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The basic premise of counter terrorism and guide to success is to kill or apprehend as many terrorists as possible, without creating more. Although, admittedly, the concept is quite straightforward, in a liberal democracy this requires the guarantee of efficiency and/or security and a certain level of public acceptance/approval.

Generally speaking, when developing a counter terrorism strategy, different policy aims should be prioritized –depending on the contextual determinants- at different times. Increasing political pressure may occasionally lead to spasmodic decisions, so it is vital to take sufficient time to create a comprehensive action plan, that ensures not only accountability and efficacy but also achieves security and sociopolitical balance. Short term gains, however, should never adumbrate long-term goals.

Subsequently, a course of action must be strategically chosen for the realization of both proximate and ultimate goals (Holmes, 2007). In order to craft an effective counter terrorism strategy, it is essential to properly identify the nature of the threat, as in, the motivating force behind different terrorist groups. For instance, does the group operate domestically or internationally, is it (predominantly) religiously or politically motivated, are there any cultural imperatives, specific sociopolitical goals or ideological cognitions that drive the group? It should be noted that one of the main priorities of any counter terrorism strategy is to curtail support for terrorist groups. It is well known by now that only by addressing directly the underlying socio-political contexts and relevant recruitment factors from which terrorism emerges and draws its support, can any counter terrorism initiative seek to be effective.

Moreover, it is important to realize the conceptual impact of categorizing/classifying groups as “terrorists” or something else i.e. guerrillas and/or revolutionaries. Subject-matter expert Martha Crenshaw observes that -generally speaking- governments do not negotiate with terrorists but tend to do so with revolutionaries (Crenshaw, 2010).

These groups may have similar modi operandi but there is a perceptual distinction in the collective mindset and –subsequently- the response differs greatly. While Crenshaw suggests that “calling actions terrorism may dictate a military, not political response and justify exceptional measures” (Crenshaw, p.11, 2010), terrorism expert Paul Wilkinson vehemently stresses that one of the major principles to combat terrorism is to “no surrender to the terrorists and an absolute determination to defeat terrorism within the framework of the rule of law and the democratic process”, (Wilkinson, p.207, 2001).

Although responses to terrorism are more often than not dependent on cognitive schemas, it must be noted that terrorism is essentially political nomenclature. According to certain academics, it is a relatively simple concept to define (Schmid & Jongman, 1988), while others believe that its conceptual vagueness makes a clear distinction between terrorism and other types of violence particularly difficult, (Waxman, 2010). Nonetheless, the choice of categorization influences the debate and guides the policy-making process.

Framing Context: Liberal Democracy and Terrorism

It has been contended that democratic political systems are –somewhat- more vulnerable to terrorism than authoritarian regimes, mainly due to certain weaknesses/features inherent to democratic norms that could facilitate terrorist activity, but empirical evidence actually suggests that both totalitarian and democratic regimes have historically been plagued by terrorism, (J. Lutz & B. Lutz, 2010). Some academics even argue that democracies are particularly resilient and have a strong deterrent effect on political violence and terrorism, (Chenoweth, 2011).

Additionally, democracies were found to have unique strengths and levels of effectiveness when State policies enjoy popular support; as Hocking and Lewis explain “In order to counter terrorism effectively…it is an essential condition that everything should take place absolutely transparently, in the light of day, and with the primary involvement of the local communities”, (Hocking and Lewis, 2007).

Understandably, it is virtually impossible for terrorists to operate without safe havens and/or local support. Within this epistemological framework there are two belief continua: one perspective argues that democracy is actually a limiting factor (for terrorism) because it offers avenues for the articulation of concerns and promotes non-violent conflict resolution practices; the second argument claims that political and civil liberties work in tandem with terrorism because of the increased openness and permissiveness of democratic political systems, (Chenoweth, 2006).

