Perspectives on Counterterrorism: From Stovepipes to a Comprehensive Approach

Perspectives on Counterterrorism: From Stovepipes to a Comprehensive Approach

by Ronald Crelinsten



This article moves beyond the boundaries that limit counterterrorism discourse and practice to present a more comprehensive approach. In a world where distinctions are blurring between internal and external security, international and domestic jurisdictions, and state and non-state actors, it is important to cast our eyes wide in developing an effective approach to counterterrorism that can apply across a broad variety of policy domains and can outlive the electoral horizon of individual governments. A discussion of five approaches to counterterrorism leads to the identification of thirteen different models which, taken together, can point the way towards a comprehensive approach.

Keywords: counterterrorism, policy, security, governance



The post-9/11 period has been characterised by profound disagreements over the kind of threats we are faced with, the kinds of responses required, the institutions which should be responsible for these responses, and the timeframe within which an effective response can be accomplished. Policy discourse has been dominated by emotional and polemical debates about the very fundamentals of democratic life as they relate to the nature of the terrorist threat and how to deal with it.[1] Elsewhere, I characterise this as a fight between ‘September 12 thinking’ and ‘September 10 thinking.’[2] The former privileges a war model of counterterrorism, while the latter approach is assumed by the former to privilege a criminal justice model of counterterrorism.[3]

This dichotomy between ‘September 10’ and ‘September 12’ thinking underscores how conceptions of terrorism and its place in today’s security environment can limit the approach taken to combat terrorism and which institutions are marshalled in this effort. The criminal justice and war models are both coercive approaches, and largely ignore other ways of dealing with terrorism.

Elsewhere, I singled out five different approaches to counterterrorism: coercive, proactive, persuasive, defensive and long-term.[4] While a degree of overlap exists among these approaches, a more comprehensive counterterrorism strategy would take advantage of all of them. In this article, I shall survey the wide variety of models that emerge when all five approaches are taken into consideration.[5]


Varieties of Counterterrorism

Coercive Counterterrorism

Coercive counterterrorism relies on the state’s monopoly on the use of violence, i.e., the exercise of hard power. Strict limits are placed on who can be subjected to state violence. These restrictions form the basis of the legitimacy bestowed upon the state by the rule of law, whether national or international.

Without legally mandated restrictions on the use of state violence, the exercise of violence by state agents such as the police or the military would itself be criminal, violating either domestic criminal law or international law. When state agents acting in the name of counterterrorism consistently contravene the rule of law or the laws of war with impunity, using their coercive powers in ways that create a reign of terror that is sanctioned by the state, then they have become state terrorists, mirroring the behaviour of the terrorists they are fighting.


The Criminal Justice Model. A criminal justice approach treats acts of terrorism as crime. If one considers the most common terrorist tactics, such as kidnapping, assassination, bombing and armed attacks, the end result is usually the infliction of injury or loss of life or the destruction of property, all of which are universally proscribed in the criminal law of all nations.

Treating terrorism as ordinary crime—rather than as a special offence requiring special procedures or punishments—has a delegitimatizing effect on the terrorists. By criminalising the acts that terrorists commit, emphasis is placed on their criminal nature and not on their political or ideological motive.

All this changed after the attacks of 11 September 2001. Many Western countries created special terrorist offences after the 9/11 attacks: the US and Canada in 2001; Australia and Norway in 2002; Sweden in 2003.[6] In many of these special offences, motive became a central element of the legal definition of terrorism. Offences have included committing terrorist acts or committing acts for terrorist purposes, as well as membership in a terrorist organisation and providing material support for terrorism, such as money, weapons or technical expertise, and recruitment. The creation of speech offences has also increased. UN Security Council Resolution 1624 (2005) calls for Member States to take steps aimed at prohibiting by law and preventing incitement to commit terrorist acts. The glorification of terrorism has become an offence in several countries, such as the UK and Spain.

The criminal justice model relies on a complex bureaucracy with strict rules of governance and many interacting institutions, with their own traditions, culture and language. It can be slow and ponderous, with appeals stretching the process out for years. For some, the model seems to favour the terrorist, especially over the victim. While the criminal justice model can achieve some important goals in terms of deterrence, retribution, education, incapacitation and rehabilitation, these benefits are largely dependent upon how the system is used, how fair it is seen to be used by others, and how committed individuals are to terrorist violence either as a means to other goals or as an end in itself.


The War Model. The war model of counterterrorism treats terrorism as if it were an act of war or insurgency. Because wars are usually fought between states, countering terrorism within a war model implies that the terrorist group represents the equivalent of a state. Treating terrorism as war therefore tends to credit the terrorist with the status of equal partner in a zero-sum conflict. This is why many terrorist groups use the word ‘army’ in their names. Although the central element of the war model is the use of maximal force, designed to overpower the enemy, the conduct of war does not occur in a legal vacuum. The laws of war lay down rules for how wars should be fought and how noncombatants should be treated. The 1949 Geneva Conventions represent a kind of trade-off that legitimizes killing or detention without trial in time of war, as long as it is directed at overpowering an enemy combatant. The trade-off is that once a combatant is captured and disarmed, or gives up and abandons the fight, he must be accorded humane treatment, protection and care.[7]

The term ‘illegal enemy combatant’ attempts to create an exception to this rule for combatants who use stealth and do not wear uniforms or insignia identifying them as enemy combatants, namely terrorists, guerrillas or insurgents. In a war model of counterterrorism, success tends to be defined in terms of victory or defeat.[8] A ‘war on terror’ only ends when the terrorist enemy is defeated. If the struggle is a protracted one, even spanning generations, then counterterrorism efforts must be maintained as long as a state of war exists. This has led some to argue that we are engaged in a ‘long war’ or even a ‘never ending’ war with Islamist terrorism.[9] This infinite vision of the war on terror has important policy implications, including constitutional ones.

