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Types Of Terrorism | Hand of Reason

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Types Of Terrorism

It is common today for people to hear the word terrorism and immediately think of al-Qaeda or other Islamic extremists. While Islamic extremism does contribute to certain types of terrorism, there are many other forms as well, all with their own characteristics and challenges for policy makers. These types commonly overlap to describe single terrorist organizations but are useful in providing a way of differentiating what these groups will target and what motivates them.

Defining these groups helps us to understand necessary responses to each form of terrorism. Here are several of the most common types of terrorism, examples of each, and countermeasures that can be used to combat them.


For this article terrorism is defined as: The use of violence to physically and psychologically terrorize a population by an individual or a group in order to draw attention to a cause, enact political change, or gain political power.

State Terrorism

State terrorism is the systematic use of terror by a government in order to control its population. Not to be confused with state sponsored terrorism, where states sponsor terrorist groups, state terrorism is entirely carried out by the group holding power in a country and not a non-governmental organization. It is the original form of terrorism. The 1793 French Revolution and the thousands of executions that resulted are often cited as the first instance of state terrorism, though rulers have plausibly been using it for centuries to control their subjects.

Examples: The aforementioned French Revolution is the most prominent example, however state terrorism is wide spread. Just about every dictator in history has arguably utilized state terrorism as a way of controlling his or her populations. For more contemporary examples one could look to the use of violence by Saddam Hussein against the Kurds or even the suppression of democratic protestors in Syria.

Religious Terrorism

Terrorism can be motivated by religious ideologies and grievances. Religious terrorism is particularly dangerous due to the fanaticism of those who practice it and their willingness to sacrifice themselves for the cause. Religious terrorists are more likely to use “all in” tactics such as suicide bombings. This is made possible by religious teachings used to justify and even encourage this kind of self-sacrifice. Bruce Hoffman discuss religious terrorism at length in his book Inside Terrorism.

Examples: Al-Qaeda is perhaps the most prominent example of a group that can be characterized as religious terrorists. As well religious terrorism has a long history from Catholic-Protestant violence in Ireland to Muslim-Hindu tensions in Pakistan and India.

Right Wing Terrorism

This type of terrorism aims to combat liberal governments and preserve traditional social orders. Right Wing terrorism is commonly characterized by militias and gangs; many times these groups are racially motivated and aim to marginalize minorities within a state.

Examples: Modern right wing terrorist groups include the Klu Klux Klan and Neo-Fascists. Many such groups are present not only in the U.S. but also in Germany, Russia, and others. Foreign Affairs has published an article titled A Nazi Legacy: Right-Wing Extremism In Postwar Germany.

Left Wing Terrorism

These groups seek to overthrow capitalist democracies and establish socialist or communist governments in their place. They want to attack the established system in order to do away with class distinction. While these groups still exist they are not as prominent as they were during the Cold War.

Examples: The Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front in Turkey, Revolutionary Organization 17 November in Greece, and The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) are all current examples of left wing terrorist groups.

Pathological Terrorism

This describes the use of terrorism by individuals who utilize such strategies for the sheer joy of terrorizing others. Pathological terrorists often operate alone rather in groups like the others on this list and often are not true ‘terrorists’ as they lack any well-defined political motive.

Examples: Pathological terrorism is most commonly seen in school shootings and serial killing scenarios. The shootings at Columbine High School and of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords all serve as examples of pathological terrorism since those who carried them out sought to use violence to terrorize for their own pleasure.

Issue Oriented Terrorism

This type of terrorism is carried out for the purpose of advancing a specific issue. Commonly these issues are social in nature or deal with the environment. Here this definition is used to include environmental terrorism.

Examples: The bombings of abortion clinics and the assault of whaling ships are the best examples of issue-oriented terrorism. Perhaps the best documented example of an ecoterror group is the Environmental Liberation Front (ELF) due to their attacks on ski resorts and logging operations. A summary of ecoterrorism can be found here.

Separatist Terrorism

Separatists seek to cause fragmentation within a country and establishment a new state. This type of terrorism is typical of minorities within a nation-state that desire their own, commonly due to discrimination from the majority group.

Examples: The most prominent examples are the ETA Basque separatists in Spain, the Chechen terrorists in Chechnya, the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, the Kurdish PKK in Turkey, and the Quebec Liberation Front in Canada.


This term originally refers to organizations that gain funds through the sale of drugs. It can also deal with the use of violence by those groups or gangs designed to make the sale of their drugs easier. Check out this article for more information

Examples: The cartels in Mexico have carried out beheadings, mass burials, and other severe acts of violence. Many times this violence is carried out to intimidate populations into not cooperating with authorities. Pablo Escobar also enacted the assassinations of Colombian politicians during the height of his power in order to intimidate the government into not interfering with his drug trafficking activity.


Terrorism is a complex phenomenon for policy makers and so are the responses. Some strategies are more usefully for dealing with specific types of terrorism than others.

When combating religious terrorism, coordinating with religious leaders and building a relationship with them will encourage better cooperation. Treating all the members of a religious group as if they are terrorists will only alienate that group and make them more prone to violence in retaliation.

Similarly, separatist terrorism can be combated with more inclusive political processes that allow outlets for political dissent.

Since narco-terrorism and right wing terrorism is usually characterized by gangs, a concentration on regular policing is the most advantageous.

Taking out leaders and members of terrorist networks with specific skills is always a good approach for combating terrorism in general. Targeting terrorist funding is also a crucial strategy.

Finally, facilitating the exit of individual low-level terrorists from these networks and easing their peaceful reintegration back into society is an important step in ending terrorism.

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