Strong counterterrorism measures may aid terrorist agendas, research suggests

Policymakers face difficult decisions, must consider trade-offs

Strong government counterterrorism measures in response to terrorist attacks may cause economic damage and lead to a negative response from the general population, suggests a new study from Washington University in St. Louis.

The study, published in the current American Journal of Political Science, finds that counterterrorism efforts may actually help terrorist groups stir up popular support for their agendas, aiding them considerably in achieving their goals.

“It is important that we view terrorists as rational, goal oriented, sophisticated political actors,” says study author Ethan Bueno de Mesquita, Ph.D., an assistant professor of political science in Arts & Sciences. “As such, they use violence to further specific agendas.”

In the case of ethnic or religious extremists hoping to garner support among the population that they claim to represent, goading the government into applying harsh counterterrorism measures to all citizens can serve to shift popular support from government to the terrorists.

Bueno de Mesquita’s research applies game theoretic models to the study of terrorism and counterterrorism, elections, and law and politics. The model outlined in this study shows how terrorism and counterterrorism interact, but it does not offer any simple solutions for governments facing difficult policy decisions.

“Policy makers face important trade-offs when choosing counterterrorist tactics,” says Bueno de Mesquita. “Security is determined not only by physical facts, but also by perceptions. Governments need to identify counterterror tactics that diminish the terrorist threat, but they must also avoid signaling a lack of concern for the population’s welfare. Achieving these goals simultaneously is especially difficult when terrorists operate within an ethnic or religious enclave.”

Bueno de Mesquita, who is a member of WUSTL’s Center in Political Economy in Arts & Sciences, speaks regularly on terrorism and political violence to both academic and policy audiences and has taught courses on these subjects at Harvard, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and WUSTL. He has also served as a consultant on the root causes of support for terrorism to the United States Institute of Peace.

Editor’s note: This study is published in Vol. 51 Issue 2 of American Journal of Political Science. Media wishing to receive a PDF of this article may contact Blackwell Publishing at

Professor Bueno de Mesquita is available for live or taped interviews using Washington University’s free VYVX or ISDN lines.