Tom Parker. Avoiding the Terrorist Trap: Why Respect for Human Rights is the Key to Defeating Terrorism. London: World Scientific, 2019. 841 pp. ISBN: 978-1-7832-6654-8.
US $188.- £ 165.- (Hardback); US $ 39.95 (Kindle e-book at amazon. com).
Reviewed by Alex P. Schmid
Perspectives on Terrorism, Volume 13, Issue 4 (August 2019)
Terrorism is ‘hard’ and human rights are ‘soft’ in the perception of many people. The subtitle of Tom Parker’s book, implying that the soft power of acting within the confines of a human rights framework can defeat terrorism is therefore intriguing. Who is the author of this book who tries to convince us to put human rights at the heart of counter-terrorism? An idealist with his head in the clouds and far removed from the realities on the ground in places like Iraq? Nothing could be further from the truth. Tom Parker has an intelligence background and has worked for both the British MI5 and for the US section of Amnesty International. As an advisor, he has worked in more than half a dozen war zones as well as in New York where he co-authored the UN Secretary-General’s “Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism.” Parker has academic credentials too, from the London School of Economics and from Leiden University, but has also survived two bomb attacks in London and Baghdad. This book, which has been in the making for many years, reflects the author’s rich personal experience which lends weight to his arguments. In more than 800 pages, the author explains why holding the moral high ground in the fight against terrorism is not a luxury few governments under siege can afford but actually something that makes eminent sense.
One of Parker’s central contentions is “that terrorism is an essentially contingent political tactic – any success depends in large part on the manner in which the target state chooses to respond to terrorist activity’ (p.28). Under President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney the US government embraced after 9/11 what the Vice President termed ‘the dark side’ which led, among other human rights violations, to the torture practices in Abu Ghraib in Iraq. Seeking to provoke an over-reaction is, according to Tom Parker’s reading of terrorist strategy papers, one of the six core concepts underlying the use of violence by terrorist groups – the other five being asymmetrical warfare, waging a war of attrition, propaganda by deed, charismatic leadership (the construction of revolutionary prototypes and martyrs), and building legitimacy (p.28 and 203).
Part I (pp. 33-205) of the book looks at terrorism from the perspectives of its practitioners, exploring the strategies and tactics behind the ‘philosophy of the bomb’. Having extracted the essence from studying the terrorist playbooks, one of Parker’s conclusions is – and it applies especially to democracies - that ‘the genius of terrorism is that it turns us into our own worst enemies’ (p.142). Part II (pp 206-458) looks at what the social sciences have found out about violent extremism. Like in the first part, where he combed out the strategic thinking of terrorists and their intellectual godfathers, Parker scans the by now very large academic literature on terrorism, summarising what he finds useful to make his case. He finds that indiscriminate state repression e.g. in the form of police brutality, tends to inflame feelings of rage and calls for revenge, thereby greatly facilitating terrorist recruitment. One of the most solid findings from big-data quantitative studies on terrorism that Parker surveyed is that “while poverty did not correlate in absolute terms to an increase in terrorism, human rights abuses and the suppression of civil liberties did” (p.451). Heavy-handed coercive actions by state actors are, however, not the only radicalizing factor Parker found in the academic literature. Other push factors that can radicalise people and turn some of them into terrorists are “selective empathy for those suffering, the quest for self-actualization, supportive like-minded social networks, grievances with at least some social legitimacy [and] a sense of social or political exclusion” (p.456).
In Part III (pp.459-768) the author explores the ineffectual ways many governments have reacted to the challenge of non-state terrorism. He shows that again and again democratic governments have fallen into the terrorist trap as if they had learned nothing from the past. “States would be wise to respect human rights precisely because terrorist groups want states to abuse them”, Parker concludes (p.761), after citing statements of terrorist insiders pointing in this direction. The author’s survey of what went wrong in past counter-terrorist campaigns and his practical experience gained in present ones combine to make this a powerful book. After reading it, even a sceptical reader might be more inclined to support his conclusion that “Placing human rights at the center of the state’s counter-terrorist response is not only the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do as
Coming from a CT practitioner who is also a scholar, Tom Parker’s volume carries an authority that few other works in the field of (counter-) terrorism studies possess. Its length should not deter readers for the book is well written, with fascinating historical and contemporary details spicing his account.
About the Reviewer: Alex P. Schmid is Editor-in-Chief of ‘Perspectives on Terrorism’.
Tom Parker. Avoiding the Terrorist Trap: Why Respect for Human Rights is the Key to Defeating Terrorism. London and Singapore: World Scientific, 2019. 892 pp., £200 hardcover 978-1-78326-654-8, £39.95 e-book 978-1-78326-656-2
Reviewed by Charles Garraway
Global Policy, Volume 11, Issue 3 (June 2020)
This is not a book for the faint hearted. At 798 pages of text and a total of almost 900 pages, it covers a huge range of material but in a logically themed manner. The author describes it as “not so much a book about the importance of human rights, as it is a book about defeating, or at least containing, terrorism” (page 1). It is this focus on terrorism itself and the need for an effective counter-terrorism regime that distinguishes it from many other books that deal with terrorism and human rights.
The book is in three main parts. The first “explores the phenomenon of terrorism from the terrorists’ perspective” (page 28); the second asks “why individual terrorists turn to violence” (page 29); the third looks at the various legal regimes and argues that “these rules – when followed – can actively prevent states from falling into the kinds of tactical and strategic traps deliberately set by terrorist groups” (page 30).
What follows is a detailed review of terrorism in its many facets down the ages with individual cases cited in detail. This is accompanied by a review also of social science and the law as it relates to terrorist activities, again interwoven with case studies. Inevitably, there is a degree of overlap in the case studies, but care is taken to ensure that only the factors relevant to the issue under consideration are given at any one place. This reduces any feeling of repetition. I was only able to find one example where a quotation was used twice in close proximity (on pages 252 and 254).
It is impossible in a short review to do justice to the depth of research and scholarship, but I will seek to comment on each section in turn. After an introduction which examines the difficulty of defining terrorism, the aim of Part I is described as reviewing “a representative geographic and temporal sample of primary sources ... to identify the common strategies employed by terrorist groups, the core objectives sought through these strategies, and the thought processes underpinning their use” (page 34). There follow six sub-headings: asymmetrical warfare, attrition, propaganda by deed, the revolutionary prototype, provoking an overreaction, and building legitimacy, each with its own short summary. The author states that “terrorists don’t stop at trying to neutralize the coercive organs of a state, they actively seek to put them to work on their behalf” (page 117) and later “the genius of terrorism is that it turns us into our own worst enemies” (page 142). Here, one begins to see the argument that the state must resist being manipulated by the terrorist into acting in a way that, in effect, helps the terrorist cause.
Part II looks at social science and violent extremism and whilst accepting that all motives are individual, it seeks to draw out five core themes in radicalization literature. These are empathy, self-actualization, social networks, poverty and government aggression. The author points out that “terrorists are essentially normal individuals who exhibit ordinary personality features albeit resulting in extraordinary behavior” (page 288). Poverty is a disputed issue and a terrorist is perhaps better described perhaps as a “want-more” rather than a “have-not” type of person. However, poverty features consistently in terrorist narratives and thus “whether or not it is a ‘root cause’, it is still ... part of the radicalization equation” (page 355). The core circumstances are summed up in the conclusion as “selective empathy for those suffering, the quest for self-actualization, supportive like-minded social networks, grievances with at least some social legitimacy, a sense of social or political exclusion, and heavy-handed coercive action by state actors “ (page 456). Not all factors will be present in any particular case.
