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Ms Richardson's main claim to being an expert on terrorism seems to stem from being born in Ireland. However, this fact of national origin has done little more than endow her with some sympathy for the IRA and a tendency to view all terrorists through the resulting romantic lenses. The resulting book is mildly useful in understanding and dealing with movements that are actually like the IRA, but betrays a deep misunderstanding of al Qaeda, her ostensible topic.

She begins with a definition of terrorism that is quite limited but useful: "deliberately and violently targeting civilians for political purposes" by "substate groups, not states." This, of course, eliminates such obvious terror tactics as nuking the Japanese from the conversation, which clarifies the terms of the debate, even if it is not altogether clear why we should exonerate ourselves.

Next she traces the long history of terrorism -- from the Zealots to al Qaeda -- apparently for the purpose of making it seem that one terrorist is very much like another. She also looks at what sorts of backgrounds terrorists come from and the socio-political milieus in which they arise. She then goes on to deal specifically with al Qaeda and how we have reacted to them, examining our responses against a template of her own devising. Her "Six Rules for Counteracting Terrorism" are as follows:

• Have a defensible and achievable goal.

• Live by your principles.

• Know your enemy.

• Separate the terrorists from their communities.

• Engage others in countering terrorists with you.

• Have patience and keep your perspective.

Now, these may seem sensible enough in the abstract, but as she applies each of them they're pretty problematic. As regards the first point, Ms Richardson argues that Islamic terrorism can never be defeated, certainly not militarily. And yet the long history she's just given points up the fact that terrorists come and go. Further, she proceeds to cite numerous examples -- from Latin America and elsewhere -- of terrorist groups being annihilated. So the notion that Islamic terror can not likewise be crushed appears dubious on her own terms. Moreover, she pays too little attention to America's other announced goal, the liberalization of the Middle East. It is, of course arguable that democratizing the Islamic world is not achievable, but it looks now to just be a fairly minor coda to the Long War. Note too that it could hardly be more in accord with our principles -- her second rule. When she discusses that rule though she uses it to criticize things like the Patriot Act, Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, ignoring things like the suspension of habeus corpus, the march to the sea, Hiroshima, etc. that suggest our main principle has always been to win the war by whatever means necessary.

It should be obvious now that there's considerable question whether Ms Richardson meets the test of her own third rule. As Lee Harris has written, al Qaeda is driven by a fantasy ideology in which the targets of its terror are quite incidental. This means we can not simply accede to its demands in order to defuse it. As Michael Schuer, the ex-CIA officer who was the pojt man on al Qaeda and subsequently wrote as "Anonymous," says in his delightfully savage review of this book:
One can only hope that Louise Richardson's What Terrorists Want will prove the last shriek from the academy's antiquated terrorism experts, who are reluctant to admit that al-Qaeda poses a unique menace. Richardson, the executive dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, lustily sings the "nothing is new under the terrorism sun" song; her book leads readers on an erudite if irrelevant tour of the histories of the 1st-century Jewish millenarian sect called the Zealots, the 7th-century Hindu Thug cult, the 12th-century Shiite Muslim sect known as the Assassins, the fin-de-si-cle Russian anarchists, and such 20th-century terrorist groups as the IRA, the Red Brigades and Shining Path, among others.

But none of these posed a national security threat to the United States; none is remotely comparable to al-Qaeda and its allies. Traditional terrorist groups have limited agendas, allure and bloodlust; groups such as the IRA, whose deadliest attacks left just dozens dead, are a lethal nuisance. On the other hand, al-Qaeda -- with its potent ideology, its divine sanction for unlimited murder, its operational sophistication and its ambition to create a regional caliphate -- is a genuine strategic threat. Compare a fertilizer-based bomb in Belfast to a nuclear bomb in Houston.
Whatever Ms Richardson may know, she does not know this enemy very well.

As to the last three rules, the education and socio-economic levels of the 9-11 terrorists make it unlikely that we can easily identify such men, who are part of our own communities, not just Muslim ones. However, with what remains of the al Qaeda leadership hunkered down in caves and tribal areas in Eastern Afghanistan and Western Pakistan they could hardly be more thoroughly separated.

Regarding our own relative isolation in the fight on terror, there is something bizarre about the implication that the approval and co-operation of someplace like France is necessary to our war. After all, they did not participate in the fights against Nazism or Communism either, yet few would argue that Hitler and Stalin should, therefore, have been left alone.

The last rule is unquestionably the best of the Six. But it is reinforced more by the first half of the book than the second. In the longer run Islamic terror is unlikely to have any more staying power than did the Anarchists or Maoists and if we remain steadfast we can continue to both limit the damage it causes here and so transform the Middle East that its sources and hiding places dry up. Indeed, whatever her criticisms of our current war on terror, presumably Ms Richardson would have to concede that the biggest surprise of the last six years is that al Qaeda, for whatever reason, has been unable to follow up on its spectacular 9-11 attack. That's not to say that they will never sneak in another blow, but we have been able to resume our normal lives in a very short time. We may not have won, but we are indisputably winning. It doesn't really matter what the terrorists want, we have what we want: normalcy.


Grade: (C)


Louise Richardson Links:

    -Louise Richardson , Executive Dean (Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study)
    -BOOK SITE: What Terrorists Want (Random House)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Louise Richardson: "What Terrorists Want" (Diane Rehm, 9/14/06)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: What terrorists want (MPR, 09/21/2006)
    -PROFILE: War on Bush's anti-terror tactics (Jim Lobe , 9/10/05, Asia Times)
    -PROFILE: War on Terror May Breed More Terrorism, Experts Tell Madrid Summit ( Agence France Presse, , March 9, 2005 )
    -ESSAY: The Root Causes of Terrorism (Louise Richardson, Madrid11)
    -PROFILE: Terror online, and how to counteract it: 'Bringing down the Internet' is not the problem (Ruth Walker, 3/03/05, Harvard News)
    -DISCUSSION: Understanding Terrorism: A Harvard Magazine Roundtable (Harvard Magazine, Jan/Feb 2002)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Louise Richardson: "What Terrorists Want" (KQED, 9/08/06)
    -ARCHIVES: "louise richardson" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW: of What Terrorists Want by Louise Richardson (Michael Scheuer, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of What Terrorists Want (Michael Burleigh, Times of London)
    -REVIEW: of What Terrorists Want (Aziz Huq, American Prospect)
    -REVIEW: of What Terrorists Want (J. Peder Zane, News & Observer)
    -REVIEW: of What Terrorists Want (Robert Fox, Evening Standard)
    -REVIEW: of What Terrorists Want (Leslie Powell, Commonweal)
    -REVIEW: of What Terrorists Want (Peter Grier, CS Monitor)
    -REVIEW: of What Terrorists Want (Jonathan Kay, Commentary)
    -REVIEW: of What Terrorists Want (Anthony Egan, Mail & Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of What Terrorists Want (Gary Kamiya, Salon)
    -REVIEW: of What Terrorists Want (Max Rodenbeck, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of What Terrorists Want (Robert Fox, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of What Terrorists Want (Tom D'Evelyn, Providence Journal)
    -REVIEW: of What Terrorists Want (Llewellyn D. Howell, The Star-Bulletin)

Book-related and General Links:
    ESSAY: Al Qaeda's Fantasy Ideology (Lee Harris, August/September 2002, Policy Review)