Understanding the Enemy

What Terrorists Want

Louise Richardson

Random House, $25.95, 239 pp.

Louise Richardson, in her new book What Terrorists Want, offers a curiously bloodless account of terrorists and terrorism that is refreshingly devoid of the hysteria often associated with this highly charged subject. By studying terrorism as a phenomenon that has occurred all over the world, throughout human history, and that has been perpetrated by many different types of people and groups with myriad aspirations and motivations, Richardson discovers terrorism’s most basic features-those common to nearly all terrorist groups-and then offers policy prescriptions that flow logically from understanding what terrorists actually want. Because Richardson is able to strip away the particularities of each unique case of terrorism and find the fundamental commonalities across all cases of terrorism, her book is a powerful tool for anyone, layperson or government official alike, who seeks to understand the nature of the threat we face and who believes there may be a better way to counter it. Unfortunately, her thoughtful, highly nuanced policy recommendations seem unlikely to make an impact on the current administration, and may simply be too difficult for the next administration, Republican or Democratic, to adopt, given the nature of electoral politics.

Richardson’s seemingly dispassionate, academic exercise grows out of her quite passionate, long-standing fascination with terrorists. As a Catholic child growing up in...

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About the Author

Leslie Powell is director of Outreach and External Affairs of the Yale World Fellows Program.