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date: 25 February 2021

Waves of Political Terrorismfree

  • Jeffrey KaplanJeffrey KaplanJilin University, Changchun, PRC


The wave theory refers to the “Four Waves of Modern Terrorism,” which was published in 2004 by David C. Rapoport, Professor Emeritus at the University of California Los Angeles and a founding editor of the journal Terrorism & Political Violence. Wave theory made a unique contribution to the study of terrorism by positing a generational model that linked contemporaneous global terrorist groups based on their shared characteristics of ideology/theology, strategy/tactics, and visions for the future. Although wave theory is focused on the modern period, from the late 19th century to the present day, it is built on a thorough grounding of the history of terrorism, which dates from the 1st century ad.


David C. Rapoport’s approach to the study of terrorism appeared in the 1970s. It offered unique insights into the religious implications of terrorist campaigns, from the 1st century to the present day. Where the first generation of terrorism scholars—Walter Lacquer, Alex Schmid, Martha Crenshaw, and others—largely approached the subject as a purely political phenomenon, Rapoport argued that religion was a vital component of terrorist violence. In this, his was a voice in the wilderness. Remarkably, even in the wake of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the rise of Al Qaeda, and the War on Terror, many of the most influential scholars in the field continued to argue that terrorism was ineluctably political and that the leaders of religiously motivated terrorist groups were undoubtedly clever political operators who manipulated religion for political ends.1

Rapoport’s unique approach, which gave birth to the wave theory, began with a course at the University of California Los Angeles that focused on the Hebrew Bible and resulted in an early article, “Moses, Charisma, and Covenant.”2 Although the article is largely forgotten today, it challenged political scientists to take the Bible seriously as a source for political action. It was followed by his seminal 1980s articles, which focused on terrorism in the ancient world and from which many of the tropes of modern terrorism can be traced.

What followed laid the groundwork for the study of religiously motivated terrorism, and in the process, inspired a handful of future terrorism scholars to pursue the study of religion and terrorist violence.3 The trilogy of “Fear and Trembling: Terrorism in Three Religious Traditions,” “Terror and the Messiah: An Ancient Experience and Some Modern Parallels,” and “Messianic Sanctions of Terror” mark the beginning of the contemporary study of religiously motivated terrorism.4 All three brought home the vital importance of religious zeal in maintaining a prolonged campaign of terrorism. They stressed the primacy of sacred text in the ancient world as the key factor in motivating and sustaining terrorist violence. Moreover, they conclusively demonstrate the fact that terrorism, heretofore believed to be a purely modern phenomenon, was a timeless reaction to existential threats that were beyond the faithful’s capacity to survive without compromising or abandoning their faith. Salvation must therefore be metahistorical in nature. Only divine intervention could save the faithful while punishing both the guilty and those whose inaction or simple indifference were deemed as tacit support for the oppressors.5 In a terrorist campaign there are no innocents and no bystanders.

Of the three articles, “Fear and Trembling” (1982) was both groundbreaking and the true precursor to the four waves. It was the first published article to explore on a comparative basis religious terrorism that, by including the Indian Thugs, demonstrated the global impact of terrorism beyond the three Abrahamic traditions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The three articles were published at a time when terrorism was being downplayed by academics and the U.S. government alike, drying up funding for terrorism research.6 In “Fear and Trembling” Rapoport details the similarities in tactics, weapons, and communications—all tied to extant technologies—as the threads which bind movements of different times, religions, and geographic regions together. In his words:

The cases [the Sicarri, the Assassins, and the Thugs] are inherently interesting and peculiarly instructive. Each group was much more durable and much more destructive than any modem one has been; operating on an international stage, they had great social effects too. Yet the noose, the dagger, and the sword were the principal weapons they employed, travel was by horse or foot, and the most effective means of communication was by word of mouth. Although a relatively simple and common technology prevailed, each example displayed strikingly different characteristics. The critical variable, therefore, cannot be technology: rather, the purpose and organization of particular groups and the vulnerabilities of particular societies to them are decisive factors. Although the point may be more easily seen in these cases, it must be relevant, I shall argue, in our world too.7

This introduction, with its emphasis on technology and the signature weapons of each group, begins to lay the groundwork for what would become wave theory. Its conclusion explicitly states the cyclical character of terrorism, which is the foundation of wave theory:

This conclusion should shape our treatment of the dynamics of modern terrorism. There is no authoritative history of modern terrorism that traces its development from its inception more than a century ago. When that history is written, the cyclical character of modern terror will be conspicuous, and those cycles will be related not so much to technological changes as to significant political watersheds, which excited the hopes of potential terrorists and increased the vulnerability of society to their claims. The upsurge in the 1960s, for example, would be related to Vietnam just as the activities immediately after World War II would appear as an aspect of the decline in the legitimacy of Western colonial empires. Since doctrine, rather than technology, is the ultimate source of terror, the analysis of modern forms must begin with the French, rather than the Industrial Revolution.8

The publication of these articles in the 1970s and 1980s, alongside a separate study on the particular affinity of messianic and millenarian movements with terrorist violence, would culminate a quarter century later in Rapoport’s wave theory.9

The waves idea ultimately came together in the wake of 9/11 in David C. Rapoport’s article “The Four Waves of Rebel Terror and September 11.”10 In the opening paragraphs of that article, Rapoport stated:

September 11, 2001 is the most destructive day in the long bloody history of rebel terrorism. The casualties and the economic damage were unprecedented. It could be the most important day too. President Bush declared a “war” to eliminate terror, galvanizing a response that could reshape the international world.

Exactly 100 years ago, we heard a similar appeal. An Anarchist assassinated President William McKinley in September 1901, moving the new president Theodore Roosevelt to summon a worldwide crusade to exterminate terrorism everywhere.

