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Home > Back Issues (Journal) > Journal V28 N4 (Oct - Dec 2002) > Book Review: Inside Terrorism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998) by Bruce Hoffman

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Book Review:

Inside Terrorism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998) by Bruce Hoffman
Reviewed by Mr Tan Puay Seng


Bruce Hoffman, currently director of the RAND Corporation's Washington, D.C. office and head of its terrorism research unit, presents an in-depth account of the trends and key historical themes of terrorism. The book is well researched, providing valuable insights into the difficulties of defining terrorism, the dominance of ethno-nationalist and separatist terrorism in the post colonial era, the internationalization of terrorism heralded by acts perpetrated by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), and after the Cold War, religious motivation becoming prevalent characteristics of terrorist activity. In addition, the book also discussed the evolution of targets, tactics and technologies of terrorists and explored the relationship between terrorism, the media and public opinion. The author concluded, inter alia, that religiously motivated terrorism, especially with the use of weapons of destruction (WMD), would present the most serious threat to global stability.

Dr Hoffman started by explaining the difficulties in defining terrorism, and was able to provide readers with the meaning of the word from different viewpoints and contexts. For instance, while contemporary terrorism, defined as general violence or threat of violence used in service of political aims, has decidedly a negative connotation, Dr Hoffman highlighted that the word "during the French Revolution in fact had a positive connotation, where system of terror was an instrument of governance wielded by the revolutionary state to remind citizens of the necessity of virtue and democracy."1 Dr Hoffman discussed the growth of ethno-nationalist terrorist groups in the period leading to WWI, which resulted from the unrest and irredentist ferment in the decaying Ottoman and Habsburg Empires. By the 1930s, the meaning of terrorism could be used to describe the practices of mass repression employed by totalitarian states against their citizens. In addition, Dr Hoffman surfaced the difficulty of defining some of the contemporary terrorist groups who consciously proclaimed themselves as "freedom or liberation fighters". This ambiguity of "terrorism is in the eye of the beholder" has complicated the international community's effort to respond to acts of terror. To use a widely quoted example, the use of violence by the Palestinians has been justified, by some, as a war of liberation against Israel's oppression and the expression of the right to form an independent Palestinian state. In this manner, Dr Hoffman has devoted a chapter to explain why one could not be defined in a consistent manner, as its usage and meaning have been altered over time to accommodate the political context of each era.

Another important takeaway from this book was Dr Hoffman's distinctions between the motivations that drive political (or ethno-nationalist) terrorism and religious terrorism. He pointed out that terrorism during the Cold War was motivated by Marxist, Leninist or Maoist ideologies. From the 1960s to 80s, politico-ideological, the ethno-nationalist and the separatist organizations dominated terrorism. These terrorist groups espoused the political and social aim of gaining independence from colonial rule, or fighting to establish a new social order. Radical leftist organizations such as the Japanese Red Army, Red Army Faction and the Red Brigade (Italy), as well as ethno-nationalist/separatist terrorist movements like the Irish Republican Army and the Euskadi ta Askatasuna (Freedom for the Basque Homeland) conformed to the notion of the "traditional" terrorist group.2 One of the main characteristics of these organizations is that they avoid the deliberate causing of mass casualties, mainly because of fears that such attacks would undermine political support for their aims, or raise the risk of government retaliation.

Dr Hoffman explained that with the end of Cold War and the collapse of communism, left-wing terrorists groups were no longer appealing to the general populace, thus gradually leading to their demise. In their place, groups with less comprehensible nationalist, ideological and religious motivations have emerged. Some harbour apocalyptic visions, while others are inspired by hate agendas against targets ranging from the state and authority to ethnic groups. These groups have little regard of public image or any qualms in inflicting mass civilian casualties. Dr Hoffman cited examples of such acts of terror, which included the release of sarin nerve gas in a Tokyo subway station on March 1995 by the Japanese religious cult, Aum Shinrikyo (Aum 'Supreme Truth' sect) led by Shoko Asahara, who claimed to be entrusted with a messianic mission; and the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Office Building in Oklahoma City in April 1995 by Timothy McVeigh and his co-conspirators of the Christian Patriots, an American anti-government Christian White Supremacist movement, which sought to forment a nation-wide revolution. Keeping in mind that Inside Terrorism was published in 1998, Dr Hoffman's views about the dangers of religious fanaticism seem prophetic. However he also cautioned acts of terrorism had not been confined exclusively to Islamic militants, but involved deviant elements of the world's other major religions, as well as smaller cults and sects. Thus, this might be a word of warning that it might be a strategic error to focus solely on terrorist acts perpetrated by Islamic extremists.

