Public Policy Professor Looks at How Terrorism Ends

Posted: July 8, 2013 at 5:00 am, Last Updated: July 10, 2013 at 2:07 pm

Print Friendly

By Frances Womble

Audrey Kurth Cronin. Photo by Alexis Glenn

Audrey Kurth Cronin. Photo by Alexis Glenn

Where others try to explain how terrorism works, Audrey Kurth Cronin, professor in the School of Public Policy, has made a career explaining how terrorist campaigns and other conflicts end.

“We need to replace fear with knowledge and education,” says Cronin. “That’s why I work in this area. We also need to desensitize publics to reduce panic, more objectively understand risk, push our government to release more unbiased information and be candid about what we do and don’t know.”

Cronin began her academic career as an undergraduate student initially interested in studying medicine. After graduating from Princeton University, she received  a Marshall Scholarship to Oxford University.

“I was at Oxford during the Cold War, and my perspective changed completely,” she says. “With the arrogance of youth, I thought that by studying international relations I might be able to save many lives at once rather than saving lives one at a time.”

This was not Cronin’s first international experience. Before entering college, she worked in the commercial office in the United States Embassy in Moscow.

“I was a peon but acted as a liaison between Soviet ministries and American companies,” she says. “It was during a time when American companies had difficulty getting access to the Soviet Union, so they had to go through us. I had no idea what to expect, but in those tense days of living under the threat of nuclear cataclysm, I learned how vital it is for American citizens to be involved in formulating smart U.S. policies.”

Cronin completed her dissertation on the occupation of Austria after World War II and how enemies end conflicts.

Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda

“After that original work, I started to look around the world to see which other countries had similar circumstances,” says Cronin. “I focused on the failed Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the civil war, which led very naturally in the 1990s to studying Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.”

Before Sept. 11, 2001, there was a widespread assumption that the threat of anti-U.S. terrorism was waning, according to Cronin. This is one reason why the United States was so ill prepared for 9/11 and experts who had not been following al-Qaeda were so deeply shocked. After the attacks, Cronin served as the specialist in terrorism at the Congressional Research Service, where she was responsible for advising congressional members.

“It became clear to me very quickly that Congress had very little understanding of terrorism,” she says. “In that atmosphere of adrenaline and anxiety, I was asked to put al-Qaeda into perspective and stressed that all terrorism campaigns eventually end. The key is to determine how best to help them do so.”

Six Patterns of Decline

Through her research, Cronin has identified six analytical patterns on the decline or ending of terrorist campaigns: decapitation, negotiation, success, failure, repression and reorientation. These patterns are not distinct and sometimes overlap. Decapitation occurs when a terrorist group loses its leader through arrest or death.

The next pathway, negotiations, leads to the achievement of some aims of a group and a decline in terrorism. However, only a small percentage of terrorist groups have been willing to negotiate. Those that do negotiate tend to have a lifespan of 20 to 25 years, which is substantially longer than the average eight-to-10-year lifespan of most terrorist groups.

The success pathway happens rarely and nearly always requires groups to eventually denounce the tactic. Cronin also notes that tactical goals are often met, but it is rare to meet strategic goals.

The fourth pathway, failure, is very common and occurs when groups collapse or lose support.

Repression, the next pathway, is the use of military force abroad or police coercion at home.

The final pathway, reorientation, is a transition from terrorism toward either criminal behavior or more traditional forms of violence like insurgency or conventional war.

Thinking Strategically

Before coming to George Mason as a tenured senior faculty member in 2011, Cronin was director of studies for the Changing Character of War Programme at Oxford University in England, and the director of the core courses on military strategy at the U.S. National War College.  Earlier in her career, she worked for the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Office of the Secretary of the Navy.

Cronin is the author of several books, including “Attacking Terrorism: Elements of a Grand Strategy” (2004), “Ending Terrorism: A Strategy for Defeating Al-Qaeda” (2008) and “How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns” (2011).

Recently, she wrote “Why Drones Fail,” the featured article on the cover of the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs, a public policy journal. The article examines the U.S. government’s increasing use of armed drones. According to the article, the high usage of drones in places such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia is problematic because tactics are defining strategy rather than the other way around.

“Our heavy reliance and ease of use are new, even though drones themselves are not new to our military,” says Cronin. “The U.S. has been ramping up its use of these remote attacks since 2009, so it followed very naturally from my research on the evolution of conflict to look at drone usage.”

At Mason, Cronin teaches her students about grand strategies for international relations.

“We have to look beyond war to the nature of peace,” says Cronin. “There are so many opportunities to do this. We just have to learn to think strategically and grab them.”

Write to Robin Herron at

Leave a Comment