November 26, 2009


Appetite for destruction: Audrey Kurth Cronin’s sober analysis of terrorism and its undoings, Justin Vogt writes, is a welcome change from the sweeping apocalyptic visions that pass for insight in the post-September 11 world: a review of How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns by Audrey Kurth Cronin (Justin Vogt, The National)

Eschewing sociological or psychological speculation about why groups opt to use terrorism, she focuses instead on the strategic consequences of their actions. The result is a refreshingly sober treatment of the subject. Cronin is no Pollyanna, but among her key findings are that only about five per cent of terrorist groups ever achieve their goals, and that the average lifespan of a modern terrorist organisation is only about eight years. Bare facts like these don’t mesh with the apocalyptic visions that dominate contemporary debates about terrorism, but they should hardly come as a surprise. After all, as Cronin writes, “killing civilians in terrorist attacks is not a promising means of achieving political ends”.

To better understand how terrorist campaigns and groups end, Cronin analysed the histories of 457 organisations active since 1968; among other things, she measured the lifespan of each group, whether and to what degree they engaged in negotiations with the states they targeted, and to what extent they achieved their own aims. This statistical analysis is complemented by case studies of a diverse group of now-defunct terrorist organisations – the nationalist Provisional Irish Republican Army, the quasi-Maoist Shining Path in Peru, the Marxist-Leninist Red Brigades in Italy, the apocalyptic Aum Shinrikyo in Japan, and the Zionist Irgun in Palestine, to name a few.

Cronin outlines six scenarios that typically characterise the end of a terrorist group: its leaders are captured or killed; it enters into a legitimate political process; it implodes due to internal conflicts or a loss of public support; it is eliminated via the brute force of military repression; it transitions away from terrorism into other forms of violence; or it succeeds in achieving its aims. It is impossible, of course, to trace the downfall of any organisation to just one of these factors. But focusing on the historical experience of terrorism allows us to treat it as a political phenomenon with observable (even predictable) characteristics, rather than a philosophical, psychological, or moral dilemma requiring us to refashion all our basic assumptions about security. And by demonstrating how similar patterns of terrorism repeat themselves in starkly different regional and cultural contexts, Cronin subtly undermines the myth of sui generis threats – highlighting, too, the ways in which counterterrorism can become a force even more volatile and dangerous than terrorism itself. [...]

[T]errorists are more likely to defeat themselves than they are to be stopped by the application of overwhelming force. A huge array of vulnerabilities make it difficult to manage a secretive group whose members are motivated by extreme views and willing to use violence: infighting and fractionalisation, a leader’s loss of operational control over members, and the constant spectre of betrayal. Perhaps most damaging of all are targeting errors that provoke a popular backlash. A particularly salient example is the 1997 killing of 62 tourists visiting ancient ruins in Luxor, Egypt, carried out by Gamaa Islamiya. In the five years prior to the attack, the group had killed 1,200 people in attacks meant to destabilise the Mubarak regime – but the widespread public disgust with the grisly massacre at Luxor stunned the group and its leaders, and their attacks ceased completely once they realised they had lost the support of their intended audience.

Of course, states cannot simply bide their time and wait for terrorist groups to implode. The trick, Cronin argues, is to figure out how to capitalise on a terrorist organisation’s inherent weaknesses, and nudge the group towards failure. Concluding her book by considering how al Qa’eda’s demise might be hastened, Cronin argues that the group has no hope of succeeding in its long-term goals, but that repression via military force – or through the “decapitation” of its leadership – is not likely to destroy it. Instead, she advocates an attempt to drive a wedge between the core al Qa’eda organisation and the various affiliates that give it a global reach, partly through negotiations with the peripheral groups – a process reminiscent of the US-backed “Awakening” movement, which enlisted former Sunni insurgents in the fight against al Qa’eda in Iraq. She also suggests that states begin offering an exit to al Qa’eda operatives, similar to the way law-enforcement agencies “turn” Mafia captains by promising leniency: just the prospect of other members taking such an exit can stir crippling distrust.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at November 26, 2009 7:54 AM
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