Ending Terrorism: Lessons For Defeating Al-Qaeda

Audrey Kurth Cronin.   Ending Terrorism   Lessons For Defeating Al-Qaeda   London:  Routledge; Adelphi Paper No:  394, for The International Institute For Strategic Studies (“IISS”), April 2008, 85 Pages, No Price Stated, ISBN:  978-0-415-45062-1

Drawing upon the much-ignored wealth of historical experience with terrorism’s termination, this paper analyses typical terrorist strategies, explains the challenges democracies face in responding, describes historical patterns in ending terrorism, and suggests how insights from this history might lay a foundation for more effective strategies against Al-Qaeda.  Kurth Cronin explains that “understanding how terrorism ends is the best route to a broader view of the campaign, and to thinking that goes beyond the shorter-term strategies of terrorism”.  (p. 09)

The author is a Senior Research Associate in the Changing Character of War Programme at Oxford University, and Professor of Strategy at the US National War College, Washington DC.  The paper is derived from a research project while the author was Academic Director of Studies for the Oxford Leverhulme programme on the Changing Character of War.

The analysis is grounded in the constantly evolving triangular relationship between the terrorist group, the state under attack, and the audience to be influenced.

Terrorists use a cocktail of four main strategies – coercion and compellance, provocation, polarisation, and mobilisation.  Policymakers have primarily focused on coercion and compellance as it was common in the mid to late 20th century during the age of decolonisation.  This focus is unfortunate as coercion and compellance mainly involves two actors in the triangle, with little focus on the role and nature of the audience.

Counter-terrorism strategies designed to prevent a state from being compelled or coerced must fail if the goal is to provoke, polarise the population, or mobilise a constituency.  As mobilisation is Al-Qaeda’s key strategy, logically much counter-terrorism efforts to date have been misplaced.

Kurth Cronin then moves on to the historical lessons drawn from how terrorist campaigns ended.  She notes five myths about the ending of terrorist campaigns:

  • Terrorism is endless
  • Terrorism is wholly situation-dependent
  • Brute force always works
  • Dealing with root causes always succeeds
  • Focusing on audience “hearts and minds” rather than the terrorist group is best.

The historical record is then analysed to see how terrorist campaigns actually ended to help draw lessons for the current conflict.  In each case Kurth Cronin analyses why a given factor was successful in that particular campaign.

She identifies six pathways, (not always distinct), that led to the end of terror campaigns:  catching or killing the leaders; crushing terrorism with force; achieving the objective; moving towards a legitimate political processes; implosion and loss of popular support; and finally the group moving to other malignant activities (criminality, insurgency or even conventional war).

Using this historical record, and analysing it through the lens of the triangular relationships, Kurth Cronin then draws out the lessons for “ending Al-Qaeda”.

She  notes that the relative importance of the audience has increased significantly in recent decades, thus making Al-Qaeda’s primary strategy of mobilisation particularly appropriate,  and partly explaining its success.  This suggests that policies of leader decapitation, military repression, or helping Al-Qaeda implode or lose support through generational change will not and cannot be successful.  In addition, Al-Qaeda is unlikely to end through the achievement of its objectives.

Therefore she believes that the strategies that will erode Al-Qaeda’s ability to mobilise the masses to support its message are:

  • Spotlighting what the movement is trying to achieve and what it offers the modern Muslim (effectively nothing);
    The time-old policy of exploiting internal cleavages;
  • Hiving off of constituents where negotiations on national or local issues can be successful;  Focusing on Al-Qaeda’s many mistakes;
  • and finally facilitating the backlash that is already evident amongst Muslims against it.

Concluding the author notes the importance of focusing on the many weaknesses of Al-Qaeda, and while bearing in mind the fundamental importance of the triangular relationship, “to take a strategic perspective that consciously drives towards a realistic image of the end of the campaign”. (p.72).

There is much more in this short paper, which in common with other Adelphi Papers has no index.  That however is compensated for by extensive notes and a clear writing style.  Of necessity some ideas and the conclusions are not fully developed.  Such issues are likely to be dealt with in an associated book    How Terrorism Ends:  Lessons from the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns (Princeton University Press, forthcoming).

This paper is  particularly relevant for  policymakers, but scholars, students, and the general reader with an interest in this topic should  also find it valuable.

See also: Responses to Cyber Terrorism

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