Study Questions Effectiveness of Efforts to Deter Terrorism

July 7, 2006

Government attempts to deter terrorism can backfire and promote invigorated reprisals and a cycle of violence, according to a new study by University of Maryland researchers.

The study is based on a review of what the researchers say is the world’s largest open-source database of terrorist incidents at the DHS-funded National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) housed at Maryland.

“Deterrence by itself hasn’t worked very well in practice, and authorities need to do a better job of taking this potential backlash into account when formulating their strategies,” says Gary LaFree, the University of Maryland criminologist who directs START.

“It’s astonishing, but only a handful of studies have even questioned whether government responses to terrorism actually work. Since 9/11 there have been about 20,000 studies of terrorism, and only seven have tried to test the effectiveness of government strategies.”

The study finds that over time, criminal justice and military responses to terrorism may produce both a positive deterrence effect and an unwanted defiance effect. It reviewed five British government actions in Northern Ireland between 1969 and 1992, finding that three out of five interventions were associated with a significant increase in the likelihood of subsequent attacks.

“Given the evidence that deterrence-based thinking with regard to terrorism is often demonstrably unsuccessful, we must ask ourselves why it remains the most common reaction of governments to terrorist threats,” says a conference paper written by the researchers.

The paper argues that there is a sweet spot, an optimal point, at which the benefits of deterrence are outweighed by terrorist defiance.

“The real question for government planners is when enough is enough,” says LaFree.

The researchers say this is the first statistical comparison of deterrence and defiance models of terrorism in Northern Ireland. It also examines these strategies over a longer period of time than previous strategies.

The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terror (START) is a U.S. Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence.

Source: The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terror; Newswise

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