18 March 2020

Terrorism – a historical perspective in the assessment of the current threat

Andreea Stoian Karadeli

While our world is facing serious challenges nowadays, terrorism has continued to be a transnational phenomenon that can, at any time, use the vulnerabilities of our societies to develop their strategy and hit at the right moment. Bearing in mind the context and the international struggle against the current pandemic, we should never forget the threats that remained somehow in the background, although their danger has not diminished. Therefore, to distract the attention from the current crisis, let us have a look at how the terrorist threat has evolved and its recent potential.

Image source: ProfiMedia

The notion of terrorism was first used in 1930, and later, in the Copenhagen conference of 1935, a legal definition was released: "a voluntary act committed against life, physical integrity, health or liberties; any act that endangers a community, which creates a state of terror in order to change public authority or impede its actions, or which seeks to upset international relations" (Bassiouni, 1975: 472). Since then, hundreds of definitions have been developed for this concept, depending on their purpose and possible use. Alex Schmid (2011) made a collection of these definitions to discover the common elements between them, but none of the existing definitions were unanimously accepted at international level. According to the research carried out by Schmid (2011: 22), terrorism must be analyzed from two perspectives: ideology / doctrine and practice / tactics.

Useful in the present work is the realization of an actionable definition of terrorism, taking into account the following main elements: political motivation, threat, premeditation, secrecy, non-combatants status of the perpetrators and the terror effect it triggers. Therefore, a conceptual delimitation in the case of terrorism analyzes terrorism based on its action, practical and operative perspective, going through the most important stages of its evolution and reaching the analysis of religious-inspired terrorism. It is important to underline that no terrorist group belongs to a single doctrine or follows a single modus operandi. In the case of religious-inspired terrorism, we must admit that it is not religion itself that pushes the act, the main role being attributed to the context determined by a variety of social, economic, political, geographical and cultural factors. Context thus gives relevance, and not religion - whatever that is. Unfortunately, religion is used as a mask to gain legitimacy.

Moreover, up to the present day, terrorism has been considered a weapon of the weak against the powerful. The advantage of this weapon lies in its main target - the human mind - or, in other words, the psychological dimension. Terrorism can be considered the most powerful form of psychological warfare, its effects felt at this level being much stronger and harder to combat than the physical effects.

Stages in the evolution of the terrorist phenomenon

Terrorism is by far not a recent phenomenon in human history. The first Mesopotamian Empire, the Akkadian Empire, is known for the terror used in taking power and has remained in history for the brutal methods of reducing any form of contestation and for brutally killing enemies. Both the Akkadian Empire and the Assyrian Empire are just two examples of the existence of terror in ancient times, even in the representative geographical context for unrest - the Middle East (especially Syria and Iraq).

Historians who have researched and reproduced the history of terrorism, started from the concept of "terror" initially attributed to the terror created by the state during the French Revolution (Chailand & Blin, 2016). By this approach, they have left behind the earlier forms of this phenomenon that developed, in fact, alongside the human race (Altuğ, 1995). Trying to summarize the evolution of modern terrorism, David C. Rapoport (2002) identified four waves of terrorism, each with its own components, motivations, supporters and modus operandi. Each wave lasted between thirty and forty years, later taking the form of the successor, a more or less different "reincarnation". Around 1880, the first wave of the "Anarchists' Wave" broke out and continued for about 40 years. Its successor - the "Anti-Colonial Wave" - ​​began in 1920, and in the years after 1960 it largely disappeared. The late 1960s witnessed the birth of the "New Left Wave", which dissipated in the 1990s, leaving room for the "Religious Wave" to expand (Rapoport, 2002). Unlike the previous waves, the "religious wave" had a rebirth within it, precisely through the emergence and evolution of Daesh.

The model proposed by Rapoport resembles the human life cycle, each generation cultivating its own values ​​and aspirations. However, the life cycle of the waves does not correspond to that of terrorist organizations. They may disappear before the wave in which they were formed and activated or, in some cases, survive for longer than the associated wave. A concrete example is the IRA (Provisional Irish Republican Army / Irish Republican Army) - the oldest terrorist organization in the modern world. IRA appeared during the anti-colonial wave and has extended its existence to date. On the other hand, the terrorist organizations active in the third wave had an average life span of two years (Rapoport, 2002). For each wave, the main purpose was radical change or revolution, by which many terrorist organizations understood national self-determination - a principle inherited from the American and French revolutions (Rapoport, 2002).

The last wave of terrorism identified by Rapoport (2002), "The religious wave", began in the same decade as the third wave. The religious identity played a role both in the previous waves, but also before them. Ethnic and religious identities often overlap, as can be seen in the battles in Armenia, Macedonia and Ireland. However, the objective of the fourth wave organizations is different from that of the previous wave organizations that were aiming at the creation of secular sovereign states, in principle.

Religion has a very different meaning in the fourth wave. Although Islam has been seen as the epicenter of this wave, we must remember that other religious communities have also been involved in the formation of terrorist groups. As a result, the Sikh pursued the formation of a religious state in Punjab, the Jewish terrorists tried to blow up the largest sacred altar of Islam in Jerusalem and carried out a campaign to assassinate Palestinian mayors. One Israeli extremist killed 29 believers in Abraham's grave (Hebron, 1994) and another assassinated the Israeli Prime Minister Ithak Rabin in 1995. The same year, Aum Shinrikyo, a group that combined elements taken from Buddhist, Christian and Hindu religions, released a crippling gas in the Tokyo subway, killing 12 people and injuring 3,000 others.

