Brian Michael Jenkins: The bookshelf on terrorism understandably expanded rapidly after the 9/11 attacks brought the issue so forcefully to the attention of the American public. Much of this literature reflects the commercial desire of publishers to exploit intense public interest. A lot of the entries fall into the category of lurid sensationalism and forecast imminent doom (“Al-Qaeda already has nukes in New York”) offer conspiracy theories (“What the government won’t tell you”), or feed partisan agendas. As such, it informs us more about the country’s state of anxiety than it does about terrorism. Memoirs of any former government official vaguely connected with counterterrorism also found publishers. But some of the new terrorism literature reflected excellent investigative journalism and offered insights about the nature of the adversary, a lot of it focusing on the specific issues faced by the United States as it went to war. Without 9/11 and the “global war on terror,” it is doubtful that there would so many histories of Afghanistan or Pakistan. We had to learn a great deal more about the specific terrorists we were up against.
The determination of today’s terrorists to kill in quantity, and difficulties in predicting terrorist attacks and protecting all possible targets, or in striking back against attackers who often die in the attacks, have pushed the authorities in the direction of pre-emptive intervention. This includes efforts to counter radicalization and recruitment to terrorism. Who will become a terrorist remains difficult to predict. Efforts in the 1970s to understand why terrorists became terrorists produced little that was operationally useful. Terrorists were not crazy in the clinical sense. There were no discernible personality attributes beyond seeing the world in the black-and-white, us-versus-them mindset of all true believers. There are, however, many such people. We know only about those who become terrorists. Predicting dangerousness remains difficult. I am not persuaded that our current models of how people become radicalized and are recruited, or recruit themselves, to terrorism are accurate.
Bruce Hoffman: With respect to the vast literature that has emerged on terrorism in the decade and a half since the 9/11 attacks, I have often marveled at how well many of the seminal works on the subject written over 40 years ago by both of you, Walter Laqueur, the late Paul Wilkinson, and others have stood the test of time. To this day, the syllabi for my terrorism courses contain as many (and perhaps even more) works that date back to that era than contemporary works.
This is not meant to imply that there have not been some enormously useful and important contributions to the literature in recent years, but rather to bemoan a proclivity towards amnesia, ignorance and a reinventing the wheel—often accompanied by the application of arcane quantitative methodologies—to aspects of terrorism that has added little to the corpus of work often published decades ago.
Your point, Brian, about the blank spots that remain unfilled in the study of terrorism is absolutely correct. These are timeless questions that go to the heart of our efforts to understand terrorists and terrorism and, as you and Martha well know, are by no means new.
Finally, to the fundamental questions, Brian, that you elucidate in your final paragraph, I would add that much as we still lack an understanding of why persons become terrorists, we also still lack an understanding of how governments can best and most effectively respond to this menace.
Hand-in-glove with this is a failure to understand that terrorism is also a strategy of attrition. It is designed not only to wear down the terrorists’ government opponents and undermine the morale of both the authorities themselves and the citizens they either represent or are charged with protecting, but also over time to create deep fissures in national polities, to undermine public confidence in elected leaders, to foment paranoia and xenophobia, and thus cause liberal societies to adopt increasingly illiberal means to enhance security and supposedly better protect and defend against this threat. One just has to look at the divisive debates and political campaigns today in the United States, Germany, and elsewhere to see the corrosive effects that this terrorist strategy is having on our societies and political systems.
Martha Crenshaw: The tendency to oversimplify what is an extraordinarily complex phenomenon is still very much with us, especially with policymakers. People want to see terrorism through one prism. Or to see it in binary terms: It is either the work of evil fanatics or of misguided youth. The messy reality is hard to deal with. For many years researchers have been trying to explain that there is no single “terrorist profile,” but such a profile still seems to be the holy grail. Bruce is right about the West German study (five volumes); another interesting detail is that, of the over 200 leftist terrorists in jail in West Germany when the study was conducted, only a handful would agree to be interviewed.
This points to a general impediment to theory building: Terrorism is actually rare except in certain concentrated spaces like Northern Ireland in the past, and perhaps Iraq now. Also, there aren’t many terrorists (or jihadists in contemporary idiom). There are many people who fit whatever profile can be drawn up, and a tiny number resort to violence. And within that small subset there can still be immense variation in motivation.