Will we succeed this time? No one knows, but even a brief acquaintance with the history of terrorism should make us more sensitive to the difficulties ahead. To this end, I will briefly describe rebel terrorism in the last 135 years to show how deeply implanted it has become in modern culture. The discussion is divided into two sections. The first describes the four waves of modern terror, and the other focuses on the international ingredients in each. I will discuss the political events triggering each wave, but lack space to enumerate the great and persistent domestic impacts.11

The Four Waves of Modern Terrorism

“The Four Waves of Modern Terrorism” defines a wave as a cycle that takes place over a 40-year time period. Each cycle is dynamic in that it expands and contracts. Groups within a particular wave adapt to the exigencies of their time, are aware of the actions of other contemporary terrorist groups in other countries, and are driven by a relentless energy that propels them into violent action. They share a common technological facility, including communications, weaponry, and logistics. Most important, they share a vision that perceives in the ills and abuses of the world the seeds of a revolutionary future.

Although Rapoport was unaware of it at the time, wave theory corresponds strongly with Arthur Schlesinger’s theory of political generations. Schlesinger posited 40-year generational cycles, which he found to be decisive in American presidential elections. His generational theory identified successive waves of social activism that are invariably followed by a period of retrenchment in which a political generation, frustrated by the seeming impossibility of bringing about meaningful change, falls back into a generation-long focus on material acquisition and economic well-being, centered on self and family.12 That Rapoport was unaware of Schlesinger’s work demonstrates the gulf between the fields of history and political science, which wave theory would come to bridge.

Rapoport posits four terrorist waves. Each has a precipitating event, signature tactics and weapons, and an inevitable gradual decline that culminates in the birth of another wave. The death of one wave and the birth of the next overlap, although a few dinosaurs of the previous wave find ways to adapt and survive in the wave that follows. The four waves are successively the Anarchist wave (1878–1919), the Anti-Colonial wave (1920s–early 1960s), the New Left wave (mid 1960s–1990s), and the Religious wave (1979–?). All save the fourth wave are posited to last a single Schlesingerian political generation, although some movements manage to survive their compatriots.

The Anarchist Wave

The opening salvo that touched off the first wave of modern terrorism took place on January 24, 1878, when Vera Zasulich, a little known anarchist figure, shot and wounded a police commander in St. Petersburg, Russia. The offending officer had been accused of flogging political prisoners. Zasulich was tried but not convicted. During the trial she uttered the memorable line: “I am a terrorist, not a killer.”13 Zasulich’s relative obscurity, compared to such anarchist superstars as Kropotkin or Nachaev, testifies to the power of the propaganda of the deed in catalyzing a terrorist wave.14

The anarchist wave emerged in Russia and quickly spread throughout the world. Western Europe, the United States, and even Japan and China, where anarchist involvement in the May 4th Movement is remembered today, were soon alive with anarchist groups.15 Rapoport notes that the early phase of the anarchist wave (from the 1880s to the 1890s) came to be known as the “Golden Age of Assassination,” as government leaders, senior politicians, including President William McKinley, and military officers died at the hands of committed anarchists.16 Rapoport does not specifically note a signature weapon characteristic of the Anarchist wave, although bullets and bombs certainly predominated. He did however note a factor that distinguished the Anarchist wave from ancient terrorism: international communications technology. This made it possible for Russian anarchists to disseminate their doctrine of revolution throughout the world. Unique too was the willingness and ability of Russian anarchists to train other revolutionary groups even if they did not share anarchist beliefs.17 Clearly it is the international character of terrorist violence that most distinguished modern terrorism from its ancient precursors. A global terrorist milieu marked each subsequent terrorist wave.

The Anti-Colonial Wave

The Anarchist wave died away with the onset of World War I. WWI was the first instance of a conflict that involved the entire population of each contending nation.18 In such a conflict, anarchism soon faded from the public stage. With the conclusion of hostilities, European colonies, as well as a number of European ethnicities, particularly in the Balkans,19 felt that political independence was within reach. Their hopes were further strengthened by American President Woodrow Wilson’s stated support.20 In the end, these hopes were dashed by the Treaty of Versailles. The Treaty transformed Europe into national states by breaking up the Austro-Hungarian Empire, while the Mandates that followed were created on the assumption that, in time, self-determination would occur. They were not meant to become permanent territories, although they had the effect of maintaining colonial control.21 The Treaty triggered the second wave.

The Irish Republican Army (IRA) was one of the first national liberation terrorist movements, but their lack of success forced them to outlive most other second wave groups.22 The IRA aside, there was a nearly quarter century lag between the Treaty of Versailles and the onset of the full force of the second wave. Rapoport attributes this delay to two primary factors: the impact of World War II, which dissolved the mandates once and for all, and the primacy of the United States whose stated opposition to colonialism could no longer be resisted. Self-determination was now possible for African, Asian, and the Middle Eastern peoples.23

The terrorist/freedom fighter analogy came to prominence in the second wave. Put simply, those who engage in terrorist tactics are terrorists, regardless of how laudable their goals. A case in point is Menachem Begin, whose Irgun remains a model of successful terrorism. The Irgun were responsible for considerable carnage in their efforts to establish a Jewish state in Palestine. Their bombing of the King David Hotel in 1946 was particularly egregious.24 Begin and Anwar Sadat were awarded a Nobel Prize for Peace in 1978. The Irgun described themselves as freedom fighters who were locked in a struggle to the death against “government terror.”25 Begin and the Irgun demonstrated that terrorism must be analyzed in a detached manner and that under given circumstances terrorism can succeed, albeit seldom through terrorism alone.

The terrorist/freedom fighter analogy is itself a product of the second wave. Where Vera Zasulitch proudly proclaimed herself to be a terrorist, the term “terrorist” by the 1940s had come to take on too many negative connotations to be of utility in gathering public support. Once again Jewish terrorism took the lead in recognizing and diagnosing the problem. The freedom fighter tag stuck and would be of considerable benefit to the succeeding New Left wave, whose fighters were often described in fawning newspaper articles as freedom fighters regardless of their bloody deeds.26

Rapoport notes several important innovations that took place in the second wave. For the first time Diaspora support became vital to terrorist success. Similarly, foreign governments began to offer support. Police became primary targets, and guerrilla tactics gained increasing importance. Where anarchist violence had been primarily urban, the increasing primacy of Maoist thought gave greater emphasis to peasants and the countryside. Perhaps most striking is that, while honoring the revolutionary zeal of the first wave, the second wave idealized national histories and cultures as the second wave turned increasingly inward, focusing on local struggles against colonial control.27

By the mid-1960s, the second wave had all but faded away. National liberation had largely been achieved, making second wave terrorism superfluous. In those few areas where statehood or political change had not been achieved, such as Northern Ireland or the Basque region of Spain, groups like the IRA and ETA soldiered on, adapting to the exigencies of the third or New Left waves, often quite well. Elements of both the IRA and ETA engaged in fusion terrorism—fusing their political goals with criminality—to survive and thrive.

Rapoport’s second wave focused primarily on political aspirations; the elimination of colonial control and the formation of new nation-states. In 2015, The U.S. State Department lists 196 independent states, most of them recognized since 1920.28 The persistence of ethnonational terrorism in regions such as South America and Africa, as well as in the Balkans and the Former Soviet Union (FSU) suggests that perhaps the emergence of nation-states did not effectively bring the anticolonial wave to a neat ending in the 1960s. This question will be more closely examined later in concert with other criticisms of wave theory.

The New Left Wave

The New Left wave emerged in the mid-1960s in response the Vietnam War. Powered by the revolution in communications technology, opposition to the War, and the much-maligned country that pursued it, opposition to the United States and popular anti-Americanism became a global phenomenon. In the context of the Cold War, Soviet active measures seemed to succeed for a time in painting the United States as rampant war mongers and associating the communist world with the word “peace,” in this way drawing a clear distinction between the two, which would allow the Soviets to funnel aid, resources, and intelligence to terrorist groups in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.29 Thus, in the context of the Cold War, state sponsorship of terrorism was inevitable.30 Moreover, the rapid developments in communications technology made the third wave more internationalist in scope than earlier waves. Globalization as we understand it today would have to wait the end of the Cold War, but the elements were there as the grievances and exploits of the third wave of modern terrorism was as accessible as a movie, a rock album, an underground journal, or the ubiquitous image of Ché Guevara affixed to a lamppost.31

If a terrorist wave has a nostalgia factor, it would be the third wave. A generation of Europeans and Americans who were in college in the 1960s recall the time in remarkably romantic terms. Anyone in possession of a Che Guevera or a Leila Khaled poster would attest to this. Carlos the Jackal and Leila Khalid, with her signature kafiya and Kalashnikov look, were youth heartthrobs. In the third wave, terrorist acts were multimedia productions rather than mass casualty events. For third wave terrorists, good television was of prime importance. The simultaneous landing of seven hijacked aircraft in Jordan without causing harm to any of the passengers or the kidnapping of a heretofore anonymous newspaper heiress who would go on to join her ragtag band of captors were ideal operations.32 More violent groups, like the German Red Army Faction in Germany, could find shelter from the government storm on university campuses, while the strange Maoist cult of personality built around the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) leader Abimael Guzmán were protected by peasants in the mountains of Peru.33

Airplane hijackings became the signature operation of the third wave, although it was of declining utility when tighter security regulations were put into effect at Western airports.34 Kidnappings however continued apace, with Italy, Spain, and Latin America at the top of the table in a list that contains no less than seventy-three countries. Assassination too was revived from the anarchist wave.35

Rapoport notes the importance of borrowed tropes from previous waves, particularly the second wave’s emphasis on nationalism. This may strike many as odd given the anti-Vietnam nature of the early years of the wave. The Vietnam War ended officially in 1975, with the North Vietnamese conquest of the South, but as a catalyst for terrorism the War officially expired with the American withdrawal of 1973—an action that set the bar for the United States’ run of failed foreign conflicts, which continues to this day with its withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan.36 This allowed the Palestine liberation Organization, a nationalist movement par excellance to come to the fore as the face of third wave terrorism.

The PLO is a case in point about the limits of the utility of wave theory in that in the real world not all cases fit neatly into any theoretical basket. The PLO is a third wave actor chronologically, but its nationalist aspirations would fit as comfortably into the second wave. The 1948 Arab-Israeli War and the 1949 Armistice Agreements resulted in the Palestinian diaspora, but the PLO National Charter was not created until 1964 and completed with all constituent resolutions until July 1968.37 However, in contrast to the national struggles of the second wave, the PLO was composed of a number of fully or partially autonomous groups and was fully international in scope, serving as training ground for European terrorists and playing an important role in Soviet policy in the Middle East.38 Thus, while nationalist in aspiration, it was international in practice and an important part of the third or New Left wave. It was secular in orientation and socialist in aspiration, yet it would ironically emerge as the Western-oriented counter to Hamas in the post 9/11 world. Terrorism, like politics, makes strange bedfellows indeed.

The third wave invariably receded, much as Schlesinger predicted, within a generation. A closer look at this social milieu however is instructive. An unanticipated result of the Vietnam War was the opening of the gates of immigration to Asians,39 who came in droves and brought with them the gurus and teachers who would found a generation of new religious movements whose roots sank deep into the United States and later in Europe and even the Soviet Union itself.40 The American counter-culture however ended badly. Experimentation with sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll burned out as the costs of indulgence over industry came due. Out of the morass came such phenomena as the American Jesus Movement and the Reagan Presidency.

If social change could not produce happiness and inner peace, certainly religion could, and the newly religious appeared throughout the world. The Moral Majority led by Pastor Jerry Falwell brought fundamentalism into the American body politic for the first time since their Pyrrhic victory in the 1928 Scopes trial.41 Similarly, in the Middle East, the failure of Arab Nationalism in both the Nasserite and Ba’athist varieties, coupled with the disaster of the Six Day War in 1967, brought the Muslim masses back to the madrassas and the mosques, where a headier brew of political Islam had been quietly percolating.42 The first fruits of the Islamic revival would shock the world and usher in the fourth wave of modern terrorism.

