The strategic History of Terrorism: Analyzing the past and planning the future

The study of terrorism as a method of achieving strategic objectives has seen a generous number of disputes over the years from different scholars, mostly on the issue of defining terrorism whether this means fabricating a general definition or rather separating the term from its different forms and trying to incorporate repetitive situations into smaller terrorism synonyms. Max Abrahms introduced the “Lumpers VS Splitters” phenomenon asserting that there are those that define terrorism in a broader sense, without considering situations as guerilla warfare (Lumpers) and on the other side there are those that carefully consider every aspect of the term and then illustrate the similarities or differences between them (Splitters). In the analysis that follows I will try to pinpoint the different samples of terrorism and assess whether there has been a shift from the past terrorist practices into a new more violent type.

The 4 stages of Terrorism – Rapoport’s Model

When trying to address the different categories  of terrorism and combine them in regards to their similarities and differences over the years, David Rapoport provided us with an exquisite analysis  having founded the so-called “waves of terrorism ” merging the patterns of different terrorist incidents into four larger categories(waves) : 1) Anarchists, 2) Nationalists, 3) New-Leftists/Marxists and 4) Religious. Dating back from 1870s the Anarchists origins could mostly be spotted in Russia in a time where the democratization process was being prolonged in a way that enhanced the Anarchists goal of political gains. After the end of WWI and WWII the predicament changed into that of a revolutionary cause of stopping colonization and empire enlargements, hence the Nationalists/Anti-Colonials groups came to power in the “Terrorist Round Table”. Focusing on their noble cause these guerilla groups fought against the already declining empires in order to free the colonies from their grasp. One example would be the Palestinian military group known as the “Black Hand” which was formed during the 1930s by Izz ad-Din al-Qassam and was responsible for many Jews killings, as well as arming the Palestinian people and evidently inspiring the Arab Revolt that started in 1936 against the British Empire in order to achieve state sovereignty for Palestine. Finally, during the Cold-War era came the birth of the third group, the New Leftists  or Marxists. Being influenced by the Leftist Revolutions that sparked during the 1960s, one example being Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution 1959, many leftist organizations put on the mantle of freedom demanding political changes on the states that they acted upon. The Kurdish (PKK) against Turkey, the German (RAF) aka Red Army Faction and Japanese (JRA) – Red Army were some of the most notorious groups of that time, focusing their tactics on mostly hijackings and kidnappings. One interesting element of the Cold War era was that both the Soviet Union and USA kept using the different nationalist groups in order to promote their own political agenda against one another. The third wave’s end came with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union that led a number of states into the identity search abyss. Today we are currently in the 4th ‘wave’ of terrorism, which is none other than the religious one. While it is common knowledge that extremism through religion is one of the “oldest stories in the book” with the Holy Crusade being the best example; terrorists of today can be usually found drawing their strength from Islamic ideas. At this point I think we should clarify that Islam as a religion is by no means a way to terrorism and that these groups tend to interpret it in their own favorable way. Using Rapoport’s model again the two pillars that gave the materials required for modern religious terrorism to flourish are: 1) the Iranian revolution with the overthrowing of the Shah of Iran giving birth to an extremist Islamic rhetoric in the Middle East and 2) the invasion of Afghanistan from the Soviet Union, which in terms gave the radical Muslim groups their chance to “spread the word” and wage the “holy war” or more commonly “Jihad ”, against the unfaithful. The key method of most radical Islamists is the use of suicide attacks or suicide bombings, although, in some cases there have been traditional terrorist tactics as well. What is interesting here, apart from the fact that this radical religious outbreak has not yet ended, is the way this particular terrorist “school” distinguishes itself from previous ones giving itself a more vicious and global role.

The old versus new terrorism dilemma: What has changed?

