I am a sucker for a good “how-to” book. It seems like the market is saturated with these types of books from weight loss and relationships to cooking and personal finance. There is a “how-to” book for nearly everything that people care about on a personal level. But, in the world of counterterrorism, I could only find one pseudo “how-to” book. That is the question of “how terrorism ends?” The book that I found on this subject has some thoughts and excellent considerations. As a generic “how-to”, it is less prescriptive than a cooking recipe or an investment strategy. But, as a work of historical analysis, it provides insightful answers into how specific terrorist groups have ended. Overall, “How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns” by Professor Audrey Kurth Cronin is a phenomenal achievement, and a must read for anyone interested in counterterrorism and national security strategy. The subtitle of the book, “Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns” is the main thrust of Professor Cronin’s work. She uses a specific framework for understanding how the “decline and demise” has or has not happened for 457 terrorist groups classified as such by the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism (MIPT). Her model follows a six-part framework related to the end of terrorism: the capture or killing of the leader (decapitation), integration within a formal political process (negotiation), achievement of strategic objectives (success), implosion (failure), elimination through force (repression), and reorientation, which means the terrorist group transitions to a different activity such as crime, insurgency, or political activism. In her final chapter, she discusses how this framework specifically applies to al-Qaeda, which Kronin authoritatively states “will end” (Note: The book was published in 2009 prior to the rise of ISIS in its current state).
The brilliance of Professor Kronin’s book is that she draws on different historical examples of terrorist groups as diverse as the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), radical student groups like the Weathermen, and the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) to name a few. Professor Kronin does not advocate a specific strategy. In each section of her six-part framework, she focuses on different social, political, economic, and religious forces that either set the conditions for a terrorist group’s success or failure. If there is an enduring theme of her work, it is the extent to which terrorist groups seek to leverage the state’s response to their advantage. She claims that terrorism itself is a “weak tactic”, but its strength is driven by the bungled policy and strategic missteps that a state makes in attempting to fight “fire with fire.” Her theory is reminiscent of counterinsurgency expert, David Kilcullen, who argues in his book “The Accidental Guerilla” that western solutions to terrorism typically rely on a single-minded conventional military response instead of seeing the terrorist problem as one requiring better intelligence, improved law enforcement, selective use of force, and information operations to counter the narrative of terrorist groups.
Professor Kronin defines terrorist groups as being political in nature, non-state actors, who disregard international laws and indiscriminately kill civilians and noncombatants. By its nature as a non-state actor, terrorism is tough to eliminate. Nevertheless, it does not present the same strategic and existential threats as a conventionally capable state actor such as North Korea, Russia, or China. That is what makes terrorism a complex issue to tackle. Solutions often defy state versus state logic. For example, killing the leader of a terrorist group seems to be an easy way to end it. But, Kronin explains that in many cases, the killing of a key leader will not have a decisive effect. She predicted this with al-Qaeda (the book was written prior to Bin Laden’s death). Although the death of Bin Laden was a major setback for al-Qaeda, Professor Kronin was correct that it did not end the group. This does not mean that a state shouldn’t kill the leader. But, by itself, decapitation is rarely the definitive solution, and terrorist groups can adapt beyond the cult of personality of a single leader. Professor Kronin does argue that in select cases capturing a terrorist leader has a more profound impact. This was true for Abimael Guzman, leader of Sendero Luminoso aka “The Shining Path”, a Marxist terrorist group in Peru that was responsible for the death of 69,000 people. Guzman was captured on September 12, 1992. When the terrorist leader was displayed wearing a prison jump suit in a cage and urging his followers to surrender their arms, Kronin explains that The Shining Path suffered a significant blow. In the years that followed “violence fell by 50 percent and continued to decline thereafter.” On the other hand, in cases such as Israel’s campaign of targeted killings of Palestinian terrorist leaders, Russia’s killing of Chechen leaders, and in the Philippines where Abu Sayyaf’s leadership has been killed, terrorism did not end rather persists as new leaders enthusiastically replace the old.
With negotiations, Professor Kronin points out that terrorism and violence tend to increase during periods of negotiation. Negotiation is not a strategy that is used often, and with 457 terrorist groups studied, there were only 18% that negotiated. The IRA in Northern Ireland provides an example of negotiations working in the long run although there were many terrorist acts that took place in conjunction with negotiations throughout the 1990s. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process is another example of negotiations causing spikes in violence. Professor Kronin explains that “the Palestinians began to see terrorist attacks as complementary to the peace process instead of at odds with it, because they believed that negotiations alone would never lead to Israel’s withdrawal” (Kronin 57). She also discusses the FARC terrorist group in Colombia. Negotiations with the FARC have been ongoing, and Kronin shows at another point in the book that the FARC also fell under the category of reorientation as they transitioned from a terrorist group to a criminal cartel. Furthermore, American funding for the “war on terror” significantly increased the Colombian government’s ability to pressure the FARC militarily and use better intelligence against the group. Between reorientation, repression and on-going negotiations events culminated in November 2016 when the FARC negotiated a formal peace agreement with the Colombian government. As of this writing, the peace agreement may prove to be one of the most successful examples of negotiations working between a state and a terrorist group turned criminal enterprise. The FARC is willingly disarming, former fighters are being granted full rights as citizens, and the group is being integrated into Colombia’s political establishment. In spite of criminal activity and political unrest that persists in Latin America, the western hemisphere has no formal wars being fought at this moment in world history.