The war model is considered quick, effective and ideally suited to the new kinds of threat posed by decentralized, ideologically driven terrorist networks whose adherents are not deterred by traditional criminal justice or contained by traditional military power. It places great value on the remarkable things that science and technology can achieve. Examples include remote sensing, satellite imagery, spy drones, missile technology, smart bombs and other sophisticated weaponry, as well as facial recognition and other biometrics. Some of the capabilities being discussed in recent years include ‘the need for ‘‘birth to death’’ tracking and identification of critical targets, whether they are people or things, anywhere in the world.’[10] The idea that a nation’s military can watch, listen, record and track anyone or anything anywhere in the world and strike at will with guided, pilotless attack planes or space-based weaponry is the ultimate individualised war model, designed to fight an atomised, dispersed enemy rather than the traditional hostile state or terrorist group. Since Barack Obama became President in 2008, the military dimensions of counterterrorism policy have expanded further to include a formally authorised system of intelligence-led drone strikes and targeted assassinations.[11]

The war model carries a high risk of unintended consequences that can escalate violence, undermine the legitimacy of governments that use it, or pull governments along a dangerous path to anti-democratic governance.[12] This does not mean, however, that the war model cannot be a useful and valuable tool in an overall counterterrorism strategy. As in just war theory, the use of force can be justified under certain strict conditions.[13] It must be discriminate, proportionate, declared by a proper authority, used for a justifiable cause, with just intentions that outweigh the evil of the means used by the good of the ends sought, have a high probability of success, enjoy public support, and be used only as a last resort, when all other means have been pursued.


Proactive Counterterrorism

Proactive counterterrorism aims to prevent terrorism before it happens. Through the merging of internal and external security, the mandates of domestic police, security intelligence agencies, and border and customs officials have all coalesced around the problem of tracking the movement of people, goods and money. Through intrusive techniques involving surveillance, wiretapping, eavesdropping and other means of spycraft, agents of all stripes have devoted their energies more and more to stopping terrorists before they act and thwarting terrorist plots before they develop too far. These trends have led to the emergence of a hybrid model of coercive counterterrorism that combines elements of both the criminal justice model and the war model.[14]

The increased focus on proactive counterterrorism has important implications for a variety of institutions and policies. In the area of criminal justice, it means more proactive and intelligence-led policing, increasing use of sting operations and informers, more reliance on preventive detention, and early arrests to disrupt plots. In the area of intelligence, it means widening surveillance nets, the identification of dangerous classes of people, increased use of profiling, increasing focus on radicalisation to violence[15] and counter-radicalisation, and increased focus on terrorist financing and fund-raising. In the area of criminal law, it means more speech offences, criminalising membership in organisations, and “material support for terrorism” offences aimed at fundraising, recruitment and training. In the military realm, it means more reliance on drones for surveillance and targeted killings, more intervention in failed and failing states to strike terrorist training camps and militant groups directly, such as the recent French intervention in Mali, and even pre-emptive war, such as the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.

A more proactive approach requires coordination and integration across a wide range of policy domains: criminal law, policing, intelligence, finance, border control, immigration and refugee policy, military strategy and tactics, diplomacy, development, and humanitarian intervention. As such, it places a greater demand on government to coordinate across previously distinct domains, jurisdictions and agencies, domestically, and across the increasingly blurry boundaries between domestic and foreign policy. This whole-of-government imperative can create tensions between intrinsically conflicting goals.[16]


The Intelligence Model. The intelligence function is an important element in any counterterrorist effort. In a proactive approach, it becomes central. In proactive policing and security intelligence, information is not gathered for evidentiary purposes but for intelligence purposes. The ultimate goal is not necessarily criminal prosecution. Instead, the goal of intelligence operations is to learn more about what the terrorist suspects are up to. The demands of information gathering can therefore conflict with those of criminal investigation and due process.

Proactive counterterrorism is therefore a double-edged sword. It can nip a burgeoning threat in the bud or destabilize a terrorist network enough so that its operatives cannot move from the planning stage and go operational. On the other hand, apprehending a terrorist operative can diminish opportunities for learning more about their connections with other terrorist or criminal networks.

The merging of national and societal security has led to massive surveillance of a wide category of individuals and detention without trial of citizens as well as resident aliens. Much of the post-September 11 debate surrounding counterterrorist efforts in the area of intelligence and surveillance relates to how wide the net should be cast and whether profiling of specific target groups is justified or acceptable.

Two opposing concerns underlie honest efforts to address both security concerns and concerns about democratic acceptability. On one hand, a fear of false negatives (failure to detect a threat) can lead to widening the surveillance net as much as possible, thereby running the risk of infringing upon civil liberties of those targeted and, ultimately, facilitating the commission of human rights violations by control agents. On the other hand, a fear of false positives (targeting innocent individuals, organisations or communities) can lead to the imposition of onerous judicial restrictions upon intelligence gathering, the creation of oversight committees with political agendas, and the creation of sunset clauses on anti-terrorism legislation that activate at inappropriate times, thereby running the risk of attenuating the effectiveness of intelligence gathering operations.

