“Inside Terrorism” by Bruce Hoffman
(3rd ed., Columbia University Press 2006)
By Anushka Saxena
Research Intern at Jindal Centre for the Global South
MA (DLB) at Jindal School of International Affairs
“Inside Terrorism”, a book first published by Bruce Hoffman in 1998, attempts to give its reader an insight into the world of terrorism and its perpetrators – the terrorists. The book is a classic when it comes to exploring the nitty-gritty of terrorism, from defining terrorism through various lenses to charting a blueprint of what the future of terrorism will look like. Citing examples of “terrorist” activities in Northern Ireland, Israel, Sri Lanka, Europe and more, the book offers unique insights into what shapes terror and why an academic analysis of terrorism is necessary. Over the years, the book has come out with three editions (the most recent revised and expanded edition being published in 2006), and its comprehensiveness helps both the scholar and the student draw linkages between terrorism and insurgency, between the terrorist and the layman, and between regions and the types of terrorism they witness. However, the fact that the book dabbles with broad dimensions may make it overwhelming for a beginner and too diversified for a scholar.
Across the initial chapters, Hoffman addresses definitions of terrorism and how most of them are underwhelming in the complete sense of the concept of “terrorism”. Using examples like the Régime de Terreur of the French Revolution, the “Dynamite campaigns” as a wave of Urban terrorism in Victorian Britain, or the nationalist militancy in the Balkan nations during World War I Balkans, Hoffman tries to negotiate with the meaning and composition of terrorism across the centuries, to give the reader a comprehensive definition. He discusses in detail the 9/11 attacks and the Al-Qaeda to demonstrate the possibilities of contemporary terrorist activity and concludes by saying that the term “terrorism”, while only used with disparaging connotations, is equally subjective as well. He moves on to discuss in detail what suicide terrorism means and how it comes about, using examples of Islamic fundamentalist and jihadist movements like Hezbollah and Hamas, as well as the Tamilian fundamentalist LTTE movement from Sri Lanka. He also gives two opposing viewpoints of world actors in the UN: on the one hand, lies the US and NATO, with their narratives on “War on Terror”. On the other hand, lie actors like China and Mauritania, who try to reason with violence and insurgency by remarking it as a product of resistance against suppression, economic depravity, Israeli Zionism, and more.
The latter chapters address the shaping of public and global opinions on terrorists’ motives and insurgent activities, perfectly combined with the tradecraft and technologies available at the disposal of terrorists and insurgents to shape said opinion and garner support for their cause. Citing examples of Al-Qaeda chiefs using the Al-Jazeera network to define their propaganda, and terrorists using DVDs, ROMs, and cyberspaces for circulation of gory images and videos to garner support for their “agenda”, Hoffman tries to interpret the terrorists’ thought-processes: What is the benefit of advertising one’s work if the terrorist mission is to stay underground? Why does the terrorist choose social media to seek funding or call for recruitment? These are thought-provoking questions, but I cannot say the book has answered them substantively. While the book has discussed the role of the internet in “information laundering”, the subtlety of contemporary social media insurgency and the absence of regulatory public international law in this regard has been barely touched upon. He also demonstrates how in the 1990s, the Zapatista National Liberation Army in Mexico exploited the internet for inciting insurgency but clarifies that the ZNLA is not a terrorist organization. Nonetheless, Hoffman’s engagement with “Hacktivism” and cyberattacks as emerging forms of terrorist activities are interesting to note.
Modern State-sponsored terrorism is another interesting field Hoffman has looked at. The most striking examples he has quoted to explain it are those of the Japanese Red Army, which operated up to 2001, and Libyan insurgencies under a tyrant called Muammar Qaddafi. But Hoffman looks at all examples mentioned under state-sponsored terrorism from the point of view of the US and its role in curbing them. He quotes US strikes in Libya and US embargoes and sanctions on a “terrorism-sponsoring, Khomenei-led” Iran, and it looks as if the US has been the sole warrior against terrorism in the scholar’s opinion. Irony abounds because, in the broad sense of state sponsoring of terrorism, the US’s cold war era support to mujahideen and Pakistan has yielded drastic consequences for South, Central and West Asia to this day. As a state, US-sponsored terrorism, even if it was in the territory of another.
The book’s final chapters, entitled “Modern Terrorist Mindset” and “Terrorism today and tomorrow”, additionally analyze what the future of terrorism may look like and how the world can deal with it. His focus is on the innovativeness of a terrorist/ group to be able to execute plans that were previously met with shortcomings successfully. To illustrate this in detail, he uses the example of the improvisations and adaptations “achieved” by the IRA’s bombers in its bomb detonation techniques, especially after they were unsuccessful in their assassination of former British PM Margaret Thatcher. However, it does put in perspective a larger question for the reader: can we leverage terrorists’ motivation for innovation for the betterment of society, and in so doing, reform the terrorist himself? Other newfound innovative methods of terrorism the author discusses include chemical and bioweapon attacks, for which the most prominent example Hoffman cites is the Aum Shinrikyo nerve gas attack of 1995 (also known as the “Tokyo Subway” incident/ attack).
The conclusion the author drew at the time the book’s 3rd edition came out is that terrorists have already gained success in achieving 3 out of 5 components of their cause: acknowledgement, recognition, and attention. The other two are authority and governance, which, I believe, are both gained if we look at actors like the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Hamas in Palestine, and the Libyan National Army in Libya, today. The author’s predictions largely fit well with the contemporary scenario, but the one component that is visible today and has not been highlighted by Hoffman, of course, is “Revisionism”. With authority and legitimate supremacy, the next step a terrorist organization would ideally take is to revise narratives of governance across the world. The author acknowledges the importance spreading revolutionary messages holds for terrorists and insurgents to bring as many people as possible to their side, but he falls slightly short of broadening the concept to mean “transforming the world entirely”. From Taliban’s message to make Sharia the world religion to Osama Bin Laden’s message of ending global capitalism, a revolutionary revision from what the world is to what the world can be under their rule, forms an important tenet of modern terrorism. This is also why transnational platforms like drug trafficking networks, religious fundamentalist movements, and the World Wide Web have become so significant and relevant to the spread of terrorism.
To conclude, the author has created a seminal work in understanding terrorism as a multifaceted idea and an evolutionary concept. The extremely elaborate list of endnotes gives the reader more to explore. Some shortcomings can perhaps be acknowledged in a 4th edition, but for now, “Inside Terrorism” remains a wonderful amalgamation of a wide array of perspectives and analyses any expert on terrorism has created. Moreover, it beautifully demonstrates Hoffman’s three-decade experience working first with both public and private entities, notable the US government and the RAND.