So, realistically, is terrorism a threat to democracy? Ted Robert Gurr (1990) states “the potential of political terrorism is vastly overrated” , while others have found that democracy is normatively structured around institutional constraints that could be potentially permissive to or unintentionally encourage terrorist activity, (Chenoweth, 2006). Despite the lack of intellectual consensus regarding the “vulnerability” or “immunity” of democracies to terrorism, research has indicated that most political systems are ultimately susceptible to terrorism, (Cinar, 2009).

Striking a Balance Between Fear and Security

Widespread, uncontrollable violence can become the primary societal concern when (even) the spectre of terrorism is present. “The right to life, liberty and security of person” remains the ethical cornerstone of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is striking that, the eminent philosopher Thomas Hobbes centuries ago observed that fear is the most basic ontological instinct and that “it effectively motivates the creation of a social contract in which citizens cede their freedoms to the sovereign…in order to be safe from harm” (Glaser, p.1, 2014).

Terrorists take these Hobbesian perceptions to the heart; terrorism uses violence to create the sense of fear with the aim of degrading or destabilizing the social order and altering the normal functions of a flourishing social life (or credibly threatening to do so). Failure -on the part of the government- to appease growing public insecurity, could undermine democratic values and restrict civil liberties in return for hopes of increased security, (Netanyahu, p.33, 1995).

Terrorism versus Democracy: The Liberal State Response

The individual’s perception of their government’s preparedness policies plays a decisive role in maintaining the government’s credibility and authority. If the public perceives the government to be inadequately prepared, misguided and/or inept in responding to the terrorist threat, popular support for existing government policies will decline and the potential emergence of vigilante/guerilla groups may be plausibly interpreted as the only solution to uphold the law and protect life and property, (Clutterback, 1992).

In this case, vigilante justice will be rationalized in the collective psyche by the narrative that proper legal forms of criminal punishment and protection are in-existent, since the government has been ineffective in enforcing the law. What makes the situation even more complicated, according to terrorism expert Jennifer Holmes, is that the appearance of paramilitary movements and their progressive expansion can result in the perpetuation of a vicious cycle of violence; the IRA in Ireland and the FARC in Colombia being two striking examples of this, (Holmes, 2007).

Popular support and a unified political community

It is trite to remark that a solidified societal perception of “togetherness” is vital to any successful counter terrorism approach. As observed by political scientist Max Manwaring -who in the early 1990s introduced a model which is applicable to measuring success in, among other areas, the war on terrorism- legitimacy of the government is the most important element of a successful counterinsurgency campaign, (Sloan, 1992).

More specifically, the “Manwaring Paradigm” consists of six essential factors that play a pivotal role in the success or failure of any internal conflict and/or counter insurgency effort. The six key elements are: “legitimacy of the government, organization for the unity of effort, type and consistency of support for the targeted government, ability to reduce outside aid to insurgents, intelligence (or action against subversion), and discipline and capabilities of a government’s armed forces”, (Sloan, p.3, 1992). Along these lines, Martha Crenshaw stresses that in order (for liberal democracies) to understand the complexities and evaluate correctly the causes and consequences of terrorism, they must acknowledge the inextricable link between terrorism and political legitimacy, (Crenshaw, 2010).

A proportionate and measured response to a terrorist threat (neither an overreaction nor an under reaction), while fully respecting fundamental democratic values and principles, is the best way to preserve community support and maintain credibility.

How Democracies Can Prevail in Irregular Warfare: With Popular Support

It is no secret that popular support is instrumental to the long-term effectiveness of any counter insurgency effort. History has shown that counter insurgency largely depends on an excellent intelligence infrastructure, coupled with human sources and profound cultural knowledge.

Following the identification and separation of the insurgents or terrorists from the local population, French military officer and scholar David Galula contends that popular support will progressively come when the population starts to feel efficiently protected in order to be willing to cooperate without fear of retribution; the prospect of social and economic development can also be motivating factors (Reeder, [no date]). Without sufficient security, it is virtually impossible to garner and/or maintain popular support; it is this conceptual dualism that “defines the laws of counterrevolutionary warfare and outlines the corresponding strategy and tactics”, (Reeder, p.2, [no date]).

