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By SeriesRushworth M. Kidder / May 13, 1986

Aberdeen, Scotland

`NINETEEN sixty-eight really was the big upsurge.'' In his book-lined office at the University of Aberdeen, Paul Wilkinson pinpoints the year that launched the latest epicycle of political violence.

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``A number of different events came together [that year] to create a situation where terrorist violence was a more attractive mode of struggle,'' says Professor Wilkinson, an internationally recognized authority on terrorism.

Among the events of 1968:

Three armed members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine seized an El Al airliner and forced it to fly to Algeria -- launching a campaign of air piracy that has been a hallmark of terrorism ever since.

In West Germany, the Baader-Meinhof gang gained prominence by torching a Frankfurt department store.

In Egypt, the Palestinine Liberation Organization, sobered by Israel's victory in the ``six-day war'' in 1967, made Yasser Arafat its leader.

In the United States, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, unleashing a spate of domestic violence by groups such as the Black Panthers and Weathermen.

In Mexico City, street marches culminated in protests at the Olympic Games, aiding growth of a terrorist movement with Cuban and Soviet connections.

Like any trend, the upsurge was not restricted to a single year. Ch'e Guevara had been killed in Bolivia in 1967. The Provisional Irish Republican Army took up terrorism in 1969, the year British soldiers were introduced into Northern Ireland. In 1970, terrorism took a new turn with the kidnapping and murder of Daniel A. Mitrione, a US advisor to Uruguay's police, by Marxist urban guerrillas, the Tupamaros. That year, too, Italy's Red Brigades began their campaign of terror, and the Japanese Red Army sprang into view with robberies, kidnappings, and the hijacking of an airliner.

Since the late 1960s, the trend has risen steadily (see chart, next page). But terrorism itself is nothing new. ``There is a long history of [terrorism],'' notes Wilkinson, ``going right back to the period of struggle of the Jews [known as the Zealots] against the Romans [66-73 AD].'' History also records the eleventh-century rise of the Assassins, a sect based in Persia (modern-day Iran).

Yet the modern epicycle is peculiar, sprouting up fairly suddenly in a number of countries. What produced it? What happened in the late 1960s that provided such fertile ground for this ugly weed?

Terrorist experts point to a number of causes. Generally, however, they fall into three categories: broad historical changes, ideological shifts, and technological advances. Historical patterns

By the late 1960s, three things had become clear.

First, the world was living under the umbrella of a nuclear standoff between the superpowers. ``Those states and factions which are interested in achieving their ends by force,'' says Wilkinson, ``will be aware of the danger that, if they use even conventional war, it may easily escalate into a nuclear intervention.

``It is therefore all the more attractive in an age of nuclear stalemate for groups to use low-risk, potentially high-yield, and potentially very effective methods of struggle [such as terrorism].''

Second, European colonialism had pretty much ended, leaving a host of newly independent nations to grapple with unfamiliar problems. In some of these nations, restless minorities were no longer held in check by European-model police and military forces. In others, disputes arose with neighboring states over boundaries that had often been established arbitrarily by colonial administrations. The result: guerrilla uprisings and low-intensity warfare, often including terrorist activity.