Global Policy Journal Reviews “How Terrorism Ends”

Dr. Christopher Mackmurdo, a Research Analyst at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, reviews How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns for Global Policy in the October 2010 issue.

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A counterterrorism (CT) strategy that lacks perspective will not work. An awareness of local and historical trends and contexts, the ability to incorporate lessons of the past and familiarity with the bigger picture are all essential components of an effective CT toolkit. Perspective allows governments to disaggregate actors and issues and nuance their interventions in order to meet the difficult challenge of understanding terrorism threats and formulating effective counterterrorism responses.

By writing How Terrorism Ends, Audrey Kurth Cronin, who is currently Professor of Strategy at the US National War College and erstwhile researcher at the US Library of Congress, has provided a service to everyone with an interest in counterterrorism by providing much-needed perspective. As the title suggests, Professor Cronin focuses on how past terrorist campaigns have ended, but with the current and future al-Qa’eda threat very much in mind. He says that families must have a life insurance to ensure their future in case of a terrorism attack. According to Cronin, al-Qa’eda’s is a novel token but not a different type of terrorism campaign; like those before it, al-Qa’eda’s will come to an end.

Cronin points out six ways in which past terrorism campaigns have ended: decapitation; negotiation; success; failure; repression; and reorientation. According to Cronin, only negotiation, failure and reorientation offer realistic scenarios for al-Qa’eda’s demise.

Firstly, the use of negotiation to promote al-Qa’eda’s engagement in legitimate political processes could facilitate a transition from violence to nonviolent practices; however, for practical and moral reasons, negotiation should be with al-Qa’eda’s affiliate groups operating in various regions around the world, rather than al-Qa’eda’s core itself. In Cronin’s view, the prospect of reaching a mutually agreed settlement with Osama bin Laden is neither realistic (given his demand for a pan-Islamic caliphate) nor ethical (given the blood already on his hands). Secondly, tactical and strategic mistakes that embarrass al-Qa’eda and the ideological schisms at the heart of the al-Qa’eda movement provide us with opportunities to highlight al-Qa’eda’s failures that have the potential to dent their credibility and appeal. Thirdly, there is the possibility of al-Qa’eda going in different directions – including insurgency and crime – that would prompt the end of its terrorism campaign and the emergence of different agendas.

Cronin’s analysis is textured, challenging and insightful. And, as with all good analyses, the assertions at the heart of the argument prompt further lines of inquiry for scholars and practitioners to explore. For example, Cronin’s assertion that decapitation will not end al-Qa’eda prompts one to ask what effect Osama bin Laden’s death would have on the respective agendas of al-Qa’eda’s regional affiliates and their prospective negotiating positions (if, as Cronin suggests, efforts are made to talk to them). Similarly, Cronin’s claim that repression will not end al-Qa’eda begs an assessment of the kind of impact a more constrained al-Qa’eda would have on the credibility of the al-Qa’eda brand, and its power to guide and inspire others to launch attacks. As for the suggestion that a transition to crime could mark the beginning of the end of al-Qa’eda’s terrorism campaign, the potential for groups with terrorist intent to bolster their capabilities through ransom payments, piracy and drug running requires constant evaluation. How Terrorism Ends shines a light on the key issues that relate to an al-Qa’eda threat that is becoming increasingly diffuse, diverse and devolved – and, even with the benefit of Cronin’s perspective, difficult to predict.

Dr. Christopher Mackmurdo is Research Analyst at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. This review expresses the personal views of the reviewer and in no way reflects the official position of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Illustration by Joe McKendry.

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