Does Counter-terrorism work? Or, counter-terrorism as divination…

Imagine that one day Counter-terrorism officers appear on television and announce that to keep evil terrorists at bay – to protect us from the cancer of terrorism which daily haunts us – every family is required to leave a saucer of milk out by the nearest fence-post on a Wednesday at dusk, while chanting the words ‘numpty, numpty, noo noo’ precisely seven times. The Counter-terrorist official goes on to assert that this ritual must be done every week, indefinitely, because it is the only way to keep us safe from terrorism. Of course, most people would consider this to be a little bit insane, to say the least, and would naturally ask: what evidence or information do you have exactly, Mr Counter-terrorist, to suggest that this will remotely work? What is your counter-terrorist theory based on? What is the logic and evidence you are basing this on?

While this is a humorous scenario, it is only slightly alarming that this is actually an accurate description of how counter-terrorism has come to work in the era of the war on terror. For the past ten years at least, we have been told that terrorism is a massive, evil force which is inevitable in this day and age – it is only a matter of when, not if a terrorist attack will take place. Terrorists are everywhere and can strike at any time and with any weapon. The only way to control terrorism is to spend billions of dollars improving security in public places, increase surveillance on all people at all times, get rid of legal protections for suspects, make everyone prove their identity, bring in harsh new laws, dispatch drones to kill hundreds of nameless people in foreign lands, torture suspects for information, kidnap and render people to secret prisons around the world, encourage people to spy on their neighbours, watch what we talk or read about lest we glorify terrorism, and much more besides. Moreover, we are told that these security rituals will have to be observed pretty much forever, because the threat of terrorism will never end, and we must include counter-terrorism in ever more areas of modern life because terrorism is spreading.

As before, the questions we should ask are: what evidence or information do you have, Mr Counter-terrorist, to suggest that this will in any way work – that it will actually make us safe from the evil scourge of terrorism? What is your counter-terrorist theory based on? What logic and evidence are you basing this on?

The alarming fact is that most counter-terrorism today is not based on theories and actual evidence, nor is it rooted in a historical or theoretical understanding of terrorism as a form of political violence. Significantly, not a single government since 9/11 has conducted a major study to examine whether the measures they have undertaken and the billions they have spent have either worked effectively to prevent terrorism, provides value for money, or could have been achieved some other less costly way. In reality, they are spending all that money and undertaking all those measures purely on faith. At the same time, scholars have also been very lax in studying whether counter-terrorism measures actually work, or how well they work; there are very few empirically-based studies on the effectiveness of different counter-terrorism measures. Interestingly, the few studies that have been done have concluded that either they don’t work (this is the case for security measures such as extra screening at airports, for example; these measures have a displacement effect, which means that terrorists tend to choose other less well-guarded targets), or importantly, they are actually counter-productive (this is the case for measures like targeted killings, for example, which tend to increase the number of recruits for terrorist groups).

In fact, most counter-terrorism during the last ten years of war on terror, as Joseba Zulaika has so eloquently shown, has been a self-fulfilling prophesy: actions undertaken which produce the very thing it is designed to destroy. We went to war against Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere, tortured, assassinated and rendered thousands of suspected terrorists, all to prevent terrorism, while simultaneously knowing that it would most likely produce more terrorism (as foreign military intervention usually does) – which would then in turn, necessitate more counter-terrorism. On a smaller scale, FBI agents go out and encourage disaffected individuals to undertake terrorist operations, and then arrest them before they can undertake their plot – with massive publicity about ‘foiled plots’.

Importantly (and a little insanely), the sequence of events which occurs is then used as proof of the original assertion: ‘See, there are terrorists in Iraq/Pakistan/Yemen/Somalia, which is why we had to go there to fight them’; ‘See, there are terrorists within America who want to kill US citizens.’ In other words, we are told that we have to follow the prescriptions of the counter-terrorist, knowing that it will produce the very terrorism it is designed to counter, which will then justify further counter-terrorism measures.

The interesting thing is that this kind of tautological, mystical thinking and this kind of self-confirming behavior is what, so anthropologists tell us, characterizes the thinking and practices of divination and witchcraft. In a sense, counter-terrorists have become oracles or shamans in our society: they rely on secret knowledge, they tell us how to ritually fight the evil of terrorism, and they can never be tested or proven wrong. Their predictions and assertions do not require scientific validation or confirmation; instead, they tell us what to do to prevent terrorism and if no terrorism occurs, they claim they were therefore right to prescribe such measures. If terrorism does occur, they can also claim they were right about the danger of terrorism, and that more clearly needs to be done to counter it. In other words, there is no real (logical or empirical) way to prove a diviner or an oracle wrong. In the end, all we can do is to keep putting out the milk by the fencepost and chant, ‘numpty, numpty, noo noo’ while the sun sets on our civil liberties and freedoms…

If you want to read a much more detailed and eloquent analysis of counter-terrorism as witchcraft or divination, read Joseba Zulaika’s fascinating article in the journal Critical Studies on Terrorism, issue 1, 2012.


About richardjacksonterrorismblog

I am currently Professor of Peace Studies and the Director of the National Peace and Conflict Studies Centre at the University of Otago, New Zealand. Prior to this, I was Professor of International Politics at Aberystwyth University in Wales, UK. I study and teach on issues of pacifism and nonviolence, terrorism, political violence, conflict resolution and war. I have published several books on these topics, including: The Routledge Handbook of Critical Terrorism Studies (Routledge, 2016); Terrorism: A Critical Introduction (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2011; co-authored with Lee Jarvis, Jeroen Gunning and Marie Breen Smyth); Contemporary State Terrorism: Theory and Cases (Abingdon: Routledge, 2010; edited by Richard Jackson, Eamon Murphy and Scott Poynting); Critical Terrorism Studies: A New Research Agenda (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009; edited by Richard Jackson, Marie Breen Smyth and Jeroen Gunning); Conflict Resolution in the Twenty-first Century: Principles, Methods and Approaches (Ann Arbor MI: Michigan University Press, 2009; co-authored with Jacob Bercovitch); and Writing the War on Terrorism: Language, Politics and Counterterrorism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005). I am also the editor-in-chief of the academic journal, Critical Studies on Terrorism. In 2014, I published a research-based novel entitled, Confessions of a Terrorist (Zed Books, 2014) which explores the mind and motivation of a terrorist.
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6 Responses to Does Counter-terrorism work? Or, counter-terrorism as divination…

  1. Gareth says:

    Some good points, Richard. I agree mostly as they are overly inductive (the 9/11 attackers were Muslim, many terrorist attacks have been muslims, so the next terrorist attack will come from Muslim) and racistly deductive (All terrorists are Muslims, Muslims live in the US, therefore Muslims should be targeted). This is a very basic and crude description, but when an event happens it usually confirms this logic (confirmation bias of their logic and disconfirmation for all critics of this logic) and as such, their evidence gathering is the same. All this means is that it is not scientific or objective and they are part of the reflexive discourse of terrorism… i.e. it is pseudi-science that is not provable or falsifiable, but I would hasten to add that so are unorthodox and scholars…Just my immediate thoughts well waiting in an airport!!!

  2. John B says:

    Hey Richard, hope you’re settling in! And dealing with all that sun and fresh air.

    I drew the attention of a colleague in the States to your post and he responded thus – any thoughts, if you have a moment?


    “I found this piece interesting, John, if for no other reason, that it provides absolutely no context pre-war on terror. For those who advocate no aggression at any cost, it is both inconvenient and indeed fatal to that thesis to address the consequences of inaction in the face of the killings of hundreds of people pre-9.11 in the leveling of our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the USS Cole bombing and WTC1 and then of course, 9.11.

    Id be interested to hear Richard’s thoughts on that, and why he thinks that policy was so much more effective….As Barack Obama is finding out, its one thing to say things on the campaign stump, its another when you hold the lives of millions of Americans in your hand-or stare the prospect of losing your next election in the face. Which is why drones are flying all over the world, and he now assents to the use of Super PACs. It’s because he never thought about the practical realities in the first place, and didn’t understand that hope and change are indeed, not planks of an effective strategy.”

    • I didn’t intend to imply that the US should do nothing in the face of terrorist attacks, only that whatever it does it should empirically evaluate whether the response is (1) effective in preventing and/or stopping more terrorism, and (2) cost-effective. I would argue that the balance of evidence suggests that the US’s military response to terrorism pre-9/11 (bombing Libya, Sudan, Afghanistan, torture of suspects in Lebanon, etc) was a key part of what led to the 9/11 attacks. A study by the Cato Institute would seem to support this assessment. At the very least, the US should do a study to ensure that the actions it is currently taking will not lead directly to another 9/11 sized attack in another 5-10 years.

      I suspect that your colleague would support empirical evaluation of road safety measures or public health measures. If the government spends a trillion dollars to stop disease from spreading, you’d want to know that the measures were effective and a responsible use of resources. I just think the same should be true of counter-terrorism policy. I’d be rather upset if one of my relatives died in a terrorist attack 5 years from now and it later came out that it was perpetrated by someone the US had tortured in Guantanamo after they’d been picked up for no reason – like about 80 percent of the actual Guantanamo inmates.

      Let’s do some actual research, that’s all I’m saying. Rather than accepting counter-terrorism policy on pure faith alone.

  3. Stephen says:

    I was wondering if you have any other posts or papers on why counter terrorism measures are a self fulfilling prophecy and about how terrorists threats aren’t usually real. I am currently trying to write a paper about US securitization policies and how they fail in regards to terrorism abroad. I could use some insight on the middle east and Latin America more specifically if you could help me that would be great!


  4. Pingback: Cites: Terror Talk | BauschardDebate

  5. Pingback: Cuba: Should Cuba be removed from the terrorism list? | BauschardDebate

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