The Religious Wave

Three seminal revolutions, and three dominant personalities, shaped the history of the 20th century: Lenin and the Russian Revolution, Mao and the Chinese Revolution, and Imam Khomeini and the Iranian Revolution, which touched off the fourth wave of modern terrorism. In retrospect, the remarkable time lag between the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the recognition of the event’s importance by scholars and governments alike seems remarkable. It was not lost on the Shi’ite Iranians however, nor was it ignored by the overwhelmingly Sunni Arab masses.43 For a brief moment, as the American embassy in Islamabad was torched by Iranian inspired Sunnis in 1979, and 300 marines and the U.S. embassy were lost to the Shi’ite Hezbollah in Lebanon in 1982, Tehran took on the mantle of the fourth wave “Terror Central” that a generation ago many had seen in Moscow.

Rapoport’s discussion of the religious wave is brilliant, but in some ways problematic. His vital early scholarship virtually invented the study of religious terrorism as a sui generis category of terrorism rather than as the manipulative confidence game perpetrated by politically astute leaders, which was the analysis of most terrorism scholars.44 Yet he is in the end a political scientist, understanding well the impact of religion but somewhat at a loss to explain the nature of modern radical Islam with the facility that he demonstrates with ancient Judaism. The blood and sinews of the topic was in fairness even less clear to the handful of established terrorism scholars at the time, making comprehension of the global impact of the Iranian Revolution and the mysterious figure of Ayatollah Khomeini chimeric for the better part of a decade after the event.45

While recognizing the emergence of religious violence in other parts of the world, Rapoport asserts that Islam is at the heart of the wave.46 Yet some of the most deadly terrorist strikes, as the wave was still rising in the 1980s and early 1990s, involved Aum Shinrikyo’s use of nerve gas in the Tokyo subway, the killing of Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin and the Hebron Mosque massacre by Baruch Goldman in Israel, the Tamil Tiger violence in Sri Lanka, and the bloody actions of such African groups as the Lord’s resistance Army and Boko Haram.47 On a far less deadly scale, attacks by the American radical right which, in contrast to their European counterparts is almost entirely driven by religion, and the deadly violence in India that involved the Sikhs or the 1984 destruction of the Ayodhya Mosque by Hindu militants.48

With the global nature of the fourth wave firmly established, the victory of the Iranian Revolution was surely the catalyzing event whose ripples soon engulfed the Middle East. One of the least noticed of these ripples in the West, but of seismic import to the Islamic Ummah (community), was the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by a self-styled messianic savior named al-Juhaima. It took a special fatwa to allow French Special Forces to enter the Holy City to finally root them out.49 The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1997 hardly went unnoticed, and its defeat and humiliating withdrawal both put the final nail in the Soviet Union’s coffin and unleashed a jihadist force that would, in 1993, give birth to Mullah Omar’s Taliban. It emboldened many, including Osama Bin Laden, to believe that just as lightly armed simple believers could defeat one superpower, surely al-Shaitan al-Kabir (the Great Satan aka the United States) would be just as vulnerable; a perception that would ultimately lead to the 9/11 strikes and the interminable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 1998, Bin Laden stated this belief clearly to John Miller.

Bin Laden believes that the United States, which was so heavily involved in supporting the Afghan rebels, misses the profound point of that exercise: Through sheer will, even superpowers can be defeated.

“There is a lesson to learn from this for he who wishes to learn,” Bin Laden said. “The Soviet Union entered Afghanistan in the last week of 1979, and with Allah’s help their flag was folded a few years later and thrown in the trash, and there was nothing left to call the Soviet Union.”

The war changed Bin Laden. “It cleared from Muslim minds the myth of superpowers,” he said.50

The Taliban soon took power in Afghanistan and gestated an eponymous movement that threatens Pakistan.51 Osama Bin Laden offered his baya (oath of allegiance) to Mullah Omar, and Ayman Al Zawahiri renewed the pledge to his successor in 2015.52 Then there was the Al Qaeda attack on New York and the Pentagon, which continues to shape American policy, and thus the world, fifteen years later.53

The fourth wave, which began in 1979, will transcend the generation which gave it birth. Indeed, by 2015, the religious wave of modern terrorism shows no signs of cresting, much less receding, which throws into question the forty year generational cycle posited by Rapoport’s wave theory. Moreover, with the foundation of the Islamic State, the fourth wave has entered a new phase in which, rather than trying to gain control of established states a la Al Qaeda and its numerous offshoots, seeks to establish a millennial state in the heart of the Islamic world.54

Criticisms of Wave Theory

Wave theory has come to be widely accepted in the field as a useful historical model. The insights it provides into both the international character of terrorism and its transnational commonalities and modalities are undeniable. That said, every theory must be a constant work in progress if it is to have continuing utility in a rapidly evolving field. Some of the difficulties with wave theory we have already pointed out. Problems of classification, as with the PLO, are not of great import. The generational nature of wave theory is a major strength, although the religious wave seems to defy the single generation life span allotted to each wave. Therefore, it would be useful to conclude with a look at some of the difficulties and objections that have been expressed about wave theory.

We will begin with a reexamination of the second wave and a consideration of what might be termed ethnonationalist violence. This will be followed with a consideration of the literature of the four waves. Two books have appeared in recent years with specific reference to the four waves; Terrorism, Identity and Legitimacy: The Four Waves Theory and Political Violence, an anthology edited by Jean Rosenfeld55 and Jeffrey Kaplan’s Terrorist Groups and the New Tribalism: Terrorism’s Fifth Wave, which appeared in 2010.56 The former is a festschrift and the latter a monograph. Both are well disposed to wave theory. This is followed by a very different view in a critical article, “The Four Horsemen of Terrorism—It’s Not Waves, It’s Strains,”57 that was accompanied by a rebuttal piece from David C. Rapoport and commentary from Charles Townsend and Jeffrey Kaplan.58

Ethnonationalist Terrorism

The second wave focuses on anticolonialist violence. As we have seen, the explosion of newly independent and newly established nations by the early 1960s is a testament to the global triumph of nationalism. Where nationalist aspirations were repressed in Northern Ireland, the Turkish zone in Cyprus, former Yugoslavia, and throughout the Soviet empire, terrorist groups survived and flourished when most second wave groups were matters of historic debate. Ethnic terror marked the Yugoslavian wars in the 1990s, with Serbia and Croatia leading the way in the application and historic importance of ethnically based terror. Croatia’s Nazi past attracted young National Socialists from Germany and Scandinavia to fight on the Croatian side during the conflict.59 Of far greater current concern is terrorism in the former Soviet Union (FSU), with Chechen terror constituting a global threat.60

Rapoport was certainly aware of the importance of ethnic violence and the emergence of ethnonationalist terrorism. He wrote important articles on the topic, both in historical and contemporary perspective.61 Much of this work, however, was not fully reflected in his discussion of the second wave. It may be safely assumed that, as the articles give way to a future monograph, greater emphasis will be given to a trend that is becoming increasingly apparent in the 21st century.

