The War on Terror
*Although the world has always known terrorism in various forms (and today has many non-Moslem terrorist groups), the current wave of Islamist terrorism can be traced to the establishment of Israel and, even more recently, to the failure of the Six-Day War of 1967 to wrest Palestinian lands from Israeli control.

*Until that point, efforts to destroy Israel and to create a Palestinian state had largely been undertaken through conventional warfare and diplomacy.  These were motivated by political, ethnic, and religious motives.  However, when all of Israel’s neighbours could not defeat her in 1967, some Palestinians chose to follow Yasser Arafat, who had long been an advocate of guerrilla warfare.

*The Palestinian Liberation Organisation had been founded in 1964, but largely as a political pressure group.  It had been supported in large part by President Gamal Nasser of Egypt, and therefore had Pan-Arab tendencies.  After the Six-Day War, however, Arafat became increasingly powerful, and in 1969 he became president of the PLO (and would remain so until his death in 2004).

*Under Arafat, the PLO (and various associate groups) began to practise terrorism with the ultimate goal of destroying Israel’s international support and eventually overthrowing it.  More short-term goals sometimes included negotiating for the release of various political prisoners or demanding large sums of money.

*In 1972 at the Munich Summer Olympics, eleven Israeli athletes were taken hostage by a group associated with the PLO (Black September).  They demanded the release of 234 Palestinians jailed in Israel and 2 more held in Germany.  Israel refused to negotiate, although they did offer to send in special forces to  help the German government (which refused, and used its own ill-trained border guards in a failed rescue mission).  In the end, all the hostages were killed, along with 5 of the 8 terrorists and 1 German policeman.  Two of the other terrorists were later killed by Israeli secret agents (Mossad), and the other is in hiding in Africa.

*One popular tactic of the PLO (and other terrorists) was the highjacking of airplanes, and then holding the passengers hostage until ransoms were paid or prisoners were released.  In some cases the terrorists were successful, in others local police or military forces killed them when they tried to land.  In one of the most famous highjacking incidents, members of the PLF actually seized a cruise ship, the Achille Lauro, in 1985 in response to recent Israeli attacks against PLO headquarters.  While holding the ship hostage, the four highjackers killed one American passenger, apparently because he was Jewish.  Eventually the highjackers were allowed to leave the ship, and were placed on an Egyptian airliner, which was forced to land in Italy by the US.  The four men were arrested, but three eventually were released from prison.  One of these was captured by the US military in Iraq in 2003, and he died in US custody in 2004.

*The PLO was also responsible for the first (1987-1993) and second (2000-2005) Intifada in attempts to win their own state by open warfare in Israel.  Militarily they were failures, as about 10 Palestinians died for every Israeli, but Israel’s ruthless crushing of the PLO and other Palestinians made some Americans and American sympathetic to the Palestinians for the first time.

*1980 saw the creation of what is perhaps the world’s major terrorist organisation today, al-Quaeda (‘the foundation’ or ‘the base’).  In 1980, Osama bin Laden helped to found a mujahidin group in Afghanistan to fight the USSR that would eventually evolve into al-Quaeda.  In 1988, bin Ladin would formally create al-Quaeda, and many of the mujahidin with whom he had fought would join him.  The CIA helped train many mujahidin groups, although because bin Ladin and his group were mostly Arabs in a non-Arab country, they did not get as much CIA support as others did.

*After the Soviet Union left Afghanistan in 1989, al-Quaeda turned its attention elsewhere, and began to focus more on outright terrorism, rather than guerrilla warfare.  In the 1990s, al-Quaeda operated in Sudan, and later in Bosnia, which was seen as an opportunity to fight another religious war to defend Islam.

*Al-Quaeda is a pan-Islamic group (with a diverse range of ethnicities) and has several goals.  They hope to reduce the influence of the West on the Islamic world, and to resist western power.  They would like to destroy Israel as a state.  They also hope to overthrow most existing Middle Eastern governments because they are seen as not being Islamic enough—even the royal family of Saudi Arabia is not good enough for bin Ladin (because they work with the USA (even letting them build military bases on Arabian soil—in the land of the two cities) and because he feels that some of their religion is hypocritical).  They would like to create one government for all the Moslem world under one Caliph, something even many Moslem people and governments do not want, because it would mean giving up much of their own power.

*About 1996, bin Ladin returned to Afghanistan, where he worked with another former mujahidin group, the Taliban, to set up a fundamentalist Islamic state in Afghanistan.  In return, Afghanistan supported al-Quaeda and its terrorist activities. 

