Terrorism From a Scholarly Perspective

As editor of the Journal of Terrorism and Political Violence and author of dozens of books and articles on the subject, UCLA professor David C. Rapoport has researched terrorism from the ancient Zealots and medieval Assassins all the way to Al Qaeda. He’s also the founder of UCLA’s Center for the Study of Religion. Though he spends most of his waking hours focused on wanton human destruction, Rapoport reports that for all the shrill headlines and rainbow-colored alerts, he still sleeps pretty well. He spent an Orange Alert afternoon not long ago explaining why the news needn’t be all bad.

What is your definition of terrorism?

Violence beyond the rules that regulate the use of violence. We have two kinds of rules. One, the rules of war. The other, of punishment. Terrorism goes beyond these two categories, to produce something that outsiders respond to as an atrocity. The function is to generate emotions which you will then manipulate.

You talk about “four waves of terrorism” in history.


Right. We are in the fourth wave. The [first] three each lasted 40 years. The first, starting around the 1880s, I call the Anarchist Wave. What stimulated [the anarchists] were dramatic reforms on the part of the Russian government and rapid democratic reforms in Europe in the late 19th century. There was also the IWW [Industrial Workers of the World], the Wobblies, in this country. The second wave I call the Anti-Colonial Wave. That’s precipitated by the Versailles Treaty, which establishes self-determination and undermines colonial empires. You start with the IRA and you also have the Israeli groups, Kenya, Malaysia, Cyprus and Algeria. The third wave I call the New Left Wave, which began in 1968. What inspired [that] wave were the Viet Cong, who demonstrated what you could do with comparatively little technology against the West. Baader-Meinhof is in this group, the PLO, Black September. Also we have our American version--the Weather Underground, the Symbionese Liberation Army. The [fourth] Religious Wave begins about 1980.

Why is religion a force in terrorism today?

In the Middle East, left-wing elements exhausted themselves. Religion was available and people gravitated toward it. That’s also happened in this country. [Here] it’s not so significant because our rebel movement is not so great. There are signs that this [religious] wave may be beginning to falter. In Iran, the generation that has become significant since the revolution, and some of the leaders of the revolution itself, have lost their appetite for it. Of course, a lot depends on how we respond. We could stimulate it.

How vulnerable is America to chemical and biological attacks? Have you bought any duct tape?

No. First of all, it would do no good. Second, I don’t imagine a chemical or biological attack having much effect. I suspect that one of the reasons we missed 9/11 was that we were looking for a chem and bio attack. Every time I’ve been to Washington in the period before 9/11, that’s all people wanted to talk about. My theory is that we depend on technology and we think that we can only be beaten by another technology.

Then what’s the more likely danger?

I don’t think that the significance of the [recent] mode of attack has been emphasized enough. It’s low tech. From the point of view of someone interested in terror tactics of the past and future, the most important thing is that it is an extension of the suicide bomber, which started initially in a truck and then went to a boat and now has gone to the air.

You’re saying that “low-tech” is the real worry?


Absolutely. Because suicide bombers are easy to recruit, they’re exact in their direction [and] they always go to the best possible spot. And if you decide not to use them, then you don’t lose anything. It is a remarkable weapon fashioned for terrorist activity and in many ways better than anything created in the modern world.

What is the biggest misconception about terrorism?

First, that there are no conflicts within the groups. Terrorist organizations have very limited lives. We tend to think that all terrorists will remain terrorists for the rest of their lives. Second, that they have no political agenda, so we can’t try and build political fences against them, especially when they have a religious orientation. I get apprehensive when people say Islam is more violent than other religions because what you’ve done is ripped off the ability to appeal to people who want a different life, a normal life, and so forth. That’s a terrible mistake.

Could Islam police its own terrorist fringe elements?


Oh, it could. And should. And probably will. If my theory of the 40 years works in this context, that’s exactly what’s going to happen.