LIKE EVERYONE ELSE, guerrillas and terrorists are subject to popular moods and intellectual fads. From the late eighteenth century to the late nineteenth century, revolutionaries ranging from George Washington, Simón Bolívar, and Toussaint Louverture in the New World to, in Europe, Wolfe Tone, Francisco Espoz y Mina, and the two Giuseppes, Garibaldi and Mazzini, were inspired by liberal ideals that were then au courant among progressive thinkers. By the turn of the twentieth century the concepts of the Enlightenment had been superseded, at least in certain intellectual circles, by more extreme schemes for reorganizing society. It was in this milieu that anarchist terrorism flourished, anarchism then being a respectable ideology of the left. Anarchist terrorists were not much heard of after the 1920s, because by then anarchism had been displaced in the revolutionary vanguard by socialism.
A later generation of leftist terrorists and guerrillas emerged out of the anticolonial atmosphere of the 1940s and 1950s and enjoyed their moment in the sun in the 1960s and 1970s when progressive opinion glorified Third World movements of “national liberation” as idealistic battlers against the ogres of imperialism and “neoimperialism.” This was the period when Ho Chi Minh, Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, and Yasser Arafat were on everyone’s lips and on many a college dorm room wall. Even some of their adversaries, such as Edward Lansdale, Robert Thompson, and John Paul Vann, became well-known figures if not quite idols of youth. By the 1980s, as memories of colonialism faded, as the excesses of postcolonial rulers became more apparent, and as capitalism revived under the impetus of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, leftist movements went into eclipse, and the guerrilla mystique faded like an old Volkswagen van that had been left out in the elements too long.
The liberation ideology of the postwar period was discredited not only by the economic failure of its patrons in the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, which had become evident by the 1970s, but also by the inhumanity of its proponents once in power. The most extreme illustrations could be found in the tens of millions of murders perpetrated by Stalin and Mao. From Idi Amin’s Uganda to the Khmer Rouge’s Cambodia, there were countless other examples of brutality on a lesser if still shocking scale that discredited the ideals that onetime insurgents had fought for. Even groups that never attained power, such as the Tupamaros, the Baader-Meinhof Gang, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, cost themselves moderate support because of the indiscrimination with which they targeted civilians. To their own detriment, they ignored the lessons of more successful terrorist groups of the past, notably the IRA from 1919 to 1921 and the Irgun and Stern Gang from 1944 to 1947, which generally although not invariably focused their attacks to the occupation authorities. By contrast the terrorist groups of the 1970s specialized in high-profile operations, such as the hostage taking at the Munich Olympics and the hijacking at Entebbe, which targeted civilians in front of the world’s television cameras. While successful in publicizing their grievances by means of this powerful new communications medium, they generated far more revulsion than support from viewers around the globe.
By the 1980s the bankruptcy of Marxism was apparent even to Marxist rulers. In the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev implemented perestroika and glasnost, but those reforms failed to stop the rot, and in 1991 the entire state collapsed. By then the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe had already been overthrown. China, after Mao’s death in 1976, made a more gradual transition to capitalism (but not democracy) under the Long March veteran Deng Xiaoping. Vietnam was not far behind after Le Duan’s death in 1986. The handful of states like Cuba and North Korea that remained unapologetically communist were economic basket cases. Few but the most purblind ideologues could imagine that the future was being born in these impoverished and oppressed lands or that it was worthwhile to launch an armed movement to emulate their wretched example.
The end of the old regimes in Moscow and Beijing also had a more direct impact on insurgent groups by cutting off a valuable source of subsidies, arms, and training. The Marxist terrorist groups of the 1970s had been unable to generate much of a support base of their own and expired along with the end of their foreign backers. Nationalist movements such as the PLO and IRA fared better, although they too were hobbled by a decline in outside support, demonstrating once again the importance of external aid for any insurgency. Some leftist guerrilla movements such as Colombia’s FARC and India’s Naxalites remained in existence, but they became increasingly marginalized. Even Nepal’s Maoists finally gave up “people’s war” in 2006 and signed a peace accord that forced them to compete for votes with other political parties. The Palestinian struggle continued, needless to say, but the Marxist PFLP was no longer at the forefront; it had ceased to be a major player long before George Habash’s death in 2008.
Although leftist insurgency was on the wane, guerrilla warfare and terrorism were hardly disappearing. They were simply assuming different forms as new militants shot their way into the headlines motivated by the oldest grievances of all—race and religion.