Bruce Hoffman, Fernando Reinares, eds. The Evolution of the Global Terrorist Threat: From 9/11 to Osama bin Laden's Death. Columbia Studies in Terrorism and Irregular Warfare Series. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014. 696 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-231-16898-4.
Reviewed by Paul Springer (Air University, Air Command and Staff College)
Published on H-War (April, 2016)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)
Edited collections that bring together more than two dozen authors are always a tricky prospect. They are hard to coordinate and balance, and they run the risk of heading in too many directions to create a useful product. To pull off this type of a project requires the leadership of editors with a firm hand, a variety of author backgrounds, and a substantial number of diverse perspectives. In the current case, all three factors are well represented, resulting in a superb final product that belongs on the shelf of any reader interested in the recent history of global terrorism. In particular, this work is well suited to undergraduate and graduate courses dealing with this challenging subject, as it is almost tailor written for classroom adoption. Each of the chapters is a solid, well-researched effort that could stand alone as a class reading selection. The only caveat to this argument is that the book is far more targeted than the title might indicate, although this fact is clarified in the introduction. This book is about Islamist violence, mostly that perpetrated and directed by Al Qaeda, which by definition leaves out a lot of very nasty terrorist threats that are active in the world today. More surprisingly, there is little coverage devoted to sub-Saharan Africa, in particular the dangers represented by Boko Haram, and Yemen, the home of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Both of these groups are major regional threats with aspirations toward global reach, and neither are recent additions to the global terrorism lists.
Part 1 of the book concentrates on attacks within and against Western nations, to include North America, Europe, and Australia. Chapter 1 explains the central role in Al Qaeda held by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, both before and after the September 11 attacks. After examining this pivotal figure, the work then moves into case studies of specific operations against Western targets, beginning with the 2004 Madrid train bombings. The chapter dedicated to the Madrid attacks makes the claim that these bombings, which occurred on March 11, 2004, happened exactly 911 days after the September 11, 2001, airliner attacks. Apparently, either the author or the Al Qaeda claimants forgot that 2004 was a leap year, and hence, the attacks were actually 912 days later. This minor, but strange, error aside, the second chapter does an excellent job walking through the participants, the operation, the relationship between the attackers and the central leadership of Al Qaeda, and the role of the attacks in the overall Al Qaeda strategic effort.
Chapter 3 examines Operation Crevice, the largest counterterrorism operation in British history. This chapter underlines the importance of monitoring the activities of Al Qaeda affiliates before an attack can be launched. In this case, those partners hoped to follow the same pattern as the Madrid bombings, but failed thanks to the astuteness of British officials. The following chapter also details British attempts to foil a terror attack, in this case focusing on Operation Rhyme and the activities of Dhiren Barot, who largely operated alone.
Chapter 5 walks through the murder of Theo Van Gogh, carried out by Mohammed Bouyeri. In addition to chronicling this specific attack, it illustrates the issues of homegrown terrorists, lone-wolf actors, and the efforts by Al Qaeda and other groups to get sympathizers to pledge allegiance to the group and carry out attacks without formal training or membership. It also spends some time analyzing the poor track record of Dutch courts regarding counterterrorism prosecutions, which the author argues makes the Netherlands an attractive target for terror attacks. The next chapter examines the case of the Toronto 18, who had no technical connection to Al Qaeda but still felt some allegiance to the group and followed its lead. The fact that this group failed to carry out its attacks is presented as a good example of effective counterterrorism, in that the Canadian government was able to identify and apprehend these actors before they could cause mass casualties.
Chapter 7 shifts the focus to Australia, where Operation Pendennis exposed the first Australian suicide bomber. An intercepted telephone call exposed a Melbourne terror cell, although it was the Sydney cell that presented the greater danger due to its desire to use chemical or high-explosive bombs. As yet another counterterrorism success, this operation demonstrates that while terror organizations might claim a global reach, effective counterterrorism techniques have also spread throughout the Western world. The next chapter makes the unfortunate decision to return to the London bombings of 2005, previously discussed in chapter 3, aptly demonstrating some of the difficulty in editing these types of collections. The awkward turning back to Operation Crevice largely covers the same material without offering any significant new arguments. Chapter 9 examines the 2006 airline plots that intended to attack Heathrow departures headed to the United States and Canada. The international links and meticulous planning that undergirded these failed attacks show the increased sophistication and continued danger of airline hijackings, even with the massively enhanced security procedures of the post-9/11 world.
