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The Evolution of Modern Terrorism

By Dr. James Hess, Faculty Director and Associate Professor of Intelligence Studies at American Military University

In September 1901, President William McKinley was assassinated by Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist terrorist. McKinley’s successor was President Theodore Roosevelt—who called for the end of terrorism everywhere.

[Related Article: The Challenge of Defining Terrorism Around the World]

One hundred years before 9/11, terrorism was present in America. Given this history with terrorism, I will discuss the roots of modern terrorism, the scholarly perspective on the evolution of terrorism, and the importance of understanding the motivations and strategies of terrorists.

The Starting Point for Terrorism
Most experts in the study of terrorism point to the French Revolution as the starting point for modern terrorism. Not surprisingly, there was a period during the French Revolution known as the Reign of Terror. During the Reign of Terror, tens of thousands were executed for their perceived resistance to the revolution.

Dictionary definition of terrorismMartha Crenshaw, an internationally renowned expert on terrorism studies, retired professor, and former Guggenheim Fellow, argues that terrorism exists “in the context of violent resistance to the state as well as in the service of state interests.” Crenshaw’s point, that terrorism exists as violent resistance against the state, certainly holds true during the French Revolution. Walter Reich, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at George Washington University tells us “terrorism is an expression of political strategy.” Crenshaw and Reich, both, provide important arguments demonstrating some of the theories behind modern terrorism.

UCLA political science professor, David Rapoport, writes that the French Revolution “introduced terror to our vocabulary.” Rapoport writes extensively about how modern terrorism has evolved through four waves.

The Four Waves of Modern Terrorism
Rapoport’s writing, The Four Waves of Modern Terrorism (PDF), looks at specific time periods that can be categorized into specific phases precipitated by events. These waves are:

  1. Anarchist Wave
  2. Anticolonial Wave
  3. New Left Wave
  4. Religious Wave

Rapoport defines a wave as “a cycle of activity in a given period of time.” This period, according to Rapoport, lasts about a generation or a little longer.

Anarchist Wave
In the case of the French Revolution, the first wave, or Anarchist Wave, began when a group of revolutionaries, who referred to themselves as terrorists, assassinated Czar Alexander II in 1881. This event led to a series of assassinations and assassination attempts of leaders throughout the world. The assassination of President McKinley occurred during the first wave, as well as the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which put in motion the events that would lead to World War I.

Anticolonial Wave
The second wave, or the Anticolonial Wave, began after the Treaty of Versailles. During this wave, we see the initial creation of the state of Israel, with roots to the Balfour Declaration and dissolvent Ottoman Empire. Another significant event during this wave was the creation of the Muslim Brotherhood, which would have theological consequences on a future wave of terrorism.

There were also multiple organizations, typically declaring themselves as freedom fighters,that emerged throughout the globe: Ireland, Greece, and Algeria, to name a few. Again, as in the first wave, America experienced its own terrorist attack during this wave—the bombing of Wall Street in 1920.

New Left Wave
The third wave, or the New Left Wave, essentially began with the onset of the Vietnam War. The Soviet Union encouraged revolt while offering material support to would-be terrorist organizations. During this wave, organizations such as the German Red Army Faction, Italian Red Brigades, The Sandinistas, and other far-left, ideologically driven groups emerged.

Religious Wave
The fourth wave, or the Religious Wave, essentially began with the Iranian Revolution, but to be fair, did not really take root until 9/11. The Soviet-Afghan War occurred during this wave, as well as the emergence of groups such as Hezbollah and Aum Shinrikyo—a Buddhist, Hindu, and Christian-influenced organization that attacked a Tokyo subway with nerve agents.

Rapoport points out that the majority of attacks have been committed by Islamic-based organizations, but there have been non-Islamic terrorist groups during this wave, as already mentioned with Aum Shinrikyo. Another non-Islamic terrorist organization to emerge during this wave was The Covenant, The Sword, and The Arm of the Lord, which was an anti-Semitic, Christian organization in northern Arkansas training to conduct attacks in the United States.

The Ongoing Influence of Ideology
One thing that is common through these waves is how ideology influences organizations. Ideology determines the target, (i.e. assassinations of national leaders during the Anarchist Wave, or the twin towers during 9/11).

Rapoport’s wave theory to describe how ideology has evolved is relevant in our understanding of modern terrorism, which is supported by both Crenshaw’s violent resistance and Reich’s expression of political strategy.

Looking forward, ideology needs to be explored, by theme and by organization, in order to understand the motivations and strategies of terrorists.

James Hess_croppedAbout the Author: Dr. James Hess received his Ph.D. from Louisiana State University, and his research interests are applying analytical frameworks to improve counter-terrorism strategies.


Leischen Kranick is a Managing Editor at AMU Edge. She has 15 years of experience writing articles and producing podcasts on topics relevant to law enforcement, fire services, emergency management, private security, and national security.

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