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A Brief Understanding Of The History Of Terrorism – Analysis


To begin talking about the history of terrorism, it will make sense to define the term from the onset to set the record straight. Otherwise, it gives the appearance of putting the chariot before the horse. Lamentably, scholars, security analysts, and so-called freedom fighters have politicized the term terrorism to the point that they could not agree on a single definition. Thus, defining terrorism has become complicated and controversial due to its stigma that has developed over time.


Terrorism is not a new phenomenon; nations, communities, people, and individuals have been terrorizing the weaker segments of their societies or whomever they deem to pose a threat to their power. Succinctly, the term is primarily understood as violence used to attain emphatically political change and goes back to prehistoric times. Historically, in premodern, the term was first coined in the 1790s, referring to the terror act in the French Revolution against their adversaries. Strategically, terrorism has been employed as a violent tactic act that forcefully instills fear and seeks to change the masses’ behavior by targeting people in control.  

The account of modern terrorism is linked to the 19th century and considers the complex phenomenon of terrorism (Lansford, & Pauly, 2016). It tries to put into account the historical context that not only discusses various times of international terrorism but also takes into account theories and concepts that may be helpful to states to predict and anticipate future terrorism. David C Rapoport’s 2004 essay “The Four Waves of Modern Terrorism” is a well-known and most influential theory in the study of terrorism. Professor Rapoport, in his article, outlines a unique wave system that relates the evolution and history of modern terrorism to the acts of the past two centuries. He argues that changes in the pattern of political violence, social factors, and religious issues dated back to the 19th century result in the changes in the history of terrorism. 

This political violence is grouped into four distinct waves, each lasting for a generation roughly inspired by ideologies derived from socialism, anarchism, anti-colonialism, and religious fundamentalism. The wave theory technique is a different attempt to examine and identify non-state violent actors’ modern history. It also put their acts in a greater context, changing the emphasis away from the traditional conflict model between countries and state-based increased tensions. The four waves categorized into specific phases and events that took place in that period are the anarchist wave, anticolonial wave, new left wave, and the religious stream.  

The First Wave of Modern Terrorism, Psychological Aspects, and Motivation of Terrorists

Rapoport defines a wave as “a cycle of activity in a given period,” and the period lasts for about a generation (Laqueur, 2017). According to Rapoport in Russia, the first wave of modern terrorism started in the late 19th century with the anarchist movement that led to the vast spread through Europe and Balkan states. Czar Alexander II formulated and implemented a series of massive reforms to deter Russia in line with the Western standards by establishing limited self-government, freeing serfs, and abolishing capital punishment to finance the surfs to buy land.  However, Czar’s promises did not come true quickly due to the insufficient funds to pay the serfs, and everything turned into anger. Also, the anarchist reacted to overthrow the political system by conducting a series of attacks on public conventions. The revolutionaries who called themselves terrorists assassinated Czar Alexander II in 1881 and the event led to a series of assassinations towards the target of leaders throughout the world. 

Accordingly, the French Revolution’s dominant strategy, which was the anarchist wave centered, led to the “Golden Age of Assassination” in the 1890s. The anarchist movement gained momentum, and Russian rebels promoted and encouraged new tactics, training other counterparts in the assassination art such as Polish nationalist and Armenian groups. Advanced level of transport technology facilitated the movement of the assassins across international borders. For instance, in Russia, they could conduct and carry out their training activities elsewhere throughout Europe. After years of state pressure at the end of the 19th century, many Russian anarchists fled their homeland due to the hostility of the law to Diaspora communities for refuge and the hostility towards the Czarist regime high (Rapoport, 2017). 


Following the assassination of U.S. President McKinley in 1901, the international efforts strengthened towards ending anarchist groups in the United States and abroad. European nations came into agreement and signed the anti-anarchist protocol in 1904 that called for the enhancement of international police cooperation and information sharing among European countries. Consequently, other efforts came in to support the European countries. They increased the pressure on the anarchist groups and organizations, making the wave weak and lose the momentum necessary to continue their attacks and crusades. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 and the beginning of World War I redirected the efforts and the political priorities of the European nations and eventually suppressed the anarchist wave. 

