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Fighting Back: What Governments Can Do about Terrorism

Fighting Back: What Governments Can Do about Terrorism, edited by Paul Schmella, Stanford University Press, 2011, 416 pp.

In the wake of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, governments have been forced to completely reevaluate the nature of both national and international security. Accordingly, think tanks and academic institutions have exponentially increased research focus on the implications of an era that gives violent transnational, nonstate organizations inordinate sway on political power. As terrorism scholar Andrew Silke recently pointed out, the number of academic works has exploded to the point where a new book on terrorism is published approximately every six hours. Students of terrorism studies are now faced with a problem that their predecessors never experienced—how to sift through a hulking mass of terrorism work to find the truly meaningful pieces. Edited volumes can lessen the burden only somewhat—the trick is in the balancing of concepts and cases. Far too often, readers are faced with a dilemma to choose works that focus upon a single aspect of terrorism, through which they may draw overly broad conclusions. The alternative is to select volumes that draw upon many aspects of terrorism at the risk of developing overly prescriptive (and generally incorrect) conclusions about terrorism. It is rare to find a work that effectively balances breadth of topics with depth of discussions to provide readers an experience that is both insightful and wholly practical. Fighting Back: What Governments Can Do about Terrorism is one such rarity.

Edited by retired Navy SEAL commander Paul Schmella, Fighting Back covers a wide range of topics and boasts an impressive blend of established terrorism scholars with respected counterterrorism practitioners. The book is aimed at providing a modern and practical guide to understanding the contemporary terrorism challenge. As such it is broken into three parts: Part I focuses on the complicating aspects of modern terrorism; Part II breaks down and details the critical variables in conducting an effective comprehensive counterterrorism campaign; Part III offers readers multiple case studies that highlight both successful and unsuccessful programs to combat terrorism.

The opening section boasts strong chapters focusing on contemporary topics ranging from the requisite definitional foundations to terrorist financing, cyber terrorism, maritime terrorism, and terrorist networks. Where Fighting Back makes its biggest impact, however, is in the subsequent segment dedicated to government counterterrorism response options. James Petroni opens by developing a clear-eyed threat assessment methodology. The piece culminates with a hybrid analysis tool that considers history, vulnerability, maximum threat, probability of terrorist activity, and the respective “weight” associated with each factor. Schmella closes this compelling section by addressing the other end of the preattack analysis/postattack response timeline, arguing practitioners should be wary of improperly believing efficiency equals effectiveness in a counterterrorism campaign. The book’s case studies echo points of analysis brought to the fore in prior sections but also provide their own unique contexts as can only come from case study analysis. Edward Hoffer’s work on Aum Shinrinkyo alongside Thomas Mockaitis’ chapter on the Irish republican army remind readers that terrorism is a ubiquitous and powerful tactic that can emerge in strong democratic nations as well as failing or authoritarian regimes. Lawrence Cline completes this section by highlighting the strong culture of criminality and terrorism that flourishes in ungoverned nations like Somalia, reminding the reader of the myriad of connections between terrorism, terrorist organizations, and effective domestic policing.

Fighting Back proves impressive in its ability to avoid much of the academic navel gazing prevalent in many contemporary terrorism writings. That said, there are instances throughout the book where readers are left wanting either more definitional clarity or deeper exploration of a given subject. Since the book was designed predominantly to supplement and guide seminars for the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Civil-Military Relations, the editor’s decision to trade analytical depth for teachable breadth is understandable. In fact, it may say more about the smooth prose and logical layout of the book that, even after 400 pages, the reader is left wanting more. The current body of terrorism literature could certainly benefit should Shemella and his team produce subsequent editions periodically to both shore up some of the minor theoretical shortcomings as well as to maintain its modern feel.

As a whole, the book—as it was designed—is most useful to those charged with developing and executing contemporary counterterrorism policy (although readers of all backgrounds will take useful lessons from it). I commend the editor and contributors for their ability to craft a work that clearly explains the complexities associated with combating terrorism without falling prey to offering well-used, typically ineffective, schoolbook answers. As the editor notes, “the complex and enduring problem of terrorism does not lend itself to such linear thinking.” Terrorism will be a multigenerational national security issue that will require the collective efforts of military, diplomatic, law enforcement, information, and economic institutions to address. Fighting Back gives us the foundation to critically assess our abilities to prevent terrorism as well as manage the consequences of attacks that are certain to happen again. As both a member of the American and international society, I sincerely hope that policymakers and practitioners read, understand, and take the lessons of this book seriously.

Paul Brister


"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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