Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Book Review: The Evolution of the Global Terrorist Threat: From 9/11 to Osama bin Laden’s Death

Book Review: The Evolution of the Global Terrorist Threat: From 9/11 to Osama bin Laden’s Death

The following is a review written by FPRI Senior Fellow Paul Springer on The Evolution of the Global Terrorist Threat: From 9/11 to Osama bin Laden’s Death (Columbia University Press, 2014), edited by Bruce Hoffman and Fernando. 

Edited collections that bring together more than two dozen authors are always a tricky prospect. They are hard to coordinate and balance, and they run the risk of heading in too many directions to create a useful product. To pull off this type of a project requires the leadership of editors with a firm hand, a variety of author backgrounds, and a substantial number of diverse perspectives. In the current case, all three factors are well represented, resulting in a superb final product that belongs on the shelf of any reader interested in the recent history of global terrorism. In particular, this work is well suited to undergraduate and graduate courses dealing with this challenging subject, as it is almost tailor written for classroom adoption. Each of the chapters is a solid, well-researched effort that could stand alone as a class reading selection. The only caveat to this argument is that the book is far more targeted than the title might indicate, although this fact is clarified in the introduction. This book is about Islamist violence, mostly that perpetrated and directed by Al Qaeda, which by definition leaves out a lot of very nasty terrorist threats that are active in the world today. More surprisingly, there is little coverage devoted to sub-Saharan Africa, in particular the dangers represented by Boko Haram, and Yemen, the home of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Both of these groups are major regional threats with aspirations toward global reach, and neither are recent additions to the global terrorism lists.

Part 1 of the book concentrates on attacks within and against Western nations, to include North America, Europe, and Australia. Chapter 1 explains the central role in Al Qaeda held by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, both before and after the September 11 attacks. After examining this pivotal figure, the work then moves into case studies of specific operations against Western targets, beginning with the 2004 Madrid train bombings. The chapter dedicated to the Madrid attacks makes the claim that these bombings, which occurred on March 11, 2004, happened exactly 911 days after the September 11, 2001, airliner attacks. Apparently, either the author or the Al Qaeda claimants forgot that 2004 was a leap year, and hence, the attacks were actually 912 days later. This minor, but strange, error aside, the second chapter does an excellent job walking through the participants, the operation, the relationship between the attackers and the central leadership of Al Qaeda, and the role of the attacks in the overall Al Qaeda strategic effort.

Chapter 3 examines Operation Crevice, the largest counterterrorism operation in British history. This chapter underlines the importance of monitoring the activities of Al Qaeda affiliates before an attack can be launched. In this case, those partners hoped to follow the same pattern as the Madrid bombings, but failed thanks to the astuteness of British officials. The following chapter also details British attempts to foil a terror attack, in this case focusing on Operation Rhyme and the activities of Dhiren Barot, who largely operated alone.

Chapter 5 walks through the murder of Theo Van Gogh, carried out by Mohammed Bouyeri. In addition to chronicling this specific attack, it illustrates the issues of homegrown terrorists, lone-wolf actors, and the efforts by Al Qaeda and other groups to get sympathizers to pledge allegiance to the group and carry out attacks without formal training or membership. It also spends some time analyzing the poor track record of Dutch courts regarding counterterrorism prosecutions, which the author argues makes the Netherlands an attractive target for terror attacks. The next chapter examines the case of the Toronto 18, who had no technical connection to Al Qaeda but still felt some allegiance to the group and followed its lead. The fact that this group failed to carry out its attacks is presented as a good example of effective counterterrorism, in that the Canadian government was able to identify and apprehend these actors before they could cause mass casualties.

Read the full review here.