The US and its allies can use the lessons of how terrorism ends to avoid prior mistakes, save lives, conserve resources, and, most important of all, face their adversaries with a broader strategic perspective so as to win… This book scrutinizes the closing phases of terrorist campaigns to lay out an intellectual framework that explains the recurrent patterns, common elements, and crucial points leading to their demise. (1)

Main Points:

Terrorism: (7)

-        Has a political nature. It involves the commission of outrageous acts designed to precipitate political change. (a fundamentally political nature)

-        Although many other uses of violence are inherently political, including conventional war among states, terrorism is distinguished by its non-state character. (carried out by non-state actors)

-        State use of force is subject to international norms and convictions that may be invoked or at least consulted; terrorists do not abide by international laws or norms and, to maximize the psychological effect of an attack, their activities have a deliberately random quality that plays to an audience, either to intimidate or to inspire. (symbolic use of violence)

-        Terrorism has as its purpose the deliberate killing of civilians and noncombatants. It is violence intentionally directed at people who are generally considered to be defenseless, illegitimate targets. (purposeful targeting of noncombatants)

-        Involve three strategic actors – the group, the government, and the audience – arrayed in a kind of terrorist triad.

The only way to understand how terrorism ends is to analyze the dynamic relationship between all three actors: group, target, and audience. (8)

6 patterns in the decline and ending of campaigns emerge from the history of terrorism: (8)

1.     Decapitation: Capture or killing the group’s leader.

a.     A clear finding in what follows is that arresting a leader damages a campaign more than killing him does, especially when the jailed leader can be cut off from communicating with his subordinates yet also paraded in humiliation before the public. (14)  Popular support was more effectively reduced by the arrests of leaders than by their demise, and this is why efforts at targeted killing often backfire in the long run. (32)

b.     Killing the leader of a group that has widespread popular support either has no measureable effect or is counterproductive. In this case, as in many others, the reaction of terrorism’s multiple audiences proves crucial. (14)

c.     Capturing the leader reflects the view that he is a criminal, lawfully entitled to a trial; killing him is treating him as a combatant, fair game for attack. (16)

d.     Adopting the tactics of terror hardly serves the interests of the state, whose long-term primary goal must be to demonstrate that terrorism is illegitimate and wrong. (25)

e.     If an organization’s cause is well mobilized, enjoying active or passive support among widespread constituencies, then decapitation is unlikely to succeed. (32)

2.     Negotiations: Entry of the group into a legitimate political process.

a.     Negotiations can facilitate a process of decline but have rarely been the single factor driving an outcome. (35)

b.     The record shows that wise governments approach negotiations as a means to manage terrorist violence over the long term, while a group declines and ceases to exist for other reasons. (36)

c.     From the government’s perspective, the secret seems to be to negotiate officially only when it becomes clear that the cause is gaining popular support or legitimacy, either through the actions of the group or clumsy counteractions by the government – admittedly easier to recognize in retrospect than at the time. (39)

d.     Groups that negotiate have longer average life-spans than others, and nearly always pursue causes related to control of territory. (40)

e.     Negotiations are most likely to be initiated when both sides sense that they have achieved a situation where additional violence is counterproductive (stalemate). (63)

f.      Most promising circumstances for negotiations: (181)

                                               i.     Political stalemate between the parties.

                                             ii.     Strong leadership on all sides.

                                            iii.     Third-party mediators or sponsors.

                                            iv.     The absence of suicide attacks.

                                              v.     Effective government handling of splinter groups and spoilers.

                                            vi.     An auspicious international context.

3.     Success: Achievement of the group’s aims.

a.     Long-term analysis of terrorism’s viability in recent years reveals that it is not a very promising way to make a living… the average length of time a terrorist group has survived is approximately 8 years… the longest lived groups were those linked with decolonization and nationalism. (75)

b.     Religious groups have had the most staying power in earlier centuries, so there is some historical foundation for this belief. (76)

c.     Terrorism often fails in its aims because its shocking nature provokes popular revulsion and sweeping retaliatory force. (81)

d.     When the objectives of terrorist groups are achieved, it is often not from the use of terrorist attacks (an inherently weak tactic) but as the result of a transition into more traditional means of political coercion, such as insurgent attacks on military forces. (82)

e.     Conditions under which terrorism campaigns have achieved their strategic ends: (91)

                                               i.     When the goals of the group were well defined and attainable.

