What Terrorists Want: Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat
by Louise Richardson
Random House. 312 pp. $25.95

On August 14, 1969, Great Britain deployed its army to Northern Ireland to protect the minority Catholic population and restore order following months of rioting. At first, the Catholics welcomed the British. But as time passed, the military presence inflamed local opinion, and permitted the Irish Republican Army (IRA) to cast its bloody campaign as a struggle against imperialism. For the next three decades, London remained mired in a messy, inconclusive war that would claim more than 3,500 lives. In the end, Northern Ireland’s terrorists were persuaded to lay down their arms not by British might but through a lengthy, painstaking process of negotiation.

To Louise Richardson, a lecturer on international security at Harvard and a student of the “troubles” in her native Northern Ireland, the lesson is clear: If democracies are to defeat terrorism, they must understand the terrorists’ motivations, recognize their legitimate grievances, and work toward a solution with any pragmatists who are willing to forswear violence. It took Britain many years to learn this lesson, according to Richardson. In What Terrorists Want, she urges the United States to be quicker about it.



Richardson begins with an account of her upbringing in rural Ireland, where she learned to hate the British while keeping a journal of atrocities committed against local Catholics. “If the IRA would have had me,” she writes of her reaction to Bloody Sunday on January 30, 1972—when British paratroopers killed 14 unarmed civilians—“I’d have joined in a heartbeat.” Her first-hand experience of the IRA convinced her that terrorists are anything but crazed sociopaths.

Richardson classifies the world’s terrorists according to two factors: the extent of their ambitions and the level of support they enjoy among the host population. In general, she argues, the most difficult groups to fight are those—like the IRA, Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers, and Turkey’s PKK—that have concrete political objectives, because their agenda gives them a local constituency. By contrast, groups espousing apocalyptic ideologies or cataclysmic upheaval—such as 19th-century anarchists or the anti-capitalist social revolutionary movements of the 1970’s—tend to alienate the broader public, which causes them to wither or to mutate into criminal organizations. What is unusual about groups like al Qaeda and Hamas, according to Richardson, is the grassroots support they have managed to attract despite their radical and reactionary vision of Islamic society. She attributes their popularity to religious solidarity, anti-Semitism and anti-Western paranoia, and disgust with the corruption of secular despots.

At the individual level, Richardson argues, all terrorists share the same psychological traits: a highly simplified, black-and-white view of the world; a deep empathy with others in their own ethnic, religious, or political community; and a profound desire for revenge against that community’s perceived enemy. Terrorists also genuinely believe that, no matter how horrible, their own attacks are morally justified payback for the purportedly greater atrocities inflicted by the other side. Thus, Osama bin Laden has pointed to the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon as an inspiration for the attacks of 9/11: “As I looked at those destroyed towers in Lebanon, it occurred to me to punish the oppressor in kind by destroying towers in America, so that it would have a taste of its own medicine.”

America’s mistake, Richardson believes, has been to focus on the Islamists’ often preposterous long-term political objectives—the creation of a new caliphate, the destruction of Israel, etc.—instead of on their short-term organizational objectives: renown, revenge, and Western overreaction. Rather than deny men like Osama bin Laden these secondary goals, which are what sustain them from day to day, the U.S. has grandly declared war, treating the terrorists like superstar villains and feeding their appetite for attention. By invading Afghanistan and Iraq, we have fulfilled their fantasy of an all-out battle between Christendom and Islam.

Richardson therefore counsels a counterterrorism policy that relies less on large-scale combat and more on police work, covert operations, and multilateral cooperation. She also endorses American-led efforts to build civil society in the Muslim world, as well as a massive economic development program to address the “underlying” causes of terrorism.

Most controversially, Richardson recommends that the United States start taking seriously al Qaeda’s “political demands linked to American policy in the Middle East.” She goes so far as to suggest negotiations with al-Qaeda deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri or his intermediaries. “I have no illusions about how unpopular a suggestion this is likely to be,” she writes. “But it is very difficult to know your enemies if you don’t try to engage them.”



Of the many books written about terrorism since 9/11, Louise Richardson’s is perhaps the most careful study of terrorists in their own words. Cataloguing all the well-reported pronouncements of bin Laden and other major Islamists, she also provides a wealth of fascinating quotations from spokesmen for groups like Japan’s Aum Shinrikyo, Peru’s Shining Path, and Colombia’s FARC. She offers some good advice, too, particularly with regard to locally rooted ethno-national terrorist movements that fit the mold of the IRA. States fighting terrorism in this context would do well to minimize collateral damage and civilian harassment, and to engage in good-faith negotiations with moderate leaders.

When Richardson tries to generalize from this classic model of 20th-century terrorism, however, she runs into problems. Like any social scientist, she wants to explain all the available “data points”—from the Jewish Sicarii of the ancient Roman era to today’s Islamists—by means of a single, overarching model. But the task is impossible. Whatever the superficial commonalities, the terrorists whom we now confront differ in fundamental ways from their historical antecedents.

With respect to al Qaeda, the most obvious deviation from the archetype described by Richardson is that the terrorists who flew into the World Trade Center had nothing to avenge. Most were well-educated, middle-class Saudi men whose animus toward the United States emerged entirely from the propaganda and conspiracy theories they saw on television, read on the Internet, or heard at jihadist training camps. Their situation was not remotely comparable to that of the Irish or Palestinian villager who bears personal witness to the humiliations, real or imagined, associated with life under foreign rule.

Richardson would point to the many jihadist testimonials that recite the litany of supposed U.S. sins in Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan, and beyond. But her thesis is based on the idea that terrorists are rational—and flying halfway across the world to “avenge” the perceived persecution of faraway third parties merely because they happen to share your religion is anything but that. When claims of vengeance become so attenuated, it should be clear that they are mere pretexts for an ideology of destruction.

Despite her politically correct desire to absolve Islam itself of any connection to terrorism, Richardson cannot avoid the empirical truth. The result is a sort of literary schizophrenia. Thus, in one paragraph she writes, “the notion that Islam and terrorism are inextricably linked is simply wrong,” while in the next she provides data showing that today’s religiously motivated terrorists are overwhelmingly Muslim. Elsewhere, she suggests that terrorism is a generic problem afflicting every religion—because religion provides a “unifying, all-encompassing philosophy or belief system.” Yet the best recent non-Islamic example she can come up with is the fact that terrorists of the African National Congress would sometimes meet in churches in apartheid-era South Africa.

What has compromised Richardson’s apparently good-faith effort at scholarly detachment, I suspect, is the overly romantic view of terrorism that she has retained from her Irish childhood, as well as an exaggerated sense of the sincerity of terrorist pronouncements. At times, indeed, her credulity rises to the level of unintentional satire. In one passage, for instance, she cites a quotation from Ramzi bin al-Shibh, one of the masterminds of 9/11: “In killing Americans who are ordinarily off limits, Muslims should not exceed four million non-combatants, or render more than ten million of them homeless.” To an ordinary reader, so bizarre and arbitrary an accounting of human lives belongs in the realm of psychopathology. To Richardson, it shows rather that “al Qaeda does have a code that imposes restraints on its actions.”

Despite her extensive research, Louise Richardson seems blind to the fact that modern Islamist terrorists are fundamentally different from the indignant Catholics of her Irish youth. Al Qaeda and its ilk believe they are on a mission from God to confront and destroy Western civilization. No “Good Friday” agreement signed in Quetta, Ramadi, or Beirut will change this murderous interpretation of the divine will.


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