Most definitions of terrorism agree on four main points:
- Terrorism involves the use or threats of violence.
- Terrorism is committed on behalf of a greater goal (political, religious, social, Etc.).
- Terrorism can be committed by governments, their agents or by any freelance actor, but it always targets non-combatant victims.
- Terrorism always aims for impact beyond its literal victims.
I always counted myself as early on the story of global terrorism because I covered one of the first epic successes of the phenomenon: the attack by the Palestinian group Black September on the Israeli Olympic team at the Munich Games on September 5, 1972.
This mass murder of 11 Israeli athletes and the subsequent deaths of five of the terrorists (three were captured alive) and a West German police officer fulfilled each of the four elements of terrorism.
It was from the first moment when the terrorists tried to force their way into the Israeli team’s Olympic Village apartments an act of spectacular violence.
It brought to worldwide attention claims of political rights of Palestinians displaced and dispossessed by the creation of the state of Israel.
Black September was a breakaway group from Fatah, the Palestinian nationalist group led by Yasir Arafat that eventually led the Palestinian National Authority, which still governs the Palestinian territories on the West Bank of the Jordan river. The terrorist group’s members were trained and committed members of the Palestinian nationalist movement.
Their victims, the Israeli athletes, were innocent civilians.
Most importantly, because the terrorist attack targeted an iconic event of Western Civilization (the Olympic Games) which was being covered by television networks that broadcasted almost everywhere on earth, the impact radiated well beyond the dead Israelis, Palestinians and the German policeman.
This was a literal case where the whole world was watching, and the terrorists’ message had maximum clarity, menace and impact.
Brian Michael Jenkins is a senior adviser to the president of the RAND Corporation and author of numerous books, reports, and articles on terrorism-related topics, including Will Terrorists Go Nuclear? (2008, Prometheus Books). He formerly served as chair of the Political Science Department at RAND. On the occasion of the 10-year anniversary of 9/11, Jenkins initiated a RAND effort to take stock of America’s policy reactions and give thoughtful consideration to future strategy. That effort is presented in The Long Shadow of 9/11: America’s Response to Terrorism (Brian Michael Jenkins and John Paul Godges, eds., 2011).
Commissioned in the infantry, Jenkins became a paratrooper and a captain in the Green Berets. He is a decorated combat veteran, having served in the Seventh Special Forces Group in the Dominican Republic and with the Fifth Special Forces Group in Vietnam. He returned to Vietnam as a member of the Long Range Planning Task Group and received the Department of the Army’s highest award for his service.
In 1996, President Clinton appointed Jenkins to the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security. From 1999 to 2000, he served as adviser to the National Commission on Terrorism and in 2000 was appointed to the U.S. Comptroller General’s Advisory Board. He is a research associate at the Mineta Transportation Institute, where he directs the continuing research on protecting surface transportation against terrorist attacks.