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date: 22 September 2017

Terrorism as a Global Wave Phenomenon

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Please check back later for the full article.

Non-state terrorism has been an intermittent activity for 2000 years at least, but the global form emerged in the late 19th century. The ideals of the French Revolution provided the political context for the new form. Demonstrations for nationalist (largely separatist) aims produced a series of uprisings throughout Europe in 1820, 1830, 1848, etc. No passports were necessary, and many individuals from foreign states joined those insurrections intensifying their international character and creating the “professional revolutionary.” Radicals, stimulated by the perfect world visions associated with the French Revolution, became significant; after the Paris Commune disaster of 1871, they felt another insurrection mode was necessary—small groups employing terrorism, a change made possible by important technological innovations. Dynamite made bombs more powerful, much less dangerous to potential users, cheaper, more accessible, and easier to transport. The dynamite bomb has been used in 40–50% of terrorist attacks ever since. The telegraph enabled one to transmit messages quickly over enormous distances, and events abroad were featured in mass daily newspapers elsewhere. Transcontinental railroad and steamships enabled many to travel, easily making diasporas useful as the 20th century began and terrorism appeared on six continents.

Terrorist activity has taken the form of waves that have succeeded each other. We have experienced four; three, anarchist, anti-colonial, and new left, have been completed. Each lasted 40 years, or a generation. The religious wave, the first with an anti-French Revolution purpose, is in its third decade. A wave consists of groups attempting a revolution in a single state and/or a dramatic reconstruction of the principle of legitimacy cementing the existing global system. Individual groups, the major focus of governments and analysts, have much shorter lives than their wave and are frequently replaced by others with similar purposes. Groups in a wave share some similar purposes and often interact. Each wave produced texts explaining its distinctive tactics; assassination, elimination of police forces, hostage taking and airline hijacking, and suicide bombing, which has produced more casualties than ever before. Dramatic political events stimulate each wave, transforming the international scene and providing hope to a new generation that successful revolutions are possible, a hope that diminishes over time—or in the case of the anti-colonial wave, became successful. Tocqueville argued that one could not adequately explain the historic dynamics in democracies without the concept of generation; eminent analysts have emphasized its importance; and Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’ s impressive work, The Cycles of American History (1986), was the first to use it systematically. But academics did not understand terrorism as a generation or wave phenomena. Before re-emerging in the 1960s, terrorism was considered a subject for historians. Government inability to understand the wave connection has been costly. When the Cold War ended, the United States eliminated offices concerned with terrorism and stopped funding terrorist research. The 1999 CroweCommission Report Confronting Terrorist Threats examined attacks on embassies and criticized the government for greatly reducing intelligence resources. The 9/11 Commission Report found that the same indifference made the 9/11 strike easier.