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Many different programs and activities, at all levels of government and in the private sector, help to save lives and property from terrorism and are properly considered aspects of counterterrorism. The activities that are most commonly and explicitly labeled as counterterrorism are offensive efforts by security services to uncover and erode the capabilities of terrorist groups to conduct attacks. Another major element of counterterrorismalthough it sometimes bears the label antiterrorism is creating defensive security measures to protect possible targets from terrorist attack. Still another is the development of capabilities to respond quickly to terrorist attacks in a way that will mitigate their damaging effects. Less commonly described as counterterrorism are activities that affect the motivations of groups to use terrorism or of individuals to join terrorist groups in the first place, although this last element can have as great an effect as the others on the incidence of terrorism.


Offensive counterterrorism is aimed chiefly at disrupting or destroying the leadership, planning, finances, and organizational structure of terrorist groups. Common techniques include raids to break up terrorist cells, seizure of documents and materials, arrests of key individuals, and rendition of suspected terrorists to countries where they are wanted for interrogation or prosecution. Intelligence, diplomacy, criminal justice, financial controls, and military force are the principal tools that national governments use to weaken the capabilities of terrorist groups. Each tool has its limitations as well as its strengths, and effective counterterrorist programs use all of them in combination.

Intelligence tends to be the most heavily relied upon counterterrorist tool, particularly because of the hope that it will uncover enough specific information about impending terrorist attacks to preempt the attacks. The inherent difficulties in obtaining highly specific information about closely held terrorist plots, however, means some plots will inevitably escape such exposure. Intelligence makes larger contributions to the disruption of terrorist infrastructures and to the strategic assessment of threats from particular terrorist groups or in particular countries or regions.

Because terrorism always involves the commission of crimes, criminal justice systems play a major counterterrorist role, both in the investigation of past or possible future terrorist attacks and in the prosecution and incarceration of individual terrorists. Limitations of criminal justice systems include the frequent difficulty in obtaining strong enough evidence for a successful prosecution. Closely associated with intelligence and law enforcement work are efforts, usually centered in finance ministries, to seize or freeze financial assets belonging to terrorist groups. A limitation of financial efforts is difficulty in tracking terrorist money that moves through informal channels outside any banking system.

Diplomacy supports the other offensive tools through, for example, demarches to foreign governments to enlist their cooperation in arresting suspected terrorists or in providing information to facilitate counterterrorist investigations. Counterterrorist diplomacy has also assumed more of a multilateral role, particularly since the 1990s. The negotiation of more than a dozen international conventions on terrorism has provided a framework for cooperation on such matters as the handling of hijacking incidents and the tagging of explosives (insertion of a distinctive chemical during manufacture of explosives, permitting investigators to trace the origin of any one batch of explosives).

Military force has been used relatively sparingly for counterterrorist purposes, and mostly by the United States. Its principal role formerly was to retaliate for terrorist acts already committed, as with U.S. retaliatory strikes against Libya in 1986 and Iraq in 1993. The U.S. intervention in Afghanistan in 2001 marked an expanded use of military force in that it served not only to retaliate for Al Qaedas attack against the United States in September of that year but also to roust the group from its base of operations and to drive from power its close ally, the Afghan Taliban regime.

Defensive security measures are used to protect individual sites that are potentially attractive to terrorists (e.g., prominent government buildings), systems critical to public safety or the economy (e.g., civil aviation or electric power grids), and national borders. All these areas were included in major efforts, following Al Qaedas attack in September 2001, to bolster defenses against terrorism within the United States, efforts that collectively come under the title homeland security. A major challenge is in finding ways to safeguard inherently open, and thus vulnerable, public facilities and systems such as ports and transit lines without resorting to measures that are economically damaging or that unduly impair civil liberties. Another challenge is that terrorists have the offensive sides advantage of choosing which out of many possible targets to strike.

Incident response capabilities are designed both to limit the physical damage of terrorist attacks and to reassure the public that authorities have emergency situations under control. Counterterrorist response capabilities have focused particularly on the possibility of attacks using chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear means. With some of these unconventional attack methods, a quick and well-planned response is critical in limiting the effects. An attack using an infectious biological agent, for example, would be less effective insofar as the response included early identification of the agent, isolation of infected persons, and inoculation of other persons in danger of becoming infected.


Offensive counterterrorist responsibilities exist mainly at the level of national governments, although organizational structures vary. In most developed countries important counterterrorist organizations are domestic security services such as MI-5 in the United Kingdom or the Public Security Investigation Agency in Japan. The United States has no such service; the Federal Bureau of Investigation performs both this role and its criminal law enforcement functions. Intelligence agencies, militaries, and coordinating bodies such as the National Security Council in the United States also play major roles.

Responding to terrorist incidents is more the responsibility of local authorities, with municipal fire or police departments necessarily performing the role of first responders. National resources will often provide augmentation, however, in the event of major terrorist incidents.

Homeland security functions are spread among different levels of government. The biggest organizational innovation was the creation in the United States in 2002 of a Department of Homeland Security, which assumed primary responsibility for border security and the protection of assets such as the civil aviation system. Protection of many individual sites is still at least as much a local responsibility. Moreover, the security of many potential terrorist targets, from power plants to the electronic infrastructure used by financial markets, depends in large part on measures by the private sector.


Cronin, Audrey Kurth, and James M. Ludes, eds. 2004. Attacking Terrorism: Elements of a Grand Strategy. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

Hoge, James F., Jr., and Gideon Rose, eds. 2005. Understanding the War on Terror. Washington, DC: Foreign Affairs.

Pillar, Paul R. 2003. Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy, 2nd ed. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

Wilkinson, Paul. 2000. Terrorism versus Democracy: The Liberal State Response. London: Frank Cass.

Paul R. Pillar


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Introduction to Counterterrorism


Burning of the Frigate Philadelphia

F. Kearney, 1808

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coun·ter·ter·ror·ism / ˌkountərˈterəˌrizəm/ • n. political or military activities designed to thwart terrorism. DERIVATIVES: coun·ter·ter·ror·ist / ˌkountərˈterərist/ n. & adj.

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