Part III looks at the various “red lines” imposed by legal constraints and examines the question “whether or not it is possible to mount an effective response to terrorism without crossing these red lines and moreover whether crossing any of these red lines has ever proved to be a productive counter-terrorism tactic” (page 461). There follows a lengthy overview of these legal constraints and the author states as his aim that he “will seek to demonstrate that international human rights law affords states more than sufficient latitude for effective operational activity … [and] will also seek to demonstrate that when governments depart from the human rights framework, they accrue little, if any, material advantage and also pay a heavy reputational cost that can encourage further terrorist attacks” (page 495). This is a bold aim, but the author puts forward a persuasive argument. His legal analysis is generally sound though, as he is not a lawyer, there are occasional points where legal nuances may be overlooked, particularly in the boundaries between law enforcement and armed conflict, and between non-international and international armed conflict. There is some confusion between the giving of orders and the doctrine of “command responsibility” and on the controversial topic of “direct participation in hostilities”; but none of these points takes away from the compelling nature of the argument put forward.
The conclusion is firm and well expressed. “Placing human rights at the center of the state’s counter-terrorist response is not only the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do as well” (page 767). The author also includes a warning that “[i]n a world where an accusation of terrorism can be used as a pretext to launch a military strike or covert action, the potential risks to democratic life and legitimate protest are very real indeed” (page 758). Put simply, democracy may be at greater risk from measures taken in the name of counter-terrorism than from terrorism itself.
This book makes uncomfortable reading both in its detailed analysis of terrorism and its causes, and in the critique of state responses, particularly in modern times. It is unusual to have such a defence of a “human rights framework” from a counter-terrorism practitioner rather than from within the legal fraternity. It is this that makes the case even more persuasive. All who are involved in counter-terrorism strategy should consider carefully the arguments put forward. The case is perhaps best summed up in the telling statement by the author: “The uncomfortable reality is that the existential threat posed by terrorism is not posed by the attack itself – it is posed by how we respond” (page 770).
About the Reviewer: Professor Charles Garraway is Fellow at the Human Rights Centre, in the University of Essex.
Tom Parker, Avoiding the Terrorist Trap: Why Respect for Human Rights is the Key to Defeating Terrorism (World Scientific, 2019), ISBN 9781783266548, 892 pages.
Reviewed by William J. Aceves
Human Rights Quarterly, Volume 42, Number 3 (August 2020)
Throughout history, states have long struggled with how best to address terrorism. From Narodnaya Volya of the nineteenth century to Al-Qaeda in modern times, the question remains: how can terrorism be contained, if not defeated? Avoiding the Terrorist Trap by Tom Parker addresses this question directly and offers a simple answer—by respecting human rights. Any strategy for addressing terrorism must include an affirmation of human rights and must reject framing the struggle against terrorism as one of “might makes right.”This avoids the terrorist trap—an overreaction by states that polarizes op- position and brings legitimacy to a terrorist group. Moreover, fighting terrorism should not devolve to the simple use of brute force, akin to the Ogre in W.H. Auden’s masterful poem, August 1968, an excerpt of which opens the book. Auden wrote “[t]he Ogre does what ogres can.” But in fighting ogres, Parker argues, “it is not necessary to become one in the process to defeat them.”
While it may not be necessary to become an ogre, it can certainly help to study them and, through this process, defeat them. This highlights one of the book’s greatest assets. Parker offers countless examples of the writings of terrorists, from leaders to rank-and-file members. Their words appear throughout each chapter, highlighting terrorist groups from around the world. Most of these groups are well-known and caused untold suffering in pursuit of their individual causes: Boko Haram, Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN), Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), Irish Republican Army, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Ku Klux Klan, Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Red Army Faction, and Sendero Luminoso. Yet Parker does not limit his source material to terrorist organizations. He includes numerous statements from political theorists and national leaders, including Mikhail Bakunin, Menachem Begin, Fidel Castro, Michael Collins, and Mao Tse-tung. He also addresses the work of established scholars on terrorism.
Understanding the root causes of terrorism is difficult because terrorism itself is deeply complicated. Even the definition of terrorism remains contested. Parker’s approach, while perhaps subject to criticism as legally imprecise, defines terrorism as “repetitive violent acts committed by clandestine non-state actors that deliberately target civilians for political ends.”
Avoiding the Terrorist Trap is divided into three sections. Part I addresses the strategies used by terrorists to pursue their ideological and political goals. Part II then addresses the causes of terrorism and the creation of terrorists. Finally, Part III proposes several methods for countering terrorism. Given the causes of terrorism and the strategies terrorists use to promote their goals, a focus on human rights is essential. To be clear, Parker is not writing a book about human rights. This is a book about fighting terrorism. However, Parker argues that fighting terrorism in an effective manner requires an acceptance of human rights.
II. TERRORIST STRATEGIES
To better understand the strategies used by terrorists to promote their causes, Parker considers their own words. As he points out, “[t]errorists and their supporters are surprisingly prolific authors.” Based on his review of their writings, Parker generates a list of six common strategies used by terrorists to promote their causes.
Terrorist groups have long recognized they cannot match states in pure firepower. As a result, asymmetrical warfare offers terrorists a way to benefit from their smaller size and more limited resources. This includes decentralized systems of command and control as well as the methodologies of attack. “Terrorists typically seek to keep their opponents perpetually off-balance by varying the geographic focus of their actions, the tempo of their attacks, and the type of target selected.” Extending the conflict is another common strategy. “Closely allied to the concept of asymmetrical warfare in terrorist operations is the idea that the cumulative effective of consecutive attacks will wear down the enemy, both as a consequence of the attacks themselves and by forcing the state to adopt a defensive posture.” Through a strategy of attrition, terrorist groups are able to extend their resources, avoid direct engagement with state forces, and prolong the conflict. Indeed, “[t]he constant detrition of this sense of stability and security is one of the core goals of most terrorist groups.”
Terrorist attacks are often viewed as deeply symbolic. According to Parker, “[t]errorists use violence in large part discursively to promote narratives that attract support and undermine opponents’ claims of legitimacy.” Propaganda by deed is thus an essential strategy for terrorist groups. High-profile attacks are meant to send a message—targets are carefully selected, and the media is used to amplify their impact. The use of explosives, which are highly visible and destructive, is both symbolic and effective. The importance of symbolism extends to the leadership structure of terrorist groups. The revolutionary prototype is a charismatic leader who inspires devotion and commands respect. Indeed, the history of terrorism is replete with leaders who built a cult of personality—Yasser Arafat, Che Guevara, Abimael Guzman, Osama bin Laden, Illich Ramirez Sanchez, and Abu al-Zarqawi. Even the concept of martyrdom, which is ever-present in terrorist groups, is really about the symbolism of the ultimate sacrifice and further reinforces the concept of propaganda by deed.
