Audrey Kurth Cronin’s new monograph, Power to the People: How Open Technological Innovation is Arming Tomorrow’s Terrorists, makes a valuable contribution to the literature on terrorism, technological innovation, and the evolving nature of national security in the twenty-first century. The book deserves to be widely read by scholars and policymakers. Deborah Avant, Boyd P. Brown III, and Jennifer Spindel have supplied us with insightful reviews that interrogate, respectively, the book’s theoretical framework, its historical underpinnings, and its policy implications. Cronin’s response helpfully answers some of her reviewers’ questions and acknowledges where more work is to be done. In my introduction to this roundtable, I do not wish to recapitulate either Cronin’s or her reviewers’ arguments, since they all speak quite ably for themselves. What I do want to do is take a step back and try to illuminate some of the broader issues at play. In short, what does Power to the People tell us about the state of terrorism studies in 2021?
In 2010 U.S. President Barack Obama stated that nuclear terrorism was “the single biggest threat to U.S. security, both short-term, medium-term and long-term”. The events of September 11, 2001 demonstrated the real risk of catastrophic terrorism. It also exacerbated existing fears that groups such as Al-Qaeda would be willing to detonate a nuclear device either on U.S. territory or American valuables abroad. It is one thing to hijack a plane and crash it into a building. It is quite another challenge to obtain a nuclear weapon or the materials needed to assemble a nuclear bomb. Unlike ‘conventional’ arms which proliferate much more easily in the international system, nuclear weapons are much harder to assemble or obtain; a terrorist group would need a state’s assistance to do this. This has raised the issue of terrorism as a technique – that a state might resort to nuclear attack by proxy against the United States and its allies in order to avoid attribution.