With terrorist groups that have achieved success, Professor Kronin explains that success largely depends upon the action of the state which the group opposes. She summarizes this by explaining, “When a campaign is well under way, two further conditions improve the odds for success: first, the state has to overreact in its response; second, the terrorist group has to capture the imagination of a broader audience, mobilize popular support, and gain strength” (Kronin 93). This happened to a limited extent in the case of the Israeli terrorist goup, Irgun (IZL), who carried out attacks on the British in Palestine during and after World War II. Irgun’s methods of attack were incredibly brutal and violent including two British soldiers being strangled and hung on July 30, 1947. In some cases, British soldiers mutilated bodies were booby-trapped causing injuries to responding British soldiers. The British government came under heavy domestic political pressure to withdraw its troops from Palestine, which was easy to justify considering a myriad of internal post-war political challenges. When the state of Israel was created in May 1948, Irgun was formally absorbed into the Israeli army. In so far as they achieved their strategic objectives, Irgun is an example of a successful terrorist group. Indeed, one of its leaders, Menachem Begin would eventually become the sixth Prime Minister of Israel.
Within the category of failure, which includes implosion, loss of operational control, and marginalization, Professor Kronin suggests that this is one of the better strategies for defeating al-Qaeda. However, this category was lighter on historical case studies, which presents a problem for the model as it suggests the inherent difficulty of the strategy. There is no immediate political payoff as there is with something like a strategy of repression or decapitation. Nevertheless, Kronin seems to think that in the case of al-Qaeda, the organization is vulnerable to imploding from internal fractionalization as well as loss of popular support due to their indiscriminate killing of innocent people to include many Muslims. On this note, I found myself wishing that Professor Kronin had spent several more years working on the book to examine the so-called Islamic State and offer perspective on how ISIS might end. I imagine that most of her conclusions for al-Qaeda would apply to ISIS. Recently, repression and the use of force has worked to take back territory from ISIS in Iraq and Syria. This presents an inverse challenge of reorientation. ISIS was a terrorist group that formed a state. A state actor is easier to target with conventional means. However, as they reorient from a terrorist state back to a dispersed terrorist network conventional force becomes challenging. Although destruction of the physical state of ISIS is undoubtedly important, I don’t anticipate from reading Professor Kronin’s book that loss of territory will bring about the end of ISIS. Like al-Qaeda, the group will scatter and reconstitute in other destabilized parts of the world’s Muslim communities (referred to as the “Umma” in al-Qaeda’s strategic blueprint, published in 2004 called “The Management of Savagery”). In fact, ISIS has already dispersed to parts of the world where they can take advantage of unstable governments and exploit a lack of rule of law.
Concerning repression or using overwhelming force against a terrorist group, Professor Kronin offers the most skepticism. She explains the strategic objectives of a terrorist group as being provocation of the state, polarization, mobilization, or a combination of all three. She states that repression appears to be the logical and intuitive countermeasure to terrorism. But, what emerges from her analysis is that conventional response only benefits the state politically by fulfilling a sense of justice and that the state is “doing something” about the terrorist problem. However, that doesn’t mean repression is effective. Russia has spent years using overwhelming force against Chechen terrorists and have fought a full-scale insurgency in Chechnya, yet they have routinely been targeted by Chechen terrorists with an attack occurring in a subway station in Saint Petersburg as recently as April 2017. Professor Kronin does not suggest that use of force can’t work. She explains clearly that “repression succeeds when mobilizing the rightful forces of the state effectively against the violent perpetrators (and their supporters) within a community, without either catalyzing a larger countermobilization by that community or demobilization of the government’s own support” (Kronin 143). Thus, force has its rightful place in counterterrorist strategy. But, it will not be sufficient to deal with the problem as a whole. Like decapitation, it must be integrated into a broader strategy.
Finally, with her analysis of al-Qaeda, Professor Kronin provides sobering insights. Unfortunately, religious based terrorist organizations are the most enduring with a group called the Hindu Thugs holding the record for survival at 600 years. Professor Kronin claims that al-Qaeda is unique due to its ability to use the internet and media for networking and propaganda. Structurally, al-Qaeda operates in a three-tiered system with the core members at the top followed by a diffuse network (al-Qaeda’s dispersed cells) and then those on the periphery (i.e. al-Qaeda inspired individuals). This presents a unique challenge because 21st century communication methods enable al-Qaeda to operate in a decentralized manner that can present significant problems to America and other nations. However, Professor Kronin also explains that this decentralization may also be the group’s critical vulnerability as it can cause fractionalization and loss of operational control. Therefore, we see the genesis of a strategy that the US has attempted to varying degrees of success namely the selective targeting of terrorist networks. Unfortunately, this strategy has evolved with experience, and many hard lessons. Warfighting (MCDP-1) describes war as the “extension of both policy and politics with the addition of military force” (MCDP-1 23). Thus, from the beginning, the “war on terror” was a paradoxically mismanaged strategy as America automatically bestowed political legitimacy on a terrorist group by declaring war on them. This is the mentality that Professor Kronin is determined to break. A terrorist group is not a state with conventional capabilities, and to respond to it as such can have disastrous consequences for the state and enormous benefits for terrorist groups. Defeating terrorism takes patience and a clear understanding of the nature of the threat. It involves careful study and strategic analysis. Professor Kronin has made a significant contribution toward that goal. The question remains whether the decision-makers in Washington will translate historical lessons into effective policy. Additionally, it is foolish to wish away the inevitability of another terrorist attack either by a lone gunman or a determined cell. The strategic response should also be calculated based on lessons learned. While answers may not be clear and tough solutions may not win votes, at the very least, merely asking the question, “how does terrorism end?” could be the first step on the road to better strategy.
- Cronin, Audrey Kurth. How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2009. Print.
- Warfighting. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Marine Corps, 1997. Print.