Both fears can be socially constructed or exaggerated by those with a stake in the outcome: politicians, policy-makers, law enforcement, media, communities at risk, private security companies and entrepreneurs.


Persuasive Counterterrorism

Counterterrorism involves understanding and dealing with the ideas that underpin the use of terrorism in social and political life. This has ideological, political, social, cultural and religious aspects. Terrorists have constituencies which include followers, sympathisers, potential recruits, active or passive supporters, and state sponsors. Counterterrorists have constituencies which include state actors within government ministries, agencies and bureaucracies, including those of allies, as well as non-state actors within civil society and the private sector, such as victims’ groups, citizens, mass publics and the media, both domestic and international, and employers and employees within industries, private companies and corporations. Counterterrorism must deal with these wider audiences.

Counterterrorism, like terrorism, is inherently communicative.[17] Propaganda, psychological warfare, “hearts and minds” campaigns, and the idea of providing incentives for terrorists to abandon violence and seek nonviolent paths instead all refer to this notion of counterterrorism as a form of communication, where different messages are conveyed to different audiences. Just as terrorist discourse and propaganda can blind followers and recruits to alternative pathways and options, so counterterrorism discourse and propaganda can blind citizenries and publics, as well as policy elites and the media, to alternative means of countering the terrorist threat.


The Communication Model. All response options convey information of some sort to different audiences; they are expressive and symbolic as well as instrumental. The particular messages that are actually received by a particular audience may not be what the sender intended to convey. This lends an inherent complexity to counterterrorism and can lead to unintended consequences. It is therefore important to understand the different kinds of messages, audiences and communicative pathways involved in the complex web of terrorist-counterterrorist interaction.

In addressing terrorists’ constituencies, persuasive counterterrorism can try to promote desired perceptions among individual members of terrorist organisations, their sympathizers, and their foreign supporters, such as the message that terrorism is counterproductive and that other means are more useful to achieve their goals. Counter-narratives that foster cross-cultural and inter-ethnic understanding can undermine those aspects of terrorist propaganda and ideology that promulgate hatred and demonise particular groups of “enemies”.

The prevention of undesired perceptions among terrorists and their constituencies is another aspect of persuasive counterterrorism. Two of the most powerful beliefs that bind individual members to a terrorist group are the idea that once violence has been committed, you cannot go back, and the idea that the group is the only place where a sense of identity, belonging, importance or existential meaning can be achieved.

Laws that provide reduced sentences for cooperation with authorities or that offer amnesty for renouncing violence, coupled with official assurances that exit from the group is always possible and that those who cooperate and who renounce violence can be accepted back into society, could help to prevent certain individuals from remaining trapped in the self-contained world of the terrorist organisation. Psychological, material and economic concerns that make individuals vulnerable to recruitment can be addressed by creating alternative incentive structures for people to move away from embracing violence and terrorism. Talking to one’s enemies and their constituencies, though an anathema to many governments, can serve an important function in challenging and perhaps refuting undesired perceptions whose very existence can be missed in the absence of dialogue and exchange of views.[18] Counter-radicalisation efforts aimed at potential recruits and communities at risk, and deradicalisation efforts aimed at current or imprisoned members are central to preventing undesired perceptions and belief systems.[19]

In addressing counterterrorists’ constituencies, a central element is the maintenance of public trust and confidence in government. Public education about the nature and extent of the terrorist threat, as well as the limits and feasibility of policy options, would help to promote public understanding both before and after a terrorist attack.

Promoting public awareness without fuelling insecurity, apathy or intolerance and hate is an essential element of such an approach. An explicit policy to downplay the impact of terrorism, while condemning the terrorism itself, could help to promote the idea that terrorism is unacceptable in democratic society while minimizing the risk of public calls, fuelled by insecurity and terror, for repressive measures that undermine the rule of law and individual freedoms. Incessant warnings by politicians and security experts about the dangers of radicalisation or the risk of terrorist attack can create a kind of learned helplessness in the face of seemingly inevitable catastrophe. As the rule of law and individual rights are increasingly whittled away in the name of increased security, many citizens simply accept the fact that their rights have to be sacrificed.[20]

The challenge is to prevent the legitimation of terrorists and terrorism without resorting to censorship, intimidation or outright repression. The controversies surrounding Wikileaks, the trial and harsh punishment of Private Bradley Manning, and the Edgar Snowden case all suggest that transparency and accountability have become a casualty of the war on terror.


Defensive Counterterrorism

Defensive counterterrorism assumes the inevitability of some kind of terrorist attack and prepares for it by affecting the variables that determine the nature of the attack and identity of its target. There are two basic approaches: preventing attacks and mitigating attacks. Prevention aims to minimise the risk of terrorist attack in certain places and at certain times. The second approach is to mitigate the impact of successful attacks.


Prevention (before an attack)

The Preventive Model. There are three primary means of prevention: target hardening, critical infrastructure protection (CIP), and monitoring and regulating the flow of people, money, goods, and services. Target hardening aims to make potential targets less attractive or more difficult to attack. It has traditionally focused on important people (e.g., VIPs, government officials) and important places (e.g., government buildings, military bases) at particular times (e.g., major sporting events, international summits, special anniversaries). Making favoured targets less vulnerable to attack forces terrorists to innovate and to find alternatives, tying up resources and planning. This often leads to target substitution or a displacement to softer targets. The hope is that deterring attacks against obviously important targets can channel potential terrorists towards less damaging or less costly forms of attack.