There are numerous examples of ethno-terrorism to consider, but it is clear that there are some questions about the efficacy of wave theory to be derived from the topic. Rather than delve into so vast a corpus, it would be useful to rethink the problem in another way. If, as Rapoport suggests, the fourth wave will recede by 2019, will the fifth wave focus on ethno-nationalist terror? The African scene would seem to suggest that this could be so.

Two publications suggest the possibility that the fourth wave will end as scheduled. Leonard Weinberg and William Eubank’s “An End to the Fourth Wave of Terrorism?” is a brief account of a monograph that would appear two years later as the broader An End to Terrorism?62 The article incorrectly states that the radical right does not easily fit into any of the four waves.63 In fact, religiosity is deep in the heart of the radical right, be it every stage of the Ku Klux Klan, the Turkish Grey Wolves, Christian Identity, or any of the many varieties of post-War National Socialism.64 Using a statistical approach, the rest of the article makes the cautious argument that:

What can be suggested is that some evidence indicates the Fourth Wave of modern terrorism may be on a downward trajectory … The Egyptian groups Jihad and al-Gamma al-Islamyya, responsible for major terrorist attacks, have declared their abandonment of violence. Next, domestic and international authorities have strengthened their ability to monitor, detect, and prevent terrorist attacks. There is evidence that Al Qaeda and its affiliates have induced disaffection among the very people they want to take up the cause of jihad. Public opinion in the Muslim world may be shifting, a result of terrorists staging indiscriminate or insufficiently discriminating attacks on fellow Muslims.65

The rise of the Islamic State, the resultant flood of refugees into Western Europe, and the numbing series of high casualty terrorist attacks from 2013 to the present makes this appear to be rather overly optimistic. It was clearly written in support of the generational aspect of wave theory, but it only muddles the case. The first phase of the Ku Klux Klan for example began during the American Reconstruction period after the Civil War in the 1870s, yet it was religious in concept and symbolism, and that religiosity would characterize the group throughout its history. Even its sacred book—ironic, given the current Islamophobic climate—is called The Kloran!66

David C. Rapoport is aware of the difficulty of classifying the radical right and other forms of popular violence in the context of wave theory. In 2008, he published a fascinating article (2008a) that sweeps through American history and finds a history of mob violence. “Before the Bombs There Were the Mobs: American Experiences with Terror” is a fascinating subtext to wave theory.67

Leonard Weinberg would examine the problem of what might follow the fourth wave in The End of Terrorism? After suggesting and dismissing a number of fifth wave suspects, he again expresses admirable if possibly misplaced optimism in stating that perhaps terrorism will disappear altogether, or less grandly, that it will return to the margins of political violence from whence it came in the 20th century.68

Jeffrey Kaplan’s speculations on a possible fifth wave focuses almost entirely on ethnic terrorism, which as Alex Schmid points out in his brilliant The Routledge Handbook of Terrorism Research is not a crowded field.69 Kaplan’s fifth wave monograph followed several journal articles to make the case that the next wave of terrorism would be ethnic in character.70 All focused primarily on Africa and all, as it turned out, were wrong. They well described unique aspects of contemporary ethnic and ethno-national terrorism,71 but as we have seen these instances of terror were present from the second wave to this day, and they will continue into the indefinite future. The fifth wave material led, however, to the New Tribalism, an intricate model that, through Colonel Christopher Costa, has made its way into the American national security and military command structure as a route to a deeper understanding of global terrorist movements, as well as into the process of radicalization and mobilization.72

Finally, as we have noted, Terrorism & Political Violence in 2016 published a forum on wave theory in response to Tom Parker and Nick Sitter’s criticism of wave theory, “The Four Horsemen of Terrorism—It’s Not Waves, It’s Strains.”73 The article was accompanied by a rebuttal from David C. Rapoport and commentary from Charles Townshend and Jeffrey Kaplan. To varying degrees, all three articles saw some useful points in the “The Four Horsemen,” but found Parker and Sitter’s criticism unconvincing.

Parker and Sitter begin badly for most terrorism scholars by proposing a disease model, viewing terrorism as an infection whose unfortunate sufferers are caught up in a disease vector or strain. They are ultimately the victims of an infection that can be traced to a putative patient zero, making terrorism a particularly virulent malady much akin to a putative zombie outbreak aka The Walking Dead. Medicalizing terrorism is a bane for terrorism scholars, but it makes a kind of sense given Parker’s background: “Tom Parker was formerly Policy Director for Terrorism, Counter-Terrorism, and Human Rights at Amnesty International USA, and Adviser on Human Rights and Counter-Terrorism to the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force (CTITF). He is currently working on a book examining human rights-compliant counter-terrorism strategies, entitled Why Right Is Might, for the World Scientific Press.”74 It is far easier to appeal for humane treatment of terrorists in the age of ISIS with a medical appeal than it would be with a national security approach.

