Audrey Kurth Cronin’s sober analysis of terrorism and its undoings, Justin Vogt writes, is a welcome change from the sweeping apocalyptic visions that pass for insight in the post-September 11 world.
In August, Barack Obama dispatched one of his national-security advisers, John Brennan, to deliver the first detailed public explanation of his administration’s approach to counterterrorism. In his speech, Brennan explained why Obama had retired the term “Global War on Terrorism”, which during the Bush years had come to define an all-encompassing, near-mystical national narrative of conflict without end. Terrorism is but a tactic, Brennan said, and “you can never fully defeat a tactic”. Obama, Brennan continued, hoped to restore counterterrorism “to its right and proper place: no longer defining – indeed, distorting – our entire national security and foreign policy”.
During the past decade, that distortion fed – and was in turn fed by – the rise of an influential group of experts on Islamist extremism. Liberated from the obscurity in which they had toiled prior to the attacks of September 11, these analysts and commentators now wield considerable influence on national-security discourse in the United States and elsewhere. A well-funded flood of their expert testimony gushes through every imaginable medium: magazine writers churn out feverish exegeses of early Islamist writings; blogosphere pundits limn the distinctions between salafi-jihadis and radical Wahhabis; academic journals host bitter disputes between experts on the radicalisation process; non-profit foundations devote themselves to exhaustive daily analyses of jihadist chat-room discussions. Some of this work is done by dedicated academics and journalists engaging in valuable, intellectually rigorous research. Much of it, however, is produced by charlatans with barely concealed anti-Muslim agendas – and in the mass media, at least, these less reputable voices inevitably speak the loudest.
There is no doubt that a robust understanding of Islamist extremism and those who stoke it is vital to combating terrorism. And no one can blame policymakers for paying close attention to the details of national-security threats. But the transformation of terrorism expertise into a growth industry has abetted a counterproductive fetishisation of the enemy. Just as young children fixate on fairy-tale monsters, states struggling with terrorism can develop an almost perverse focus on the peculiarities of current threats. Rather than demystifying terrorists, a steady diet of punditry about groups like al Qa’eda has imbued them with a wholly undeserved aura of power and menace. The announcement earlier this month that the Obama administration intends to try the men who planned the September 11 attacks in a New York City courtroom produced an explosion of this hysteria, with critics insisting that al Qa’eda would visit its terrible wrath on the city in retaliation. After New York’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, signalled his approval, one Republican congressman posed an ominous question for the mayor: “How are you going to feel when it’s your daughter that’s kidnapped at school by a terrorist?”
Far-fetched fantasies of this kind are intended to prop up the conceit that al Qae’da and its ilk are unlike any past threat. But terrorist campaigns – including a few even more deadly than al Qa’eda’s – have been launched countless times before. And yet they always end. Why? And how?
Those questions have gone almost entirely unaddressed by the experts on Islamist extremism whose opinions shape conventional wisdom about terrorism, creating what Audrey Kurth Cronin calls a “yawning intellectual gap”. In a new book with the blunt title How Terrorism Ends, Cronin, a professor of strategy at the US National War College, has filled that gap by collecting and analysing as much information as possible about the demise of past terrorist campaigns and organisations. Eschewing sociological or psychological speculation about why groups opt to use terrorism, she focuses instead on the strategic consequences of their actions. The result is a refreshingly sober treatment of the subject. Cronin is no Pollyanna, but among her key findings are that only about five per cent of terrorist groups ever achieve their goals, and that the average lifespan of a modern terrorist organisation is only about eight years. Bare facts like these don’t mesh with the apocalyptic visions that dominate contemporary debates about terrorism, but they should hardly come as a surprise. After all, as Cronin writes, “killing civilians in terrorist attacks is not a promising means of achieving political ends”.
To better understand how terrorist campaigns and groups end, Cronin analysed the histories of 457 organisations active since 1968; among other things, she measured the lifespan of each group, whether and to what degree they engaged in negotiations with the states they targeted, and to what extent they achieved their own aims. This statistical analysis is complemented by case studies of a diverse group of now-defunct terrorist organisations – the nationalist Provisional Irish Republican Army, the quasi-Maoist Shining Path in Peru, the Marxist-Leninist Red Brigades in Italy, the apocalyptic Aum Shinrikyo in Japan, and the Zionist Irgun in Palestine, to name a few.
