European Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Terrorism: what is meant by this word

Today is the European Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Terrorism (Giornata europea in ricordo delle vittime del terrorismo). It was chosen on March 11th in memory of the jihadist terrorist attacks unleashed on four trains in Madrid in 2004, which caused the death of 192 people and the wounding of over two thousand. Terrorism is a complex problem. The nature of the phenomenon is changeable because it has different roots, practices, structures, purposes and actors.

The term terrorism was first adopted in reference to Maximilien de Robespierre’s Regime of Terror (Régime de la Terreur) in France in 1793; the radical revolutionaries (Jacobins) perpetrated harsh systematic violence against their own citizens, considered internal enemies of the homeland (Girondins), who were mass exterminated. This was done to achieve a political goal: to eliminate the opponents of the French Revolution, fight the Ancien Régime and restore social order. A year of violent repression, guided by the principle “lead the people by reason and the people’s enemies by terror” (Silke Andrew), that led to the massacre of thousands and thousands of French citizens.

“Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue; it is not so much a special principle as it is a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to our country’s most urgent needs” (Maximilian de Robespierre in Bongar Bruce). 

Subsequently, what was initially meant as state terror and violence was framed within a non-state context. Today terrorism is understood as non-state terrorism, through which groups, movements or organizations – such as religious fanatics, radical nationalists and political extremists, who don’t have state recognition and power – attack real States. Furthermore, the Western world initially considered terrorism as a threat originating outside its borders; now, we can say with certainty that it’s also inside it. Terrorist cells and their affiliates have taken on new, globalized dimensions; they have spread internationally and transnationally, covering an unbounded geographical space. Rapoport identifies 4 waves of terrorism:

  1. Anarchist wave (1880s):
  • “propaganda of the deed”: violence is necessary to inform, educate and generate publicity for a cause, to inspire, galvanize and convince the population to rise up and join the cause;
  • the word ‘terrorist’ is used in a positive sense, to circumscribe those who belong to groups that want to facilitate the revolution.
  • Examples: assassinations of Tsar Alexander II of Russia (1881) by Ignatij Grinevicsky and of the King of Italy Umberto I of Savoy (1900) by Gaetano Bresci.
  1. Anti-colonial wave (1920s):
  • following the Treaty of Versailles (1919), violence and terrorist methods were used by the freedom fighters, who didn’t want to define themselves as terrorists, but as a sort of insurrectional movements fighting for independence and self-determination (for example, the Lebanese, Tamil, Palestinian, Kurdish, Sikh, Kashmiri, Chechen and Iraqi cases mobilize to liberate a specific territory from foreign occupation).
  • Examples: Palestinian terrorism, especially during the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and IRA (Irish Republican Army), a military organization active from 1917 to 1922 aimed at fighting against the British forces for the independence of Ireland.
  1. New Wave of the Left (1960s):
  • with the first phase of the Cold War, terrorism was justified as a method to facilitate national revolution.
  • Examples: far-left red terrorism of the Red Brigades during the Years of Lead, pro-communism; ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna) for the independence and political autonomy of the Basque Country; Cuban Revolution (1953-1959) – also fought by Ernesto Che Guevara who joined the M-26-7 (July 26 Movement) – to overthrow the military dictatorship of Batista and establish a socialist state led by Fidel Castro.
  1. Religious Wave (1979):
  • the spread of religious terrorism, mainly of an Islamic nature, was triggered by two events:
  1. the invasion of Iran by Iraq;
  2. the invasion of Afghanistan by the USSR.
  • It’s also important to remember the ethnic genocide in Rwanda (1994) – by the Hutu government against the Tutsi minority population (even though they were both Christian), using machetes, sticks embedded with nails and firearms – and, the following year, the Srebrenica massacre of Bosnian Muslims, and the genocide of Bosnians and Bosnian Croats by the Serbian army during the Bosnian War (1992-1995).

Although the meaning of terrorism has changed over the years and it’s difficult to outline an accurate explanation, there are key elements of modern terrorism that can help to draw a coherent definition – such as violence and the indiscriminate use of force; the threat of further violence; the planning and premeditation of the act, which therefore makes it rational and logical, strategic and tactical; the involvement of an extended audience, often including non-combatants civilians (soft targets). All for common purposes – such as death and destruction; psychological reactions that last over the long term; pose a threat to order and peace; show the weakness of the establishment; achieve social, political or cultural objectives.

Randy Borum defines terrorism as “acts of violence intentionally perpetrated on civilian non-combatants with the goal of furthering some ideological, religious or political objective”. Claudio Bertolotti defines New Insurrectional Terrorism (NIT) as “the intentional, calculated, rational and self-justified use, or threat of use, of violence to pursue political, religious and ideological objectives”. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a terrorist is a “person who attempts to impose his point of view using coercive methods of intimidation; member of a clandestine organization, whose objective is to put pressure on the government through acts of violence directed against the government itself or the population”. The terrorist has what Pierre Bayle defines as a “errant” conscience: human reason is incapable of clearly distinguishing the Truth; this is why a person can err and deceive himself (Bronner).

The United Nations tried to give a general definition of terrorism:

  • with United Nations General Assembly Resolution 49/60 of December 1994: 

“Criminal acts aimed at or intended to cause a state of terror among the population, within a group of persons or among certain persons for political purposes are, in any circumstance, unjustifiable whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or any other nature that may be adduced to justify them” (Delli Santi).

  • with article 2 point b) of the 1999 United Nations International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism:

“any act intended to kill or seriously injure a civilian or any other person not directly participating in hostilities in a situation of armed conflict when, by its nature or context, such act is aimed at intimidating a population or coercing a government or a international organization to carry out or abstain from carrying out any act”.

The attack in Spain launched 20 years ago was one of the worst attacks in Europe since the Second World War to date. In recent years the number of terrorist attacks in the European Union has remained stable, although the Covid-19 pandemic has been a fertile period for jihadists to spread online propaganda and therefore their extremist ideology. The killing of two Swedish fans in Brussels by an Islamic State terrorist was recent (October 2023). Jihadist terrorism remains the most significant threat to the security of the international system.

Lucia Valentini

Lucia Valentini è neolaureata in Comunicazione giornalistica, pubblica e d’impresa (laurea magistrale, Università di Bologna), Comunicazione e Giornalismo (master, Università Pegaso) e Scienze Internazionali e Diplomatiche (laurea triennale, Università di Bologna). Interessata alle questioni geo-sociali e politiche dei PVS e del Medio Oriente, ha partecipato all’International Summer School “Social-Political Conflicts of Modern Society” presso la Saint Petersburg Mining University (08/2019). Incuriosita dalle religioni e dalle criticità dei paesi in guerra, ha frequentato i corsi “Hinduism Through its Scriptures” (HarvardX, 04/2020) e “Terrorism and Counterterrorism” (GeorgetownX, 02/2022). Inoltre, grande passione per la lingua inglese e con qualche conoscenza della lingua russa e hindi.