                                             ii.     When their goals comport with broader historical, economic, and political changes that are occurring anyway in the international system.

                                            iii.     When terrorism is one part of a broader effort, soon supplemented or replaced by more legitimate uses of force.

                                            iv.     When groups can convince more powerful actors of the legitimacy of their cause, especially if it means external funding, arms, and other support.

4.     Failure: Implosion or loss of the group’s public support.

a.     4 typical scenarios for group implosion are: (95)

                                               i.     Failing to navigate the transition between generations.

                                             ii.     Succumbing to infighting among members.

                                            iii.     Losing operational control.

1.     If a group miscalculates and targets poorly, the blunder is potentially more damaging than a comparable error by the state concerning legitimacy. (110)

                                            iv.     Accepting amnesties or other exit pathways offered by the government.

5.     Repression: Defeat and elimination by brute force.

a.     Is a common answer to terrorism, frequently bringing with it enormous costs. (115)

b.     Deterrence can affect terrorism. (120)

c.     Contrary to conventional wisdom, there is a cost to doing nothing. Impressive shows of military force can shore up allies and alliances, by demonstrating a government’s strength and resolve. (121)

d.     How states use force in their initial response is more reflective of their culture and history than their acumen or type of government. The question at the heart of how that dynamic ends is which party learns and adapts most quickly to its own failures – and gains or maintains popular legitimacy in the process. (121)

e.     No amount of force can kill an infectious inspiration – a potential source of countermobilization, especially when it is spread through informal networks operating below the radar of state bureaucracy. (143)

6.     Reorientation: Transition from terrorism into other forms of violence.

a.     Groups may transition out of a primary reliance on terrorist tactics toward either criminal behavior or more classic types of regular or irregular warfare. (147)

b.     The phrase affects the way we frame conflicts, how we fight them, the narratives that emerge out of them, and, most important of all, the degree to which the parties involved are able to mobilize support for or opposition to the campaigns at the heart of them – all of which affect a group’s viability. (148)

c.     Terrorism: We know that, when they deliberately target innocents, without shame – indeed with self-righteous claims about moving forward the course of history or rectifying past injustice – that behavior is wrong and must be eliminated. (164)

How al Qaeda ends: (1670

4 vital characteristics, in nature or degree, distinguish al-Qaeda from its predecessors: (169)

1.     Its resilient structure.

2.     Its methods of radicalization.

3.     Its means of support.

4.     Its means of communication.

Decapitation: Not a promising avenue for al-Qaeda’s demise. If the goal is to end this movement, it would be far more strategically effective to publicly discredit bin Laden and Zawahiri and divide their followers. (179)

Negotiations: None of the promising conditions for negotiations fit al-Qaeda. (181)

Success: Not a likely scenario for al-Qaeda… Its goals could not be achieved without overturning an international political and economic system characterized by globalization and predominant US power. (182)


-        This movement is full of deeply held divisions and ideological inconsistencies that could easily undermine it. (184)

-        It has also lost much of the operational control. (185)

-        Offering an exit to peripheral members may help to undermine the movement. (186)

-        In short there is a growing commonality in the attitudes of Muslim and Western publics; yet the West focuses on itself and does little to nurture cooperation. (190)


Reorientation: (191)

The US and its allies have allowed themselves to be trapped in a narrow dichotomy, where inaction invites attack and action exacerbates al-Qaeda’s threat. To extricate ourselves from this paradox, we must take a broader, more strategic approach to the physical and psychological challenge that this terrorism represents. (193)

Success, repression, and decapitation offer little hope for ending al-Qaeda. (194)

The other 3 elements offer more promise for ending al-Qaeda: (195)

1.     Negotiations: with some of the disparate entities on the periphery of the movement hold potential.

2.     Failure: taking advantage of the serious mistakes that are endemic to al-Qaeda will help us nudge it toward failure.

3.     Reorientation: There is potential for this movement to end its terrorism by reorienting toward activities that are worse, including insurgency, conventional war, or even catalyzing systemic war between major powers… Whether or not al-Qaeda’s terrorism ends in this way depends upon the behavior of states, including the US and its allies, who must tolerate some level of risk and resist being provoked into ill-considered policies that accelerate the movement and are destabilizing. 

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