In selecting their targets, terrorist groups are quite strategic, and it is here where the “terror trap” is most evident. Terrorists anticipate that states will react to attacks, and so attacks are designed to provoke an overreaction. “By crafting attacks designed to provoke a draconian state response, terrorists hope to exploit the inevitable societal polarization that . . . attract[s] new recruits to their banner while undermining the state’s own claim to be acting legitimately.” Surprisingly, Parker notes that democracies are most susceptible to overreaction because politicians in democracies are most responsive to the electorate. This is a powerful statement, and it merits further elaboration.
Finally, terrorists work to build legitimacy, particularly within their communities. While legitimacy is a contested value, Parker identifies two core narratives common to terrorist groups. The first narrative “promotes the practicality of a given course of action—to attract significant support, a terrorist group must be able to make a persuasive case that it can achieve its declared objectives and that the strategy it is pursuing is viable.” The second narrative proposes that the terrorist group “is morally right to take the action it is taking, and that by doing so it will be able to offer a more attractive future to its supporters.” By pursuing and promoting these two narratives, terrorist groups can facilitate violent acts by their members, including murder. There is a consistency in how these narratives are constructed, including references to historical injustices, exhaustion of restraint, and reliance on religious faith.
Parker indicates these six core strategies—asymmetrical warfare, attrition, propaganda by deed, revolutionary prototype, provoking an overreaction, and building legitimacy—are the most frequent methods used by terrorists in their campaigns. Accordingly, he argues that states should consider these strategies when building their own counter-terrorism strategies. And yet, Parker points out this rarely happens as states fall into the terrorist trap by engaging in “aggressive displays of force, kinetic military action, house- to-house searches, arbitrary detention, collective reprisals, and even torture.”
III. THE CAUSES OF TERRORISM
There are countless reasons for the birth of terrorists and the rise of terrorism. As Parker points out, “terrorists are an eclectic bunch—some are dissolute, others abstemious; some are well-educated, others barely attended school; some start out as healers, others as violent criminals; and some come from lives of great suffering, while others are born with every advantage life can offer.” In addition, terrorists also pursue widely divergent causes. Because of this diversity, the root causes, or preconditions, for terrorism are not monocausal. They are, in fact, multicausal, and Parker identifies five themes.
Terrorism begins from a desire for self-actualization, “an internal process of self-exploration in which an individual strives to develop his or her full potential as a human being.” It is the desire to establish one’s identity, which can be informed by various factors—“a need for approval, a need for respect, a need to make a connection, a need to explore facets of one’s character, or a need to make one’s mark upon the world.” Significantly, Parker asserts that most terrorists exhibit normal personality traits and do not suffer from mental illness.
An essential mechanism for promoting self-actualization and building identity is through a social network. In these networks, “individuals adopt and internalize group norms of behavior and take on particular roles.” In addition, the social network generates the theories and language that often inform the terrorist mind and promotes a common narrative within the terrorist group. The social network represents the community from which terrorists emerge. However, Parker notes that not all members within a terrorist’s social network join the organization. This offers a “significant opportunity that can be leveraged by intelligence and law enforcement professionals.”
While poverty has been regularly cited as a leading cause of terrorism, Parker indicates that quantitative research reveals the connection is neither clear nor universal, a point even Leon Trotsky recognized in his own writings on political revolutions. Instead, Parker suggests different ways of thinking about the relationship between poverty and terrorism. He notes, for example, that “people will be more likely to revolt against the status quo when they collectively perceive that they are being unjustly deprived of a benefit enjoyed by other groups in their polity.” Other conditions, including social exclusion and political opportunity, can generate political protest and give rise to revolutionary action. However, this is not meant to minimize the impact of poverty and income inequality. “[C]reating opportunity and dignity, particularly for youth—is part of countering violent extremism.”
Government aggression has long served as a powerful cause of terrorism. A terrorist inevitably seeks something from the status quo, either its perpetuation or its end. In turn, a government’s reaction to terrorism will influence the terrorist’s response. In fact, terrorist leaders recognize that government overreaction is a powerful recruitment tool. Precipitating events often begin the terror cycle be- tween governments and terrorists—from French reprisals in Algeria to British actions in Northern Ireland. These events are also followed by incremental grievances—slights and humiliations—that promote mobilization of the terrorist movement. Citing to extensive research, Parker points out that a meaningful connection exists between degrees of government repression and levels of violent response.Ultimately, governments are poorly served when they overreact. “The record shows that the cycle of violence ultimately serves the terrorists’ cause far better than it does the government’s by attracting fresh recruits, burnishing existing grievances, and deepening the resolve of those already in the fight.”
Finally, and perhaps surprisingly, empathy—to regard the pain of others— plays an important role in the birth of terrorists and the rise of terrorism. It serves as powerful motivation, both informing terrorists’ worldviews and even influencing their targeting decisions. Parker’s understanding of empathy is quite broad and may, in fact, capture other emotions and beliefs. For example, Parker notes that terrorists believe in their cause and view it in noble terms. To terrorists, their actions are just, righteous, and serve their community. Empathy can be challenged, however, when terrorist operations lead to backlash. When doubt emerges, terrorist groups use various tactics, including dehumanization of their targets, to dampen the qualms of members. There is a corollary to this dynamic, one that governments should consider—“the establishment of a human connection can make even hardened terrorists reconsider their actions.”
In reflecting on the causes of terrorism, Parker acknowledges these five themes—self-actualization, social net- works, poverty, government aggression, and empathy—were not present in every case. “[B]ut they represent the best attempts made to date to understand how and why often quite decent human beings set out to kill people they have likely never met in order somehow to make the world a better place.”
IV. FIGHTING TERRORISM
Parker’s recommendation for addressing the terrorist trap is simple: when states are developing strategies to combat terrorism, they should comply with human rights law. Parker begins Part III with a review of international law. He focuses on two strands—the law that addresses international terrorism, and the law that addresses human rights. While Parker identifies nineteen international legal instruments that address terrorism, it is striking that these instruments focus predominantly on prohibition, prosecution, and punishment.They seldom address prevention. In contrast, human rights law enables states to avoid the terrorist trap. “[A] counter-terrorist approach grounded in the rule of law and respect for human rights is likely to avoid many of the traps and other pitfalls that states have historically stumbled into when responding to terrorist outrages for the first time.”
Building upon the lessons learned about the causes of terrorism and the strategies terrorists use to promote their goals, Parker identifies five ways for states to develop an effective counter-terrorism strategy.
Traditional law enforcement operations should develop special investigation techniques informed by human rights law. For example, the right to privacy is an important consideration for assessing the legitimacy of state surveillance programs. Human intelligence operations must also be implemented consistently with human rights law. Law enforcement activity must be governed by rules that are defined by law, that comply with due process, and that are “reasonable, necessary and proportionate to the threat posed by criminal activity.”
When terrorists are captured, investigative interviewing that comports with human rights law offers an opportunity to acquire valuable intelligence. Instead of using physical and mental abuse, officials should seek to gain the trust of suspects. Respectful treatment will more likely lead to cooperation. Parker acknowledges this may not always happen, and yet “experienced and skilled interviewers are surprisingly successful at getting even hardened terrorists to cooperate.” The benefits of respectful treatment extend well beyond the acquisition of actionable intelligence. False testimony can easily arise from coercive interrogations and is even more likely in cases of torture.
