New Books in History: Review and Interview with Audrey Kurth Cronin

Marshall Poe, author of the New Books in History blog that features discussions with historians about their work, interviewed Audrey Kurth Cronin in this May 28, 2010, discussion of “How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns.”

It’s one thing to say that the study of history is “relevant” to contemporary problem; it’s another to demonstrate it. In How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns(Princeton UP, 2009), Audrey Kurth Cronin does so in splendid fashion. She poses a common and very important question: what should we do about modern terrorism in general and Al-Qaeda in particular? To answer it, she poses another (and quite original) question: how do terrorist campaigns usually end? The logic is simple and compelling: if we want to stop a terrorist campaign, we would do well to understand how they generally stop. To do this, she reviews the history of modern terrorist campaigns, analyzes the means by which they ended, and then presents an original typology of endings. With said typology, she can tell us what works in terms of anti-terrorism and what doesn’t in what circumstances. For example, her research shows that “decapitating” Al-Qaeda won’t work; other leaders will (and already have) sprung up to continue the terror campaign. Neither will negotiating with Al-Qaeda work because: a) there is no one to negotiate with and b) Al-Qaeda has no coherent list of demands. The cases Cronin examines suggest an entirely different approach, one that promotes the (already on-going) disintegration of Al-Qaeda from within. Al-Qaeda, Cronin says, is showing signs of imploding; we should just help it along.

This is a rich book and a model of how to use history for policy-making. I think I’ll send President Obama a copy.

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