The Danger of Overreacting to Terrorism

For the prosperous and stable liberal democracies the conceptual encumbrance of terrorism is often dwarfed by the cost of reactions to it. Avoiding the danger of a disproportionate reaction (both overreaction and under reaction) is the most pressing challenge for democracies today. It is widely recognized that terrorists try to provoke their powerful adversaries –an entire nation occasionally- into overreacting (Marighella, 1971). Democratic principles and processes as well as popular support are primary targets for terrorists, whose ultimate goal is to obstruct institutional performance and undermine the democratic framework, (Wilkinson, 1986).

Overreaction in this case, undermines the moral fabric of an already victimized society and is used by the terrorists as a ploy to “create the damaging consequences they seek but are unable to perpetrate on their own”, (Mueller, p.1, 2005). Repressive, heavy- handed counter terrorism responses play right into the hands of terrorists, who capitalize on the political imperative associated with hard power, in order to gain legitimacy and to facilitate their operations and recruitment. The terrorists’ propaganda scheme ultimately aims to alienate the public from the government and instill distrust in the security policy apparatus.

Furthermore, overreaction could create diplomatic tensions and cause concerns regarding the erosion of fundamental human rights, particularly in nations that have commitments to human rights (e.g. the European Convention), (Holmes, 2007). The adoption of measures that are deemed incompatible with human right standards could result in the loss of international cooperation and could cause domestic strife. In this context, it must be remembered that international cooperation, which also involves intelligence sharing, is crucial in –effectively- countering both transnational terrorism and domestic terrorism, (Holmes, 2007).

The Danger of not Maintaining Tolerance

Overreaction to terrorism could undermine tolerance and the freedoms it promotes. In contemporary democracies, liberal tolerance entails practices of multiculturalism, assuring space for the expressive activities of people of different religious, cultural and political backgrounds. In this sense, maintaining an inclusive political community is primordial in avoiding overreaction. A society that indulges dissent or deviance has -according to Clutterback- “a better prospect of prolonged survival”, (Clutterbuck, p.149, 1975). A slide into authoritarianism presents a great challenge for liberal democratic states as they might come dangerously close to equating dissent with subversion.

This is particularly relevant to abuses of intelligence gathering (in the guise of efforts to prevent grave dangers), which both advanced and developing democracies have experienced. Heymann notes that “the lines separating mere opposition or permissible dissent in politics from a real internal danger are likely to be crossed by whoever controls intelligence capacities”, (Heymann, p. 1, 2001).

Policy Response and Democratic Legitimacy

Terrorist violence often affects democratic legitimacy because -on the one hand- a moderate reaction on the part of the government may appear ineffective and on the other hand, an aggressive reaction may be perceived as an encroachment on civil liberties and human rights. A perceived tradeoff between security and human rights, civil liberties or the Constitution could result in the erosion of a democratic state’s legitimacy and could produce grievances and –correspondingly- loss of social cohesion, (Donohue, 2005).

Another point of contention for democracies is whether counter terrorism should be conceptualized as a military or a law enforcement issue. The (currently employed) democratic criminal justice continuum allows for terrorism to be interpreted as an act of war, predominantly due to a definitional dilution of the word “war”, which is nowadays improperly employed to describe all conflicts, (Majoran, 2014).

Although all liberal democracies view terrorism as a criminal act and treat it as such, the shortcomings of their traditional criminal justice systems have obliged them –on many occasions- to act outside their own legal confines to manage the threat, (Morris, 2014). Terrorism expert Andrew Majoran explains, however, that the retributive methods employed by advanced democracies are by no means warfare; “they are extraordinary criminal justice measures that have been mistaken as warfare due to their distinct military element”, (Majoran, p.4, 2014).

