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A New Strain of Fourth Wave Terrorism?

09/08/2011

The recent events in Norway make me wonder if we are facing a terrorism paradigm shift or if we should simply explain Anders Breivik’s deeds as the acts of an insane loner.

As I see it, his twin attacks and other, similar attacks in recent years are an interesting illustration of two phenomenon: the acceptance of mass killings of civilians and the development of leaderless terrorism.

David C. Rapoport uses the well-known term “the four waves of terrorism” in order to conceptualise terrorism from the 1880s to today. He connects the acceptance of mass killings of civilians with the fourth wave of terrorism (religious terrorism), and I believe he has a point. Religion is a factor and not only in the form of militant Jihadism, as there are other religious movements and cults that operate in a similar manner; in other words, that accept and sometimes strive for mass killings of civilians (e.g., Aum Shinrikyo and the Jewish terrorists who plotted to blow up the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem).

I think one must also take into account attacks such as the Piazza Fontana massacre and the Bologna train station attack when discussing the fourth wave and the acceptance of mass casualties. These attacks were carried out by right-wing elements in 1969 and 1980 (probably within the Italian security service).

Another attack that can be classified both as religious terrorism and right-wing terrorism is, of course, the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. I believe that this is significant for religious terrorism and right-wing terrorism, i.e., it doesn’t really matter who they kill as long as the victims can be perceived as being the enemy (refugees, immigrants, gays, government employees, etc).

The next problem revolves around the question of how to define and conceptualise “terrorism.” We all know that there is no universally accepted definition of the term. However, most, if not all, definitions demand the participation of some type of organisation or the involvement of several people who use violence to promote some political agenda. But what happens if people are inspired or collaborate without being part of an organisation? What happens if only one or two or a handful of people, use violence to promote a political agenda without being members of an organisation or a network in the true meaning of the word? I think the UNA-bomber is a good example of a mentally disturbed person who falls out of the category of people I mean. But what about Timothy McVeigh, the Fort Hood shooter, and the person who recently tried to detonate an IED in Times Square (there have also been a number of attempts to attack artists in Denmark and Sweden who have drawn Muhammad, etc., that could fit into this category)? And what about Anders Breivik?

These perpetrators may or may not have been members of an organisation or a network. The question is are organisations and networks useful as models to describe these developments. The use of alternative means of organisation has been discussed at least since the early 1980s when the extreme right activist Louis Beam started to argue for “leaderless resistance.” According to Beam, it was necessary for activists to use new organisational models in order to avoid being detected by the authorities. In order to do this, the activists operate in small, independent secret cells (sometimes consisting of only one individual). His ideas were put into practice during the 1980s by a wide range of activists, e.g., white supremacists and animal right groups. Initially, his ideas were constrained by the lack of suitable communication technologies. The Internet was not available to the public at the time, and so activists usually relied on Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) in order to communicate and distribute information. In order to log into a BBS, the user had to use a telephone line and a modem, which made it relatively easy for law enforcement agencies to monitor them. This changed during the 1990s when the Internet became available to the public.

Today, it is very easy for activists to communicate with each other and to spread information, disinformation, and propaganda. Scholars like Marc Sageman argue that groups such as al-Qaeda have undergone several re-organisations since their creation and that the Internet now plays a major role in radicalising individuals around the world and for the planning of attacks (the so-called “leaderless Jihad”). Recently, we have also seen how magazines such as Inspire promote “Open Source Jihad” in order to support the development of very small cells and lone-wolf operators.

We should perhaps analyse these ideas more in detail. As I see it, the attacks in Norway and other similar attacks indicate that Louis Beam’s theories have evolved due to the use of Internet and are more relevant than ever. Perhaps it would be useful to see some political movements as “solar systems” where planets and celestial bodies affect each other by gravity rather than direct contact.

People of certain opinions do not necessarily have to meet or be part of an organisation to affect and inspire each other. It is no longer necessary to have a central command, which might be counterproductive since a central leadership is relatively easy to identify. People can influence each other by their writings and actions. Given the use and availability of the Internet, it is very easy for one person, or a very small number of persons, to find inspiration and others who share the same opinions and aspirations. But is this a “terrorist organisation” in the true meaning of the term? Are you a lone wolf if you interact with others over the Internet? It is of course possible to have different opinions on these questions but the development is a problem, regardless of what we call it, especially if one considers that mass casualties are not only accepted but also a goal for several different types of activists and potential terrorists.

I think it would be useful to use the term “leaderless activism” and “leaderless terrorism” in order to conceptualise what I mentioned above and to avoid focusing only on militant Jihadists. There are other religious groups and cults that may be dangerous, and right-wing extremism is not likely to disappear in the near future.

Do we need to redefine terrorism? How should the attacks in Norway and other similar acts be conceptualised? Are they the act of an insane loner or are they a strain of fourth wave terrorism, i.e., conducted by one or very few perpetrators who are not members of a specific organisation but operate with the silent and passive support of a certain community? Finally, do we need to develop new analytical methods to counter this or are the existing ones still useful?