How Terrorist Groups End

Excerpts from “The Sociology and Psychology of Terrorism:Who Becomes a Terrorist and Why?”A Report Prepared under an Interagency Agreementby the Federal Research Division, Library of Congress,September 1999.Author: Rex A. HudsonEditor: Marilyn Majeska, Project Managers: Andrea M. Savada, Helen C. Metz.Available online at www.lcweb.

About the report:”The Sociology and Psychology of Terrorism” was commissioned in January 1999 by the National Intelligence Council. The report was delivered in September 1999. The report summarizes literature written by experts on terrorism, inside and outside government.

Was U.S. counter-terrorist activity fatally flawed In the 1980’s and ’90s?The influential political psychologist Jeanne N. Knutson said yes.Knutson was Executive Director of the International Society of Political Psychology until her death in 1982. After conducting extensive international research on the psychology of political terrorism, she concluded that “their violent acts stem from feelings of rage and hopelessness engendered by the belief that society permits no other access to information-dissemination and policy-formation processes.” Knutson argued that the political crime of terrorism could only be addressed by political, not military, means. 

In 1999, her views seemed relevant to the writers of the report, The Sociology and Psychology of Terrorism:Who Becomes a Terrorist and Why? and are cited below.

Incidentally, the report was largely dismissive of a less optimistic writer, psychologist Jerrold M. Post. He believed that religious terrorists would be our greatest enemy, that they were mentally ill, and unlikely to ever change.” Terrorists,” Post wrote in 1990. “whose only sense of significance comes from being terrorists cannot be forced to give up terrorism, for to do so would be to lose their very reason for being.”


The motivations of a terrorist group both of its members and of its leaders cannot be adequately understood outside its cultural, economic, political, and social context. Because terrorism is politically or religiously motivated, a counterterrorist policy, to be effective, should be designed to take into account political or religious factors…..

…Islamic terrorist groups, aided by significant worldwide support among Muslim fundamentalists, remain the most serious terrorist threat to U.S. security interests. A U.S. counterterrorist policy, therefore, should avoid making leaders like Osama bin Laden heroes or martyrs for Muslims. To that end, the eye-for-an-eye Israeli policy of striking back for each act of terrorism may be highly counterproductive when applied by the world’s only superpower against Islamic terrorism, as in the form of cruise-missile attacks against, or bombings of, suspected terrorist sites. Such actions, although politically popular at home, are seen by millions of Muslims as attacks against the Islamic religion and by people in many countries as superpower bullying and a violation of a country’s sovereignty. U.S. counterterrorist military attacks against elusive terrorists may serve only to radicalize large sectors of the Muslim population and damage the U.S. image worldwide.

Rather than retaliate against terrorists with bombs or cruise missiles, legal, political, diplomatic, financial, and psychological warfare measures may be more effective. Applying pressure to state sponsors may be especially effective. Cuba and Libya are two examples of terrorist state sponsors that apparently concluded that sponsoring terrorists was not in their national interests. Iran and Syria may still need to be convinced.

Jeanne Knutson was critical of the reactive and ad hoc nature of U.S. counterterrorism policy, which at that time, in the early 1980s, was considered an entirely police and security task, as opposed to “…a politically rational, comprehensive strategy to deal with politically motivated violence.” She found this policy flawed because it dealt with symptoms instead of root causes and instead of eradicating the causes had increased the source of political violence. She charged that this policy routinely radicalized, splintered, and drove underground targeted U.S. groups, thereby only confirming the “we-they” split worldview of these groups. Unfortunately, too many governments still pursue purely military strategies to defeat political and religious extremist groups.

Abroad, Knutson argued, the United States joined military and political alliances to support the eradication of internal dissident groups without any clear political rationale for such a stance. She emphasized that “terrorists are individuals who commit crimes for political reasons,” and for this reason “the political system has better means to control and eliminate their activities and even to attack their root causes than do the police and security forces working alone.” Thus, she considered it politically and socially unwise to give various national security agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the political role of choosing targets of political violence. She advocated “a necessary stance of neutrality toward national dissident causes whether the causes involve the territory of historical friend or foe.” She cited the neutral U.S. stance toward the Irish Republican Army (IRA) as a case study of how to avoid anti-U.S. terrorism. Her views still seem quite relevant.

