Insights on Terror

Chris Harmon, '77, leading scholar on domestic and international terrorism

Written by Mike Thee
Photography by Sy Bean
January 15, 2014
Chris Harmon, ’77, one of the nation's foremost scholars on terrorism, says Seattle University played a pivotal role in sparking his interest in the field.

While studying abroad, as part of the French in France program led by Associate Professor Paul Milan, Harmon became intrigued by the subject matter. As several European countries grappled with terrorism, Harmon had a front-row seat.

A few months back Harmon returned to Seattle to give a talk about his career as a scholar and expert on terrorism to the Boeing Management Association. He also spent some time visiting his alma mater.

After graduating summa cum laude from SU with a double major in history and French language, Harmon earned a master’s in government and PhD in international relations and government, both from Claremont Graduate School. His research on terrorism could not have come at a more opportune time. He joined the staff of U.S. Rep. Jim Courter (R-NJ) in 1985.

“Terrorist attacks became a big issue on Capitol Hill right around the time I arrived,” says Harmon, mentioning as one example the June 1985 hijacking of TWA Flight 847. He shared his expertise widely, writing policy reviews that appeared in newspapers including the Christian Science Monitor.

After his time in D.C., Harmon returned to academia, taking on a number of faculty posts in the United States and Germany. In 1993, he joined the Marine Corps University where he currently serves as the Major General Matthew C. Horner Distinguished Chair of Military History.

A prolific scholar, Harmon has worked extensively on war and terrorism, editing or writing four books.

Highly sought for his expertise on terrorism, Harmon has spoken to numerous groups across the country and internationally and testified before Congress. In 2001, he received the Distinguished Public Service Award from the U.S. Department of State.

Asked what he considers the most important contri- butions he has made to the study of terrorism, Harmon lists three. He first alludes to a journal contribution in 1992, in which he characterized terrorism as “a special kind of immorality and a vicious form of political activity that needed attention and study.” Second, he points to the argument he has consistently made that terrorism should be regarded as a strategy rather than dismissed as just a tactic. And third, while much research has been done on the causes and origins of terrorist groups, Harmon’s public lectures and publications helped pioneer study of how and why such organizations end.

He elaborates on the third point by sharing a chart of terrorist groups that have ceased to exist, a project that he says was a year in the making. He points out a historical oddity—how a lawsuit against the Aryan Nation following a shooting at Hayden Lake, Idaho, effectively ended that group's operation in 2000— before turning to the more common avenues by which terrorist groups include the use of force by the military or police, decapitation (taking out the leader) or a multifaceted approach he calls a “grand strategy.”

The United States has deployed a grand strategy, including force, intelligence, economic tools, diplomacy and policy-since the 9/11 terrorist attacks and, in Harmon's estimation, the approach is working. To be sure, there are areas to improve and strengthen. "We could be reaching over other governments and talking directly to populations.” He would also like to see the government be more proactive in countering terrorism, rather than just playing defense.

“Terrorism is disturbingly effective when it is managed well with other political strategies,” he says. Case in point: Hezbollah, which is 30 years old and led by the same man who founded it. Hezbollah has been “fantastically successful,” Harmon explains, because it has pursued a number of strategies to complement its terrorist activities, including governing and influencing those who govern.

Although there's a perception that terrorism is on the rise, historical analysis proves otherwise, says Harmon. Still, the myth persists, along with others. Such as terrorism being mindless, or a male-driven enterprise. Or terrorists being disenfranchised and poor. Harmon debunks each of these misperceptions, explaining that terrorism is a most often a very intentionally used instrument in service of a political agenda; that women play a significant role in terrorist organizations; and that many in terrorist groups are well educated, some with advanced degrees.

“The people sent to do a suicide bombing may not have master's degrees,” says Harmon, “but the leader often does.”
Chris Harmon Chris Harmon, '77, is a leading scholar on domestic and international terrorism.