The Evolving Threat: Shifting Motivations

Tom Warwick

This entry is part two of an ongoing series on the evolution of America’s response to terrorism.  Read Part one here

“A Terrorist is someone who has a bomb, but doesn’t have an Air Force”

– William H. Webster

To understand the United States’ modern policies concerning terrorism, it is first necessary to understand the way terrorism itself has changed. In the decades before September 2001, terrorism was considered a tool of secular change; a violent means to a political end. One example of this use of terror for secular ends took place in Northern Ireland in what would come to be known as “The Troubles.”   In October of 1968, the Parliament of Northern Ireland (the North) had been dominated by unionists, those who supported remaining under British control, for over fifty years (BBC, 2016).  In an attempt to “solve social and political ills” resulting from “institutional discrimination” against the minority republicans, those who supported an independent Ireland, parliament accidentally caused “growing tension and violence between the two communities” (BBC, 2016). The resulting disorder led the British government to intervene sending troops and disbanding the Northern Ireland parliament (BBC, 2016).  

In response to this intervention, and unpopular British policies, new paramilitary groups began to form, the most prominent of the time being the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) (BBC, 2016).  The IRA was uninterested in any solution to the tensions other than the full withdrawal of the British and the reunification of the North with the Republic of Ireland (the Republic).  The IRA would eventually wage a “war of attrition” across the North, the Republic, and even in England with the goal being to weaken the resolve of the opposition and gain a unified Ireland (BBC, 2016).  The IRA, in addition to the use of guerrilla warfare against similarly organized unionist paramilitary groups, utilized car bombs and plastic explosives to attack mostly military targets (BBC, 2016). By the end of the Troubles these terrorist attacks would result in the death of 3,600 people and the wounding of of thousands more, all in the name of political independence (BBC, 2016).

The Troubles would finally come to an end thirty years later with the signing of the Good Friday Accords.  The Accords were the result of nearly two years of negotiations between British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, and representatives from the paramilitary groups willing to compromise (BBC, 2016). The agreement reinstated self-governance in the North and set up a system of shared governance between the Unionists and the Republicans.  The agreement also allowed for periodic referendums on the re-unification of Northern Ireland and the Republic (BBC, 2016).

Around the same time that the Troubles in Ireland were drawing to a close, secular terrorism in the United States appeared in the form of the Oklahoma City Bombing.  On the morning of April 19th 1995 Timothy McVeigh parked a van pack with improvised explosives in front of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. “In a matter of seconds, the blast destroyed most of the nine-story concrete and granite building” and witnesses at the scene would eventually compare the surrounding area to a “war zone” with more than three hundred “nearby buildings being damaged or destroyed” (FBI, 2015).  In the end “168 men, women and children” would be killed and hundreds more injured (Lauter and Pitcavage, 2015).  The attack remains the deadliest act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history.

In the aftermath of the attack, the Federal Bureau of Investigation would take the lead in tracking down McVeigh.  After finding intact parts of the van that McVeigh had stored the improvised explosives in, the FBI traced the van’s serial number to a car rental agency (FBI, 2015).  From there the FBI were able to create a sketch of McVeigh which was eventually recognized by the owner of a motel where McVeigh stayed at shortly before the attack (FBI, 2015).  Two years after being apprehended by the FBI, McVeigh was found guilty among other charges of “using a weapon of mass destruction that caused death and injury,” as well as “eight counts of first-degree murder of federal law enforcement officers” (FBI, 2015).  McVeigh would be executed exactly three months before the September 11th attacks.

Before his execution, McVeigh cited his opposition to the US government as his motivation for the terrorist act.  Mcveigh believed that the government was “attacking Americans’ personal rights and freedoms” and saw the recent events in Waco, Texas as evidence of “the government declaring war” (FBI, 2015).  McVeigh targeted the Murrah federal building because it was home to fourteen federal agencies and filled with government workers (FBI, 2015).  McVeigh believed that his attack would be the inspiration for a “new American revolution” (FBI, 2015).  Even as he was lead to his execution McVeigh was firm in his radical political message, choosing to read William Ernest Henley’s Invictus (the title of which is latin for unconquered) as his official last words (BBC,2001).

McVeigh and the IRA are two examples of a larger trend towards the use of terror as a means to a secular-political ends.  While it would be inaccurate to say that terrorism was used only for secular means prior to September 11th, it was the primary motivator.  However, beginning in the early 1990’s we being to see the emergence of terrorist groups primarily motivated, not by a secular political interest, but by a radicalized interpretation of religion. 

You can read the next part of this series here.

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