What Terrorists Want: Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat

What Terrorists Want: Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat

by Louise Richardson
What Terrorists Want: Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat

What Terrorists Want: Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat

by Louise Richardson


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“This is at the top of my list for best books on terrorism.”
–Jessica Stern, author of Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill

How can the most powerful country in the world feel so threatened by an enemy infinitely weaker than we are? How can loving parents and otherwise responsible citizens join terrorist movements? How can anyone possibly believe that the cause of Islam can be advanced by murdering passengers on a bus or an airplane? In this important new book, groundbreaking scholar Louise Richardson answers these questions and more, providing an indispensable guide to the greatest challenge of our age.

After defining–once and for all–what terrorism is, Richardson explores its origins, its goals, what’s to come, and what is to be done about it. Having grown up in rural Ireland and watched her friends join the Irish Republican Army, Richardson knows from firsthand experience how terrorism can both unite and destroy a community. As a professor at Harvard, she has devoted her career to explaining terrorist movements throughout history and around the globe. From the biblical Zealots to the medieval Islamic Assassins to the anarchists who infiltrated the cities of Europe and North America at the turn of the last century, terrorists have struck at enemies far more powerful than themselves with targeted acts of violence. Yet Richardson understands that terrorists are neither insane nor immoral. Rather, they are rational political actors who often deploy carefully calibrated tactics in a measured and reasoned way. What is more, they invariably go to great lengths to justify their actions to themselves, their followers, and, often, the world.

Richardson shows that the nature of terrorism did not change after the attacks of September 11, 2001; what changed was our response. She argues that the Bush administration’s “global war on terror” was doomed to fail because of an ignorance of history, a refusal to learn from the experience of other governments, and a fundamental misconception about how and why terrorists act. As an alternative, Richardson offers a feasible strategy for containing the terrorist threat and cutting off its grassroots support.

The most comprehensive and intellectually rigorous account of terrorism yet, What Terrorists Want is a daring intellectual tour de force that allows us, at last, to reckon fully with this major threat to today’s global order.

KIRKUS- starred review
"The short answer? Fame and payback, perhaps even a thrill. The long answer? Read this essential, important primer.

Terrorist groups have many motives and ideologies, notes Richardson (Executive Dean/Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study), but they tend to similar paths: They are founded by mature, well-educated men but staffed by less learned and certainly more pliable youths; they are fueled by a sense of injustice and the conviction that only they are morally equipped to combat it; they see themselves as defenders and not aggressors; they often define the terms of battle. And, of course, this commonality: "Terrorists have elevated practices that are normally seen as the excesses of warfare to routine practice, striking noncombatants not as an unintended side effect but as a deliberate strategy." Thus massacres, suicide bombings and assassinations are all in a day's work. Richardson argues against Karl Rove, who after 9/11 mocked those who tried to understand the enemy, by noting that only when authorities make efforts to get inside the minds of their terrorist enemies do they succeed in defeating them, as with the leadership of the Shining Path movement in Peru. Still, as Rove knows, if terrorists share a pathology, then so do at least some of their victims: Once attacked, people in democratic societies are more than willing to trade freedom for security. Richardson closes by offering a set of guidelines for combating terrorism, with such easily remembered rules as "Live by your principles" and "Engage others in countering terrorists with you"–observing, in passing, that the Bush administration's attack on Iraq and subsequent occupation will likely be remembered as serving as a recruiting poster for still more terrorists.

How to win? Develop communities, settle grievances, exercise patience and intelligence. That said, watch for more terrorism to come: "We are going to have to learn to live with it and to accept it as a price of living in a complex world."
“Louise Richardson . . . has now produced the overdue and essential primer on terrorism and how to tackle it. What Terrorists Want is the book many have been waiting for.”—The New York Times Book Review (Editor’s Choice)
“Lucid and powerful, Richardson’s book refutes the dangerous idea that there’s no point in trying to understand terrorists. . . . rich, readable.”—Los Angeles Times Book Review
“The kind of brisk and accessible survey of terrorism-as-modus operandi that has been sorely missing for the past five years . . . [What Terrorists Want] ought to be required reading as the rhetoric mounts this campaign season.”—The American Prospect
“Richardson is one of the relative handful of experts who have been studying the history and practice of terrorism since the Cold War. . . . This book is a welcome source of information. It’s written by a true expert, giving her measured thoughts.”—Christian Science Monitor

“Richardson’s clear language and deep humanity make What Terrorists Want the one book that must be read by everyone who cares about why people resort to the tactic of terrorism.”–Desmond M. Tutu, Archbishop Emeritus

