The Billion Dollar Question: Are Counter-Terrorism Efforts Effective?

After September 11, 2001, the range of counterterrorism policies implemented increased dramatically and spending soared. According to Lum et al. in the Journal of Experimental Criminology, the Congressional Budget Office reported a counterterrorism budget of $7.2 billion in 1998. By 2005 that number had reportedly increased to $88.1 billion. Additionally, non-Department of Defense spending for homeland security increased from $9 billion in 2000 to $32 billion by 2005. While debates about the federal budget are commonplace in Washington and talk of terrorism pervades much of the public discourse on national security, there has been little public discussion on the effectiveness of costly counterterrorism efforts and programs.

Lum et al. explore the effectiveness of counterterrorism efforts in their article published in the Journal of Experimental Criminology entitled “Are counter-terrorism strategies effective? The results of the Campbell systematic review on counter-terrorism evaluation research.” This was the first such review ever published and the authors ultimately conclude that there is an almost complete absence of evaluation research on counterterrorism interventions. Furthermore, of the interventions that did achieve some measurable outcome, some were associated with an increase in terrorist activity.

Admittedly there are difficulties with counterterrorism research, which could help explain the lack of data prior to 2006, when the review was published. The article highlights the fact that counterterrorism strategies can cover activities that range from preventive efforts, like airport screenings and vaccinations, to media efforts, legislation, and military interventions. Determining how to appropriately gauge effectiveness of any given strategy is a challenge. Additionally, terrorist events are relatively rare and the associated data are often not made public. Even with such limitations, the lack of research on outcomes stands in contrast to spending on counterterrorism programs and policies.

In the process of conducting the Campbell Systematic Review, the authors initially included all studies that referred to any program or outcome as terrorism-related. This produced over 20,000 documents, which were eventually narrowed down to just seven studies that met the minimum criteria for evaluation. Within these seven studies the authors identified 86 findings that were organized into six general intervention categories including: 1) metal detectors and security screening, 2) fortifying embassies, 3) increasing severity of punishment, 4) UN resolutions, 5) military retaliations, and 6) changes in political governance.

The findings indicate that interventions such as metal detectors were associated with a decrease in airplane hijackings. However, there were simultaneous increases in other types of terrorist acts pointing to substitution effects. Embassy fortification was not statistically associated with a decrease in terrorism and may be associated with increased terrorism toward these targets. There is no current evidence to support the idea that increasing severity of punishment decreases terrorism. Additionally, United Nations Resolutions against terrorism are not shown to have a deterrent effect, and the authors highlight the importance of not just delegitimizing but also decreasing the supply and demand of terrorism. Military retaliation was statistically associated with an increase in terrorism in the short run and may not have any impact long term. Finally, the impact of changes in political governance was uncertain, suggesting that the political context of terrorist acts should not be ignored.

Overall, the report identified a lack of research on counterterrorism tactics, strategies, and tools. Of the interventions that have been evaluated, many did not have a statistically significant impact on decreasing terrorism and in some instances may have been associated with increased terrorism. The authors urge government leaders, policy makers, and researchers to develop an infrastructure encouraging counterterrorism evaluation research with the ultimate goal of producing evidence-based counterterrorism policy that is lawful, rational, effective, and causes as little harm as possible. Given the price tag of counterterrorism efforts, ignoring such advice may be too costly.

Article Source: Cynthia Lum, Leslie W. Kennedy, and Alison Sherley, “Are counter-terrorism strategies effective? The results of the Campbell systematic review on counter-terrorism evaluation research,” Journal of Experimental Criminology (2006).

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Natalya Wallin
Natalya Wallin is an Executive Editor for the Chicago Policy Review and is an MPP student at the Harris School of Public Policy. She is interested in foreign policy, inclusive growth, human rights, and women's issues.

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