On the Anniversary of 9/11:
How Does Terrorism End?
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, Aubrey 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.
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.