How Terrorism Ends

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Cronin’s book How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns provides a unique and rare perspective on counterterrorism efforts. In such an unconventional field that is ironically full of conventional counterterrorism efforts to tackle terrorist organizations, Cronin’s book addresses the issue from the other end of the spectrum- the demise of these organizations.

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Cronin uses a multi-level structural analysis to study the demise of terrorist organizations, drawing examples from terrorist groups like the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) in Turkey and Iraq and the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) in Sri Lanka to support and illustrate her arguments. Overall, Cronin provides a strong and convincing argument in support of using comparative studies to analyze the demise of terrorist organizations in the past in order to effectively vanquish terrorist organizations today.

Cronin’s framework talks about the six main tactics that lead to the end of terrorist organizations- Decapitation, Negotiation, Success, Failure, Repression, and Reorientation. She illustrates each category using examples of real events and comparative studies in order to draw the readers attention to the pros and cons of each of these strategies as a counter-insurgency tactic. Starting her book with the words, Terrorist campaigns may seem endless, but they always end she brings light to the fact that every terrorist organization in history has met its demise in one way or the other, and by studying these ends, we can apply similar strategies to combat those groups operating today to swiftly bring about their end.

The first tactic that she illustrates in her book is Decapitation which she describes as removal by arrest or assassination of the top-leaders or operational leaders of a group (16). She argues that capturing a leader and putting him behind bars emphasizes the rule of law and discredits the power of said leader, therefore crippling his overall effectiveness and appeal and hence, it is much better to arrest and jail a terrorist leader so that his fate will be demonstrated to the public (17). Although Cronin thinks that capturing or killing the leader is an effective tactic, she concedes that its not without its flaws.

Citing instances like technicalities leading to release, continued communication from the inside, and short sentences, she explains that this strategy sometimes comes with its practical disadvantages too. She uses the example of Ulrike Meinhof helping Andreas Baader to be released from prison in May of 1970. She also argues that although killing a leader may seem like the easy solution, it may not always have a decisive effect. She cites the example of Russia’s killing of the Chechen leaders and the killing of Abu Sayyaf’s leadership by different parties. In these organizations, after the death of the leader, the void was filled by someone else and the group adapted and continued to grow.

In either case, she argues that decapitation by itself is never the entire solution although they may have profound impacts on the group. She uses the example of Abimael Guzman and the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) which was a Marxist extremist group operating in Peru to illustrate the potential effectiveness of decapitation as a tactic. She explains that, following Guzman’s arrest and his display in a prison jumpsuit asking his followers to lay down their arms, violence fell by at least 50% and the power of the group continued to decline. She ends this section by highlighting that the effectiveness of decapitation as a tactic depends largely on the organization’s dependence on the leader and his expertise and operational knowledge.

Cronin’s next analysis is of the tactic of negotiation. She claims that although many democratic governments claim that they do not negotiate with terrorists, virtually all democratic governments facing terrorist campaigns have been forced to negotiate at some point (35). Cronin claims after terrorist groups have passed the 5-6 year mark, there is no evidence that refusing dialogue with terrorists shortens their campaign any more than negotiating with them prolongs it but negotiations have often facilitated a process of decline although, like the decapitation tactic, they are seldom the only factor that lead to the demise of terrorist groups.

Cronin also points out that although negotiations aren’t inherently bad, there has been a noticeable trend of increased acts of terror and violence during periods of negotiation.

In her book, she also notes three main patters associated with negotiations- a direct correlation between between the age of the groups and the probability of talks, lack of concrete end results, and continued violence during negotiating periods. Cronin uses the Irish Republican Army (IRA) as an example of negotiations that have beneficial long-term effects but also describes the case of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) as the occasional futility of negotiations, where the conflict was marked with failing talks and increasingly dangerous acts of terror and violence. Although she agrees that negotiation as a tactic has its pros and cons, it worked as a tactic with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia- People’s Army (FARC) as the peace agreement between FARC and the Colombian government may be the most successful example of negotiation as a tactic against terrorist organizations.

