Question Ted Politics & International Relations

Four waves of terrorism

What are the four waves of terrorism?

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The definition and the understanding of terrorism has largely been in a state of disarray since September 11th 2001. In order to address this and establish an understanding of modern terrorism, David Rapoport (2004) developed a wave system to define how different types of terrorism we have witnessed in the past century or so.

Rapoport (2004) defines a wave as ‘a cycle of activity in a given time period- a cycle characterised by expansion and contraction phases’ (p.48) and utilises this concept to explain the changes in the phenomenon of modern terrorism by categorising four waves of terrorism.

  1. Anarchism (1880s- 1920s): believed that the state was the source of societal evil and injustice. The main tactic used was assassination of government officials.

  2. Anti-Colonial (1920s-1960s): wanted independence from western imperialists.

  3. Left Wing Radicalism (1960s-1990s): wanted to eliminate capitalism and bring about redistribution of wealth. Theatrical targets replace military targets: hijacking, kidnappings, taking hostages were amongst the most popular tactics.

  4. Religious Terrorism (1990s- Present day): Largely related to Islamic Terrorism. These terrorists believe that the influence of the Western world is tarnishing and corrupting the morality of the world. They see terrorism as a necessary means to defending their faith. Tactics including suicide bombings, high impact theatrical and symbolic targets.


Rapoport, D. (2004) ‘The Four Waves of Modern Terrorism’, in A. Cronin and J. Ludes (ed) Attacking Terrorism: Elements of a Grand Strategy, Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, pp. 46-73