23 June 2010
This article reappraises the strategic impact of Armenian terrorism in the twentieth century. From 1973 to 1985, Armenian terrorists earned a deadly and infamous international reputation by murdering Turkish diplomats or members of their families, along with many other non-involved third parties killed in the crossfire, during 188 terrorist operations worldwide. By the mid-1980s, however, Armenian terrorists had fallen into mindless but deadly internal fighting that resulted in the deaths of several of their leading members. Yet even with the benefit of 20 years of hindsight, it remains difficult to assess definitively the strategic influence exerted by Armenian terrorism. It was an excellent example of how one person’s terrorist can be viewed by some as another’s freedom fighter. In seeking revenge for past perceived wrongs and in pursuit of the goal of an independent state, Armenian terrorism also shared common characteristics with such other ethnic-based terrorist movements as the Irish and Palestinians. Although by practically all conventional standards of measurement its ultimate strategic impact was virtually nil, some might still argue that Armenian terrorism did help preserve the memory of what many call the twentieth-century’s first or forgotten genocide.
Tacitly supported by many Armenians and others throughout the world as legitimate revenge for what most observers viewed as genocide1 in the First World War, Armenian terrorism in the twentieth century was an excellent example of how one person’s terrorist can be viewed by some as another’s freedom fighter. In seeking revenge for past perceived wrongs and in pursuit of the goal of an independent state, Armenian terrorism also shared common characteristics with such other ethnic-based terrorist movements as the Irish and Palestinians. In another sense, however, Armenian terrorism, as well as its support in the larger Armenian community, was unique in its visceral hatred of its enemy, in this case the Turks. Also unique was how Armenian terrorism manifested two separate periods of activity separated by almost half a century: first, the period immediately after the First World War when a secretive Armenian organization called Operation Nemesis assassinated several former Ottoman officials; and second, the period from approximately 1973 to 1985 when the Marxist Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA) and its more right-wing nationalist rival, the Justice Commandos of the Armenian Genocide (JCAG; after July 1983, the Armenian Revolutionary Army [ARA]), assassinated numerous Turkish diplomats as well as a number of third parties.2
This article will reappraise the strategic impact of Armenian terrorism in the twentieth century. What forces drove this particular terrorism, and what led to its demise? What was its strategic impact, if any? With the perspective of time, what role did Armenian terrorism play in the twentieth century’s over-all explosion of terrorism as a means by which the weak could achieve strategic goals they could not reach in more conventional ways? Alternatively, was Armenian terrorism more sui generis, a unique phenomenon which had no lasting achievement?
Terrorism is a phenomenon that usually emanates from the failure of its perpetrators to develop sufficient political or military strength to present their case in a more conventional manner. The inability of the victims to stem it, on the other hand, often flows from the cliché that “one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter.” For example, during the 1984 trial in Paris of the four ASALA operatives who seized the Turkish consulate and killed its Turkish guard in 1981, the president of the French court ruled that referring to the defendants as “terrorists” would not be allowed, since anyone participating in a struggle can be called a terrorist by someone who opposes that struggle.3 Clearly, one of the background causes of Armenian terrorism during the 1970s and 1980s was that too many states and individuals were too lenient on the matter, condemning it in one breath but apologizing for it in the next by saying “but we have to understand the motives.”
Although Operation Nemesis, the Armenian terrorist organization that assassinated Ottoman officials immediately after the First World War, disappeared in the early 1920s, “there have existed for many decades those organizations internationally . . . that are pursuing quite seriously the Armenian struggle for liberation in every peaceful method available.”4 Eventually some Armenians became frustrated with what they saw as the unsuccessful peaceful approach and turned to violence.
The deletion of paragraph 30 from a report of the United Nations in 1973-74 is one example of the failure of the peaceful method. This paragraph specifically . . .
The Journal of Conflict Studies, Vol 27, No 2 (2007)
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