Drawing on the extensive history of the decline of terrorist campaigns, this Adelphi explores how this experience can lay the foundation for counter-strategies and makes specific policy suggestions that would move towards a post al-Qaeda world.

Like all other terrorist movements, al-Qaeda will end. While it has traits that exploit and reflect the current international context, it is not utterly without precedent: some aspects of al-Qaeda are unusual, but many are not. Terrorist groups end according to recognisable patterns that have persisted for centuries, and they reflect, among other factors, the counter-terrorist policies taken against them. It makes sense to formulate those policies with a specific image of an end in mind.

Understanding how terrorism ends is the best way to avoid being manipulated by the tactic. There is vast historical experience with the decline and ending of terrorist campaigns, yet few policymakers are familiar with it. This paper first explains five typical strategies of terrorism and why Western thinkers fail to grasp them. It then describes historical patterns in ending terrorism to suggest how insights from that history can lay a foundation for more effective counter-strategies. Finally, it extracts policy prescriptions specifically relevant to ending the campaign of al-Qaeda and its associates, moving towards a post al‑Qaeda world.

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  • Introduction

    Focusing on how terrorism ends is the best way to avoid being manipulated by it. Terrorism has been most effective as a strategy of leverage that draws its power from state action, and when democratic governments acquiesce to it, it is almost impossible to win. The ideal way to avoid this trap is to understand how terrorist campaigns have actually ended, and then drive towards that goal. There is vast...
  • Chapter One: The Strategies of Terrorism

    Terrorism’s strategic logic is to draw enough power from the nation-state so as to enable a weaker, non-state actor to accomplish its political aim. Yet that is not to say that state governments necessarily determine the success or failure of terrorist campaigns. There are a number of direct and indirect ways for non-state actors to derive power from the state, and some of them do not directly engage with the...
  • Chapter Two: Historical Patterns in Ending Terrorism

    Looking at a wide range of case studies across different cultural and regional contexts, we can identify the point or points where a critical mass of factors led to the demise of a particular group. Doing so reveals the outline of a rough framework for thinking about the endings of terrorist groups throughout recent history. While there are no panaceas, there are more and less promising approaches. Pathways for decline...
  • Chapter Three: Ending Al-Qaeda

    Al-Qaeda targets civilians to exploit vulnerabilities in Western civilisation so as to achieve its political ends. As has been the case throughout the modern history of terrorism, al-Qaeda is concerned with the weaknesses of the Western-style nation-state (particularly the United States), from which it draws its power. Terrorist attacks target the fabric of the state, ripping at a vulnerable seam between domestic law and foreign war, the internal and external...
  • Conclusion: A Post Al-Qaeda World

    The history of how terrorist groups end leads to the conclusion that the most effective way to push al-Qaeda’s campaign to its finish is to employ policies that highlight the flaws of the movement itself and the illegitimacy of its actions, using strategies of leverage that counter and exceed those that it is using itself. The flaws of al-Qaeda are appalling: indiscriminate killing in the service of a largely fictitious...

Audrey Kurth Cronin is Senior Research Associate in the Changing Character of War Programme at Oxford University, and Professor of Strategy at the US National War College, Washington DC. This paper is derived from a research project and associated book, How Terrorism Ends: Lessons from the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns (Princeton University Press, forthcoming), completed while the author was Academic Director of Studies for the Oxford Leverhulme programme on the Changing Character of War. It contains only the author’s personal views and does not necessarily reflect the position of the US National War College, the US Department of Defense or any other US government agency.

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