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September 3, 2014

Fight against terrorism likely slow and incomplete, Stanford scholar says

Stanford expert Martha Crenshaw says it is time to move beyond the "war on terrorism" to find more effective ways of dealing with threats. While America has no grand strategy, U.S. counterterrorism efforts should be justifiable and transparent in keeping with democratic norms, she says.

By Clifton B. Parker

Iraq, convulsed with open warfare over its northeastern section, is also among the top countries suffering from terrorist attacks. Here, a militant mans a checkpoint outside an oil refinery as fighting rages between government forces and Islamist forces. (Associated Press)

While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to the war on terror, the United States needs to reconsider its strategy in dealing with these threats, a Stanford scholar says.

"For the United States, a counterterrorism strategy cannot be considered in isolation from other policies," said Martha Crenshaw, a terrorism expert and senior fellow at Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation, in an interview.

"This means that our actions should be justifiable and transparent." 

In a chapter of a new book, Crenshaw advocates vigilance against terrorism, while not overreacting. It is not prudent to be complacent about the impact of terrorism on international security, though it is by no means an "existential threat" for developed countries, she wrote.

Crenshaw founded the Mapping Militant Organizations project to identify militant organizations globally and trace how they arise, their root causes and their connections.

In an interview, she said, "We are all fond of saying that there is no military solution to a political problem and that the states that are directly threatened by terrorism, such as Pakistan, Afghanistan or Iraq, should muster the resolve and resources to combat it. But we haven't figured out how to implement these rather abstract prescriptions and admonitions."

She suggested that there is a role for military force and outside powers, but it should be limited and precise in intent. 

America's actions against terrorism should not violate democratic norms, Crenshaw said. "And we should not veer erratically between complacency and alarm, but take a middle ground."

She said context is all-important. "It's frustrating, but there is no one-size-fits-all strategy. Similar countries have reacted differently to terrorism yet produced the same overall outcome."

Negotiation and compromise?

One challenge for countries like the United States is to find alternatives in confronting terrorism. For example, governments may need to decide whether to recognize or negotiate with groups they deem as terrorist entities.

"Is compromise possible?" she wrote, citing failures in Sri Lanka and Colombia but success in Northern Ireland on this front. There is no consistent answer, she said.

An approach of realism and expectations of mixed results may define the best way forward, she said.

"Perhaps the most important lesson for the international community is that the process of ending terrorism is likely to be slow and arduous, requiring gradualism, endurance and commitment despite setback," Crenshaw wrote.

She added, "States may not be able to prevent or eradicate terrorism, but they can manage their reactions to it."

She advocates "capacity building," or giving local governments the capacity to deal with terrorism by building more effective security institutions in the broadest sense.

"What happens at the local level is important to overall international security," Crenshaw said. "Terrorism threatens the stability of already weak and fragile states, thus contributing to state collapse, ungoverned spaces, social dislocation, repression and economic decline."

Drone debate

Crenshaw said that the United States increasingly prefers the use of drones rather than large-scale military options in the fighting of terrorism.

"Drones are a highly efficient means of implementing a policy of targeted killings of leaders of militant groups," she wrote.

Drone usage began under the Bush administration, she noted, and peaked in 2010 under the Obama administration. "Future U.S. counterterrorism strategy will rely on the covert use of limited force, utilizing drones and special operations forces," she wrote.

What are the implications of drone warfare? Crenshaw said that questions remain unanswered about how international law applies to drones, as well as issues of accountability and transparency.

"Despite their precision," she said, "drones kill civilians."

Political violence

It is difficult to predict when and where terrorism may strike, she said. Terrorists are innovative and they experiment, especially when faced with adjusting to new obstacles.

"For example, just when hijackings were thought to be a relic of the past, Al Qaeda combined them with suicide missions to achieve the devastating 9/11 surprise," Crenshaw wrote, referring to the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on the Pentagon and New York's World Trade Center.

She said that Muslims bear the brunt of terrorism, suffering between 82 percent and 97 percent of all deaths. In terms of trends, suicide missions are increasingly used as a lethal tactic.

From 1991 to 2001, there were 170 suicide attacks causing 2,077 deaths, while since 9/11, there have been 2,130 such attacks resulting in 26,866 deaths. Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan are the most common places where terror incidents occur.

Why have terrorists been so unsuccessful in wielding radiological, chemical or biological weapons? So far, the Japanese subway sarin attacks in 1995 remain the only instance of chemical weapons being used by a terrorist group. "Are the acquisition and use of such weapons too difficult? The answers are still elusive," Crenshaw said.

Meanwhile, "cyberterrorism" has largely been conducted by sophisticated state actors – like the Stuxnet virus that damaged the Iranian centrifuges – and not terrorists. It remains to be seen whether terrorists have such capabilities, Crenshaw wrote.

Crenshaw's chapter, "Dealing with Terrorism," will be published by the United States Institute of Peace in the forthcoming new book, Managing Conflict in a World Adrift.

She noted, "Terrorism has been a common strategy for challenging the status quo for quite a long period of time – at least since the European revolutionary and anarchist movements of the late 19th century. There is no reason to think it will disappear."



Martha Crenshaw, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies: (650) 723-0126,

Clifton B. Parker, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224,


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