More broadly, humane treatment sends a powerful message of respect for personal dignity and the rule of law. These values alone are worth protecting and offer an important check against the terrorist trap. There are also pragmatic considerations. Torture and abusive treatment serve as propaganda for terror groups. In the event criminal prosecution of suspected terrorists is warranted, humane treatment minimizes the likelihood that subsequent legal proceedings will be undermined by claims of due process violations, an issue that now plagues the US military commission proceedings at Guantanamo.
Detention regimes should also be structured to respect human rights. Parker notes there are several forms of detention, including administrative detention, pre-trial detention, punitive detention, and confinement of prisoners of war. The manner in which detainees are held—from the length of detention to the nature of their treatment—can have a powerful impact on detainees as well as public opinion. Even the location where detainees are held can affect public perceptions.
While traditional law enforcement operations are often prioritized in addressing terrorism, Parker argues that community engagement should also be pursued. For example, community-oriented policing encourages law enforcement personnel to develop close relationships with their constituencies, thereby allowing them to gain a better understanding of local concerns. “Community policing requires officers to adopt an external orientation seeking out and listening to voices from outside police ranks and from different ethnic groups or religious communities.” These interactions are important because they build trust, generate connections, and reduce the possibility of overreaction.
Community engagement can take other forms. Early intervention programs should be implemented to identify individuals who could be radicalized. Parker identifies several such programs, including Denmark’s VINK program and the United Kingdom’s Channel Programme. In addition, states should enact legislation proscribing hate speech and extremist organizations. Parker takes care, though, to distinguish between violent extremism, which should be prohibited, and radical speech, which should remain protected. Finally, using force to combat terrorism should always remain as a last resort and must be carefully regulated. When states use force, human rights law requires that it be necessary and proportionate. Several international instruments provide standards on the use of force, and Parker highlights the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms as one prominent example. States must be particularly rigorous in reviewing the use of lethal force. “When a life is taken, states have an obligation to investigate the circumstances, and if an agent of the state has acted negligently or unlawfully he or she must be held to account.”Targeted killings raise both legal and ethical concerns. The growing use of drones is also an ominous development.
When guided by human rights law, Parker believes these five strategies—special investigation techniques, investigative interviewing, detention regimes, community engagement, and the measured use of force—can be effective in fighting terrorism. Rather than burdening states, human rights law “codifies a set of principles that actually help counter-terrorism practitioners to perform their duties with greater precision and professionalism, and help states to counter terrorism more effectively while also avoiding the traps that terrorist organizations have consistently set for them.” Throughout the book, Parker emphasizes compliance with human rights as a strategy for avoiding the terrorist trap. However, there are other reasons for compliance. Most of the human rights norms described in the book are legal obligations, codified in numerous international agreements. Failure to comply with these obligations may give rise to legal liability for states. It may also give rise to individual criminal responsibility.
Some human rights advocates may criticize Avoiding the Terrorist Trap for its narrow framing of human rights. With some exceptions, Parker’s focus is almost exclusively on how states should incorporate human rights norms in their reaction to terrorism. Of course, this is the book’s central thesis, and so such criticisms may be unwarranted. Nonetheless, a holistic application of human rights norms could address the causes of terrorism more directly. Rather than informing a state’s ex post reactions to terrorism, a holistic approach would influence a state’s ex ante policies to prevent terrorism from even emerging. Community engagement is one approach that Parker identifies. Other approaches include addressing the social, political, and economic conditions that fuel terrorism. While Parker acknowledges the significance of social injustice and income inequality as causes of terrorism, he fails to address them in his discussion on fighting terrorism.
It is difficult to read Avoiding the Terrorist Trap without reflecting on its applicability to 9/11 and the US war on terror. Within days of the attacks, Vice President Dick Cheney discussed the need for the United States to spend time “in the shadows,” to work in the “dark side,” and “to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective.” The euphemisms of this conflict—enhanced interrogation techniques, black sites, ghost detainees, and even the war on terror—as well as its methods—torture, extraordinary rendition, drone strikes, targeted killings, and military commissions—reflect the steep fall into the abyss.
Parker begins Avoiding the Terrorist Trap with the words of W.H. Auden and the admonition that countries need not resort to the brutality of terrorists to defeat them. Auden’s Ogre wielded brute force, but it lacked both thoughtful deliberation and the power of speech. Yet time and again, countries have resorted to brutality in their fight against terrorism, eschewing their ability to use reason and discourse. As we consider how easily states have embraced the “dark side” in the battle against terrorism, the words of a different writer come to mind. “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster,” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche, “for when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”
About the Reviewer: William J. Aceves is the Dean Steven R. Smith Professor of Law at California Western School of Law.
Avoiding the Terrorist Trap: Why Respect for Human Rights is the Key to Defeating Terrorism by Tom Parker, (Hardback), World Scientific Publishing Europe Ltd: London, 2019, pp. 893.
Reviewed by Georgia Holmer
Royal United Services Institute Journal, Volume 165, Number 7 (November 2020)
Tom Parker’s sweeping and ambitious book Avoiding the Terrorist Trap: Why Respect for Human Rights is the Key to Defeating Terrorism is essential reading for students of political violence and policy makers alike. For those navigating the political quagmire of international counterterrorism cooperation, for those seeking the holy grail of evidence-based policy, and perhaps most importantly, for those who think human rights is a trade off or a “check the box exercise” when it comes to keeping people safe from terrorist violence, this is an important book. It is exhaustively researched, wide-reaching and provocative, and it stands as a testimony to – and artfully articulates a raison d’etre for - the role of the international community (and more specifically, an international legal framework) in addressing terrorism and violent extremism.
Parker’s central assertion, as laid explicit by the book’s subtitle, is that state comportment is paramount to defeating terrorism and avoiding escalation of terrorist violence. Specifically, governments that implement proportionate, reasonable, measured, and accountable responses to acts of political violence and who advance comprehensive multi-stakeholder approaches to preventing violent extremism are likely to mitigate the threat more successfully. For Parker, “the war of the flea is all about the dog” and he lays out a very thorough and well supported argument in support of this premise.
This is a large tome – over 800 pages – but structured logically and written with remarkable detail. Parker is a master of the illustrative point; he is both the political science professor you wish you had in university and the dream dinner party guest. Not only does he craft a good argument, but he also tells a good story, often with fascinating tidbits. (Who knew that the most famous 19th Century Spanish anarchist was immortalized as a gargoyle on Gaudi’s masterpiece cathedral in Barcelona?)
But what makes this book a particularly compelling read is Parker’s copious use of the words of the terrorists themselves. Textual analysis is a veritable methodology that serves to illuminate motives, objectives and strategies of terrorist groups and violent extremist movements. Parker uses direct quotes from terrorist writings, speeches and interviews throughout the book to make his points. This approach brings both rigor and depth to his arguments but also has the effect of humanizing those being analyzed and introducing a tone of empathy that – in this reviewer’s mind - is a prerequisite for advancing any human rights approach to counterterrorism.
Parker begins by establishing an expansive yet focused definition of terrorism (the targeting of civilians by non-state actors for a political goal) as well as clear temporal parameters. Rather than beginning with the ancient Hebrew sicarri and a “terrorism is as old as sand” introduction, he places terrorism firmly in the modern era, specifically as a product of modern military warfare technology, mass communications and the introduction of political ideologies that empowered the traditionally disenfranchised. His data pulls from a broad geographical scope, from the FARC to IRA and Hamas, from Baader Meinhof to ISIS and Al Qaeda, from Russian anarchists to 17 November.
