Evaluating “Success” in Terrorism and Counterterrorism

This continues our series of student reflections and analysis authored by our research team.

Some of the great opportunities that the Prosecution Project (tPP) provided me include being able to find an interesting niche within the field of terrorism studies, employ the tools within the project to enhance my understanding of certain topics, and try to tackle challenging analytical problems through critical thinking. How the state responds to terrorism is a leading subject within the field, and as my interest in the topic developed, I’ve found that one puzzling issue is central to understanding counterterrorism initiatives: how do we best evaluate the success of terrorist organizations? As the war on terror persists through the century, it can be helpful for academics, policymakers, officials, and citizens alike to produce a more grounded dialectic by reflecting on the successes and failures of groups past and present. But measuring success requires us to appropriately define it and quantify it, and my contribution will utilize tPP to hopefully help frame and measure organizational success over time.

A good first decision that must be made when answering the question involves choosing a perspective from amongst the various actors. Do we define success according to the perspective of the terrorist group? The government? The individual suspect(s)? Each actor will judge a certain operation differently from the other. Fortunately, the cases in tPP can represent all of these perspectives, but to varying degrees. Since the goal of the project is to understand how the United States prosecutes individuals with crimes related to political violence, the government’s perspective will be front and center, and it will be the primary lens which I will employ. From the state’s view — and often from each actor’s view — success is multifaceted; that is, there is no single method to calculate success, but it involves a combination of equally important values. Here, Daniel Byman’s five measures of success (two of which are listed) provide a mostly functional, if imprecise, foundation for understanding the state’s perspective:

Freedom of operation. The first method looks at how secure a group may be in a certain location. According to the state, part of a group’s success means having “secure areas in which they can organize and plan with little fear…[and] can wait to strike at their pleasure” (Byman 2003). Certainly, an organization’s network will never be completely removed, but single operations can be shut down. The better an organization is able to operate out of an area, the more successful it is at perpetuating terrorist activity. At least some of this freedom can be operationalized through the city, state, and country variables in the tPP dataset. We unfortunately cannot discriminate between cases where a group claims responsibility for certain crimes versus isolated “lone wolf” crimes, which would erase issues of counting individuals with no attachment whatsoever to a group as being apart of an organization’s “footprint”. Even so, by focusing on one group’s activities in specific cities over time, we may gain insight into how well the government can curtail their operations.

Success in recruitment. The second method understands a group’s success in terms of the size of their recruitment base. Byman points to leadership structures (either centralized or decentralized) as being key to this method of approximation. Some groups, he states, rapidly decline as soon as their top leaders are killed or captured — like the Kurdish Workers Party in Turkey or Sendero Luminoso in Peru — while other groups can remain virulent and active despite losing many leaders, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon. Decentralized leadership means that “for a group like Al-Qaeda, disrupting recruitment is a vital…measure of success” (Byman 2003).

This variable is notoriously tricky to account for, though, since we can only rely on estimates that can enumerate the size of recruits. To some extent, the tPP dataset can approximate this amount of involvement, although with a great deal of imprecision. Many organizations with fewer members and/or more centralized leadership may engage in plots alongside their operators, and will thus be deemed as co-defendants. If we pair this with the hypothesis that most recruits are not repeat offenders, this could be tied to our “Previous Similar Crime” variable that tracks individuals with multiple convictions. Accumulating both results could help us determine if organizations utilize recruits or existing members for their operations, with the sense that the more recruits they gain, the more momentum and “success” they may have.

These are just a couple of the ways in which the tPP dataset will reflect measurements for success. To be sure, there are clear disadvantages for adopting certain methods, but I believe that by wrestling with these imprecisions and finding better ways to make more accurate inferences, the data will better our understanding.

– Michael Thompson


Byman, Daniel. “Scoring the War on Terrorism.” The National Interest, no. 72 (2003): 75-84. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42897485.

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