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Measuring Progress, or Lack Thereof, in Combating Terrorism

Raphael Perl

Congressional Research Service


There is an old saying: Throw your darts and where they land, that is the target. There is a tendency of governments engaged in a particular strategy to want to justify success of the strategy. We need to measure success using broad-based objective criteria, and not criteria solely applicable to existing policies.

Among the various government agencies involved in antiterrorism efforts there is currently no common definition of terrorism and no common set of criteria for measuring success. Many agencies are still attempting to establish and define their criteria, without which they cannot measure organizational performance.

How we perceive and measure progress is central to how we formulate and implement antiterrorism strategy. It has a major impact as well on how we prioritize and allocate resources. As we cannot eliminate terror, and risk is everywhere, our perceptions of progress drive our allocation of finite resources. On the other hand, the parameters we use to measure progress set the framework for measurement of our failures. To better define the parameters of success, it is important to determine what both terrorists, and those who fight terror, see as their goals and priorities.

Understanding failures is central to success in combating terrorism. If we terminate two-thirds of the senior leadership of a particular terrorist organization, the ranks of the organization may grow and decentralize, similar to what happens when we attack drug cartels. To what degree should this be regarded as a failure rather than a success? Also, how do we measure the impact of unintended consequences—or side effects and by-products of our actions, for example, loss of civil liberties?

Progress may be defined differently by the terrorists and those who oppose



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Countering Urban Terrorism in Russia and the United States: Proceedings of a Workshop Measuring Progress, or Lack Thereof, in Combating Terrorism Raphael Perl Congressional Research Service There is an old saying: Throw your darts and where they land, that is the target. There is a tendency of governments engaged in a particular strategy to want to justify success of the strategy. We need to measure success using broad-based objective criteria, and not criteria solely applicable to existing policies. Among the various government agencies involved in antiterrorism efforts there is currently no common definition of terrorism and no common set of criteria for measuring success. Many agencies are still attempting to establish and define their criteria, without which they cannot measure organizational performance. How we perceive and measure progress is central to how we formulate and implement antiterrorism strategy. It has a major impact as well on how we prioritize and allocate resources. As we cannot eliminate terror, and risk is everywhere, our perceptions of progress drive our allocation of finite resources. On the other hand, the parameters we use to measure progress set the framework for measurement of our failures. To better define the parameters of success, it is important to determine what both terrorists, and those who fight terror, see as their goals and priorities. Understanding failures is central to success in combating terrorism. If we terminate two-thirds of the senior leadership of a particular terrorist organization, the ranks of the organization may grow and decentralize, similar to what happens when we attack drug cartels. To what degree should this be regarded as a failure rather than a success? Also, how do we measure the impact of unintended consequences—or side effects and by-products of our actions, for example, loss of civil liberties? Progress may be defined differently by the terrorists and those who oppose

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Countering Urban Terrorism in Russia and the United States: Proceedings of a Workshop them. Hence both can claim progress and both can be correct in their assessments. How does one deal with or reconcile this? In designing metrics, we might begin with three major categories: incidents, attitudes, and trends. Incidents—We see reports of incidents in publications such as the Department of State’s Patterns of Global Terrorism.1 How widespread are incidents geographically; how deadly are they? We should also be concerned about the psychological and social impact of incidents, the economic and social costs of our response to them, and their negative effects on the macroeconomy. Attitudes—They drive both terrorism and the world’s response to terrorism. How do attitudes affect political decisions and sentiments in countries to contain and defeat terrorism, or to support it? How long can democratic governments pursue policies that pressure terrorists if such policies are seen as stimulating terrorist retaliation? Similarly, how much increase in economic costs and reduction in civil liberties will public opinion tolerate? Shaping attitudes to break or weaken the political will to combat terrorism is a central terrorist goal and an important indicator of their, and our, success or failure. Trends—Measurement of trends is particularly relevant to terrorist infrastructure. Are we weakening their leadership; is their recruitment base, or network, growing? Relevant also are intentions (tactical and strategic goals). Have the intentions of a movement or group changed, and if so, are they more or less radical—more or less focused on causing widespread damage? Capabilities are important as well. What are the capabilities of a terrorist group to inflict serious damage? Are they increasing or decreasing? In our search for meaningful criteria, the academic, engineering, and scientific community has much to offer government policy makers. A useful start might be simply to conduct a survey of what data on terrorism—especially databases—exist, what categories and details are found within that data, and to which topics the data are particularly relevant. Methodologies for measuring progress in combating complex social phenomena such as drug trafficking and crime may have much to offer as well. We might wish to see the results of statistically sound attitude surveys in various countries, repeated periodically. Moreover, if the academic and scientific research community is not satisfied that the government is providing a comprehensive and rigorous accounting of the bottom line in the campaign against terrorism, what prevents an organization like the National Research Council from issuing an annual report card to the nation? The global campaign on terror is costly. It is costly in dollars spent, lost opportunities, and human lives lost or damaged. It is costly in political capital 1 U.S. Department of State. 2004. Patterns of Global Terrorism. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of State.