It is almost hard to remember what it was like before 9/11, and I think of our current students who were small children and have no basis for comparison of then and now. So much changed in such a short time. And the big question is of course “are we safer?” But seen in finer grain, is the massive counterterrorism bureaucracy the U.S. has built since 9/11 effective, even modestly so? I am reminded of the fact that many of the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission did not address the issues they identified as the problem. So we have solutions that don’t even appear to be in search of problems—as soon as the threat is defined as “terrorism” every apparent solution in sight is applied. Not to be too cynical, of course! But we haven’t found good ways to measure the effectiveness of counterterrorism measures.
As Brian says, researchers could spend more time and effort trying to understand what the decision makers on the terrorist side are thinking. With regard to provocation, a subject I don’t see much about is how terrorism provokes military intervention or escalation of existing intervention in civil wars—we’ve seen arguments that military intervention provokes terrorism, but has anyone argued that it’s the reverse? Transnational terrorism that targets outside states draws them into local conflicts.
Brian Michael Jenkins: There is a notion that on 9/11, the world changed, and in many respects it did. But that has become a basis for discarding what happened and what was learned before. Bruce is right. We reinvent the wheel.
Bruce and Martha have both mentioned the famous study of German terrorists that with Teutonic thoroughness examined every aspect of their lives only to conclude that there was no distinguishing profile. Four decades later, we are launching efforts to counter radicalization. Some of these are local efforts to improve communications with communities believed susceptible to radicalization and recruitment. Some are efforts to enlist respected members of these communities to speak out against ideologies that promote violence. Some are broader efforts to counter incitement via social media. Some are efforts to identify individuals at risk in order to dissuade them from taking a destructive and self-destructive path. Judging by the British intervention program called PREVENT, this requires an intense and long-term effort. Dissuading individuals from becoming terrorists is, of course, preferable to shooting them later or putting them in prison. But we are still working in the dark. As Martha points out, there are a lot of people with radical ideas—which is not a crime—but only a handful of those holding extreme views will become terrorists. Dangerousness is difficult to predict.
We also know that radicalization is not a straight path. One individual may gradually radicalize over a long period, becoming more extreme and ultimately turning violent. Another may proceed directly toward violence, donning an ideological cloak or claiming affiliation with some group just before they act. Still others appear to head down the path toward violence, then back off. Much depends on what else is going on in their lives. Personal crisis may propel an individual toward violence. A good job or a newfound love may change one’s course. How do you predict that?
Absent a profile we take a more wholesale approach, educating and enlisting entire communities where it is believed radicalization and recruitment are occurring or might occur. That appears to have worked in reducing the recruitment of young Somali men out of a particularly affected community in Minnesota where there was a recruiting network. Will it work elsewhere?
As the “old-timers” of the terrorism research community, we cannot claim to be smarter than anyone else, but we have been around for a long time. Historical perspective is valuable. It does not mean we have the answers. I was invited to testify before Congress for the first time in 1974. I was flattered and nervous. I carefully crafted my written testimony, rehearsed my oral testimony—my colleagues grilled me with questions that might arise. Had the members of the congressional committee asked, “How many machine guns does the IRA have?” I was ready. As I recall, one of the first questions a congressman asked me was, “Mr. Jenkins, how can we end terrorism?” I think I mumbled on for several minutes, pointing out that there were some things beyond even the august legislative powers of the United States Congress. If I were asked that question today, I am not sure I could give a better answer.
We have survived more than four decades of terrorism. People are shocked when I point out that during the 1970s, the United States survived 50 to 60 terrorist bombings a year. Imagine that volume of terrorist activity today. Had I, right after 9/11, forecast that 15 years later, we would still be engaged in military operations against terrorists in various parts of the world, my audience no doubt would have regarded that as dismaying, even though the analysts at the time reckoned that this would be a very long struggle. They would have been relieved to hear that in the following 15 years, fewer than a hundred people would be killed in the United States by jihadist terrorists. All deaths are tragic, but we have suffered far less at home than we feared in the immediate shadow of 9/11.
Bruce Hoffman: The oversimplification that Martha refers to is of course completely encapsulated by the question posed to Brian more than 40 years ago by the congressman who asked, “How do we end terrorism?” A truthful answer today would be that, despite all the books, studies, analyses, simulations and exercises, we still don’t know.
The fundamental problem is that they have proven more capable of adjustment and adaptation than we have. Terrorist groups seem to learn faster and better than in the past because they have to in order to survive. They have certainly shown themselves to be both more adept and far quicker in harnessing the power and potentiality of social media and other 21st-century digital communications platforms than their state opponents. They are also, frustratingly, now able to communicate more securely amongst themselves than ever before simply by utilizing readily available commercial apps downloaded from the internet.
