September 12, 2017


Sixteen Years After 9/11, How Does Terrorism End? (Robin Wright, September 10, 2017, The New Yorker)

The current spasm of international terrorism, an age-old tactic of warfare, is often traced to a bomb mailed from New York by the anti-Castro group El Poder Cubano, or Cuban Power, that exploded in a Havana post office, on January 9, 1968. Five people were seriously injured. Since then, almost four hundred thousand people have died in terrorist attacks worldwide, on airplanes and trains, in shopping malls, schools, embassies, cinemas, apartment blocks, government offices, and businesses, according to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. The deadliest remains the 9/11 attack, sixteen years ago this week, which killed almost three thousand people--and in turn triggered a war that has become America's longest.

I've covered dozens of these terrorist attacks on four continents over that half century. After the Barcelona attack and the U.S. decision to send more troops to fight the Taliban, I began to wonder how terrorism ends--or how militant groups evolve. In her landmark study of more than four hundred and fifty terrorist groups, Audrey Kurth Cronin found that the average life span of an extremist movement is about eight years. Cuban Power carried out several other bombings, but, in the end, it didn't last a whole year. [...]

Fewer than five per cent of terrorist groups succeed outright, Cronin told me. Among the most notable was Irgun. The Jewish group bombed Britain's colonial offices in Palestine and diplomatic sites abroad, as well as local Arab targets. Its most famous attack was in 1946, when members, dressed as waiters, planted a bomb, concealed in milk cans, in Britain's headquarters in Jerusalem's King David Hotel; ninety-one were killed. The group was then led by Menachem Begin. Two years later, Irgun realized its goals when British troops withdrew and the state of Israel was founded. Three decades later, Begin, then the Prime Minister, shared the Nobel Peace Prize for détente with Egypt.

Another was in South Africa. In 1961, Nelson Mandela founded the armed wing of the African National Congress. Its first attack was five bombings on government facilities on the same day, in Johannesburg, Durban, and Port Elizabeth. Mandela was arrested and sentenced to life for sabotage. Decades later, as apartheid floundered, the white-minority government ceded power.

Extremist groups are more likely to succeed when objectives are limited or attainable, "such as independence, a role in government, or a piece of territory," Richard Clarke, the national coördinator on counterterrorism under the Clinton and George W. Bush Administrations, told me. "If a group can increase the pain point to the decision-makers, they will give in. That was true of many independence movements, including the American Revolution."
"Then they go straight," Clarke added. "They trade off their radicalism to become a government that is not that out of line with other governments of the world."

More common--about eighteen per cent--are terrorist movements that end up negotiating to achieve their political goals. "They are the groups that hang on the longest. Their life span as terrorists is usually twenty to twenty-five years," Cronin told me. "Usually, the talks trundle along. They often take years, and some lower level of violence continues," she said. "But they rarely fail outright." [...]

I lived in Beirut when embryonic precursors of Hezbollah launched the first suicide bombing against an American Embassy, in 1983. After the attack, the seven-story building, which was down the hill from my office, looked like a doll's house with its façade blown off. Sixty-four died, including some of my friends. Six months later, a bomber drove a Mercedes-Benz truck into the barracks of U.S. Marine peacekeepers in Lebanon. Two hundred and forty-one marines died in the largest loss of U.S. military life in a single incident since the Second World War. I still recall the roar of that bomb waking me up on a balmy October morning, and watching for weeks as the bodies of my countrymen were recovered from under tons of debris.

A decade later, Hezbollah emerged from the underground to run for Parliament, build a network of social services, and greatly expand its support base. Today it has seats in Parliament, Cabinet positions, an alliance with Lebanon's President, and the largest military force outside the army, as well as hospitals, schools, and welfare agencies. I spent several hours interviewing its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, in 2006, and his deputy, last October. Yet Hezbollah still calls for Israel's destruction. The United States considers it one of the most dangerous terrorist groups.

"Hezbollah doesn't rule Lebanon, but it controls it. The message is that terrorism pays. It is translated into power," Hoffman told me.

The similarities stand out more than the differences: successful violence works for exactly the same reason non-violence does, when the group is making universalist demands that a democratic oppressor live up to its own ideals of self-determination.  It fails when the power it opposes is inherently non-democratic--and the demands, therefore, do not resonate--and when the demands themselves are non-democratic.

Posted by at September 12, 2017 5:45 AM