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Dr. Gary LaFree lectures on the “Changes in Worldwide Terrorism”

Founding director of START Dr. Gary LaFree returned to START headquarters to give a lecture on the future of terrorism on Wednesday, Oct. 15. His “Changes in Worldwide Terrorism” lecture analyzed the Four Waves of Modern Terrorism Theory, an approach popularized by terrorism scholar David C. Rapoport to categorize terrorism trends over 40-year periods.

A renowned and oft-cited terrorism researcher himself, LaFree has spent considerable time studying Rapoport’s theory. He has worked to understand the characteristics of each wave, and if the data collected by the Global Terrorism Database (GTD) can support the theory.

The theory describes four waves of terrorism throughout history: Anarchist (1880 – 1920), Anti-colonial (1920 – 1960), New Left (1960 – 1990) and Religious (1990 – Present). As LaFree explained, the Anarchist Wave involved national panic at the hands of foreign-born anarchists, and the Anti-colonial Wave was linked to a feeling of unjust domination from past colonial rulers on behalf of the newly created countries from the Treaty of Versailles.

“Each of these phases bleed into each other,” LaFree said.

LaFree focused his lecture on his analysis of the two most recent waves, the New Left and the Religious, as the GTD does not include data prior to 1970. LaFree said the New Left Wave was born out of a response to the Vietnam War and is characterized by technological advancement, as the rapid development of technology from the 1960s to the 1990s made the wave more internationalist. The current Religious Wave is best characterized by a connection to religious identity, as religion is used to provide justification and organizing principles to build a new political order through acts of terror.

After introducing and defining the waves, LaFree shared with the audience the criteria needed to operationalize the definition of a wave. In order to be characterized as a wave of terrorism, collected data needs to indicate a positive or negative direction, “bursts and busts,” rapid growth of activity and sustained change.

“Breaks in the data are happening at the right time to support Rapoport’s wave theory,” LaFree said. “It looks like modern terrorism can support wave-like patterns. It’s not smooth, but it’s wave-like.”

In comparing the two most recent waves, LaFree discovered the Religious Wave includes more attacks and is much deadlier than the New Left Wave. The New Left Wave also focused more on targeting businesses and government entities to align with their Marxist and Leninist ideologies, while terrorists of the Religious Wave choose to target citizens, property and educational institutions. Based on patterns of past data, researchers can make predictions about how terrorism may evolve, and in this way LaFree explained Rapoport’s theory can be used as a guide for analysis.

In addition to the growth of terrorism through differing waves, national responses to terrorism have also undergone major changes in the past several decades. LaFree explained that governments need to resist the temptation to magnify the image of the destructive power of terrorism, and need to learn to implement limitations to manage threat of terror without limiting the personal freedoms of their citizens.

“We’ve made strides in understanding what makes terrorists tick, but not so much in understanding government responses to terrorism,” he said. “It’s difficult once you overreact to take it back, so objective, evidence-based tactics to combat violent terrorism is ideal.”

When asked of his personal opinion on the future of terrorism, LaFree was optimistic, as the waves show a pattern of busting.

“Human beings look for solutions to things they don’t like,” Dr. LaFree said. “They don’t like to live in constant terror and hardship.”

LaFree hosts a new podcast, Terrorism 360, which includes an episode with Dr. Rapoport. The 15 episode first season features interviews with experts in the field of terrorism studies. It is currently available to stream and download on iTunes and Google Play.