Foreign Policy Blogs

International Terrorism: From Anarchists to ISIS

terrorism 1895

1968 is sometimes referred to as the year that terrorism “went global” thanks to the publicity surrounding several high-profile airline hijackings that year. The perceived uniqueness of the moment was characterized by the fact that the audience the terrorists’ messages were being conveyed became global in nature. But the first phase of “international” terrorism, as several historians have noted recently, preceded WWI. It began in the modern sense with anarchist and nihilist political violence in the late 19th century.

This was, arguably, the advent of globalization, and these conditions helped made their actions possible. The telegraph, railroad, and steamship all shortened distances among people, allowing actions to be coordinated closer to real-time and subsequently reported widely by mass media with lurid illustrations. These clandestine terrorist networks primarily attacked individual targets, usually leading officials, representing a single polity in order to bring down “the system”—a far cry from the agendas of certain 21st century organizations.

The Paris Okhrana’s archives—a record of Imperial Russia’s counterintelligence, espionage, and infiltration bureau in Europe—demonstrate just how “internationalist” terrorist networks were at the time. The Okhrana’s targets, usually male and female Russian émigrés from politically conscious families of some means, had safe houses all over Europe. All the better to hide from the Russian authorities since the lack of a common continental security program meant some countries were easier to enter or stage out of than others. Even countries that put (for the time) substantial efforts into border control, like France, were hotbeds for these cells’ activities.

Each network also had at least one dedicated member whose task was to prepare travel documents and whatever other cover was needed to establish fake identities—not unlike the discovery that at least two members of the Franco-Belgium ISIS cell that carried out attacks in Paris (11/13/15) and Brussels (3/22/16) relied on a document forger in Italy who also did business with the mafia and people smugglers, and infiltrated the migrant flows fleeing conflict and poverty in the Mediterranean basin today.

Even though the cores of these associations were citizens of the Russian Empire, they maintained satellite networks of “helpers” who held citizenship in other countries, often from traditional criminal gangs or clerks who could be bribed to overlook a particular crate when it went through customs. These helpers had advantages that the core “Russian” members did not. Unlike exiles or émigrés, the laws of the countries they lived in protected them from more extensive surveillance. Then and now, such people naturally draw less attention from police, being seen as mere petty criminals rather than international operators.

These methods, though, relied heavily (as now) on in-group solidarity along “ethnic” or family lines.But unlike today, most of these groups remained locked into particular national paradigms: anarchists of Russian descent focused on harming the Tsarist empire’s missions abroad, French bomb-throwers went after their own “corrupt” society, while American anarchists focused on symbolic targets within the United States. The 1920 Wall Street Bombing was one such example: it was not regarded as an attack on global capitalism, but rather on American capitalism. 80 years later and several blocks west of that bombing, the 9/11 attacks assumed a totally different, globalized dimension because the target held much greater international symbolism.

State-sponsored terrorism also emerged during the pre-WWI period, as countries backed terrorist organizations hostile to their enemies. This too was internationalized: such actors provided groups amicable to their own policy goals with base areas and other resources. They hoped to use these groups as instruments of policy and, in some cases, were genuinely sympathetic to the aims of the group and their transnational agendas (such as “Pan-Slavism”). By any modern definition, early-20th century Japan and Serbia would have been considered “state sponsors of terrorism” due to their hosting of anti-Russian and anti-Austrian terrorist groups, respectively. Of course, such efforts often backfired—in Serbia’s case, quite badly in 1914.

Such activities continued into the interwar period as well—many of the secretive nationalistic societies that engaged in terrorism during this period operated between multiple European capitals with backing from financiers across the continent. Even though these movements professed supranational ideologies, they were primarily expressions of nationalism within individual countries, with few interests in making international appeals. The “third” wave of terrorism, however, saw a broadening of the fronts and tactics used, and—especially—the intended audiences the acts of terror reached. This wave can be said to have had two distinct crests within in, one in the 1960s and one in the 1990s.

If the era of proto-globalization, the “Belle Époque,” helped make terrorism possible, the globalization of the 1960s had an even greater impact. Comparing the telegraph and intercity express to the TV and jetliner, and the reach of the latter is not only greater but more symbolic: a printed account of a train bombed by a terrorist does not have the same emotional impact as witnessing it on CCTV clips over and over again. Recognition of “the cause” was the paramount goal of the tactics used—hijackings, bombings, assassinations, shootings, and hostage-takings.

One significant difference is that the “local” context after the 1960s increasingly became subsumed in global agendas. In Chechnya, for example, jihadists from the North Caucasus now go to Syria and Iraq to fight for ISIS, rather than staying home to revive the declining fortunes of the “Caucasian Emirate.” Although local grievances are used to drive recruitment and animate ideologues, all of the terrorist actors are more cognizant of the international politics and domestic contexts of their targeted countries.

As another example, the 2004 Madrid train bombings were aimed at compelling Spain to withdraw its forces from Iraq in order to embarrass the U.S., which was in dispute with Spain over its commitment, and to influence the elections in Spain so as to discredit the pro-Iraq War camp. The network that carried the attacks out was organized across Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, and its members were recruited into a brotherhood believing in a shared supranational ideology. Yet this limited goal, when accomplished, did not mean an end to this network’s targeting of Spain. Al-Qaeda and its fellow travelers envision significant reorganizations of the world; limited goals may exist, but they are only aspects of the larger maximal ideology.

Al-Qaeda’s original model represented the pinnacle of the “internationalist” terrorist ideology because it seeks to cultivate sympathetic opinions abroad and reach general global audiences. Internationalist organizations like it rage against globalization, but are highly dependent on it and also navigate it adeptly with slickly produced propaganda and use of international financial transactions and transportation networks. This is even more apparent with respect to the Islamic State’s actions in Europe and Turkey over the past two years: a force that hypes its “crypto” capabilities runs multiple media agencies, yet depends heavily on its own members raising money themselves and in-group solidarity among friends, cousins, brothers, and mentors that help individuals go abroad and return to their homelands to carry out operations. And as Timothy Holman’s new study into the foreign fighter mobilization process makes clear:

“Facilitation emerged as accessible primarily through relational networks of kin, friends and activist groupings. More recently, while still maintaining a relational requirement, it has embedded itself in virtual social networks, no longer requiring physical presence but becoming amenable to new kinds of interactions. Despite this shift, facilitation continues to provide information and resources, creating opportunities for fighters to connect to conflicts.”

Terrorism has always been “international”, but what that means has changed as technologies and ideologies have advanced rapidly over the past 150 years.



Paul Mutter
Paul Mutter

NYU graduate student blogging at FPA, The Arabist, War is Boring, and Souciant.