The assassinations and the taking of hostages, common features of the third wave, persisted, but the "suicide bombing" was the most striking and deadly tactical innovation. This practice reaffirmed the concept of "martyr" identified since the first terrorist acts in history. The fourth wave led massive attacks against military and government organizations. Americans have become favorite targets. An ambush in Somalia forced US troops to abandon a mission in the region. The suicide bombings on military posts in Yemen and Saudi Arabia remained unanswered up to this date. In 1993, the first successful attack by foreign terrorists on American soil took place in the form of the first bombing of the World Trade Center (Wright, 2006). It was followed by unsuccessful efforts to coordinate new attacks in America on the eve of the new millennium. Finally, the massive attacks of September 11, 2001 took place, and the "war" against terror was launched.

The fourth wave produced an organization with a unique purpose and model of recruitment in the history of terrorism, namely, al-Qaeda, led and funded by Osama Bin Laden. Its main aim has been to create a single state, for all Muslims, a state that once existed, under the Islamic law. The aspiration resonates within Sunni populations in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. In the past, each terrorist organization recruited from a single national base. In contrast, as a novelty, al Qaeda sought out members from all over the world, including those who had migrated to the West. Immigrant communities of Arab origin, especially from Egypt and Saudi Arabia, provided the most recruits (Wright, 2006). The unity of the organization was strengthened by the common experience in Afghanistan, where practically all the recruits were trained. The first step in achieving its goal was to strengthen rebel Islamic groups in different states of the world where the US supported existing national regimes. From al-Qaeda's perspective, the elimination of American influence in these states is a precondition for the reunification of the Muslim community. Forcing the US to withdraw its troops from the most holy altars of Islam is the first step, followed by the promotion of a general fury over American influence among Palestinian and Iraqi troops. Since al-Qaeda has not achieved any of its goals, the 9/11 attacks could be understood as a desperate attempt to revitalize themselves, triggering American reactions.

Daesh and the fifth wave of terrorism

Rapoport defined each wave as a metaphor to symbolize the connection between international terrorist groups over a given period of time, taking into account three characteristics: an activity cycle that presents the expansion and contraction phases, the international character and a predominant energy that drives and shapes the characteristics and relationships of the group. Starting from Rapoport's four-wave theory of terrorism, Daesh's analysis of evolution reflects the formation of a fifth wave that comes in the form of the resurgence of jihadist-Salafi terrorism.

The theory developed by Rapoport applied to Daesh’s evolution confirms that, although the strategy and tactics of terrorism have not fundamentally changed from those of the previous waves, the level reached by organization in achieving the main objective together with the status it has gained globally by creating a proto-state are sufficient to identify a new wave of terrorism, as an evolved form of the previous one. In his most recent publication, Marc Sageman (2016: 19) calls this type of terrorism as global neo-jihad. Sageman's name matches the stated goals and strategy determined by Daesh's global aspirations. The organization is considered to be an international entity that unites Muslims from all over the world into a common community, called "ummah". This is also why the organization attaches great importance to its members in the West who choose to come to Syria, Iraq and, nowadays, to conflict zones in African states, because they reflect the group's global ambitions and, together with the attacks of the "lone wolves" claimed by Daesh, demonstrate that the group has gained followers worldwide. The attention given to the internationalization of the organization, at any price, differentiates the strategy of Daesh from that of its former parent and, subsequently, his opponent, al-Qaeda. No matter how fierce the competition between the two organizations is, it is undeniable that Daesh's roots lead to al-Qaeda, asa transition from one generation to the next in the context of a "global neo-jihad", adopting the name proposed by Sageman.

The fifth wave of terrorism, represented by Daesh and the jihadist organizations that joined or declared its support (notably Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al-Shabbab in Somalia), has the following characteristics: it benefits from territorial localization, but at the same time, the "global neo-jihad" is very powerful at the virtual level and through international networks, through affiliated groups in different corners of the world; it reached the main objective of creating an "Islamic Caliphate", even for a short time; this is a set precedent and motivates future generations of jihadists; homegrown terrorism / increased terrorism at home; at this stage, Daesh-affiliated sympathizers and terrorists are, for the most part, generations who were born and formed in Western countries; "Home grown terrorism" involves violence against a nation's civilian population or infrastructure - often, but not always, by its citizens, with the intention of intimidating, constraining, or influencing national and international politics; the lone-wolf / lone wolf phenomenon, through successive attacks planned and carried out by authors who acted independently, but on behalf of the organization whose ideology radicalized them;  communication in the virtual environment and its benefits have proved essential in this wave, both for radicalization, but also for the continuous motivation of the supporters and the coordination of the terrorist activity; combining the salafi-jihadi ideology with the Baas governing structure and the military strategy for the creation of a proto-state; obtaining its own financial resources through the controlled territories; creation of a brand through the means of propaganda that uses all the technological advantage of the new age. Whether or not it marks the fifth wave of terrorism, Daesh is a complex, long-standing phenomenon that we must analyze and understand in depth.

Today’s threat

The past months have proven more than ever before that our world is at crossroads as we are facing difficult challenges. This is the moment when we must be united against more than one common threat, as terrorism has never been scared by a global pandemic and can, at any time, hit us when we are most vulnerable. Daesh is still very strong, although in underground forms, in Iraq and Syria, not to mention its current status worldwide, both physically and online. Right-wing extremism is on the rise, while the millions of refugees knocking at Europe’s borders are amplifying the motivations of those groups. If the international community wants to be successful, a complex common strategy is needed to face all the current threats that, in a way, can be or become very much interconnected – only to our great disadvantage.