“This is a book of hope. Terrorism, like the poor, will always be with us in one form or another. But given sensible policies, we can contain it without destroying what we hold dear.”–Financial Times

“A passionate, incisive, and groundbreaking argument that provocatively overturns the myths surrounding terrorism.”–Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

“In its lucid analysis and summary, [What Terrorists Want] is simply the best thing of its kind available now in this highly crowded area.”–The Evening Standard

“If a reader has the time to read only one book on terrorism, What Terrorists Want is that book. Extensive historical knowledge, personal contacts, enormous analytic skills, common sense, and a fine mix of lucidity and clarity, make of this work a most satisfying dissection of terrorists’ motives and goals, and of the effects of September 11, 2001. Richardson also offers a sharp critique of American counterterrorism policies, and a sensible plan for better ones.”–Stanley Hoffmann, Buttenwieser University Professor, Harvard University

“An astonishingly insightful analysis by one of the world’s leading authorities on terrorism, this book is filled with wisdom–based not only on the author’s extensive and long-term study of terrorism but also on her experience growing up in a divided Ireland.”–Jessica Stern, author of Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill

“A wide-ranging, clear headed, crisply written, cogently argued anatomy of terrorist groups around the world.”–Peter Bergen, senior fellow, New America Foundation, and author of The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al Qaeda’s Leader

“Among the numerous books published on terrorism after the 9/11 attacks, Louise Richardson’s stands out as an unusually wise, sensible, and humane treatise. An engrossing and lucid book, which hopefully will be read by many and spread its unique spirit of realistic optimism.”
–Ariel Merari, Professor of Psychology, Tel Aviv University

“Thoughtful and stimulating . . . Controversially, and indeed courageously, [Richardson] argues that, instead of regarding the terrorists–even al-Qaeda types–as mindless and irrational creatures motivated by dark forces of evil, it would be more constructive to examine and seek to moderate some of the grievances that drive previously normal and even nondescript characters to kill and maim innocent people they don’t even know.”–The Irish Times

“A textbook and a myth-buster . . . [Richardson] is calling for nothing less than a total re-evaluation of how we consider, and react to, terrorism. . . . What Terrorists Want ought to be on the bookshelf in every government office. Certainly, for any student of international affairs it is an essential reading.”
The Atlantic Affairs

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780812975444
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/13/2007
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 5.45(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.74(d)

About the Author

Louise Richardson is executive dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, a senior lecturer in government at Harvard, and a lecturer on law at Harvard Law School. She lectures widely on terrorism and international security and has appeared on CNN, the BBC, PBS, NPR, and a host of other media outlets. Born in Ireland, she is now an American citizen and a resident of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Read an Excerpt

What Terrorists Want

By Louise Richardson

Random House

Louise Richardson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1400064813

Chapter One


What is Terrorism?

Terror is nothing else than justice, prompt, secure and inflexible.1

--Robespierre, 1794

Today our nation saw evil, the very worst of human nature.

--George W. Bush, September 11, 2001

The best that one can say of these people is that they are morally depraved. They champion falsehood, support the butcher against the victim, the oppressor against the innocent child.

--Osama bin Laden, October 7, 2001

Like pornography, we know terrorism when we see it. Or do we? We know we don't like it. In fact, the only universally accepted attribute of the term "terrorism" is that it is pejorative. Terrorism is something the bad guys do. The term itself has been bandied about so much that it has practically lost all meaning. A casual glance at newspapers reveals currency speculation being labeled "economic terrorism," domestic violence as "domestic terrorism"; crank telephone calls have even been labeled "telephone terrorism." If you can pin the label "terrorist" on your opponent, you have gone a long way toward winning the public relations aspect of any conflict.

Even terrorists don't like the label. An al-Qaeda statement put it this way: "When the victim tries to seek justice, he is described as aterrorist."2 Many prefer to redefine the term first. In Osama bin Laden's words, "If killing those who kill our sons is terrorism, then let history be witness that we are terrorists."3 On another occasion, when asked to respond to media claims that he was a terrorist, he replied, "There is an Arabic proverb that says, she accused me of having her malady and then snuck away."4 Other terrorist leaders have taken a similar perspective. Abimael Guzmán, the Peruvian academic turned leader of the Maoist Shining Path, declared, "They claim we're terrorists. I would like to give the following answer so that everyone can think about it: has it or has it not been Yankee imperialism and particularly Reagan who has branded all revolutionary movements as terrorists, yes or no? This is how they attempt to discredit and isolate us in order to crush us."5 Shamil Basayev, the Chechen leader responsible for the Beslan school siege, among other exploits, declared, "Okay. So, I'm a terrorist. But what would you call them? If they are keepers of constitutional order, if they are anti-terrorists, then I spit on all these agreements and nice words."6

Terrorism simply means deliberately and violently targeting civilians for political purposes. It has seven crucial characteristics. First, a terrorist act is politically inspired. If not, then it is simply a crime. After the May 13, 2003, Riyadh bombings, Secretary of State Colin Powell declared, "We should not try to cloak their . . . criminal activity, their murderous activity, in any trappings of political purpose. They are terrorists."7 In point of fact, it is precisely because they did have a political purpose that they were, indeed, terrorists.

