The 5th Wave of Rebel Terrorism

Agenda Setter

Javed Ali is a Towsley Policymaker in Residence at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy and served in senior roles at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and National Security Council. 

OPINION — Events over the past year, including the siege of the US Capitol on 6 January, indicate that the threat of domestic terrorism in the United States is still a clear and present danger.  While the Biden Administration wrestles with possible new approaches to confront this challenge, there is no clear consensus among counterterrorism experts as to how long this threat had been developing inside the United States or even what to call it.

In 2002, UCLA political scientist David Rapoport wrote an article titled “The Four Waves of Rebel Terrorism and September 11th,” in which he described the ebbs and flows of different forms of terrorism—Anarchist, Anti-Colonialist, New Left, and Religious—and their impact on global security.  Now almost 20 years after 9/11, one can make the argument that the United States is experiencing a “5th wave” of terrorism that, using Rapaport’s original framework, could be described as the “New Right.”  Beyond this categorization of the threat, questions about when this wave started, its current trajectory, and signs for the future, are likewise open to similar debate.

In Rapaport’s analysis, the four terrorism waves he identified had rough start and end cycles for between twenty and forty years, with some of the waves overlapping at different points in their evolution.  He indicated that the religious wave—which we would now identify as being associated with the global jihadist ideology from groups like al-Qa’ida and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)—started in 1979.  Despite the pressure these groups have faced from the United States and other partners around the world, they may be weakened and battered but not yet defeated, at least in the classic military sense. While this wave may be cresting downward, it is not yet at a terminal point.

Accepting the premise that the United States is in a “fifth wave” of terrorism, it may have begun as early as the late 2000s, when the results of the economic downturn, the election of President Obama, and the rise populist political ideas started to play out domestically and set the conditions for future violence linked to this timeframe.  Fast forward a few years, by the mid-2010s, and these initial trends only seemed to accelerate, causing further social, political, cultural, and economic divides.

The attack by Dylann Roof in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015 was arguably the first such lethal attack soon followed by others (Charlottesville 2017, Pittsburgh 2018, El Paso 2019, Oakland/Santa Cruz 2020, and the US Capitol 2021)–despite that none of these were considered acts of domestic terrorism under federal law.

The diversity of extremist beliefs that condone or support violent action in this New Right wave is broad and defies categorization with a single label.  It ranges from white supremacy and neo-Nazism; hatred of “others” based on different political, racial, religious, or gender backgrounds; anti-government, anti-law enforcement, and pro-2nd amendment views; and, millenarian, apocalyptic, or conspiracy theories like QAnon that flouts logic and reason.  In addition, the grievances and factors that mobilized individuals in this movement to violent action on 6 January—like anger of the November 2020 election results, frustration over government-imposed restrictions on individual liberties and freedoms in response to COVID-19, and the large amount of social media-driven misinformation and disinformation—do not appear to be diminishing in intensity or relevance.

If we have only passed the first decade of what could be a long wave of New Right extremist violence lasting several additional decades, like the others identified by Rapaport in his seminal work from 2002, this gives more urgency to the need for a new paradigm to combat this threat. Efforts underway in the Biden Administration, those being considered in Congress, work in the tech sector, research and analysis in academia and the public policy arena, and local community-based initiatives must all be examined to tackle this issue head on, while at the same time balancing the needs for increased security with respect for civil liberties, privacy, and individual rights.

Read more expert-driven, national security insights, perspective and analysis in The Cipher Brief

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