Terrorism has many definitions that all include some reference to the use of violence to coerce political or ideological opponents. If you do not employ violence as a means to a political end, then you are not a terrorist. Another more crucial aspect of what modern scholars define as terrorism is the lack of discrimination. That is, the use of violence against anyone and everyone who gets in the way. The army is not considered a terrorist organisation because they try to avoid civilians; terrorists do not discriminate and even target unarmed civilians.
Using this simple definition as a basis, this list compiles the top public figures and groups who have engaged in politically motivated terrorism in the past and have taken the step into the political arena. Some of the people or groups on this list are controversial – not all of them have officially renounced terrorism as of yet – but they have at least moved forward from purely terrorist related activities into the more diplomatic stage of their development.
Crucially, whether or not these people are still engaged in terrorist activities, with the exception of the ageing Leila Khaled, none of them are still considered terrorists according to the US State Department.
10 FARC and the Patriotic Union
Despite currently engaging in small-scale attacks on Colombian policemen and army groups, FARC have recently begun engaging in political talks with the Colombian government. Their spin-off political group, Patriotic Union, are formally recognised as a political party and have been active in trying to seek legitimacy. However, FARC still has an undisclosed number of civilian hostages and was still recently engaging in hostage taking for ransom money. Some Patriotic Union members have run for office representing other political parties.
9 Leila Khaled
Born in Mandatory Palestine (the name given to the region by the British when under occupation), Leila Khaled is the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Described as a terrorist organisation by the United States and European Union, the PFLP has denounced terrorism according to their leader. However, it is known to be responsible for at least two hijackings: one occurred in 1969 and one in 1970. Leila Khaled is also known to have been present during both hijackings, despite her recently denouncing terrorist activities.
Predecessor to Israel’s Herut party and ruling Lekud party, Irgun were active in the period of 1931 to 1948. The group’s principles were based on the revisionist Zionism espoused by Ze'ev Jabotinsky, co-founder of the Jewish Legion of the British Army in WWI. During a raid on an Arab village, Irgun militants killed more than 100 Arabs in fierce door-to-door fighting in an effort to stop the Arab blockade of Jerusalem. However, during the World Zionist Forum in 1948, they also renounced violence and civilian bloodshed as a means of political warfare. The remaining Irgun militants were integrated into the Israeli Defence Force when they dissolved in June, 1948.
7 Gerry Adams
Gerry Adams has always denied involvement in the IRA. Despite this, many within the Irish and British governments have repeatedly accused him of not only being a member of the IRA, but of being in the top ranks of its command structure during the troubles. Using parliamentary privilege – a right of MPs to make claims without the threat of libel in the House of Commons – DUP MP Iris Robinson alleged that Adams was responsible for a bomb attack on the La Mon Restaurant in 1978. Obviously, Adams denied involvement and his arrest in 2014 for involvement in IRA activities was thrown out because of a lack of evidence.
6 Martin McGuinness
Martin McGuiness, unlike Gerry Adams, has never denied being the leader of the official IRA. In fact, the Irish republican was arrested in 1973 for his involvement in an attempted car bombing and declared ‘I am a member of [real IRA splinter group] and very, very proud of it.’ He does, however, deny charges related to specific terrorist related activity, including one allegation that he gave a member of the IRA youth wing bomb parts to carry out an attack.
5 The Taliban
The Taliban have been responsible for some of the most morally reprehensible acts of terrorism the world has ever seen. More than 80% of civilian deaths in Afghanistan in recent years can be attributed to the organisation. The recent rise of ISIS and competing Islamic factions has seen the Taliban spawn a political wing. How successful this drive for legitimacy will be remains to be seen. In-fighting and disagreements within the top ranks have seen the more militarised factions of the Taliban become more active recently, with suicide bombings and civilian acts of terror on the increase again. So it may be too early to define them as “former terrorists.”
4 Yasser Arafat
Yasser Arafat is a surprisingly popular figure among westerners despite his notoriety for embezzlement and proven former terrorist links. He was undeniably responsible for legitimizing the PLO by engaging in dialogue with Israel. His activities as a former member of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, however, seriously undermines his latter record. In 1973, the PLO were responsible for the shootings of 5 diplomats and 5 others during an operation which Arafat had full knowledge of. Despite later denouncing such violence, that he was entirely ignorant of the operations of sub-factions of the PLO while he was in power remains to be proven.
3 Vladimir Putin
Russia’s premiere and former leader of the KGB, Vladimir Putin is one of the world’s most famous leaders who has been accused of state-sponsored terrorism. The most famous operation he is accused of being involved in is the Russian apartment bombings of September, 1999. This time-bomb event caused the deaths of 293 civilians and injured 651. Requests for an investigation into the bombings were denied by the Russian government, and when a public investigation was held into the events, two officials on the commissioning board were assassinated. While the events cannot be entirely credited to Vladimir Putin, the very fact that his government denied an investigation and the fact that FSB (successor agency to the KGB) were proven responsible for the placing of the bombs, makes the Russian government a likely candidate as a state-sponsor of domestic terrorism.
2 Ariel Sharon
A controversial figure, Ariel Sharon divided opinion both in the West and at home. As the commander of the Israeli Army during its creation in 1948, Sharon was nicknamed the “King of Israel” for his string of successful operations in defending Israel and attacking its adversaries between 1948 and 1973. To others, however, Sharon will always be remembered for his responsibility for the massacres of civilians in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla. Up to 3,500 unarmed civilians were murdered by Sharon’s forces and, as a result, he was forced to resign as Defence Minister. An alternative name, “the butcher of Beirut,” was given to Sharon for his part in the massacres. Sharon makes this list, however, due to his part in the formation of commando Unit 101. This elite unit of fighters killed Arab militiamen, as well as unarmed women and children, in retaliation for Arab attacks on Israel. It was eventually incorporated into the Israeli Defence Forces. Despite his record, Ariel Sharon became Israel’s 11th prime minister and was the first to state that the Palestinians had a right to form a state. A truly polarising figure in his lifetime, Sharon died 8 years after being in a permanent vegetative state on January 11th, 2014.
1 Nelson Mandela
The grandfather of the South-African civil rights movement was formerly a terrorist and planned a number of attacks on civilians before being sent to prison. Despite the furor surrounding his lengthy prison sentence, Nelson Mandela was, in fact, leader of the paramilitary wing of the African National Congress (ANC), the UmKhonto we Sizwe. Most notable of the group’s terrorist operations was the Church Street bombings in Pretoria, 1983, in which 19 civilians died. Many defend the actions of the ANC as essential to counter apartheid; others claim its activities render it an illegitimate voice of the opposition. While denouncing the apartheid government as oppressive and unlawful, it was itself carrying out operations in laying land mines and systematic use of torture in its detention camps.