A Century-and-a-Half Look at the Waves of Global Terrorism


A review by David C. Rapoport, “Waves of Global Terrorism: From 1879 to the Present” (Columbia University Press, 2022).


As harassed university professors scrambled to design brand new modules on terrorism in the aftermath of 9/11, a 15-page book room David Rapoport’s “The Four Waves of Rebel Terrorism and 9/11” appeared as an answer to their prayers. Rapoport forcefully argued that anti-state (or “rebel”) terrorism tended to occur in large 40-year waves, shaped by a predominant ideological energy: anarchist (c. 1880-1920), anti-colonialist (c. 1920-1960 ), the New Left (1960 to the 1980s) and religious radicalism (circa 1979 to the present day). This was a story of the evolution of anti-state terrorism whose contours could be easily grasped. No less important, it was also an account that seemed to give an indication of the likely form of coming terrorist horrors. Rapoport’s “Four Waves of Rebel Terrorism” has become the rarest phenomenon in social science: the instant classic.

As its title suggests, “Waves of Global Terrorism: From 1879 to the Present” returns to the same explanatory territory as Rapoport’s previous book, but much longer: 440 pages. The original formulation of the “four waves” thesis was written at a time when the religious wave of terrorism was supposed to be only halfway launched. Credit to Rapoport for having the intellectual courage to return to his model 20 years later to see how it works. According to his earlier predictions, one could – in general terms – now expect the energy of this religious wave to ebb sharply and perhaps a new threat to loom on the horizon.

Indeed, these prediction questions usually lurk in the background, though they come to the fore for the book’s final conclusion. Much of the originality of this volume, and its likely appeal to students of terrorism, lies in this concluding discussion of “whether the rise of right-wing terrorism in recent years is the start of a global fifth wave.” Such an analytical approach that draws on historical patterns to peer into the future has been pioneered successfully by other renowned terrorism scholars – for example, Audrey Cronin’s “Power to the People”. (not cited by Rapoport).

How convincingly does this approach suggest the future trajectory of far-right violence? With good reason perhaps, Rapoport is surprisingly hesitant in his tone:[I]if it is only linked to the problem of immigration and the major Islamic attacks”, he writes, “it could end soon”; hate crimes predominate over terrorism. Additionally, the capacity appears weak to sustain a prolonged wave of terrorism, as Rapoport notes that “most European far-right terrorist groups have only three or four members” and “seventy-two percent do not last more than ‘a year”. Such characteristics raise doubts as to whether this type of violence is truly part of the same tradition of “rebel terrorism” that Rapoport says has occurred in waves since 1880. Is such violence “revolutionary”? in Rapoport’s own terminology? Particularly absent from this discussion is any sustained analysis of the impact of the 21 Communications Revolutions of the Century: Can We Expect 40-Year-Old Waves of Terrorism to Continue in an Age of Extremely Short Social Media Attention Span?

All of this, in turn, tends to challenge the original “four waves” narrative, particularly its treatment of causality. Rapoport says each wave had its own triggering event that propelled it on its way but, at the same time, “terrorism is deeply rooted in modern culture”. Which is it? If external events can precipitate waves of terrorism – regardless of their internal generational dynamics – could they not also undermine them? In this regard, one of the book’s weakest passages is Rapoport’s account of the demise of anarchist terrorism due to “the inability of organizations to succeed, the decision of many anarchists to become trade unionists, and the changing police practices. It seems odd that Rapoport does not mention the Russian Revolution here – a great upheaval that siphoned much of the hard left energy and momentum from anarchism and into the Bolshevik experience: the equivalent of the Islamic State Caliphate for those interested in building today’s utopias. The memoirs of longtime activists like Victor Serge and Emma Goldman are clear on this point. To the extent that “changing policing” and mass expulsions weakened violent anarchist subcultures, Rapoport is not wrong, but that was the reaction of terrified governments across the industrial world to the Russian Revolution. . It seems oddly blind to its overall meaning.

