Effectiveness of Counterterrorism Strategies


Project Details


This project includes qualitative analysis of the development and implementation of government policies in the United States, Canada, Israel, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Italy, Britain, Spain, and India and international and regional organizations such as the UN, EU, and NATO. Data was collected from open-source historical documents and supplemented by interviews with past and current officials from the countries and organizations being studied. The impact of counterterrorism measures was also examined from the perspective of the terrorist via the review of memoirs, public statements, media interviews, correspondence and other evidence of reactions to government decisions and actions from terrorists.

Primary Findings:

Since 9/11, contemporary democratic governments, although faced with similar threats of Islamist or jihadist terrorism, have responded differently and possess no common standard of policy effectiveness (in part because there is no shared conception of policy goals -- whether states should aim for zero tolerance or pragmatic acceptance of some level of risk to the civilian population, also whether military force is an effective tool as opposed to simple law enforcement). How to define and counter "radicalization" at home has been a particularly problematic issue (with Great Britain, for example, changing policy considerably because of concerns about lack of effectiveness, indeed counter-productiveness). The search for credible measures of progress or "metrics" has been frustrating for all states, particularly as they seek to distinguish "counter-radicalization" from "counter-terrorism." If soft power efforts to counter radicalization or win hearts and minds, focusing largely on the ideas and motivations of individuals and communities, are complicated, so too are efforts to use hard power against terrorist organizations.

This project examined the commonly held premise that democracies cannot resist responding to terrorist provocations, thus creating a destructive cycle of tit-for-tat retaliation that defines the international politics of the post-Cold War world. The research team first identified the most provocative terrorist attacks in this period (e.g., attacks on the homeland from groups headquartered abroad, mass casualty attacks on citizens abroad, and casualty-producing attacks on diplomatic or other symbolic institutions abroad). Researchers then analyzed government responses to these attacks. Contrary to popular wisdom, states rarely retaliate outside of their borders even for severe provocations. India's response to the Mumbai attacks is a case in point. The reasons are complex, but it is clear that the pressure of public opinion in democracies does not force governments to retaliate with military force outside their borders. This finding casts doubt on the effectiveness of a policy of deterrence, including retaliatory threats to respond to nuclear terrorism with overwhelming force.


This project used generally qualitative methods, in the first instance a comparative case study approach focusing on democratic responses to terrorism in the contemporary period of the Al Qaida jihadist threat, both foreign-generated and homegrown. Thorough reviews of government documents and reports were the center of the research approach, supplemented by some interviews with policy makers. Within this context, the research team looked closely at Great Britain, France, and India, as well as the United States. The project also surveyed incident databases to identify provocative terrorist attacks since 1991 (primarily GTD and ITERATE). It also reviewed the MIDS database to find information on military responses to terrorism, but this approach was not helpful. The team examined each case through press reports.


Project Period: