The Islamic State and the Obsolescence of Terrorism (SS#16)

When terrorism enters the repertoire of contention, it does so attached to a socially ticking clock. As is often the case, the clock begins its countdown well before newly emerging terror groups begin their bloody campaigns. The Islamic State (IS) and Boko Harum (BH), for example, emerged as terror groups decades after the idea of religious terrorism began*. This means, among other things, that IS and BH have been enjoying gains that began diminishing before many of their members were born. In other words, while IS has enjoyed impressive victories by engaging in a terror campaign, it might not be long before religious terror slips into obsolescence. When this happens, religious terror will still be a means to an end, but it will be completely meaningless. And once this happens, IS and other religious terror groups will either collapse under their own weight or have to adapt to more socially acceptable methods.

The basis beneath this idea is not mine. Indeed, David C. Rapoport conceptualized this theory in 2002 with his “The Four Waves of Modern Terrorism.” In it, he identifies four waves of modern terrorism: the anarchist wave (1880s), the anti colonial wave (1920s), the New Left wave, and finally the religious wave. Each wave lasted a generation and, at their inception, was at least moderately successful. But the elements were—at least in the case of the first three waves—not in those groups’ favor. Rapoport writes, “Resistance, political concessions, and changes in the perceptions of generations are critical factors in explaining the disappearance [of the waves]” (p. 48).

We don’t have to spend a lot of time on the first two variables. But I can mention some key points. “Resistance” is quite important. When religious terror arises, we might expect a reactionary force, particularly because the target audience of terrorism is often other religions. “Political concessions” leaves little to be explained. When terror groups enter the realm of politics, they are often unable to do so while still killing innocent people. The third variable, however, is extraordinarily important to understand the phenomenon of the emerging obsolescence of terrorism.

“Changes in the perceptions of generations” is the evolution of social attitudes of terrorism. While initially a social civilian group might benefit from and accept the use of terror against—say—an occupying force, subsequent generations might be repulsed by the idea of indiscriminate killing of innocent civilians. Indeed, it’s highly unlikely they won’t be repulsed. When the idea of terror loses its appeal—and, more importantly, becomes the focus of social accusation—the idea is unlikely to survive into the next generation. More on this below.

The Fifth Wave?

IS’s brand of religious terrorism is nothing new. It’s been around for ~35 years and has spanned roughly a generation. Although Islam is the main purveyor of religious terrorism, its techniques have also been employed by Christians, Buddhists, and—to a lesser extent (mainly due to population size)—Jewish protestors. For reasons I don’t seek to explain, however, fighters in the name of Islam are the main culprits when news of international terror is displayed on the television.

IS, on the other hand, and Boko Harum present features unique to previous terror groups. For example, Anthony N. Celso writes in “The Islamic State and Boko Haram: Fifth Wave Jihadist Terror Groups,” that “The traditional preference to analyze Islamist groups from a rational perspective may be misplaced” (p. 251), drawing comparisons between IS and BH and Islamist terror regimes that were not necessarily rational actors. If IS and BH cannot be explained by the 4th wave, then is there another way to explain them?

Celso writes that Jeffrey Kaplan’s fifth wave “refines David Rappaport’s [sic] four wave theory of modern terrorism” (p. 251), which states that “terrorist waves are short lived as each cycle dissipates due to a combination of internal weakness, generational change and external pressures” (p. 252). Kaplan’s fifth wave, Celso writes, consists of 17 distinct hallmarks, which can be found here. In other words, IS and BH exist at least somewhat (if not mostly) outside the scope of Rapoport’s fourth wave of terrorism. A fifth wave is necessary, Celso writes, to explain the Islamic State and Boko Harum.

A fifth wave could, unfortunately, mean another generation of terror.

But History Should Still Look Poorly Upon the Fifth Wave

Whether or not IS and BH represent the waning cycle within the 4th wave or the waxing cycle within a 5th, history has never supported terrorist regimes, particularly Islamist regimes. Celso reminds us of this; al Qaeda, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), and al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) (for some examples) collapsed under their own weight when they became terroristic. He writes (p. 268):

[I]nexorably [AQI and GIA] resorted to religious brutality, creating countervailing forces (popular revulsion, internal rebel dissension and external resistance) that led to their later implosion.

In other words, simply by transforming a religious group into a terroristic group, they create impossible obstacles to overcome. Although the initial success of brutality seems a compelling reason to continue using it, brutality cannot be sustained for longer than a generation—if history tells us anything.

Boko Harum and the Islamic State can claim a short-lived victories because of their ability to repel government forces and stake a claim on the monopoly of violence in certain areas, but it’s unlikely they’ll survive the internal, external, and popular resistance to their methods. Celso puts it bluntly in the conclusion: “the odds are against Boko Harum and the Islamic State” (p. 268).

*The oft-cited year for the emergence of religious terrorism is 1979, during the Soviet Occupation of Afghanistan. On the other hand, religious terrorism—even suicide terrorism—has existed for millennia. See Robert Pape Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism (2005).

This post is part of my Science Sunday series.

About Rayan Zehn

I'm a political scientist.
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2 Responses to The Islamic State and the Obsolescence of Terrorism (SS#16)

  1. Another option, though, is that it is not a fifth wave at all. If one compares the genesis of IS to the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany, there are plenty of similarities. All have been borne of extremism permeating local societies that have been disenfranchised due to outside sources. All involve some sort of charismatic leader willing to sanction violence to further the cause. All managed somehow to make the organizational transition from violence to government.

    As such, I think that once a religious terror group transitions from acts of terror to governance, something else has happened.

    • Rayan Zehn says:

      Hmm. While your suggestion supports the theory—see “political concessions” above—I think it gives IS too much credit. I confess this is merely wishful thinking on my part, but I have a difficult time imagining IS making a successful transition from sub-state terror regime to UN-sanctioned international team player. That might be extreme, but you get my point.

      But either way, both possibilities has the end result of no terror. In fact, it could also be true that IS, if it survives and transitions, will eventually transition to a secular but Islamic society. More on that in a later post. I’ll give this all some thought.

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