A forgotten history of terrorism

On 24 January 1878, Vera Zasulich, a young Russian revolutionary, shot General Fyodor Trepov, the Governor of St Petersburg, in retaliation for his torture of the Tsarist regime’s many political prisoners. Trepov was wounded in the attack, while Zasulich was soon arrested and put on trial. When questioned as to why she hadn’t shot again and finished the job, she replied simply: ‘I’m a terrorist, not a murderer!’ [1]

The idea that someone would enthusiastically self-identify as a terrorist seems ridiculous today, as we now understand the term as wholly negative. To label a person or a group ‘terrorist’ is to brand them with the most severe denouncement of their methods, morality and cause. Yet Vera Zasulich, after proudly labelling herself a terrorist, was acquitted, to the delight of much of Russian society.

At the time, terrorism as both a term and as an identifiable phenomenon was something very new. Of course, political violence isn’t new, and there are examples of what could be called terrorism at least as early as in ancient Judea, where an organised group of assassins opposed to Roman occupation, the Sicarii (‘Men of the Dagger’), attacked individual Romans and their supporters with daggers before vanishing into crowds. But these cases were few and far between, rather than part of an identifiable trend.

The use of ‘terrorism’ to describe acts of violence carried out with political motivations only came into use in the nineteenth century, when these tactics were becoming more and more common means of agitating for political change. It has its roots in ‘terror’ in the sense that it was used during the French Revolution: rather than something horrible and detestable, it, at least at the time, carried a sense of righteousness, of the necessary overthrow of an unjust established order. It’s no wonder, then, that both the tactics often associated with terrorism, and the use of that word to describe them, first surged in the brutal, feudal and autocratic Tsarist Russia, against the same monarchy that would eventually be overthrown in the Russian Revolution, and one that few today would dare to defend.

This Russian revolutionary terrorism soon culminated in the spectacular assassination of Tsar Alexander II. After many failed attempts on his life, in 1881 he was finally killed by terrorists who threw dynamite at his carriage during his regular commute. The resulting explosions killed the Tsar, much of his entourage and one of the dynamite-throwers themselves. This act was an attempt to spur a revolution through propaganda of the deed – the idea that some acts, prosecuted by relatively small groups of people, could be so symbolically powerful as to spur the oppressed masses into spontaneous action. Important anarchist thinker Mikhail Bakunin summed up the concept in 1870:

All of us must now embark stormy revolutionary seas, and from this very moment we must spread our principles, not with words but with deeds, for this is the most popular, the most potent, and the most irresistible form of propaganda.[2]

Despite the growing discontent with the Tsardom, the hoped-for revolution didn’t come to pass. Rather, the most immediate result of the assassination was a brutal crackdown on revolutionaries. Nevertheless, the success of this attack showed plainly that the upper echelons of society were anything but invincible. With the aid of new technology such as dynamite and the increased availability of firearms due to the Industrial Revolution, individuals or small groups now had easy access to levels of destructive potential previously available only to the security apparatus of the ruling class. For the first time, the playing field had been somewhat levelled. Indeed, Peter Kropotkin, another famous Russian anarchist, wrote that revolutionaries could make ‘more propaganda with this method of action (dynamite/firearm attacks) than can be made by all our votes.’[3]

Tsar assassination (artist unknown)

The assassination of Tsar Alexander II (artist unknown)

The methods employed in Russia soon inspired similar tactics abroad. By the end of the nineteenth century, anarchist terrorist groups had formed in practically every country in Europe, from the Balkans to Spain. This first ever strain of truly international terrorism was shocking to European governments, who had up until then enjoyed a monopoly on violence that any force less formidable than another nation-state couldn’t hope to challenge. The early Russian terrorist, Sergei Nechaev, perfectly articulated why these tactics posed such a threat:

The revolutionary group is not afraid of bayonets and the government’s army because it does not have to clash, in its struggle, with this blind and insensible force, which strikes down those to whom it is ordered to strike. This force is only dreadful to the obvious enemy. Against the secret one it is completely useless.[4]

