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A Better Way to Counter Terrorism

There is a better way to counter terrorism, and a more effective model that we can adopt, but first government officials must abandon failing strategies.

October 26, 2016

Cross-posted on US News & World Report

The counterterrorism debate is again playing out like so many times before.

As soon as police identified a Muslim-American, Ahmad Khan Rahami, as a person of interest in a bombing attack in New York City, policymakers automatically inferred links to international terrorist groups and demanded extraordinary measures, even suggesting he be treated as an “enemy combatant” despite his U.S. citizenship. Talking heads in the media pondered how he became “radicalized,” without ever questioning whether that term has real meaning. Then we learned that someone who “saw something” said something, and reported Rahami to the FBI, which investigated but determined he was not a threat. Almost immediately the talk turned to giving the FBI more power to investigate more people for longer. No doubt the already bloated watch lists will soon expand, making them even less effective, and our already overburdened law enforcement and intelligence agents will be asked to do even more.

But when what you’re doing isn’t working, doing more of it isn’t the solution. We can’t keep responding to attacks the same way and expecting a different result. There is a better way to counter terrorism, and a more effective model that we can adopt, but first government officials must abandon failing strategies.

Stop sensationalizing terrorism. Most Americans, egged on by hyperbolic statements from law enforcement and intelligence officials, believe we are living in an unprecedented era of terrorist violence. We are not. There were far more terrorist attacks in the United States and Western Europe in the 1970s than over the last 10 years. The difference was we didn’t treat them as existential threats to civilization. Today, terrorism deaths make up less than 1 percent of the 15,000 annual homicides in the U.S., more than one-third of which go unsolved each year.

While recent events remind us that terrorism is a persistent threat, it is a very small one compared to other forms of violence. Yet Americans’ fear of terrorism is higher than any time since the 9/11 attacks. Sensationalized responses to attacks aid terrorist groups in amplifying this public fear and encourage criminals to win attention to their violent acts by claiming allegiance to a cause.

Stop pretending increased surveillance will result in fewer attacks. Setting up unrealistic public expectations that all attacks can be prevented fuels frustration and distrust of government, and drives flawed and discriminatory policies. These tactics have proven their ineffectiveness time and again. Yet the knee-jerk reaction among policymakers is to reward the intelligence agencies after each failed effort by expanding their powers. The real problem is that the security establishment has been drowning in irrelevant information since its collection powers have expanded, leaving it to rely on specious profiles and predictive analytics, when studies show such models are ineffective and discriminatory.

Stop focusing on so-called ideological radicalization as the primary driver of terrorist violence. Research has long demonstrated that there is no terrorist profile, predictive pathway or discernible process that leads one to commit violent acts. The flawed emphasis on radicalization distracts from other drivers we can more easily control, such as the role state violence plays in motivating terrorists.