The Terrorism Trap: How the War on Terror Escalates Violence in America’s Partner States

Columbia University Press (Studies in Terrorism and Irregular Warfare), 2023

After two decades and trillions of dollars, the United States’ fight against terrorism has achieved mixed results. Despite the vast resources and attention expended since 9/11, terrorism has increased in many societies that have been caught up in the war on terror. Why have U.S. policies been unable to stem the tide of violence?

Harrison Akins reveals how the war on terror has led to the unintended consequence of increasing domestic terrorism in U.S. partner states. He examines the results of U.S.-backed counterterrorism operations that targeted al Qaeda in peripheral regions of partner states, over which their central governments held little control. These operations often provoked a violent backlash from local terrorist groups, leading to a spike in retaliatory attacks against partner states. Senior U.S. officials frequently failed to grasp the implications of the historical conflict between central governments and the targeted peripheries. Instead, they exerted greater pressure on partner states to expand their counterterrorism efforts. This exacerbated the underlying conditions that drove the escalating attacks, trapping these governments in a deadly cycle of tit-for-tat violence with local terrorist groups. This process, Akins demonstrates, accounts for the lion’s share of the al Qaeda network’s global terrorist activity since 2001.

Drawing on extensive primary sources—including newly declassified documents, dozens of in-depth interviews with leading government officials in the United States and abroad, and statistical analysis—The Terrorism Trap is a groundbreaking analysis of why counterterrorism has backfired.

“A brilliant, yet painful, reminder of the law of unintended consequences. In The Terrorism Trap, Harrison Akins uses fascinating case studies supported by indisputable data to argue compellingly that well-intentioned, sometimes heroic, efforts to combat terrorism in the world’s ungoverned spaces actually make the problem worse. The threats won’t disappear, so understanding the challenge and finding a way ahead is more important than ever.” General Stanley McChrystal, former commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan and former commander of Joint Special Operations Command

The Terrorism Trap presents a brilliant and original thesis for American foreign policy. To succeed in its mission, America needs to understand its partner states in Asia and Africa. A top-notch field researcher and high-level political scientist, Harrison Akins presents us a must-read contribution to the literature.” Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University and former Pakistani High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland

“Akins addresses the important and little understood interaction between relatively weak postcolonial states and the US military. He demonstrates how attempts to impose military solutions upon the periphery of these relatively weak postcolonial states with American help, led to an evolving pattern of escalating domestic terror and counter-terror violence.” David Martin Jones, co-author of The Political Impossibility of Modern Counter-Insurgency


Conquering the Maharajas: India’s Princely States and the End of Empire, 1930-50

Manchester University Press (Studies in Imperialism), 2023

At independence in 1947, India and Pakistan confronted a vast mosaic of political entities: directly administered districts, tribal areas, European enclaves, and the princely states ruled by India’s maharajas, rajas, khans, and nawabs. The over 560 princely states dotting India’s political landscape were no minor or inconsequential feature of the British Raj, comprising 40% of its territory and containing nearly 100 million people.

Yet, India’s princely states are a relatively under-studied aspect of British rule in India and the early years of Indian and Pakistani independence. Far from playing second fiddle to events in the British Indian provinces, the princely states played an integral role in shaping events leading up to and following the transfer of power. Within the British Raj, the princely states were autonomous with recognized sovereignty through treaties with the British Crown. Therefore, each prince had to be convinced, cajoled, and, in some cases, forced to accede to either India or Pakistan. As Indian and Pakistani authorities sought to assert the writ of the post-colonial state, the princes’ sought to preserve their power, setting the stage for political and military clashes based in competing conceptions of state sovereignty. 

Conquering the maharajas examines the often overlooked but essential history of Princely India through the tumultuous end of British Empire in South Asia and the early years of Indian and Pakistani independence. As the noted Indian diplomat K.M. Panikkar once remarked, ‘Any account of the last days of princely rule will sound incredible today.’

Conquering the Maharajas is a marvellous piece of scholarship that provides both nuanced empirical accounts and a sophisticated analysis of the integration of princely states into the  sovereignty projects of both India and Pakistan. It provides a novel historical perspective of the dramas of nation-building in South Asia over two decades that spanned late colonial constitutional debates, Partition and immediate post-colonial statehood. By focusing on the politics of late colonial India from the standpoint of princely rulers and by analyzing various ‘problem cases’ in comparative perspective, Akins provides powerful lessons about the complicated and ambivalent processes involved in the making of modern South Asia.” Adnan Naseemullah, Reader in International Politics, King’s College London

“Many histories of the accession of the Indian princely states following the lapse of British paramountcy focus solely on the elite actors. Harrison Akins’ accessible account gives an insight into the role of violence as a strategic tool and the pressures on the princes from below. The book is closely researched and combines narrative and sharp analysis in locating the end of princely India in the wider process of South Asian decolonisation.” Ian Talbot, Emeritus Professor in the History of Modern South Asia, University of