Counterterrorism Research Paper

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This research paper divides terrorist countermeasures into deterrence-based, conciliatory-based, and situational-based strategies. Deterrence-based strategies attempt to reduce terrorism through punishment and the threat of punishment. While politically popular, empirical evidence suggests that punishment or repression directed toward terrorists or their constituency can lead to increases in terrorist violence. Conciliatory-based counterterrorism strategies offer rewards for legitimate alternatives to terrorist behavior. Examples include actions directed toward terrorists, such as leniency that might be offered to them for publicly renouncing their organization or conciliation that might be directed toward the terrorists’ constituency, such as providing medical assistance at a time of need. The two studies that evaluate the effects of conciliation show that these actions are, indeed, related to less terrorism (i.e., in Israel and Turkey). Situational-based counterterrorism refers to efforts to reduce opportunities for terrorist attacks (e.g., installing metal detectors in airports). While evidence suggests that target hardening has effectively reduced some forms of terrorism (aerial hijacking), terrorists are often innovators who can develop alternative methods of attack. Finally, scholars are still learning what counterterrorism strategies have worked in the past to reduce terrorism as they begin to develop datasets that document the prior actions by governments to control terrorist violence.

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Concerns about terrorism have grown substantially since the late 1960s when the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) hijacked an Israeli El Al flight that was in route from Rome to Tel Aviv, demanding the release of Palestinian prisoners and creating a drama that permeated major media capturing the world’s attention. It signaled to the world that terrorist violence is no longer contained in known conflict zones (Hoffman 2006). Prior to that event, most terrorist campaigns were localized, affecting only a single country or region and targeting only those individuals who were relevant to the terrorists’ grievances (e.g., Basque Fatherland and Freedom [ETA] in the Basque region of Spain, Corsican National Liberation Front [FLNC] in the French island of Corsica, the National Liberation Front [FLN] in Algeria, the Irish Republican Army [IRA] in the United Kingdom). Once governments realized that terrorist violence was becoming a transnational problem, efforts began to develop more robust strategies for protecting citizens from being targeted by terror. This was especially apparent after the 1972 massacre of members of the Israeli Olympic team by the Palestinian terrorist organization Black Friday when Western Europe began to formulate antiterrorism policies and create counterterrorism units.

In the more than 40 years since the PFLP hijacking, reports on terrorist attacks have regularly pervaded media outlets, leading to global concerns that most persons are potentially vulnerable targets of terrorism. Despite this increasing concern, it is surprising how little is known about effective strategies to reduce terrorist violence. Schmid and Jongman (1988) reviewed more than 6,000 published works that examine terrorist violence and found that most of it is impressionistic making broad generalizations based only on episodic evidence. This conclusion is disheartening given that officials had to regularly develop counterterrorism strategies based on anecdotal evidence rather than empirically sound evaluations. As of 2004, this problem had only marginally improved. Lum and colleagues (2006) conducted a thorough and systematic review of counterterrorism evaluations as part of the Campbell Collaborative program. From the more than 20,000 written documents on terrorism between 1971 and 2004, only seven studies met their criteria of being moderately rigorous evaluation studies. This is especially surprising because a similar review of criminal justice evaluations found more than 500 rigorous and scientifically sound program impact evaluations (Sherman et al. 1997), raising a stark contrast between what we know about what works in criminal justice and what little we know about controlling terrorism.

To be fair, one of the primary reasons terrorism research had relied so heavily on case studies rather than empirical analysis is because comprehensive data that documents terrorist activity simply did not exist. This changed shortly after the beginning of the twenty-first century when RAND began to chronicle both international and domestic attacks and the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) compiled the Global Terrorism Database (GTD). As data became more widely available and extensive, scholars began to evaluate the effects of known government efforts to stop terrorist violence. The following sections describe different strategies that governments have used to control terrorism and the studies that have evaluated their effectiveness.

Types Of Countermeasure Approaches

In this section, three major strategies are outlined to addressing terrorist violence. The first – deterrence-based counterterrorism – is by far the most appealing to officials because it is consistent with strategies to enforce criminal law and it demonstrates the strength of the government, increasing its popularity across constituencies. The second strategy – conciliatory-based counterterrorism – is typically less popular among officials and their constituents, but might be more effective in reducing violence. The third approach – situational-based counterterrorism – is similar to situational crime prevention, in that it hardens likely targets making it more difficult for terrorists to gain access to them. All three approaches are explained in greater detail below.

