New Review in Journal of Strategic Studies

Peter Krause writes in the most recent issue of Journal of Strategic Studies (October 2010) that How Terrorism Ends “provides a wide-ranging analysis of a subject in its early phases that can serve as a springboard to future studies.”


Audrey Kurth Cronin observes that despite variation in casualties, objectives, and longevity, all previous terrorism campaigns have had one key characteristic in common: they ended. Therefore, she argues that the best way to develop counterterrorism policy is to thoroughly analyze the final stages of previous terrorist organizations in the hope that the resulting findings can provide improved guidance to those who wish to better understand terrorism campaigns and bring them to a close.

To accomplish this, Cronin analyzed 457 campaigns from the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism (MIPT) Terrorism Knowledge Base in addition to numerous short case studies, which helped to illustrate the causal pathways of the demise of previous campaigns. The six pathways Cronin identified serve as the foundation for the book and are described as follows: ‘(1) capture or killing the group’s leader (2) entry of the group into a legitimate political process (3) achievement of the group’s aims (4) implosion or loss of the group’s public support (5) defeat and elimination by brute force (6) transition from terrorism into other forms of violence.’ (p.8)

Cronin presented these mechanisms as part of an analytical frame­work for academics and policymakers to better understand the dynamics of terrorism and then used the framework herself to evaluate the probable course of Al-Qa’eda’s ultimate demise. She claims that Al-Qa’eda is unlikely to end due to decapitation of its leadership (too late), achievement of its goals (impossible), or elimination by brute force (counterproductive and improbable). Instead, she argues that Al-Qa’eda is likely to meet its demise due to the loss of public support from targeting missteps or a transition to other methods of violence like insurgency, nudged along by states’ offers of negotiations and/or amnesty to Al-Qa’eda’s peripheral elements.

As Cronin points out, far more scholarship has been completed on the causes of terrorism, but the end of a campaign cannot be understood simply as the absence of its original causes. Her analysis of dynamics that emerge after a campaign’s initiation, therefore, represents the first of two major contributions to the counterterrorism literature. The second results from the structure of her analysis. Much of the existing counterterrorism literature seeks to improve state policy, and so it focuses on what states have done right and wrong in the past and makes recommendations about what they can do better in the future. This research design is not without merit, but its resulting policy recommendations can pose a problem when they are based on a state-centric concept of counterterrorism.

As Cronin effectively argues, many of the reasons why terrorism ends – from infighting to a loss of popular support – have little to do with the actions of states. Therefore, effective counterterrorism policy has as much to do with the realization by state actors of how often they play an inconsequential or even counterproductive role in the demise of terrorist organizations as it does with attempts to actively thwart their activities. Cronin’s broader analysis of all possible pathways to terrorism’s end reveals that studying the objective of most counter­terrorism policies (the end of terrorism) may be more useful than simply studying the items of interest (the policies themselves), and may well represent the best way to get the latter right.

Unfortunately, a few key methodological choices Cronin makes, once her focus on the demise of terrorist campaigns is set, weakens some of her empirical claims. First, her study selects both independent and dependent variables to a considerable degree. It is one thing to want to understand the manner in which terrorist campaigns end; it is another to draw conclusions almost exclusively by analyzing the presence of those pathways and the termination of campaigns. Doing so may limit the identification of key independent variables and related hypotheses, make assessment of their relative explanatory power and scope conditions problematic, and generally draw into question associated causal claims. In the absence of a more thorough examination of instances lacking her independent variables, or instances of endurance alongside her studies of campaign demise, her findings are less robust than they otherwise might be.

This leads to the second problem with Cronin’s methodology, namely, the set-up of her case studies. The author repeatedly labels her cases ‘comparative’, but it is often unclear exactly what she is comparing or how the comparison is being structured to yield powerful results. Most of her cases resemble brief attempts (often three pages or less and at times even less than one page) at describing one of her six causal pathways with some historical context. The vast majority are thus largely illustrative and lack consideration of competing explana­tions for the end of campaigns or any attempt to hold key lurking variables constant across cases.

That said, Cronin does offer a few promising exceptions, particularly in the section on decapitation. Her analysis of The Shining Path, The Kurdistan Workers’ Party, and the Real Irish Republican Army (RIRA) included time series data on group attacks overlaid with the date of capture of key leaders, which allows the reader to better assess this explanatory variable in greater context. As Cronin notes, the data is imperfect and challenges to assembling it in this manner abound, but these examples do provide a positive step in analyzing her claims against the full life span of the groups, if not in comparison with competing explanations. Ultimately, the number of cases Cronin considers is impressive, and since her primary purpose is the presentation and specification of mechanisms rather than the testing of causal claims, these methodological critiques are not fatal to the larger project, and they present opportunities for future research.

Cronin succeeds in the central goal of her study, which is to present a template for understanding the demise of terrorist campaigns that future scholars can learn from, debate, and revise. Unfortunately, Cronin’s project fails to fully incorporate two recent similar studies, the article ‘Why Terrorism Does Not Work’ by Max Abrahms (Interna­tional Security, 2006) and Why Terrorist Groups End: Lessons for Countering Al-Qaeda (2008) by Seth Jones and Martin Libicki, thereby missing an opportunity to launch that debate and further advance the subfield.

Cronin could have examined best practices for analyzing terrorism’s end using large statistical samples, which has not been attempted by many scholars. In particular, she could have analyzed methodological difficulties shared by all three studies in isolating the effects of the use of terrorism by a single group on achievement of a political objective. Although Cronin’s awareness of this issue is clear from her discussion of two case studies of group success – the Irgun Zvai Leumi and the African National Congress – she does not suggest or utilize any qualitative or quantitative methodology for better isolating terrorism’s impact. This presents a further avenue for future research.

The fact that Cronin’s book raises more questions than it answers may ultimately be a positive, because she aims to provide a wide-ranging analysis of a subject in its early phases that can serve as a springboard to future studies. How Terrorism Ends is, therefore, a worthwhile book for both academics and policymakers. If a reader agrees with some points and finds others lacking, but ultimately considers how to grapple with terrorism from a new perspective, Cronin will have succeeded in her aims.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology


Hoffman, F. G. , Bew, John , French, David , Lewkowicz, Nicolas , Rid, Thomas , Staniland, Paul , Stevens, Tim and Krause, Peter J. P.(2010) ‘Book Reviews’, Journal of Strategic Studies, 33: 5, 777 — 795. URL:

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