In 1898, the ‘International Anti-Anarchist Conference’ was convened in Rome, attended by delegates from every European country. This sort of non-wartime international cooperation was uncommon at the time, emphasising just how threatened these governments felt by terrorism. Thus began a 25-year long anti-terrorist campaign, the first of its kind. This campaign was much less concerned with security than it was delegitimising the cause of the terrorists in the eyes of the masses. Anarchism, which is a complicated and nuanced set of political theories that specifically deal with how society ought to be organised, and which itself has little to nothing to do with the terrorist tactics chosen by some anarchists, was smeared as nothing more than the simple desire for complete chaos. Indeed, the conference itself laughably chose to define anarchism as ‘the destruction, through violent means, of all social organisation.’[5] Anarchist literature and propaganda were banned, and anarchists were surveilled, detained, arrested, or driven to exile, whether they advocated for terrorism or not. The campaign greatly intensified following the 1901 assassinations of both King Umberto I of Italy and President McKinley of the USA. It thus marked the beginning of the shift in the definition of terrorism to the one we know today.

By the time of the Second World War, long after anarchist terrorism had largely died out, the word meant something different. It was now understood as wholly negative: to be branded as a terrorist meant that your cause was illegitimate and your means unjustifiable. European resistance movements, for example, were smeared as terrorists by the Nazis, mirroring the way all anti-occupation insurgents were branded as terrorists during the Iraq War.[6] The last organisation to self-identity as terrorists, the Zionist group, Lehi, abandoned the label in 1948.[7] Right around this time, anti-colonial independence movements were reaching a fever pitch worldwide. Unlike the earlier anarchist terrorists, these movements, almost without exception, enjoyed popular support in their respective countries and garnered much sympathy abroad. Yet, invariably, they were branded as terrorists by their colonial overlords. Already, the word had become more of a political tool than a useful description, being employed against practically any non-state actors that utilised violent means, regardless of their cause and methods – a way in which it’s still routinely used today.

Tsar assassination (artist unknown)

Poster produced and circulated by the official British Conservative Party student group in the 1980s, during the Thatcher government. Photo: Descrier.

Many figures or groups, today lionised, were once branded as terrorists. The quintessential example of this is Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC). The ANC had spent many decades focusing on non-violent resistance to Apartheid, only changing their stance once it became evident that this strategy wasn’t going to work against a government that was happy to employ violence against them. In Mandela’s own words, ‘the government which uses force to support its rule teaches the oppressed to use force to oppose it.’ Attacks sanctioned by the ANC specifically targeted property and were carefully planned to avoid causing injury. Yet Mandela, during his time, was branded as a terrorist, not only by his own government, but also by the United States, one of the apartheid regime’s most stringent supporters, and others – showing how the terrorist label is used by governments to delegitimise practically any cause or method that challenges their interests.

Nation-states are, curiously, almost entirely immune to the incredibly potent ‘terrorist’ label. The Oxford English Dictionary defines terrorism as the
‘unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims’. This definition is common in everyday parlance and is often employed in debates where one party is attempting to brand a person or group as terroristic for the delegitimising power of the word. Of course, waging war itself fits most of this definition, as war is inherently both violent and political. Yet, graciously, the dictionary inserts a special qualifier here that serves exclusively to legitimise the actions of states: unlawful. States are the arbiter of what is and isn’t legal and thus, essentially by default, can’t commit terrorist acts. The My Lai massacre, for example, in which many hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese civilians were brutally murdered by US soldiers, isn’t something that would ever be labelled terrorism, despite its grave severity and its eerie similarity to contemporary terrorist attacks where shooters target civilians. In contrast, groups of non-state actors are often branded as terrorists even when they attack military targets, as the Viet Cong were in this 1964 article about an attack on South Vietnamese militia, in which only one person (a militiaman) was killed.

On the occasions when a state is actually branded terroristic, it’s a retrospective label, and always refers exclusively to its internal affairs, never to external. The Soviet Union under Stalin, Algeria under French rule, Peru under Fujimori, Chile under Pinochet, and Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay under their most recent military dictatorships: all of these regimes have been widely branded as state terrorist, but only after the fact. While they were actually committing their atrocities, such a label was scarcely employed by the international community, which instead prefers lighter language, such as ‘concerns about human rights abuses’. Instead, they wait until it’s politically prudent to do so, long after the governments are defunct, and often because many of them were supporters of those regimes. In fact, all of these regimes themselves took advantage of the power of the ‘terrorist’ label, characterising any armed resistance to their violent, authoritarian rule as terrorism. Thus, governments of sovereign states, at least during their tenure, enjoy near-total immunity from the label, regardless of how egregious their actions might be, and especially when these actions are prosecuted outside of their own borders.