The terrorists’ skill at exploiting the array of 21st-century communications technologies, compared with the pre-digital limitations that existed only a decade ago, must surely factor into the astonishing longevity of many contemporary terrorist groups. This month, for instance, marks the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, but we forget that just a few weeks ago al-Qaeda “celebrated” its 28th year in existence. Hezbollah, to cite another example, is 34 years old; Lashkar-e-Taiba is 30; and Hamas is only one year younger. The longevity of these preeminent terrorist groups is testament perhaps to the intractable fixture of conflict in the 21st century that terrorism has become—and likely will remain.
Brian Michael Jenkins: Prior to 9/11 and the declaration of the “global war on terror,” the government used the phrase “combatting terrorism.” War, in modern American military tradition, implies a finite undertaking—a clear beginning and end, while “combatting terrorism” implies an enduring task. In war, we seek victory. In combatting crime, we have no expectation of an ultimate police victory over all criminals and the end of crime. Instead, we expect the authorities to keep crime under control—that is, within limits society can tolerate. As Bruce points out, we can weaken terrorist groups, create a hostile environment for them, and take other measures to mitigate the threat, but can we realistically expect to achieve a final victory over terrorism?
The mobilization that the term “war” implied was a useful conceptual framework right after 9/11. It also signaled that the United States would not simply strike back and then wait for the next terrorist attack, as it had in the past, but that this was going to be a continuing campaign to bring the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks to justice, to disperse and destroy their organization—at least to the point that it was no longer capable of mounting another 9/11-scale attack. That was a more limited undertaking, but one that was going to require military force as well as intelligence work, diplomacy, law enforcement and all of the other instruments we could muster. It was anticipated that this would be a very long effort and we haven’t succeeded yet. America’s terrorist foes have been nimble and resilient and tenacious, as Bruce indicates, but they have also benefitted from dysfunctional governments, waves of protest, and ongoing conflicts across North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, and they have been able to fasten themselves on to local grievances and struggles, convincing their local allies and persuading the world that this is all part of a vast global jihad. What it is is marketing genius.
With that, I’m off to the Middle East. Thanks and best wishes to all.
Martha Crenshaw: Bon voyage, Brian. We are getting security warnings here in Paris. Avoid places where tourists congregate, they say. In Paris! There are tourists everywhere.
Brian said years ago that terrorism was theater, and he is still right. The audience is the key to its effectiveness. I don’t know that governments always keep that in mind. At least in the U.S. our counterterrorism “strategies” are usually framed at such a high level of generality that it is hard to integrate strategy and tactics. I don’t think we’ve done a good job of linking the war on terrorism or AQ/ISIS to “countering violent extremism” (CVE), for example; it has not been possible to switch from war to CVE, but how do we combine them?
Threat exaggeration has been encouraged by the politicization of the issue. It has become difficult for anyone to say that the threat is manageable, even though governments try to encourage “resilience.” The current presidential campaign is a good example.
Bruce Hoffman: Martha nails it when she writes that our enemies’ conception of success and victory are vastly different than our own, and that losing the caliphate is, in their eyes, a mere tactical reversal. When a struggle is divinely ordained—as both al-Qaeda and ISIS claim theirs to be—all temporal setbacks or defeats are inconsequential and mere speed bumps on the highway to triumph: challenges deliberately put in the terrorists’ path to test their fealty and ultimate commitment to the cause and the group that they serve.
In that respect, I wonder if bin Laden were alive today, how he would see things on this 15th anniversary of the September 11th attacks? Unfortunately, I think he would be rather pleased for several reasons.
First, bin Laden once remarked in a 1998 interview that he was not afraid of death and welcomed martyrdom. This was because he was confident that his death would “produce thousands of Osamas.” Indeed, with the proliferation of tens of thousands of foreign fighters now engaged in combat in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Mali, his prediction has arguably (and tragically) come true.
Finally, in 2005 bin Laden was presented with a seven-stage strategy to reverse al-Qaeda’s then-declining fortunes and launch it on a trajectory to inevitable victory. Today, the al-Qaeda movement is arguably right on schedule in having fulfilled the first four stages of this epic battle plan. Regardless of whether it will ever be realized or completed, for the time being this successful progression feeds al-Qaeda’s narrative, polishes their image to new and greater luster, and enabled the movement founded by bin Laden nearly three decades ago to carry on their struggle by continuing to attract recruits and support (financial and otherwise)—thus ensuring al-Qaeda’s survival, at least for the immediate future.