Chapters 10 through 14 constitute a series of short case studies, including an examination of groups and plots active in Italy, Germany, Denmark, Spain, and France. Each serves to bolster the overall theme of the work, that Al Qaeda and its offshoots represent a global terrorism threat that can only be countered by a truly global response. The individual efforts of single nations might serve to spoil or mitigate the effects of one attack, but they can do little to disrupt the group as a whole, particularly because Al Qaeda has the advantage of choosing where and when to launch its attacks, and can operate with greater coordination than the governments it seeks to damage and destroy.
Part 2 of the book concentrates on areas outside of the West. By breaking the work into two major sections, the editors essentially ease the lay reader into the concepts of global terrorism, beginning with attacks that are likely more familiar to Western readers and then broadening their discussion to encompass non-Western events. Chapter 15 provides an examination of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, where the group is not very popular, in part due to its direct support toward insurgent groups. The next chapter, an extremely short group overview of al-Jemaah al-Islamiyah in Southeast Asia, is an examination with so little depth as to be almost worthless and ultimately is the most disappointing chapter of the book.
Chapter 17 returns to the case study model of examining a single attack while drawing larger lessons about Al Qaeda’s activities. In this case, the study analyzes a series of missile attacks in Mombasa against El Al airliners. While the attacks failed, they demonstrated a renewed focus on soft targets that might cause mass casualties. The following chapter looks at the same general concept in Iraq, specifically examining the sectarian terror created by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in his attempts to trigger a civil war. Most of the attacks carried out by his group, Al Qaeda in Iraq, were aimed at civilian groups with little or no government protection, assuming it would cause massive retaliatory measures. The larger point is that terror groups, even those with enormous resources and long reach like Al Qaeda, cannot achieve their objectives on their own—they require massive assistance from larger groups or unforced errors, usually in the form of overreactions, from the targeted states.
Chapter 19 analyzes the Istanbul attacks of 2003, which targeted Jewish and British citizens. This is one of the few chapters not directly examining an Al Qaeda group or plot, as the perpetrators came from a Kurdish organization. Chapter 20 also looks at a non-Al Qaeda case, specifically the attacks against Israeli targets in the Sinai from 2004 through 2006 that were carried out by Salafist perpetrators. Both are relatively short case studies that demonstrate the point that Al Qaeda is not the only group that carries out these types of attacks, or chooses these specific targets, although it is by far the largest and most dangerous organization to date.
Chapter 21 points out that the myth of Moroccan exceptionalism was punctured by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s attacks of 2003 and 2007. These attacks caused little damage but provoked a legislative response that included religious reforms. Because the government reacted strongly and the population demonstrated support for the reforms, Al Qaeda found little sympathy among the citizens of Morocco, and the government saw little need to appease religious radicals. The round of 2007 suicide bombings in Algiers also met with a strong government response, forcing Al Qaeda to minimize civilian deaths and focus its efforts on kidnapping tourists for ransom. In comparison, the attacks launched by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, carried out in 2003 in Riyadh and 2008 in Sanaa, showed that this group retained its primary focus against the United States, and as a result, provoked a far weaker government response.
Chapter 24 provides an overview of Pakistani terrorist organizations, with a focus on the 2008 Mumbai attacks. It argues that Lashkar-e-Taibi operates under the direction of Pakistani intelligence officers, and because it does not target Pakistanis, it has garnered little official response beyond a pro forma condemnation of its violent activities. The last case study chapter analyzes the 2010 suicide attacks in Kampala, Uganda, which targeted watchers of the World Cup. The perpetrators of the attack, members of Al Shabaab, had recently pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda, creating a dangerous partnership that expanded the parent organization’s reach into a previously ignored region.
In many ways, this book is fundamentally about Al Qaeda as a global terror movement. Through expansions, alliances, affiliations, and influence, Al Qaeda has managed to increase its power and volatility to become the first truly global terror organization. However, there is no set pattern of Al Qaeda’s behavior toward affiliated groups, making predictions regarding the group’s activities particularly difficult. The core group of Al Qaeda has proven extremely resilient, and is responsible for directing almost all of the international terror attacks against the United States and the United Kingdom for the past fifteen years. At the same time, counterterrorism strategies have continued to improve, and global cooperation in reacting to and reducing the threat presented by Al Qaeda has shown a long-term increase in successful efforts to disrupt and destroy Al Qaeda.
Overall, this book is an excellent single-volume source on the rise, activities, and possible decline of Al Qaeda. While some of the chapters are uneven in style, length, and quality, the total of the work far exceeds the sum of its parts. It is a worthy addition to the shelves of any reader interested in terrorism, Al Qaeda, and global efforts to counter radical, violent ideology.
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Paul Springer. Review of Hoffman, Bruce; Reinares, Fernando, eds., The Evolution of the Global Terrorist Threat: From 9/11 to Osama bin Laden's Death.
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