“How Terrorism Ends” Reviewed in International Affairs

Nicholas Michelsen, King’s College London, UK, reviews How terrorism ends: understanding the decline and demise of terrorist campaigns, for International Affaris (86: 4, 2010). By Audrey Kurth Cronin. Princeton, NJ, and Oxford: Princeton University Press. 2009. 311pp. £20.95. ISBN 978 0 69113 948 7.

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While the causes of terrorism have long been subject to avid research, Audrey Kurth Cronin’s cogent and thoughtful text responds to the curious dearth of works attending to its ends.

This is clearly a timely project, coming as policy-makers and academics are increasingly seeking alternative ways to think about and practise counterterrorism. How terrorism ends indicts both the concept of the ‘long war on terror’ and the reductionist models the author perceives to have dominated its pursuit. Cronin calls on us to ‘calm our hysteria, and recover our awareness of history’ (p. 193) by reminding us that all terrorist groups have an end, and that it is ill-advised to act as if Al-Qaeda is any exception to that rule. Only by engaging in detailed historical analysis of the ways in which terrorist groups have met their ends in the past, she argues, will we identify productive strategies for responding to contemporary terrorist phenomena.

Cronin finds that there are six broad patterns by which terrorist groups meet their end: through decapitation of the leadership; entry into negotiations; successful achievement of goals; utter failure through implosion or marginalization; being crushed by force; or transition into other modes of violence. These certainly overlap in some cases, but, she argues, one pattern generally tends to predominate. Through studying the processes entailed in these six historical patterns, we can identify how Al-Qaeda is most likely to reach its end, and deduce which policies will be best suited to hastening it along.

The six endings are developed through a good selection of mostly post-1968 case-studies from around the globe, in which Cronin spells out the complex dynamics which affect or thwart each pattern. These case-studies are easily the most gripping and readable sections of the text. Cronin never flattens for the sake of parsimonious argumentation, rather allowing the specificity of each case to enlighten us to the continuities and differences at work. As a consequence, they are rich in fascinating detail and her derived conclusions are sophisticated. We must, Cronin argues, negotiate the middle ground between identifying radically ‘new rules’ governing terrorism today (a concept she seems to have limited time for) and simply collapsing contemporary phenomena into the historical record.

The case-studies are supported with some solid quantitative investigation, which adds weight particularly to her conclusions about the efficacy of negotiating with terrorists. Such methodological pluralism seems characteristic of a work which centrally seeks to avoid reductive disciplinary modes. Accordingly, Cronin’s familiarity with developments in counter-insurgency doctrine is clearly in evidence, especially in her emphasis on the narrative politics of mass mobilization, which locates her at the cutting edge of contemporary research. In general, the book is a clarion call for embracing greater complexity and flexibility in our conceptualizations and language, particularly by its focus on the dynamic interactive effects of what she terms the ‘terrorist triad’ (p. 7) of group, state, and audience or constituency. This embrace of multidimensionality, which again locates her at the sharp end of terrorism research, is similarly reflected in her contention that constructing firm boundaries between concepts like terrorism, insurgency and warfare causes far more harm than good to our analyses. Such insights should rightly guarantee the text a wide readership.

Cronin’s critiques of what she views as outdated models, particularly those rooted in interstate behavioural modelling, are often incisive: for example when she rejects the term ‘non-state actor’ as ‘a negation, not a concept’ (p. 145). Similarly, her argument for disaggregating the often assumed monolithic unity of Al-Qaeda is unassailable. In general, this reviewer finds her considered refusal of the ‘false clarity’(p. 147) of counterterrorists’ language refreshing, even if it does raise questions about her own project’s isolation of a category of ‘terrorist groups’ and their endings from the evolutionary dynamics of a broader range of political assemblages. Occasionally, the book slips into the obvious, as when Cronin lambastes the ‘Pyrrhic’ character of victories over terrorists achieved solely through the use of brute force, but, inasmuch as she sets out to challenge a supposedly pervasive ‘strategic myopia’ (p. 197), perhaps her strongest argument is that it is currently the obvious which needs most to be stated.

The timeliness, clarity and simplicity of the project contained in How terrorism ends should commend it to readers of all descriptions. Above all, Cronin’s sensible and well-argued call for ‘smarter’ (p. 193) strategies for dealing with terrorism today is one that deserves to be widely heard.

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