International Security Studies

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Ending Terrorism: Lessons for Defeating Al-Qaeda

September 08, 2008 // 12:00pm1:30pm

This event, co-sponsored by Council on Global Terrorism and Georgetown University's Center for Peace and Security Studies, is part of International Security Studies' ongoing Terrorism and Homeland Security Forum.

A prerequisite for devising a strategy to defeat Al-Qaeda is an understanding of the broad historical experience with the ending of terrorist campaigns. Since all terrorist campaigns eventually end, Cronin argued, an effective approach to dealing with current terrorist challenge posed by Al-Qaeda is to assess the closing phases of other terrorist organizations and then to act upon the lessons of relevant experience.

Before addressing pathways to ending terrorism, Cronin identified the four main types of strategies that terrorist groups pursue: compellence – to force a state to change policy (e.g., withdrawal from territory); provocation – to force a state to react, to do something (e.g., political assassination), although that reaction can be unpredictable; polarization – to fragment a society along political, ethnic, or sectarian lines; and mobilization – to energize mass support for a cause. The hallmarks of globalization – cyberspace and porous borders – have been particularly conducive to Al Qaeda's development of an effective mobilization strategy.

The historical record reveals cases in which terrorist groups have ended through the arrest or killing of their leadership ("decapitation"), the achievement of the groups' political objectives, the integration of terrorists into the political process through negotiation (e.g., the Irish Republican Army), the implosion of the group through the alienation of the local population, and the state's targeted use of force. These methods have been employed individually or in tandem. Each strategy has a checkered record (success or failure is highly context-dependent) and has generated unintended consequences.

Among the various approaches for ending terrorism the most promising pathway for defeating Al-Qaeda is implosion, according to Cronin. As she bluntly put it, instead of trying to win hearts and minds, American strategy should aim to facilitate Al Qaeda's tendency to lose them: Highlight the fact that some 40% of the deaths resulting from Al Qaeda operations are its own constituents – Muslims. Disaggregate the terrorist threat by distinguishing between so-called Al Qaeda central and loosely-affiliated local groups whose grievances might be addressed through negotiation. Cronin concluded that Al Qaeda is on the defensive and its alternative vision of international order – a global caliphate – has scant appeal. A counter-mobilization strategy, which leverages Al Qaeda's mistakes by focusing on the backlash potential of its bloody operations with local populations, might push this terrorist organization into implosion.

Drafted by Robert Litwak, International Security Studies

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  • Robert S. Litwak // Vice President for Scholars and Academic Relations and Director, International Security Studies
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