“How Terrorism Ends” Mentioned in Review of “Walking away from terrorism”

Richard English, Queen’s University Belfast, UK, reviews “Walking away from terrorism: accounts of disengagement from radical and extremist movements,” by John Horgan (London: Routledge. 2009. 188pp. Pb.: £21.99. ISBN 978 0 41543 944 2). In the review published in International Affairs (86: 4, 2010) below, he compares the work to Cronin’s How Terrorism Ends.

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Despite the explosion of terrorism research in the long shadow of 9/11, we still know far less than we should and could about one of the vital issues involved: how and why and when terrorism stops, at individual and group levels. Serious work on this subject has begun to emerge, however, with Audrey Kurth Cronin’s splendid recent study, How terrorism ends (Princeton University Press, 2009), providing a strong example. This new book by John Horgan also focuses very valuably on the issue, his own attention being primarily directed towards what he terms disengagement.

Walking away from terrorism forms part of Paul Wilkinson and David Rapoport’s important Political Violence series for Routledge. It is an intriguing book, containing material of analytical and relatedly of practical high value. It represents ‘an attempt to engage questions about the psychology of terrorist behaviour through scientific reasoning and rigorous scrutiny’ (p. xix), as such developing the arguments embodied in Horgan’s impressive 2005 study, The psychology of terrorism (Routledge).

What does this current book do? It presents material from Horgan’s own interviews with
people who have been involved in terrorism, topped and tailed by valuable, wider-angled reflections on the subject from the author. The people interviewed for these case-studies were involved, respectively, in Norwegian right-wing extremism; the Ulster Volunteer Force; Al-Qaeda; the Provisional Irish Republican Army; the Ulster Freedom Fighters (effectively, the Ulster Defence Association); and—in the case of the final individual—a variety of Islamic organizations.

The book is explicitly exploratory rather than decisive in its judgements. It offers only six case-studies, which could never be more than an initial outline of what such work might eventually involve. These case-studies (‘interviews with select members of a disengaged sample’ (p. 39)) are reasonably presented by Horgan as ‘snapshots at best, glimpses into how individuals have engaged in and experienced a complex process’ (p. 15). They are fascinating interviews, and they reflect one of the key strengths of Horgan’s approach to the study of terrorism: namely, to pursue face-to-face, first-hand interview research and thereby to unveil ‘the terrorists’ experiences in their own words’ (p. xxiv). How many times at academic conferences on terrorism in recent years has one heard the lament that we lack sufficient data? Well, one remedy for this is for people to do what John Horgan has done here, and to provide new evidence, dug up first-hand.

The book is also useful in a second sense, in focusing attention on the individual. Horgan is right to suggest that explanation at the individual level is in itself insufficient. But individual-level explanation is, surely, necessary and important and this book does justify its author’s claim about ‘the value of the individual perspective in the study of the terrorist’ (p. 139).

Walking away from terrorism is not flawless. There are occasional slips (the Irish National Liberation Army was not, in fact, ‘an offshoot of the Provisional IRA’ (p. 23) but rather of the Official IRA), and more will need to be done in later stages of this kind of work to interrogate interlocutors’ individual recollections against contemporary sources and rival interpretations.

Are there patterns which emerge? Horgan rightly eschews the idea of a single or simple terrorist profile or personality. But some themes of significance do seem to emerge. There is the repeated gap between terrorists’ initial, romantic conception of violence and of its efficacy, set against the more futile and bloodstained reality of terrorist action in practice. Again, in these pages we see the comparative limits of ideological commitment and understanding displayed by those interviewed, as well as the repeated attraction, as a motivation for becoming involved in terrorism, of simply hitting back at opponents who have perceivedly struck first against one’s own community.

Tellingly, there appears here also a distinction made by terrorists between tactical effectiveness and moral legitimacy: they may disengage because of a lack of the former, without conceding an absence of the latter. And, centrally, these terrorists’ tales repeatedly emphasize their emotional drive to do something about injustice, coupled with an apparent lack of serious grasp on their part of the complexity of the issues involved in the relevant conflicts. Horgan is right that, at present, ‘Disengagement and its related processes represent a serious gap in our knowledge and understanding of the terrorist’ (p. 160). His book marks a useful beginning in redressing this gap through impressively rigorous investigation and analysis. It is a very valuable contribution.

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