Articles

Aug 20, 2003

Review of Laqueur’s new book

The Deadly Shape of Things to Come
‘No End to War: Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century’ by Walter Laqueur

By Peter Bergen,
a fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of ‘Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden’
Wednesday, August 20, 2003; Page C01

NO END TO WAR
Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century
By Walter Laqueur
Continuum. 288 pp. $24.95

 

In late April, two British middle-class men of Pakistani heritage walked into a busy jazz club near the U.S. Embassy in Israel on a suicide mission. One of the men had regularly attended meetings of al-Mahijiroun, a British Islamist group broadly sympathetic to the goals of al Qaeda. Once inside the club, the younger of the two succeeded in detonating a bomb, killing himself and three bystanders. The other man fled the scene.

In one respect, the attack was highly unusual; it was the first time that a British citizen had committed an act of suicide terrorism in Israel. Yet the attack is also emblematic of a number of the themes of Walter Laqueur’s excellent new book: the transnational character of 21st-century terrorism; the widespread use of suicide as a terrorist tool; the lack of scruple about civilian casualties that characterizes religiously inspired terrorists; and the insufficiency of poverty as an explanation for what causes terrorism.

Laqueur, a prodigiously prolific historian of the Cold War, fascism, the Holocaust and the Middle East, can fairly be described as the dean of terrorism studies, having published extensively on political and religious terrorism over the past three decades. In “No End to War,” he draws on a wide variety of Russian, Italian, French, German, Hebrew, Spanish and Arabic sources to provide a comprehensive and learned account of what terrorism in the 21st century is likely to look like. Although leavened by occasional flashes of a bone-dry wit — at one point, Laqueur dismisses film director Oliver Stone as “one of the giants in the field of conspiratology” — “No End to War” raises a number of vital, serious points that can be all too easily drowned out by the alarmist pitch of today’s political debates over terrorism’s causes and remedies. For those who see some ticker tape victory parade following the “war on terrorism,” he points out that “terrorism is relatively cheap and will be with us as long as anyone can e

nvision, even if not always at the same frequency and intensity.” Moreover, the terrorists’ “aim is no longer to conduct propaganda but to effect maximum destruction.”

So how did we get to this point? Laqueur makes short work of the leftist bromide that poverty causes terrorism. He points out that “in the forty-nine countries currently designated by the United Nations as the least developed, hardly any terrorist activity occurs.” Laqueur posits that underemployment is a much more important force behind the incubation of Islamist terrorism in many Muslim countries both rich and poor, and observes that the mismatch of jobs to workers is compounded by educational systems that have often been hijacked by extremists. But he also says that to understand acts of terrorism, one must “consider psychological factors such as aggression and fanaticism.” Indeed, the vast majority of Islamists are not terrorists, and fanaticism certainly seems to be necessary to explain the actions of someone like Mohamed Atta, the lead Sept. 11, 2001, hijacker. After all, nothing in the Koran countenances the murder of thousands of innocents.

Laqueur goes on to explain how Egyptian Sayyid Qutb and Palestinian Abdullah Azzam respectively created the jihadist ideology and armed movement that spawned al Qaeda’s suicidal foot soldiers. However, the suicide attacks that al Qaeda and affiliated groups have employed, most recently in Jakarta, are not peculiar to Islamist terrorists. Laqueur explains that Tamil separatists in Sri Lanka have used suicide attacks as their prime tool for two decades, yet “Tamil separatism is . . . secular, and its leadership is atheist.” Moreover, 30 percent of the Tamils who engage in suicide terrorism are women. In short, terrorism comes in a multitude of guises, from the 19th-century Russian anarchists who would suspend their operations if innocents might be killed, to the members of al Qaeda who rejoice in the deaths of thousands of civilians.

Laqueur has interesting things to say about the “intelligence failure” surrounding Sept. 11 that go beyond the normal boilerplate complaints that the FBI and CIA underestimated the importance of al Qaeda. Laqueur also assigns blame for much of the country’s former complacency to the American media, which had drastically cut back on foreign coverage in the decade before Sept. 11, and to the PC-prone in academia who, even after the attacks on Washington and New York, took refuge in the usual pieties emerging out of “postcolonial studies . . . and antiglobalism.” Laqueur also neatly skewers the many “important personalities” in the Arab world who opined that Zionists were behind the Sept. 11 attacks: “The main problem was, of course, how to combine two sets of belief that were mutually exclusive — that the Jews had carried out the attacks and that the Muslim world was proud that America had been humiliated and defeated?”

Laqueur ends his book by noting that predicting trends in terrorism is problematic: “The behavior of small groups in a society is no more predictable than that of very small particles in the physical world.” However, Laqueur is prepared to make some predictions. He is not as sanguine as some observers about the eventual withering of political Islam posited by such analysts as Gilles Kepel and Olivier Roy: “The prophets of the decline of political Islam might still be right, but not within the time frame they have in mind.” Laqueur points to deteriorating economic conditions in countries such as Egypt, Indonesia and Pakistan and the possibility of political upheaval in others such as Iraq and Saudi Arabia, where there will be fertile ground for the Islamist terrorists of the future. The attack yesterday in Baghdad underscores this.

And, of course, the greatest worry remains that “it is only a question of time until radiological, chemical, or biological weapons will be used more or less systematically by terrorist groups.” Then we will have truly entered “the age of catastrophic terrorism.”

© 2003 The Washington Post Company

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