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Cronin, Ruthven, English, On Terrorism

In lieu of substantive commentary this week I’d like to point readers to a couple of recent pieces by acknowledged terrorism academics that are worth reading.

First, Audrey Kurth Cronin.  Cronin will be familiar to many readers as the author ofHow Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns (Princeton, 2009).  In The Guardian (30 November 2009), Cronin argues that al-Qaeda is an idea, not a cult, which has important ramifications for dealing with this strain of international terrorism.

The al-Qaida movement is widespread but also fractionalised, a fact that suggests both opportunity and danger for western strategy.  The opportunity is the vigorous debate and fundamental areas of contention that are increasingly obvious within: most sharp is the divide between those who consider targeting Muslim civilians to be legitimate and those who do not.  There is ample potential for driving a wedge between them – they are doing this themselves.  The danger is that our focus on killing the al-Qaida leadership has led to strategic myopia, over-concentration of intelligence resources, and a failure to think through second- and third-order effects within a broader constellation.  The primary aim of decapitation should be to discredit the popular mobilisation that this movement seeks to catalyse, and it is doubtful that bin Laden and al-Zawahiri remain at the forefront.

These comments are set against the backdrop of Gordon Brown’s commitment to a decapitation strategy and the Afghanistan troop surge just announced by President Obama.  She was also on BBC Radio 4′s Start the Week talking about these issues and others.

Second, Malise Ruthven reviews Richard English’s Terrorism: How to Respond(Oxford, 2009) in a recent issue of Prospect magazine (18 November 2009).  I’ve not read the book, but some of English’s conclusions sound familiar and correct:

In English’s view, the most serious danger posed by terrorists is their capacity to “provoke ill-judged, extravagant, and counter-productive state responses” rather than the actual damage caused by their actions.  As a tactic, in other words, terrorism’s impact is more psychological than physical.  The ‘propaganda of the deed’—showing people jumping from skyscrapers or bodies pulled from the Underground—creates an atmosphere of panic.  It is this mood that empowers the terrorists, creating the impression that, militarily speaking, they dispose of forces beyond their own numbers or the size of any constituency they may speak for.

It looks like English spent a substantial portion of the book tackling the definition of terrorism.


This is the result:

Terrorism involves heterogeneous violence used or threatened with a political aim; it can involve a variety of acts, of targets and of actors; it possesses an important psychological dimension, producing terror or fear among a directly threatened group and also a wider implied audience in the hope of maximising political communication and achievement; it embodies the exerting and implementing of power, and the attempted redressing of power relations; it represents a subspecies of warfare, and as such it can form part of a wider campaign of violent and non-violent attempts at political leverage.

Snappy, but as Ruthven points out, ‘pragmatic and realistic’, and cognizant of the historical dimensions of terrorism.


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