These voices are particularly prominent in the first section of the book, which aims to illustrate what terrorists do and why, and which Parkers asserts is “not a secret formula”. Specifically, Parker sets out what he sees as the key characteristics of most politically motivated violent campaigns by non-state actors. In his analysis, “propaganda of deed” is the defining modus operandi, in that terrorist violence only ever holds strategic value for their actors because of the asymmetrical reality of their campaign and their existential search for legitimacy. For terrorists, violence is a means of communication to explain their purpose, galvanize recruits, demonize their enemy and justify their existence. To this end, they deliberately seek to provoke a repressive or disproportionate response by state actors to further these goals – hence, the “trap” that many states fall into. Terrorist attacks serve not only to frighten, exhaust, frustrate, and humiliate the enemy but also to deliberately provoke an overreaction. By this argument, democratic governments are particularly vulnerable to being ensnared in the trap, especially if the terrorist group is associated in some way with a minority population, and intentional efforts are made to polarize ethnic groups, sow unrest, seed doubt and undermine confidence in the government.
The second section of the book surveys the major analytic frameworks and academic research that help us understand the drivers of terrorism. Although caveated as selective, it is a comprehensive literature review that covers the full pantheon of terrorism scholars. Parker steps deftly from “staircase models” to “sacred values” to “cognitive openings” and succinctly captures the key points of learning on radicalization theory. He also pulls more broadly from social science research and explains the relevance of theories of identity formation, social movement theory, and social affinity groups to help delineate what we do and do not know about what causes terrorism. This section is an enormous undertaking in itself and written in a way that affords a thorough unpacking of assumptions around the factors that contribute to terrorism. Parker addresses the (lack of) relationship between poverty and terrorism with nuance, and in tackling state failure, relative deprivation, social exclusion, modernization, political opportunity as key drivers, makes a pivotal case for sustainable development as a critical component of a comprehensive approach to addressing this threat.
Parker ends this section with an examination of the relationship between human rights abuses and aggression by state actors and terrorism, establishing definitively that targeted killings, police brutality, and military occupation overwhelmingly contribute to terrorism rather than stop it. This section is collection of distressing but detail-rich and varied examples of how violence begets violence, and also creates the perfect segue to the last section of the book.
The final section puts forth the central argument that international law, specifically international human rights and humanitarian law, provide a key framework for effective and sustainable CT policies and operations. In examining the boundaries of human rights in relation to contemporary counterterrorism tactics, he argues both that international human rights law allows enough “latitude” for efficient operations and that non-compliance often backfires. Parker thoroughly explores the complicated and challenging realities of counterterrorism operations post-9/11 and notes where states have most often overstepped and disregarded human rights. Parker assesses the efficacy and legality of CT tools to include special investigative techniques, detention practices, and use of force with practitioner’s insight. There is also an important emphasis in this section on the significance of preventative efforts and key partnerships among police, community members, media, social workers, and educators in mitigating radicalization to violence. This presents a solid case for prevention as a cornerstone of a comprehensive CT strategy.
This is an impressive book, and with such a comprehensive treatment it is hard to argue that much is missing. Even though Parker is careful to caveat his research topics as selective and not exhaustive, some discussion in section two on the issue of gender and women would have added value. Evidence does show that communities are more peaceful when women are full participants in society and there has been notable research in the past decade regarding gendered aspects of radicalization and de-radicalization processes.
Tom Parker is well-positioned to craft a book that speaks to academics, international policy experts and security practitioners. He has been all three and intrinsically understands the traditional divide between the human rights and security communities when it comes to the threat of terrorism, and the importance of bridging the two. Yet, he asserts repeatedly in his book that this is a cost-benefit analysis; that human rights matter in the fight against terrorism because that is what works. He is unapologetic in his functional approach and opens his book with the provocative statement that “this is not a book about human rights, but one about defeating terrorism”. While knowing what works is critical and is likely to hook a security-minded readership, this posture does take away from a foundational premise of human rights, which is that they matter because all humans deserve them, even terrorist offenders. The challenge of a pragmatic approach to human rights in the context of counterterrorism is that it undermines the broader moral imperative for a commitment to human rights and creates a hierarchy of beneficiaries. What of the disenfranchised community with no access to justice or education or other resources that does not show a propensity to violence? Parker does allude metaphorically to a moral imperative (“in fighting ogres, it is not necessary to become one to defeat them”) but his case would be stronger if it more fulsomely addressed the need for a human rights approach as both a matter of efficacy and principle. Yes, measured and proportionate state responses to acts of political violence are key to defeating terrorism, but a broad investment in human rights, inclusive democratic societies, women’s empowerment, and good governance will prevent terrorism from emerging in the first place.
About the reviewer: Georgia Holmer is the Head of the Action Against Terrorism Unit at the OSCE Secretariat in Vienna, Austria. The views expressed in this article are hers and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the OSCE or its participating States.
Avoiding the Terrorist Trap: Why Respect for Human Rights is the Key to Defeating Terrorism by Tom Parker, (hardback), World Scientific Publishing Europe Ltd: London, 2019, pp. 893.
Reviewed by Paul Dresser
Critical Studies on Terrorism, Volume 14, Issue 1 (February 2021)
Avoiding the Terrorist Trap is an ambitious text that situates terrorism within a board spectrum of temporal and geographical activity. The author posits terrorism as a modern phenomenon from the get- go (p.1), attributing transnational terrorism to two interconnected conditions: technological advancement of weaponry (p 5); and developments in communication technology through macro social change (p. 6) (this includes globalisation, mass movement, and political participation as empowerment). That said, the extensive historiography presented casts light on the invariable nature of terrorism rather than conceptualising terrorist violence as a typology that emerges and recedes in mutually exclusive ‘waves’. Thus, the author does much to address historical amnesia that hinders scholarship in this area. A further strength of this text is the author’s meticulous knowledge of the vast gamut of terrorist organisations, ideologies, fractions and groups; from Hamas to Hezbollah; Marxism to Jihadism; Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) to the Irish Republican Army (IRA); the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) to Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), to name a few. In doing so the text moves beyond a saturated focus on a narrow spectrum of terrorism threats (i.e. Islamist terrorism and right- wing terrorism) that have dominated academic discourse over the last two decades. This has been labelled a ‘critical blind spot’ in terms of understanding terrorism and extremism (NAEF 2021).
The premise of the book rests on the importance of respecting human rights in the fight against terrorism. To suggest its contribution is limited to advocating such on moral and ethical grounds would do the author a disservice, however. Connected to the aforementioned objective is how greater observance to human rights has a bearing on counter-terrorism efficacy. This is an important undertaking which differentiates the work from many of its predecessors. Broadly speaking, while terrorism, Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), and Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) scholarship is particularly astute at offering critical commentary, it is far less forthcoming with practical solutions and resolves. The UK PREVENT programme is a pertinent example. Parker attends to this gap by proposing operational benefits and alternative ways forward which should appeal to law, intelligence and counter-terrorism practitioners, in particular.
