What Terrorists Want

Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat

Author: Louise Richardson; Pages: 340; John Murray (publisher);  printed in 2006


Irish-born Richardson knows how to write concisely with depth, coherence, and clarity on the broad issue she herself had given much of her time reading, researching, and lecturing about, terrorism. Little did she know that this very topic of her interest would become a very significant one after the fateful September 11 attacks in New York.  Even before the fall of the Twin Towers, there have been literatures on terrorism, but they’re so broad and diverse, complex and lengthy in fact, that if one would wish to research on that topic, he really has to select the most related and specific. Yet if one wishes to read a comprehensive backgrounder on terrorism without losing the depth and complexity of the issue, Richardson’s book entitled What Terrorists Want would suffice.

The book is clear and simple, incisive, informational, and engaging. While it presented important details on terrorism – its definition, history, causes, effects, and probabilities, as well as critical studies on terrorists – it didn’t lose the essence of higher-order analysis that often asks the reason and logic for the causes of an event or action, and therefore find probable responses to the challenges, anxieties, and trauma brought about by it. The structure of the book is simple and well-organized – divided into two parts only, with the first part on The Terrorist consisting of 5 chapters and the latter about Counter Terrorists, composed of 3 chapters. Both parts give the reader a clear perspective on what terrorism is and what to do about it.

The author discovers the basic features of terrorism, and those common traits common to nearly all terrorists. But as was mentioned in the book, theory without policy is “mere” academic work. Hence, towards the end of this book, she presents policy prescriptions that flow sensibly from understanding the context of terrorist groups. Given the theory plus policy approach used in the book, it may then be useful not just for researchers, but also for government officials, academics, enthusiasts of the subject, and even students who wish to explore the vast literature of terrorism in an ample way.

Perhaps, her experience has an Irish Catholic student in the 1960s and 70s pushed her to join the Irish Republican Army. But she didn’t, that’s what I understood in her way of explicating her story. She clearly mentioned that she noticed why some people hate terrorist groups such as the IRA for some reason but didn’t exactly narrated her very personal account of joining or not joining the Irish separatist group. She made it a point to highlight how people have tended to always associate these sort of organizations to any pejorative act, equating revolutionary movements with terrorism, social transformative movements into terrorism, and others.  The author suggests that it is important to understand where the terrorists are coming from, and from there, find pertinent solutions to beat the problem, or overcome the challenge with apt responses.

It is also important to mention that her citation of specific terrorist groups and individual may have helped the reader get an idea of who a terrorist is and why he does such actions. It is equally important to mention though that the book did not actually provide a general profile of a terrorist. It is clear that even as scholars and researchers have tried to do so, it has become very tedious primarily because terrorists themselves may vary according to orientation and beliefs, much so in personality. Nonetheless, the author carefully laid down 3 Rs that embody the primary goal of most terrorist groups: Revenge, Renown, and Reaction. Her expounding and discussion of these three Rs is an essential contribution to the book because it helps the reader answer the question of whether terrorism actually works or in another way to put it: is it effective? Do terrorists get what they want? When analyzed carefully, in most cases, the answer would be no as shown by the case of most terrorist groups. IRA and ETA in Europe, MNLF in Asia, and others in various parts of the world have not, even up to now, been able to achieve the realizations of their goals. Yet when scrutinized more closely, some of their goals were actually achieved to a certain extent, say, to bring their sentiments to the public, but in a harsh and non-ideal way. They were able to do revenge (by retaliating against the ruling government or accepted standard or idea), renown (by making themselves known because of their operations), and reaction (by soliciting sympathy or negative feedback from the general public). These secondary goals are clearly easier to achieve but takes much time to realize. If they are so, how much more would primary goals be.

The second part of Richardson’s book focused on counter-terrorism. She clearly expressed her argument that the US War on Terror is unwinnable. After the September 11 attacks, the US’ state policy directed itself towards an all out war against terrorism. But Bush’s war of terror particularly against al Qaida and the Taliban, only worsened the problem, according to Richardson.  Although initially, majority in the international community supported the US War on Terror, this eventually faded as more and more casualties added, and as another military venture (this time against Iraq) got into the now more complicated situation. It may be true that most members of terrorist organizations surrendered or were captured, but the root cause of terrorism, and why terrorists continue to do such harsh operations remain.

What then should have been done or is to be done? Do not give terrorists what they really want: renown and reaction. For Richardson, it would have been better if the administration infiltrated the ranks (which is a good strategic goal); get a clear direction that will be used as the counter-terrorism movement’s campaign; know the enemy; separate the terrorists from their communities; engage others in the counter-terrorism campaign, hence forming allies to back your programs against terrorism; and lastly, the be patient and never lose perspective (which is to end terrorism). These policy suggestions are well-thought of, carefully structured to combat terrorism, and eventually defeat not only its leaders, but also its principles.

It may be observed that Richardson favors a lighter approach to combat the problem of terrorism. It is not always force that can solve the predicament by uprooting the main causes of the problem. By applying carefully tailored strategies, and making them clear in terms of direction and action points, perhaps, the terrorist threats will be gone. She argued that the state needs to ensure that military actions do not make political goals harder to accomplish but rather be instrumental in achieving the goals of the state in the aspect of security and protection of citizens.

I strongly believe, and also adhere to Richardson’s view, that terrorism is very hard to kill. Unless you are able to uproot the causes of the problem, the problem will linger and corrupt states or groups that sentiment with the terrorists or shelter them. The American military’s attack against the Taliban may have resulted to the Taliban decline but to the expense of the widowed women and children. Military operations against terrorism usually lead to the decline of some terrorist organizations but they are not an assurance of winning the sentiments of people. After all, terrorists are still human, only enveloped in a situation where he tries to transform things in the quickest manner, but the downside of this action is that it may only worsen the situation.

It is a given that some terrorist organizations fight for something. Some people consider them revolutionists, others idealists, for others they’re liberators of their people, and to most, they’re freedom fighters. Reading this book have actually helped me understand that terrorism, in its real sense is clearly bad – it has no good to contribute to the society but rather decays it. However, it was made clear to me that these organizations believe in something, in what they’re fighting for, and that they are willing to utilize their resources for the attainment of their purpose.

It seems that inequality has always been the cause as to why people resort to terrorist acts. But as the cliché goes, the end does not justify the means. Their goal may be right, to transform a world of discrimination and inequality into a society where each one is recognized as equal to others. But the means by which they convey their promotion of an ideal society – killing thousands of people through suicide bombings, surprise attacks against helpless people, and indiscriminate murder of a portion of the population – does not justify their goal. It is actually ironic that while terrorists fight for the elimination of poverty and therefore achieve equality and prosperity, they actually portray a world filled with violence and hatred, of seemingly endless retaliation, and worse, making use of malevolent actions that affect the people more negatively.

What do terrorists want? As Richardson expounded, they clamor for the three Rs. I agree. And let me add one more, if it does not sum up the three then it can perhaps make the three goals easier to remember: attention. They want attention, and when they get enough attention, they hunger for more. And not until that attention leads people to think of the reason for such actions, they will never stop. But if by their want to gain attention, people suffer; if by their desire for their advocacies to be noticed, bloody encounters continue; if by their longing for justice and equality, fear increase, then what makes the real difference?


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