Small Wars Journal

SWJ Book Review – Waves of Global Terrorism: From 1879 to the Present

Thu, 09/14/2023 - 3:49pm

SWJ Book Review – Waves of Global Terrorism: From 1879 to the Present

Keaton O.K. Bunker


David C. Rapoport, Waves of Global Terrorism: From 1979 to the Present. New York: Columbia University Press, 2022 [ISBN 9780231133036 Paper, 448 Pages]

David C. Rapoport, author of Waves of Global Terrorism: From 1879 to the Present, a Professor Emeritus at UCLA, was one of the initial terrorism scholars and taught the first terrorism course in the US in 1969. Having earned his PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, the author was a founder of the journal Terrorism and Political Violence as well as the UCLA Center for the Study of Religion. Rapoport first proposed the theory that terrorism has appeared in four unique waves in a series of articles he published starting in the late 1970s. Using his theory developed over four decades, this work was published in 2022 when Rapoport was ninety-three years old.

Waves of Global Terrorism contains a table of contents, seven sections, notes, and an index. Within the main body of text, this work covers the evolution in both the reasons for terrorist action (religion, rights, race) and the tactics they employed from 1879 to the present. The book includes an introduction, a section on terrorism before the global form, a section for each of the four waves, and a conclusion. Rapoport places a quote before each section that effectively sets the stage for what is to be expected from that section/wave.

The introduction acts to describe key terms and his Wave Theory as it relates to terrorism. This section also discusses the parameters as to what will and won't be included in the study. Finally, the introduction highlights some main differences between waves and what ultimately caused these changes. The first main section of the book, “Terrorism Before the Global Form: From the First Century to the Twentieth,” includes incidents by terrorist organizations before what is considered “global terrorism” (i.e., incidents on the international stage to some degree). The main focus of this section is ritualized assassinations, as used by the Zealots, Sicarii, and Crusaders, as well as mobs used by secular groups, specifically offering vastly different examples from the United States such as the Sons of Liberty of the American Revolution and the Ku Klux Klan that appeared following the American Civil War. In the subsequent sections, each wave has the majority of its analysis in its own section which is built upon the previous or referenced later waves with overlaps between sections evident.

Section 2, “The First Wave: Anarchist 1879-1920s,” describes the actions of terrorist organizations during what is considered to be the first wave of terrorism. Such organizations, which espoused anarchist ideology, rejected nationalism and formal government. Exemplary groups include People’s Will, Land and Liberty, Terrorist Brigade, and the Black Hand. This wave focuses on assassination attempts and bombings in both Russia and the West that were made easier due to the introduction of dynamite. There were notable assassinations in this wave including President McKinley (US), President Carnot (France), PM Canovas (Spain) and other persons in high level political positions. This wave was also highly international.

Section 3, “The Second Wave: Anticolonial 1919-1960s,” highlights differences from the first wave, introduces the effect of the World Wars on terrorism, and is mainly built on indigenous self-determination movements that were born from those international disputes. This wave saw a decrease in assassinations with most attacks happening domestically. The second wave included groups such as the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI), and the National Liberation Front (FLN). Unlike the previous wave, self-determination movements often had the support of the United Nations.

Section 4, “The Third Wave: The New Left 1960s-1990s,” highlights the emergence of the Cold War as a major contributing factor to terrorist activity during this wave. Notable organizations included the Army of National Liberation (ELN), Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA), and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The Vietnamese War and Castro’s victory in Cuba were two contributing factors born along with this wave. As opposed to the Second Wave, this wave saw no support for terrorist organizations from the United Nations. Bombings were the main tactic of the New Left, but its defining tactic was the taking of hostages (a practice seen as taboo in previous waves). These hostage takings produced both money and sensationalized media attention for terrorist organizations. Airplane hijacking was also a prominent activity during this time period.

Section 5, “The Fourth Wave: Religious 1970s-2020s?,” includes almost exclusively religion based groups, barring the Tamil Tigers who did not directly represent a single theology. Indiscriminate killings became a feature of this wave, and many attacks were carried out through suicide bombings. Al-Qaeda, responsible for actions such as the 9/11 attacks, was initially the wave’s largest actor. A franchise of al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), later became the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). From captured Iraqi territories, AQI created the Caliphate, a large, centralized region governed by a caliph (a successor to the Prophet Muhammad). Domestically, the United States also saw the creation of heavily armed militias, the majority being of far right/Christian origin, such as the Covenant, Sword, and Arm of the Lord (CSA), the Order of the Silent Brotherhood, and the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas.

The final section, “Conclusion: The Fifth Wave?,” poses the question of whether a new wave of terrorism will emerge and, if so, what it will be and when it will occur. The author agrees with a leading theory, championed by Dipak Gupta, Eric Walls, Vincent Auger, and Amber Hart, that a fifth wave would most likely revolve around far right extremist action and the protection of “Aryan values” (p. 269). This section predicts that a new wave may appear as soon as the late 2020s. Groups that currently appear to have a high risk of being the first in the new wave include the Proud Boys, Three Percenters, Oath Keepers, and Boogaloo.

This book is a must read for those in this field of study. The work’s contents are informative concerning the history and evolution of terrorism in a way that is easily digestible and entertaining to those with experience and those who are not well versed in the field of terrorism. With regard to style, the book is very objective in its writing and each piece of analysis deliberately fits into the overall narrative. There are times when the dissection of specific incidents or historical background feels tangential, but they are always reconnected to the main idea of the section effectively. There is a clear line of thinking that is backed by empirical evidence and historical examples from a wide range of countries. The theory is directly explained and allows for a straightforward read.

The reviewer believes that this book leaves an acronym list to be desired. While readers are given the full name of terrorist organizations at the time the acronym first appears, at times the acronym will appear in later sections with no reference to the formal name of the terrorist organization. This is problematic as it causes less versed readers to be left confused or sifting through earlier sections or the index in search of the meaning of the acronym. A second criticism of this overall strong book is the organization of events within a given wave. There is logic behind most of the order of events within the book (e.g., by continent, group, or influence). However, there are times in which the writing feels as though it circles back on itself. This is largely due to a lack of chronology of events within a wave. This hinders the demonstration of evolution within a wave as the analysis will change gears sporadically to an earlier event at will. The lack of images or other figures present, however, in no way hinders this text and instead saves it from being muddled.

Overall, Waves of Global Terrorism provides a strong, clear understanding of the process of terrorism and how it has changed with time. Despite some minor lapses in authorial choices, this book is among the strongest out there, not only in the amount of knowledge it presents, but also in the way that information is conveyed. David C. Rapoport has succeeded in creating a truly insightful work that effectively builds upon his original theory, one that must be considered to be a major contribution to the theoretical literature within the terrorism studies discipline.

Categories: terrorism

About the Author(s)

Keaton O.K. Bunker is an International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma candidate at Claremont High School. He is a co-captain of the Speech and Debate Team and an Academic All American within the National Speech & Debate Association. He will be attending the University of California Riverside (UCR) in the University Honors program majoring in Political Science in the Fall of 2023. His foreign travel includes Canada, Scotland, and England. His SWJ-El Centro internship is focusing on weaponized drone use by terrorists and related violent non-state actors in primarily French speaking regions of Africa. Senior Fellow Mentor: Dr. John P. Sullivan.