"What terrorists want: Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat"


Book review: "What terrorists want: Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat" (2007)

By Louise Richardson

Résumé :

Dans cet ouvrage, la politologue et universitaire Louise Richardson propose une approche originale de l'étude du terrorisme, dans un contexte où la littérature sur ce sujet avait tendance -5 ans après les attentats du 11 Septembre 2001- à présenter ce phénomène de manière choc et parfois simpliste. Au-delà des clichés, l'auteure tente, sans le légitimer, de comprendre et de faire comprendre ce qui peut pousser des individus à se tourner vers ce mode de lutte radical, et propose alors des solutions qui permettraient de rendre la lutte contre le terrorisme plus efficace, à savoir associer à la répression une recherche des racines profondes de ce phénomène pour pouvoir l'enrayer à la base.


In this book, the political analyst Louise Richardson proposes an interesting approach of the study of terrorism, in a context in which the bulk of the literature on this subject tended - 5 years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 - to present this phenomenon in quite a simplistic way. Beyond the clichés, the author tries, without legitimizing it, to understand and to make people aware of the reasons which could lead an individual to choose this radical way of acting, and she proposes several solutions which could improve counter-terrorism; thus she advocates the use of repression linked with a research of the deep roots of terrorism, so as to try to stop it at the beginning of its complex process.

Brief run-down of the author:

Louise Richardson is a political scientist who has a particular interest in studying the question of terrorism. She used to be executive dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and she also taught International Security within this university, from 1989 to 2001. Since 2009, she has been the Principal and Vice Chancellor of the University of St Andrews, Scotland.
She was born in 1958 in Ireland; in the introduction of her book, she explains in what way this has influenced her views and researches in the field of terrorism. Indeed, she spent her childhood and part of her studying years in a country deeply divided between Catholics and Protestants, and in which the study of the country's contemporary history was everything but easy and where this topic was a very sensitive one for all the population. She underlines the fact that during the 1960's and the 1970's she attended a Catholic school, in which she developed a "passionate hatred of England" and admiration for Irish Catholics who fought for the independence of the country, sometimes through terrorist acts. She then studied at Trinity College, where she learned the British version of Irish history, and she explains that it was that, combined with discoveries of some inconsistencies in her family's history concerning the struggle for independence and, later, of the way terrorism was described in general as well as in the specific literature on the subject, that led her to research this subject.
This information gives a key element to understand the aim and the title of her book. Indeed, she considers that it is absolutely fundamental to try to understand, without legitimising it, the phenomenon of terrorism and the motivations of terrorists in order to improve the efficiency of counter-terrorism.

What terrorists want: Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat

Louise Richardson's goal in this book is to show that it is counterproductive to simply present terrorists as inhuman, barbaric and irrational, because it does not tackle the phenomenon through its root causes , which are quite complex. According to her, terrorism is the result of the combination of various factors which do not appear as irrational by those who commit terrorist acts but, on the contrary, are, for them, motivated by rational reflections in order to serve fair causes.
That is why the book is divided into 2 parts, the first one trying to define terrorism and in which she explains the reasons why some people turn to it; she thus criticizes the way the U.S.A. has responded to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and she puts forward some propositions to try to reduce the threat of terrorism, even if she is aware of the fact that its total annihilation is utopian.

Before trying to explain it, L. Richardson gives a definition of terrorism, which tends to be hackneyed. First of all, she specifies that "terrorism" usually relates to "non-state terrorism" and defines it as "deliberately and violently targeting civilians for political purposes". She distinguishes 7 points which must be combined to qualify an act of terrorism. Thus, the attack must be politically inspired (permitting to differentiate it from a crime for example) and violence or the threat of violence must be used. The aim of terrorist attacks is not merely to defeat the enemy but, above all, to send a message by deliberately targeting civilians and, as a consequence, by acquiring a symbolic significance; so, the identity of the victims is of no consequence for the terrorists. Eventually, she considers that terrorism is not an act of state but of sub-state groups.
Moreover, L. Richardson points out the fact that, no matter the recent massive interest for this subject, the phenomenon of terrorism is not new and has existed for several centuries.

She emphasizes the combination of 3 factors to understand what can lead to become a terrorist, namely a "disaffected individual", an "enabling group" and a "legitimizing ideology". The first one can be provoked not only by poor living conditions, no matter how frequently this argument is underlined; for her, this disaffection can appear at both the individual level (black and white vision of the world, desire for revenge, identification with other people -the Palestinians for example- etc.), national (feeling of frustration by a minority, "relative deprivation", that is to say not merely poverty but the feeling that you have less than other people in other countries...) or international level (globalization for example is accused of being responsible for unfair allocation of resources). Therefore, the success of terrorist groups and their capacity of recruitment depend on the ties they have with the society or the group they claim to represent, and the more they appear as fighting for the well-being of a community, the more the latter supports them and is willing to help them develop. But, regardless of the role they can play, the author explains that the social, economic and cultural factors are risk factors but are not the causes of terrorism in themselves. It is the result of the interplay between these elements and a legitimizing ideology. This ideology can take various aspects (nationalism, political ideology...), but nowadays, it seems that religion is the most used and powerful ideology to mobilize people for terrorism.