Government and industry are often at odds over financing, training, effectiveness, technology, responsibility and timetables for implementation, and potential impacts on operations. Partnerships between government, industry and other stakeholders are therefore essential.

While opinions vary on what infrastructure is critical, the areas of energy, transportation, industry, communications, banking and urban living are widely recognised as key sectors that need to be protected. Potential targets include hydroelectric and nuclear facilities, oil and gas refineries and pipelines, telecommunications, banks, airports, railways and bridges, urban transport and shopping malls.

Most critical infrastructure is in the hands of the private sector. Government regulation is often weak or nonexistent and industry resistance to any attempts to strengthen security can be intense. Therefore, the most important part of critical infrastructure protection is to identify fruitful points of intervention where physical, structural or procedural changes can be made that reduce the likelihood of attack, and to share this information across government departments and agencies, across different levels of government, and with stakeholders in the private sector.

The third prong of the preventive model is to track the movement of people, money, goods and services in an effort to discover plots in the making and thwart them or to impede their preparation. Terrorists need food, shelter, training, weapons, explosives, safe houses, communications, travel documents, financing. When these are not available or difficult to acquire, the risk of terrorist attack drops. Border and passport control, customs and immigration, refugee determination, and the monitoring and regulation of the flow of people and goods in and out of a country, as well as within its borders, can help identify and track potential terrorists and the plots they devise. The regulation of banking and money transfers can impact terrorist financing, which in turn can make the implementation of terrorist attacks more difficult.

Illegal arms sales, weapons smuggling, theft of poorly guarded materials, corruption, and collusion to break sanctions or to circumvent tracking and monitoring efforts, or simply seeking profit at the expense of considering the impact of sales on future security, all constitute persistent impediments to reducing the likelihood that dangerous goods fall into terrorist hands. Terrorist groups often engage in auxiliary criminal activity to support their terrorist activities and the possibility that they could cooperate with transnational criminal organisations to procure weaponry or other materiel has long been a concern.[21]


Mitigation (Response to an attack)

The Natural Disaster Model. Moshe Dayan, Israeli Minister of Defence from 1967-1974, suggested that ‘terrorist incidents more closely resemble natural disasters than acts of war.’[22] Terrorist attacks do share many of the same elements as any natural disaster: dead and wounded people; damaged or destroyed infrastructure; uncertainty about what may happen next; people fleeing in panic or rushing to the scene to help; an urgent need for rescue workers, ambulances, transportation routes to hospitals; and intense media coverage that may interfere with rescue operations or create pressure on crisis managers and other authorities. Contingency planning, established chains of command and communication networks, stockpiles of emergency supplies, training of first responders, and strategies for dealing with victims, their families, and the media can be arranged in advance. Such an ‘all-hazards’ or ‘all-risks’ approach means that it can be more cost effective to prepare for a wide spectrum of risks.[23]

The Public Health Model. Terrorism, particularly mass-casualty terrorism, has an impact on public health and the psychological well-being of citizens.[24] Concerns about WMD and CBRN terrorism and the threat of pandemics pre-date the 9/11 attacks. The 2001 anthrax-laced letters intensified the concern post-9/11.[25] The prevalence of Ground Zero-related respiratory illness in first responders, cleanup crews and area residents has also increased awareness about the wider health implications of mass terrorist attacks.[26] As a result, public health, environmental safety and local emergency preparedness have all been incorporated into defensive counterterrorism. Strengthening public health systems would create an infrastructure that can respond efficiently and effectively to a whole range of threats, whether a disease like SARS or swine flu, an industrial accident, an environmental disaster, or an intentional release of a pathogen or explosion of a radiological, chemical or biological device.

The Psychosocial Model. Interest in social and psychological defences and the development of citizen resilience in the face of terrorist threats has increased greatly in recent years.[27] The terror in terrorism is most directly felt by those who fear terrorist attack themselves because of specific threats or because they belong to the same category as past victims. In the case of indiscriminate, mass terrorism, the terror is much more widespread. Add to that the power of television and the internet to bring images from far away into our homes, constantly barraging us with reports of terror strikes from around the world, and the psychological impact of terrorism can be quite invasive and pervasive. Doomsday predictions of new and frightening attacks can spread the terror even further. Chronic anxiety and stress about the threat of terrorism can be a serious problem in societies geared to expect that an attack is imminent or inevitable. It can even increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.[28] Promoting citizen resilience means preparing people ahead of time and strengthening their capacity to cope with the stress, anxiety and fear that particular kinds of terrorist attack provoke. This can help to take the terror out of terrorism.


