The Past is Prologue
Terrorism is a very nuanced term - pejorative to say the least. At its root, this political violence is a tactic used to socially, politically, and psychologically fragment a targeted population. It is a way to inflict pain on a stronger enemy, and designed to cause irrational anxiety (or fear induced panic) in the hope that this anxiety would compel the State to adjust its policy through the demands of the civilian populace. Our 24-hour news cycle draws attention and insight to the problem, and it can seem sometimes that the world is spinning out of control. But terrorism has been a scourge on civilization throughout history, and understanding some of that history helps us to view events in a broader context.
The usage of terrorism as a tactic spans time, religion and political belief. In the 1st century AD, religious terrorists known as the Zealots-Sicarii rebelled against Greek and Roman rule in Judaea by killing prominent figures, with the objective to make oppression so intolerable that insurrection was inevitable. Another group, the Assassins, whose purpose was to purify Islam, committed murder in venerated sites and royal courts, usually on holy days, when many witnesses would be present to see the martyrdom and assassination of both the attacker and the victim. The Thuggies of India, whose cult was based on the worship of goddess Kali (the destructive and creative mother in the Hindu religion), would strangle their victims with a handkerchief or noose, plunder their belongings and bury their bodies. Although each of the aforementioned events spanned different centuries and different ideologies, they all had the same fundamental objective: To use violence, or the fear of violence, against civilians as an instrument to pursue a political and/or ideological agenda. These same motives drive terrorism today.
Modern terrorism is generally considered to have originated with the French Revolution of 1789. This Régime de la Terreur – from which the English word “terrorism” is derived – was adopted to establish order during the transient anarchical period of turmoil and upheaval that followed the revolution. In its original context; the term was associated with the ideals of virtue and democracy. Unlike terrorism today, the Régime de la Terreur was an instrument of governance wielded by the newly established revolutionary state. This new political system was put in place after the Revolution and designed to consolidate the new government’s power by intimidating counterrevolutionaries, subversives, and other dissidents whom the new state regarded as “enemies of the people.”
Another inflection point in the history of terrorism came at the end of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), when a French sociologist named David Émile Durkheim noticed the rapid change in societal norms after the French lost the war. He believed this social upheaval was a causative factor in the rise of suicides, which coincided with the rise of the violent anarchist movement in Europe. Durkheim opinioned that social disruption caused greater “anomie” – a state where societal norms are confused or unclear. Thus, a collapse of an adhered-to-order would result in the failure or absence of societal norms, which could lead individuals to engage in deviant behavior.
Additionally, globalization is another one of several factors that contribute to a state of anomie. Using David Rapoport’s concept of four waves of modern terrorism, we can see the initial Anarchist wave beginning with globalization at the end of the 19th Century. This globalization, better known as the Industrial Revolution, upset the “old order.” The rapid increase in world trade caused goods, services, capital and people to move freely, and led to a new transfer of wealth, which upset and destabilized established societies. This dynamic created an atmosphere of anxiety, which fueled the rise of the Anarchist.
This wave first began in Russia in the 1880’s, when the Tsarist government had absolute control over society. Here the terrorist group Narodnaya Volya – or “the People’s Will” – believed that revolution would come by targeting key political and government officials, in hopes of bringing about social and political change. The introduction of modern technologies was a major contributory factor. Improved communications by mass media and the use of the telegraph helped circulate news faster and farther. Railroads helped terrorists spread their ideology to sympathizers who otherwise might not have had access before rail transit. “Propaganda by Deed”, coined by Carlos Pisacane, was a concept to justify these terrorist actions, as he believed that "ideas spring from deeds and not the other way around.”
In a span of thirty-three years (1881-1914), seven assassinations of European leaders and an American President were successful. With the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand by Serbian anarchist Gavrilo Princip the maelstrom of World War I destroyed the established order of Europe, which beget the Anti-colonialism wave.
The Anti-colonialism wave began when the Versailles Treaty, the Treaty of Trianon and the Sykes-Picot Accord provided the victors the ability to carve up the German, Austria-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires. Lasting roughly from the 1920’s to the 1960’s, these terrorists were successful in their main goal of forcing occupying colonial powers to withdraw and allowing the division of defeated states and empires to develop into individual nations.
The Anti-colonialism wave introduced changes in both the language and tactics used in terrorism. Terrorist groups coined titles such as “freedom fighters” as a way to move away from the negative denotation of “terrorism”, and organizations sought to spread support by drawing in sympathizers from outside their borders. The Irish Republican Army did this with relative success, spawning sympathizers within the United States and Great Britain. In the Middle East, the Israeli Irgun faction, led by Menachem Begin, 6th Prime Minister of Israel, along with the Stern gang, and other Jewish terrorist groups relentlessly attacked their British overseers to create an untenable position for the occupational control of the Palestinian Mandate. The war-weary British thought it best to abandon their colony and relinquish control of the area to the United Nations. In 1948, the UN passed Resolution 181, providing Israel’s right to exist (along with a Palestinian state – although the Arabs rejected this resolution), thus providing evidence to the world that terrorism can work for people seeking self-determination.