L. Richardson also conceptualizes the "3R's" theory, explaining that terrorist attacks are perpetrated to reach 3 major goals: Revenge, Renown and Reaction; revenge vis-a-vis a situation considered as unfair or as a declaration of war (occupation of a territory, economic injustice...), renown -which is given by the others- in order to catch people's attention concerning the cause terrorists claim to defend, to spread the fear and to acquire a feeling of glory after the humiliation and unfair situation (or perceived as such), and reaction in the sense that terrorists precisely hope retaliation in order to convince that they were right and that their enemy is the bad one, the one who is brutal, violent; as L. Richardson underlines, as long as there is a reaction -or more precisely what she considers as the wrong type of reaction-, the purpose of terrorists is served.

Indeed, in the second part of her book, she criticizes the short-term and badly prepared reaction of the Bush administration after the attacks of September 11, 2001. In basing themselves on wrong analyses -too much attention was given to the religious factor-, precipitation because of the pressure of the American population and the will to regain their "lost pride", combined with national and international interests (in assimilating S. Hussein with Al Qaeda for example), the U.S.A. made 2 major mistakes. Firstly, forgetting that the war against terrorism is above all a psychological war, and secondly missing the opportunity of mobilizing the international community for a transnational campaign, notably in matter of raising people's awareness with the reality of terrorism. And the U.S.A. fell into the trap set up by the terrorists, in refusing to be bound by the legal constraints on warfare, by using torture and abuse of force etc.

As a consequence, L. Richardson proposes some fundamental solutions to improve counter-terrorism. Firstly, she exposes the "Thompson Principles", which consist in 6 principles of counterinsurgency warfare that a government should apply in the case of a repression after an attack. These principles are first of all the primacy of the political, the coordination of the government machinery, the importance of obtaining intelligence, the separation of the insurgents from their base of support, the neutralization of the insurgents and, finally, the establishment of a post-insurgency planning.
Moreover, she advocates a long-term strategy, which tackles both the roots of terrorism and its underlying causes: it is thus of paramount importance to provide subsequent aid for development for developing countries in order to help the poorest and the developing ones to join the process of globalization; governments should create a fair economy in order to avoid the rise of resentment and to provide the weaker countries with the possibility to have a stronger political weight in the international context. It is also necessary for a state to struggle against state-sponsorship of terrorism, and to help create a more stable context in danger zones, raising the problem of civil conflicts. Eventually, there is a point in tackling the issues that can fuel or serve as legitimization for the phenomenon of terrorism, and the most important of them in the contemporary era is the religious element which is overemphasized to incite and mobilize by a process of identification and the link between the political and the religious it creates. To counter this attractive process, governments should keep in mind that religion is not an explanation of terrorism on its own, but is often, that is why it is important to educate people so as to discredit the extremists, to act in order to decrease the feeling of frustration which can create a vacuum into which religion can go, and, above all, it is fundamental not to adopt an attitude which can serve the discourses of the terrorists leaders.


What Terrorist Want is a seminal book for several reasons. It was first of all one of the first books to really address the subject of terrorism with this approach, that is to say trying to understand it, in a context where the dominant approach was that of merely considering it as barbaric and irrational. Louise Richardson adopts a toned-down approach -with the risk of being violently criticized-, not to justify terrorism but to try to understand it in order to make counter-terrorism more efficient.
Besides, she does not content herself with criticizing previous approaches but really tries to bring concrete solutions. For example, she proposes 6 principles for a government which, I think, are very useful to figure out what an efficient counterterrorist policy is. First of all, a government should adopt a defensible and achievable goal. The author explains that, if the goal is just to defeat terrorism, it cannot be attained as it is impossible to reach a zero-risk situation, whereas if it is to capture the terrorists, it could be achieved; indeed, she points out the fact that an efficient counterterrorist policy should have "the goal of containing the threat" created by terrorism. To do so, it is necessary to isolate the terrorists and to institute repression, as well as to educate the public, that is to say to act with both a short-term and a long-term perspective, using the means of international cooperation, coercive diplomacy etc. Besides, a government should keep democratic principles to show that is it not the oppressor presented by the extremists. Moreover, the knowledge of the enemy through the national intelligence can permit to be aware of and to understand the organization, the supply of financial means, or the plans of terrorist groups. Therefore, a government needs to separate the terrorists from their community and, for that, it should act on potential recruits by promoting democracy, equality etc. But it is important to be aware of the amount of time, of efforts and of critics that are going to be faced to implement these actions. Then, it is important to act with other countries as it provides more efficiency in all the fields of action, and more legitimacy. Eventually, governments should remain patient because, if the short-term perspective of repression could provide satisfying results, addressing the roots of terrorism could take several years before the effects begin to show.

To be really pernickety, a criticism which can be made of this book is the fact that L. Richardson defines terrorism as an act of sub-state groups. This conception is controversial as some people assert that acts of "proxy-war" or attacks like the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 are state-terrorism.
Moreover, we have to acknowledge that the measures she proposes, like the long-term approach, are sometimes very hard to implement, as people are always deeply shocked and eager for their government to respond to terrorist attacks (i.e. the recent attacks in Norway, after which people asked for the reestablishment of the death penalty).
But this is precisely the reason why that kind of work is precious and considerably necessary to try and change minds, and to make people understand the complexity of this phenomenon, notably in the current context in which religion -particularly the Islamic one -, is accused of being responsible of terrorism, and where people who try to go beyond this simplistic analysis are often accused of laxity and/or indulgence.