(Text Version based on the Keynote Address delivered by Mr.Tissa Jayatilaka at the Inauguration Ceremony of the Academic Programmes of the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies, Colombo, 10 September, 2016).


The topic I have been requested to speak on is “The Challenges of Terrorism in the 21st Century”. This inauguration ceremony of the academic programmes of the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies (BCIS) is not the occasion, I think, for a deep, comprehensive and definitive exploration of the theme of terrorism. Even if I were to dare to attempt such an enormous task, the 20 to 30 minutes I have at my disposal would not suffice to accomplish it. What I propose to do this morning, therefore, is to place some thoughts on the theme before you, so as to encourage further debate, discussion, reflection and exploration.

I’ll make an attempt to define ‘terrorism’ taking into consideration the controversies surrounding that definition.  We are all familiar with the difficulty we face when we try to distinguish between a ‘terrorist organization’ and a ‘liberation organization’.  One man’s or woman’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter!  Besides all those involved in conventional war have inflicted, over the years or centuries, a horrific amount of violence on non-combatants on a scale that is certainly greater than that inflicted by terrorism. Firebombing of the German city of Dresden (13 – 15 February, 1945) and of Tokyo (9 March, 1945) are as horrific if not more so than the LTTE or ISIS terror attacks! History thus offers us proof of states which themselves have resorted to massive violence that smacks of terrorism in the process of fighting terrorists and terrorism. Of course they do and have done so under the cover of national sovereignty and national security. As Professor Stephen Walt has noted in a discussion hosted by the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs based in New York on 8 September, 2016, certain liberal states use non-liberal means to try and spread liberal values. He cites the Iraq War as a classic example of this non-liberal approach but goes on to state that this latter approach is as noticeable in western interventions in Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen and elsewhere too.

What I am trying to get at here is that there is a certain line that needs to be crossed before individuals and groups get branded as terrorists. If this is so, what then are these limits?  Questions and dilemmas of this kind, make defining what constitutes terrorism not an easy task.  That said, let us now try to seek a definition of terrorism.

We know that terrorism is not a new phenomenon. The term or word has been in use since time immemorial although it yet defies easy definition.  Terrorism has been described as both a tactic and strategy; a crime and a holy duty; a justified reaction to oppression and an inexcusable abomination. A lot depends, we need to bear in mind, on whose point of view is being represented.  Beauty, it has been rightly said, is in the eye of the beholder. Likewise terrorism is in the eye and heart of the beholder! Terrorism has often been an effective strategy for the weaker side in a conflict. As an asymmetric form of conflict, terrorism confers coercive power with many of the advantages of military force at a fraction of the cost of such force. Although what constitutes terrorism is rather well known, terrorism remains a nebulous concept.

The United Nations came out with the following definition of terrorism in 1992:

An anxiety-inspiring method of repeated violent action, employed by (semi-) clandestine individual, group or state actors, for idiosyncratic , criminal or political reasons, whereby- – in contrast to assassination – – the direct targets are not the main targets.


The US Department of Defense defines terrorism as ‘the calculated use of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or intimidate societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious or ideological.

The three key elements within this definition are: violence, fear and intimidation.

This is how the FBI defines terrorism:

Terrorism is the unlawful use of force and violence against person or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment of society thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.


The US Department of State defines terrorism to be ‘premeditated politically-motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience’.

Less specific and considerably less verbose, the British government’s definition of terrorism from 1974 is,

. . .  the use of violence for political ends, and includes any use of violence for the purpose  of putting the public, or any section of the public, in fear.


We thus see that terrorism is a criminal act that influences an audience beyond the immediate victim. The strategy of terrorists is to commit acts of violence that draws the attention of the local populace, the government, and the world to their cause.  The attacks by terrorists are so done as to secure the greatest publicity, choosing targets that usually symbolize what they oppose.  The effectiveness of a terrorist attack rests not on the act itself, but in the public’s or the government’s reaction to that act. The Black September Organization’s attack at the 1972 Munich Olympics when 11 Israelis were killed in a sad but (for our purposes today) a good example to illustrate the above observation.

