What Terrorists Want:
Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat

Author: Louise Richardson

Richardson was born in the Republic of Ireland. In 1972, at the age of 14, her mother had to lock her in her room to prevent her from going to Northern Ireland to protest what is called the Bloody Sunday Massacre. Today she is executive dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, a senior lecturer in government at Harvard and a lecturer on law at Harvard Law School. She lecturers widely on terrorism and international security.

She begins by defining terrorism: deliberately and violently targeting civilians for political purposes. Without political inspiration, she writes, the act is simply a crime. And without violence the act is not terrorism. She describes the term cyber-terrorism as not useful. She limits the terrorism she is writing about to "sub-state groups, not states," acknowledging that states have employed terror.

Richardson looks at terrorism across the world, past and present, and describes terrorists as not motivated to defeat an enemy but to send a message, usually with symbolic significance – as with Osama bin Laden's reference to the Twin Towers in New York City as "icons" of U.S. "military and economic power."

The most dangerous terror, she writes, is that supported by a community – the sea in which Mao's fish swim. Some are motivated to use terror because they see it as a last resort, other means of political action seen as not productive. The terrorism she describes requires "a lethal cocktail of three ingredients: a disaffected individual, an enabling group, and a legitimizing ideology."

Why someone becomes a terrorist and not others in their society and culture she does not claim to know, but interviews with current and former terrorists as well as imprisoned terrorists confirm that the one shared characteristic is their normalcy, "insofar as we understand the term." In other words, terrorists are not crazy. She writes that from a vast literature on psychology various points stand out: terrorists see the world in black and white and have a "highly oversimplified view of the world in which good is pitted against evil and in which their adversaries are to blame for their woes," they identify with others, and they desire revenge.

She quotes bin Laden's idea of attacking New York's Twin Towers.

God knows that the plan of striking the towers had not occurred to us, but the idea came to me when things went just too far with the American-Israeli alliance's oppression and atrocities against our people in Palestine and Lebanon.

She quotes the late Dr. Abdul AZz Rantisi, of Hamas, who said "You think we are the aggressors. That is the number one misunderstanding. We are not; we are the victims."

She writes of terrorists seeking revenge and renown. She doubts that the four terrorists who blew themselves up in London in July, 2005, believed that their act would hasten a return of the caliphate. More likely they wanted the British public "to reap what they had sown in the Muslim world." Terrorists are willing to kill people at random because they see these people as having supported what they see as evil, as they blame Israelis for the state of Israel, and people in New York's Twin Towers for U.S. transgressions. Political aspirations might be of greater interest to the leadership of movements, "while followers are more attracted by the nearer-term of revenge, renown, and reaction."   

Richardson does not weaken her position by favoring caving into the demands of terrorists, but she does claim that it might be of help in fighting terrorism to avoid moves that are unpopular and unnecessarily offensive. There were, she points out, many alternatives to deploying personnel in Saudi Arabia, an additional aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf, for example.

Richardson favors a toned-down approach to fighting terrorism, a strategy that does not give terrorists the renown they seek and that replaces "the very ambitious goals to 'rid the world of evil-doers' and 'to root terrorism out of the world' with the more modest and more achievable goal of containing the threat of terrorism."  In her final chapter she writes of having "a defensive and achievable goal, of being clear in the purpose of our strategy."

To contain the threat from terrorists we must isolate terrorists and "inoculate their potential recruits against them." She adds:

We need to ensure that military actions do not make political goals harder to accomplish. The prevention of the spread of Islamic militancy is ultimately a political rather than a military goal, and, as Thucydides said long ago and British counterinsurgency strategy reiterated more recently, it is imperative to keep the political goal firmly in mind. We need to ensure that military actions do not make political goals harder to accomplish.

She writes of the need of democracies to stick to principles as a moral force against terrorism. She believes that democracy can be defeated only by those willing to surrender those principles.