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The fourth wave

November 15, 2017


TRAVELLING in the US a couple of years ago, we drove up the scenically splendid Pacific Coastal Highway of California. Inevitably, memories were stirred of my very first trip to the US, when as a young man I had also travelled up this road. The US at that time was a land where educated youth were radically questioning the racism and neo-imperialism of their country. Rebellion, even revolution, were in the air. Martin Luther King, Benjamin Spock, Tom Hayden, and others were leading massive demonstrations in Washington. The revolutionary anthems of troubadour Bob Dylan were being sung everywhere.

A visit to Hearst Castle, the magnificent and somewhat tasteless mansion of millionaire publisher William Randolph Hearst, reminded us of the darker side of the uprisings of the 1960s/70s. Hearst’s granddaughter Patricia was first kidnapped by, and then became an active member of, a band of violent terrorists called the Symbionese Liberation Army.

Another, larger terrorist organisation at the time was the Weather Underground, that carried out bombings and other attacks across the US during their infamous ‘Days of Rage’. There were also the Black Panther Party and, outside America, the Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany, the Red Army in Japan, PLFP in Palestine, Red Brigades in Italy, and others elsewhere. All these groups espoused pseudo-Marxist ideologies.

Facing a different kind of terror today brings up the question of whether there is some kind of historical continuum between those leftist terrorists of the 1960s/1970s and today’s Islamist gangs. Eminent Californian scholar David Rapoport believes there is.

Today’s terrorists propose no liberating ideologies.

Rapoport says there have been four successive manifestations, or ‘waves’, of modern terrorism. The first of these was the anarchist wave in late 19th-century America and Europe, especially in Russia. Rapoport’s second wave comprised the nationalist/anti-colonial terror groups that operated in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere between the 1920s and 1960s. The third wave was the 1960s-70s leftist groups discussed here. And the fourth wave is that of the faux Islamist gangs of today.

Rapoport’s categorisation demonstrates the equivalence of the kind of people who joined terrorist gangs, whether they drew their ideological inspiration from the left or the right. It is elegant, simple, inclusive, has a high degree of explanatory power, and provides a good academic model. However, when it comes to the present wave, there are certain peculiarities that distinguish this from the earlier waves and these Rapoport fails to explain.

The first distinction is ideological. Previous waves were all, however spuriously and superficially, linked with progressive political movements. The first wave was anti-monarchist, and supported democracy and socialism. The second wave operated on the fringes of the various national liberation and independence movements. The third wave opposed warfare and promoted social and cultural liberation. However conspiratorial and violent these groups may have been, they can be seen as storm crows riding the winds of wider political or social liberation movements. But the fourth-wave terrorists of today, such as the Taliban, the militant Islamic State group, and the various Lashkars and Jaishes, propose no liberating ideologies. In fact, they are quite vocal about their violent opposition to democratic or egalitarian ideals.

The second distinction is one of intention. The present-day terrorist is indifferent as to whom or how many he kills, thus differentiating him from operatives of earlier eras, such as Eva Zasulich, Joe Hill, Bhagat Singh, Bernadine Dohrn, Leila Khalid, or Andreas Baader, all of whom chose tightly focused targets. Cold-blooded lack of discrimination in target selection demonstrates that today’s terrorist is entirely uninterested in gaining political sympathy or support from among the people. He does not seek sympathy for his cause; he seeks only to terrify.

Thirdly, and this is especially significant, is the geographic extent of present-day terrorism’s area of operation, and the wildfire way it has spread outwards from the Pak-Afghan border areas, through the Middle East, down to West Africa, and up into Europe. Nothing like this has been seen before.

All these exceptional features are explicable only if we appreciate that, unlike Rapoport’s first three waves, this fourth wave is not spontaneous or autonomous. It has been driven by powerful state entities, including the sole superpower, which made common cause with reactionary elements in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, in order to recruit, indoctrinate, organise, and unleash these dangerous warriors. With this kind of large-scale loss of these countries’ necessary monopoly of violence, state collapse and anarchy have become the order of the day.

As I suggested in my last piece here, “the seed of nihilism needs only to be nurtured, given a ‘cause’ as some kind of spurious justification, and provided with the resources and means to kill”. In the words of William Butler Yeats, “the blood-dimmed tide is loosed”.

The writer is an author and a poet.

Published in Dawn, November 15th, 2017