Audrey Kurth Cronin on


Professor at US National War College and terrorism expert discusses five books to further our understandings of the dynamics of terrorism and thinks al-Qaeda may implode or, ‘succumb to internal weaknesses, in-fighting’

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    Every War Must End
    by Fred Charles Iklé

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    A Savage War of Peace
    by Alistair Horne

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    Terror in the Mind of God
    by Mark Juergensmeyer

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    What Makes a Terrorist
    by Alan B Krueger

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    The Looming Tower
    by Lawrence Wright

Audrey Kurth Cronin

Audrey Cronin is Professor at the US National War College and Senior Research Fellow at Oxford University in the Changing Character of War Programme. The views she expresses in the following article are her own and not the official policy of the US government. Her view on al-Qaeda is that they may implode: ‘By which I mean succumb to internal weaknesses, in-fighting, ideological bickering, loss of operational control, targeting mistakes and loss of popular support – some of the dynamics that we have already seen. Or they are going to transition into a more conventional kind of violence, meaning insurgency or even conventional war.’ Audrey Kurth Cronin at Oxford Audrey Kurth Cronin at the Peace and Collaborative Development Network Al-Qaida: an idea, not a cult by Audrey Kurth Cronin

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Your first book is Every War Must End, by Fred Charles Iklé.

Iklé’s book is a classic from the 1970s, written during the Vietnam War at a time of agonising reappraisal in the US, with tens of thousands dying and no concept of how to bring the conflict to a close. But in the original edition he never actually mentions that war. Instead, he uses a rich selection of examples from earlier history, including the First and Second World Wars and the Korean War, arranged thematically to explore common challenges in bringing wars to an end.

What kind of answers did he come up with?

His central argument is that how a war ends is vital to its long-term impact upon the world – yet it is difficult for governments to be objective once there has been a great deal of violence. Iklé uses numerous historical examples to explain common problems. Policy-makers often succumb to wishful thinking, biased estimates, ideological dogma, and bureaucratic in-fighting, failing to think strategically in the midst of a fight. Our very human capacity to judge costs and benefits is distorted by the passions and sacrifices of an ongoing war. But if we are to act wisely we must consciously envision the endgame so as to craft a long-lasting political outcome that serves the interests of the state and its people. So the book looks at how important it is to remember that how you end a war is more momentous than the means being used in the midst of it.

How has this book influenced your work on terrorism?

The book is a kind of intellectual godfather to the research I have tried to do on the endings of terrorist campaigns. His argument – that in the middle of a passionate and difficult situation, we need to think about the longer-term outcome – is directly relevant to the action and reaction pattern that can unfold in the middle of a terrorist campaign. There isn’t anything worse than the tragedy of innocent noncombatants being killed in a symbolic way just to highlight a political message. I believe that Iklé’s argument applies directly to the horrifying violence that terrorism is designed to be. I should also add that I worked for Iklé early in my career, writing strategic documents in the Pentagon for a short time, so while he might not necessarily agree with my writings (I don’t know – haven’t asked him!), I have been thinking about the lessons of his book for a long time.

Your next book is A Savage War of Peace, by Alistair Horne.

This is a brilliant book. Indeed, I think it is one of the best books written in the 20th century. It is about the Algerian War for Independence, a very violent case study. Horne crafts it into a rare combination of an excellent detailed historical book about a war that also brings along a thought-provoking and timeless strategic perspective. Although originally written in the early 1970s, its themes are directly relevant to today’s challenges, including the ethics of torture, the power of popular ideas, and the fraught relationship between military victory and political outcome. The French engaged in brilliant counter-insurgency tactics and militarily defeated the FLN [Front de Libération Nationale], especially following the Battle of Algiers, yet France lost the war. Why?

Horne is masterful in answering that question, making the complex very simple. He explains not just what was happening on the ground in Algeria (there are a number of other good books that do that), but also opens the lens to encompass political instability in continental France, sanctuary in Tunisia and Morocco, Arab nationalism in the region, pressure from other major powers, and even the vital role of the United Nations. I like to use his book with my students because it graphically demonstrates the dynamic interaction between ‘terrorism’ and ‘insurgency’. It also paints a grand strategic picture beyond what was happening on the ground that helped to shape what it meant to win. This book will persist well into the 21st century.

We are looking at the religious aspect of terrorism with your next book, Terror in the Mind of God, by Mark Juergensmeyer.

When I thought about my list of five, I wanted to highlight books that were written by different kinds of observers. When studying terrorism, it is important to be open to different approaches, to be inter-disciplinary and to avoid the kind of groupthink that can set in among researchers. Juergensmeyer is a sociologist who comparatively studies cultures of violence that are either motivated by or justified by religion. To gain insight into the logic that drives them, he interviewed individual participants across a range of disparate religious campaigns, including violent anti-abortion Christian activists, Jewish extremists, Japanese Aum Shinrikyo cult members, Sikh separatists, and radical Islamists. He writes about the search for meaning and identity that is a part of religion and spirituality, demonstrating through his interviews and other research how that quest can take a violent turn.