Nonetheless, many politicians and scholars have argued that all democratic states should explore the possibility of acting collectively within the solid, jurisdictional environment that international law provides, independently of domestic legal constraints, cultural diversity or self interest, in an effort to make terrorism a criminal offense at the international level (so that international bodies such as NATO, United Nations, or the International Criminal Court could have jurisdiction over terrorism as a distinct crime), (Banchik, 2003).

State Capacity Matters

It is widely accepted that when countering terrorism, state competence matters. The government needs to have a capable administration, a well-organized judicial system and a functioning political, security and economic policy, in order to thwart violence and maintain popular support, (O’Neill, 2005). A strong democratic state that ensures accountability (intelligence agencies included), impartiality and responsiveness enjoys popular support, thus facilitating the work of counter terrorism officials.

It has been observed -on many occasions- that a solid legal groundwork could be effective in combating terrorism as demonstrated in Italy and West Germany; both democracies successfully managed domestic terrorist conflicts with increased oversight and control of both the police and the intelligence services, (Wilkinson, 1986). Terrorists do not act within humanitarian, moral or other confines and their primary target is to foster corruption, distrust and make the government lose credibility. In this regard, it is imperative that democracies mobilize all their resources and maintain staunch defensive measures i.e. increased policing, preparedness/public awareness campaigns, special forces, etc., in order to provide a heightened sense of security, (Hoffman&Morrison-Taw, 1992).

Increasing intelligence capabilities

The Intelligence Management Cycle constitutes the overarching element of any counter terrorism initiative and refers to the continuous process of tasking, collecting, processing, analyzing, and disseminating intelligence information to policy/decision makers, (Foundations of geographic information and spatial analysis, 2007). The aim of the intelligence reform is to provide accurate and timely information, promote close interagency cooperation and remain accountable to the competent authorities, (Matei & Bruneau, 2011). Due to the fact that inter-agency distrust, conflicts of interest and politicization of the intelligence community could undermine the effectiveness of the intelligence management cycle, certain (advanced) democracies such as Britain, Germany, France and Canada have successfully separated (counter) intelligence from domestic law enforcement; their intelligence agencies are subject to oversight but are still allowed to act independently and covertly, (Treverton, p.136, 2003).

Relatedly, security expert Bruce Schneier warns that separation must be also maintained between the military and the police forces at all costs. He notes that democracies gain a lot of security because they set clear limits between police and military functions in internal security; “we will all be much less safer if we allow those functions to blur. This kind of thing worries me far more than terrorist threats”, (Schneier, p.1, 2005).


At this point it is worth noting that increased state capacity, good intelligence and a well-coordinated multi-agency response are still not sufficient to suppress domestic and/or international terrorism. In this case, the political dimension is also crucial. A responsive grievance redress is fundamental in gaining popular support and decreasing overt or tacit support for terrorists (Holmes, 2007).  Overall, a well-organized intelligence community, increased security capabilities and good governance are vital tools for democracies battling terrorism. The gravest threat to an effective counter terrorism strategy is precipitation, which -more often than not- results in erroneous priority settings that can not be later amended. It must be remembered that countering terrorism is a long-term affair and any lopsided, overloaded, hastily adopted efforts will not lead to effective, long-term results.



–          Banchik, M. (2003), “The International Criminal Court and Terrorism”, Peace Studies Journal

–          Chenoweth, E. (2006), “The Inadvertent Effects of Democracy on Terrorist Group Emergence,” BCSIA Discussion Paper, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

–          Chenoweth, E. (2011), “Terrorism in Democracies”, The Monkey Cage

– Cinar, B. (2009), “How Can Terrorism be Prevented in Democratic Societies?”, Eds: Ahmet Cinar

– Clutterback, R. (1975), “Living with Terrorism”, Eds: Faber & Faber, p.149

– Clutterback, R. (1992), “Negotiating with Terrorists” Terrorism and Political Violence 4, no 4

– Crenshaw, M. (2010), “Explaining Terrorism: Causes, Processes and Consequences (Political Violence)”, Eds: Routledge