Deterrence-Based Counterterrorism

In his famous speech after the Iranian hostage crisis, President Ronald Reagan warned, “Let terrorists beware that when rules of international behavior are violated, our policy will be one of swift and effective retribution” (Stanik 2003: 33). This sets the tone for the Reagan administration’s and future US administrations’ response to international terrorism, as evidenced by the 1986 bombing of Libya, the 1993 bombing of Iraq’s military intelligence headquarters, and the 1998 missile attacks in Afghanistan and Sudan. While rhetorically bold, Reagan’s proclamation was consistent with hundreds of years of practice under Western criminal law traditions, which calibrates levels of punishment to best deter law-breaking. Given this history, the appeal of repressive responses to terrorism is unsurprising, especially after devastating attacks like that of 9/11. In fact, President Bush’s approval ratings soared as he assertively offered phrases like, “wanted dead or alive,” “smoke them out,” and “bring ‘em on” (CNN 2001; Knowlton 2001; Associated Press 2003). With the popular support of the US public, the United States invaded Afghanistan demonstrating its resilience and strength, while decimating al-Qaeda training camps and forcing the Taliban into hiding.

Other efforts to deter terrorist behavior include apprehending terrorists and extending their prison sentences, passing antiterrorism laws, targeted assassinations, imposing curfews and containment, retaliating with violent military repression, invading territory, and indiscriminate repression.

While deterrence is appealing to many, others have argued that repression can lead to backlash. For example, since the US invasion of Afghanistan, opinions about its effectiveness are mixed. It is true that the organization al-Qaeda, as it was in September 2001, no longer exists; however, its successors remain highly networked and now have offshoots planning attacks across the globe. This new global jihad reaches supporters through its teachings on various Internet sites and its regularly published online English magazine, Inspire. Despite the rise in the global jihad movement, to date, the “new” al-Qaeda has been unable to replicate any attacks as sensational as the 9/11 attacks in the United States or elsewhere in the world, suggesting that the US repression response may have perhaps been an effective deterrent strategy. However, it can be argued that the damages caused by the attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq are far worse than any benefits because they have undermined the legitimacy of the United States, as the collateral damage gives the impression that the United States places little value on Afghani and Iraqi lives. Further, the military strikes seem to have increased al-Qaeda’s popularity throughout the region, attracting large numbers of recruits into the global jihad (Malvesti 2002). In fact, some go as far as to claim that Osama bin Laden’s intent behind the 9/11 attacks was to elicit a US response that would kill Muslims leading to retaliations (Malvesti 2002). This sort of “jujitsu” strategy is purposely designed to elicit a harsher response than the precipitating attack, increasing grievances and strengthening any broad-based loyalty to the terrorist organization (McCauley 2006). In other words, repressive policies adopted by the United States and other governments might actually cause more terror than they avert.

Thus, despite the appeal of deterrence-based counterterrorism strategies, the above argument suggests that when directed at terror, punishment will sometimes fail to deter and could even lead to more violence. This sort of backlash effect has been found in responses to other criminal behaviors and has been well explained by criminological theory. For example, labeling theorists argue that punished offenders will begin to identify more thoroughly with their role as lawbreakers solidifying their criminal (or terrorist) identities (Farrington 1977). Others have claimed that punishment can compromise the punisher’s perceived legitimacy and consequently elicit acts of defiance (Tyler 2006), which is consistent with McCauley’s (2006) argument that terrorists sometimes deliberately use a “jujitsu” strategy in order to sabotage a government’s legitimacy.

Evidence of this sort of backlash effect from repressive actions has also been found in scholarly research. Several studies of the Republican terrorist campaign in Northern Ireland find that efforts by the British government to suppress terrorist violence increased rioting (Peroff and Hewitt 1980) and terrorism (LaFree et al. 2009). In fact, one Irish Republican Army member has been quoted as saying, “The British security forces are the best recruitin’ officer we have” (Geraghty 2000: 36). Elsewhere, analysis has shown that during the Iranian revolution, repression led to a long-run increase in the frequency of protests (Rasler 1996). Piazza and Walsh (2009) found that countries that violate human rights are more likely to suffer terrorism than countries that adhere to human rights. Bartholomew (2011) found that laws that increased punishment for abortion-related terrorism failed to act as a deterrent, and in certain instances, they were associated with increases in property destruction and violence. Given the above evidence, one can argue that terrorism emerges as a response to perceived injustices, such as government repression, that inspire groups to mobilize in retaliation. In fact, even in cases where repression seems to work, it rarely comes without some costs. For example, Eppright (1997) found evidence that Israel’s 1996 incursion into Lebanon led to a significant drop in Hezbollah’s rocket attacks in Israel. Yet, Israel’s actions in Lebanon also increased dramatically the local and international support for Hezbollah, undoubtedly strengthening the terrorist organization’s propensity for future attacks.