Juergensmeyer’s book came out ten years ago and many people have argued in the intervening years that there is too much emphasis on religious ideology in analysing the current terrorist threat. I think this book is a nice corrective to work that seeks to leave behind the awkward fact that religion is part of human nature, and that these kind of laudable motivations can sometimes drive us to do extremely evil things. In a sense religion is the oldest motivation for terrorism, going back at least to the first century of the Common Era. I believe that if we fail to analyse the logic of this thinking, the points at which ideas are distorted or hijacked, we also fail to understand how to disrupt it.

Juergensmeyer has spoken to dozens of individuals and faithfully explored their views of the world; so the book is not a statistically heavy or dry academic analysis. It challenges your understanding of the human spirit directly through the words of the people that he interviewed. And it is chilling.

What Makes a Terrorist: Economics and the Roots of Terrorism by Alan B Krueger is, of course, looking at the economic aspect of terrorism.

That’s right, and it is a book that is written to be very accessible to the layman. Alan Krueger’s book is actually based on three Robbins Memorial lectures that he gave at London School of Economics in 2006. This little volume is written to be very understandable but it is also full of statistics and good hard data about what motivates and causes terrorism.

In addition to his own research, Krueger summarises studies done by others, but he delivers a wide-ranging probe of misperceptions about the causes of terrorism. Krueger pulls apart a range of statistics on public opinion, distribution of violence, wealth, education, and socio-economic backgrounds of operatives, and shoots down the received wisdom of many pundits. There are a lot of little nuggets of wisdom here. For example, he shows that neither poverty nor lack of education causes terrorism. Lower-class members are too busy trying to survive to be interested in ideologically-motivated violence. The data indicate that most terrorists actually come from relatively better off, well educated families. Krueger also points out that most terrorism is local. Data indicate that it is not the North-South or East-West violence that many people think it is: most of those engaging in terrorist attacks are killing their neighbours, not travelling across oceans or even borders to attack others. In short, this is a very good, readable book that uses hard data to shoot down common myths about the origins of terrorism.

Your final book is The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, by Lawrence Wright.

This is the best of all the books about the story of the rise of al-Qaeda, culminating in the attacks of 9/11. I could have given you five books that were all about al-Qaeda – aspects of its ideology, structure, history, propaganda, ideas and so forth – and when you first contacted me I was planning to do so. But then I thought better of it. We are all focused on al-Qaeda and that one story, preventing us from putting the current campaign and our response to it into a broader context.

I think reading this one book gives you an excellent grasp of the human story and the context from which al-Qaeda emerged. Wright talks about the development of extreme Salafist Islamist thinking, the origins of al-Qaeda, the transition from the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan to the 9/11 attacks. He also tells the story of those in the CIA and FBI who saw the growth of the movement and tried to meet the threat, but without the bitterness and personal agendas of some of the tell-all accounts.

Wright’s book is written in an engaging style, engrossing and entertaining but well-researched, based solidly on facts, and never sensationalistic. (There is also a very nice appendix with a summary of the main characters, a big help for those who find it difficult to remember Arabic names.) My students consistently love it. There is a reason why The Looming Tower won the Pulitzer Prize! I think it is a very fine book.

And what about you, considering all your research and work, do you think there is any progress in bringing about the demise of terrorism?

Well, this is very much my own personal view and not representative of official policy. Not the demise of terrorism per se, but I think that we are making progress at crafting a broader, more strategic approach to the demise of al-Qaeda. The US started out immediately after September 11 in a way that was consistent with how many democracies respond after a traumatic terrorist attack. We struck back hard, over-emphasising military force. It was a virtually instinctive response and, if you look at the history of counter-terrorism, not unusual.

But as the years have gone by, we are gaining sophistication in understanding the enemy, the leveraged nature of this kind of violence, and the need for a much broader range of types of counter-terrorism. This includes everything from aid, to diplomacy, developing local partnerships, distinguishing between elements of the ‘movement’, de-radicalisation programmes, perhaps even in some limited circumstances working with local partners to engage in negotiations with local nationalist groups. Above all we are gaining a better and much more seasoned understanding of al-Qaeda’s local affiliates. Understanding the differences between individuals, local movements, and the core of al-Qaeda is at the heart of our efforts to be much more sophisticated in knowing the enemy – especially its vulnerabilities. I think we are finally coming to realise that this takes time and mental effort: we are making good progress but there are no ‘silver bullets’.

Still, we are getting ourselves out of that action, reaction, dysfunctional pattern that I described at the beginning. One of the ways to do so is to think about pathways for ending terrorist campaigns over the course of the centuries that have been remarkably consistent. If you think specifically about the way al-Qaeda is most likely to end, then nudge it in that direction using a wide range of different policy tools (not just the military), you are more likely to help it toward that end.

And what direction would you say that should be for al-Qaeda?

Well, I think they are either going to implode, by which I mean succumb to internal weaknesses, in-fighting, ideological bickering, loss of operational control, targeting mistakes and loss of popular support – some of the dynamics that we have already seen. Or they are going to transition into a more conventional kind of violence, meaning insurgency or even conventional war. There are elements of each of those patterns now, and the question for us is which way do we really want it to go? My answer would be implosion. That does not mean we can sit back and wait for it to end – far from it! This is still a very dangerous threat. But we need to calibrate our actions with this kind of strategic vision in mind. Implosion is the best ending from our perspective, likely to be the least costly, most rapid, and most politically enduring.

April 27, 2010