The Evolution of Modern Terrorism, and How We got to Where We are Today

The international community is the cornerstone of the more in-depth understanding of psychological, economic, and social motivations behind terrorist actions and ideologies. However, wave theory has raised a debate whether the aspect of global pattern and generation trend of terrorist acts will enhance future strategies to prevent future political violence and terrorism by specific reactive responses (Honig, & Yahel, 2017). Various events, ideologies, and organizations, countermeasure and comprehend national security, need to be formulated to counterterrorism. The community gets instant access to news and current trends in security matters. And they analyze based on their technical know-how, thus paying attention to the past will help predict the future by taking into consideration information of what happens in real-time. 

The United States may have concentrated on interstate conflicts. Thus, they did not understand terrorist threats before, but the evolution of terrorism has changed every aspect of the state. Modern terrorist groups that rose in the 19th century challenged the traditional conflict model and made the government react to new unpredictable threats from violent non-state actors without a comprehensive strategy. However, even though the war against terrorism has existed since September 11, inter-state threats have not disappeared due to the existing competition of political, ideological, and cultural concerns of a terrorist organization. There is a need to use defined categories to identify groups, trends, and ideologies to counterterrorism. Different psychological and motivational group dynamics result in changed behavior, and it is necessary to understand how terrorists interact in the outside world within a different organization. Formulating coherent approaches specific to a given period will help different types of international terrorist groups and help in understanding their pattern of evolution and manifestation of terrorism. 

New waves of terrorism are set to emerge in the future, and we should continue to balance techniques and approaches that will protect citizens against threats of terrorism. Technology is the basis of modern society, and terrorists benefit from it, thus increasing terrorist threats, but globalization is changing western political issues (Cullen, 2017). The traditional left paradigm for political alignment has led to significant changes in the global aspect of terrorism against social, economic, and political shifts caused by globalization. Rapoport’s four waves model describes the ideologies of terrorism and aspects of psychological and motivation in terrorism. 

Throughout the 21st century, America exercised diplomatic and military pressure against state allies of terrorism. It depended on international deterrence approaches to help counter the threat of developing weapons of mass destruction. Technology, especially the internet, will play a vital role in the future of terrorism and new waves in the 21st century. Encryption on technology will limit use by the terrorist; thus, law enforcement and counterterrorism officials have increased encryption to protect users from accessing personal information. The government should restrict speech, information, or any activities that aid terrorism actions.

The violence that all of us witness today as terrorism preexists for thousands of years in various ancient societies such as in Egypt, India, Greek, and others. Ancient, premodern, and modern societies have wrongfully used it in times of peace, conflicts, and war. Current propaganda projects the picture to the world that terrorism a new thing that is categorically associated with Islam. History reminds us that the use of terror is neither uniquely Islamic nor a developing occurrence. Terrorism is an ancient and global phenomenon, although our description and view of terrorism will continue to evolve.

*Dr. Mustapha Kulungu is the Principal Researcher at the ILM Foundation Institute of Los Angeles, California. He graduated from Fielding Graduate University, Santa Barbara, California. 


Cullen, F. T. (Ed.). (2017). Technology and terrorism. Routledge.

Honig, O., & Yahel, I. (2017). A fifth wave of terrorism? The emergence of terrorist semi-states. Terrorism and political violence, 1-19.

Lansford, T., & Pauly Jr, R. J. (2016). To protect and defend: U.S. homeland security policy. Routledge.

Laqueur, W. (2017). A history of terrorism. Routledge.

Rapoport, D. C. (2017). Terrorism as a Global Wave Phenomenon: Religious Wave. In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. English, R. (2016). Does Terrorism Work? A History. Oxford University Press.

Dr. Mustapha Kulungu

Dr. Mustapha Kulungu is the Principal Researcher at the ILM Foundation Institute of Los Angeles, California. He graduated from Fielding Graduate University, Santa Barbara, California.

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