Perception vs. Reality: The Truth About Terrorism and Counterterrorism in Post-9/11 America

by Ben Lancaster

The primary focus of this thesis is to explore the impact of the United States’ post-9/11 counterterrorism policy on domestic terrorism. To do so, I employ a quantitative analysis of two datasets and a theoretical analysis of post-9/11 U.S. counterterrorism policy. The first dataset contains information on every terrorist attack that occurred on U.S. soil between 1994 and 2010. This analysis yields a downward trend in both the overall number of attacks and the percentage of attacks resulting in casualties. My hypothesis is that this trend is due — in part — to actions taken by the U.S. government in response to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The second set of data focuses on attacks arising out of right-wing extremist ideologies. This dataset begins with the Oklahoma City bombing on April 19, 1995 and ends with an unsuccessful bombing attempt in Georgia on Nov. 1, 2011. The information contained within this dataset leads me to hypothesize that the ability of U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agents to thwart attacks before they happen and effectively respond to terrorist violence has improved. Combining the two hypotheses into one, the United States has improved its counterterrorism policy since 9/11.

A theoretical analysis of post-9/11 U.S. counterterrorism policy demonstrates objective improvement in U.S. policy and also shows three areas where the policy is lacking. The three areas regarded the policy’s failure to: (1) abide by U.S. principles; (2) improve security and reduce the risk of attack at low economic and social costs; and (3) implement long-term defensive strategies focused on creating trust and negotiation. Despite these problems, I conclude the United States has indeed improved its counterterrorism policy since Sept. 11, 2001. This improvement can be said to have occurred without any sort of data collection because of the lack of coherent counterterrorism policies in place prior to 2001. These facts alone—(a) as of 2002, law enforcement now has the same powers to combat terrorism that it historically possessed in combating other organized crime and (b) as of 2004, there is now a government entity responsible for accounting terrorism—show the post-9/11 counterterrorism policy of the United States is a drastic improvement to its previous policy.

Based on the data, I conclude domestic terrorism resulting out of extreme right-wing ideologies poses a much more real threat to the United States than the threat posed by international Islamic militant groups like al Qaeda. Therefore, the United States should allocate its resources and focus its efforts on diminishing the greater threat of right-wing terrorists here at home as opposed to the lesser threat of terrorists abroad. This is not to say al Qaeda poses no threat, or the United States should not continue its efforts to decrease the threat of other Islamic militant groups, but rather there should be more emphasis on eliminating the more real and present threat.

When comparing the decade leading up to Sept. 11, 2001 with the decade after, the data also show there have been fewer overall terrorist attacks, fewer attacks resulting in casualties, a lower percentage of attacks resulting in casualties, and a greater percentage of attacks thwarted by law enforcement in the years since 9/11. This empirical data, along with the objective improvement in U.S. counterterrorism policy, demonstrates a correlation between government action and a decrease in terrorism. However, this correlation is not enough to establish causation. So while this thesis provides a likely argument for how and why U.S. counterterrorism policy has improved, it is impossible to empirically prove whether or not this improvement led to the decrease in domestic terrorism that occurred after Sept. 11, 2001.