Prior to September 11, 2001, few Americans registered serious concern about terrorism in the United States. The attacks of 15 years ago were, and remain, the deadliest terrorist attacks in history. And yet terrorism was a deadly phenomenon around the world for decades before those attacks, and was the subject of study among a small community of researchers as early as the 1960s. What’s truly different about the terrorism of the post-9/11 era, and what’s been consistent over time? And why does the problem still seem so difficult to manage? Below, three of the scholars who helped define the modern field of terrorism research reflect on what’s been learned, what’s been forgotten, and what still isn’t known about why terrorists attack.
Brian Michael Jenkins: The bookshelf on terrorism understandably expanded rapidly after the 9/11 attacks brought the issue so forcefully to the attention of the American public. Much of this literature reflects the commercial desire of publishers to exploit intense public interest. A lot of the entries fall into the category of lurid sensationalism and forecast imminent doom (“Al-Qaeda already has nukes in New York”) offer conspiracy theories (“What the government won’t tell you”), or feed partisan agendas. As such, it informs us more about the country’s state of anxiety than it does about terrorism. Memoirs of any former government official vaguely connected with counterterrorism also found publishers. But some of the new terrorism literature reflected excellent investigative journalism and offered insights about the nature of the adversary, a lot of it focusing on the specific issues faced by the United States as it went to war. Without 9/11 and the “global war on terror,” it is doubtful that there would so many histories of Afghanistan or Pakistan. We had to learn a great deal more about the specific terrorists we were up against.