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Generations and Waves: The Keys to Understanding Rebel Terror Movements
David C. Rapoport at November 7 Seminar on Global Affairs

Generations and Waves: The Keys to Understanding Rebel Terror Movements

Terrorism authority David C. Rapoport traces the similarities in terror outbreaks from the Anarchists of Russia in the 1880s through the colonial revolutions, the New Left, and today's religious wave.

David Rapoport Email DavidRapoport

[David C. Rapoport is a professor of Political Science at UCLA. He is founding editor of the journal Terrorism and Political Violence. Following is the opening section of a paper presented November 7, 2003, at a meeting of the Ronald W. Burkle Center for International Studies "Seminar on Global Affairs" in Bunche Hall at UCLA. The full text, including the notes and a book prospectus on this topic, is also attached here as a PDF file that can be downloded.]


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Modern Terror: The Four Waves1

David C. Rapoport, UCLA

September 11 is the most destructive day in the long bloody history of terrorism. The casualties, economic damage, and outrage were unprecedented. It could be the most important day too, because it led President Bush to declare a “war (that) would not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.”2

However unprecedented the day was, President Bush’s declaration was not altogether unique. Exactly 100 years ago, when an Anarchist assassinated President William McKinley in September 1901, his successor Theodore Roosevelt called for a crusade to exterminate terrorism everywhere.i

Will we succeed this time? No one knows, but we can more fully appreciate the difficulties ahead better by examining features of the history of rebel (non-state) terror. That history shows how deeply implanted in our culture terrorism and offers parallels worth pondering, and provides a perspective for understanding the uniqueness of 9/11 and its aftermath.ii To this end, I will examine the course of modern terror from its initial appearance some 125 years ago, emphasizing continuities and change, particularly with respect to international ingredients. I lack space to discuss the domestic sphere, which offers important parallels too.iii

The Wave Phenomena

Modern terror began in Russia in the 1880s, and within a decade appeared in Western Europe, the Balkans, and Asia. A generation later the wave was completed Anarchists initiated the wave and their primary strategy, assassination campaigns against prominent officials, was adopted by virtually all the other groups of the time, even those with nationalist aims in the Balkans and India.

Significant examples of secular rebel terror existed earlier, but they were specific to a particular time and country. The Ku Klux Klan (KKK), for example, made a striking contribution to the decision of the federal government to end Reconstruction, but the KKK had no contemporary parallels or emulators.iv

The “Anarchist Wave” was the first global or truly international terrorist experience in historyv and subsequently three similar, consecutive, and overlapping expressions followed. The “Anti Colonial Wave” began in the 1920s and lasted about 40 years. Then came the “New Left Wave”, which diminished greatly as the century closed leaving only a few groups active still today in Nepal, Spain, the UK, Peru and Columbia. In 1979 the “Religious Wave” emerged, and if the pattern of its three predecessors is relevant it could disappear by 2025 and make way for a new The uniqueness and persistence of the wave experience indicates that terror is deeply rooted in modern culture.

The concept of wave as employed here is an unfamiliar notion and worth more attention before we examine the historical examples. Academics focus on organizations for good reasons. Organizations launch terror campaigns, and governments always are primarily concerned to disable those organizations.vii Academics, moreover, study  contemporary groups and on contemporary event, those facts make us less sensitive to wavesviii because every wave requires time, a good deal of time, to complete its cycle. What is a wave? It is a cycle of activity in a given time period, a cycle characterized by expansion and contraction phases. A crucial feature is its international character; similar activities occur in many countries driven by a common predominant energy shaping participating groups and their mutual relationships. As their names suggest a different energy drives each wave.

It name reflects a wave dominant but not its only feature. Nationalist organizations for example appear in all waves but each wave shapes its national elements differently. In the first wave Anarchists gave nationalist groups tactics and often trained them too. Third wave nationalist groups displayed profoundly left-wing aspirations, and nationalism serves or reactions to religious pressures in the fourth wave. All groups in the second wave had nationalist aspirations but we call the wave “Anti-Colonial” because they struggled against colonial powers that had become ambivalent about retaining their colonial status. That ambivalence explains why the wave produced the first terrorist successes. In other waves that ambivalence is absent or very weak and nationalist groups always failed. . . A wave is composed of organizations, but the two have different life rhythms. Organizations normally break up before the initial wave associated with them does. “New Left” organizations were particularly striking in this respect, generally lasting two years. Nonetheless the wave contained sufficient energy to create new successor groups. When its energy cannot inspire new organizations a wave disappear. Resistance, political concessions and changes in the perception of generations are critical factors in explaining the disappearance.

