How Might we Evaluate Counterterrorism Policy: The Three W’s of Counterterrorism

How Might we Evaluate Counterterrorism Policy: The Three W’s of Counterterrorism

In the context of debate around the UK’s new Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, Lee Jarvis proposes a new framework for evaluating counter-terrorism policy: The Three W’s of Counterterrorism.

Late in November 2014, the UK Home Office published the draft Counter-terrorism and Security Bill. Debate since  that publication – including in evidence since given to Parliament – has demonstrated just how contestable policies designed to prevent or deter terrorism can be. The Bill contains a range of proposed measures including around passport seizure, the reporting of extremism, and data retention, which have – unsurprisingly – proved controversial for human rights advocates amongst others.

Frustratingly for scholars and students of (counter-)terrorism, there are surprisingly few academic studies of the effectiveness of counter-terrorism policy. This is, in part, because of the lack of counterfactuals. That is, how do we know what would have happened should a particular counter-terrorism initiative not have been in place? Indeed, critics of policies made in this context have argued that counter-terrorism law in the UK tends to suffer from a tendency toward hasty, repetitive and knee-jerk responses to perceived emergencies, whether real or perceived. Whether we think this represents an exercise in security theatre designed to reassure fearful publics, or a way of surreptitiously strengthening the core executive will depend, in part, on whose interests we believe the state serves.

In order to begin to evaluate policies such as this Bill, I suspect there might be value in identifying a set of core questions to ask of any proposed new measures. To this end, I offer the following Three W’s of Counterterrorism:

Question 1: Is it Warranted?

Our first question involves consideration of whether there is, actually, a need for any new counter-terrorism policy. In the UK context, the tendency has been to respond to terrorist attacks or threats – whether completed or purported, current or future – by passing new measures or laws criminalising new offences. This experience differs from that of other (broadly comparative) contexts in which existing powers are applied to the emergence of new threats without the parliamentary theatrics to which we are here accustomed. As Shami Chakrabarti recently argued in her evidence to the Home Office Affairs Committee: “Talk is cheap and legislation is almost as cheap. If I were Home Secretary I might not even legislate. That’s the thing; there is always this idea that legislation will help and often it doesn’t. Sometimes, it makes things worse”.

So, asking whether a counter-terrorism mechanism is warranted involves, at a minimum, asking: 1) What threat is being addressed, and how ‘real’ or serious is it?; 2) Are there already sufficient mechanisms in place to address the threat?; and, 3) How problematic would the absence of this mechanism be?

Answering the first of these questions will always prove difficult, given that we are dealing with a world of secret intelligence and classified information to which scholars – and indeed many policymakers – have limited access. It is also, importantly, far more than a simply empirical matter involving calculations of probability and likely outcomes should an attack take place. All security threats are inherently constructed – they are brought into being through interpretation as well as through judgement. This is particularly apparent in the politics of terrorism in which the classification of any bombing, kidnapping, killing or threat as ‘terrorist’ or otherwise is notoriously contestable.

Answering the second and third of these questions, in turn, involves evaluation of the adequacy of existing policy frameworks, as well as reflection on the level of risk with which we – as people – are willing to live. This, in turn, speaks to the likely success of a proposed measure: the second of our three W’s.

Question 2: Will it Work?


There is little value in putting in place a counter-terrorism mechanism that is doomed to failure. Few would support government efforts to do something against terrorism – simply for the sake of doing something against terrorism – if we knew that the something would be of no use. So, the second of our questions asks whether or not a particular measure will work: what are the chances of a proposed measure being successful, and how do we go about evaluating that success? A first issue here is that – perhaps counter-intuitively – the purposes of counter-terrorism programmes are not entirely straightforward. Paul Wilkinson (2011), for example, argued that counter-terrorism laws may serve a variety of purposes, including addressing underlying grievances, deterring would-be terrorists or their sympathisers, upgrading the tools available to law enforcement officials, reassuring the public that something is being done, and expressing public revulsion toward terrorism.  The proscription – or banning – of terrorist organisations, for example, is frequently justified on symbolic as well as strategic terms: as a technique for communicating intolerance toward terrorism as much as a tool for preventing terrorism itself.