Long-Term Counterterrorism

Long-term counterterrorism refers to initiatives that do not promise quick fixes, but play out in the long term. This includes the realm of ‘root causes’ and the more structural factors that can create a suitable climate for the promotion and use of terrorism. What are often assumed to be causes, for example, poverty, alienation, personality, discrimination, ideology, are often either facilitating factors, which are usually structural, or triggering factors, which are usually ideational in that they involve interpretations of an event, situation, or conflict.[29] It is these interpretations that are then used to mobilise and recruit people to adopt terrorist violence. Radicalisation, mobilisation and recruitment processes become central to understanding how the terrorist option comes to be seen as the appropriate tool for achieving particular goals and how it is justified to those who are recruited and trained to carry it out.[30]

Because structural factors usually change and evolve very slowly, action taken now may not have a clear and discernible impact until much later. Short-term successes can evolve into long-term failures, and vice-versa. The key to effective long-term counterterrorism is to focus on long-term strategies that can make choosing pathways to terrorism more difficult and less attractive.


The Development Model. Development issues and resource utilization can have social and political repercussions that go far beyond purely economic concerns, and violence and terrorism often become part of the equation. Trade, foreign aid and development projects can undercut the ideological fuel that drives terrorist radicalisation and recruitment in a world of haves and have-nots. Issues such as land distribution and reform, environmental management, market regulation, and commodity markets should complement the more territorially based issues of border control, customs and immigration, and refugee and migration flows that are traditionally addressed in counterterrorism discourse and practice. Such broader issues have become increasingly important ideological motors in areas such as WMD proliferation, anti-globalisation movements, environmental activism and protest, and anti-Western, anti-capitalist and religious fundamentalist movements.

Capacity building in weak and conflict-riven states, including police and military training, judicial reform, and strengthening democratic governance, can be another aspect of the development model, where foreign aid and development are integrated into a long-term counterterrorism strategy.[31]


The Human Security/Human Rights Model. The concept of human security reflects the view that international security cannot be achieved unless the peoples of the world are free from violent threats to their lives, their safety, or their rights. The focus of security is the individual, not the state. Promoting social and economic rights can reduce the inequities that fuel radicalisation and facilitate terrorist recruitment. Many of the UN conferences of the 1990s, such as those dealing with social development, women’s rights, population and habitat, came up with recommendations and specific time-frames for member states to enact specific proposals. Many of these proposals deal explicitly with the issue of human rights and the need to strengthen legal regimes that require states to protect different baskets of rights.


The promotion of political and civil rights can clearly have an impact on the attractiveness of the terrorist option. By giving voice to disenfranchised or oppressed groups, other options are provided that make the terrorist option less compelling. In the short term, however, allowing excluded groups access to the political process can increase conflict and even violence. It is only when rights are fully entrenched and institutionalized, and applied uniformly to all societal groups, not just the majority, that the use of violence becomes counterproductive. This was made painfully clear by events in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria, where the early optimism of the Arab Spring has soured, thus giving new impetus to Al-Qaeda’s radical Islamist message that terrorism and violence, not democracy, is the only way to create an Islamic state.[32]

A related challenge is the problem of anti-democratic political or religious movements and whether there are acceptable limits to the right to free expression, assembly and participation in political life: the balance between freedom of expression and freedom from expression.[33]

Many international conventions on human rights single out education as a fundamental right and emphasize education as a vehicle for promoting democratic, pluralistic and anti-racist values. Education can help create a social and political environment that is sensitive to human rights and mutual understanding across cultures and civilizations. Teaching methods that foster an understanding of the interdependence of human beings and an appreciation of ethnic, linguistic, cultural, religious and historical diversity can contribute to reducing the fear and cultivated ignorance that lie at the root of much hatred and violence. Support for extremist and terrorist groups would become harder to sustain and recruitment would become more difficult.[34]

Education can also inform people of injustices and inequities around the world. As they become exposed to the realities of our complex world, they often search for answers and solutions, and can be attracted to the simplistic explanations and solutions offered up by ideologues and fanatics. Many seek refuge in the past or in the rigid authoritarianism of political or religious dogma. This is why education must stimulate critical thinking as well as greater awareness of issues and facts. The ability to think for oneself and to research issues by collecting data from many sources is a good antidote to the propensity to succumb to ideological fads or exclusionary, racist theories. Many educated terrorists come from professions like engineering and medicine. Mohammed Atta, the leader of the 9/11 hijackers, for example, studied engineering in Cairo and pursued graduate studies in urban planning at a technical university in Hamburg. Few terrorists come from the humanities, where literature, history and philosophy promote critical thinking and self-awareness.[35]


The Gender Model. The vast majority of terrorists are young men. The practice of sex selection, such as female infanticide or sex-selective abortion, has led to a sharp imbalance in the male/female sex ratio, especially in Asia. This surfeit of males means that many young men will never have a hope of finding a mate, marrying, or raising a family. These ‘bare branches,’ as the Chinese call them, might be perfect fodder for terrorist recruitment.

Studies have shown a significant inverse correlation between a woman’s educational level and the number of children that she bears.[36] The more educated and empowered a woman is, the less likely it is that she will have a lot of children. In the long term, then, the best antidote to the bare-branch problem would be the promotion of education and empowerment of women and girls throughout the world and particularly in those regions where the sex ratio significantly favours males.

In countries where the sex ratio may be more balanced than in Asia, but women are denied access to education or the workforce, the bare branch problem is manifested differently. Overpopulation and failing economies mean lack of job opportunities for young men and therefore a reduced likelihood of finding a mate and raising a family. Idle, unemployed young men are often ideal targets for radicalisation and recruitment.

