Religious terrorism over by 2025? A discussion with legendary David Rapoport

Have you ever heard of the ‘wave theory’ of terrorism?  If so, then you know David Rapoport, a retired UCLA professor who has been studying terrorism since 1970!  Borealis caught up with him recently for a fascinating chat. 

When did you start studying terrorism?

Machiavelli says that half our lives are determined by Fortuna or accident and that certainly explains how I got into the study of terrorism in 1970 in Canada and transformed my academic life which initially was committed to the study of political theory.

I was in London as a graduate student in 1958 and a fellow student was very impressed with my work and PhD dissertation which dealt with how and why military forces overthrew their governments. 12 years later he worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and asked me to a organize a lecture series on a subject I had not published on. I chose the history of assassination which I studied to help me understand when those who produce a coup decided to assassinate the government leader they replaced or let him live. But while I was giving the lectures, an unusual event occurred. The Quebec Liberation Front assassinated Deputy Premier Pierre La Porte of the Quebec Province , and I felt I had to discuss the relationship between assassination and terrorism in the series.

The lectures caught the attention of the media especially after they were published because terrorism had just become global again as the 3rd or New Left Wave emerged, and there had been no discussion of terrorism for decades. The media would not let me go and I was constantly on the radio, TV, and asked to write numerous newspaper articles.

When did you start thinking of the wave theory?

I started thinking of the wave theory about the same time I gave the Canadian lectures. The wave theory is related to the view that the younger generation sometimes view the political world in a radically different way than the rest of society, and I published a 1970 study comparing two periods in U.S. history. The first involved the extraordinary opposition to the Mexican American War in 1846 and the 2nd one was the reaction to the American involvement in Vietnam. The Mexican War was over in less than two years and the younger generation’s resistance subsided, but the Vietnam case lasted for more than a decade and the younger generation turned to terror in many countries in the Western world and soon became a global phenomenon. At that time, I said that we were witnessing the third period of global terror but did not develop the concept of the wave. While I stayed deeply involved in history of terrorism and mentioned waves many times it was not until 9/11 did I develop the concept and popularize it.

Three months after al Qaeda’s 9/11 attack, I published “The Fourth Wave: September 11 in the History of Terrorism” Current History The editor of the journal told me that no article the journal published “ever received so much attention”. My view of the 4th or Religious Wave then which began in 1979 was that if it followed the pattern of its three predecessors it would be over by 2025, a view I still believe. If the 4th Wave is over then will it be followed by a 5th Wave. Hard to tell because each preceding Wave was stimulated by great dramatic international transformation which provokes a dramatic reaction from the younger generation and that transformation has not occurred yet.

Will the next wave of terrorism be green?
What feedback, good and bad, have you received?

The feedback has been very good. Every Monday I get a notice from the Research Gate indicating that my work has been read from 350 to 750 times that week, and the number is the highest in the UCLA political science dept. I don’t know how many times my wave theory articles are being read, but I think they get the most attention. The 4-wave theory has been cited many times though I have no statistics. Strangely enough there has been no criticism or amplification of the theory that I know about partly because those who study or deal with terrorism have no interest in history. At the end of each wave virtually everyone agrees that terrorism has ended. For example in the 1933 edition of the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences the author of the interesting terrorism article concluded that we are now experiencing the end of the phenomenon. Perhaps he persuaded the editors of the next edition published in 1968 which did not publish an no article on terrorism. The 2 nd Wave was over and the 3rd had just begun in the year the 2nd edition was published.

When the Soviet Union collapsed the 3rd Wave terminated, the U.S. government decided terrorism was no longer relevant. It dropped all support to the Rand Corporation the chief enterprise for terrorist studies and got rid of federal employees dealing with the subject, a factor which helped explain our failure to deal with 9/11 disaster.

Do you think the wave theory is still pertinent?

One wonders what will happen when the 4th Wave which is clearly dissipating does disappear? Will we have a 5th ? Far right-terror is emerging all over the Western world largely concerned with stopping immigration. But ironically that doesn’t seem to be the work of the younger generation which is a necessary feature; neither have we witnessed the great political transformation associated with all four previous waves. If the European Union disappears the object of far-right politics in Europe that could be the event. But we shall see. Of course we will still experience domestic terrorist activity, even if a new global wave does not emerge.

Any new project on the go?

I have just completed a book I have worked on for a decade, the History of Terrorism: The Four Global Waves and Their Predecessors. I hope it will be published soon. The important predecessors of the 4 Waves are discussed first. Terrorism in four religious traditions centuries ago is our initial subject, Judaism, Islam, Christianity and Hinduism. Each religion produced special tactics. One topic I never studied before is the Christian Crusades which was still very important as it is used to justify some contemporary Islamic terrorism. Then I discuss domestic local secular terror which was largely produced by mobs before the global phenomenon. The focus is on two American successes, the Sons of Liberty a crucial element in precipitating the Revolutionary War and the KKK after the Civil War which helped defeat Reconstruction policies aimed to give the blacks equal rights. Then I devote 5 chapters to discussing the 4 waves and the final chapter deals with possibility of a 5th global Wave of Far-Right terrorism.

Phil Gurski

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