Sixteen Years After 9/11, How Does Terrorism End?

Sep 11, 2017, 05:00 PM

The current spasm of international terrorism, an age-old tactic of warfare, is often traced to a bomb mailed from New York by the anti-Castro group El Poder Cubano, or Cuban Power, that exploded in a Havana post office, on January 9, 1968. Five people were seriously injured. Since then, almost four hundred thousand people have died in terrorist attacks worldwide, on airplanes and trains, in shopping malls, schools, embassies, cinemas, apartment blocks, government offices, and businesses, according to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. The deadliest remains the 9/11 attack, sixteen years ago this week, which killed almost three thousand people—and in turn triggered a war that has become America’s longest.

I’ve covered dozens of these terrorist attacks on four continents over that half century. After the Barcelona attack and the U.S. decision to send more troops to fight the Taliban, I began to wonder how terrorism ends—or how militant groups evolve. In her landmark study of more than four hundred and fifty terrorist groups, Audrey Kurth Cronin found that the average life span of an extremist movement is about eight years. Cuban Power carried out several other bombings, but, in the end, it didn’t last a whole year.

I’ve also witnessed some transitions that I never thought would happen. I interviewed Yasir Arafat several times when the United States considered him a notorious terrorist. He was a paunchy man of diminutive height, a bit over five feet, with a vain streak. He always wore plain fatigues, crisply pressed, and a checkered kaffiyeh headdress to conceal his bald pate. He was linked, directly or indirectly, with airplane hijackings, bombings, hostage-takings, and more. Israel thought that Arafat was defeated after its 1982 invasion of Lebanon. I watched from the Beirut port as the chief of the Palestine Liberation Organization and his fighters sailed off to new headquarters in Tunisia, a continent twenty-five hundred miles, by land, from the frontlines.

Eleven years later, I was in Washington when Arafat and Yitzak Rabin signed the 1993 Oslo peace accords. They shared the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize. President Bill Clinton hosted Arafat more than any other head of state. I flew with the next four secretaries of State to see Arafat, to discuss the next steps for an enduring peace, in the Palestinian Authority. A quarter century later, it’s far from over. But it did begin.

In the run-up to the 9/11 anniversary, I reached out to eight terrorism experts who’ve long studied the phenomenon at the C.I.A., the F.B.I., the National Security Council, the State Department, the Rand Corporation, and in academia. They identified six ways terrorism evolves, fades, or dies—and under what conditions it succeeds.

Fewer than five per cent of terrorist groups succeed outright, Cronin told me. Among the most notable was Irgun. The Jewish group bombed Britain’s colonial offices in Palestine and diplomatic sites abroad, as well as local Arab targets. Its most famous attack was in 1946, when members, dressed as waiters, planted a bomb, concealed in milk cans, in Britain’s headquarters in Jerusalem’s King David Hotel; ninety-one were killed. The group was then led by Menachem Begin. Two years later, Irgun realized its goals when British troops withdrew and the state of Israel was founded. Three decades later, Begin, then the Prime Minister, shared the Nobel Peace Prize for détente with Egypt.

Another was in South Africa. In 1961, Nelson Mandela founded the armed wing of the African National Congress. Its first attack was five bombings on government facilities on the same day, in Johannesburg, Durban, and Port Elizabeth. Mandela was arrested and sentenced to life for sabotage. Decades later, as apartheid floundered, the white-minority government ceded power.

Extremist groups are more likely to succeed when objectives are limited or attainable, “such as independence, a role in government, or a piece...