Despite these mixed findings, one point seems clear from the research conducted thus far. Most terrorist organizations are unlikely to be deterred by traditional sanctions, especially since they are often wholly willing to exchange their lives or their freedom to strike a blow against their enemies. In fact, of the eight reasons that Cronin (2006) gives for a terrorist group’s decline, only two are directly related to deterrence: the capture or killing of the leader and military force or repression. Empirically, Dugan and Yang (2011) show that the risk of continued terrorist attacks by Sendero Luminoso dropped substantially after the Peruvian government captured its leader, Guzman. While this result is promising, Cronin (2006) warns that the effectiveness of capturing one organization’s leader depends upon its structure, the charisma of the leader, and the presence of a viable successor. This warning can be better heeded when we consider the effects of Israel’s 1992 deportation of top Hamas leaders. Afterward, more radical mid-level leaders took over which eventually produced more deadly attacks against the Israelis (Hoffman and Cragin 2002). Capturing or killing a leader can also backfire if the group raises its captured or killed leader to the status of martyr, motivating further attacks (Cronin 2006). To date, we have yet to determine the effects of the killing of Osama bin Laden on the strength of the global jihad. Unsurprising, rhetoric suggests that attacks will increase, yet without effective leadership, the threats could be innocuous.

Despite the empirical findings described above, it is difficult to draw strong conclusions about deterrence without accounting for alternative approaches to countering terror. For example, LaFree et al.’s (2009) study of Northern Ireland selected only six actions by the British government from 1968 through 1992 to test their impact on Republican terrorism. The six actions were chosen because they were repeatedly cited as important in news accounts and scholarly research. Yet, by only selecting six actions over a 25-year period, the study ignored all less publicized – and perhaps less repressive – attempts by the British government that could have also influenced the rise and fall of Republican terrorism. Without data on the more subtle actions by governments, scholars may be getting biased results. Moreover, without including conciliatory as well as repressive government actions, we cannot assess the impact of alternatives to repression on reducing terrorist violence.

Conciliatory-Based Counterterrorism

Conciliatory-based counterterrorism is a logical alternative to deterrence-based strategies because it is similarly sourced in rational choice theory (see Dugan and Chenoweth 2012). Both strategies appeal to the rational actor, but instead of punishing law-breaking behavior, conciliatory-based strategies reward legitimate alternatives to terrorism. Examples of earlier conciliatory efforts are found in Europe in the 1980s when Spain pardoned imprisoned ETA members after they publicly renounced the organization and its use of violence. The “reinsertion” policy allowed ETA members to live normal lives, free from the terrorist organization. Similarly, the Italian government offered leniency to members of the Red Brigades when they provided information that lead to the apprehension of other members (Cronin 2006). In both examples, governments strategically provided rewards for good behavior rather than punishing bad behavior. More recently, deradicalization programs have been aiding convicted terrorists by engaging them in religious dialogue to dismantle the ideological beliefs that justify terrorism. Concurrently, the programs work closely with detainees’ families to prepare them to lead nonviolent lives by providing financial support to educate their children, train their wives, and help to reintegrate detainees into the community (Kruglanski et al. 2010).

Despite the promise offered by the theory behind conciliatory-based counterterrorism, little is known about its effectiveness because little is known about the types of actions that governments have engaged in to reduce terrorism. In an effort to remedy this empirical gap, Chenoweth and Dugan (2011) have been developing a comprehensive database that documents government’s terrorist-related actions ranging from fully conciliatory to fully repressive in select countries. Along with my colleague Erica Chenoweth, I have collected the Government Actions in Terror Environments (GATE) data for the years 1988 through 2004 in Israel, Turkey, Algeria, Lebanon, and Egypt, and we plan to expand the collection to cover more countries over more years. Because this is the only effort to systematically capture a range of counterterrorism activity, the collection method will be briefly described below.

In order to attempt to capture all government actions that are relevant to any terrorist conflict for each country, we relied heavily on open sources. Only through media reports it is possible to learn about the more subtle, yet relevant government activity in a terror environment. The data were collected using Textual Analysis by Augmented Replacement Instructions (TABARI), which searches news articles and identifies observations that match the criteria of an extensive set of dictionaries designed to capture international and domestic activity (Schrodt 2006). TABARI is an automated text-coding program that codes the first sentence of news articles based on verb and noun pattern recognition. TABARI was used to code hundreds of thousands of Reuters articles downloaded from Factiva using country-level search terms (243,448 stories for “Israel*,” 67,107 for “Leban*,” 52,575 for “Algeria*,” 109,694 for “Egypt*,” and 152,998 for “Turk*”) as the sole search criterion for the period June 1, 1987, to December 31, 2004 (Chenoweth and Dugan 2011).

