Measuring Effectiveness in Combating Terrorism (CRS)

In confronting the threat of terrorism, what would it mean to win? And how would one know?

Terrorist and counterterrorist forces may both believe that they are succeeding in their goals. And depending on their specific objectives, they may both be right.

“Progress may be defined differently by the terrorists and those who oppose them,” according to a recently updated report of the Congressional Research Service (pdf). “Hence both can claim progress, and both can be correct in their assessments.”

So, for example, “Western policymakers often tend to define success by the absence of attacks. When the shooting or bombing stops, for example, that is viewed as success. Yet terrorists sometimes define success in terms of making governments expend limited resources trying to defend an enormous number of potential targets.”

Assessing progress by focusing on those factors that can easily be measured may mislead policymakers.

“A common pitfall of governments seeking to demonstrate success in anti-terrorist measures is overreliance on quantitative indicators, particularly those which may correlate with progress but not accurately measure it, such as the amount of money spent on anti-terror efforts.”

With the growing realization that the threat of terrorism is a distinct problem from the war in Iraq, a more thoughtful and nuanced approach to counterterrorism may soon become possible.

“As terrorism is a complex multidimensional phenomenon, effective responses to terrorism may need to take into account, and to some degree be individually configured to respond to, the evolving goals, strategies, tactics and operating environment of different terrorist groups.”

“Although terrorism’s complex webs of characteristics — along with the inherent secrecy and compartmentalization of both terrorist organizations and government responses — limit available data, the formulation of practical, useful measurement criteria appears both tractable and ready to be addressed.”

The Congressional Research Service does not make its publications directly available to the public, but a copy was obtained by Secrecy News.

See “Combating Terrorism: The Challenge of Measuring Effectiveness,” updated March 12, 2007.

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