Covered bridge at night, Vermont

Michael Sheenan’s Crush the Cell: How to Defeat Terrorism Without Terrorizing Ourselves covers ground that overlaps with that of Ghost: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent and Securing the City. Namely, the history of Al Qaeda in relation to the United States, and the question of what sort of policies the United States should adopt in response to terrorism. Sheehan brings an insider’s perspective, having served as New York’s Deputy Commissioner for counterterrorism. While Sheehan provides a lot of information and tries to argue a few key points, the book succeeds more as a source of raw information than as a source of analysis. In particular, Sheehan fails to fully justify his views that Al Qaeda will fizzle out in a few decades, and fails to provide a comparative justification for why targeting cells is the most effective way of undermining terrorist plots while avoiding unwanted secondary effects.

Sheehan covers a number of important and interesting topics: methods for counterterrorism, intelligence, and law enforcement; the (limited) competence of Al Qaeda operatives; the risks that arise then officials practice ‘cover your ass’ security; the significance of weapons of mass destruction; torture and human rights; and the importance of not granting terrorists the psychological advantages that arise when we allow ourselves to be terrorized. In the last of those, he echoes a point well-made by Bruce Schneier. Sheehan also provides an insider’s perspective on the controversial rebuilding of the former World Trade Center site, including why construction has been so slow to begin.

Among the three books I have recently read on this subject, Securing the City probably provides the most insight into effective counterterrorism strategies developed and deployed in New York, while Ghost may be the most compelling personal account (though one lacking in balance). Crush the Cell occupies a middle territory – worth reading for those who want even more details and examples than they have found from other sources, but probably not essential reading for those only moderately interested in the subject.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

oleh January 2, 2010 at 5:19 am

“the importance of not granting terrorists the psychological advantages that arise when we allow ourselves to be terrorized”.

I think this is a topic which deserves more recognition. I am very supportive of effective efforts to reduce terrorism. However, I am not supportive of subjecting the general population to large scale inconvenience in efforts that are not effective. This does not seem to make sense. An example would include the recent concern over carry on baggage on flights. The terrorist in this case did not succeed in initiating an explosion. However, he did succeed in causing a reaction which subjected an large scale inconvenience on the traveling public. Another would include increased security on Greyhound busses because of the random (but gruesome) murder involving the decapitation of a bus passenger by another., – an incident that could have occurred anywhere. I suggest that we resist such over reaction.

richard pauli January 2, 2010 at 6:17 pm

Thanks for these book reviews…Where does political expression end and terrorism begin? The military manual forgets to address that isssue.

(Everybody forgets to define terrorism – it is really hard to do..try it without it applying to any violent government action. Even the military calls it asymmetric warfare. )

Does disruptive non-violent political action meet the definition of terrorism? Homicide or property destruction is a criminal act – but when does is become terrorism?

If any politically disempowered group is further ignored and abused, it seems to me that political expression will eventually move into radical forceful expression. Don’t we encourage terrorism by ignoring and suppressing political expression? See Unabomber and Timothy McVeigh…

In a declining economy where people are losing homes, health insurance, jobs and respect….how can we expect people to remain civil?

Milan January 3, 2010 at 10:00 pm

Does disruptive non-violent political action meet the definition of terrorism?


Terrorism is distinguished by a willingness or even an intent to kill large numbers of civilians. Strategic bombing might be a bit like terrorism, but non-violent protest is not.

richard pauli January 3, 2010 at 11:34 pm

Thanks for excusing political expression from ever being a terrorist act. You have an elegant command of language, but I cannot let you off so easy.

Such “willingness and intent to kill civilians” surely includes the 9-11 World Trade Center casualties – but that definition maybe not allow the Pentagon deaths- since it was military. Surely that does not fit. Certainly narco-terrorism qualifies, as do most suicide bombings – but only where there are civilian targets?
But a better definition of terrorism might want to exclude examples like the Battle of Fallujah where “reports claim that up to 6000 civilians died throughout the operation” (wikipedia) When insurgents are mixed with civilians does it count? Are these excused as unintentional collateral damage? Or just imperfect military campaign? Is any civilian who cannot flee a war zone to be considered an insurgent?
Or in current news where Blackwater gets a pass on murdering 17 bona fide civilians? Was that just a crazy political mistake because the intent did not start out to kill?
Or is the Israel apartheid-like policy of containment and invasion of Gaza just a war of asymmetric terrorism where each side’s intent to kill civilians is matched and amplified by one side over the other?
A civilian can support the military acts of their nation, but does a civilian in a failed state automatically become an insurgent?
Is it a military act to provide food and medicine to an insurgent?

I am not sure it important to answer these questions, but it may be right to keep asking. You are getting closer to defining terrorism, but the exceptions make it messy.

Milan January 4, 2010 at 3:44 pm

Thanks for excusing political expression from ever being a terrorist act.

It is hard to imagine how written or oral expression could be terrorism. That said, blowing up an abortion clinic as a political expression is also a form of terrorism. Intermediate cases involve things like blocking off coal plants so that they cannot receive shipments to keep running – a form of direct political action that is probably not terrorism, given that it doesn’t intentionally target civilians (they are harmed in the short term as an inevitable product of the action, but their suffering is not the motivator).

. January 12, 2010 at 12:13 pm

According to the U.S. Code (Title 22, Chapter 38, Section 2656f), “the term ‘terrorism’ means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.”

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