The text is dissected into three parts with each section considered synoptically. Part I examines the myriad of terrorist groups and terrorists’ perspectives in terms of means, methods and principles. Of particular attention are the central tenets of terrorists’ doctrine encompassing: asymmetrical warfare; attrition; propaganda by deed; revolutionary prototype; contesting legitimacy; and provoking state overreaction. Exploring the interplay between these core concepts is important for reasons twofold: first, they provide a framework to explore terrorism in terrorists’ terms and thinking, including humanitarianism; matryology; (de)legitimising narratives; social injustice; and altruism, etc. Second, these concepts reveal a ‘not-so-secret formula’; that is, how terrorist organisations use violence against civilians for political gain across time, place and space (the author extrapolates the contested, multifaceted nature of ‘terrorism’ in such pejorative terms). Taken together they provide the very conditions for the ‘terrorist trap’ that is juxtaposed in Part III. While the author acknowledges the shape-shifting nature of terrorist groups and threats (p. 25), what becomes clear are convergences and commonalities between, for example, anarchism, socialism, and populism. This is situated in terms of how ideologies, materials and technological knowledge transmit and translate. As just one example, the construction and curation of self-serving imagery demonstrates fluidity and contagion. Terrorists’ personal testimonies add support (and are used throughout the whole book for that matter) which, not only provide a nuanced account of a more often than not clandestine world, but evidence the sobering reality of terrorism and extremism in situ.
Part II explores the expansion of terrorism literature post- 9/11 across five explanatory frameworks: empathy; self-actualisation; social networks; poverty; and government aggression. To be clear, while this section is titled Social Science and Violent Extremism, it will appeal to scholars and practitioners that are more familiar with non-violent forms of extremism, even if the term is not used. Parker is careful to eschew linear “conveyer belt” theorising thus avoiding unsubstantiated claims through careful analysis of complex, varying motivations for terrorism. Gravitation towards terrorism, as well as exit velocity from terrorism, are examined through explanatory variables that can be categorised across three domains: structural; institutional; and personal. These include – though are not limited to: psychology; socialisation; attitudinal affinity; self-actualisation (as identity construction); precipitating incidents; socio-economic disadvantage; relative deprivation, and government aggression. As well as this, retrospective case studies that meld theoretical perspectives to real world examples are particularly informative as they explicate several inconvenient truths regarding agency/structure. As just one example, prior to partaking in terrorism, a cult member of Aum Shinrikyo had been a cardiovascular surgeon, no less (p. 216). While this may read as an uncomfortable truth, the inclusion of terrorists’ biographies challenges a conventional truism evident in various counter-terrorism policy tools: those who choose terrorism must be, by default, socially, politically, culturally and/or epidemiologically defective. As this book highlights, it is a fallacy to assume terrorist violence is the direct result of personal suffering and/or socio-economic disadvantage (though clearly certain individuals will be drawn to terrorism for these very reasons). That said, a balanced critique is presented which delves into the psychology and sociology of terrorism. Here it is worth noting that the exploration of psychological, environmental, and cultural dispositions is centred on individuals who seemingly occupy marginal positions on the periphery of society in contrast to case examples covered in the opening subchapter of Part II. Overall, through the collation of social science evidence, the author suggests reasonable conclusions can be drawn: first, the aforementioned factors accentuate individuals’ motivations to join terrorist groups; second, this is amplified where there is synergy across factors; third, and crucially, this is fueled further by excessive coercion on the part of the state.
The culmination of the preceding two chapters, Part III examines how terrorist threats are responded to by a constellation of actors and agencies within and beyond the state. It begins with a historiography of international human rights laws embedded in the jurisdictions of democracies. With this serving as a backdrop the author describes five counter-terrorism tactics at states’ disposal: community engagement; special investigation techniques; investigative interviewing; detention regimes; and the use of force. Each section is considered in detail though taken together they formulate a consistent narrative: rather than compromising states’ ability to effectively address terrorist activity, operating in full compliance with international human rights laws proffers pragmatic benefits for the governance of counter- terrorism. While the author is not naive to the challenge from practical, social, and political standpoints, it is argued there are imaginative ways to (re)consider effective counter-terrorism and human rights constraints. As Parker reiterates throughout, it is not a dichotomous trade-off. This section also illuminates the implications of, to quote Louise Richardson, the ‘pathology of state overreaction’ (p. 26). Through trawling archival evidence, Parker informs us that contravening human rights norms exacerbates terrorists’ ‘not-so-secret formula’; for example, narrative opportunities, grievance frameworks, and notions of ‘victimhood’ that terrorists purport. Simply put: ‘hypocrisy acts like kryptonite on legitimising narratives’ (p. 786). This is just one aspect of the ‘terrorist trap’ the author suggests lessons can be derived.
Overall, the dexterity with which this book is crafted is undeniable: it is as persuasive as it is meticulous. Though it lacks its own empirical data, the author’s vast experience as a practitioner in the field offers the ideal platform to bridge experiential knowledge and academic insight. It should therefore be taken seriously by a wide audience including practitioners, policymakers and academics alike. A further strength – to add to those outlined in the introduction of this review - is its avoidance of disciplinary solipsism, instead cutting across history, law, anthropology, political science, criminology, and sociology. Furthermore, and by no means a criticism of the central arguments put forth, as a reader you are left pondering how greater respect for human rights might come to fruition in increasingly individualistic, capitalist, and polarised societies; societies that are democratic, arguably, only in name. That challenge can be offset by the evidential basis the author posits, though pessimistically, if the ‘long war doctrine’ teaches us anything, it’s that time and patience are the virtue of terrorists (p. 56-57).
The text also induces a sense of frustration given terrorists’ axiomatic formula. Historically falling into the trap Parker describes - and resource issues notwithstanding - I could not help but make comparisons to the symbolism of the surveillance fruit-machine: invest enough time and money and the machine will eventually pay out. Perhaps more than anything else, Parker’s usage of the war of the flea metaphor (p. 53-54, 769-770) to describe the asymmetrical challenge of terrorism fuse the 798 pages of analysis together. It is not the perseverance of the flea’s bite that leads to the dog’s demise but how the host retaliates that ultimately prove its downfall.
NAEF, (2021). ‘How a Full Spectrum of Approach Will Address Critical Gaps in Countering and Preventing Extremist Terrorist Threats’. Strategies Against Violent Extremism (SAVE) Team. Available online at:
https://static1.squarespace.com/static/561bf3b7e4b0ef27704bd70c/t/5ffe17448c2fc07a70e49bd 0/1610487625623/SAVE+-+Whitepaper+-+Jan+2021.pdf Accessed: 01/03/2021.
Richardson, L. (2006). What Terrorists Want: Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat. Random House: United States.
About the reviewer: Dr. Paul Dresser is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Northumbria University.
Reexamining Counterterrorism Approaches
Tom Parker. Avoiding the Terrorist Trap: Why Respect for Human Rights is the Key to Defeating Terrorism. London: World Scientific, 2019. 920 pp. ISBN: 978-1-7832-6654-8.