The Israelis were the immediate victims. But the true target was the estimated one billion people watching the televised event. Those billion people were to be introduced to fear – – which is terrorism’s ultimate goal.

Fear arises from the threat of physical harm, a grizzly death, the fear of losing money or negative effects on the economy arising from financial terrorism; cyber terrorism harming the critical technological infrastructures of society; and psychological terrorism designed to influence people’s behavior.

Franklin Roosevelt was right: fear itself is fearsome.  We are burdened by the threat of layoffs (in the workplace), by grim news delivered in a medical diagnosis, by hearing a suspicious noise outside the window in the middle of the night. It is not the potential joblessness, disease, and intrusion that are bad. The fear of these bad things itself is bad. And if fear is bad, then intentionally causing a person undeserved fear is wrong. In addition to wrongfully killing, maiming and destroying, the terrorist is wrong for intentionally sowing the seeds of fear.

Fear is a gripping, life-altering weapon – – one that can ramify over generations. And it is what makes terrorism uniquely awful.

Terrorism is designed to produce an over-reaction and, though we do not have precise facts and figures to prove it, on the basis of anecdotal evidence, it can be affirmed that terrorism succeeds at producing that over-reaction virtually all the time.  Consequently societies tend to withdraw and governments in response use tactics that restrict and impinge upon everyone.

The Black September Organization used the high visibility of the Munich Olympics to publicize its views on the plight of the Palestinian refugees. Similarly in October 1983, Middle Eastern terrorists bombed the Marine Battalion Landing Team Headquarters at Beirut International Airport. Their immediate victims were the 241 US military personnel who were killed and over 100 others who were wounded. Their true target was the American people and the US Congress. Their once act of violence influenced the United States’ decision to withdraw the Marines from Beirut and was therefore considered a terrorist success.

Coming to the challenges of terrorism in the 21st Century, I thought it might be helpful initially to trace the background of the beginnings of these challenges. The rise of violence in general is what Eric Hobsbawm (2007) has called ‘the process of barbarization’ that has gathered strength in the world since the First World War. With the rise in the level of social violence arising often from citizens’ disenchantment with the existing political leadership (or the lack thereof), the states were quick to establish their legitimacy of their monopoly of coercive force. Since the late 1960s states have lost some of that monopoly of power. Citizens have become less law-abiding as we witness when we see protestors demonstrating during world economic summits and at related events often turning angry and violent.

Increasingly we note that from the middle of the 20th century onwards, a merging of general social violence and political violence.  Even in societies like Sri Lanka and Uruguay, with a non-violent political and social tradition, we have seen in them some of the worst political violence seen anywhere. The two JVP insurrections (1971 and 1987-89) and the LTTE violence in which significant numbers of citizens perished defy logical explanation given the non-violent social tradition of the island.

If we leave out the bloodshed and destruction of inter-state or state-sponsored warfare – – for example, Vietnam, the indirect superpower confrontations of the 1970s in Africa and Afghanistan, and the Indo-Pakistan and Iraq-Iran wars – – there have been three major bouts of political violence and counter-violence since the 1960s.

The first is what has been referred to as ‘neo-Blanquism’of the 1960s and 1970s. Blanquism is named after Louis Auguste Blanqui, 1805- 1881, the French Socialist and Political Activist notable for his revolutionary theory of Blanquism. This theory may be defined as the attempt by self-selected and generally small elite groups to overthrow regimes or to achieve the objectives of separatist nationalism through armed action. Neo-Blanquism was largely confined to western Europe , where these groups, primarily of middle class origin and generally lacking popular support outside universities( except in Northern Island where they had such outside support), relied to a large extent on media-attracting terrorist actions as also on well-targeted coups capable of destabilising their countries’ high politics. Examples are afforded by the activities of the Red Army Fraction in Federal Germany, the ETA’s assassination of General Franco’s presumed successor in 1973, and the kidnapping and murder of the then Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro by the Red Brigades in 1978.

