The Evolution of Terrorism

By Stefanos Michelakakis

Nowadays it’s widely known that terrorism constitutes a plague to states and to the international community as a whole. Despite the dominate public opinion that terrorism is a modern phenomenon and it is the aftermath of 9/11, its roots can be traced back at the end of 19th century. David Rapoport, who is among the most influential scholars in terrorism and counter terrorism studies, distinguishes four waves of terrorism, each one with its own characteristics. Their common ground was their goal towards achieving revolutionary and radical change.   

According to David Rapoport, the first wave began in the 1880’s in Russia and quickly spread to the European and American continent.  The founding fathers of the so-called “Anarchist wave” were Russian writers, who used the innovations of that time, such as newspapers and telegraphs, in order to create a hostile environment towards the governors and cultivate the sentiment of terror. They also had a crucial influence from the French Revolution and as a result their utmost goal was to change the political scenery in their countries. The most known organization of that era is Narodnaya Volya (= the people’s will) who killed czar Alexander II. The scholars believe that this wave continued until the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and the First World War. 

At the dawn of the 20th century, the three remaining waves of terrorism emerged and tried to liberate their countries from the colonialists and the conquerors. In the 1920’s the “Anti- colonial wave” began with different organizations such as IRA (Irish Republican Army) and three decades later FLN (Front de Libération Nationale) struggling for self-determination. The time period wasn’t random but coincided with the end of the Great War, the Second World War and consequently the collapse of empires. By using guerrilla tactics the above-mentioned groups fought against their rulers with a view to gaining independence. Some groups accomplished their goals, for instance Irgun, with its attacks on British military and political institutions, proving to the British side that the rule over Palestine was unsustainable1. The aforementioned FLN had a big impact, as well, in the proclamation of Algerian independence in the fight against the French.  

At that time the term “freedom fighter” was used for the first time for the members of these groups, underlining that they were fighting the so-called “governmental terror“. The same method continued to the “New Left Wave” during the Cold War. Many groups in the developed world saw themselves as the vanguards for the masses of the third world. The involvement of the United States into Vietnam was a crucial factor for this trend of terrorism, because the younger population started doubting the values and morals of the western society. Consequently, groups like the Red Army Faction believed that they represent the oppressed people in Africa and Asia and thus they were fighting the authorities with urban guerilla tactics.

The USSR and its allies were supporting and training these organizations2 by providing them with money, weapons3 and shelter. The new techniques of this wave also include hijackings and hostage takings, something that can be noticed in the modus operandi of organizations such as PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) and Black September. Since then, we observe what we call international terrorism, given that the attacks mostly take place in another country and not in the organizations’ soil in order to exert more pressure to the governments. 


Lastly, the fourth and final era of terrorism at this point of time is the “Religious wave”. It starts with the Iranian revolution and the invasion of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and it’s presence is still noticeable and impactful. As a result, we see many religious terrorist groups, mostly in the MENA region, that are fighting for their religious beliefs. Al Qaeda, ISIS and Hezbollah are amongst the most popular organizations with their utmost goal being the creation of an Islamic caliphate. In addition, suicide bombers were introduced in this wave, as a technique that can efficiently cause a lot of casualties to their enemies. 9/11 was an example of this strategy, a suicide attack with thousands of victims, a harbinger of the War on Terror. However, religious-based terrorism is not an exclusively Islamic phenomenon. Even Christian and Jewish organisations do participate in terrorist activities. Some of the relevant events worth mentioning include the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by Israeli extremists and the destruction of seven abortion facilities in the USA4

A fifth wave?
There are various opinions regarding the future of terrorism and it is true that it is really challenging to predict it. It is certain that terrorism won’t disappear but it will likely change patterns and the way it manifests. Despite the lack of consensus concerning the new “wave”, we should underline that it may not be entirely new, but it will have some common characteristics with the fourth one.  

That is because religious terrorist groups and individuals continue to constitute a threat to the international community. Despite the fact that ISIS has lost a lot of its territory and its attacks are declining, the numbers remain alarming for the countries in the MENA region. Just last year ISIS was responsible for 120 uncovered attacks in Europe. Sometimes, this group succeeds attacking Western countries, as we saw recently in Vienna, by creating a network of members in different countries that are coordinated easily. 

Besides that, according to the findings of the Institute for Economics and Peace in its annual report about terrorism, the fifth wave could include far-right groups. In the West this type of terrorism is on the rise, with a 320% increase in the past five years5. This phenomenon can be attributed to its political scenery and mostly due to the fact that more populist and nationalist parties are present. As a reverberation there is a rise in the hate crimes and in mass shootings, linked to far-right groups or individuals. The attacks in New Zealand and in Texas in 2019, for example, were carried out by far-right and anti-immigrants supporters.

The open windows on the laptop’s screen highlight how easy it is to access to intel, information, techniques and even ammunition in the 21st century.

New methods
The new methods of these groups can include, first and foremost, the use of internet and social media in order not only to plan attacks but also to radicalize people. This is considered by many as an asymmetric threat because with little effort, the results can be devastating for the international community. In the Boston Marathon bombings and in the attack in El Paso, Texas, the perpetrators were recruited or encouraged to attack by social media platforms. Furthermore, we have to remark that today people can use encrypted messengers or VPN programs that may slow down the reflexes of the authorities, restricting their ability to disrupt the communication6 and stop a planned attack. 

Another potential method, especially for the religious organizations, is the exploitation of the refugee crisis. Terrorists can penetrate within a country’s disguised as immigrants and then plan attacks. Against popular belief and political rhetoric, this method so far has not been vastly used by religious terrorist groups, because most of the attacks are carried out by actual citizens of the EU7. With that being said we should always take into account this possible method of infiltrating in the EU but we must not exaggerate on the possible threat posed by immigrants.  

Key Sources:
3. The KGB and the Battle for the Third World, page 145
4. Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the mind of God, the global rise of religious violence, page 20
5. Institute for Economics and Peace, Global terrorism Index 2019, Measuring the impact of terrorism
6. Robert Graham, How terrorists use encryption, June 2016, volume 9, issue 6
7. DIIS, Europe’s refugee crisis and the threat of Terrorism, an extraordinary threat?

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Alexandros Sainidis

I am an International Relations Analyst and the creator of the blog Pecunia et Bellum. I have studied International, European and Area Studies at the Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences in Athens, Greece. I am a bilingual Russian speaker and I am currently learning Mandarin in order to gain a deeper understanding of the current International Affairs in Eurasia.

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