US $188.- £ 165.- (Hardback); US $ 39.95 (Kindle e-book at amazon. com)
Reviewed by Jason M. Blazakis
International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence, Volume 34, Issue 4 (2021)
Avoiding the Terrorist Trap: Why Respect for Human Rights Is the Key to Defeating Terrorism is much more than the title implies. In many ways, the book is written as a tome to terrorism and counterterrorism, as the author explores a bevy of issues that go beyond the intersection of counterterrorism and human rights. Early on, he discusses the historical challenge of defining terrorism and how some of the key terrorist personalities and groups shaped the modern era of terrorism. Parker’s examination of original source material, ranging from the written works of Abdullah Azzam that would go on to inspire legions of Salafi jihadists to Carlos Marighella’s Minimanual of the Urban Guerilla serving as a playbook for individuals seeking guidance on how to execute acts of political violence, provides rich context for the analysis that would later center on human rights.
The book is over 900 pages and is organized into three parts. The first portion of the book, “A Not So Secret Formula,” focuses on a range of issues. Two are especially relevant to the central narrative of human rights and counterterrorism. One topic examines the provocative efforts of groups to spur governmental overreaction to terrorist violence. Parker’s discussion of Georgios Grivas and his organization’s — the Ethniki Organosis Kyprion Agoniston (EOKA) — ability in Cyprus to turn British numerical strength and capability into a weakness that would ultimately gain an upper hand is an especially apt narrative. The story of EOKA and others that Parker examines feeds into the second theme of the first section of this book, the importance of groups engaged in irregular combat’s place in gaining the support of the population. Organizations like EOKA, for instance, were particularly attuned to this. Grivas would write, “who wins over the people, has won half the battle … throughout the struggle I never ceased to for a single moment to strive and hold the people’s moral support.” The moral high ground EOKA strived to retain was clear even in the group’s missteps, when the organization apologized for its accidental killing of the U.S. vice consul to Cyprus (and undercover Central Intelligence Agency operative) William Boteler in 1956. Grivas would apologize for the killing, saying, “[I]t was a tragic mistake. … [N]o Greek bears hatred for the American people.”
In contrast to EOKA, the Irish Republican Army (IRA)’s assassination of Lord Mountbatten, which also resulted in the collateral death of two young children, created popular resentment and ultimately led to a partnership between the United States and the United Kingdom that would hinder the IRA’s ability to fundraise and nurture popular American support, in part due to the Federal Bureau of Investigation being pressed diplomatically to stifle the IRA’s free rein in the United States. The second section of Parker’s book examines an individual’s trajectory toward violent extremism through the lens of social networks, poverty, and government aggression.
The book’s overall theme is about all the missteps governments often take when trying to mitigate extremist behavior. It is a follow-on to the government excesses, or, in the worst cases, wanton brutality targeting specific types of communities that led individuals to join groups like the IRA, 17 November, and the EOKA. Parker, as a former intelligence officer in the British Security Service (MI5), is well positioned to analyze these missteps, especially those carried out by the British government. One example of British excess was the government’s response to the IRA’s 1974 Guildford pub bombings.
As Parker laments, the British government tortured four individuals (that would become known as the Guildford Four) for confessions to crimes the world would later learn they never committed. In this case, the investigators and torturers knew the Guildford Four were innocent, yet in their pursuit for retribution, not justice, the British sullied their image. After fifteen years in prison the miscarriage of justice was acknowledged by the government and the remaining three members (Patrick Conlon died in prison) of the Guildford Four were released.
Parker’s analysis of other revolting acts of counterterrorism overreach, such as U.S. missteps like abuse at Abu Ghraib and indefinite imprisonment at Guantanamo Bay, provide key context for the third part of Avoiding the Terrorist Trap. Indeed, Parker, in the final portion of his book, explains in detail the importance of countering terrorism within a human rights framework. Again, Parker’s analysis, especially related to the importance of deploying special investigative techniques and community engagement, is noteworthy given his extensive policing background. Parker’s analysis, for instance, of the damage New York City’s Police Department’s Intelligence Bureau’s “Demographics Unit” to community relations with New York City’s Muslim population is hard to overstate.
The Demographic Unit conducting invasive and profile-specific surveillance against Muslim student groups, mosques, and businesses not only violated civil liberties; it did not provide any actionable intelligence that would lead to the demise of any terrorist cell. In contrast, the Community Restorative Justice Ireland (CRJI), a community-based restorative justice program founded in 1998, would serve as a beacon of hope for broken communities in Northern Ireland.
By leveraging former Provisional IRA members as staff, the CRJI would create opportunities and safe places for humane social exchanges through a range of programmatic services. Eventually, the CRJI would also become an important resource for police officers who would go on to see the value of a community-based approach that represented a foil to heavy-handed methods adopted in the 1970s. UK policies from that era abridged the human rights of too many innocent people, like the Guildford Four, caught in the crossfire of the Troubles.
The story of the CRJI, and many others subject to Parker’s evaluation, makes a persuasive case for a reexamination of counterterrorism and intelligence approaches that abridge humanitarian rights or leave in tatters the lives of innocents who were killed because of an errant drone strike, illegal surveillance, or torture. Avoiding the Terrorist Trap is, therefore, timely, especially as the United States transitions to new political leadership. The myriad of mistakes made by the United States and other governments in their efforts to fight terrorism has provided oxygen to the very actors they have been charged with defeating.
Yet, among the many policy follies, there have been slivers of success and it is here that Parker’s work is particularly instructive to those future policymakers, intelligence, and law enforcement professionals who may be imaginative and brave enough to advocate for a paradigm shift—one that centers future new counter terrorism policy approaches around humanitarian norms.
About the reviewer: Jason M. Blazakis is Professor of Practice and Director of the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, California. He worked for nearly twenty years in the Department of State’s Counterterrorism, Political-Military Affairs, International Narcotics, and Law Enforcement Affairs, Intelligence and Research Bureau, and at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. He writes regularly for Lawfare and The Hill.
Avoiding the terrorist trap: why respect for human rights is the key to defeating terrorism, by Tom Parker, London, World Scientific Publishing Europe, Insurgency and Terrorism Series, 2019, 892 pp HB., US$ 228.00 (Hardcover), US$ 39.95 (eBook), ISSN 2399-7443
Reviewed by Alison Broinowski
Journal of Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism, Volume 16, Issue 2 (2021)
Few authors could have anticipated the changes in 2020 that would suddenly make their work outdated. It is to Tom Parker’s credit that his study of terrorism, researched before 2019, remains relevant to today’s global challenges. His proposal of a human rights solution for terrorism has not been eclipsed by the decline of Islamic State, or by the COVID-19 crisis. Its conclusions can be applied as much to the pandemic as to terror.
Parker has long experience in counter-terrorism operations for the EU, the UN, and several NGOs. He is directly familiar with terrorism from being attacked more than once himself, in London and Baghdad. His academic affiliations in the UK, US, and Europe are prestigious, and he has accessed a vast array of sources, including many Islamic scholars and terrorists of multiple nationalities. Knowing the complexities of his subject inside and out does not distract him from recognising it as a technique of asymmetrical warfare driven by social factors. Human rights, he argues, are a more productive response to terrorism than the forceful tactics that have been tried.
Parker’s addition to the linear kilometres of shelves of existing work on terrorism is important because it locates today’s Islamist extremism in a global, historical context, making it both more comprehensive and less exceptional than other studies do. He shows how and why terrorist tactics were adopted throughout the twentieth century, not just by Muslims but by numerous groups and individuals in Europe, Russia, Asia, the Americas, and Africa, as well as the Middle East. He notes that Australia, too, experienced terrorism earlier than most people know. Beginning with the late nineteenth century, his multinational narrative progressively illuminates our twenty-first century experience.