The second bout, which came into its own towards the end of the 1980s, is primarily ethnic and confessional. Africa, the western zones of Islam, south and southeast Asia, and south-east Europe were the main regions affected.  Latin America remained immune to ethnic and religious conflict, East Asia and the Russian Federation (except for Chechyna) almost unaffected, and the European Union involved only through rising but unbloody xenophobia.  Elsewhere this wave of political violence produced massacre on a scale unknown since the Second World War. Unlike the European Neo-Blanquists, who usually lacked mass popular support, the activist groups of this period – – Al Fatah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, the Tamil Tigers, and the Kurdistan Workers Party, etc., – – could rely on the massive support of their constituency, and a source of permanent recruitment.

In this period, a major innovation was to prove grimly successful: that of the suicide bomber. Originally a spin-off from the Iranian Revolution of 1979, carrying its powerful ideology of Shia Islam, and with its idealization of martyrdom, the suicide bomber was first used to decisive effect in 1983 against the Americans by the Hezbollah in Lebanon. Its effectiveness was so patent that it soon spread to the Tamil Tigers in 1987, Hamas in Palestine in 1993, and to al Qaeda and other Islamic ultras in Kashmir and Chechnya between 1998 and 2000. The other most striking development of individual and small-group terrorism in this second phase was the remarkable revival of political assassination. If the period 1881 to 1914 was the first, so-to-speak, golden age of top- level political homicide, the years from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s became the second: Sadat in Egypt, Rabin in Israel, Rajiv Gandhi  and Mrs. Indira Gandhi in India, several leaders in Sri Lanka including Vijay Kumaratunga, President Premadasa, Lalith Atulathmudali, Gamini Dissanayaka,  among others. There were attempts made on the lives of Pope John Paul 11 and President Ronald Reagan in 1981.One of the unhappy signs of ‘the barbarization of politics’ after the First World War is the discovery by terrorists  that even negative publicity they receive from the print and broadcast media help  boost their evil cause. The mass murder of innocent civilians provide them with almost as much prominence (however notorious they become) as when they dispose of the most celebrated or symbolic targets.

In the third phase, the beginning of the 21st century and to-date, political violence has slowly but surely become global through ‘the war on terror’-based policies of George W. Bush and via the emergence of Al Qaeda, a ruthlessly effective terrorist organization with the ability to operate transnationally. The interesting feature here is the irrelevance of mass popular support for a given terrorist group’s success. The new terror outfits seek to deploy small numbers and their approach is that of ‘small group action’. The ‘active service units’ of the Provisional IRA , it is believed, had not been anything more than a couple of hundred individuals at any given time. According to available information, The Red Brigades in Italy or the Basque ETA were not any bigger. In its Afghan days, Al Qaeda, educated estimates suggest, had around four thousand persons. According to Diego Gambetta (2005), those involved in these terrorist outfits were, aside from rare exceptions, more educated and from a higher social background than the community to which they belong. Very few of them were products of religious schools.

An excellent essay titled ‘Learning to live with it’ appearing in The Economist (September 2016) gives us a vivid picture of today’s terrorism and its effects on society. Since the horror of Bastille Day, when Mohamed Bouhel killed 86 people in Nice, heavily armed soldiers patrolling the beaches has become a common sight. In late July, fanatical Muslims murdered a Catholic priest in Normandy. Since November 2015 when gunmen affiliated to Islamic State (IS) killed 130 people in Paris, France remains in a state of emergency. The presidential election of 2017 in France may well be won by the candidate who sounds toughest on terrorism.  Just a week ago, the French capital was put on high alert when French officials said they dismantled a ‘terrorist cell’ that planned to attack a Paris railway station under the direction of IS.   ‘This week at least two attacks were foiled,’ Prime Minister Manuel Valls said in an interview with Europe1 radio and Itele television on Sunday (11 September, 2016).  Valls said there were 15,000 people on the radar of police and intelligence services who were in the process of being radicalized. ‘There will be new attacks, there will be innocent victims . . . this is also my role to tell this truth to the French people,’ Valls said.

