Counter Terrorism: Definition, Measures & Strategy

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  • 0:04 Counter Terrorism Background
  • 0:47 Counter Terrorism Distinctions
  • 2:00 Counter Terrorism Intelligence
  • 3:24 Counter Terrorism Disruption
  • 4:37 Counter Terrorism Combat
  • 5:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Terrorism is a major concern in the world today. In this lesson, we are going to explore methods of combating terrorism, and see how this differs from traditional warfare.

Counter Terrorism Background

Hundreds of years ago, two armies would pick a place to fight, arrive, face each other, and beat each other with various sharp objects. It wasn't exactly civilized, but at least you knew who you were fighting. That's not the world we live in. While national armies still fight each other directly, international violence is now overwhelmingly committed by a very different threat. Terrorism is the use of violence to spread fear on a grand scale. It is generally driven by an ideology that defines its goals and justifies attacks against civilian populations. Terrorism cannot be fought with traditional measures used to fight a war. You need different tactics. You need to respond to terrorism in unique ways. You need counter terrorism.

Counter Terrorism Distinctions

So, why exactly do we need counter terrorism in order to fight terrorism? Why aren't traditional armies sufficient? Understanding this requires a background knowledge of what makes terrorism unique from other forms of warfare. Terrorist attacks are not acts of violence committed during wartime. They are often targeted at otherwise peaceful nations, and are therefore unexpected. The surprise of an attack is partly what makes it so terrorizing.

The biggest distinction, however, is that terrorists are non-state actors. What this means is that they are not formally associated with any nation and therefore their actions cannot be interpreted as the foreign policy of any nation. This makes fighting terrorism difficult. Imagine that Canada attacked the United States tomorrow. In that case, a nation would have declared war on us, we would know where to find them, and they would be expected to adhere to international standards of warfare or risk ending up at war with other nations. That's what we expect from warfare between nations. A terrorist group, however, is without true national affiliation. They may move across national borders, they are not represented in any international body or bound to any international treaties. Clearly, it's a very different threat.

Counter Terrorism: Intelligence

A unique threat requires unique combat measures, and that's what counter terrorism is all about: developing and applying methods of preventing and fighting terrorism. The first step, and in many ways the most important, is intelligence. Fighting terrorism requires knowledge of the whereabouts, movements, recruitment, and ideology of that group. Since terrorists are not bound by national borders and may often coordinate efforts across several nations at once, keeping track of their activities is no easy feat.

The real key to counter terrorism intelligence is the same as the key to success in kindergarten: sharing. Immediately after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, American intelligence units came together and realized that information was not being shared. The FBI had one piece of the puzzle, while the CIA had another piece. A lack of intelligence sharing made us more vulnerable.

Coordinating the sharing of information between the counter terrorism units of various intelligence-gathering sources is absolutely vital. Counter terrorism units within these agencies compile the data because they are trained to know what to look for. Imagine this scenario. There are five haystacks. In only one haystack, there is a needle. Each farmer could sort through their own haystack, or they could compile them and give the giant haystack to a guy who makes magnets. The guy with the magnet knows how to find what he's looking for.

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