Book Review: Misunderstanding Terrorism

National Security

​​​​Flickr photo by Zoriah​​​​

Book Review: Misunderstanding Terrorism

​University of Pennsylvania Press;; 224 pages; $29.95.

A highly readable look at the recent history of terrorism, dense with information and insight, Misunderstanding Terrorism will challenge your assumptions about al Qaeda, Daesh, and the neo-jihadi threat to the West.

Author Marc Sageman begins with a discussion of the terrorist threat to the West, based on statistics. He finds that ground access to Syria warps the threat to Europe because trained Daesh fighters can literally drive to their targets. Attacks in North America may be inspired by Daesh, but they are not conducted by fighters trained by Daesh; therefore the threat in North America is vastly overstated. Overestimation of the threat hampers the efforts of counterterrorism forces and works counter to society's goals through the prosecution and imprisonment of nonviolent sympathizers caught up in sting operations.

Sageman's discussion of the process of radicalization is based on his research into political violence on four continents over two centuries. His writing is concise and blunt. On the futility of political violence, he writes, "Violence polarizes the social world, hardens the respective belligerents' positions, and minimizes the possibility of political compromise or reconciliation in favor of pure revenge. This is contrary to rational choice theory, which predicts that dissidents' use of violence or its threat should force the state to make concessions to address their grievances. Instead, violence forces the public and government agents to focus on the threat terrorists pose and not their grievances."

The book ends with a discussion on how to end political violence in the West. The author argues that if society is to survive, we must learn to look past self-categorization and have the will to work cooperatively. This brilliant book is highly recommended for anyone interested in terrorism, counterterrorism, or law enforcement. It is equally accessible for beginners and experts.

Reviewer: Ross Johnson, CPP, is the senior manager of security and contingency planning for Capital Power. He is an ASIS council vice president and the author of Antiterrorism and Threat Response: Planning and Implementation.