That said, Parker and Sitter’s view of terrorism is strikingly pessimistic, and indeed, apocalyptic. The title of the piece reflects an effort throughout the article to use the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse as a metaphor for global terrorism. They state:

The four strains we have identified all date from the same period, and although they have mostly developed separately since, they do occasionally combine and mutate. These four strains—these four horsemen of terrorism—are Nationalism, Socialism, Religious Extremism, and Social Exclusion. Using Boaz Ganor’s definition of terrorism—“the intentional use of or threat to use violence against civilians or against civilian targets, in order to attain political aims”—as our criteria, we have compared both theories against the historical record to determine which ultimately offers the greater theoretical leverage over recorded events.75

While the strains and horsemen are not, in essence, significantly different from Rapoport’s waves, the article does make some valid points about the difficulty of classifying some groups in particular waves. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (Ikkwan), for example, was born in 1929 in the second or nationalist wave. Yet the Ikkwan was not primarily nationalist in orientation. Rather, they were religious and from the beginning saw national independence in profoundly ambivalent terms, stating that “political independence was worthless unless accompanied by intellectual, social, and cultural independence.”76 Further complicating the issue is a factor that is often overlooked, and completely missed by Parker and Sitter; the Brotherhood was a complex political organization that only occasionally indulged in terrorism. Waves or strains, the theory of terrorist violence does not address anything but terrorism and thus need to focus primarily on terrorism rather than deviant politics. Rapoport’s wave theory does exactly this. Parker’s “The Four Horsemen” does not. This factor alone would support the utility of Rapoport’s wave theory.

But there is more. As Robert Townsend states:

One doubtful aspect of their proposal might be that the idea of “strains,”especially when accompanied by a search for a “patient zero” for each strain, seems to echo the notion of terrorism as a kind of disease—an idea that seems to belong to an earlier epoch in the study of terrorism. But whether or not one chooses to call them “strains,” chains, or indeed “horsemen,” it is clearly the case that there are a limited number of key objectives that can mobilise activists prepared to use violence. Parker and Sitter’s article is designed to adjust Rapoport’s four categories along with his metaphor. Do their four “horsemen = strains = chains” cover the spectrum of terrorist motivation better than his Four Waves? Essentially, by fusing two of Rapoport’s categories, the Old and New Lefts, they create a vacant seat for their fourth horseman. (Is it unfair to suspect that they stick to four categories to tally with the apocalyptic metaphor?) …

As ever, framing is key here, and the “four horsemen” are in essence a re-framing of Rapoport’s categories. Whether one thinks Parker and Sitter’s frame works better than Rapoport’s depends on such issues as whether one places the Ku Klux Klan in the terrorist mainstream as they do, or outside it as Rapoport does. Both make sense. In the end, it may not really be an issue of choosing between waves and strains; the analytical frames of Rapoport and Parker and Sitter possess convincing explanatory and ordering power. The kinetic effect of the wave and the continuity of the strain, both correspond to a useful degree with messy reality. Maybe there is here a case for defying Fowler and deliberately mixing metaphors—producing a wavy strain, perhaps? What we do not need is to add a third metaphor: the horsemen would be better riding off into the sunset.77


For good reason, David C. Rapoport’s four waves of terrorism theory have become increasingly ubiquitous in the academic study of terrorism. Where terrorism in the ancient world was religious in nature and focused on specific locales, the emergence of modern communications technology, from the printed page to the encrypted Internet message, has made terrorism transnational in scope. It was no longer centered on a particular people, a narrow localistic set of religio-political circumstances, or even a particular language.

No academic theory is able to capture the full scope of any issue in the social sciences. There remain cases where a terrorist group defies easy classification, where groups outlive their wave and are able to adapt to the changed circumstances of the world around them. These, however, are the exceptions, and they serve to prove the rule. Wave theory’s ability to grow and adapt demonstrates the organic nature of the idea, as well as its academic appeal. It will be a cornerstone in the academic study of terrorism for some time to come.


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  • 1. Hoffman (2006), 40.

  • 2. Rapoport (1979). For a more in-depth discussion of this article and the body of Rapoport’s published work, see Kaplan (2011), 66–84.

  • 3. See for example, the work of Barkun (1986), (1996), (1997); Kaplan (2002a), (2002b); Juergensmeyer (2003), (2008); and Juergensmeyer, Kitts, and Jerryson (2013).

  • 4. Rapoport (1982), 13–42; (1984), 658–677; and Rapoport (1988), 195–213.

  • 5. From this perception springs the bloody history of millenarianism and messianism. For Jewish examples, see Sprinzak (1999). For a global approach, see Wessinger (2000). For the best available historical synthesis, see Law (2015).

  • 6. Rapoport, 658–659. He would return to this theme often, noting that the study of terrorism itself was once seen as too marginal for serious study, as evidenced by the first two editions of the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, which covered terrorism in its 1931 inaugural edition and ignored the topic in the second edition in 1968. See Rapoport (2016), 217–218.

  • 7. Rapoport (1984), 659.

  • 8. Ibid., 672.

  • 9. Rapoport (1987b), 72–88. The article was based on an eponymous paper presented to the American Political Science Association in 1985.

  • 10. Rapoport (2002).

  • 11. Ibid.

  • 12. Arthur Schlesinger (1986), 23–50.

  • 13. Rapoport (2002), 50. Cf. Marc Sageman, Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), 34.

  • 14. The term “propaganda of the deed” was coined in the 1870s and adopted by subsequent waves. Schmid (2011), 677. For a good biography of Zasulich, see Bergman (1983).

  • 15. Global anarchism is well documented. China is much lesser known. Scalapino and Yu (1961), The Chinese anarchist movement. For a wonderful picture of how the Soviet-supported movement blended with the revolutionary milieu in China, see Terrill (1999); and Dirlik (1991). On Japan, see Libertaire Group (Japan) (1979).

  • 16. Rapoport (2013), 52. One of Rapoport’s earliest publications, Rapoport & Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (1971), was written originally for radio, provides an in-depth discussion of assassination and terrorism.

  • 17. Rapoport (2013), 50–52.

  • 18. Bernard Brodie (1973). Innumerable books on the topic have been published since 1973, but none so acute as this from the first generation of American Defense intellectuals. Highly recommended.

  • 19. Slavic aspirations for statehood and independence were achieved in stages, but were retarded by Soviet control during the Cold War. Only with the conclusion of the war in former Yugoslavia would the process be completed. The literature of pan-Slavism was a vital wellspring from which generations of intellectuals found succor. See Makowski and Hadler (2013).

  • 20. President Wilson is lauded today for his international vision. Often forgotten in this lionization however was Wilson’s support of the Ku Klux Klan domestically. See Cooper (2009), 272.