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Countering Urban Terrorism in Russia and the United States: Proceedings of a Workshop with our allies, in the image of the United States abroad, and in civil liberties worldwide. Some argue that the biggest threat to democracy from terrorism is not rapid destruction of property and life, but rather slow erosion of civil liberties. In addition, others argue that we are overreacting, and that we are bleeding ourselves dry economically—like the Soviet Union did in its attempts to match our military spending during the cold war. Terrorism is a nonlinear and asymmetric phenomenon. Moreover, some terrorist operations are relatively inexpensive to organize and carry out, especially compared with the damage they may inflict. Consequently we cannot expect that by spending more money we will necessarily increase our security proportionally. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the federal government currently spends $50 billion a year on homeland security. The U.S. Department of Defense has received $201 billion since September 11, 2001, for combat-related expenses in Iraq and Afghanistan and for enhancing security at military installations. During the next decade, military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan alone could cost an additional $458 billion according to the Congressional Budget Office. Of the billions spent for deployment of security systems and for military operations, only a small fraction of that amount goes for personnel with the expert analytical and investigative skills needed to formulate plans to neutralize terrorist operations before they are carried out. How much does the United States spend overseas annually in nonmilitary areas to combat terrorism? The data are elusive, but for fiscal year 2004, the GAO put the figure at $11 billion. Clearly this is not where the nation’s counterterrorism priorities currently lie. Should more, perhaps, be allocated to diplomacy? The costs of terrorism to the world economy are even more staggering. In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, costs were estimated to be between $33 billion and $36 billion. Osama bin Laden has claimed the increased costs to the global economy as a result of perceived increases in risks after September 11, 2001, to be $1 trillion. A Congressional Research Service report by a colleague— Dick Nanto—confirms the estimate.2 We are engaged in an ongoing campaign, not a war in the traditional sense. Our government is heavily committed to this open-ended ongoing effort. Not to be thus engaged would be to neglect a core element of the social contract between government and the governed: the public’s need for security. Key here is the ability to sustain a long-term campaign. This takes international cooperation. Levels of international cooperation are an important metric in measuring progress against terrorism. Past threats have often united the United States and its allies. Today the threat of terrorism often divides us. 2 Nanto, D. K. 2004. 9/11 Terrorism: Global Economic Costs. Congressional Research Service report RS21937, October 5, 2004. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service.

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Countering Urban Terrorism in Russia and the United States: Proceedings of a Workshop INCIDENTS In terms of measuring incidents, we in the United States tend to define success in ways that make us feel most comfortable: body counts and other numbers. We are a Western, science and technology-oriented society. If we quantify a problem, we can handle it and solve it. However, a common pitfall is overreliance on quantitative data at the expense of its qualitative significance. In Patterns of Global Terrorism, incidents are statistically counted equally without regard to their broader impact. To the degree that terrorist constituencies are not from Western cultures, their mindsets do not place a premium on quantification. For instance, honor or revenge may be more important than numbers. We define success by the absence of attacks. When the shooting or bombing stops, we are successful. Yet terrorists sometimes define success in terms of our expending limited resources trying to defend an enormous number of potential targets. For them, the absence of violent conflict may simply mean that they are focusing attention on economic, political, or social spheres, or just that they are in a waiting period. We define success in terms of the amount of money we confiscate from them. They define success in terms of the amount of money they force us to squander to seize potentially insignificant amounts. ATTITUDES In terms of attitudes, terrorists see success as breaking our will and that of our allies. They want to win the conflict in the political arena on the streets of Washington, D.C.; London; Paris; Karachi; Moscow; and Madrid. They want our public to tire of the casualties caused by terror in places such as Baghdad, Chechnya, and wherever else terrorists can strike a blow. They want our public to push our governments to adopt policies of oppression, or alternatively, of appeasement. They may see U.S. public opinion concerning antiterrorism policies as our vulnerable point, counting on a protracted Vietnam-war-type reaction of protest. Other criteria we might place in “attitudes” include the negative psychological or behavioral impact of terrorism on society loss of public confidence in governments or in their security measures degree to which terrorists can radicalize and polarize Islam against the West and vice versa level of anti-U.S. or anti-Western sentiments level of religious bigotry in countries that are breeding grounds for terrorists

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Countering Urban Terrorism in Russia and the United States: Proceedings of a Workshop TRENDS In terms of trends, the criteria might include the number of governments that do not embrace appeasement policies the number of defectors from the terrorist ranks the terrorist’s level of Internet activity, including the number of Web sites and use the amount of media coverage they receive the number of supporters and recruits they gain A related issue here is how our policies affect popular support and recruiting. For example, we entered Iraq, anti-U.S. sentiment skyrocketed; when we rescued tsunami victims, pro-U.S. sentiment jumped in Indonesia. The issue of momentum is important as well. Is there a point at which an ideological movement loses momentum and falls apart? Is this the bottom line we aim for? In conclusion, let us ask: Are we making progress? What is progress, and equally important, what is not progress? How do you suggest we define progress or the lack thereof? I look forward to your questions and comments.3 3 Since the delivery of this presentation, the author has completed a more detailed study on this topic. See Combating Terrorism: The Challenge of Measuring Effectiveness. Congressional Research Service report RL33160, available on the U.S. Department of State Web site at http://fpc.state.gov/documents/organization/57513.pdf.