Cronin outlines six scenarios that typically characterise the end of a terrorist group: its leaders are captured or killed; it enters into a legitimate political process; it implodes due to internal conflicts or a loss of public support; it is eliminated via the brute force of military repression; it transitions away from terrorism into other forms of violence; or it succeeds in achieving its aims. It is impossible, of course, to trace the downfall of any organisation to just one of these factors. But focusing on the historical experience of terrorism allows us to treat it as a political phenomenon with observable (even predictable) characteristics, rather than a philosophical, psychological, or moral dilemma requiring us to refashion all our basic assumptions about security. And by demonstrating how similar patterns of terrorism repeat themselves in starkly different regional and cultural contexts, Cronin subtly undermines the myth of sui generis threats – highlighting, too, the ways in which counterterrorism can become a force even more volatile and dangerous than terrorism itself.
That kind of reversal generally takes place when states respond to terrorism with military repression. Overwhelming force can defeat terrorism – especially when wielded by non-democratic regimes – but the costs are staggering. Peru eliminated the Shining Path organisation, but only after devolving from a democracy into an autocracy, carrying out more than 7,300 extrajudicial killings, and engaging in what Cronin terms “unimaginable abuses”. In Russia, Vladimir Putin vowed to “flush the Chechens down the toilet” – and made all too good on that promise. By levelling the city of Grozny with a near-total disregard for civilian life, the Russians largely stamped out the Chechen mujahidin – an approach, Cronin writes, that “succeeds in destroying terrorism because it destroys everything”.
These repressive responses sometimes result from a fundamental misunderstanding of terrorism’s strategic logic. Governments often regard terrorist groups as if they were states – and assume they use violence the way states do. Especially in the postwar West, governments have come to see terrorism as akin to the “strategic bombing” of civilian targets they conducted in the Second World War: an attempt to compel or coerce the state. But this misses the fact that terrorist campaigns, which typically deploy spectacular violence as a means of advancing or publicising a political cause, involve three actors: the state, the terrorist group, and – crucially – the “audience” the group hopes to influence. Frequently, terrorists do not intend to compel states to do anything in particular except respond, ideally with the use of force. Their aim is to provoke, to polarise society, and to mobilise specific segments of the public – but they rely on the state’s response to complete the circuit, with countermeasures likely to cause more pain to the public than to the terrorists.>
Indeed, terrorists are more likely to defeat themselves than they are to be stopped by the application of overwhelming force. A huge array of vulnerabilities make it difficult to manage a secretive group whose members are motivated by extreme views and willing to use violence: infighting and fractionalisation, a leader’s loss of operational control over members, and the constant spectre of betrayal. Perhaps most damaging of all are targeting errors that provoke a popular backlash. A particularly salient example is the 1997 killing of 62 tourists visiting ancient ruins in Luxor, Egypt, carried out by Gamaa Islamiya. In the five years prior to the attack, the group had killed 1,200 people in attacks meant to destabilise the Mubarak regime – but the widespread public disgust with the grisly massacre at Luxor stunned the group and its leaders, and their attacks ceased completely once they realised they had lost the support of their intended audience.
Of course, states cannot simply bide their time and wait for terrorist groups to implode. The trick, Cronin argues, is to figure out how to capitalise on a terrorist organisation’s inherent weaknesses, and nudge the group towards failure. Concluding her book by considering how al Qa’eda’s demise might be hastened, Cronin argues that the group has no hope of succeeding in its long-term goals, but that repression via military force – or through the “decapitation” of its leadership – is not likely to destroy it. Instead, she advocates an attempt to drive a wedge between the core al Qa’eda organisation and the various affiliates that give it a global reach, partly through negotiations with the peripheral groups – a process reminiscent of the US-backed “Awakening” movement, which enlisted former Sunni insurgents in the fight against al Qa’eda in Iraq. She also suggests that states begin offering an exit to al Qa’eda operatives, similar to the way law-enforcement agencies “turn” Mafia captains by promising leniency: just the prospect of other members taking such an exit can stir crippling distrust.
These proposals lack the seductive appeal of the singular, coherent vision of righteous struggle against evil embodied in the “Global War on Terror.” And that is precisely the point. The demise of terrorist groups has time and again proven to be a complex process, driven by a mix of heterogeneous factors that frustrate attempts at grand philosophical abstraction. The fate of efforts to combat terrorism rests to a large degree on the ability of leaders to resist the temptation to mythologise and aggrandise threats and countermeasures, and to instead be guided by a clear-eyed, realistic, even banal form of pragmatism that offers the best hope of stopping the violence.
Justin Vogt, a regular contributor to The Review, is a writer living in New Orleans.
Photo caption: Grozny after a Russian bombardment: Vladimir Putin vowed to “flush the Chechens down the toilet” – the type of approach, Cronin writes, that “succeeds in destroying terrorism because it destroys everything”. Hector Mata / AFP