ARGUMENT: WAVES OF TERRORISMA Century-and-a-Half Look at the Waves of Global Terrorism

Published 9 August 2022

Twenty years ago, a 15-page article – “The Four Waves of Rebel Terrorism and September 11” — by terrorism expert David Rapoport helped students of terrorism place the 9/11 attacks in perspective. Rapoport has now published a 440-page book on the topic, and Tim Wilson writes that “[Rapoport’s] provocative sketch of how global terrorism emerged has continued to hold the field since the immediate aftermath of 9/11. And this new volume allows him to present it in fuller, and richer, brush-strokes.”

Tim Wilson writes in Lawfare that as a university lecturer twenty years ago, in the wake of 9/11, as he scrambled to devise a new modules on terrorism to explain the scary phenomenon to his students, a 15-page pieceby David Rapoport entitled “The Four Waves of Rebel Terrorism and September 11” appeared as if in answer to his prayers.

Rapoport argued compellingly that anti-state (or “rebel”) terrorism tended to occur in great 40-year waves, shaped by a predominant ideological energy: of anarchist (c. 1880-1920), anti-colonialist (c. 1920-1960), New Left (1960 to 1980s) and religious radicalisms (c. 1979 to the present). “Here was an account of the evolution of anti-state terrorism whose outline could be easily grasped,” Wilson writes. “No less importantly, it was also an account that seemed to give some indication of the likely shape of future terrorist horrors. Rapoport’s ‘Four Waves of Rebel Terrorism’ became that rarest of phenomena in the social sciences: the instant classic.”

Rapoport has now turned his 15-page paper into a 440-page book, Waves of Global Terrorism: From 1879 to the Present.

Wilson writes that,

According to his earlier predictions one might—in broad terms—now expect the energy of that religious wave to be strongly ebbing and perhaps some new threat to be looming on the horizon. 

Indeed, such questions of prediction generally lurk in the background, although they move into the foreground for the final conclusion of the book. Much of the originality of this volume, and its likely appeal for students of terrorism, lies in this closing discussion of “whether the rise of right-wing terrorism in recent years is the beginning of a global Fifth Wave” (270). Such an analytical approach that draws upon historical patterns to peer into the future has been successfully pioneered by other renowned terrorism scholars—for instance, Audrey Cronin’s Power to the People(uncited by Rapoport).

How convincingly does this approach suggest the future trajectory of extreme-right violence? Wisely perhaps, Rapoport is strikingly tentative in his tone: “[I]f it is linked only to the immigration problem and significant Islamic attacks,” he writes, “it may end soon”; hate crimes predominate over terrorism (305). Additionally, capacity seems 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 longer than a year” (299). Such features raise doubts on whether this type of violence really stands in the same “rebel terrorism” tradition that Rapoport has claimed has occurred in waves since 1880. Is such violence “revolutionary” in Rapoport’s own terminology? Notably absent from this discussion is any sustained analysis of the impact of the 21st century’s communications revolutions: Can we expect 40-year waves of terrorism to continue occurring in an age of social media’s rampantly short attention spans? 

Wilson writes that “In the final analysis, though, Waves of Global Terrorismlacks the ruthless concision that allowed ‘The Four Waves of Rebel Terrorism’ to pack its punch.”

Wilson concludes:

David Rapoport’s scholarly contribution to the study of terrorism past remains (deservedly) secure, of course. His provocative sketch of how global terrorism emerged has continued to hold the field since the immediate aftermath of 9/11. And this new volume allows him to present it in fuller, and richer, brush-strokes. As the academic study of terrorism continues to mature, many will doubtless find Waves of Global Terrorism an immensely illuminating and persuasive study: “The final word on the history of global terrorism from the nineteenth through the twenty-first centuries” in the words of one enthusiastic reviewer quoted on its back cover. Historians, perhaps, may allow themselves to remain a little more ambivalent.