Admittedly this reviewer approached What Terrorists Want: Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat with more than a healthy dose of skepticism. I was immediately turned off by the way in which Louise Richardson, executive dean at the Radcliff Center at Harvard, begins her book by unbelievably alleging an absence of good books on terrorism or, as she says, the one definitive book on the subject. Her audacity in claiming to fill a void already occupied by the likes of Bruce Hoffman and Martha Crenshaw is at best rather surprising, and at worst, displays an ignorance for an increasingly well-developed field of study.
The author begins her book on a personal note. Her discussion of how she was “almost recruited” by a terrorist organization in Ireland comes across as superficial and unconvincing, and to some, could be perceived as rather offensive. According to most experts, the process of recruitment and radicalization is gradual, fairly lengthy and quite complex, and being Irish in itself is neither necessary nor sufficient for recruitment to the Irish terrorist movements. Statements such as “I was fourteen, and if the IRA would have had me I’d have joined in a heartbeat” (p.xiv) come across as a literary ploy to convince readers of her nonexistent bona fides as a terrorism expert or as someone who conducts primary research in this field. Unfortunately, neither claim (implicit or otherwise) is borne out by what is to follow.
Beyond such claims of “almost was a terrorist” and the oddness of claiming originality and authenticity, the book suffers from a variety of other shortcomings. Richardson’s superficial and disorganized treatment in What Terrorists Want has little to contribute to our understanding of the subject. Unlike research developed after decades of study of the phenomenon (along the lines of the works by Martha Crenshaw, Bruce Hoffman or David Rapoport, or as a result of years of first-hand experience combating terrorism from an insider’s perspective (e.g. of Michael Scheuer, Richard Clarke, or Daniel Byman) or even books based on personal interviews and actual field research (such as those by John Horgan, Yoram Schweitzer, or Jessica Stern) this book offers very little for the informed reader. Primarily it draws on secondary sources already published by many of the authors listed above.
The book skips temporally from one decade to the next, from one case to the next, and blends different kinds of cases of state terror, nationalist groups which employ violence, and groups engaged in suicide terror without any understanding of the distinctive environments in which each develop.
Professor Richardson’s claims to original research are misleading, though she does assert to have interviewed as many terrorists as would talk to her. All of the interviews cited in the book were aired on TV, posted on websites, or conducted by others. Not one original interview (not even of the Irish groups who allegedly tried to recruit her) is listed within the copious footnotes.
The book itself repeats many oft-cited claims to understand the underlying rational motivations (practically nobody in the field still consider the terrorists “crazies,” pp. 14, 69, 117) and the point is hardly worth laboriously stating yet again, to approach counter terrorism measures using soft power tactics (winning hearts and minds of the population), and to blame the war in Iraq for many of the problems in fighting terrorists today. All of this by now has been said time and time again.
The standard history of terrorism from below and above in Chapter Two has been produced three times in recent books on the subject (indeed, one from the very same publisher as Richardson’s book, and written by Robert A. Pape). Unfortunately, there is nothing new or even slightly different here. Discussions of terrorist motivation at the individual, organizational, societal, and state sponsorship levels have been explored more comprehensively in a half a dozen books elsewhere and more convincingly to boot.
Subsequent chapters do not improve on this. The superficial discussion of religious terrorism in Chapter Four indicates a lack of understanding of the complex history and dynamics of Islam or the changes over time in Islamic ideology regarding the use of violence.
As I labored through the chapters, everything sounded so familiar until I realized that anyone who has read even a handful of books on the subject of terrorism will know all of this already. This raises the question: which audience is this book written for? Certainly not anyone who has the slightest knowledge of the subject matter since there is literally nothing new. Only someone with the most cursory knowledge about terrorism will benefit from this book.
Given the sheer volume of books on the subject of terrorism, one should steer clear of such superficial treatments and read work based either on original research or first-hand experience. What Terrorists Want provides neither. The novice reader would be advised to seek out the ultimately more informative and authoritative Inside Terrorism Second Edition by Bruce Hoffman