An Elementary Typology of Political Terrorism

  • Paul Wilkinson
Part of the Studies in Comparative Politics book series


We shall exclude from our typology criminal terrorism which can be defined as the systematic use of acts of terror for objectives of private material gain. Nor will the forms of purely psychic terror (religio-magical, etc.) be treated here. War terrorism will also be omitted on the grounds that a study of terroristic usages of war does not belong to an analysis of political terrorism proper. It might be objected that, in so far as wars are generally fought partly for political objectives, this is rather an arbitrary distinction. There is, indeed, such a reciprocal relationship between war and political terrorism that we shall find some reference to military events and developments unavoidable. On the other hand, phenomena of war or military terrorism have been quite inadequately studied and they really require separate and comprehensive treatment. There is, of course, a large literature on the so-called ‘balance of terror’, or what one authority has termed ‘the relation of dual impotence between the two great powers armed with thermonuclear weapons’ ([6] pp. 169 ff.). Yet remarkably little research has been undertaken into such tactics as the saturation bombing of cities or into alleged or admitted war crimes involving the massacre of civilians by military or naval forces. Is it even legitimate to describe such acts as terroristic if it can be shown that loss of life resulted only ‘incidentally’ in the course of realising purely military objectives (such as the destruction of enemy munitions, plants or communications)? Certainly each allegation of war terror needs to be studied in the light of all the available evidence concerning the initial military planning, the command structure, and the precise battle situation, in addition to the evidence of eyewitnesses. It would also be important and valuable in furthering our understanding of political terrorism to know more about the military effectiveness of war terror tactics aimed deliberately at undermining the morale of the civil population and weakening their will to resist. Is it the case, as Aron suggests, that such tactics will tend to be ultimately self-defeating, where the ‘target population’ is relatively homogeneous? Do such tactics serve only to make resistance more stubborn?


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Copyright information

© Government and Opposition 1974

Authors and Affiliations

  • Paul Wilkinson
    • 1
  1. 1.University CollegeCardiffUK

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