Goals of a long-range counterterrorism policy should also include deterring alienated youth from joining a terrorist group in the first place. This may seem an impractical goal, for how does one recognize a potential terrorist, let alone deter him or her from joining a terrorist group? Actually, this is not so impractical in the cases of guerrilla organizations like the FARC, the LTTE, and the PKK, which conscript all the young people in their rural areas of operation who can be rounded up. A counter strategy could be approached within the framework of advertising and civic-action campaigns. A U.S. government-sponsored mass media propaganda campaign undertaken in the Colombian countryside, the Kurdish enclaves, and the Vanni region of Sri Lanka and tailor-made to fit the local culture and society probably could help to discredit hard-liners in the guerrilla/terrorist groups sufficiently to have a serious negative impact on their recruitment efforts. Not only should all young people in the region be educated on the realities of guerrilla life, but a counterterrorist policy should be in place to inhibit them from joining in the first place. If they are inducted, they should be helped or encouraged to leave the group.

The effectiveness of such a campaign would depend in part on how sensitive the campaign is culturally, socially, politically, and economically. It could not succeed, however, without being supplemented by civic-action and rural security programs, especially a program to establish armed self-defense civil patrols among the peasantry. The Peruvian government was able to defeat terrorists operating in the countryside only by creating armed self-defense civil patrols that became its eyes and ears. These patrols not only provided crucial intelligence on the movements of the Shining Path and Tupac Amaru terrorists, but also enabled the rural population to take a stand against them.

There is little evidence that direct government intervention is the major factor in the decline of terrorist groups. Clearly, it was an important factor in certain cases, such as the RAF and with various urban Marxist-Leninist group in Latin America where massive governmental repression was applied (but at unacceptably high cost in human rights abuses). Social and psychological factors may be more important. If, for security reasons, a terrorist group becomes too isolated from the population, as in the case of the RAF and the Uruguayan Tupamaros, the group is prone to losing touch with any base of support that it may have had. Without a measure of popular support, a terrorist group cannot survive. Moreover, if it fails to recruit new members to renew itself by supporting or replacing an aging membership or members who have been killed or captured, it is likely to disintegrate. The terrorist groups that have been active for many years have a significant base of popular support. Taylor and Qualye point out that despite its atrocious terrorist violence, the Provisional IRA in 1994 continued to enjoy the electoral support of between 50,000 and 70,000 people in Northern Ireland. The FARC, the LTTE, and the PKK continue to have strong popular support within their own traditional bases of support.

In the cases of West German and Italian terrorism, counterterrorist operations undoubtedly had a significant impact on terrorist groups. Allowing terrorists an exit can weaken the group. For example, amnesty programs, such as those offered by the Italian government, can help influence terrorists to defect. Reducing support for the group on the local and national levels may also contribute to reducing the group’s recruitment pool. Maxwell Taylor and Ethel Quayle have pointed out that penal policies in both countries, such as allowing convicted terrorists reduced sentences and other concessions, even including daytime furloughs from prison to hold a normal job, had a significant impact in affecting the long-term reduction in terrorist violence. Referring to Italy’s 1982 Penitence Law, Taylor and Quayle explain that “This law effectively depenalized serious terrorist crime through offering incentives to terrorists to accept their defeat, admit their guilt and inform on others so that the dangers of terrorist violence could be diminished.” Similarly, Article 57 of the German Penal Code offers the possibility of reduction of sentence or suspension or deferment of sentence when convicted terrorists renounce terrorism. Former terrorists do not have to renounce their ideological convictions, only their violent methods. To be sure, these legal provisions have not appealed to hard-core terrorists, as evidenced by the apparent reactivation of the Italian Red Brigades in 1999. Nevertheless, for countries with long-running insurgencies, such as Colombia, Sri Lanka, and Turkey, amnesty programs for guerrillas are very important tools for resolving their internal wars.

With regard to guerrilla/terrorist organizations, a major question is how to encourage the political wing to constrain the military wing, or how to discredit or neutralize the military branch. The PKK should serve as an ongoing case study in this regard. Turkey, by its policy of demonizing the PKK and repressing the Kurdish population in its efforts to combat it instead of seeking a political solution, only raised the PKK’s status in the eyes of the public and lost the hearts and minds of its Kurdish population. Nevertheless, by capturing Ocalan and by refraining thus far from making him a martyr by hanging him, the Turkish government has inadvertently allowed the PKK to move in a more political direction as advocated by its political leaders, who now have a greater voice in decision-making. Thus, the PKK has retreated from Turkey and indicated an interest in pursuing a political as opposed to a military strategy. This is how a guerrilla/terrorist organization should end, by becoming a political party, just as the M-19 did in Colombia and the Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN) did in El Salvador