Traditional women’s roles usually emphasise child-rearing at the expense of other contributions that a woman might make to her society or the economy. Young women are confined to traditional roles and transgressions bring shame on the entire family or tribe. Women in such situations can be convinced to become suicide bombers to redeem themselves and spare their families social exclusion. Empowering women and girls could reduce the birth rate overall, addressing the bare branch problem, but also allow half the population to better contribute to social, political and economic life and to resist the pressure of family and tribal traditions that can sometimes drive ‘deviant’ girls and women along the terrorist path.


The Environmental Protection Model. Disturbances brought on by climate change, such as flooding, drought, wildfire, insect plagues, and ocean acidification, and factors that drive global changes in climate, such as land use, pollution, and over-exploitation of resources, all have important implications for the broader sociopolitical climate in which terrorism develops. More than 60 nations, mostly developing countries, face a risk of exacerbating tensions and conflicts over resources due to climate change, including the threat of environmental refugees. Countries that are now at peace risk the emergence of conflict triggered by the impact of climate change.[37] The impact of climate change could also bring unprecedented reversals in poverty reduction, nutrition, health and education.[38] These warnings suggest that many long-term counterterrorism strategies are vulnerable to being undermined over time by the impact of climate change. It is therefore imperative that even this seemingly remote policy area be considered in any long-term counterterrorism strategy.



The danger that terrorism poses to democratic values and the way of life that they permit stems not just from terrorist threats and violence and the vulnerabilities that terrorists exploit, but the ways in which societies think about them, talk about them, prepare for them, respond to them and recover from their impact. How people talk about problems, frame them, and conceptualise them often determines what they do about them. Conversely, the way people deal with problems can often limit the ways in which they perceive them, restricting their imagination and narrowing their options. These conceptual and ideological filters can make it more difficult to understand a problem in all its facets.

Counterterrorism cannot be merely reactive or coercive, otherwise it risks creating a bunker mentality, triggering resentment and backlash that risks promoting terrorist recruitment as a result, and missing the next new development. It must therefore be proactive, looking ahead and trying to out-smart the terrorist, and plan ahead, thinking preventively. It must also be persuasive, convincing terrorists to abandon their destructive paths and supporters and sympathisers to seek other, non-violent ways to achieve their goals. counterterrorism must think in the long term, even as it acts in the short term to respond to attacks and outwit terrorist planning and targeting. And it must go beyond legal and military approaches, to include political, social, cultural, and economic initiatives aimed at undermining the viral spread of radicalising and violence-glorifying ideas that fuel the use of terrorism in social and political life.

The best way to achieve this is to move beyond the polarised discourse between ‘September 10’ and ‘September 12’ thinking and to look for ways to operate on several levels at once: locally and globally; tactically and strategically; politically and economically; publicly and privately; institutionally and individually; offensively and defensively. The basic choice is really between a comprehensive approach that recognises the complete range of options and understands when to use which, in what combination or order, and for how long, and a reductionist one which focuses exclusively on one or two options, remaining blind to all others.

If a comprehensive long-term strategy of counterterrorism is to truly become a reality, it will probably be by small changes at the local level that evolve and adapt over time and space until they become widespread and normalised as a universal value or practice. But they need to be allowed the space to develop and spread by legal frameworks that protect rights and provide opportunities to all. This can only be done by states working in concert, but non-state partners will increasingly play a central role in the process as well, and state actors will increasingly cooperate transnationally.[39]           

For this reason, international cooperation in the fight against terrorism cannot rely solely upon a supranational legal order or regime, but must be able to function at several levels at once – supranational, regional, national, and subnational, including the very local. Such ‘transnational’ cooperation better reflects the nature of the terrorist threat, as well as the kind of response framework that can more effectively meet it. In a post-Westphalian world order, domestic politics plays an important role, and transnational interactions among multinational enterprises, private businesses, NGOs, civil society organisations (CSOs), and media organisations complement the more traditional domains of diplomacy and international summitry. International cooperation as traditionally conceived is increasingly complemented by these kinds of transnational cooperation, for example, in peacekeeping, conflict resolution and state-building. It should also happen in the area of counterterrorism.          


About the Author: Ronald Crelinsten is Adjunct Professor in the Doctor of Social Sciences Program in the Faculty of Social and Applied Sciences at Royal Roads University, Victoria, Canada, and Associate Fellow with the Centre for Global Studies at University of Victoria. His publications include ‘Counterterrorism’ (2009; Arabic version, 2011), ‘Intelligence and Counter-Terrorism in a Multi-Centric World’ (2006),’ The Politics of Pain: Torturers and Their Masters’, with Alex P. Schmid (1995), ‘Western Responses to Terrorism’, with Alex P. Schmid (1993), ‘Hostage-Taking’ (1979), and ‘Terrorism and Criminal Justice’ (1978).



[1] See, for example, Richard H. Shultz and Andreas Vogt (2003), ‘It’s War! Fighting Post-11 September Global Terrorism through a Doctrine of Preemption,’ Terrorism and Political Violence 15(1): 1-30; Paul R. Pillar (2003), ‘Metaphors and Mantras: A Comment on Shultz and Vogt’s Discussion of Terrorism, Intelligence and War,’ Terrorism and Political Violence 15(2): 139-151.

[2] Ronald Crelinsten (2009), Counterterrorism (Cambridge: Polity Press), pp. 8 -14.