–          Crenshaw, M. (2010), “Political Explanations in Addressing the Causes of Terrorism”, The Club de Madrid Series on Democracy and Terrorism, Madrid: The International Summit on Democracy, 2005

–          Donohue, L. (2007), “Security and Freedom on the Fulcrum”, Terrorism and Political Violence, Taylor & Francis

–          Forest, JJF. (2007), “Countering Terrorism and Insurgency in the 21st Century, International Perspectives”, Chapter 5 “Developing and Implementing a Counter Terrorism Policy in a Liberal Democracy” by Jennifer Holmes, Ed. Praeger, p.94-103

–          Foundations of geographic information and spatial analysis, (2007), “Intelligence Process”

–          Galula, D. (1964), “Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice” Westport, Praeger Security International, A Summary of Brett Reeder, Conflict Research Consortium

–          Glaser, J. (2014), “Fear and Leviathan”, AntiWar Blog

–          Gurr, T. (1990), “Terrorism in Democracies: In Social and Political Bases” in Walter Reich, ed., Origins of Terrorism: Psychologies, Ideologies, States of Mind (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press)

–          Heymann, P. (2001), “Controlling Intelligence Agencies”, Nathan Hale Institute for Intelligence and Military Affairs

–          Hocking, JJ & Lewis, CH. (2007), “Counter-Terrorism and the Post-Democratic State”, 1st edn, Edward Elgar Publishing, Cheltenham UK, Monash Unversity

–          Hoffmann, B., Morrison Taw, J. (1992), “A Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism and Insurgency”, RAND Corporation

–          Lutz, J & Lutz, B. (2010), “Democracy & Terrorism”, Perspectives on Terrorism, START, Vol 4, No 1

–          Majoran, A. (2014), “The Illusion of War: Is Terrorism a Criminal Act or an Act of War?”, the Mackenzie Institute

–          Manwaring, M. (2007), “A Contemporary Challenge to State Sovereignty: Gangs and Other Illicit Transnational Criminal Organizations in Central America El Salvador, Mexico, Jamaica And Brazil”, Strategic Studies Institute

–          Marighella, C. (1971), “Minimanual of the Urban Guerilla”, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, UK

–          Matei, F & Bruneau, T. (2011), “Intelligence reform in new democracies: factors supporting or arresting progress”, Taylor & Francis

–          Morris, C. (2014), “A Crime or an Act of War?”, Address to the University of San Diego Ethics Society

–          Mueller, J. (2005), “Simplicity and Spook: Terrorism and the Dynamics of Threat Exaggeration”, International Studies Perspectives, Ohio State University, p.1

–          Netanyahu, B. (1995), “Fighting Terrorism: How Democracies Can Defeat Domestic and International Terrorism”, Eds:Farrar Straus & Giroux, p.33

–          O’Neill, B. (2005), “Insurgency and Terrorism: From Revolution to Apocalypse”, 2nd Ed., Revised, Washington, DC: Potomac Books

–          Schmid, A & Jongman, A. (1988), “Political Terrorism: A New Guide to Actors Authors, Concepts, Data Bases, Theories, Literature”, London, Ed: Transaction Publishers

–          Schneier, B. (2005), “Giving the U.S. Military the Power to Conduct Domestic Surveillance”, Schneier on Security, p.1

–          Sloan, S. (1992), “Introduction in Low Intensity Conflict: Old Threats in a New World, Eds: Edwin G. Corr and Stephen Sloan, San Francisco, Westview Press

–          Treverton, G. (2003), “Reshaping Intelligence to Share with “Ourselves“”. Canadian Security Intelligence Service

–          Waxman, M. (2010), “The Structure of Terrorism Threats and the Laws of War”, Duke Journal of Comparative & International Law, Vol. 20, 2010

–          Wilkinson, P. (1986), “Maintaining the Democratic Process and Public Support”, The Future of Political Violence

–          Wilkinson, P. (2001), “Terrorism Versus Democracy: The Liberal State Response”, p.207, Ed: Routledge (2nd ed.)

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