A Question of Triumph: Effectively Measuring the Success of Intelligence against Terrorism

By Gibbs, Whitney W. | International Social Science Review, January 2018 | Go to article overview

A Question of Triumph: Effectively Measuring the Success of Intelligence against Terrorism


Gibbs, Whitney W., International Social Science Review


On July 7, 2005, British intelligence failed to anticipate a series of terror attacks upon London's transportation services, resulting in more than 700 injured and the deaths of fifty-two British citizens in what would become known as the "worst single terrorist atrocity on British soil." (1) Starting towards the end of the twenty-first century, governments were forced to address the rise of terrorism and terrorist-inspired acts that struck every corner of the globe.

As governments' time, funds, and resources are bolstered in order to combat these threats and the deadly risks, attacks continue to happen as almost a daily occurrence. For this reason, civilians frequently question if intelligence gathering vis-a-vis terrorism is successful and, if it does yield success, how can that success be effectively measured? This article discusses possible successes of intelligence against terrorism such as prevention, minimization of impact, and prior forecast of future attacks in order to demonstrate how success can, in fact, be measured in regard to specific objectives of intelligence against terrorism, rather than simply the intelligence process against terrorism as a whole.

The Code of Federal Regulations defines terrorism as "the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives." (2) Though terrorism affects every corner of the globe, this article will focus of terror attacks within the United States, Great Britain, and France. The article will use both examples of significant terror incidents and publicly available statistics from intelligence organizations in order to prove explore this topic.

Counterterrorism Intelligence

Intelligence in counterterrorism efforts has been the center of much debate and criticism. Daniel Byman, a professor of Security Studies at Georgetown University, contends that the lack of understanding of the capabilities of intelligence in counterterrorism and the emphasis placed on intelligence to prevent all cases of terror against a nation have led to the neglect of intelligence use within the counterterrorism system. (3) Byman further suggests that intelligence is, in fact, crucial to counterterrorism. It is simply not recognized because the understanding of intelligence success and failure is greatly reliant on intelligence organizations' ability to prevent all future terror acts, while paying little attention to the utility of intelligence to the day-to-day efforts of counterterrorism agencies--which in itself may help to prevent attacks that are never carried out. (4) Michael German, Rosa Brooks, and the Editorial Board of the New York Times disagree with Byman's view. They suggest that intelligence is only significant in quelling offensive attacks against a nation, or in cases of national security issues when they arise, rather than as a way to address ongoing prevention of terrorism growth; therefore, it is unable to prevent the growth of terrorism. (5) It does not yield success because terrorism will continue to threaten a nation or nations. Byman, German, Brooks, and the New York Times Editorial Board all present relevant points. If intelligence is helping prevent daily threats of terrorism, it is then proving its utility within the counterterrorism community. However, if the goal of counterterrorism is to definitively prevent the growth and promote the dismantling of terrorist groups, does intelligence fail, as it has not proven to do so?

To answer this, one must look to the definition of counterterrorism. The United States Joint Chiefs of Staff define counterterrorism as "activities and operations that are taken to neutralize terrorists, their organizations, and networks in order to render them incapable of using violence to instill fear and coerce governments or societies to achieve their goals." (6) Although terrorism has a long history dating back to the French Revolution, counterterrorism as a designated practice was not adopted extensively by intelligence communities around the world until after World War II. …

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