[3] The identification and contrast of these two control models was first proposed in Ronald D. Crelinsten (1978), ‘International Political Terrorism: A Challenge for Comparative Research,’ International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice 2(2): pp. 107-126. Reprinted as Chapter 18 in Rosemary H.T. O’Kane (Ed.) (2005), Terrorism, Vol. II (Cheltenham, UK/Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishing).

[4] See R. Crelinsten, Counterterrorism, note 2.

[5] For a fuller discussion of these models, the five counterterrorism approaches, and how they all fit together into a more comprehensive counterterrorism strategy, see R. Crelinsten, Counterterrorism, note 2.

[6] UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), ‘Counter-Terrorism Legislation and Practice: A Survey of Selected Countries,’ research paper published on 13 October 2005. See for details.

[7] Gabor Rona (2005), ‘Interesting Times for International Humanitarian Law: Challenges from the “War on Terror,”’ Terrorism and Political Violence 17 (1-2): pp. 157-173, at p. 164.

[8] For a comprehensive look at the nature and meaning of victory and defeat in modern warfare, including contemporary insurgencies and the ‘war on terror,’ see Jan Angstrom and Isabelle Duyvesteyn (Eds.) (2007), Understanding Victory and Defeat in Contemporary War (London and New York: Routledge).

[9] See, for example, Norman Podhoretz (2007), World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism (New York: Doubleday). For an intelligence perspective, see James W. Harris (2002), ‘Building Leverage in the Long War: Ensuring Intelligence Community Creativity in the Fight Against Terrorism,’ Policy Analysis 439 (May 16): pp. 1-14. For a devastating critique of the consequences of this argument, published on the fourth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, see Mark Danner (2005), ‘Taking Stock of the Forever War,’ The New York Times Magazine, September 11.

[10] G. Pascal Zachary (2007), ‘The Big Thought Is Missing in National Security,’ The New York Times, July 1.

[11] For some recent critical analysis of President Obama’s approach, see M.W. Aslam (2011), “A critical evaluation of American drone strikes in Pakistan: legality, legitimacy and prudence,” Critical Studies on Terrorism 4 (3): pp. 313-329; Tom Junod, “The Lethal Presidency of Barack Obama,” Esquire, 9 July 2012, available at; Paul Harris, “Drone wars and state secrecy – how Barack Obama became a hardliner,” The Guardian, 2 June 2012; Jo Becker and Scott Shane, “Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will,” The New York Times, 29 May 2012; Matthew C. Waxman, “Obama and the Laws of War: Interview with Jonathan Masters,” Council on Foreign Relations, 10 May 2012,; United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (2010), “Study on targeted killings,” United Nations, available at

[12] For an assessment of the impact of coercive measures, in general, see Tom Parker (2007), ‘Fighting an Antaean Enemy: How Democratic States Unintentionally Sustain the Terrorist Movements They Oppose,’ Terrorism and Political Violence 19(2): pp. 155-179.

[13] Michael Walzer (1977), Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument With Historical Illustrations (New York: Basic Books); Paul Robinson (Ed.) (2003), Just War in Comparative Perspective (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate); Jean Bethke Elshtain (2003), Just War Against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World (New York: Basic Books).

[14] For an early attempt to identify a hybrid model, see Ami Pedahzur and Magnus Ranstorp. "A Tertiary Model for Countering Terrorism in Liberal Democracies: The Case of Israel," Terrorism and Political Violence, 2001, 13(2): pp. 3 - 22. They call it an “expanded criminal justice model”, but I prefer “intelligence model” (see below).

[15] For a comprehensive review of the radicalisation literature, see Alex P. Schmid (2013), “Radicalisation, De-Radicalisation, Counter-Radicalisation: A Conceptual Discussion and Literature Review,” ICCT Research Paper, International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, The Hague.

[16] “There is an inherent tension between the strategic leadership role of the United Nations in identifying, denouncing, and taking action against unlawful terrorist activity and its development, human rights promotion, conflict prevention, mediation, and humanitarian assistance goals.” James Cockayne, Alistair Millar, David Cortright and Peter Romaniuk (2012), Reshaping United Nations Counterterrorism Efforts: Blue-Sky Thinking for Global Counterterrorism Cooperation 10 Years After 9/11 (Washington, DC/New York: Center on Global Counterterrorism Cooperation, p. v).

[17] Ronald D. Crelinsten (1987), ‘Terrorism as Political Communication: the Relationship between the Controller and the Controlled,’ in Paul Wilkinson and A.M. Stewart (Eds.), Contemporary Research on Terrorism (University of Aberdeen Press, 1987) pp. 3-23. See also Alex P. Schmid and Janny de Graaf (1982), Violence as Communication: Insurgent Terrorism and the Western News Media (London: Sage).

[18] See, for example, Scott Atran (2010), Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood and the (Un)making of Terrorists (New York: HarperCollins); Carolin Goerzig (2010), Talking to Terrorists: Concessions and the Renunciation of Violence (New York: Routledge); Mark Perry (2010), Talking to Terrorists: Why America Must Engage with Its Enemies (New York: Basic Books).

[19] Peter Neumann/National Security Preparedness Group (2011), Preventing Violent Radicalisation in America (Washington, DC: Bipartisan Policy Center); E.J.A.M. Kessels (Ed.) (2010), Countering Violent Extremist Narratives, (The Hague: National Coordinator for Counterterrorism [NCTb]); John Horgan (2009), Walking Away From Terrorism: Accounts of Disengagement from Radical and Extremist Movements (London: Routledge); Tore Bjørgo and John Horgan (Eds.) (2008), Leaving Terrorism Behind: Individual and Collective Disengagement (London: Routledge); Robert Satloff (2004), The Battle of Ideas in the War on Terror: Essays on U.S. Public Diplomacy in the Middle East (Washington, D.C.: The Washington Institute).

