U.S. Attitudes toward Terrorism and Counterterrorism

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Project Details


The goal of this project is to better understand the dynamics of the American public's attitudes and beliefs about terrorism and counterterrorism over time. It collects and analyzes systematic survey data from a representative sample of Americans in response to a range of survey questions. Improved understanding of public attitudes can inform the development of programs and tools related to managing public risk perception, increasing the effectiveness of pre- and post-event communication by Federal, State, and Local officials, and building and supporting more resilient social networks within and across communities.

Primary Findings:

The first web survey was completed by 1,576 individuals 18 years of age and older in the fall of 2012.

According to the results, a large majority of respondents said that the U.S. government has been very effective (33 percent) or somewhat effective (54 percent) at preventing terrorism, despite the fact that 69 percent endorsed the view that “terrorists will always find a way to carry out major attacks no matter what the U.S. government does.”

The survey also found that clear majorities of respondents were willing to meet with local police or officials from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to discuss terrorism, data which suggest that community outreach programs may be a viable strategy for countering violent extremism in the United States.

While the survey highlights the public view that the U.S. government is addressing terrorism effectively, the study’s research team suggests that increased government support for public outreach efforts and community engagement programs could be beneficial. For example, more than 56 percent of respondents had not heard anything about DHS’ "If You See Something, Say Something™" campaign, which is designed to raise public awareness of indicators of terrorism and terrorism-related crime. Of those who had heard something about the campaign, 85 percent thought it would be very or somewhat effective.

The second survey was completed by individuals 18 years of age and older in the Spring of 2013. While the survey was still in the field, the April 15 Boston Marathon Bombings occurred. To examine the potential impact this event had on public attitudes, the answers of 1,173 respondents who completed the survey immediately before the bombings were compared with a new sample of 302 respondents who completed the survey immediately after the bombings.

When comparing the samples that completed the survey before and after the bombings, there was no difference in the proportion of respondents who said they had thought during the previous week about the possibility of a terrorist attack in the United States. However, those who completed the survey after the Boston bombings were more likely to assign a higher probability to a terrorist attack in the United States, with about 26 percent viewing an attack as somewhat, very, or extremely likely after the bombings compared with about 13 percent before the bombings.

As might be expected, respondents who completed the survey after the Boston bombings were less likely than those who completed it before to judge that the government was effective in preventing terrorism in the United States. Thirty-one percent of those who completed the survey before the bombings viewed the government as very effective compared with 22 percent of those who completed it after.

Finally, compared with those who completed it before, a larger proportion of respondents who completed the survey after the bombings indicated that they would be very or somewhat likely to call the police if they became aware of various terrorism-related scenarios. This suggests that a highly publicized event may increase the public’s willingness to help authorities prevent future attacks.

This project is scheduled to deliver findings from two more waves of the survey, which will be conducted in 2014.


This project is led by researchers from the START center and the Joint Program for Survey Methodology – both of which are multi-university centers with headquarters at the University of Maryland, within Maryland’s College of Behavioral and Social Sciences. All survey data for this project have been collected by the Knowledge Networks Corporation (GfK Custom Research, LLC), a global leader in online survey methods.


Project Period: