British and Malays gradually defeated the communist guerrilla forces became a counter-insurgency model that the Americans tried unsuccessfully to emulate in Vietnam (and did not try to emulate after 11 September when George W. Bush instead declared ‘war on terrorism').

In the wars of decolonisation in Southeast Asia we find at least two patterns of interlinkage between armed conflict and terrorism. First there is the ‘blowback pattern'. And secondly, there is the pattern where third parties, squeezed between the two main antagonists when they are either fighting or negotiating, use terrorist methods to draw attention to themselves and prevent the two antagonists from making peace. The latter pattern is one where terrorist acts are used by ‘spoilers'.

The Wars in Cambodia and Afghanistan

Let us now move to the two wars that spelled the end of 20th century communist expansion: those of Cambodia (1978-91) and Afghanistan (1978-2002). Both the Cambodian and Afghanistan wars were a combination of civil war and liberation war from foreign communist domination, and there were also extremely hostile relations between the various members of the coalitions who fought against the occupation powers and their local client regimes. In both countries the most extreme faction of the anti-communist movement also tended to be militarily the most effective (Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-i-islami). They therefore received substantial aid from the United States . The Islamist forces in Afghanistan also received substantial aid from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan , and the Khmer Rouge and its coalition partners were supported by China and Thailand .

The two wars ended very differently. After more than ten years of counterinsurgency warfare, Vietnam withdrew its forces from Cambodia in 1989 (the same year as the Malayan Communist Party finally gave up its guerrilla struggle). The war in Cambodia then ended in a political settlement that marginalised the Khmer Rouge and deprived it of international support. Over the next few years the Khmer Rouge succumbed to factional infighting and defections, and finally died out. Many of its fighters were integrated in the Cambodian national army. Terrorist methods continued to be used from time to time in internal political struggles between the main Cambodian political factions, and against the small remaining Vietnamese ethnic minority, but it did not spread, did not internationalise. Continental Southeast Asia instead entered a period of political and economic integration, with Singapore and China as significant motors. The death of the Khmer Rouge of course also had to do with the fact that its ideology now seemed to belong to the past.

In Afghanistan , the Soviet withdrawal in 1988 did not lead to a political settlement, but to many more years of civil war, and to the establishment in 1995 of a radical Islamist regime with support from Pakistan . In the same way as the Spanish Civil War had once done, the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan also drew support from international brigades who became involved in the civil war between the Afghani factions. A marriage of destiny was established between the new Taliban regime in 1995 and an international group led by Saudis, Jemenis and Egyptians, the now infamous Al-Qaeda. The formation of Al-Qaeda as an international organisation focussing specifically on the deliberate creation and exploitation of fear through horrifying acts of violence in the pursuit of political change within the Islamic world had its background in the wars in Afghanistan . It represents a ‘blowback pattern', where groups and individuals once formed with support from Saudi Arabia , Pakistan and the United States would target their former mentors. The ‘blowback pattern' is most clear in the case of Saudi Arabia, since the very origin of Osama bin Laden's decision to launch an international terrorist war to liberate the holy places was his rupture with the Saudi kingdom. The King decided in 1990 to invite US assistance in the war to liberate Kuwait from Iraq rather than accepting Osama bin Laden's offer to liberate Kuwait with an army of Afghanistan veterans. This led Osama to turn against Saudi Arabia . Thus we see how the Al-Qaeda phenomenon grew out both of the war in Afghanistan and the war in the Gulf. Al-Qaeda also benefited from internal warfare in Yemen and Sudan , and there is little doubt that Al-Qaeda must today be seeking to establish bases in new areas of civil war where it can lend services to one of the local parties in return for training facilities.


The cases discussed above suggest at least three patterns of linkage between terrorism and war that may be worthy of further inquiry. The first is one where a combination of external war, internal war and factional infighting within a regime or coalition leads to a violent frenzy, including widespread use of terrorist methods both to enforce national discipline and eliminate ‘traitors'. This pattern may be found not only in the French, Russian, Chinese and Cambodian revolutionary wars, but also in the case of Afghanistan from the 1979 Soviet intervention to the establishment and demise of the Taliban.

The second pattern is one where a combination of external and internal war leads to the marginalisation of certain groups who get squeezed between the main warring parties. These marginalised groups, which may sometimes have one foot in each camp, are militarily weaker than the leading antagonists, and hence find terrorism the only useful means to manifest themselves and prevent political solutions that could marginalise them even further. To prevent the ‘marginalisation' pattern, one should always seek to accommodate third parties in negotiated settlements, or find alternative ways of preventing them from acting as spoilers.

The third pattern is related to the first. This is the ‘blowback' pattern, where a state engaged in war or serious rivalry with another state provides support to rebellious groups within areas controlled by the enemy, and these groups later turn their organisation and weapons against their original beneficiary, and act as spoilers of a peace settlement after a war is over. If this is a widespread pattern, then one way of preventing or reducing the incidence of terrorist acts may be for the great powers to abstain from sustaining warfare by proxies. One should probably be extremely careful with supplying arms and equipment to groups that are your friends only because they are your current enemy's enemy.


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