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Experts explain the complexities of counterterrorism

“Our bureaucratic and organizational structures are ill-adapted to a threat that is changing rapidly, constantly and in many different ways.”

Those were the words of START researcher and internationally renowned expert in terrorism studies Dr. Martha Crenshaw last month, as she highlighted some of the challenges facing counterterrorism policy makers during a lecture with START Director Dr. Gary LaFree on their new book Countering Terrorism. Crenshaw and LaFree were joined by the National Counterterrorism Center’s Todd Veazie, a former Navy SEAL.


“American policymakers feel under pressure to set very lofty goals for dealing with terrorism, which means that these goals can appear vague and unreachable,” Chrenshaw said. “I think that it’s a mistake to try to justify social, economic and political reforms as counterterrorism efforts. By doing so, the government misleads the public as well as, perhaps, the recipients of our aid into thinking there will be an immediate turnaround, terrorism will end and security will be restored.”

Instead, Crenshaw suggested a focus on creating incremental, short-term policy efforts that might allow for more specific, attainable goals, though she noted the challenges of getting the public understand such measures.

LaFree echoed those sentiments on counterterrorism policy, and highlighted six complications in developing the social scientific study of terrorism:

  1. Terrorist attacks are incredibly rare.
  2. Mass casualty terrorist attacks are rarer still, though they command the most attention from the media and public.
  3. Data on foiled and failed terrorist plots, which are quite common, are especially difficult to track.
  4. Terrorist organizations are extremely diverse, and many are not well-organized or long-lived, which makes generalization a challenge.
  5. Attributing responsibility for a terrorist attack is often very difficult.
  6. Scholars are just beginning to design scientific studies of counterterrorism – the field is still relatively new.

“Terrorist non-state actors are indeed a dangerous problem, but we would argue that the danger is not existential; threats against us are constantly evolving. They are sporadic, they are episodic, they are inconsistent,” LaFree said. “We need to strive for the very best science, data and analysis we can, while being transparent with policy-makers about where the limitations of that data lie.”

To watch a video of the presentation, click here.

To purchase Countering Terrorism, click here.