Second, if an act does not involve violence or the threat of violence, it is not terrorism. The term "cyberterrorism" is not a useful one. The English lexicon is broad enough to provide a term for the sabotage of our IT facilities without reverting to such language.

Third, the point of terrorism is not to defeat the enemy but to send a message. Writing of the September 11 attacks, an al-Qaeda spokesman declared, "It rang the bells of restoring Arab and Islamic glory."8

Fourth, the act and the victim usually have symbolic significance. Bin Laden referred to the Twin Towers as "icons" of America's "military and economic power."9 The shock value of the act is enormously enhanced by the symbolism of the target. The whole point is for the psychological impact to be greater than the actual physical act. Terrorism is indeed a weapon of the weak. Terrorist movements are invariably both outmanned and outgunned by their opponents, so they employ such tactics in an effort to gain more attention than any objective assessment of their capabilities would suggest that they warrant.

Fifth--and this is a controversial point--terrorism is the act of substate groups, not states. This is not to argue that states do not use terrorism as an instrument of foreign policy. We know they do. Many states, such as Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Libya, have sponsored terrorism abroad because they did not want to incur the risk of overtly attacking more powerful countries. Great powers have supported terrorist groups abroad as a way of engaging in proxy warfare or covertly bringing about internal change in difficult countries without openly displaying their strength. Nor do I wish to argue that states refrain from action that is the moral equivalent of terrorism. We know they don't. The Allied bombing campaign in World War II, culminating in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was a deliberate effort to target civilian populations in order to force the hand of their government. The policy of collective punishment visited on communities that produce terrorists is another example of targeting civilians to achieve a political purpose. Nevertheless, if we want to have any analytical clarity in understanding the behavior of terrorist groups, we must understand them as substate actors rather than states.

A sixth characteristic of terrorism is that the victim of the violence and the audience the terrorists are trying to reach are not the same. Victims are used as a means of altering the behavior of a larger audience, usually a government. Victims are chosen either at random or as representative of some larger group. Individual victims are interchangeable. The identities of the people traveling on a bus in Tel Aviv or a train in Madrid, dancing in Bali or bond trading in New York, were of no consequence to those who killed them. They were being used to influence others. This is different from most other forms of political violence, in which security forces or state representatives are targeted in an effort to reduce the strength of an opponent.

The final and most important defining characteristic of terrorism is the deliberate targeting of civilians. This is what sets terrorism apart from other forms of political violence, even the most proximate form, guerrilla warfare. Terrorists have elevated practices that are normally seen as the excesses of warfare to routine practice, striking noncombatants not as an unintended side effect but as deliberate strategy. They insist that those who pay taxes to a government are responsible for their actions whether they are Russians or Americans. Basayev declared all Russians fair game because "They pay taxes. They give approval in word and in deed. They are all responsible."10 Bin Laden similarly said of Americans, "He is the enemy of ours whether he fights us directly or merely pays his taxes."11

Terrorists, Guerrillas, and Freedom Fighters

It goes without saying that in the very messy worlds of violence and politics actions don't always fit neatly into categories. Guerrillas occasionally target civilians, and terrorists occasionally target security forces. But if the primary tactic of an organization is deliberately to target civilians, it deserves to be called a terrorist group, irrespective of the political context in which it operates or the legitimacy of the goals it seeks to achieve. There are, of course, other differences between guerillas and terrorists. Guerrillas are an irregular army fighting the regular forces of the state. They conduct themselves along military lines and generally have large numbers of adherents, which permit them to launch quasi-military operations. Their goal is the military defeat of the enemy. Terrorists, by contrast, rarely have illusions about their ability to inflict military defeat on the enemy. Rather, they seek either to cause the enemy to overreact and thereby permit them to recruit large numbers of followers so that they can launch a guerrilla campaign, or to have such a psychological or economic impact on the enemy that it will withdraw of its own accord. Bin Laden called this the "bleed-until-bankruptcy plan."12

It is the means employed and not the ends pursued, nor the political context in which a group operates, that determines whether or not a group is a terrorist group.

