The endgame of terror

The endgame of terror

Despite their seeming sense of permanence, most terrorist movements come to an end. Being at the epicentre of some of the longest such movements, this may not be apparent to most Indians. The bad news is that the end of terrorism may not necessarily mean the beginning of peace. As Audrey Cronin of Oxford University observes, states ought to study the final phases of terrorist movements with the same fervour as their origins, because that is where the key to ending them lies (How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns). From a strategic point of view, terrorism ends in six distinct ways that are unique to the movement, its origins, genre and several other parameters. One approach to ending terror clearly does not fit all circumstances.

Decapitation, or specifically targeting the senior leadership of the terrorist movement, is the first of these strategies. Israel and the US use this approach extensively, but with mixed dividends. Leadership is a critically scarce resource for terrorists as it takes years to cultivate the unique blend of ruthlessness, charisma, stamina and organizing capabilities needed to lead terror groups. States have two options in taking out leaders: They could either capture and imprison them, or aim to liquidate them. Of course, the viability of either option is also a primary deciding factor, but both of them have different strategic implications.

Attacking the leadership with the intent to kill in some sense recognizes them as combatants, thus legitimizing their claims of fighting a “war" against the state. On the other hand, by capturing and imprisoning them, the state elevates its moral ground and reduces the captured leader to a common criminal. Of course, the latter option is far more difficult for a variety of reasons, least of which is the ability to capture leaders and the high casualty rates in such operations. In addition, the state runs the risk of having to release them later as a result of sloppy judicial processes or other terrorist activities such as the IC 814 highjack in 1999, which was mounted specifically to secure the release of three terrorists, each of whom promptly went back to terrorism with a vengeance (Masood Azhar was involved in the Indian Parliament attack, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh killed The Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl and Mushtaq Zargar has been training militants in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir since his escape).

Decapitation as an instrument to battle terror, however, works best when the leadership of the organization is autocratic and central, and there is no credible second line (such as in the case of Velupillai Prabhakaran of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam). However, the state needs to be cognizant that liquidating leaders may instantly idolize them as martyrs, such as Che Guevara, and even spawn new factions such as Hamas that are far more radical than the original leaders.

The second option is a negotiated end to terrorism. This intuitively appears to be the sane and mature solution, but it is ironically far more complex. From the state’s perspective, it’s a devil’s alternative. If the state is seen to be negotiating with terrorists, then they open a Pandora’s box of factions wanting to “bomb their way" to the negotiating table. Also, many of the demands that terrorists place, such as secession or blanket amnesty for all past acts, are simply impossible for the state to accede to. Finally, terrorist groups are notorious for using the negotiating period for rearmament and recouping, and then reneging on the process on some frivolous excuse.

From the terrorist’s perspective, negotiating with the state is fraught with the danger of creating factions between the radical and moderate elements of the terror movement. Also, while the state wants to end terrorism, many terrorists want to keep it alive because they draw their raison d’être from terrorism. Terrorists, unlike insurgents, do not capture and hold territory; and so terrorist attacks are a necessity for their significance to be kept alive.

Finally, to commence negotiation, it is critical that both the state and the terrorists are convinced of a deadlock. If either side believes it is dominant, then there is no reason for it to negotiate. On the flip side, if the state agrees to negotiate without at least a precondition, such as a stop on all further attacks, it signals its acknowledgement of an impasse. It is perhaps for this reason that historically, less than 20% of terrorist groups have ever had a negotiated end. Northern Ireland and, closer home, the Bodo movement are examples. However, there are certain conditions under which negotiation has a good chance of success. Unless these are in place, it is pointless even attempting to negotiate.

Implosion or self-destruction is the third reason why a terrorist movement can eventually end. This could be because the movement loses momentum, or attrition by the state proves to be overwhelming for it to sustain. Sometimes it is because terrorist leaders are not able to control or motivate cadres, or pass their commitment and knowledge to the next generation. Infighting or internal power struggles is another reason why movements can implode. Indiscriminate targeting, especially of women and children, marginalizes the terrorists—the very population whose cause they claim to propound begins to cooperate with the state out of sheer disgust and fatigue. The Khalistani separatist movement is prime example of such an end.

Raghu Raman is an expert and a commentator on internal security.

This is the first of a two-part series on the six ways in which terror movements end. Comments are welcome at