That there are contesting definitions of and different, complex causes for terrorism were not new information for me, yet Louise Richardson’s informative “What Terrorists Want” not only provided greater nuance, but also dispelled convention wisdom about terrorists as well as their motivations and (socio-economic or demographic) characteristics. She started with the working definition that “terrorism simply means deliberately and violently targeting civilians for political purposes”, with seven crucial characteristics, before establishing historical origins, complicated causes, and risk factors: “At the level of society, socio-economic factors such as poverty and inequality reveal causes, while at the transnational level, causes of terrorism can be found in religion and globalisation”. Richardson also summarised the contents of her book in the beginning:
“[The book] examines the context and the causes behind the terrorists and what drives them to fight us. It explores the experiences of other democracies in countering terrorism and suggests lessons that can be derived from their successes and their failures to enable us to formulate a more effective counterterrorism policy”.
In detailing these nuances of terrorism in the first of two parts of the book, evidence – in the form of statistics, first-hand accounts or quotes from the terrorists, and other research information – was masterfully weaved in. Insights such as all terrorist movements having two kinds of goals, “short-term organisational objectives and long-term political objectives requiring significant political change”, might seem obvious from the get-go. However, the writer was critical of simplistic causal explanations of poverty and religion leading to terrorism, and made distinctions between the interests and the backgrounds of terrorist leaders and followers too. Whereas the former preferred “philosophical or political aspirations”, for instance, the latter are more attracted “by the nearer-term appeal of revenge, renown, and reaction”.
Throughout the eight chapters the writing of “What Terrorists Want” – in addition to the evidence – is crisp and easy to understand. And having mapped out a more representative image of the terrorist, the second part of the book then turned to counter-terrorism, and in particular focused on the war on terror launched by the American government after the September 11 attacks. One might lament the disproportionate emphasis on the United States, yet Richardson’s six rules for counteracting terrorism should be applicable to other countries. With the United States in the post-9/11 years, she posited two major mistakes (“a declaration of war against terrorism” and “the conflation of the threats from al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein”) and two major missed opportunities (“to educate the American public to the realities of terrorism” and “to mobilise the international community … in a transnational campaign against transnational terrorists”).
Even though the book was published in 2007, new developments – especially the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – have only made many of these aforementioned lessons more relevant. The terrorist seeks revenge, renown, and reaction. “The first it can get for itself; the other two it must get from others”. Governments and members of the public should do well, to bear that in mind.