In his famous 1974 speech to the United Nations renouncing terrorism, Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and founder of its militant wing, al-Fatah, declared, "The difference between the revolutionary and the terrorist lies in the reason for which each fights. For whoever stands by a just cause and fights for the freedom and liberation of his land . . . cannot possibly be called terrorist."13 A great many people, including several U.S. presidents, have shared this view. Indeed, the main reason international cooperation against terrorism has been so anemic over the past thirty-odd years is precisely because the pejorative power of the term is such that nobody has wanted to pin the label on a group fighting for what are considered legitimate goals. President Ronald Reagan shared the goal of the Nicaraguan Contras to overthrow the Marxist Sandinista government, so he called them "the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers."14 Our European allies saw the Contras as a violent and unrepresentative group attempting to subvert a popular government and considered them terrorists. In fact, the legitimacy of the goals being sought is irrelevant. Many terrorist groups, and especially those that have lasted the longest, the ethnonationalist groups, have been fighting for goals that many share and that may even be just. But if they deliberately kill civilians to achieve that goal, they are terrorists.

Bin Laden has only a slightly different perspective. He thinks that there is good terrorism and bad terrorism:

Terrorism can be commendable and it can be reprehensible. Terrifying an innocent person and terrorizing them is objectionable and unjust, also unjustly terrorizing people is not right. Whereas terrorizing oppressors and criminals and thieves and robbers is necessary for the safety of people and for the protection of their property. . . . The terrorism we practice is of the commendable kind for it is directed at the tyrants and the aggressors and the enemies of Allah, the tyrants, the traitors who commit acts of treason against their own countries and their own faith and their own prophet and their own nation. Terrorizing those and punishing them are necessary measures to straighten things and to make them right.15

Bin Laden evidently believes that terrorism is justified if it is used against those who are unjust, whereas it is unjustified if used against the innocent. His concept of innocent as seen above, however, is an idiosyncratic one. This is a variant on the widely held position that the ends being sought determine whether or not an act is a terrorist act.

Another popular perspective is that an action is terrorist only if it takes place in a democratic state that permits peaceful forms of opposition. Liberal intellectuals made this distinction in reaction to the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa. Conor Cruise O'Brien and others wanted to argue that members of the Irish Re- publican Army (IRA) in Northern Ireland were terrorists when they planted bombs in trash cans in Belfast in the 1970s, as they had a democratic alternative to voice their opposition to the state. But the ANC, when it planted bombs in trash cans in Johannesburg in the 1980s, was not a terrorist group because it had no means of political opposition available. This perspective implies that members of the Basque nationalist group Euskadi ta Askatasuna (ETA) were not terrorists when they planted bombs and murdered tourists under the Franco regime but became terrorists when they planted bombs and murdered tourists under the democratic government of Spain. This argument is hardly compelling. The political context in which an act takes place can affect our normative evaluation of the act--the degree to which we might think it morally justified or morally reprehensible--but it does not alter the fact that it is a terrorist act.

Perhaps the most difficult case to make is that of the ANC in South Africa. If ever a group could legitimately claim to have resorted to force only as a last resort, it is the ANC. Founded in 1912, for the first fifty years the movement treated nonviolence as a core principle. In 1961, however, with all forms of political organization closed to it, Nelson Mandela was authorized to create a separate military organization, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). In his autobiography Mandela describes the strategy session as the movement examined the options available to them:

We considered four types of violent activities: sabotage, guerrilla warfare, terrorism and open revolution. For a small and fledgling army, open revolution was inconceivable. Terrorism inevitably reflected poorly on those who used it, undermining any public support it might otherwise garner. Guerrilla warfare was a possibility, but since the ANC had been reluctant to embrace violence at all, it made sense to start with the form of violence that inflicted the least harm against individuals: sabotage.16

These fine distinctions were lost on the court in Rivonia that convicted Mandela and most of the ANC leadership in 1964 and sentenced them to life imprisonment. For the next twenty years an increasingly repressive white minority state denied the most basic political rights to the majority black population.

An uprising in Soweto was defeated, as was an MK guerrilla campaign launched from surrounding states. In 1985, the government declared a state of emergency, which was followed within three weeks by thirteen terrorist bombings in major downtown areas. Reasonable people can differ on whether or not the terrorism of the ANC was justified, given the legitimacy of the goals it sought and the reprehensible nature of the government it faced. The violent campaign of the ANC in the early and mid-1980s, however, was indisputably a terrorist campaign. Unless and until we are willing to label a group whose ends we believe to be just a terrorist group, if it deliberately targets civilians in order to achieve those ends, we are never going to be able to forge effective international cooperation against terrorism.


Excerpted from What Terrorists Want by Louise Richardson Excerpted by permission.
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