There’s certainly a lot to enjoy about “Waves of Global Terrorism.” Rapoport’s very long career in the study of terrorism through the ups and downs of public attention makes him a keen observer of human inconsistency. He is particularly good at collective amnesia about past terrorism: “[W]When a wave subsided,” he writes, “the assumption seemed to be that terrorism would never be a serious problem again.” He ironically quotes a member of the commission investigating the 1993 World Trade Center bombings who said his office had been abolished “since the terrorism was over.” He is also alert to the temptations of propaganda, noting that the American far right has enthusiastically claimed that the Branch Davidians who were massacred in Waco in 1993 were martyrs, despite their rejection of the racist values ​​of the early .

In the final analysis, however, “Waves of Global Terrorism” lacks the callous conciseness that allowed “The Four Waves of Rebel Terrorism” to pack its punch. Structurally, its organization is unequal. For example, an ambitious chapter on “Terrorism Before the Global Form” attempts to survey 2,000 years of terrorism by eclecticly highlighting individual examples. But it’s not entirely clear how this discussion sets up the larger argument about global terrorism occurring in waves. Rapoport ushers in case studies here with only the most abrupt of introductions: the ancient Sicarii thus unexpectedly find themselves alongside medieval “Assassins” (i.e. the Nizaris), Crusaders, Sons of the Liberty (1765-1776) and the Ku Klux Klan. The result looks a bit like an awkward cocktail. The flow of the discussion seems stilted.

At other times, the opposite tendency prevails – context prevails and the analysis of any real terrorism recedes. Extended talks on the Cuban Missile Crisis and the far-right electoral rise in the 21st century are examples. At times, Rapoport’s instinct for the arrest claim leads him into dangerous territory. He writes that “[w]When the Assassins fought the Crusaders, they used their armies, not fedayeen– but this claim is contradicted by the murders of Conrad of Montferrat in 1192 and Raymond of Antioch in 1213. Similarly, Rapoport claims that in the first wave “the assassin always used bombs” – even though nothing of the five major assassinations he listed earlier fit this pattern.

Other factual errors are more minor. British Prime Minister Gladstone staged many political comebacks, but one in 1896 was too late, even for him. King Alexander of Yugoslavia was assassinated in 1934not 1933. In 1985 the explosion of Air India Flight 182 took place over the atlantic, not Canada. The Fenian movement was based in 1858 and was therefore not originally “a product of the American Civil War”. Executions after the Easter Rising took place immediately afterwards; It’s inside 1916not 1917. “The Irish Free State” – not the “Dominion of Ireland” – was the Title of the new regime created under the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. The Irish Republican Army’s Operation Harvest began in 1956not 1952. At Bloody Sunday in 1972, the mortally wounded Parachute Regiment 14, not 12, people. European readers might also be surprised to learn that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor “to start World War II.”

Investigative work such as this necessarily depends primarily on the work of others, rather than primary research per se. This makes the decision not to include a bibliography all the more disappointing. Strikingly, a study of the endnotes shows that Rapoport’s discussion of the Ismailis is based on very old literature first published in the 1950s and 1960s: the enormous scholarly contribution made since then by Farhad Daftary does not is not mentioned. Abundant literature on the 19th Irish terrorism of the past century also appears to be only lightly sampled – apparently due to a decision not to treat transnational Irish-American dynamite bombing campaigns as genuine examples of global terrorism.

David Rapoport’s scholarly contribution to the study of terrorism’s past remains (rightly) safe, of course. His provocative sketch of how global terrorism emerged has continued to hold ground since the immediate aftermath of 9/11. And this new volume allows him to present it in fuller and richer brushstrokes. As the academic study of terrorism continues to mature, many will no doubt find “Waves of Global Terrorism” to be an extremely illuminating and compelling study: “The final word on the history of global terrorism from the 19th to the 21st century[,]in the words of an enthusiastic reviewer quoted on its back cover. Historians, perhaps, can afford to remain a little more ambivalent.


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