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Croissant Theory at 40

40 years ago this month, The New York Times magazine led with a major exposure story by the journalist Claire Sterling bearing the stark title of ‘Terrorism: Tracing the International Network’. The piece accompanied, in turn, Sterling’s new book, The Terror Network: The Secret War of International Terrorism. Across both Sterling painted the same lurid picture:

more than half of the international terrorist attacks since 1968, according to the CIA, have taken place in Western Europe and North America. The most deadly have come in a strategic crescent from Turkey westward through Italy and up to Ireland.

Sterling’s work instantly attained the kind of high-level public ‘Impact’ that British university managers of the early 21st century fantasize about. As US Secretary of State, Alexander Haig gave it the most enthusiastic public endorsement. Congressional hearings were convened by the US Senate Subcommittee on Security and Terrorism to discuss its findings.

It is worth asking why Sterling’s work garnered such positive reactions. It alleged little that was truly new; or that had not already been repeated obsessively in such memorably titled (but now forgotten) works such as The Crimson Web of Terror or The Hydra of Carnage. But Sterling was a more entertaining writer than most. Above all, her timing was superb: the first Reagan presidency was only weeks old in March 1981 and the Cold War was entering into its last, and climactic, phase of crisis. In the words of one essentially sympathetic reviewer, Daniel Schorr, Sterling’s work burst ‘upon the American scene like an answer to a Reagan prayer’.

What were its resonant findings? Oddly (but powerfully), these were never quite spelled out. Suggestion was all. In basic outline, Sterling hinted very strongly that the Soviet Union was conducting a mighty ‘orchestra’ of international terrorism. But this claim was never quite pressed home. Like a bad undergraduate essay, Sterling’s book plastered over structural weakness by adopting a trenchant writing tone (‘this is not a book of fiction. It deals with facts.’), backed up by generous dollops of gossip as cement: for a study of international terrorism, The Terror Network contains an awful lot of sex. As Barry Rubin commented judiciously at the time: ‘Sterling  does not say that the Soviets are cause and master of terrorism. She does say that they have helped the phenomenon along and have benefited from it, and this does not seem such an outrageous or impossible thesis. The problem is that these distinctions are often blurred in the book’.

Not all contemporaries were impressed. In a closed-door meeting with the CIA, Lincoln Gordon (former president of Johns Hopkins University) apparently contested the view that ‘the Soviets were playing a mighty Wurlitzer of terrorism’. In more overtly satirical vein, Alexander Cockburn in Village Voice denounced Sterling’s obsession with ‘strategic crescents’ as ‘croissant theory’:

Other analysts, in the Wall Street Journal for instance, have detected a “pretzel of provocation” twisting through Cuba, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Grenada. Others again espy the “bagel of Bolshevism” surrounding and threatening to engulf Western values. The Hoover, Georgetown and Hudson gangs espouse the “crumpet of catastrophe”, a yeasty confection in which “holes of subversion” such as the Institute for Policy Studies are linked by constantly circulating melted butter to the solid “crumpet base” in Moscow.

Overall, Sterling’s The Terror Network has not aged well. The collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite regimes allows us to evaluate its claims more closely than contemporaries could. For sure, the Communist bloc did indeed extend support to the very groups that Sterling discusses. But there is relatively little evidence of any well-oiled master plan at work. As former head of the intelligence services of East Germany, Markus Wolf describes a far more chaotic picture. According to Wolf, his superior Eric Mielke (Minister of State Security) essentially ran a private policy. As a result, the regime indeed offered sanctuary to both the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and the Red Army Faction (RAF): but the overall strategic goal behind these links remained opaque. Wolf suspected Mielke was trying to discourage ‘free-lance’ terrorism, as well as laying contingency plans for a war situation where the RAF might be used as a ‘Fifth Column’ inside West Germany. None of this worked smoothly. In the words of one RAF member who holed up in East Germany: ‘By the end we were probably as unbearable for them as they were for us.’

What can we still learn from this old controversy? Arguably, it can still raise uncomfortable questions. Who can claim to be a convincing expert on terrorism? Who deserves a hearing? And what prevents those in power simply listening to what they want to believe? How close should terrorism scholars get to the intelligence services anyhow? Some of the Sterling’s claims about the links between the Italian Red Brigades and the Soviet Union seem to have had their specific origin in CIA disinformation campaigns. In this case, she simply fed the CIA’s ‘fake news’ back to itself. Above all, at the highest echelons of the Reagan administration, group-think triumphed. Upon receiving Lincoln Gordon’s essentially sceptical report that concluded there was ‘insufficient evidence’ that the Soviet Union was the motive power behind nearly all international terrorism, William Casey as Director of the CIA commented to Ronald Reagan, that ‘of course, Mr. President, you and I know better’.

In 2001, the spectacular horrors of 9/11 threw American counter-terrorism into turmoil. Once more it lurched abruptly into all-consuming hyper-alarmism. No one seems to have been aware of any potential lessons to be drawn from the Sterling controversy of 20 years earlier. Disturbingly, though, as Lisa Stampnitzky points out with her usual incisive insight, The Terror Network remains ‘the most formally influential book on terrorism to date’. 

Dr Tim Wilson, March 29 2021