Understanding the Enemy

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 Ireland in the 1960s and ’70s, she nursed a very real hatred for England and dreamed of joining the Irish Republican Army. This foundational experience led her to the realization that, contrary to popular belief, most terrorists are rational and quite sane. They employ terrorist tactics to achieve certain goals because those tactics are the most effective ones available to them. In her view, today’s most notorious terrorist, Osama bin Laden, is not a deranged killer who can’t be reasoned with. He is, rather, a highly sophisticated and charismatic leader who uses his resources effectively to achieve his goals. Once we start seeing terrorists as sane, goal-oriented people, Richardson argues, we can start to beat them (more or less) at their own game.

So what do terrorists want? While each terrorist group has its own specific policy agenda-the establishment of a national homeland, say, or an Islamic caliphate-each also seeks fundamentally the Three Rs: revenge, renown, and reaction. The policy agenda constitutes a terrorist group’s primary goals while the Three Rs are its secondary goals. Primary goals differ from group to group, but secondary goals are common to all. Richardson’s discussion of the Three Rs is a particularly insightful contribution, because it helps us answer the question of whether terrorism actually works. That is, do terrorists get what they want? On the face of it, the answer would be no in most cases. The IRA has not ousted England from Ireland, the “ETA” has not won an independent Basque homeland, the Baader-Meinhof Gang did not destroy German capitalism, and the Shining Path did not establish a Maoist order in Peru. But these are, or were, primary goals. If you look at their secondary goals, Richardson argues, the story is quite different. Each of these terrorist groups, and any number of others we might mention, achieved a certain degree of revenge, renown, and reaction. And because these secondary goals are much easier to achieve, they often become ends in themselves, sometimes even eclipsing the terrorists’ primary goals.

Richardson offers the Three Rs as a central explanatory feature of terrorism. And while they are without doubt a useful tool for understanding terrorists and terrorism, they cannot help us grasp what is perhaps the most burning question of our day: What do Islamist terrorist groups want and why? By pinpointing the features and motivations shared by all terrorist groups, Richardson must disregard the raison d’être of any one terrorist group. Admittedly, she does not pretend to be an expert on the Middle East or Islam. And yet, after spending time with her book, one is left with the oddly empty sense that we are no closer to understanding what Al Qaeda actually wants. Richardson herself asks: “Does [Al Qaeda] really wish to establish a caliphate, or would it be satisfied if the United States withdrew from the Middle East? Would it continue to fight until Israel was annihilated, or would it stop fighting if it were to succeed in bringing down the Saudi regime and introducing Sharia law in Saudi Arabia? We have no idea.” While it’s true that Richardson does not aim to answer these questions, aren’t these the things we really want to know?

The second half of Richardson’s book focuses on counterterrorism. She bleakly asserts that the U.S. “war on terror,” as currently configured, is unwinnable and that U.S. policy since September 11, 2001, has only made things worse. In her view, our profound fear of another attack-possibly a biological, chemical, or nuclear one-led directly, and illogically, to the ill-considered war in Iraq. And by casting the overall conflict as a good-versus-evil showdown, the Bush administration has not only given the terrorists the recognition and status they seek, but has also set for itself an entirely impossible task. How exactly do you rid the world of evil? You can’t, of course. Therefore, you lose.

Richardson’s policy recommendations are cogent and sophisticated and turn on a key lesson learned by other states that have faced terrorist threats of their own: deny the terrorists what they want-namely, renown and reaction from us-and treat them simply as if they were criminals. Forget all the talk of war and evil. Infiltrate the terrorists’ ranks, get to know what they are really about, try to separate them from their supportive communities, and get all the help from our allies that we can. In short, beef up our on-the-ground intelligence dramatically so that we can know our enemies better-and, ultimately, defeat them, or at least contain them, far more effectively.

This is clearly easier said than done. The Bush administration is likely to be deaf to such recommendations, given its considerable investment in the “war on terror,” and neoconservatives are sure to call such an approach too soft. Any future administration will likely find this approach difficult to adopt, given the vagaries of electoral politics and the level of antiterrorist rhetoric the American public has come to expect. Because the current administration has already defined the agenda as a “war,” it will be very difficult for future national political candidates to ratchet down the rhetoric, promising a more out-of-the-limelight approach to pursuing terrorists-and expect to win office. Nonetheless, this may be just what is necessary.

Published in the 2006-11-17 issue: 

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

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