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What Terrorists Want: Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat Paperback – 13 Nov. 2007
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Louise Richardson grew up in the Republic of Ireland and so learned two versions of history: the Irish version and the British version. She was a professor of government at Harvard at the time of writing this book and is currently Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University.
She defines Terrorism, discusses the history and causes of Terrorism and why perfectly normal people become suicide terrorists. Terrorism begins with a sense of grievance for which terrorists seek revenge. Suicide bombers seek renown. Terrorist organisations want to gain a reaction from their victims. These are the three R’s of terrorism: Revenge, Renown and Reaction. It is thus counter-productive to declare war on a terrorist group because that is the reaction they want – it raises their status to that of a nation-state rather than a criminal gang.
Richardson gives six rules for countering terrorism:
1. Have an achievable goal (It is not possible to eliminate terrorism completely)
2. Live by your principles (Don’t give up liberal, democratic principles; e.g. don’t imprison people without trial)
3. Know your enemy (Good intelligence is vital – as we now know from the Chilcot Report)
4. Separate the terrorists from their communities
5. Engage others in countering terrorists (The USA prefers to make its own mistakes rather than learn from the experience of other countries)
6. Have patience and keep perspective (terrorist groups can last much longer than the interval between democratic elections)
The book has been extensively researched and is thoroughly referenced. It is written from the perspective of the United States but Richardson’s advice is easily transferable to other countries. It was first published in 2006, so it focusses on 9/11, al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden and predates the appearance of so-called Islamic State. However, Richardson’s understanding of terrorism and her six principles seem to apply equally well to our attempts to deal with IS.
It would be good to have a revised and up-to-date edition but, as it stands, it should be read by everyone involved in counter-terrorism.
In addition, the service and delivery of the book by Wordery was absolutely impeccable.
Top reviews from other countries
What I had liked to see more in this book is an inclusion of political theory to contextualise the concrete findings. Sometimes the book jumps from one point to another without making the connection explicit, but overall the read is very enjoyable and easily digestable.
The War on Terror is doomed to fail because we don’t understand the motivations of our enemies. As a country, the very strategy we use to fight terrorism gives terrorist organizations words the ability to become self-fulfilling prophecy. How does one differentiate between a necessary and appropriate response verses creating prophets out of terrorists? I can’t say. While much of the analysis sounds rational and levelheaded, there’s a problem…
It’s easy to write a book six years on (book came out in 2007), and say these things, but in those days, weeks, and months after an attack, rationality need not apply. I saw so many crack pot ideas following 9-11 that you could’ve built an entire industry of crack pot terrorism fighting ideas. How does one put the brakes on basic human fear? Sadly fear has a great political and ideological currency in both political parties. How can an administration, even with the best of intentions avoid falling into the fear trap. Richardson seems to think that a president will take that breath, which is far from assured.