Since the rise of religious terrorism in the 1980s, the word has become even more powerful of a label. Terrorism has been a constant for more than 150 years, yet the senseless brutality of many of the attacks in the last three decades, which often specifically aim to cause mass civilian casualties, is something that has scarcely been seen before. This terrible strain of violence has, however, not been a negative for Western governments. Quite the contrary: it has been a propaganda coup, which they have taken full advantage of to strengthen their global hegemony. Not only is the terrorist label much more powerful, as calling someone a ‘terrorist’ is putting them into the same category as ISIS without room for nuance, but it has enabled the global ‘War on Terror’, a convenient excuse to wage wars of aggression, expand the state security apparatus and grow the surveillance state.

When I was in Peru, I watched the yearly military parade in Lima on Independence Day with a local family from a lower-class background. The matriarch of the family, in her 60s, saved her most raucous cheers for the march of the army veterans of the ‘Internal Conflict’ of the 80s and 90s between the Peruvian state and the Shining Path insurgency. I asked if she was aware that, while uncountable crimes were committed by the Shining Path during that conflict, the army committed a plethora of atrocities themselves, killing more than 15,000 people while detaining, torturing and raping tens of thousands more.[8] Her reply was to ask me if I ‘supported the fucking terrorists?’ This was a woman who had lived through the most tumultuous time in her country’s recent history, who came from the social class that would have been most likely to have sympathised with the rebels during the war, yet she had nonetheless internalised and accepted the state’s one-sided narrative surrounding the conflict in full. This experience perfectly illustrates the power that the terrorist label holds, not just to delegitimise non-state violence, but to simultaneously justify even the most egregious applications of violence by the state.

‘Terrorism’, in the way the word is used today, usually means force utilised by non-state actors. This is, essentially, the only constant between all of those branded with the term, which has encompassed everything from armed resistance to some of the most universally condemned regimes in history, to the senseless mass murder of civilians. It’s employed widely – with all the associated negative connotations – so as to render it nearly useless as a consistent descriptor. Essentially, the only utility that the word offers, other than its propaganda value, is to indicate the user of the term (almost always supportive of/part of a sovereign state), is politically opposed to the party they are applying it to (almost always a non-state actor). As Didier Bigo summarised: ‘terrorism does not exist: or more precisely, it is not a useable concept.’[9]


[1] Jay Bergman, Vera Zasulich: A Biography (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1983).

[2] Sam Dolgoff (ed.), Bakunin on Anarchy (New York: Vintage Books, 1971), 195.

[3] Kropotkin: And the Rise of Revolutionary Anarchism1872–1886 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 157.

[4] Nikolai Morozov, ‘The Terrorist Struggle’ in Walter Lacquer and Yonah Alexander (eds.), The Terrorism Reader: A Historical Anthology (2nd edn., New York: New American Library, 1987), 73.

[5] Richard Bach Jesen, ‘The International Anti-Anarchist Conference of 1898 and the Origins of Interpol’, Journal of Contemporary History, 16/2 (1981), 327.

[6] Robert Gildea, ‘Residence, Reprisals and Community in Occupied France’, Transactions of the RHS, 13 (2003), 163.

[7] David C. Rapoport, ‘The Four Waves of Rebel Terror and September 11’, Anthropoetics VIII, 8/1 (2002), 4.

[8] Comisión de la Verdad y Reconciliación, Anexo 2: ¿Cuántos Peruanos Murieron?, 17.
Comisión de la Verdad y Reconciliación, 1.5: Violencia Sexual Contra La Mujer277.
Comisión de la Verdad y Reconciliación, 1.4: La Tortura y Otros Tratos o Penas Crueles, Inhumanos o Degradantes,183.

[9] Didier Bigo, ‘L’Impossible Cartographie du Terrorisme’, Cultures & Conflicts, 2005, 2.




Image: The assassination of Tsar Alexander II / Wikicommons

George Ganitis

George Ganitis writes stuff, mostly about history and politics. Find him on Twitter at @george_ganitis.

More by George Ganitis ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays