In the years since September 11th, the amount of money the United States has spent on counterterrorism programs has dramatically increased— both in the government and in the private sector. With all the resources that we have invested in countering terrorism it is important to be able to assess the effectiveness of these programs. Despite the attention this issue has received in academic and policy circles it is still very difficult to answer the question: Is a given counterterrorism program effective?
There are (at least) four challenges to that need to be addressed in order to improve our ability to assess the effectiveness of counterterrorism programs. First, counterterrorism is a very broad term and it can be difficult to determine what counts as a counter-terrorist action.
Second, because many important counterterrorism programs are sensitive or classified, it is very difficult to gather reliable counterterrorism data.
Third, even simply defining “success” in the context of counterterrorism interventions is tough. Decrease in terrorist incident frequency, reduction in fatalities per attack, changing patterns of societal resilience, changes in recruitment patterns and specific programmatic success are just some of the ways that analysts have attempted to capture some aspect of counterterrorism effectiveness.
Fourth and finally, the counterterrorism effectiveness problem is analytically intractable with many “moving parts.” That is to say, it is challenging to make the causal connections between counterterrorism measures as an independent variable and our measures of success (once we succeed in defining them). Assessing counterterrorism effectiveness is a multi-dimensional problem without simple solutions.
We at Praescient Analytics, working with the Palantir platform, are pushing the frontier in developing innovative analytical methods to help us sort through the challenges of assessing the effectiveness of counterterrorism programs. Ultimately, our analytical advancements enable us to better model the impact counterterrorism measures have on a given terrorist organization.
As discussed, there are a variety of ways to conceptualize success with regards to counterterrorism. One way of measuring the success of counterterrorism interventions is to look at the degree to which they constrain a terrorist group’s ability to project force or successfully plan and perpetrate terrorist incidents. A terrorist group which is continually expanding the area in which it can successfully execute terrorist attacks is not being constrained by counterterrorism interventions. On the other hand, we can argue that a terrorist group with a diminishing region in which it is able to operate successfully is becoming increasingly constrained in its ability to project force, and thus not as capable as it used to be.
Similarly, the type of incident a terrorist group uses can tell us something about its operational capability. A gun or grenade attack executed by a single terrorist operative requires significantly less planning, money and even technological capabilities than a series of well-coordinated large vehicle based improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs). Thus, by extension, when we see a terrorist group that was once able to pull off large sophisticated incidents begin to use small isolated incidents, it is likely that their operational capability has diminished. Conversely, a group that has started using increasingly complex means of attack is likely increasing its operational capabilities. To be sure, there are a variety of factors at play here, and these examples are only meant to highlight some of the ways of assessing counterterrorism effectiveness by modeling a terrorist group’s capabilities.
In order to capture a terrorist group’s operational capabilities we need to capture multiple streams of information about a terrorist group’s incidents and then analyze the changes over time. In addition, we need the ability to examine our counterterrorism incidents in conjunction with our complex evolving set of terrorist incidents. The Palantir platform greatly enhances our ability to collect, structure and analyze this wide variety of information on both terrorist incidents and counterterrorist incidents as they interact and vary over time. By streamlining the process of data collection, the analyst is now better equipped to make an assessment of the terrorist group’s operational capabilities as well as the degree to which the group is being impacted by counterterrorism measures.