Subsequent to two Islamist attacks and a shooting rampage by a mentally unstable teenager, Germany, too, remains tense. It is investing more on its police and security forces. Some report that the government will soon advise citizens to stockpile food and water in case of a major terrorist attack.

On the other side of the Atlantic, meanwhile, mass shootings in San Bernadino and Orlando have forced terrorism into the agenda of the American presidential race. A few weeks ago, Pew, a pollster, reported that Americans wanted Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump to spend more time debating terrorism than debating the economy. Another poll held earlier in 2016 asked 83% of its respondents who said they followed IS news closely whether the group was ‘a serious threat to the existence or survival of the US’. No less than 77% agreed with this extraordinary suggestion. Obviously the perception of threat seems to matter almost as much as a possible threat itself!

Despite all of the above, the number of deaths through terrorism continues to rise in Europe and America. Some of the terror attacks have involved IS fighters who have returned home, most have been the work of local sympathizers, often with social or mental problems, who have been nowhere near Syria. Even when the caliphate is defeated in Iraq and Syria, the threat to the west seems likely to persist. And the kind of attacks that IS encourages is hard to prevent. Anyone can rent or steal a lorry and drive it at a crowd. Especially in America, it is all too easy for one to buy high-powered automatic weapons that can kill significant numbers in moments. Such attacks do not require much advance planning or much intelligence. And given the sheer number of potential jihadists, despite police and security service intelligence, there is no guarantee they can be stopped.

It is highly likely, therefore, that much of Europe and America will have to get accustomed to living with fairly regular acts of Islamist-inspired terrorism. And the challenge for open, liberal societies is how they should respond to this threat without over-reacting to it.

Here are some useful statistics The Economist gives for us to reflect upon. As a result of violent conflict in Northern Ireland and the actions of the Basque separatist ETA, terrorism, as I pointed out earlier, was consistently deadlier in the 1970s and 1980s than it has been since. Even then, the chance of being murdered was small. During the 30 years of violent conflict, the annual risk for civilians getting killed in Ulster was about one in 25,000. During the four bloodiest years of the second Intifada, the annual risk to Israeli civilians was about one in 35,000. Even in 2001, the likelihood of an American in the US being killed in a terrorist attack was less than one in 100, 000; in the decade up to 2013 that figure fell to one in 56 million. The chance of being the victim in 2013 of an ordinary homicide in the US was one in 20,000.Traffic accidents are three times more lethal. Charges of ‘otherworldly complacency’ from his critics notwithstanding, Barack Obama was correct when he said earlier this year that the danger of drowning in a bathtub is greater than that of being killed by terrorists. Despite these statistics, woe betide any politician who suggests diverting money from homeland security to areas where more lives might thereby be saved. The first response to any major terrorist attack is grief and shock. The second is nearly always that those in power have not done enough.

Terrorism is a form of psychological warfare against a society. As discussed above, thanks to the media coverage that terrorist attacks receive, the over-reaction of partisan political groups and of the politicians they back and thanks to the security services who, for their own purpose, inflate the capability of terrorists, the perception of risk is far higher than the reality.

To his credit President Obama has consistently warned about the consequences of using hyperbolic language to describe the terrorist threat.  In a television address in December 2015, after the San Bernadino shootings, President Obama explained that success against IS and their terrorists ‘won’t depend on tough talk or abandoning our values or giving into fear’. Instead he said, America would prevail by being strong and clever, resilient and relentless. Mr. Obama is right. Defeating terrorism depends above all on good intelligence, a degree of stoicism and a refusal to allow it to undermine the principles that open societies are built on.

I wish to end by offering some thoughts on how we might possibly reduce the level of violent terror that we see around us today.  Regardless of our ethnic differences or skin colour or the geographic location we live in, all of us are a part of the vulnerable humanity that people planet earth. And no one group of us has a monopoly on virtue or vice. We are all equally susceptible to the vagaries of nature. Climate change, infectious disease, food and water scarcities, natural disasters and other similar factors affect us all in the same way. All governments and all politicians need to recognize our common vulnerability and take meaningful steps to reduce Man’s inhumanity to Man. For in the absence of such concerted political leadership and action, the evils of discord and civil war would continue to dismember society.

