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BOOK REVIEW: (Mis)understanding terrorism

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By Scott Atran
Ecco, $27, 576 pages

As he states in the pref- ace to "Talking to the Enemy," Scott Atran seeks to study terrorism - "one of the most compelling faith-related issues of our day" - through the lens of science because this subject "has largely been immune to serious scientific study because of its passion." He adds that "understanding an opponent's sacred values may offer surprising opportunities for breakthroughs to peace or at least to lessening violent competition between groups."

Mr. Atran's aims are even more ambitious, as he writes that "this work is also intended to provide more general insight into the origin and evolution of religion, the epidemics of war, the rise of civilizations, the creation of the concept of humanity, and the limits of reason. Whatever bit of this ambition succeeds makes the effort behind it worthwhile."

To accomplish these objectives, Mr. Atran, a prominent American academic who is director of research in anthropology at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris (among other positions), has conducted field research in conflict zones such as Afghanistan, Indonesia, the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank, Morocco and Spain, and he reports his findings in the book.

There certainly is no substitute for conducting field interviews to produce primary data about the nature and motivations of people who turn to terrorist violence to achieve their political objectives. One imagines that the author hoped to use it to support his lofty aims. However, after a careful reading, one has to conclude that the book comes up short. In this reviewer's opinion, this is one of the most distorted and meandering books on terrorism to hit the shelves in recent years.

Worse, it is also a frustrating read because it is two books in one - reportage on Mr. Atran's field visits and an academic treatise, with the transitions between the two at times too sudden (for example, jumping from a discussion of the plot leading up to the March 2004 Madrid train bombings - which, by the way, has been described more insightfully in other accounts - to a brief analysis at the end of that chapter of where al Qaeda is today and why "we are greatly overestimating the threat from terrorism").

His chapters on the origins of war, religion and cognition only distract from any focused discussion of reversing the terrorist threat.

In his visits to conflict zones, Mr. Atran does manage to talk to those imprisoned for terrorist activities, friends and family members of suicide bombers and political leaders of organizations involved in such operations, but instead of challenging their rationalizations - highly interesting on their own - he simply accepts them at face value.

Mr. Atran also tends to distort terrorist conflicts' underlying causes. For example (and this is one among many) he goes to great length to describe the hundreds of Palestinian deaths (without, by the way, providing any numerical evidence) caused by Israel's bombing campaign in Gaza in the January 2009 war but then describes Israel's position this way: "Israelis couldn't stand being rocketed." Mr. Atran neglects to explain the precursors to the war, such as Hamas' continuous barrage of rocket firings against the neighboring Israeli cities and the panic inflicted on civilian populations.

In another instance, Mr. Atran interviews those who knew Palestinian suicide bombers, who describe them as being altruistic or the best of their generation. In reality, many suicide bombers have been shown to be vulnerable individuals who were exploited and manipulated into becoming martyrs by Hamas recruiters. The Hamas influence, however, is never highlighted by Mr. Atran throughout his discussions of how such low-level operatives are sent on suicide missions by their handlers with little indication of how these missions advance a people's tragic lot.

Moreover, some of Mr. Atran's arguments simply suffer from being confusing, such as the following from the preface, when he begins discussing terrorists' motives and then adds, "There's no excuse, 'collateral damage' or otherwise, for the killing of innocents in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, Chechnya, and elsewhere." Does he mean there is no excuse for the actions of terrorists in those conflicts to 'kill innocents,' or is he referring to the counterterrorist campaigns by America, Israel and Russia against those insurgents?

One might also question Mr. Atran's assertions about the current state of al Qaeda. Al Qaeda, he writes, "still inspires, but has no command or control over the grass roots, where much of the terrorist action now is." But, consider the recent cases of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian charged in the failed Christmas Day airline bombing, and Najibullah Zazi, who plotted to bomb the New York City subway system. Both received training and operational direction by al Qaeda operatives in their Yemeni and Pakistani safe havens, respectively, thereby disproving Mr. Atran's "leaderless jihad" paradigm (which, by the way, was originally formulated by others).

Understanding terrorist adversaries' "sacred values" and the root causes underlying such conflicts is crucial in formulating solutions to resolving such threats, but, unfortunately, Mr. Atran's discussions of these issues do not help.

Joshua Sinai is an associate professor for research, specializing in counterterrorism studies, at Virginia Tech (National Capital Region) in Alexandria.

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