Stratfor: we can learn to fight jihadists by studying the anarchists

Summary: We have difficulty dealing with present problems because we have forgotten so much of our past. Here Stratfor seeks lessons for our long war with jihadists by examining our long struggle with anarchists during the 19th and early 20th centuries. It is rich with lessons for us.  The subject of this analysis is “nihilist and anarchist terrorism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.”  Also read my similar analysis in 2009: Are Islamic extremists like the anarchists?Stratfor

Jihadism: An Eerily Familiar Threat

By  Scott Stewart at Stratfor, 23 February 2017.

As part of my day-to-day job, I read a lot of news reports, books and scholarly studies. Though the never-ending avalanche of information sometimes feels like a mild version of electronic waterboarding, it also allows me to pick out interesting parallels between different events. Not long ago I re-read Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism, an excellent book by historian Michael Burleigh that outlines the cultural history of terrorism. As I flipped through the chapters on nihilist and anarchist terrorism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, I couldn’t help but notice some intriguing similarities to jihadism. This week I’ll share them with you to put the modern threat that jihadists pose into better context.

The technological tools today’s jihadists use are certainly new; after all, the internet and social media only emerged over the past few decades. But many of the tactics they rely on are as old as terrorism itself. And despite the more primitive means at their disposal, anarchists were often far more successful than their jihadist counterparts in using propaganda and the media to recruit, radicalize and equip their followers.

Painting of McKinnley's assassination.

Assassination of President McKinley. Anarchists assassinated many world leaders. Jihadists share similar ambitions, but so far have fallen short. By T. Dart Walker.

Spreading the Word.

For the most part, the guiding philosophies of anarchist and jihadist terrorism are quite different. Their views on the nature of man and universe radically diverge, as do the global systems each seeks to establish through political violence. But they are also pretty alike in a few key ways. Both anarchists and jihadists view themselves as a vanguard able to awake and mobilize their respective masses — the proletariat and the ummah — to destroy the current order and replace it with a utopian society. Moreover, both hold a strict dualistic view of the world. Whereas anarchists saw a global society divided into proletariat versus bourgeoisie, jihadists see it as true Muslims pitted against the rest of the world. And the hatred anarchists felt for the bourgeoisie is not unlike the loathing jihadists have for their apostate and non-Muslim enemies.

This dualistic worldview, founded on hatred of “the other,” led first anarchists, and later jihadists, to welcome the idea of martyrdom if needed to conduct an attack. Many anarchists carried cyanide capsules to keep from being captured alive, flaunting their embrace of death in pursuit of their lofty ambitions. Like jihadists, they also relied on convoluted logic to justify mass casualty attacks that hurt or killed people who did not belong to the oppressive ruling class. Anarchists bombed theaters, restaurants, cafes, hotels, religious processions and train terminals — targets that modern jihadists would eventually set their sights on as well. Anarchists also attacked the press, bombing the Los Angeles Times building in 1910 and conducting what may have been the United States’ first vehicle bombing in 1920. (That year, they used a horse-drawn wagon to carry a massive bomb to Wall Street’s J.P. Morgan Bank before detonating it, killing 38 people — mostly couriers and other low-level workers — in the deadliest act of terrorism the country had ever seen.)

Though they didn’t have the internet and 24-7 news outlets at their disposal, anarchists did have the telegraph and other communications technologies that greatly expanded the reach of the press in the late 1800s. In fact, these tools gave anarchists a way to broadcast their message and propaganda worldwide, while heavy and sensationalist media coverage of their attacks helped them to recruit grassroots followers to their cause. Just as jihadists have done today, anarchists encouraged and took credit for the actions of lone actors and small cells that answered their calls for action with guns, knives and bombs.

This also gave rise to copycats who were inspired by anarchists’ activities abroad and attempted to mimic them, some perhaps even hoping to gain the fame and notoriety of the attackers highlighted in the press. For example, Leon Czolgosz — the anarchist who shot and killed U.S. President William McKinley — was motivated by Gaetano Bresci‘s assassination of Italian King Umberto I in July 1890. Investigators found that Czolgosz had collected several news clippings about Bresci and the assassination; he even purchased the .32-caliber Iver Johnson revolver that he used to kill McKinley after reading that it was the gun Bresci had used to shoot the king.