A second challenge is that assessing the efficacy of a particular measure involves a claim about cause and effect that may be difficult to substantiate. How do we know, for example, that a particular attack was abandoned because of the deterrence effect of a counter-terrorism framework. All policymaking involves assumptions and speculation about the future, and counter-terrorism is no different here. We may only have (at best imperfect) knowledge about the effectiveness of a policy after it has been put in place.

A third issue is that counter-terrorism policies are aimed at reflexive actors (‘terrorists’ and their sympathisers) whose ideas, motives, behaviours and targets will themselves constantly be changing (although the level of innovation within terrorist organisations remains much debated). Efforts to reduce the risk of an attack in a specific time or place, for example, may simply result in the selection of an alternative target, as Roland Crelinsten (2009) has argued of the history of target hardening efforts in response to aircraft hijackings in the 1970s.

So, taking these together, questions to be considered within the second of our three W’s include (again, amongst others): 1) Our ability to identify the purpose(s) of a counter-terrorism tool; (2) Our ability to accurately predict the future working of that counter-terrorism tool; (3) Our confidence in our ability to link cause and effect – our ability to say X happened because of policy Y; and, (4) The impact of said tool on its targets, and their response to it.

Question 3: Is it Worth the consequences

The final set of considerations refers to the consequences – intended and otherwise – of counter-terrorism efforts. Uppermost here might be the costs in manpower, money and time of an attempt to deter or respond to a terrorist threat. By some estimates, the post-9/11 war on terrorism has now cost $5 trillion, to say nothing of the cost in human life in Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond. These costs may be reduced in the context of more ‘normal’ legal mechanisms, but they exist nonetheless and may not be foreseen in advance. Work on the targeting of minority and especially ‘suspect’ communities in the post-9/11 climate has demonstrated the widespread incursion of contemporary counter-terrorism frameworks upon citizenship, civil liberties, and so on. And this is to say nothing of the opportunity costs of counter-terrorism efforts: parliamentary time spent debating  a new counter-terrorism bill could be put to any number of alternative uses, for instance. How we assess these costs is a matter, in part, of economic calculation. As John Mueller (2006: 1) argues, overreaction to the threat of terrorism has ‘led to wasteful, even self-parodic expenditures and policy overreactions, ones that not only very often do more harm and cost more money than anything the terrorists have accomplished, but play into their hands’. It is also, of course, a matter of ethical and political decision: not least: Are we willing to trade-off or ‘balance’ liberties for security if we think this will work? Are we willing to trade the liberties of some for the security of others? And, does such a trade-off even make sense?

Again, there are no definitive answers to these challenges, but questions to be considered here therefore might include: (1) Is the proposed mechanism worth the costs in time, treasure, and other resources? (2) Is it worth the opportunity costs, or could these resources be put to better, more efficient, or different use? (3) Are we willing to justify the intended consequences, especially if there are impacts upon civil liberties, citizenship, and so forth? (4) Have we considered, and are we willing to justify potentially unintended consequences – for example, the impact of counter-terrorism policies upon social, cultural and other relations between groups, communities and publics within and beyond a particular territory.

These Three W’s of Counterterrorism are – I have no doubt – far from exhaustive of the kinds of question we might ask when evaluating the counter-terrorist activity of executives, legislators, police and other security professionals. Absent here, most obviously, are constitutive questions about the framing and justification of measures such as the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill with which we began. What they offer, however, is an attempted starting point for evaluating proposed or actual counter-terrorism policies, or (less ambitiously) a starting point for thinking through the questions they raise.

Lee Jarvis is a Senior Lecturer in International Security at the University of East Anglia. His recent books include Anti-terrorism, Citizenship and Security (with Michael Lister, 2015), Security: A Critical Introduction (with Jack Holland, 2015), Critical Perspectives on Counter-Terrorism (with Michael Lister, 2015); Counter-Radicalisation: Critical Perspectives (with Christopher Baker-Beall and Charlotte Heath-Kelly, 2015); and, Cyberterrorism: Understanding, Assessment and Response (with Tom Chen and Stuart Macdonald, 2014). Follow him on Twitter @LeeJarvisPols.

Image credit:  Wikipedia

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