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Terrorism is not new, nor is the practice of trying to prevent it through counterterrorism measures. But as the number of terrorist attacks has skyrocketed in the 21st century, the United States and other nations have had to become much more proactive in defending their citizens from such violence.
Counterterrorism in the U.S.
The U.S. government has made fighting terrorism a priority since the early 1970s, following the terrorist attacks on the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany, and several airline hijackings. But it was the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that made counterterrorism a pillar of domestic and foreign policy in the U.S. and beyond.
The RAND Corporation, a defense policy think tank, defines the ongoing "war on terror" this way:
"Counterterrorism, since 2001, threatens terrorist safe havens, infiltrates terrorists' financial and communications networks, hardens critical infrastructure, and connects the dots among the intelligence and law enforcement communities… "
Several federal agencies play critical roles in contemporary counterterrorism, both domestically and internationally, and often their efforts overlap. Among the most important are:
- Department of Homeland Security: The lead agency in charge of all domestic anti-terrorism and security activities.
- Department of State: Manages the development and implementation of all U.S. government policies and programs aimed at countering terrorism overseas
- Office of the Director of National Intelligence: Coordinates the gathering, analysis, and sharing of data among federal intelligence agencies such as the FBI and CIA.
- Federal Bureau of Investigation: Executes counterterrorism actions such as surveillance and investigation in conjunction with other law-enforcement agents at the local, state, and federal level.
- Central Intelligence Agency: Collects, analyzes, and shares international intelligence and data to inform and carry out U.S. foreign policy.
- National Counterterrorism Center: Plans and coordinates counterterrorism policies and programs among federal agencies
Fighting terrorism isn't limited to these agencies. The Department of Justice, for example, is responsible for prosecuting terror-related criminal cases, while the Department of Transportation frequently works on security issues with Homeland Security. State and local law enforcement agencies are often involved in some capacity as well.
On an international level, the U.S. government frequently cooperates with other countries on matters of security. The United Nations, NATO, and other nongovernmental organizations also have established counterterrorism policies of their own.
Types of Counterterrorism
Generally speaking, counterterrorism efforts have two goals: to protect the nation and its citizens from attack and to neutralize threats and actors who would attack the U.S. Defensive measures can be simple, like placing concrete bollards in front of buildings to stop an explosive-laden vehicle from getting too close. Video surveillance of public areas coupled with facial-recognition technology is another, considerably more advanced defensive counterterrorism measure. The security lines at U.S. airports, operated by the Transportation Security Agency, are yet another example.
Offensive counterterrorism measures can range from surveillance and sting operations to arrests and criminal prosecutions to seizing financial assets and military action. In February 2018, for example, the Treasury Department froze the assets of six people known to conduct business with Hezbollah, an Islamic organization the U.S. has labeled a terrorist organization. The 2011 raid by Navy Special Forces on Osama bin Laden's Pakistan compound, which resulted in the death of the Al Qaeda leader, is one of the best-known examples of successful military counterterrorism activity.
- Jenkins, Brian. "Bush, Obama, And Trump: The Evolution Of U.S. Counterterrorist Policy Since 9/11." ICT.org.il. 24 September 2017.
- Lederman, Joshua. "Taking Aim at Iran, US Hits Hezbollah With New Sanctions." StarTribune.com. 2 February 2018.
- Roser, Max; Nagdy, Moses; and Ritchie, Hannah. "Terrorism." OurWorldInData.org. January 2018.
- United Nations staff. "UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy." UN.org.
- United States Department of State. "Country Reports on Terrorism 2016." State.gov. July 2017.