The third way that terrorist campaigns end, according to Cronin, is by achieving success in their goals and political aims. She believes that the success of terrorist campaigns may not always be as bad as it seems because terrorism has periodically been used as a means to pursue admirable ends, such as the freedom and self-determination of an oppressed or displaced people (73). She says that most Europeans study terrorism with the assumption that terrorist tactics always fail in the long run while Americans, especially post 9/11, study terrorism with the assumption that it usually succeeds.

According to Cronin, the reality lies somewhere in the middle. Cronin emphasizes that the success of a terrorist organization also largely depends on the actions of the state responding to it. Cronin’s analysis of the Israeli terrorist group, Irgun Zvai Le’umi (IZL) is a case in point, where Irgun’s anti-British campaign in Palestine during and after World War II contributed to the eventual withdrawal of the British forces from Palestine. Irgun, having achieved its objectives, became an example of successful terrorist group.

Cronin’s next analysis is that most terrorist organizations meet their demise because they just fail and eventually disintegrate. She explains that terrorism that deliberately targets civilians often loses support for the group and terrorism creates havoc, murders innocent people, is insufficient to achieve political or social change (94).

In this category she describes failure due to implosion, loss of operational control, or marginalization as ways that terrorist organizations may fail and subsequently end. She uses the example of left-wing groups in the 1970’s such as the Weathermen and right-wing groups in the 1990’s like the neo-Nazi groups in the US to illustrate implosion of a terrorist organization due to a generational divide and changing political circumstances.

This category however was not elaborately explained in her book using case-studies unlike many of the other strategies she has analyzed which might be due to the inherent difficulty of this method. She also implies that failure can also be the result of one of the other strategies and methods that she has described in her book.

Cronin’s analysis of repression as a tactic is the most skeptical out of the six. She writes, Answering the threat of terrorism with repressionis natural?even instinctive (115). Cronin concedes that repression is the tactic that is most commonly used by states because the strategic objectives of a terrorist group are provocation of a state, polarization, or mobilization, all of which usually invite a use of force by the state. However, this does not mean that repression is effective. Cronin uses Russia’s war against the Chechens to support her argument because even though Russia has been fighting almost a full-scale war in Chechnya, it is still a victim to Chechen terrorist attacks. While saying this, she does not claim that the use of force does not work, rather she suggests using it in conjunction with other strategies as part of a broader plan.

The last tactic she analyzes is reorientation or The change in Modus Operandi of a terrorist group. Cronin says that terrorism can end when the violence takes another form. Changing tactics of violence of terrorist groups or switches between conventional and unconventional warfare, and criminality may be either positive or negative. She says that when a group moves from mass violence to common criminality, it is easier for the state to fight it and hence a positive shift for the state leading to the demise of the terrorist group.

Cronin connects criminality, insurgency, and war as evolutions of the violence perpetrated by terrorist organizations and she explains that terrorism can end by evolving into or sparking other types of violence, ranging from criminal behavior to nuclear war (166). She uses Algeria and the Groupe Islamique Arme (GIA) as one of the many examples where we can see the evolution of the style of violence leading to this end that she talks about.

The last section of her book applies all these strategies and methods in the context of the fight against Al-Qaeda, explaining how each of these worked or did not work, and their overall effectiveness. Cronin, in her analysis of the different strategies, does not support or prefer one over the other but provides the pros and cons of each method along with real case studies that support her arguments. The case she makes for the effectiveness of each strategy in given situations is remarkable and the only recurring pattern in her book is the use of states’ responses to violence by terrorist groups to their own advantage.

Overall, her groundbreaking work shines a light on a new and seldom trodden path to study terrorism through its end rather than its beginning. Her work How Terrorism Ends may very well be the first brick in a new bridge to understanding and implementing effective counterterrorism strategy.

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How Terrorism Ends. (2020, Mar 10). Retrieved December 5, 2022 , from

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