Parker adopts a pragmatic definition of the long-contested term ‘terrorism’ as an attack deliberately targeted on the general public (p. 16). Identifying its wide variety deters him from adopting a chronological sequence unlike others who claim that terrorism was first anarchist, then anti-colonial, later communist, and most recently religious. The simple truth, he asserts, is that terrorist groups evolve and mutate differently (p. 25). He shows, however, how terrorists have for decades studied each other’s motives and techniques. Moreover, he adds, ‘Every religion has created terrorists’ (p. 225).
Some are not even terrorists, but freedom fighters. Parker recalls Hitler declaring that members of the resistance were terrorists. Falsified evidence that the Guildford Four were terrorists denied them justice in Britain for 15 years. Mistaken identity cost an innocent Brazilian his life after the July 2005 London bus and train bombings, when he was thought to be an Arab terrorist. Parker recalls the US wrongfully imprisoning, interrogating, and torturing an ‘enemy combatant’ in 2003–2004, when his American captors mistook Khaled el-Masri for an al-Qaeda member with a similar name. Comprehensively dismissing torture on human rights grounds, Parker demonstrates that it is counter-productive for all concerned.
Parker’s argument is structured in three parts, each with a conclusion. In the first, he shows how terrorists like guerrillas, in asymmetric competition with militarily more powerful forces, strike and then melt away, repeatedly regroup and attack somewhere else. He describes how and why terrorists attack, and the tactical and strategic traps they have successfully set to draw their enemies into costly over-reaction.
The second part sets out understandings from the social sciences of marginalisation and exclusion, and how they can lead to violent extremism and radicalisation, suicide terrorism and martyrdom, in the face of which forceful state responses are largely ineffective. In his third part, Parker surveys international law, the restraints it places on the use of force, and other remedies against terrorism available to states. He concludes that ‘human-rights compliant’ responses are the only rational option if democracies are to destroy terrorism and not themselves.
Parker admits that few terrorist movements have achieved their aims, although terrorists gained concessions in Algeria, Afghanistan, and Spain. He points to the minimal risk of dying in a terror attack that faces people in most democracies (only 1 in 3.5 million Americans), but suggests that the US has been drawn into the ‘terror trap’ just as the USSR was in Afghanistan. America is exposed to the same prospect of over-reacting, over-spending, and overextending itself for no gain. We inflict fear of terrorism, Parker quotes Al Gore as saying, on ourselves: ‘the genius of terrorism is that it turns us into our own worst enemies’ (p. 142).
Writing before the Christchurch and Colombo massacres, Parker anticipates them with his account of ultra-rightist Anders Behring Breivik’s attack in Norway, and the grievances of the Tamil Tiger terrorists in Sri Lanka. He pays rather less attention to on-line extremist groups like Reclaim, QAnon, and Proud Boys which have recently become prominent, and which now recruit participants as readily as Islamists did. Far-right activists pose a greater threat than terrorists in many countries, particularly the US, the UK, and Australia. Indeed for governments to list neo-Nazis and neo-fascists as terrorists, and treat them accordingly, may contribute to dispelling adverse stereotyping of Muslims.
Parker’s long journey among terrorists has one destination: ‘defeating, or at least containing, terrorism’ (p. 1). It offends all of our human rights (p. 424). Illuminating as his examination of terrorism is, Parker’s conclusion that the global observation of human rights will overcome terrorism seems impossibly optimistic. Since he wrote his book, the US has set others a bad example by abandoning even more of the treaties and conventions and international legal bodies that underpin human rights. Another way to defeat terrorism, which Parker does not propose, is for Western nations to stay out of wars of aggression, particularly in Muslim majority countries. But in the US and elsewhere, powerful groups have interests in endlessly perpetuating the ‘war on terror’, inspiring more terrorists to keep fighting it.
About the reviewer: Alison Broinowski, is an Australian academic, journalist, writer, and former diplomat.
Avoiding the Terrorist Trap: Why Respect for Human Rights is the Key to Defeating Terrorism
by Tom Parker, London, World Scientific Publishing, 2019, 892 pp., £39.95 (e-book), ISBN 9781783266548
Reviewed by Richard English
Journal of Terrorism and Political Violence, Volume 33, Issue 7 (2021)
The author of this lengthy and valuable book has had long experience working in post-conflict settings around much of the world. He has also worked as an Intelligence Officer for the U.K. Security Service, MI5. The book draws on a wide range of reading, and it engages with an impressive number of cases of terrorism and counter-terrorism. Its geographical range is broad, and its scrutiny of cases draws from the past, as well as the present. It is centrally, as its author Tom Parker says at the start of his Introduction, “a book about terrorism and human rights” (1). Indeed, the work has a strongly articulated central message: “that human rights-compliant counter-terrorism strategies represent the most effective response to terrorism” (213).
Pursuing this line of argument, the book is arranged into three parts. The first looks at terrorism from the terrorists’ own perspectives, identifying six core aspects to terroristic violence: asymmetrical warfare, attrition, propaganda of the deed, the creation and use of role models and martyrs, the provocation of over-reaction from enemies, and the attempt to challenge for legitimacy. The second part of the book examines why individuals turn to terrorism, focusing on five frameworks for explanation: empathy, self-actualization, social networks, poverty, and government aggression. Part three of the book looks at the rules that should, in Parker’s opinion, govern state responses to terrorism.
Tom Parker is well read, in scholarly work and also in the writings of terrorists themselves. The book draws strongly on some recent academic work, as well as older scholarly literature; and it is a strength of the book that so much attention is paid to what terrorists and their apologists have themselves argued.
Parker is clear that he wants “to see terrorism defeated” (1), and his aim is therefore partly that states should learn from others’ mistakes in the past rather than from repeated errors and counter-productive actions each time a terrorist crisis emerges. Many significant aspects of terrorism and counter-terrorism are considered in the book. There is scrutiny of cross-case learning by terrorist actors; there is due recognition of the polarization that is generated by terrorist violence; there is attention to the vital significance for terrorists of popular support, and of the possession of legitimizing narratives of justification; and there is acknowledgement of just how difficult counter-terrorism actually is: governments are under strong pressure to respond strongly to the actions of terrorist adversaries, and yet many of the obvious mechanisms for displaying strength contain within them the seeds of counter-productive work. In contrast, more subtle and disciplined approaches can quietly have greater success in practice: “Human rights compliant rapport-building interview techniques have been employed with considerable success in the aftermath of very serious terrorist incidents” (588).
Building on the pioneering work of scholars such as Conor Gearty, Parker argues that, “Placing human rights at the center of the state’s counter-terrorist response is not only the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do as well” (767). Could the work have been more effective if more concise? At nearly 900 pages, there will be few readers who read every page. But the work valuably identifies areas of scholarly consensus where they do exist. It attends well to the heterogeneity and the complexity of multiple terrorisms. It recognizes the paradoxically intimate and mutually shaping relationship between states and their terrorist adversaries, and it powerfully advocates restraint in counter-terrorism: “seeking to provoke an overreaction from their opponents has been one of the key tactics consistently employed by terrorist groups over the past century and a half” (402).
About the reviewer: Richard English is Professor of Politics at Queen's University Belfast.