With the end of World War II and the rise of the Cold War, terrorism evolved into the New Left wave. This wave was characterized by the internationalization of terrorism, following the Marxist/Maoist ideology of “saving the workers from the humiliation of capitalism and exploitation from the bourgeoisie.” In this era, the New Left focused heavily on the Vietnam War, also introduced and perpetrated the myth that capitalism was bad and that socialism/communism was the ideal form of government. Terrorist groups focused on symbolic targets (government buildings, law enforcement, military, banks, et al), as a means to cause mass fear and demand for change while drawing attention to their plight. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was the standard bearer among these organizations. The PLO showed how terrorists could organize and act strategically in their attacks to harness mass media to advocate their cause. Hijackings of commercial aircraft, kidnappings, and political assassinations were all popular tactics among the PLO. However, with the demise of the Soviet Union, the backing and financing for “New Left” terrorist groups dried-up, paving the way for the last wave of modern terrorism: The Religious wave.
The Religious wave can be traced to 1979 and the beginning of the new Islamic century. During this year, the Grand Mosque in Mecca was attacked by Wahhabists who desired to purify the sacred site; Ayatollah Khomeini led the revolution that overthrew the Shah of Iran; and the Soviet Union invaded the Muslim country of Afghanistan.
By 1988, with U.S. aid, the Afghan Mujahedeen defeated the Soviets, which accelerated the end of Cold War. The implosion of the Soviet empire, the loss of funding to Soviet client states, the Iraq invasion of Kuwait and subsequent U.S. victory in Desert Storm coupled with the Information Revolution (globalization of the 21st century), saw America’s rise as the sole hyper-power. Usama bin Laden established his Raison d'être to begin Jihad on the West, by issuing Fatwas on the U.S. for “invading” the Muslim holy land of Saudi Arabia during Desert Storm. These edicts found support among Mujahedeen veterans and created an audience for radical Islamic Jihad.
This fourth wave had been characterized by large scale coordinated and deadly attacks on primarily Western targets. The foremost terrorist group in this movement was al-Qaeda, but today we see the rise and brutal tactics of ISIS. For both these groups (and their affiliates), their goal is the reestablishment of the Caliphate and imposition of Sharia law. From catastrophic attacks like 9/11 to the vehicle attacks that we have seen recently, this wave continues to be the number one global security concern.
Since September 11th, 2001 we have received daily doses of terrorist attacks around the globe. Although it does seem that these attacks are accelerating, we can look back in our recent history to see groups such as the Red Army Faction of Germany (i.e. Baader-Meinhof Group), Columbia’s FARC, Peru’s Sendero Luminoso, or domestically, the Weather Underground, the Black Liberation Army, the Symbionese Liberation Army or the KKK, just to name a few, who have also tried to use political violence to advance their agenda. These groups have largely failed. Their abhorrent ideologies have been widely rejected by the populace, thereby preventing the terrorists from acquiring sufficient support to effectively accelerate their agendas.
In today’s hyper-politicized climate, with Islamists pursuing Jihad, Antifa “activists” trying to shut down free speech in America, or narco-terrorism percolating up from the southern border, one might think that there is nothing that can be done. We must remember that terrorism will only succeed if irrational anxiety creates an atmosphere that encourages our government to alter our way of life, limit freedoms, or negotiate with terrorists to redress their perceived grievances. History shows that members of terrorist organizations consider all of these actions indicators of their success. Negotiating with terrorist groups, or acquiescing to the changes they seek to institute in our society is a way to ensure more violence, not to prevent it. We must trust our law enforcement officers, our military, and others working daily and diligently on the terrorism issue to effectively respond to any terrorist threat, without being drawn in as a society into the dual traps of negotiation or compromise. We can also actively prepare and equip our communities to identify and respond to any active threat. While terrorist tactics continue to evolve, at a root level we have gone down this path before. And in each of those instances, we have succeeded in maintaining our culture and way of life. Working together, and with the help of patriotic Americans of all stripes (civilians, law enforcement, military, etc.), we shall do so again.
As a student of history, I do believe in President Harry Truman’s adage “The only thing new in the world is the history you do not know.”
The more things change the more they stay the same…
James L. Feldkamp is Lead Intelligence and Counter-terrorism Consultant for Complete Threat Preparedness. He is a retired Naval Officer, and former FBI special agent, with a career focus on international terrorism. Feldkamp has authored/edited a university textbook through Cognella Academic Publishing on the "Theory and Politics of Terrorism”, and has instructed as an adjunct professor at multiple universities including George Mason University, George Washington University and Henley-Putnam University, where he teaches multiple courses in domestic and international terrorism.
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