The Terrorist and Waves of Terrorism
Jerrold Post, Professor of Psychiatry, Political Psychology and International Affairs, outlines the development of modern terrorism, modern, for him, having begun in the late 19th century. He suggests that there have been four recognizable waves of terror and that we are currently seeing the emergence of a fifth. I think this is a good introduction to the exploration of the nature of terrorism.
Who is the Terrorist?
A most important observation to come out of academic studies is that there is no unique individual terrorist profile. The idea that terrorists come from uneducated, poverty-stricken families has proven to be overly simplistic and those who are willing to sacrifice their lives for the political ends of others seem to come from every walk of life (except, it seems to me, from the ranks of the children and grandchildren of the elite, who send other peoples’ children to certain death as they seek to take out as many enemy civilians as possible).
More important than individual terrorist psychology, therefore, is group psychology.
Group membership boosts the individual members’ self-esteem and they are willing to set aside independent thought and follow the dictates of the group’s leaders. Post explains that terrorist groups tend toward
. . . polarization and externalization, summed up in a substance-free version of terrorist ideology, justification,and motivation: “It’s not us; it’s them. They are responsible for our problems. And therefore striking out against them is not only not prohibited, it is morally justified, it is required.” And this is particularly true, when there is religious justification, if it is “killing in the name of God.” (p. 245)
He suggests that the ability to inspire and lead successfully requires sophisticated political skills together with a context that enhances group members’ belief in their own victimization as a minority whose rights are not being respected. Different contexts arose over the passage of history, and according to Post there were four waves of modern terrorism.
The Four Waves of Terrorism
1. The Anarchist Wave that began in Russia and in the 1880s and spread to Europe, Asia and the Americas. It was essentially a rebellion of the workers and included violent protests. In Chicago, for example, a bomb was detonated and police and demonstrators were killed.
2. The Anti-colonial Wave that took place between the two World Wars. It appears that the younger generation of colonized peoples resorted to violent uprisings to reclaim the social and economic justice denied to their parents and grandparents. They had grown up hearing stories of how their elders were victimized by the colonialists and they sought revenge.
3. The New Left Wave comprised a social revolutionary process whereby formerly peaceful student protests turned violent. This group was rebelling against the society built by their parents’ generation, seeking to build what they considered a more just society.
4. The Religious Extremist Wave began in the Muslim world with the seizure of the American Embassy in Iran in 1979, but also includes Aum Shinrikyo in Japan and the murder of Prime Minister Rabin in Israel. Islamists comprise the dominant form of religious terrorism and they do so by re-interpreting the Koran to allow them to view, for example, suicide terror attacks as martyrdom; the former is forbidden and the latter is highly revered.
Post describes the situation whereby Bin Laden successfully mobilized his followers against the Russians who were controlling Afghanistan. The success of his campaigns in ousting Russia confirmed his power and divine right to rule in the eyes of his followers. However, this success meant that there was no more enemy to confront and no more raison d’etre. According to Post, this led Bin Laden to turn against the United States as another enemy against which his group could remain united under his leadership. Apparently, fighting the Big Satan (and the Little Satan) has provided the fuel that keeps al-Qaeda and its affiliated organizations going.
The fifth wave, according to Post, involves the Lone Wolf Terrorist
The Lone Wolf Wave can be attributed to
al-Queda’s new strategy […] “to empower and motivate individuals to commit acts of violence completely outside any terrorist chain of command”. . . . Homegrown terrorism, or for the purposes of this paper, lone wolf terrorism, has been defined as “radicalized groups and individuals that are not regularly affiliated with, but draw clear inspiration and occasional guidance from, al-Qaeda core or affiliated movements”. (page 261).
Post and colleagues developed a four-type typology of the lone wolf terrorist. They are:
1. The glory seeker, who sees the act of terrorism as an act of heroism and something that will bring fame and admiration.
2. The hero worshipper, who wants to be like the charismatic terrorist leader.
3. The naïve romantic, an immature individual with an idealized view of revolution and the part he or she can play in it.
4. The radical altruist, who believes that martyrdom, is just what a good Muslim does for the sake of all Muslims.
I think that this same typology may also apply to individuals who join formal terrorist organizations, whether in their own country or by travelling great distances to enter an Arab state and do battle there.
Post concludes his paper by discussing the use of the new social media to recruit new lone wolf members to what he calls “the virtual community of hatred”. He ends with on a rather discouraging note:
A healthy democracy must be able to tolerate dissent. One cannot eliminate terrorism without eliminating democracy. What is technologically possible . . . does not mean it can be done without violating the sense of privacy and civil liberties that are at the heart of robust democracy. And that would mean becoming a terror state. (page 268)
My Impressions of Post’s Paper
Post offers a theory by which to understand the nature of terror organization arising and maintained within historical contexts but he does not seem to think that history offers any hints for how to combat the growing threat to contemporary democracies. Perhaps he believes that if there were previous waves of terror that fizzled out when times and peoples changed, then the current wave of terror will also fizzle out and fade into the history that will be studied by school children of the future.
However, I do think there is a difference between violent uprisings against the ruling class or against specific colonial powers versus the more global aspirations of world domination by means of the institution of a single Caliphate as embodied in the current Islamist terrorisms, both organized and non-affiliated.
Were these to count among them a small group of fanatics only, I might agree with Post, but we are talking about a huge reservoir of current and potential initiates into the cult. He does not talk about cult theory here and I do believe that is an essential area of examination if we want to understand terrorist mentality. Herein may lie some hints regarding combating the plague of Islamist terrorism today that seems to be spiralling out of control.
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Post, J.M. (2015). Terrorism and right-wing extremism: The changing face of terrorism and political violence in the 21st century: The virtual community of hatred. International Journal of Group Psychotherapy, 65, 243-271
There are no psychological characteristics or psychopathology that separates terrorists from the general population. Rather it is group dynamics, with a particular emphasis on collective identity that helps explain terrorist psychology. Just as there is a diverse spectrum of terrorisms, so too is there a spectrum of terrorist
psychologies. Four waves of terrorism can be distinguished: the Anarchist wave, associated with labor violence in the United States in the late 19th century; the Anti-Colonial wave (nationalist-separatist), with minority groups seeking to be liberated from their colonial masters or from the majority in their country; the New Left wave (social revolutionary); and now the Religious wave. With the communications revolution, a new phenomenon is emerging which may presage a fifth wave: lone wolf terrorists who through the Internet are radicalized and feel they belong to the virtual community of hatred. A typology of lone wolf terrorism is proposed.