How might our Age of Terror end?

Philip J. Palin writes this review for the National Institute for Strategic Preparedness, published in Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, Volume 6, Issue 1 2009 Article 80.


How might our Age of Terror end? Or – if not the Age – at least the season we have known since September 11, 2001? Audrey Kurth Cronin offers six horsemen for our end times, instead of the traditional four:

  1. Decapitation: Catching or Killing the Leader
  2. Negotiations: Transition Toward a Legitimate Political Process
  3. Success: Achieving the (Terrorist) Objective
  4. Failure: Imploding, Provoking a Backlash, or Becoming Marginalized
  5. Repression: Crushing Terrorism with Force
  6. Reorientation: Transitioning to Another Modus Operandi

After examining a wide sample of modern terrorist movements, Dr. Cronin argues that these six categories are comprehensive (and they are her chapter titles). Alone, or in combination, these are the predictable means – or at least presenting causes – for the close of terrorist campaigns. But the author reaches beyond description to prescription. She explains, “The challenge is to understand why, when, and how these pathways affect a campaign’s end.” (p.8) Dr. Cronin hopes “to inoculate ourselves against the psychological manipulation of terrorist violence.” (p.1) Even better, she argues, is to act so as to advance the natural demise of terrorism. Most of the book is committed to a close examination of several endstates, diagnosing the early symptoms, successful anti-terrorist therapies, and final paroxysms of the Red Brigades, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC), and many more. The diagnostic method is more psychological than medical. The author is sensitive to the key role of intentionality in terrorism.

If you are a dedicated specialist or a rigorous historian, you may fuss over some audacious conclusions drawn quickly from dozens of examples. The single long paragraph given to the Ethniki Organosis Kyprion Agoniston (or EOKA) virtually begs for detailed exception by someone steeped in modern Cypriot history. Being neither dedicated nor rigorous, I value how the conceptual framework is fleshed out with credible and relevant examples. The framework is a helpful tool for examining both historical and unfolding events. It is a practical overview of the modern history of terrorism, presented as lessons-learned. Each category can also be seen as a tool with which to assess a case of terrorism. As is the case with most tools, please read the instructions. When not reviewing, I typically skip the introduction. If doing so here, I would have been lost. The thirteen pages that precede the first chapter are fundamental to fully engage the rest of the text. It is a reasonably complicated tool. If you don’t read the instructions you risk misuse.

Tools are used to solve problems. Al-Qaeda is a present problem. Dr. Cronin, a professor of strategy at the U.S. National War College, is interested in applying her tool-set to the problem at hand. She writes, “Three scenarios in our historical framework offer little hope for ending al-Qaeda: success, repression, and decapitation.” (p.194) I happen to agree, but others will be surprised – at least in regard to the hopelessness of repression and decapitation. A few additional paragraphs making a more specific case for dismissing these options would have strengthened the focus Dr. Cronin counsels. Her prescription for resolving the present problem is a combined regimen of negotiations and (mostly) self-induced failure. “Negotiations, not by any means with the core leadership but with some of the disparate entities on the periphery of this movement, hold potential.” (p.195) Here I perceived Dr. Cronin might be referring to, among others, elements of the Taliban. If so, I wish she might have, again, given us a few more paragraphs suggesting how the historical examples in her chapter on negotiations might apply in this specific case. The author is similarly brief in making her case for our strategic exploitation of al-Qaeda’s self-destructive tendencies. Here she highlights an approach that seems to me obvious, but widely neglected. “…taking advantage of
the serious mistakes that are endemic to al-Qaeda will help us nudge it toward failure. Al-Qaeda is a fractionalized movement full of internal contradictions, infighting, ideological arguments, and discord that might easily lead to its end. Its connection to its own popular support is also highly vulnerable, because of clear evidence of loss of operation control and repeated, serious mistakes in targeting – mistakes that are decried by other Muslims.” (p.195) Given evidence of neglect, and the significant potential of this strategy, I will not be the only reader to wish for more. Perhaps that is to wish for Dr. Cronin’s next book.

As suggested by the appendix, entitled “Statistical Analysis of Terrorist Campaigns,” the book’s conclusions are based on a rigorous quantitative analysis of some admittedly qualitative data. The data set, now maintained by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland, encompasses 457 terrorist organizations active since 1968. I appreciate Dr. Cronin’s decision to give us her findings while sparing us the details of regression analyses. Others will want to see the spreadsheets and double-check her formulae. How Terrorism Ends provides an overview of the modern history of terrorism and gives readers a tool-set with which to apply historical lessons to current problems. In this way it is helpful to strategist and tactician, academic and practitioner. The author’s sixth prognosis for the demise of al-Qaeda resonates with the traditional Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Conquest, War, Famine and Death. Outlining the possibility for a major strategic shift, she writes, “Finally there is potential for this movement to end its terrorism by reorienting toward activities that are worse, including insurgency, conventional war, or even catalyzing systemic war between major powers.” (p.195) Media reports offer tantalizing suggestions that these possibilities are being actively pursued by al-Qaeda.

There is an example of terrorism prior to 1968 that suggests a less apocalyptic alternative for reorientation. In the eleventh through thirteenth centuries a small band of Shia “assassins” or Hashshashin had an influence and reputation not unlike that of al-Qaeda. Through persistent application of at least five of the six tools Dr. Cronin has so helpfully identified, over time this group was transformed and is now known as Shia Imami Isma’ili, one of the most effective charitable organizations in the world. Reorientation can go both ways.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away…
Revelation of Saint John, 21:1

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