Dr Hoffman wrote in his preface that he was always dumbstruck by "how disturbingly 'normal' most terrorists seem, who are highly articulate but have nonetheless deliberately chosen a path of bloodshed and destruction."3 His comments have been vindicated by the grim reality that terrorists who piloted the airliners that crashed into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon belonged to a new breed of terrorists: intelligent, middle-class men committing mass murder and suicide, united only by Islamic extremism and hatred for the West.4 They were not disillusioned young Palestinian suicide bombers, brought up in refugee camps with little education, disillusioned with the future, filled with hatred of the West and saw their salvation as winning eternal paradise by killing infidels. Instead the hijackers of September 11 were, for the most part, professionals in their 20s and 30s, well-educated, often living seemingly normal, middle class lives.5

However Dr Hoffman also presented some controversial issues. For instance, he commented that religious terrorism, coupled with increased access to critical information and key component, notably with WMD, leading to enhanced terrorist capabilities could spell an even bloodier and more destructive era of violence.6 Notwithstanding, this reviewer notes that despite the range of sophisticated weaponry and their availability on the market, tried and true methods are still valid. For instance, kidnappings by the Abu Sayyaf group in the Philippines and hijackings by Chechen nationals protesting Russian policies, rely not on advanced technology but on intent and belief.7

Dr Hoffman's focus on religion as the major driving force of terrorism was vindicated by the horror of the September 11 attacks. On the other hand, Dr Hoffman's conviction about the propensity of terrorists using WMD to wreak havoc need to be seen in a more circumspect manner; as the September 11 attacks were committed by the creative use of a humble "conventional" weapon in the form of a pocket knife.8

Notwithstanding this, Dr Hoffman's focus on religious terrorism could also lead to the provocative thought of whether such terrorism could be seen as a defining conflict in the early years of the 21st century. After all, another authority on this issue, Prof Walter Lacquer, has called the rise of religious terrorism a radical transformation, if not, a revolution of terrorism as "postmodern terrorism".9 According to him, the new terrorism is different in character, aimed not at achieving clearly defined political demands but at the destruction of society and the elimination of large proportions of the population.10 While debatable, this reviewer is of the view that the defining characteristic of terrorism is how terrorists have transcended territorial borders in such a pervasive manner that they do not merely threaten one state ­ the prime example being Al-Qaeda with its global reach. As such, never before in the history of terrorism has the international community been expected to co-operate on such a broad range of measures and co-operation, ranging from legislation to operational measures to deal with the threat.

In short, Dr Hoffman's book is a must read to all academics or practitioners who are dealing with the issue of terrorism.

The abovementioned title is available for borrowing at the SAFTI MI Library. The catalog references are:

Inside Terrorism
Bruce Hoffman
HV6431 HOF


1 Bruce Hoffman, Inside Terrorism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), p.15.

2 Bruce Hoffman, p.197.

3 Bruce Hoffman, p.1.

4 Louise Branson, quoted by the Straits Times, The New Breed of Terrorism, Tuesday, September 25, 2001, p.10.

5 Ibid.

6 Hoffman, p.205.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

9 Walter Laqueur, The New Terrorism: Fanaticism and the Arms of Mass Destruction, (London: Phoenix Press, 2001), p.4.

10 Ibid., p.81

Mr Tan Puay Seng is a Preventive Security Executive at the Ministry of Home Affairs. He graduated with a BSc in Mathematics from NUS in 1997 and an MA in War Studies from King's College London in 1998. He is currently pursuing a Masters in Social Science (International Studies) at NUS.

Last updated: 03-Jul-2006






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