The Secrets To Successful Counterterrorism


By Richard English / Oxford University Press

Reviewed by: Bernard Hudson

The Reviewer — Bernard Hudson spent 28 years in the Central Intelligence Agency’s Directorate of Operations. He served multiple assignments in the field and at CIA headquarters. His final position was as Director of Counterterrorism. Since retiring he has served as a non-resident fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center and currently works in the drone industry.

REVIEW — A nation’s response to terrorist threats is more likely to have a decisive impact on regional and global events than any specific attack by the terrorists themselves. If that is true, argues Richard English in his new book, Does Counter-Terrorism Work?, then it is vital there be a better methodology for political leaders to use to understand how to evaluate the broader impact that counterterrorism policies will generate.

Over the course of his exceptionally well-researched book, he draws many of his recommendations from three different terrorist challenges: the U.S. response to the 11 September attacks; the United Kingdom’s struggle against the Provisional Irish Republican Army; and Israel’s pre-7 October 2023 conflict with various Palestinian nationalist and rejectionist groups.

These case studies are solid treatments of how American, British and Israeli governments designed and executed their counterterrorism policies using vastly different approaches. Throughout his analysis, Mr. English poses several valuable questions for both policy makers and senior civil servants: Were the goals set by the governments in question realistic? How was success defined? Were there tactical successes but long-term strategic failure? How realistic was the understanding by policy makers about what may or may not be driving the terrorist threat?

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In his analysis of U.S. policy after 9/11, Mr. English notes that, while there were undeniable operational and tactical successes to the American approach, the sweeping scope and ambition of what came to be U.S. counterterrorism policy had profound and unwanted consequences for Washington. Both the occupation of Afghanistan and the 2003 invasion of Iraq were justified politically by claims they would deliver counterterrorism benefits; unfortunately, the benefits of these interventions were eventually outweighed by the costs. His points here are hard to dispute. His analysis of Israel’s post 1967 is informative—especially his observation that there is a consistent tension between moments of operational brilliance and decision-making that brought about strategic self-harm.

While the rendering of both the U.S. and Israeli experience are well-documented and thoughtful, the treatment of the U.K.’s experience in Northern Ireland was one of the best brief, insightful, and historically-based reviews on the subject one is likely to find anywhere. This section of the book provides a good example of how the British security services struggled to pursue and diminish the I.R.A. while providing space for policy makers to find a political solution to marginalize the extreme elements and provide a return normalcy.

Throughout his book, Mr. English makes several observations about counterterrorism that policymakers should consider when they generate and try to oversee the work of those charged with carrying out those policies. These include:

  • The dangers of an overreliance on metrics at the expense of trying to understand the real impact of those metrics;
  • As it’s easy for policy objectives to be lost in the day-to-day operational reality of counterterrorism work, the bureaucratic institutions which carry out a government’s counterterrorism missions need to be more comprehensively understood by the policymakers who set them to these tasks;
  • That partial strategic victories, where the state reduces the capabilities of a terrorist group to a low, sustainable level, are more historically common than completely eradicating the threat;
  • and, most persuasively: it is almost always a wise course of action to set realistic goals and resist the tendency toward alarmism.

While the book is a scholarly treatment of the efficacy of counterterrorism, its final chapter and findings would be a valuable guide to any government official or lawmaker who must design or oversee counterterrorism policy.

Does Counter-Terrorism Work? earns a solid 3 out of 4 trench coats


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