The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes who was affected by the violent discord of the English Civil Wars (1642 to 1651) has written eloquently of societies affected by political crises that spring from violence. In his Leviathan, Hobbes spells out what life would be like without a just government, a condition he calls the state of nature.  In that state, each person would have a right to everything in the world. Hobbes’s argument is that such a state would lead inevitably to a ‘war of all against all’ (the Latin bellum omnium contra omnes), a state not dissimilar to what we see in today’s world. Society, if it continues to remain in this state would become hopelessly dislocated. Here is Hobbes’s diagnosis:


In such condition there is no place for industry because the fruit thereof is uncertain,

and consequently no culture of the earth, no navigation, nor use of the commodities

that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving

and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the

earth; no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and, which is worst of all,

continual  fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty,

brutish and short.


Perhaps the need of the hour is a fresh social contract taking into consideration the contemporary realities of existence: a new social contract that looks favorably on inclusivity and one which celebrates human diversity and the plural nature of society.

Overall it is my conviction that the contemporary dilemmas of human existence also contributes to the state of terror and violence that pervade society today. Global poverty, ethnic hostility, overpopulation, the spread of AIDS and other deadly infectious diseases, suppression of human rights, environmental despoliation and related factors contribute to the current predicament of ours. These particular problems, however, are mere symptoms of a more fundamental malaise which is essentially spiritual in nature.

The root cause of today’s violent disorder, it seems to me, is an ‘existential dislocation’. Even at the risk of over-simplification I would say that an excessive belief and faith in material progress underlies our contemporary socio-political crisis. This is compounded by our preoccupation with national security and resultant limits on democracy and personal freedom. Put simply, we have failed to understand the difference between need and greed. This incomprehension has spawned a whole range of undesirable and unhelpful behavior patterns, especially in the self-styled ‘Developed World’ but elsewhere as well.

Our cities have become urban jungles; the use (or is it abuse?) of liquor and drugs as an easy escape route from anxiety and despair is rampant; sexually provocative entertainment becomes more degrading by the day; the culture of the gun becomes an antidote for middle-class youths looking to break the monotony of their lives with murder and mayhem. Most crucially, as Bhikku Bodhi has pointed out, the breakdown of the family which once served as the training ground where children learn decency and personal responsibility has contributed like no other to the social and moral degradation of contemporary society.

To live is to want. When we are hungry, we want food. When we are tired, we want rest. We want the company of friends and loved ones. There is the paradox of wanting enlightenment. No religion or philosophy will ask us to renounce what we need to live.

The challenge is to distinguish between what is wholesome- – taking care of our physical and psychological needs- – and what is unwholesome. If all of us were to make this distinction and thereby re-fashion our lives, it may lead us to a less violent society and eventually to the preservation of the human community.  Moreover such a re-fashioning will make us recognize that we each bear a responsibility for the welfare of the whole, especially in the face of so much cruelty and violence we see around us. The Social Gospel of Christianity encourages such a wholesome existence, helps to ensure that the oppressed and afflicted are granted opportunities that have hitherto been denied them. This is also stressed by the Buddha in his short discourse in the Satipatthana Samyutta where he said:

Protecting oneself, one protects others

     Protecting others, one protects oneself.


As I stand before you here today, you and I know that too many people do not have a peaceful environment to live in, too many people suffer from loss and grief, and way too many people suffer from hunger and war. We must attune ourselves to hear the cries of despair of each other, and be able to share ‘the hope amidst despair, know that every sparrow is counted’  and learn to believe that war and hunger will soon pass away. We must be there for one another. As The English poet W.H. Auden famously observed:

There is no such thing as the state

 And no one exists alone;

Hunger allows no choice

To the citizen or the police;

We must love one another or die.


Thus interdependence is all. A return to our spiritual roots may help us reduce the level of violent conflict and terror which appear to have engulfed us and scar our society today.