Occasionally, an organization survives its original wave. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) is the oldest modern terrorist organization emerging first in 1916, though not as a terror organization.ix It then fought five campaigns (the 1950 struggle used guerrilla tactics)x in two successive waves. At least two of its various offshoots, the Real IRA and Continuity IRA are still active. The Palestine Liberation Organizations (PLO) founded in 1964 became active in 1967. Later it became the pre-eminent body of the New Left wave because of its international connections even though it was primarily a nationalist group. More recently, PLO elements (i.e. Fatah) became active in the fourth wave, even though the organization began as a wholly secular group. When an organization transcends a wave, it reflects the new wave’s influence, a change that may pose special problems for the group and its constituencies, as we shall later see.

The first three waves lasted about a generation each- a time frame, which is suggestive of a human life cycle where dreams inspiring parents lose their attractiveness for children.xi Although the resistance of those attacked is crucial in explaining why terror organizations rarely succeed, the time span of the wave also suggests that the wave has its own momentum. Over time there are fewer organizations because the enterprise’s problematic nature becomes more visible. The pattern is familiar to students of revolutionary states, i.e., France, Soviet Union, and Iran. The inheritors of the revolution do not value it in the same way that its creators did. In the anti-colonial wave, the process also seems relevant to the colonial powers. A new generation found it much easier to discard the colonial idea. The wave pattern calls our attention to crucial political themes in the general culture, themes that distinguish the ethos of one generation from another.

Why did the first wave occur when it did? There are many reasons, but two critical factors are conspicuous and facilitate successive waves. The first is the transformation in communication and transportation patterns. The telegraph, daily massnewspapers,  and railroads flourished during the last quarter of the 19th century. Events in one country were known elsewhere in a day or so. Prominent Russian Anarchists traveled extensively helping to inspire sympathies and groups elsewhere, sometimes as the journeys of Michael Bakunin indicate they had more influence abroad than at home. Peter Proudhon spent more time in France than in Russia. Mass transportation made mass emigrations possible and created diaspora communities, which then became significant, both in the politics of their “new” and “old” countries. Subsequent innovations continued to shrink time and space.

A second factor is doctrine or culture. Russian writers created a strategy for terror, which became an inheritance for successors to use, improve and transmit. Sergei Nechaev was the leading figure in this effort; Nicholas Mozorov, Peter Kropotkin, and Serge Stepniak, and others made contributions.xii Why was this project significant? The KKK had no emulators partly because it made no effort to explain its tactics. The Russian achievement becomes even more striking when we compare it to the practices of the ancient religious terrorists who always stayed within their own religious tradition, the source of their justifications and binding precedents. Each religious tradition produced its own kind of terrorist, and sometimes the tactics within a tradition were so uniform that they appear to be a form of religious ritual.xiii

A comparison of Nechaev’s Revolutionary Catechism with Bin Laden’s training manual, Military Studies in the Jihad Against The Tyrants shows that they share one very significant feature-a paramount desire to become more efficient by learning from experiences of friends and enemies alike.xiv The major difference in this respect is the role of women. Nechaev considers them “priceless assets”; and indeed they were crucial leaders and participants in the first wave. Bin Laden dedicates his book to protecting the Muslim woman, but he ignores what experience can tell us about female terrorists.xv Women do not participate in his forces, and are virtually excluded in the fourth wave except in Sri Lanka and Chechnya. Each wave produces major technical works that reflect the special properties of that wave and contribute to a common modern effort to formulate a “science” of terror. Between Nechaev and Bin Laden, there were, inter alia, Georges Grivas, Guerrilla War and Carlos Marighella, Mini-Manual of the Urban Guerrilla, in the second and third waves respectively.

“Revolution” is the over-riding aim in every wave, but revolution is understood in different ways.xvi Revolutionaries create a new source of political legitimacy, and more often than not that meant national self-determination. The anti-colonial wave was dominated by this quest, but it was present always. This principle, a people should govern itself, was bequeathed by the American and French Revolutions. (The French Revolution also introduced the term terror to our vocabulary.)xvii But since the definition of “the people” has never been (perhaps never can be) clear and fixed, it is a source of recurring conflict even when the sanctity of the principle is accepted everywhere. Revolution can also mean a radical reconstruction of authority to eliminate all forms of  inequality, a cardinal theme in the first and a significant one in the third wave. A new source of legitimacy, a sacred text or revelation dominates the fourth wave. Our discussion treats the great political events precipitating each wave and the aims and tactics of participating groups. The international context is our focus, where we distinguish five principal ingredients: terrorist organizations, diaspora populations, states, sympathetic foreign publics, and supra-national organizations. The last appears first in the second wave.xviii


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