After TABARI identified relevant news articles, the output (i.e., actor, verb, and target) was filtered to select only those actions that government actors implemented toward substate targets. All verbs within these criteria were kept as relevant in order to ensure that all unexpected actions would be captured and that a wide range of actions were included even if they may not immediately seem like counterterrorism (e.g., Israeli attempts to allow developers to build more efficient water wells in the Palestinian territories). After autocoding the verbs to fall on a conciliatory-repression scale, every lead sentence was examined for proper coding (Chenoweth and Dugan 2011). During this cleaning process, each government action was attributed to politicians, the military, the judiciary, or the police. The resulting file contains the article’s lead sentence, the actor, action, target, and new codes measuring level of conciliation and repression, whether the action was material and whether the target was discriminate (or specific) or indiscriminate (or general) for 6,063 Israeli government actions, 1,856 Turkish actions, 680 Algerian actions, 307 Lebanese actions, and 624 Egyptian actions for the years 1988 through 2004. This dataset gives an action-by-action view of state attempts to resolve conflicts with various non-state actors.

Chenoweth and Dugan (2011) present figures that compare conciliatory and repressive trends of government actions with that of terrorist attacks from the GTD for each country. In general, the three trends seem to track one another. For example, the GATE data show a rise in repressive actions during the First Intifada in Israel that was later combined with conciliatory actions. Further, during the Second Intifada, the Israeli government acted with a record high frequency of repressive actions. In Turkey, it appears as if repressive actions increased corresponding to terrorist attacks during the height of the Kurdish insurgency, which accounts for most of the terrorist attacks and most of the

Turkish government’s actions. It also appears that conciliatory actions only began to rise in the mid-to late 1990s, at the termination of the PKK-led Kurdish insurgency. In Algeria, the vast majority of repressive actions seem to accompany the Algerian Civil War through the 1990s, with repressive policies declining near the end of that decade as (primarily Islamist) terrorist attacks increased. In Egypt, the primary terrorist activity occurred in the mid-1990s, when a variety of Islamist groups launched an internal war against Hosni Mubarak’s regime. These acts were accompanied by massive increases in repression, while conciliatory acts remained virtually nonexistent in Egypt. Finally, the patterns in Lebanon appear to be more mixed, which is likely due to the relatively low number of terrorist-relevant government actions compared to the other countries.

Thus far, the GATE data have only been used for two evaluations. In their study of Israel, Dugan and Chenoweth (2012) found, using a monthly time series analysis, that conciliatory actions are associated with decreases in Palestinian terrorism and repressive actions are related to increases in such violence. These findings suggest that conciliatory-based counterterrorism might be promising and affirms that repressive strategies should be used with caution. Preliminary findings on Turkey suggest a similar pattern, although the number of conciliatory actions is so few that the findings related to those actions fail the tests of statistical significance.

Situational-Based Counterterrorism

When we turn our attention away from the motivation of the offender and just assume that terrorists will always want to attack, we are free to consider traditional crime control strategies that are based on limiting offending opportunities. Clarke and Newman (2006) present this strategy of controlling terrorism by suggesting that we adopt a situational approach to preventing terrorism – similar to that used to control more common crimes. By systematically analyzing the opportunities that terrorists exploit, they suggest that we can direct our efforts toward developing reasonable means to block those opportunities. Of course, their strategy is adaptive because terrorist organizations will always exploit new avenues of attack. For example, Enders and Sandler (1993) and others (Dugan et al. 2005) show that after metal detectors were installed in US airports, the number of hijackings decreased. However, Enders and Sandler (1993) also demonstrated that metal detectors also led to increases in other kinds of hostage-taking tactics, suggesting that terrorists adapt to changes in situational factors. Jackson (2005) argues that terrorist organizations are innovative and that with enough resources will evolve beyond current barriers to their success. Thus, while situational-based counterterrorism is an important strategy, it should be accompanied by a better understanding of terrorist tactics that have been used in the past to overcome protective barriers (Clarke and Newman 2006). Regardless of the sophistication of the perpetrators, it is good policy to make it more difficult for terrorists to successfully attack vulnerable targets.


For this research paper, I explored three strategies to control terrorism: deterrence-based, conciliatory-based, and situational-based counterterrorism. While it seems that the most popular approach is to rely on deterrence strategies, it is unclear from the empirical research that this is the most effective strategy. In fact, most evidence suggests that deterrence perpetuates more violence rather than facilitating its ending. Unfortunately, evaluations of the other two approaches are scant, making any strong conclusions premature. Regardless, it is safe to say that the problem of terrorism is complex and that a broad range of tactical strategies should be considered before taking action.

The literature on terrorist countermeasures is currently in its infancy. However, several developments show the potential to better understand the effects of a broad range of approaches to reduce terrorist violence. First, the availability of incident-based terrorism data, such as that of the GTD, allows scholars to finally have an objective empirical dependent variable to use in evaluation studies. Second, more scholars are developing datasets to document a broad range of efforts by governments and others to reduce terrorist violence. As these datasets arecompleted and made available, I expect an increase in the number of evidence-based studies, providing policy-makers with the much-needed substantiation to inform their decision-making.


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