  • 21. Rapoport (2013), 52–53.

  • 22. The IRA survived the 20th century, and its splinter groups fight on. For a good discussion of the integration of the IRA into parliamentary politics, see Benedetta Berti (2013), chapter 5. For a closer view, see Andrew Sanders (2011).

  • 23. Rapoport (2013), 53.

  • 24. Clarke (1981).

  • 25. Rapoport (2013), 54 and n. 37. The discussion of the terrorist/freedom fighter issue is from Begin (1977). Rappaport notes that Lehi (Stern Gang), another Jewish terrorist group in mandatory Palestine continued to proclaim that they were terrorists. Yitzhak Shamir, another Israeli prime minister was a Lehi leader. Either Israel has a fondness for electing terrorists or the terrorist/freedom fighter analogy has little analytical value. For a more recent discussion, read Daniel Gordis (2014).

  • 26. Hoffman (2003), 16.

  • 27. Rapoport (2013), 54–56.

  • 28. Bureau of Intelligence and Research, Independent States in the World, State Department, Washington, DC, July 21, 2015.

  • 29. The Active measures campaign involved the centralization of government, military and intelligence resources around a simple message, tirelessly repeated. It is a method that the contemporary United States could profit from emulating in the information age. Shultz and Godson (1984). Cf. Herbert Romerstein (1989).

  • 30. This observation produced a cottage industry of books purporting to prove that terrorism was a communist plot and Moscow was at the center of it all. The most successful, and perhaps least factual of these was Sterling, The Terror Network (1981). More nuanced were the papers emerging from a Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy conference: Ra’anan & Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Hydra of Carnage (1986).

  • 31. The West tends to downplay the importance of these counterculture artifacts outside of the North American/Western European sphere. Having spent a good chunk of the 1970s in communist Eastern Europe, I can attest to the power of the music, ideas, and symbols of third wave personalities. Terrorism was out of the purview of Eastern European youth, given the presence of security forces and the expected presence of informers everywhere, as in Stasi East Germany, or the bizarre cults of personality in Romania and Albania. Hungary had the most open scene, and such 1970s era bands as Omega and Locomotiv GT still play today, while Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria were perhaps the most repressive, as exemplified by the unhappy experiences of the Czech band Plastic People of the Universe. Regardless of the country however, the symbols were truly global in the third wave. Interestingly, Cuba was distinctly negative about rock music, but in the wake of President Obama’s historic visit to Havana in March 2016, the Rolling Stones announced an outdoor free concert that is expected to draw 400,000 fans. On the Stones and Cuba, see Reutersmarch, “Cuba’s Journey From Rock Labor Brigades to the Rolling Stones”, Reuters, March 25, 2016, On the history from the perspective of Russia and Eastern Europe, see Ramet (1994). And on the all things Czech, see the widely panned Bolton (2012).

  • 32. The stories of Leila Khaled and the notorious 1970 hijackings are closely intertwined. See Irving (2012). Cf. Sjoberg and Gentry (2011). Khaled is currently serving in the Palestinian Parliament and continues to fight for the rights of her people. Patty Hearst, the heiress in question, is less fondly remembered. The group that carried out the kidnapping, the Symbionese Liberation Army, is better remembered. Leslie Payne, Timothy Findley, and Carolyn Craven, The Life and Death of the SLA (1st ed.) (New York: Ballantine Books, 1976). Rodopi, the Dutch publisher provides an invaluable though hard to find collection of SLA primary sources in Pearsall (1974). Che is, of course, ubiquitous, but for the curious, Jon Lee Anderson, Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life (New York: Grove Press, 2010). Carlos was arrested, tried, and sentenced to life in prison in France, in 2011. Fat, bald, and bloated, his female trial attorney nonetheless fell in love with him. Some terrorists just have charisma, some don’t. On his life, see John Follain (2011). On the trial, Andreas Illmer (2011, December 16), “Carlos the Jackal’ sentenced to life in prison,” Deutsche Welle. On the more important issue of charisma and terror, consult Hoffman (2015), 710–733.

  • 33. A great deal of new literature about the RAF and the Baader/Mainhof Gang has appeared in recent years: The Red Army Faction, a Documentary History: Volume 1: Projectiles for the People, 1st ed. (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2009); Passmore (2011); Melzer (2015); and Vague (1994). With the arrest of Guzmán, much more is known about the secretive Shining Path. Gorriti Ellenbogen (1999); Stern (1995); Palmer (1994); Koppel (1993); and Strong (1992). On Guzmán, one of the most interesting figures of the time, Carlos Iván Degregori, Steve J. Stern, and Nancy P. Appelbaum, How Difficult It Is to Be God: Shining Path’s Politics of War in Peru, 1980–1999, Critical Human Rights (Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2012). Cf. Starn (1998).

  • 34. In 2009, Terrorism & Political Violence, the journal co-edited by David Rapoport, produced a special issue edited by John Harrison on the topic: International Aviation and Terrorism: Evolving Threats, Evolving Security. It included no less than two articles on Al Qaeda, which, if heeded, could have done much to prevent 9/11. The book is now available as Harrison (2009). Rapoport notes as well the key importance of hijacking to the third wave. Rapoport (2004), 57. For a wonderful recent monograph, see Koerner (2013).

  • 35. Rapoport (2013), 57.

  • 36. Ibid., 56. The observation of the American losing streak is my own, not David Rapoport’s.

  • 37. Brand (1988). The full text of the Charter can be found at The Avalon Project: The Palestinian National Charter, Yale University. Cf. for broader context, see Maddy-Weitzman (2015). And on the role of Arafat, Bassām Abū Sharīf (2009).

  • 38. Rashid Khalidi (2010, 2006).

  • 39. In its quest for allies and states willing to join SEATO (Southeast Asian Treaty Organization), the United States revised its immigration regulations in 1965. The flowering of the new religious movements soon followed. See Ellwood (1994); and Zablocki and Robbins (2001).

  • 40. For example, Kaplan (2000a).