[20] “Law enforcement agencies are tightening their focus on the social media behavior of US teenagers – not just because young people often fit the profile of those who are vulnerable to radicalisation, but also because the public appears to be more accepting of monitoring and surveillance aimed at preventing attacks, even at the risk of government overreach.” - Mark Guarino (2013), “Teenagers, social media, and terrorism: a threat level hard to assess,” Christian Science Monitor, May 4, available at

[21] Mats Berdal and Mónica Serrano (2002), ‘Transnational Organised Crime and International Security: A New Topology,’ in Mats Berdal and Mónica Serrano (Eds.), Transnational Organised Crime and International Security: Business As Usual? (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner), pp. 197 - 207, esp. pp. 201 - 202.

[22] Cited in J. Bowyer Bell (1978), A Time of Terror: How Democratic Societies Respond to Revolutionary Violence (New York: Basic Books), at p. 124.

[23] Ernest B. Abbot and Otto J. Hetzel (Eds.) (2005), A Legal Guide to Homeland Security and Emergency Management for State and Local Governments (Chicago: ABA Publishing), pp. 121-122.

[24] Barry S. Levy and Victor W. Sidel (Eds.) (2002), Terrorism and Public Health: A Balanced Approach to Strengthening Systems and Protecting People (Oxford: University Press).

[25] Leonard A. Cole (2003), The Anthrax Letters: A Medical Detective Story (Washington, DC: National Academy of Science). See also, Allan Lengel and Joby Warrick (2006), ‘FBI Is Casting A Wide Net in Anthrax Attacks,’ The Washington Post, September 25, p. A01.

[26] David Shukman (2006), ‘Problems mount from 9/11 fallout,’ BBC News, April 12, at <>; Julia Preston (2006), ‘Public Misled on Air Quality After 9/11 Attack, Judge Says,’ The New York Times, February 3; New York Times (2007), ‘Editorial: Ensuring Progress at Ground Zero,’ May 26.

[27] For a good review, see Lisa D. Butler, Leslie A. Morland and Gregory A. Leskin (2007), ‘Psychological Resilience in the Face of Terrorism,’ in Bruce Bongar, Lisa M. Brown, Larry E. Beutler, James N. Breckenridge and Philip G. Zimbardo (eds.), Psychology of Terrorism (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press), pp. 400-417.

[28] E. Alison Holman, Roxane Cohen Silver, Michael Poulin, Judith Andersen, Virginia Gil-Rivas, Daniel N. McIntosh (2008), ‘Terrorism, Acute Stress, and Cardiovascular Health,’ Archives of General Psychiatry 65(1): 73-80.

[29] Tore Bjørgo (Ed.) (2005), Root Causes of Terrorism: Myths, Reality and Ways Forward (London: Routledge).

[30] James J.F. Forest (Ed.) (2006), The Making of a Terrorist: Recruitment, Training, and Root Causes. Volume III: Root Causes (Westport, Conn.: Praeger Security International).

[31] Joanne Wright (2006), ‘The Importance of Europe in the Global Campaign Against Terrorism,’ Terrorism and Political Violence, 18(2): 281-299; Ahmed Rashid (2008), Descent Into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia (New York: Penguin).

[32] For Egypt, see Tom Perry and Abdelrahman Youssef (2013), “Insight: In Egypt, ideas of a radical Islamist make comeback,” Reuters, Dec. 2, available at

[33] For an analysis of the issue of the outright banning of anti-democratic political parties, see John Finn (2000), ‘Electoral Regimes and the Proscription of Anti-democratic Parties,’ Terrorism and Political Violence 12(3&4): 51-77.

[34] For a similar view, see UN News Centre (2013), “Terrorism can only be defeated by education, former British leader Blair tells UN,” November 21, available at . See also the link to Blair’s presentation on the same webpage. See also, Wayne Nelles (Ed.) (2003), Comparative Education, Terrorism and Human Security: From Critical Pedagogy to Peacebuilding? (New York: Palgrave Macmillan).

[35]John Allemang (2010), “Can the liberal arts cure jihadists?” The Globe and Mail, Sept. 3, available at

[36] See, for example, Martha Ainsworth, Kathleen Beegle, and Andrew Nyamete (1996), ‘The Impact of Women’s Schooling on Fertility and Contraceptive Use: A Study of Fourteen Sub-Saharan African Countries,’ World Bank Econ. Rev. 10(1): pp. 85-122.

[37] Parry, M.L., O.F. Canziani, J.P. Palutikof, P.J. van der Linden and C.E. Hanson (Eds.) (2007), Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Cambridge, UK: University Press).

[38] UNDP Human Development Report 2007/2008. The Report is available at

[39] See, for example, Anne-Marie Slaughter (2004), A New World Order (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press); David Coleman (2003), ‘The United Nations and Transnational Corporations: From an Inter-nation to a “Beyond-state” Model of Engagement,’ Global Society 17(4): pp. 339-357.

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Perspectives on Terrorism is  a journal of the Terrorism Research Initiative and the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies

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