Lone Wolves and Zealots: Terrorism Today

Terrorism shadows every aspect of modern life, yet most of us don’t really understand its origins, manifestations, or even exact definition. There is a common assumption that the greatest threat emanates from Islam, yet according to one report, in the United States between 2008 and 2016, there were almost twice as many terrorist incidents by right-wing extremists as by Islamist extremists. How is our understanding of horrific events like last night’s Las Vegas mass killing informed by a regime that offers “prayers” and “thoughts” but never acknowledges how this violence is enabled or what it may be rightly called? And how, if ever, can terrorism truly be curtailed? There may always be more questions than answers when it comes to this topic, but these books offer a good start toward demystification.

The Terror Years: From al-Qaeda to the Islamic State—Lawrence Wright
Comprised of eleven articles originally published in The New Yorker, Pulitzer-winning author Lawrence Wright’s The Terror Years is a collection of interviews and essays written over ten years from the front lines and back rooms of the United States’ wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. From conversations with Osama bin Laden’s relatives to former FBI agent John O’Neill, Wright examines how terrorism has radically changed international attitudes toward security.

Bin Laden, Islam, & America’s New War on Terrorism–As`ad AbuKhalil
Consider this slim volume an invaluable primer on the United States’ shifting definition of terrorism. From President Reagan’s embrace of the Afghan mujahideen to the U.S. missile strikes against Bin Laden’s camps in that country’s mountains, As’ad AbuKhalil distills the thin line between “terrorist” and “freedom fighter,” and questions whether political violence can ever truly end.

Lone Wolf Terrorism: Understanding the Growing Threat—Jeffrey D. Simon
Another form of terrorism that isn’t always recognized is “lone wolf terrorism,” or isolated mass murders. Such violence may seem like less of an overarching problem, but because the perpetrators – from the two Boston Marathon bombers to Timothy McVeigh – work without a larger support network (though they are often ideologically compelled), they are difficult to predict, identify, and capture. What’s more, because they are unhindered by any sort of “group think,” they can be capable of especially horrendous acts. Tracing the root causes of these incidents, Jeffrey D. Simon puts the recent uptick of these separate acts of terror into a larger international perspective.

Terrorism and War—Howard Zinn; edited by Anthony Arnove
Best known for A People’s History of the United States, the late democratic socialist, social historian, and activist Howard Zinn also spoke brilliantly on the topic of terrorism. In this collection of interviews with the author, he teases out the alleged distinctions between just and unjust wars, and hones in on how and when resistance, militarism, nationalism, and imperialism manifest as out-and-out terrorism. Man, could we use Howard Zinn’s eagle eye today.

Terrorism and the Economy: How the War on Terror is Bankrupting the World—Loretta Napoleoni
It’s an angle that isn’t discussed much but should be: the international economic havoc wreaked by the United States’ war on terror. Loretta Napoleaoni, a best-selling author who’s proven before that she’s able to translate complex financial and business concepts, details how the U.S. response to 9/11 bankrupted our country, created an unhealthy dependence on other nations’ economies, and created global debt that, in her opinion, betrays the capitalism upheld by such economic luminaries as Adam Smith. She also examines how the quest for economic independence helps impel ISIS in the first place. This book is as revelatory as it is heavy.

The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State—William McCants
Widely hailed as an expert on the Islamic State, William McCants has assembled a comprehensive and thoroughly sobering look at ISIS – its key players, ideologies, methodologies (read: forms of brutality), timeline, and places of impact. The two key concepts? Jihad and apocalypse. This is scary, vital stuff.

The Terrorist Next Door: The Militia Movement and the Radical Right—Daniel Levitas
In clear but charged language, Daniel Levitas tracks hate groups in America: their history, their contemporary manifestations, and the reasons that their domestic terrorism is minimized by local and, as we’ve seen recently, national governmental agencies. As this book was published in 2002, it’d be nice to report that its insights are no longer applicable. Sadly, it’s more relevant than ever, and all the more precious for the surprising lack of nonacademic volumes published on the subject.

This was originally published at Signature.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy