Book Review: Terrorism Today

Mathieu Deflem

Published in Journal of Contingencies & Crisis Management, 10(1):50-51 (2002).

Cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2002. Review of ‘Terrorism Today,’ by Christopher C. Harmon. Journal of Contingencies & Crisis Management 10(1):50-51.

It is at the present time impossible to review a book on terrorism outside the context of the terrorist attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001. As I prepare this review a week after the catastrophic incidents, the American people are still attempting to cope with the tragedy, unprecedented in level of destruction and loss in human life, that befell their country. Desperate circumstances may lead to desperate claims on the source and nature of the evil that must be overcome, not to mention the appropriate response that is needed to handle and prevent such disasters. Yet, these moments of intense adversity also remind us of the need to move from description and analysis back to the questions that move the society in which we live and the social life in which we always also participate.

Christopher Harmon’s Terrorism Today offers precisely what the title of the book suggests: a detailed description of the current threats and future prospects of terrorism at the dawn of this new millennium. Harmon is less concerned with the historical background of terrorism nor with a painstaking analysis of its relevant dimensions from the viewpoint of social science. However, those are hardly weaknesses for the study at hand, for as the roots and branches of terrorism remain insufficiently charted and probed by the academic community, a considerate descriptive focus is far from trivial or superfluous. The level of detail of information about terrorism in this book makes up for what more analytically oriented works could otherwise contribute. Anyone interested in unraveling the many aspects of terrorism under its contemporary conditions must start with a solid overview of the present-day dimensions of terrorist organizations and activities. Terrorism Today offers precisely that.

Harmon’s book is based on a definition of terrorism as the use of illegitimate means, typically involving the exercise of violence against innocent people, to gain political power. Because of its violent tactics, terrorism is akin to warfare, yet still distinguishable because it exists outside and against regulation from the international community. Because of its political objectives, the ideologies underlying terrorism are important to consider as the motivating forces that fuel terrorist groups and activities. Harmon reviews the core ideologies of terrorism in (branches of) anarchism, communism, fascism, nationalism, religious radicalism, and other extremist philosophies. Bound together by a tactical similarity in means, terrorism is cross-ideological.

From the viewpoint of the application of means by terrorist groups, Harmon differentiates between political, economic, and military strategies. Among the favored political strategies, typically meant to overthrow existing governments and install a new regime, are hijackings, killings of government officials, kidnappings, and propaganda. Economic strategies rely on sabotage, strategically executed bombings, selective property damage, and robberies, such as bank thefts and other attacks on the free production and movement of capital, goods, and services. Military strategies, finally, typically come in the form of guerilla activities, the killing of military and police personnel, or by means of infiltration in security services. The wide variety of strategies indicates that terrorists conceive their objectives to be reached by any and all means necessary and available.

Unlike conditions in the 1970s, contemporary terrorist organizations are often very sophisticated in terms of scope and methods of operation. Aided by newly developed means of transportation and communication, a relatively high degree of internationalism and cross-border cooperation now characterizes most all terrorist groupings. The methods of personnel recruitment, training, and intelligence gathering have likewise modernized to exceptional levels of skill and expertise. Although the 1990s have witnessed the growth of new democratic movements and other beneficial developments of rights and justice on a broad transnational scale, they have also seen counterforces and a resurgence of ethnic and nationalist conflicts. Such times of insecurity and seemingly continual change offer renewed and new opportunities for terrorist activities. Thus, for instance, clashes of civilizations with different religious, socio-cultural, and political roots can be exploited by extremists on all sides of the ideological spectrum. As technologies further advance in terms of mode and domain of application, new social movements may occasionally also bring about more extremist factions that resort to terrorist action.

Typifying the participants of terrorist groups as immoral, extremist, calculated, and educated, Harmon finishes his book with evaluations and recommendations to develop a counter-terrorist agenda that can be effective, while still adhering to (inter)national standards of the protection of rights and due process. Among the necessary conditions for a useful counter-terrorist policy Harmon mentions political will, public support, intelligence and police operations abroad, the imposition of economic sanctions, and, finally, military operations. Indeed, considering the development of what Harmon calls ‘superterrorism’ (p. 245), an option of last resort to successfully fight terrorism may be to employ the machinery of warfare. In light of current developments in the global community of national states in response to the 11 September tragedy, the poignancy of Harmon’s statement that ‘[m]ilitary strikes in self-defense can sometimes be appropriate’ need not be underscored (p. 261).

After a relative drought in the 1980s, terrorism has again moved center stage in social-science research and policy analysis since the 1990s, arguably surpassing the level of interest it had received in the 1970s. Especially because of certain high-profile terrorist attacks in recent years, including the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995, and the attacks on the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and on the USS Cole in 2000, terrorism has become a fast-growing field of inquiry. As Harmon reminds us in this book, the gravity of terrorism, justifying the need for its study and analysis, cannot be underestimated. For although terrorism is mostly not successful in reaching its political objectives, it often does succeed at the tactical and strategic levels, instilling fear and confusion and impacting societies by causing tremendous physical destruction and grave bodily harm. Considering the continuing challenge that terrorism will undoubtedly pose in the years to come, Harmon’s book offers a welcome introductory survey of the contemporary reality of terrorism.