Terrorism is an ancient mode of conflict, generally used by the weak to coerce the strong. However one defines terrorism – and there are many definitions – a terrorist must do violence to achieve his or her objectives, believe strongly enough in those objectives to rationalize violence, and get financing for supplies and organizational activities. Hence there has been a three-dimensional continuum between terrorism, cults, organized crime, and military insurgency. Modern examples include the Red Brigades (leftist terrorist), Aum Shinrikyo (cult), the FARC (organized crime), and the LTTE or Tamil Tigers (insurgency). Now ISIS has added a 4th dimension to this continuum – one between terrorism and government.
Originally all terrorism was religious in nature, such as the Sicarii in 1st-century Roman-occupied Israel and the Assassins in Persia and Syria (1000’s-1200’s A.D.) or the Thugs in India (1300’s-1830’s). Rapoport (2004) noted four generational waves in modern international non-state terrorism, and the data (Rasler and Thompson, 2009) support him: the Anarchist wave beginning in Russia and spreading to Europe and Asia (1880’s-1920’s), the Anti-Colonial wave (1920’s-1960’s), the New Left wave (1960’s-1990’s), and the current “religious” wave (1990’s-).
The current wave (al-Qaeda and Affiliated Movements or AQAM from which ISIS originated) is a reaction of honor-shame cultures against globalization. It flies Islam as a “false flag,” confusing the universal religion of Islam with the cultural context in which it is imagined to have arisen. Honor-shame culture is threatened by globalization, but Islam is doing just fine. The current wave of terrorists project their own anger onto an idol of their imaginations which they convince themselves is God. This is idolatry and blasphemy, for which punishments are prescribed in the Qur’an and various schools of Islamic jurisprudence or fiqh.
Usama bin Laden once seemed to indicate that al-Qaeda’s goals were the establishment of an Sunni/Salafist Islamic Caliphate stretching from Spain to Indonesia and the elimination of the nation-state of Israel. These goals differ from the goals of other modern terrorist groups in that they are unlimited – it is impossible for AQAM’s adversaries to satisfy such demands. Sensing this, AQAM satisfies itself by attempting to punish its adversaries – to kill as many people and destroy as much property as possible.
Rapoport, David C. 2004. The Four Waves of Modern Terrorism. Attacking Terrorism. Cronin, Audrey Kurth and James M. Ludes, eds. Washington: Georgetown University Press. p. 46-73.
Rasler, Karen and William R. Thompson. 2009. Looking for Waves of Terrorism. Terrorism and Political Violence, Vol. 21, No. 1, January 1, p. 28-41.