The argument over ‘old’ and ‘new’ terrorism, intensified greatly after the events of 9/11 took place. The context of this attack was for Al-Qaeda to persuade/force the American government to retract its military troops from Afghanistan. For that reason members from the Islamic extremist group hijacked 4 airplanes and then carried out suicide attacks against specific targets in the United States. Two of the planes were flown into the  towers of the World Trade Center commonly known as the ‘Twin Towers’ in New York, a third plane hit the Pentagon and the last plane crashed in Pennsylvania. But what is the indicator here that turned the tides on terrorism and brought into a new era? I would say that it’s not just the fact that 3000 human beings lost their lives but rather, that these people were plain civilians. So we should note here that the first practical difference between old and new terrorism is the target group. While previous organizations focused mostly on hitting specific, military or political targets this kind of terrorism uses civilians as their primary hit-point. Another example would be the Paris attacks on November 2015 where the Islamic radical group ISIS, gunned down 130 people and injured another 368, in different spots. A second alteration of ‘new’ terrorism is its cause. As the previous paragraph explained we are currently in the radicalization of religion phase which means that for these people, through their religious dogma follows a cause that is not logical by any means. In our case Islamic fundamentalism seeks to rid the West from their Christian faith and create the great Islamic State, hence ISIS. That is exactly why this kind of terrorism is far more difficult to be dealt with. Another interesting characteristic of this new radical condition is its radius. Although this can also be found even earlier than 2001, it is safe to speculate that the new millennium brought with it the globalization era. That in turn, broadened Islamic terrorists grasp making them able to attack the US and most recently, with the tremendous influx of refugees taking up its toll on Europe, even countries such as France, Germany etc. On the other hand before globalization started overwhelming the international community, most organizations preferred keeping their groups intact in their own country whichwas their primary and only focus. The final point in the dialogue between past and present would be the structure of these organizations. On this particular point I would follow Laqueur’s argument that today’s terrorism disperses into small groups that tend to be more radical. Islamic fundamentalism has been practiced by different groups throughout Middle East with examples being Hamas, Al-Qaeda, ISIS etc. with the latter one having gained  influence in many different countries worldwide and dispatching small-people groups into different objectives. The older structures of terrorist organizations followed a more pyramid theme with a top to bottom mechanism. This in terms meant those who entered an organization of this kind followed a specific chain of command with specific leadership and different teams underneath the ‘head’ of the group. So as to summarize, the 4 key points that for some scholars, distinguish the past practices of terrorism from the more modern ones are: a) Target groups, b) Cause-Ideology, c) Radius and d) Structure.


As I mentioned before religious terrorism comes from a belief in a “supernatural” power that tends to make the believer think that he has a higher purpose. This purpose is naturally used as a method of justification for the numerous atrocities that we have witnessed over the years. In my opinion the problem with religious fundamentalism is that you cannot counter something illogical  by using logical means while on the other hand the states cannot and should not refrain from their rules and norms, turn into illogical “war-machines” and only focus on killing as many terrorists as they can. Jurgen Habermas said “Global terrorism is extreme both in its lack of realistic goals and in its cynical exploitation of the vulnerability of complex systems”. I would add that the international community should use and maybe learn from the mistakes of the past and perhaps use that lack of realism in order to influence people against terrorism. There is obviously something that makes a regular man that has a family and a job throw away his life and become a soldier of ISIS or any other terrorist organization and yet we haven’t got a clue of what this thing is. It is a mistake to think that these people are just savages that come from war-torn states and instead we should talk about the elephant in the room, that so many people from our civilized world which has no wars and enjoys democracy and its values tend to fall into a radicalization spiral with its only end being that of a suicide attack which will probably kill an greater number of plain civilians. If the International Community fails to find a way to diminish the constantly enlarging influence of terrorists on regular people then we are going to be stuck on that 4th wave for more than we can actually withstand.-


1)Schmid, .P Alex & MacAllister, Bradley “Theories of Terrorism” in Schmid, P Alex(ed.), “The Routledge Handbook of Terrorism Research”,Routledge,(2011)

2) Abrahms, Max. "Lumpers versus Splitters: A Pivotal Battle in the Field of Terrorism Studies”. "The New Sociology of Terrorism” (2010).

3)Rapoport, C David ‘‘The Four Waves of Modern Terrorism’’, in Audrey K. Cronin and James M. Ludes, eds., Attacking Terrorism: Elements of a Grand Strategy (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2004).

4) Rasler, Karen & Thompson, R William ,Looking for Waves of Terrorism , Terrorism and Political Violence, 21:1, 28-41, (2009)

5) Rapoport, C David eds. “Terrorism: Critical Concepts in Political Science 4 vols”(New York: Routledge, 2006)

6) The literal meaning of Jihad is struggle. A struggle that is either the pursuing of a respectful religious life or the struggle for defending the Muslim society but for this article I’m using the “holy war” equivalent word.

7)See Crenshaw, Martha., “The Debate over ‘New’ vs. ‘Old’ Terrorism, Presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, Chicago,pp.1-5,2007

8) Hoffman, Bruce, “Change and Continuity in Terrorism”, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, Vol. 24, pp. 417-428, (2001)


9) Kiras,James “Terrorism and Globalization” in Baylis,John. Smith,Sam. Owens,Patricia (eds) “The Globalization of World Politics: An Introduction to International Relations”,5th Edition, Oxford University Press,pp.509-514,(2011)