Monday, May 26, 2003

Walter Laqueur holds the Kissinger Chair for Security Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He is a prolific author and editor of some 136 books and anthologies on a variety of subjects ranging from the histories of Europe, Fascism,and Russia to Zionism, the Arab-Israeli conflict and terrorism. Many of these books are revisions and updates of previous works, and “No End to War” is the latest version of 10 previous volumes on terrorism, and it is a compelling one.

Mr. Laqueur focuses his attention on the most problematic areas in understanding and responding to terrorism. In the first chapter (“Roots of Terrorism”), he challenges the assumption that in order to understand terrorism one must “investigate its roots rather than deal with its outward manifestations.” The idea here is that by eliminating problems such as poverty, social stagnation or foreign occupation, it follows that terrorism would be eliminated. Mr. Laqueur believes, to the contrary, that “terrorism, like revolutions, occurs not when the situation is disastrously bad but when various political, economic, and social trends coincide.”

In his view, an even more grievous issue is that in the hunt for “root causes,” attention to terrorist leadership and their aggression and fanaticism gets lost. “People who practice terrorism are extremists, not moderates, and [in the case of ethno-religious conflicts] the demands of extremists can hardly ever be satisfied without impairing the rights of other ethnic groups, especially if two groups happen to claim the same region or country.”

Mr. Laqueur’s insights on the latest trends in terrorist warfare are valuable. In his chapter “Jihad,” he points out that the terrorist threat became a global phenomenon in the 1990s when what previously were primarily local conflicts were transformed into a worldwide campaign. Here, groups such as the al Qaeda Jihadists coalesced as a major threat following their “apprenticeship” in the 1980s anti-Soviet Afghanistan campaigns. In an example of how these groups threaten the West, Mr. Laqueur discusses the ways in which the Jihadists have established attack cells among the Muslim communities in many European capitals.

The only thing missing from this otherwise comprehensive chapter is any mention of the use of the Internet, a growing and alarming trend. By exploiting the Internet, the Jihadists have established a Pan Islamic Caliphate in a virtual cyberspace, where they communicate using encrypted messages and manage and direct their worldwide terrorist operations.

Mr. Laqueur’s discussion of suicide terrorism is timely and insightful. As demonstrated by the recent suicide attacks mounted by Jihadists, whether al Qaeda-affiliated or Palestinian, this is the most prevalent and lethal form of terrorist warfare facing us today. Mr. Laqueur points out that suicide terrorism is “one of the most difficult to understand” because the “culture of death” notion of giving up one’s life to become a religious martyr is foreign to Western thought.

Suicide terrorism is prevalent in the Middle East, Mr. Laqueur observes, because, “This is a closed society with the emphasis on obeisance; a critical attitude, so dear to the West in modern times, is wholly absent. Into this society the suicide terrorist is born — or he opts for it in his search for spiritual certainties; converts become more easily fanatics than others.”

Mr. Laqueur points out that for suicide terrorism to succeed it needs organizers and coordinators to manage the reservoir of recruits. He argues that suicide terrorism is most vulnerable to not having “an unlimited reservoir of candidates for such missions.” But this does not seem to be the case. As demonstrated by the continuous waves of suicide attacks by Palestinian and al Qaeda-affiliated operatives, Middle East turmoil and radicalization appears to be able to foster an almost inexhaustible pool of potential recruits, including women, who are ready to die in search of martyrdom.

Mr. Laqueur is on firmer ground when he dissects the inherent weaknesses of an insurgent campaign that relies on suicide bombings, identifying the point at which operatives and supporters of these movements reach the realization that their actions do not bring them closer to achieving their overall objectives. In the book’s other fine chapters, Mr. Laqueur persuasively analyzes the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, intelligence failures that led to September 11, the future terrorism battlefields of India and Central Asia and the future trends of terrorist warfare, including the use of weapons of mass destruction.

“No End to War” is, in the end, one of the most insightful and well-written discussions among the current crop of books on the terrorist challenge confronting us today.

Joshua Sinai is a senior analyst on terrorism issues at ANSER.

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