The observation that groups unify in the face of common threats is long-standing. At the level of the nation-state, this is called the “rally-'round-the-flag” phenomenon. In the case of the United States, the rally phenomenon is measured as a surge of public approval for the president when the nation is involved in an international crisis. Two hypotheses have been offered for why this surge of support occurs: (1) patriotism, as individuals respond to a threat by identifying with an in-group, in this case the nation and its president; and (2) opinion leadership, as the information environment changes because opposition leaders fall silent or support the president during a crisis and a portion of the public follows those elite partisan cues. Through three waves of scholarship, empirical evidence has cumulated about whether, when, why, and how much people rally in response to international crises (although much of the evidence is based on dynamics within the United States). The public’s reaction to a crisis is not automatic; sometimes public approval for the president goes up; other times the president’s approval ratings go down. A positive rally effect is associated with a variety of conditions, such as how prominently the event is reported, whether the White House actively frames the issue, the amount of criticism from opposition elites, and whether the country is at war or has recently concluded a war. The sizes of such rallies are variable, but on average, rallies in response to the deployment of force or international crises are small. Only wars (or other spectacular events like a large-scale terrorist attack) consistently provoke sizable rallies and these big events elicit an emotional reaction from citizens and a self-identification with the nation. Both hypotheses—patriotism and opinion leadership—are helpful in explaining why rallies occur and why they taper off over time. The “diversionary theory of war” or the “diversionary use of force” is, for obvious reasons, a companion literature to the scholarship on rally effects. The logic is simple: if the public rallies around its leader in the face of external threats, then the possibility exists that politicians will intentionally create crises or deploy military forces or start wars to enhance their own political fortunes. Scholars have spent much effort trying to locate patterns of diversionary behavior by American presidents and other world leaders with inconsistent and inconclusive results. But the cumulative findings from the rally-'round-the-flag scholarship show that leaders can’t expect much of a public rally from any but the most spectacular of international crises, such as full-scale war. These findings from the rally literature help to explain the lack of consistent empirical support for diversionary theory.
David C. Rapoport
Time gaps existed in the first three waves between precipitating political events and the development of terrorist activity. But now the time gap has disappeared because the precipitating events were directly associated with terrorism. All of those events occurred in the Islamic world where religion was employed to justify terror. Jewish, Sikh, and Christian terror groups emerged very quickly afterwards, but Islamic groups were larger, more durable, and had a more significant global impact. The international world changed; Iran’s religious revolution made it a major player; and the Soviet Union’s collapse intensified Islamic opposition to the United States. Sikh, Jewish, and Christian terrorists came from a national base, but Islamic ones often emerged from many countries to join a particular group; and two critical groups, al-Qaeda and ISIS, aimed to re-establish a caliphate embracing the Islamic world. Diasporas provided financial support as they had in other waves, but some Islamic immigrants, like first wave anarchists, employed terror in their new homes and often left those homes to seek targets elsewhere. “Suicide bombing” or “self-martyrdom,” the wave’s distinguishing tactic, made it the most destructive wave. The only religious groups to embrace this tactic were Islamic, though ironically, the secular Tamil Tigers used it and did so more often than any Islamic group did. Islamic groups initiated social services for their societies, a program not seen earlier, and the Tamil Tigers adopted social services for their communities as well. Al-Qaeda, born in the resistance to the Soviet Afghan invasion, became the wave’s most important group. After difficulties in helping uprisings outside Afghanistan in the Islamic world, it decided to strike the United States, and its 9/11 attacks, the wave’s high point, are the most destructive terrorist acts ever. The United States then invaded Afghanistan forcing al-Qaeda to leave that country. Instead of completing the job, however, the United States decided to invade Iraq to prevent Iraq from giving al-Qaeda weapons of mass destruction, weapons Iraq did not have. This over-reaction inflamed Muslims everywhere, enabling al-Qaeda to get more recruits and develop Iraqi resistance. One crucial focus of al-Qaeda in Iraq was its gruesome atrocities towards the Shia population, which produced violence between Sunni and Shia throughout the Islamic world. The United States ultimately eliminated al-Qaeda in Iraq, and al-Qaeda Central was unable to get another ground base. Al-Qaeda Central then adopted two methods to revitalize itself. The lone wolf strategy, developed first by U.S. Christian terrorists, did not produce many significant results. At the same time, many franchises were created but each focused on local activities and did not strengthen al-Qaeda’s global capacities. A new situation developed with the “Arab Spring” in 2011, when peaceful secular demonstrations for equality and democracy were transformed into violent conflicts between Shia and Sunni sects. Syria, the bloodiest scene, attracted support from Shia and Sunni elements everywhere and encouraged Russia and the United States to get engaged. ISIS (Islamic State), the remnant of al-Qaeda in Iraq, was reborn and grew immensely there as it captured much territory in Iraq and Syria and became the wave’s most important group. Al-Qaeda Central also became involved and eventually turned against ISIS. In a short time ISIS lost most of the territory gained, and its European strikes to get the West more deeply involved in the conflict by sending troops to Syria and Iraq failed. Al-Qaeda and ISIS franchises continue to fight each other, a conflict that may end the wave.