Of course, this kind of transnational inspiration wasn’t confined to the United States and Europe; grassroots anarchists also launched attacks in Argentina and Australia. By the early 1900s, propaganda and press coverage had turned anarchist terrorism into a global phenomenon, much as they have helped fueled the rise of grassroots jihadism today.

There are still anarchists.

Different Degrees of Success.

During their heyday, anarchists managed to assassinate a number of world leaders. In addition to McKinley and Umberto, they killed Russian Czar Alexander II, French President Sadi Carnot, Spanish Prime Minister Antonio Canovas, Empress Elisabeth of Austria, Portuguese King Carlos I and his son, Crown Prince Luis Filipe, and Greek King George I. And those were just the attempts that succeeded.

Jihadists share similar ambitions, but so far they have fallen short. Though jihadists killed Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, they tried and failed to assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. Their efforts to urge supporters to kill international economic leaders have likewise failed to achieve the same success that anarchists did in their campaign against the world’s industrialists. And while anarchists were never able to build a workers’ paradise akin to the jihadists’ caliphate, their ideological rivals — the Marxists — carried class warfare and the vision of a socialist utopia much further, and in a far more lasting way, than jihadists have in the Middle East.

No borders. No nations.

A Recognizable Response.

Anarchist terrorism, and the pervasive press coverage of it, generated widespread fear in the same way jihadist terrorism has today. According to a December 2015 Gallup poll, some 51% of Americans are very worried or somewhat worried that they or their family members will become a victim of terrorism. A figure this high hasn’t been seen since October 2001, despite the fact that jihadists have not pulled off the follow-up attack to 9/11 they have long threatened. In fact, only 163 Americans have died in terrorist attacks of any kind since September 2001, coming out to an average of 10.87 deaths each year. In other words, the odds that a given American will die in a terrorist attack this year are about 1 in 29 million — and yet still more than half of Americans fear it will happen to them or their loved ones.

A March 2016 Gallup poll asked Americans, “How much do you personally worry about the possibility of future terrorist attacks in the United States?” Of those who responded, 48% said “a great deal” and 23% said “a fair amount.” Clearly, terrorism is still punching well above its weight because of the fear it engenders. And that kind of popular panic has been known to lead to dramatic policy changes.

In the wake of McKinley’s assassination and a string of other anarchist attacks, Washington began to change the roles and responsibilities of the country’s security agencies. The Secret Service took charge of protecting the president, and in time the FBI was created. Anarchist terrorism also forced law enforcement agencies to alter how they operated and collected intelligence. Their foreign counterparts made similar adjustments in countries such as the United Kingdom and France.

A second wave of change occurred in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The United States created the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security. It also introduced a host of modifications to the way law enforcement and intelligence agencies worked. Comparable changes are now being made overseas in response to a spate of jihadist attacks in Europe — changes that continue to this day.

The public’s response to terrorism is oddly familiar as well. By and large, anarchists in the United States were of foreign birth or extraction; Czolgosz, on the other hand, was actually American by birth. The activities of these radical bomb-throwers and assassins with foreign-sounding names such as Czolgosz, Sacco and Vanzetti sparked a popular and legislative backlash against immigrants. In March 1903, Congress passed an immigration law nicknamed the “Anarchist Exclusion Act” {aka “the anarchist exclusion act”} that was intended to block foreign anarchists from entering the United States. Regulations were tightened even further in 1918 after the law was deemed ineffective.

The same type of sentiment is behind the recent U.S. executive order to temporarily prevent immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries from reaching America’s shores. Either way, it is clear that the evolution of the modern jihadist movement — and the public’s responses to it — are not quite as unprecedented as some may think.

Jihadism: An Eerily Familiar Threat” is republished with permission of Stratfor.


