Leiden Safety and Security Blog

Counterterrorism Success: the Crucial Role of Public Support

A good deal of research on terrorism has aimed to improve the ability of states to deal with this particular type of political violence. One question that has proven particularly interesting to both researchers and policy makers alike is how to deal with terrorist groups once they have established themselves and are carrying out a campaign of violence. What counterterrorism (CT) measures do states have at their disposal and which ones should be used?

Unfortunately, CT measures don’t come in a ‘holy grail’ format that works in every setting in which they are deployed. Rather than asking which measures work, it may be more fruitful to inquire when they do so. Ultimately, success in counterterrorism campaigns seems less about the particular means selected than about the context in which they are employed. Among the multitude of factors that shape the course and outcome of terrorism-related conflicts in democratic states, the most important one may be the degree of public support for both the state and its adversaries.

Public support is a resource for which both the government and its non-state opponents compete. A certain quantity of public support is a vital prerequisite for a prolonged campaign of terrorist violence and, vice versa, for governments involved in combating the groups that perpetrate it. Without it, terrorist groups would lack such essentials as recruits, funds, and places to stay while democratically elected governments would be hard pressed to remain in power. However, it is the depth of public support that may have a greater influence on the rise and fall of violence levels in such conflicts and, by extension, the efficacy of state efforts to gain the upper hand.

Take the example of the Quebecois separatists (known as the FLQ) who kidnapped two politicians in October 1970. French-language newspapers, students and public figures came out in support of the group to such an extent that the Quebecois and Canadian governments were hesitant to take a more aggressive line. But when one of the victims was murdered, public support for the FLQ evaporated almost overnight. The government suddenly found itself with a popular mandate for a much more assertive response and was ultimately able to marginalize the FLQ predominantly through using a law enforcement approach. While many supported the FLQ’s aims, the depth of public support fell short of viewing murder as an acceptable means to achieve them. In short, effective CT may be less about what governments do then when they do it.

 A more detailed discussion of this subject can be read here.

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