  • 41. The best source for the global fundamentalist phenomenon of the 1980s and 1990s remains the five volumes published by the Fundamentalism Project at the University of Chicago under Prof. martin J. Marty. See Marty, Appleby, and American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Fundamentalisms Observed (1991); Fundamentalisms and Society (1993); Fundamentalisms and the State (1993); Accounting for Fundamentalisms (1994); and Fundamentalisms Comprehended (1995).

  • 42. For the earliest stirrings, see Mitchell (1993); and Calvert (2013); on Arab nationalism, Jankowski (2001); on the Ba’ath, Devlin (1991), 1396–1407.

  • 43. Having had the life changing privilege of being in Iran during the Revolution’s formative stages, I saw clearly that the Iranians were not blind to its import. The Shah seemed so firmly in power, with SAVAK at his back and the ever generous Americans to the fore, he seemed utterly secure. One could not sit on a public commode without the Shah’s noble features gazing down at you! The United States was then pursuing its Twin Pillars security policy in the region pairing Saudi Arabia and Iran as the defenders of American interests, which made supplying Iran with the most advanced weapons systems and importing the army of trainers needed to keep them up and running of key importance. The success of the Revolution seemed to even the most secular Iranians to have been literally heaven sent. See Ramazani (1979).

  • 44. Bruce Hoffman is most identified with this position. Bruce Hoffman (2006).

  • 45. The best insight into Ayatollah Khomeini is offered by the Imam himself: Khomeini and Algar (2002). More recent secondary sources can be quite illuminating as well. See Coughlin (2009); and Yvette Hovsepian-Bearce (2016).

  • 46. Rapoport (2013), 61.

  • 47. From a theoretical perspective, see Kaplan (2010). On the LRA itself the literature is vast. For varying perspectives, Allen and Vlassenroot (2010); and Axe and Hamilton (2013), still image; Cline (2013); and Eichstaedt (2013). On Boko Haram, see Whitlock (2014).

  • 48. Reader (2000). From the participants’ point of view, see Haggai Segal, Dear Brothers: The West Bank Jewish Underground (Woodmere: Beit Shamai Publications, 1988). From a scholarly view, Sprinzak (1999); Kaplan (2000a); Barkun(1997); Brar (1993); Goraya (2013); and Pokharel and Beckett (2012). There is a massive literature on the Tamil Tigers, including Hashim (2013); Moorcraft (2012); and Weiss (2012).

  • 49. Trofimov, The Siege of Mecca: The Forgotten Uprising in Islam’s Holiest Shrine and the Birth of Al Qaeda, 1st ed. (New York: Doubleday, 2007); and Trofimov (2008).

  • 50. John Miller, Greetings, America. My name Osama bin Laden, Frontline, 1999.

  • 51. Rashid (2000); and Strick van Linschoten and Kuehn (2012).

  • 52. Rajan (2015). Cf. “Al-Qaeda’s Zawahiri pledges allegiance to Taliban head,” Al Jazeera, August 13, 2015.

  • 53. The literature on Al Qaeda and 9/11 is staggering. For a tiny but perhaps representative sampling, Gerges, The Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda (2011); Gunaratna (2003); Hoffman and Rand Corporation (2003); Holbrook (2014); Juergensmeyer (2008); Laqueur (2004); Ronfelt (2007); Strick van Linschoten, and Kuehn (2012); and Trofimov (2008).

  • 54. Kaplan and Costa (2015), 926–969. For a reprise of this article in context, see the Routledge’s “greatest hits” anthology, Jeffrey Kaplan, Radical Religion and Violence: Theory and Case Studies, Routledge Studies in Extremism and Democracy (New York: Routledge, 2015), Part IV, 343–416. The Islamic State has unleashed a veritable flood of academic literature that also shows no sign of cresting, much less receding. One of the first monographs on the subject is Filiu (2015). Filiu is an accomplished scholar of Islamic millenarianism; Filiu (2011); McCants (2015); Spencer (2015); and Stern and Berger (2015).

  • 55. Rosenfeld (2011).

  • 56. Kaplan (2010).

  • 57. Parker and Sitter (2016), 197–216.

  • 58. Rapoport (2016), 217–224; Charles Townsend (2016), 225–227; and Kaplan (2016), 228–235.

  • 59. Perica (2002). On NS involvement, see Anderson (1995), 39–46. One of the best available sources on neo-Nazi involvement, in former Yugoslavia, is from the Czech Republic and is available in translation. See Miroslav Mareš (2009).

  • 60. For a general introduction looking at the FSU as a whole, read Galina M. Yemelianova (2010). The literature of Chechen terrorism is vast, but a useful start would be Pokalova (2015).

  • 61. Cf. Rapoport (1996), 258–285.

  • 62. Leonard Weinberg and William Eubank (2012), The End of Terrorism?, Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries, 49(11), 594–602. Weinberg (2012).

  • 63. Weinberg and Eubank (2010), 596.

  • 64. For a one size fits all, Kaplan’s Encyclopedia of White Power (2000b); for greater depth, Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God (2000).

  • 65. Kaplan (2000), 600.

  • 66. The KKK “Kloran” can be downloaded in its entirety from the Internet Archive.

  • 67. David Rapoport (2008a), 167–194.

  • 68. Weinberg (2012), 125–127.

  • 69. Schmid (2011), 234–236. In addition to Kaplan’s work, he notes only Dan Byman’s 1998 article as making a significant contribution, although several other key texts have emerged since the Handbook’s publication. Dan Byman (1998), The Logic of Ethnic Terrorism, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 21, 149–169.

  • 70. Kaplan, Terrorist Groups and the New Tribalism (2010); The Fifth Wave (2007); Terrorism and Political Violence (2007), 545–570; and Terrorism’s Fifth Wave (2008).

  • 71. In particular, the emergence of rape and sexual violence as a signature tactic of contemporary ethnic violence was well documented in the Yugoslavian and African cases.

  • 72. Kaplan and Costa (2014), 13–44; and Kaplan and Costa (2015), 348–416.

  • 73. Parker and Sitter (2016), 197–216.

  • 74. Parker and Sitter (2016), 197.

  • 75. Parker and Sitter (2016), 199.

  • 76. Mitchell (1993), 230.

  • 77. Townsend (2016), 226–227.