*In 1998, bin Ladin issued a fatwa, a religious decree (despite not having the religious authority to do so) requiring all Moslems to kill Americans.  This was done under the name of the 'International Islamic Front for Jihad Against the Jews and Crusaders.'

*In 2001 bin Ladin and al-Quaeda apparently planned and executed the September 11th attacks on the United States, killing 2,986 people (there is some debate if bin Ladin was actually involved, and he has denied it publicly).  In response, the USA announced its intention to invade Afghanistan, although the Taliban twice offered to turn Osama bin Ladin over to a third party if the USA would leave them alone.

*The war in Afghanistan was quick and successful, although the occupation has been difficult, and many local warlords remain powerful (and often fund their activities through the opium trade).

*In 2003, the US government was concerned that Iraq had aided or was aiding al-Quaeda and other terrorist groups.  Throughout the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, many Middle Eastern countries had training camps for terrorists, or actively sponsored terror.  Libya and Syria were especially well-known for that, but Iraq had been involved somewhat as well.  However, Osama bin Ladin hated Saddam Hussein for being a secular leader and supporting secular, Baathist pan-Arabism.  When Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, bin Laden offered his help to Saudi Arabia (until the UN and USA came in to help).

*Since the US invasion of Iraq, however, al-Quaeda has become increasingly involved in the area, which some view as a failure of US policy, but others see as a blessing in disguise—as long as al-Quaeda is busy in Iraq, they won’t have the resources to launch major attacks elsewhere, although there have been some attacks elsewhere since, notably in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005. 

*The successful overthrow of Saddam Hussein has also been thought to have helped spark the Cedar and Tulip Revolutions, and to have encouraged a decrease in PLO violence and Libya’s decision to abandon its weapons and terror programmes.

*Besides the PLO and al-Quaeda, there are several other famous terrorist organisations. 

*The PLO has competition in the Levant from Hamas, a group determined to create a fundamentalist Islamic state in all of what is now Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip, and does not recognise Israel’s right to exist (it considers it a Zionist conspiracy).  Even the PLO admitted that Israel was a sovereign state in 1988 (although it disputes its borders).

*Hezbollah was formed in 1982 in Lebanon to fight the Israeli occupiers, and is both a political and military group.  While the military wing of the party is involved in terrorism and guerrilla warfare, the political party supports candidates for public office and even supports hospitals, schools, and other charitable and civic works.

*There are several groups calling themselves the ‘Islamic Jihad,’ all of which are opposed to Israel and, usually, the USA.  The two most famous groups with this name are those based in Syria (which bombed the US Marine Corps barracks in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War) and Palestine.  There are also groups with this name in Yemen and Egypt.

*Two of the major issues in both legitimate political friction between the Middle East and the West and in Islamist terrorism are the disparity in wealth between the regions and the growing influence of Western, particularly American, culture in the Middle East—sometimes known as Coca-Colonisation.

*The issue of wealth and the power the Middle East has (and does not have) is most obvious in the case of oil. 

*In 1973, Egypt and Syria (and later Jordan and Iraq) made war on Israel to try to get back the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula, lost in the Six-Day War of 1967.  The war was largely a draw, but the US (and some other countries supported Israel), and in retaliation, OPEC cut off the supply of oil to those nations.  The price of oil immediately quadrupled.  In the USA, oil was rationed, the speed limit was lowered, and daylight savings time was extended.  This still did not stop many places from running out of oil, or the entire world from falling into a deep recession—Japan responded by moving away from oil-intensive industries and into electronics.  According to recently-revealed documents, the USA even considered invading Saudi Arabia or Kuwait to force them to sell their oil.  End the end, though, the embargo hurt OPEC, although it hurt some countries more than others.

*Oil has made the Middle East wealthy and powerful, but its value is declining.  As countries in the Middle East have industrialised and modernised, their populations have expanded tremendously.  Oil production has not expanded in the same degree.  Therefore, the amount of money available to the average citizen is much less:  in 1980, the GDP per capita was $25,000, a tidy sum then or now.  By 1999 it was $7,000 per capita, although it has since risen to $12,000.

*As the region sees its influence decline—especially as the young have difficulty finding employment--while the West continues to boom, more and more Middle Easterners grow resentful, and turn to violence to solve their problems. 

*Even today, the majority of Moslems, both laymen and scholars, reject terrorism (especially suicide bombing, as Islam is opposed to suicide), saying it is contrary to the teachings of Islam.  Many prominent Islamic leaders have condemned various terrorist leaders, especially those who take it upon themselves to issue fatwas.  Nonetheless, terrorism remains a world-wide problem, and the War against it, while worth fighting, is probably not truly possible to win.

This page last updated 24 October, 2005.