Book Review: Illusions of Terrorism & Counter-Terrorism by Richard English

Suggested Citation

Romaniuk, Scott. “Book Review: Illusions of Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism by Richard English (Ed.).Homeland Security Affairs 14, Article 5 (April 2018).

Terrorism, counter-terrorism, and their intersection have produced painful experiences for peoples and communities in many societies. The convergence of terrorist attempts to harm states and states’ attempts to prevent their efforts raises important questions about the influence they have on each other. This relationship forms the core focus of Illusions of Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism, proceedings of the British Academy edited by renowned terrorism scholar, Professor Richard English. The nine chapters in this volume are unified by the deceptively simple question: how does one shape the other? If scholars were to take stock of what we have learned about this intimate relationship, they would find that very little actually is known about the interaction between powerful states and individuals, groups, and loose networks of violent extremists devoted to violent acts of aggression.

The introductory chapter exposes the gaps in the existing literature, and establishes the relevance of the book by reasoning that scholars have neglected to produce a robust and multi-disciplinary discussion of the dynamic, interactive relationship between terrorism and counterterrorism. In spite of the existence of valuable pioneering scholarship that was subsequently “complemented by a vast explosion of research and publication after 9/11,” there is a need for “a more comprehensive and candid assessment of the ways in which terrorism and counter-terrorism operate” (p. 3). English highlights the problematic nature of engaging with the definition of terrorism and determining whether current definitions are fitting with current international terrorist practices. Additionally, he underscores the importance of re-assessing issues of proportionality and success in countering post-9/11 terrorist threats. Over-reliance on existing policies and practice without understanding what a good counter-terrorism model actually looks like creates a quagmire for scholars and practitioners. The analytical challenges illustrated by English and reinforced by the financial expenditures measured over nearly two decades include the unknown effects of the over-application of force, insufficient understanding of what role regimes play in terrorist support, and misreading the psychological structures of terrorists. The aim of the book is to push the debate on these issues and the broader topic forward through multidisciplinary dialogue among scholars embarking on variegated substantive approaches.

In chapter two, Alia Brahimi contextualizes the major themes of the book and embeds them in the “9/11 decade.” This decade shows, according to the author, that the broad and overarching sledgehammer approaches to combating terrorism, much like the narrower and precision counter-terrorism operations of the Obama years, have done much to reinforce the illusory promise of military power as the ideal counter-terrorism prescription (p. 38). Brahimi analyzes many of the factors that have led to counterterrorism successes and failures and posits valuable counter-terrorism lessons for the future.

Rashmi Shingh, in chapter three, builds on the products of the counter-terrorism operations that took place under the rubric of the “Global War on Terror” over the past decade and a half. Shingh explores three major lessons extrapolated from this securitization program under the GWOT label. First, she scrutinizes the most significant changes that have taken place in the strategic character of warfare. Second, she examines the “law of unintended consequences” (p. 45). Third, she assesses the extent to which the “Global War on Terror” has enhanced al-Qaeda’s ability to mobilize and has strengthened its violent ideology. Western approaches have by and large misread the degree to which people support radical Islamic views, extremist groups like al-Qaeda, and ISIS. There has also been a misunderstanding of the effects of the over-application of military force.

In chapter four, David Omand considers the limits of Western counter-terrorism policy and attempts to ascertain where those limits ought to lie. The author develops the concept of the “‘thermodynamics’ of counter-terrorism,” and applies it to a comparative analysis of British and American experiences in counterterrorism. His analysis culminates in the question:
“[h]ow can a government best exercise its primary duty to protect the public in the face of a severe terrorist threat and yet maintain civic harmony and uphold democratic values and the rule of law at home and internationally?” (p. 57) This question exposes the crisis of public confidence regarding government efforts in the “Global War on Terrorism.”

Chapters five and six by Conor Gearty and Adrian Guelke, respectively, delve into the tension that exists between effectively countering terrorism and respecting and defending human rights and civil liberties. This is an inadvertent and unfortunate by-product of the war against terrorists who may or may not be aware of the strain that the threat of terrorism alone places on the preservation and protection of liberal democratic principles and freedoms. The result is a discussion about “taming democracy” (p. 77-83) and the cultivation of “militarized” and “imperialist” democracy (pp. 83-90). Achieving a fresh and effective approach to counter-terrorism, notes Guelke, can be next to impossible, given the “blowback from the actions of [previous administrations such as] the Bush Administration.” (p. 109)

Chapter seven by Audrey Kurth Cronin hits at the heart of the concept of “ghost chasing,” as the FBI terms it, with authorities pursuing an illusion of terrorism and terrorist threats that are oft-times conflated. State portrayal of terrorism stems from state-level overreaction, resulting from the unpredictability of future threats, thus imbuing terrorists with the confidence to continue acting in pursuit of their violent doctrines. This leads to a tendency for states to drape themselves in the mantle of victimhood. The author illustrates that understanding terrorists’ true capabilities is critical for the ability of states to act on counterterrorism opportunities.

In chapter eight, English analyzes contemporary dissident Irish Republicanism as a case for explaining terrorism’s endurance. The chapter paints a convincing portrait about the mutual relationship between terrorism and counter-terrorism. It drives home the point that misreading the societal roots of terrorism will ultimately lead to flawed approaches in countering it. English argues that effective counterterrorism policy requires greater awareness of how terrorism is grounded in societal level forces.

The proportionality dimension and potential repercussions of state counter-terrorism policies and practices are fleshed out in chapter nine by David A. Lake. The author analyzes the extent to which state counterterrorism responses are proportional to the threat posed by terrorism.

This volume brings together leading scholars and experts from across academic fields and subfields to examine the intricate dynamics of counter-terrorism after 9/11. The relationship between terrorists and state actors combating this international threat in the post-9/11 security environment provides the unifying framework of the volume. It is evident that the book has been designed in a way so that academics and practitioners can engage the content with relative ease. Illusions of Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism, accordingly, achieves its stated objectives. Although one might expect a volume comprised of expert-written chapters to provide all the answers, effectively countering terrorism in the unpredictable security environment of the 21st century requires counterterrorism experts to pose more questions and engage further with empirical data to first produce a clear picture of the threat. This concise volume is packed full of valuable perspectives on a costly era of confrontation between states and terrorist networks. It identifies multiple avenues for further in-depth research and investigation of the complicated relationship between terrorism and counterterrorism. It would be useful reading for scholars, practitioners, and students of terrorism and counterterrorism.

Copyright © 2018 by the author(s). Homeland Security Affairs is an academic journal available free of charge to individuals and institutions. Because the purpose of this publication is the widest possible dissemination of knowledge, copies of this journal and the articles contained herein may be printed or downloaded and redistributed for personal, research or educational purposes free of charge and without permission. Any commercial use of Homeland Security Affairs or the articles published herein is expressly prohibited without the written consent of the copyright holder. The copyright of all articles published in Homeland Security Affairs rests with the author(s) of the article. Homeland Security Affairs is the online journal of the Naval Postgraduate School Center for Homeland Defense and Security (CHDS).

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