Terrorism policies most effective when reasonable, balanced

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The study of terrorism is often confused and contentious, and the study of counterterrorism can be even more frustrating, says Martha Crenshaw, a Stanford terrorism expert and senior fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation.
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Why is terrorism such a vexing problem for policy makers to solve?

The details – and not sloganeering – are important in grappling with the terrorist threat against the U.S. and West, a Stanford scholar suggests. One reason is that the study of terrorism is often confused and contentious, and the study of counterterrorism can be even more frustrating, says Martha Crenshaw, a Stanford terrorism expert and senior fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation.

“The conceptual and empirical requirements of defining, classifying, explaining, and responding to terrorist attacks are more complex than is usually acknowledged by politicians and academics, which complicates the task of crafting effective counterterrorism policy,” wrote Crenshaw in a new book, Countering Terrorism, with her co-author Gary LaFree, a criminal justice professor at the University of Maryland.

The researchers examined about 157,000 terrorist attacks that have occurred around the world since 1970. These are catalogued in the Global Terrorism Database at the University of Maryland. Crenshaw founded the Mapping Militant Organizations project at Stanford to identify militant organizations globally and trace how they arise, their root causes and their connections. Understanding the nature of terrorism, the diverse groups and ever-changing aspect of how they adapt is a key theme in her research.

Crenshaw said the stakes in fighting terrorism today are especially high since the consequences of missteps and miscalculations can be catastrophic. While research in what is now known as terrorism studies has made significant strides, more progress is needed on the analytical and academic fronts.

“Terrorist attacks are rare, yet they encourage immediate and far-reaching responses that are not easily rolled back. Most attempts actually fail or are foiled, so that examining only successful terrorist attacks gives an incomplete picture,” the scholars wrote.

Obstacles and hindrances

After 9/11, the U.S. reshaped its policies and institutions to deal with terrorism. Fifteen years later, Crenshaw and LaFree analyzed the lessons learned from 9/11 and how governments responded. Both authors are participating in a Jan. 25 panel discussion at Stanford on the subject of their book. Crenshaw and Lafree suggest three key principles emerge from their research. Countries like the U.S. should prepare for change, disruption, and surprise from terrorist groups.

Second, countries should resist the temptation to magnify the image of the destructive power of terrorism as well as the vulnerability of its targets. Finally, the U.S. needs to accept limits to its ability to totally manage and control the jihadist threat. As Crenshaw and LaFree noted, “Even superpowers cannot completely control their environments. Terrorist threats are constantly evolving, never static.”

A realistic understanding of the actual extent of terrorist capacity to harm national security interests is the best approach, she said. “Governments, especially the American government, should avoid both overreacting and promising or threatening overreaction, which means entertaining modest expectations about what can be accomplished in an extremely complex and uncertain threat environment that requires constant adaptation and adjustment,” they wrote.

Counterterrorism policy should be reasonable, practical, and balanced – in a word, sensible, Crenshaw said.

“There is no perfect solution,” she and LaFree said.

The top priority of the U.S. government is to prevent attacks on American soil, she said. While this is a clear goal, no one in political leadership can guarantee the public absolute security. “If the goal is set as the complete absence of terrorist attacks, then policymakers become so anxious that a terrorist will slip through the preventive security net that they risk panic or overreaction. Fear of being blamed in the aftermath of an attack starts to take precedence over all other considerations,” they wrote.

Policy paradoxes

Crenshaw and Lafree’s research revealed some policy paradoxes. One involved counterterrorism: policymakers tend to set overly ambitious policies to eradicate terrorism completely, rather than risk being called “reactive” rather than “proactive.” But Crenshaw said such goals lack clarity and realism, and can lead to unwise and unattainable objectives. For example, in the wake of 9/11, the U.S. government believed that overthrowing authoritarian regimes in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen in favor of “democratic change” would serve as the antidote to terrorism.

However, the change did not take place, and the U.S. has since had to intervene militarily to restore or establish security and stability for weak and embattled allies facing terrorism. One aim for American policy should be greater precision about the strategic goals of military action abroad and that connection to security at home, said Crenshaw and LaFree.

“If the contradictions behind the paradox cannot be resolved, policymakers must find a middle ground between the tactical and strategic,” they wrote.

Another problem is measuring progress against terrorism, Crenshaw and LaFree said. Significant skepticism exists about what the metrics mean in regard to drone strikes, bombs dropped, targets struck, arrests made and cases prosecuted, convictions secured, territory seized or regained, plots foiled, websites taken down, Facebook postings and Twitter accounts deleted, and so on.

“Are these measures of success against terrorism or measures of the extent of the government’s efforts? These metrics calculate what government has done, not necessarily the effect of its actions on adversaries’ calculations and capabilities,” the researchers said, adding that government measures may be taken before a specific adversary exists.

Finally, the real agents behind terrorism are extremely difficult to identify, Crenshaw and LaFree said, because there is no standard “terrorist organization,” and groups evolve, mutate and adapt. Meanwhile, governments and researchers often struggle to establish responsibility for specific attacks. 

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Martha Crenshaw, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies: (650) 723-0126, crenshaw@stanford.edu

Clifton B. Parker, Center for International Security and Cooperation: (650) 725-6488, cbparker@stanford.edu