Researchers struggle to quantify, judge counterterrorism efforts

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So many of the aspects of counterterrorism are conceptual that it's hard to do empirical research on it, says a new report from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. That's worrisome because vast resources go toward activities that can't be easily evaluated, the report says.

Disparate actions can count as counterterrorism, ranging from drones strikes to anti-radicalization efforts. A broad definition of counterterrorism could also include psychological treatment for victims of terrorism, study authors say. So not only is the range of actions wide, but they can be too different to compare.

It can also be hard to judge whether certain actions affect terrorism. The killing of Osama bin Laden certainly did--but it's unclear if the establishment of a secular school system in Afghanistan, which could reduce potential terrorist recruits, also does.

Similarly, the intent of actions can be ambiguous. The United States might open a military base with a stated purpose to support counterterrorism. But if it doesn't explicitly say so, then researchers have to make assumptions.

START also says the line between counterterrorism campaigns and individual events can be blurry. The invasion of Afghanistan is clearly a campaign, but a coordinated series of arrests in different locations might be seen as one event or several.

The easiest ambiguity to resolve, the report says, is who qualifies as a counterterrorist actor. Counterterrorism is usually seen as the government's domain, but non-government actors can participate in meaningful counterterrorism work, such as anti-radicalization programs. Researchers just have to decide whether or not to include both in their projects, the report says.

For more:
- go to a press release about START's database and the report

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