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Counter Terrorism Strategy

The Three W’s of Counterterrorism: A Framework for Analysis

On 29 April 2021, the UK’s new Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Act was granted Royal Assent. Provisions contained within the Bill include new stricter sentencing guidelines for those convicted of terrorism offences, an end to early release for the most serious offenders, widening the range of offences that can be linked to terrorism, and a strengthening of disruption and risk management tools for counterterrorism purposes.

As the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, argued at the time: “This legislation will lengthen sentences for terrorists, improve monitoring of these dangerous offenders, and give the law enforcement agencies the powers to strengthen their ability to take action. Those who senselessly seek to damage and destroy lives need to know we will do everything possible to stop them. I will always take the strongest possible action to protect our national security.”

How, though, are we to evaluate such measures and their consequences? Academic research is surprisingly, and frustratingly, thin on issues of effectiveness in this policy domain. Critical perspectives, moreover, challenge the very criteria against which such powers should be evaluated by approaching counter terrorism policy as an example of security theatre intended either to reassure or to frighten publics. In this piece I set out the contours of an analytical framework for evaluating counterterrorism policy that helps us to: (i) Clarify the stakes in any evaluation of such powers; and, (ii) break the task of evaluation into smaller parts that may have greater or lesser significance for particular audiences. This framework – The Three W’s of Counterterrorism – proceeds via three core questions:

Are counter terrorism powers warranted?
The first question to ask is whether there is – actually – a need for specific, or uprated, or proposed counter terrorism powers. In the United Kingdom, for instance, Andrew Neal has shown how the history of counterterrorism lawmaking is one characterised by rushed responses to dramatic events that repeatedly leads to unconstitutional powers with questionable value for countering terrorism. This hasty and repetitive pursuit of new powers contrasts markedly with other countries where existing powers are applied to new threats without the parliamentary theatrics to which we are here accustomed. As Shami Chakrabarti argued in her evidence to the Home Office Affairs Committee back in 2014, sometimes, in counterterrorism, less is more: ‘Talk is cheap and legislation is almost as cheap. If I were Home Secretary I might not even legislate. That’s the thing; there is always this idea that legislation will help and often it doesn’t. Sometimes, it makes things worse’.

Asking whether a counterterrorism power is therefore warranted can be broken down further into three subsidiary questions:

  1. 1) What threat is being addressed, and how serious is that threat?
  2. 2) Are there already sufficient mechanisms in place to address the threat?
  3. 3) How problematic would the absence of a new power be?

Answering the first of these questions will always prove difficult to analysts outside the police and intelligence services as we are dealing with a world of classified information to which many of us have limited access. As Marc Sageman memorably argued: ‘we have a system of terrorism research in which intelligence analysts know everything but understand nothing, while academics understand everything but know nothing’. The question is also, importantly not only a statistical one involving calculations of probability and outcomes; all threats to security rely, to some extent, on their being interpreted thus. This is especially true of the politics of terrorism in which any labelling of a bombing, kidnapping, hostage-taking and so on as ‘terrorist’ is notoriously contestable.

Answering the second and third of these questions involves evaluation of the adequacy of existing policy frameworks to deal with new threats as well as reflection on the level of risk with which we are willing to live. This brings us, then, to the likely effectiveness of a proposed measure: the second of our three W’s.

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