Skip Navigation

The Roots and Global Dimension of Modern Terrorism

"Modern terror began in the 1880s. Small groups in many countries were able to terrify masses because the invention of dynamite gave them new powers, and the bomb has remained the principal weapon of terror ever since," writes David C. Rapoport.

The 1901 "crusade" lasted just four years, a collapse largely due to the unwillingness of democratic states to pursue the conflict.

This article was first published in UCLA Today Online.

By David C. Rapoport

I recently gave a lecture in Spain drawing attention to some striking parallels between the "religious wave" of terror today and the "anarchist wave" more than 125 years ago. Modern terror always reflects the hope and rage of a "new" generation, but the importance of time in politics unfortunately is rarely appreciated. A look at terrorism's past, therefore, is instructive.

Modern terror began in the 1880s. Small groups in many countries were able to terrify masses because the invention of dynamite gave them new powers, and the bomb has remained the principal weapon of terror ever since. The first wave of terrorist activity was global, spanning six continents. Several states followed Switzerland in providing sanctuaries and aid to terrorists, and terrorist events in one country frequently mobilized people elsewhere to believe in an international conspiracy, an anxiety intensified greatly by the mass media, which first developed in this period.

Foreign immigrants organized many terror attacks. They belonged to ethnic communities that sponsored discussion groups focused on radical publications and the issues of the day. These individuals were usually associated with an autonomous cell consisting of several persons. The public frequently perceived anarchist terror as an international conspiracy, partly because acts followed each other in regular succession. But there was no coordinating committee or chain of command, and immigrants seemed to invoke terrorism in all states where they settled.

International terrorist activity also produced striking instances of international police cooperation. To give two examples, a Scotland Yard official was invited from London to reorganize the Spanish police in Barcelona, and an international anti-anarchist accord was signed in St. Petersburg in 1904.

One dramatic event was U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt's effort in 1901 to lead an international "crusade" to eliminate terrorism from the globe. The "crusade" lasted just four years, a collapse largely due to the unwillingness of democratic states to pursue the conflict. Ironically, those same states led by another American president one century later launched the second and only other international "war" to eliminate terrorism!

Anarchists made martyrdom a feature of modern terrorism. This was a new trend. Martyrs were not produced by the most successful mob terror movements in 18th- and 19th-century America; i.e., the "Sons of Liberty" who generated the American Revolution, and the Ku Klux Klan, which won the peace a defeated South wanted. Martyrdom was important to the first modern terrorists partly because their groups were small and needed publicity and because, as Machiavelli long before had observed, assassination, their chief tactic, requires that the assassin be willing to die, too.

Although assassination was the principal tactic — more heads of state and prime ministers were killed during the 1890s than ever before or since — attacks were made on a stock exchange, an opera house, cafes, parliament buildings, religious processions, women and children. Public anxiety was intensified when anarchist publications recommended — and provided details for carrying out — chemical-weapons attacks and mass poisonings.

While the number of casualties was generally small by our standards, the public had no experience with such threats, and no defense had been developed for this "global conspiracy." The martyrdom ethos made onlookers think that terrorists welcomed death and that their political objective seemed so unreal there was no way to deal with them.

Rage and fear help explain the mass arrests that occurred. Terrorism transformed the police and revived torture practices — even in states that had never sanctioned its use in conventional interrogation activities earlier, such as in the U.S.-administered Philippines. President McKinley's assassin was muzzled on the electric chair to prevent him from speaking and becoming a martyr. Many thought him insane, a common view of assassins at the time and, indeed, in all periods in which martyrs are common. The U.S. government refused to release the assassin's records and buried him in a grave filled with sulfuric acid to ensure a quick dissolution of his body and, with it, this special problem.

Rapoport, a professor emeritus of political science, is the founding editor of the Journal of Terrorism and Political Violence.

To print this page, select "Print" from the File menu of your browser.