Thursday, October 25, 2012



Eleven years ago, I attended a lunch given by General Jack Keane, the then Vice Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army. Such lunches were given to help “the Vice” keep himself informed; and to develop connections outside the largely closed and incestuous world of the Pentagon. I thought they were a thoroughly good idea.

About a dozen of us were present. I was sitting between Jack Keane and General Karl Eikenberry, who went on to become ambassador to Afghanistan. I have rarely met a more intelligent and likeable man.

The conversation was mostly focused on 9/11 and its aftermath. That was scarcely surprising because the attacks had taken place only some weeks before, the damage to the Pentagon was still fresh, and Americans were still coming to terms with the concept that the U.S. mainland was a target.

What struck me about the conversation that enlivened lunch was the general assumption that the perpetrators of 9/11 would soon be caught or killed; and that we were dealing with a short-term situation. Eventually, I couldn’t restrain myself and pointed out the last IRA campaign in Ireland – one of a series, let me add – had lasted thirty years, and I thought it likely that we would be in a similar situation where Al Quaeda was concerned.

There was a sudden silence in the room, and I was met with looks of absolute incredulity. The majority of those assembled were thinking in terms of months at the most – and regarded my statement as ridiculous. Who is that Irish idiot? In turn, I was struck by the apparent ignorance of these assembled experts. Did nobody read? Were they not aware that most terrorists movements were contained, at best, but were rarely eliminated. Instead, either they achieved their objectives, or were—even when savagely suppressed—likely to surface again, frequently in a mutated form.

Now that eleven years have passed with Al Quaeda, albeit damaged, still extremely healthy in many parts of the world, I believe I can reclaim my credibility. However, my bruised ego apart, speaking as someone who has studied the subject for most of his life since his teens—over fifty years, I would like to make some of observations on the matter.

  • Most terrorists have a legitimate grievance, which, if left unaddressed, will ensure the terrorist’s organization’s indefinite survival.   
  • Most terrorist actions are carried out with publicity in mind. Short of laying their hands on nuclear weapons and other methods of mas destruction, terrorists can rarely inflict significant damage to a nation state.
  • Most smart terrorists try and get the government they are attacking to over-react; and most governments oblige them.
  • The U.S. has not handled the terrorist threat particularly well. I debate whether we should have ever have tried to occupy Afghanistan; and the invasion of Iraq was a disaster.
  • We may be unwilling to accept the fact, but U.S. actions and policies across the globe are at least partially responsible for Al Quaeda and similar movements. We are not blameless.
  • The solutions to terrorism are almost invariably political and almost always involve talking to one’s previously demonized enemy and reaching some sort of compromise.

I am making these comments in the light of half a century’s study of terrorism and the experience of writing three stories of High Adventure – all of which feature terrorism. They are: GAMES OF THE HANGMAN, RULES OF THE HUNT and THE DEVIL’S FOOTPRINT.

My next Big Thrillers, THE BLOOD OF GENERATIONS and SATAN’S SMILE, also feature terrorism, but of a different sort.

I loathe terrorism – I lived with it for long enough in Ireland – but think it is important to understand it. However, I don’t think it is the greatest threat we face. I shall write about that tomorrow.



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