Scott Stewart of Stratfor

About the author

Scott Stewart is Stratfor’s VP of Tactical Analysis, supervising their analysis of terrorism and security issues. Before joining Stratfor, he was a special agent with the U.S. State Department for 10 years and was involved in hundreds of terrorism investigations. He is regularly featured as a security expert in leading media outlets. See other articles by Scott here.

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About Stratfor

Founded in 1996, Stratfor provides strategic analysis and forecasting to individuals and organizations around the world. By placing global events in a geopolitical framework, we help customers anticipate opportunities and better understand international developments. They believe that transformative world events are not random and are, indeed, predictable. See their About Page for more information.

For More Information

For more about the anarchists see We can defeat today’s jihadists, as we did anarchist terrorists a century ago.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about jihadists, and especially these…

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  2. The revolution comes to the Middle East: about the past & future of ISIS — by Prof Hugh Roberts.
  3. Business 101 tells us what to expect next from jihadists: good news for them, bad for us.
  4. Jihadists will prosper using the methods of America’s entrepreneurs.
  5. Stratfor: Why ISIS lost Fallujah. What will jihad 3.0 look like?

For more about the violent anarchists of the late 18th and early 20th centuries.

Blood and Rage (cover)
Available at Amazon.

See Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism. From the publisher…

“In this sweeping and deeply penetrating work, distinguished historian Michael Burleigh explores the nature of terrorism from its origins in the West to the current global threat fueled by fundamentalists. Burleigh takes us from the roots of terrorism in the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the Russian Nihilists, and the London-based anarchists of Black International to the various terrorist campaigns that exist today. He also explores the lives of people engaged in careers of political violence and those who are most affected by the scourge of terrorism.

“Authoritative, illuminating, and masterfully written, Blood and Rage sheds an unflinching light on the global threat that we are likely to face for decades to come.”


9 thoughts on “Stratfor: we can learn to fight jihadists by studying the anarchists”

      1. Breton,

        “All anarchists?”

        No, not “all anarchists.” Looks like you didn’t read the first paragraph, which described the subject of the article: “As I flipped through the chapters on nihilist and anarchist terrorism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries…”

        A helpful rule: when reading the analysis of experts, if you think you’ve found a childish flaw — re-read. It’s almost certainly your error.

  1. It’s ridiculous comparing exactly the same sort of people who just now are giving their life to combat Daesh in Rojava and Kobane, and who fight against reactionary intolerance both in secular and religious forms all over the world right now. Drawing such rough comparisons is intellectually dishonest and counter-productive

    Did Daesh bring us the 8 hour workday? No – in many countries it was the anarchist movement, the libertarian unions who forced governments and industrialists to give away some of their power to improve the quality of life for the vast majority of our population.

    1. I feel like your definition of “anarchist” here is becoming so widespread that it’s effectively meaningless as a descriptor, unless it’s supposed to be a parallel to “good,” sort of like how as far as I can tell “statism” and “statist” just mean “I don’t like that person/idea/ideology.”

      1. Dana,

        That’s a great point. In the opening paragraph, Stewart describes his subject: “As I flipped through the chapters on nihilist and anarchist terrorism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries…” He’s not writing about the vast and defuse array of movements going back to the early 19thC who called themselves “anarchists” (or something-anarchists).

    2. Kopimi,

      “in many countries it was the anarchist movement, the libertarian unions who forced governments and industrialists to give away some of their power to improve the quality of life for the vast majority of our population.”

      Please explain that. The violent anarchists described here had near-zero overlap with “Libertarian socialism” that played a large role in the union movement, and made no contribution on the social and economic reforms such as the 8-hour workday.

  2. It seems like the jihadists have at least been better at tricking the US into doing what they want – the ISIS/Daesh movement, as far as I can tell, could have never arisen as an organized entity absent our exciting adventures in Iraq. I don’t think anything similar ever happened for political anarchists in that period – the most I’ve ever heard was anarchy-ish groups briefly thriving in the chaos of Spain just before WW2, although of course that wasn’t very long-lived.

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