This short paper analizes the early Zealots strategy from the perspective of the terrorist typology as discussed in Gerald Chaliand and Arnaud Blin’s, “Zealots and Assassins” in The History of Terrorism and Guerilla Warfare: From Antiquity to Al Qaeda.
Zealots: One of the First Terrorist Organizations
By Tom White
One of the very first organized groups “to practice systematic terror” was the Zealots who operated in first century Palestine. The Zealots were an organized guerilla-style terrorist group who relied upon the terrorist strategies of provocation, intimidation and propaganda of deed in order to accomplish their political and religious objectives.
The Zealots, whose religious and political aims were intrinsically linked, were trying to “wrest their country’s independence from Rome” while also trying to impose their own strict version of religious practice on society. The Zealots were “one of the four ‘philosophical’ sects of Judea” and launched an organized revolt against the Roman authorities beginning in 4 B.C.E. when they sought independence from Rome. Although the Zealots as an organization did not control physical territory, they never the less waged an “armed struggle in the form of guerilla warfare…” which included urban fighting. The Zealots however did not direct their aggressions only at Roman authority, but also targeted non-combatants such as Jewish religious figures “whom they considered to be traitors to the national cause” and others whom “they felt to be insufficiently scrupulous in their piety.”
In order to advance their political and religious agenda, the Zealots employed a brand of violence which relied upon the terrorist strategy of provocation, intimidation propaganda of deed. The Zealots first used provocation “in the year 6 that…launched an organized campaign against the imperial authorities” at great risk to themselves, and this act resulted in the governor of Syria sending Roman troops in to crush their insurgency. This act of provocation on the part of the Zealots not only made the government unpopular, but resulted in increased popular support among a large segment of the populace. The Zealots were also effective at employing the strategy of intimidation. The Zealots would employ this strategy by using daggers to slit their victim’s throats often in public places, which “spread fear in the enemy’s ranks.” This terrorist strategy of murder in public places not only had the desired effect of intimating their enemies, but had a profound psychological impact by creating a sense of vulnerability within the general population. Finally the Zealots were able to expand their base through “propaganda of deed”. To accomplish this last strategy the Zealots who operated from a position of weakness against the numerically superior Romans, demonstrated a willingness to confront the enemy at great risk to their own lives. This willingness to risk their lives against Roman authority resulted in publicity for their cause, and allowed the organization to expand their popular base, especially amongst “the lower classes and young.”
The Zealots are one of the first organizations in recorded history which employed the systematic use of terrorist strategies in order to advance a political and religious cause. The Zealots like so many other terrorist organizations that followed, were able to effectively channel the humiliation felt by the population and direct it against a perceived enemy. The effectiveness of their organization is evident not only by the popular support they enjoyed, but by the fact that they were able to remain afloat for over fifty years.
Chaliand, Gerard, and Arnaud Blin, eds. The History of Terrorism: From Antiquity to Al Qaeda Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007.
 Gerald Chaliand and Arnaud Blin, “Zealots and Assassins” in The History of Terrorism and Guerilla Warfare: From Antiquity to Al Qaeda, ed. Gerald Chaliand (University of California Press, 2007), 55
 Ibid, 57
 Ibid, 56
 Ibid, 58
 Ibid, 57
 Chaliand and Blin, “Zealots and Assassins” in The History of Terrorism, 55
 Ariel Merari, “Terrorism as a Strategy of Insurgency” in The History of Terrorism and Guerilla Warfare: From Antiquity to Al Qaeda, ed. Gerald Chaliand (University of California Press, 2007), 34
 Chaliand and Blin, “Zealots and Assassins” in The History of Terrorism, 56