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Terrorism Prevention as Situational Crime Prevention

09 Aug 2012
Short Read by Alex P. Schmid

"Prevention", the saying goes, "is better than cure". It helps greatly if one knows the causes of what one wants to prevent; but sometimes one has to act without full knowledge of what causes a specific disease, crime or, in our case, act of terrorism. Some calamities are harder to prevent than others and acts of terrorism appear to belong to them. Any fool can make a phone call and claim that a bomb has been placed on an airliner and there is a good chance that the pilot decides to make an emergency landing at the nearest airport. Any lone wolf terrorist without moral scruples in possession of a gun or explosives can create a massacre. Where unarmed civilians are the main targets of unprovoked, one-sided surprise attacks by terrorists and where everyday objects like a hijacked plane can be turned into a weapon of destruction, it is in a way amazing that acts of terrorism are not more frequent.

The question is whether there are, relatively speaking, so few plots or whether prevention of terrorism works. Of 88 serious jihadist attempts at perpetrating major acts of mass casualty-terrorism in Europe in recent years, all but two (Madrid 2004 and London 2005) could be prevented or failed due to the ineptitude of the terrorists themselves. In many ways, preventing acts of terrorism has been a success, at least in Western Europe and North America. However, the smaller the circle of conspirators, the more difficult prevention is. The “lone wolf” bombing and massacre by Anders Behring Breivik on 22 July 2011 in Oslo and Utøya (Norway), which cost the lives of 77 people, is a testimony of this. However, many other plots have failed because the would-be terrorists were local amateurs. Yet others were prevented and disrupted by intelligence services or by vigilant members of the public.

What do we actually mean by prevention of terrorism in this context? It can be described - if we borrow and adapt a definition from crime prevention - as the anticipation, recognition and appraisal of the risk of an attack or atrocity and the initiation of some action to remove or at least reduce its impact.

Enormous resources have been spent on the prevention of terrorist acts since the wake-up call of 9/11. The scope of terrorism prevention measures has also become very broad, especially in developed countries. It ranges from early action like the prevention of radicalisation and recruitment of vulnerable youth to prevention by pre-emption when it comes to terrorist plots that are already in the making. It covers the prevention of assassination (VIP protection), prevention of kidnapping and hostage taking, prevention of terrorist attacks during major public events (like the Olympic Games), prevention of terrorist attacks on public transportation (esp. hijackings), the obstructing of financing of terrorism, the prevention of cross-border movements of known or suspected terrorists, the prevention of acquisition of weapons and explosives (incl. Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear precursors) by terrorists, the protection of critical national infrastructures and more.

No country has gone to greater lengths to prevent and counter terrorism than the United States. Less than two years after 9/11, the US government had 48 agencies with an estimated budget of US $ 25.7 billion while over 50 congressional committees and sub-committees were overseeing and providing funding for terrorism prevention. Since then expenses have skyrocketed even further, mainly due to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, many of the measures taken under the label "terrorism prevention" are only remotely linked to the problem at hand. Perhaps one should return to basics. In this regard, it is useful to look at what criminology has to offer.

In the field of criminology the application of principles of situational crime prevention has become an important approach to crime reduction. Some of these principles can, mutatis mutandis, also be applied to the prevention of acts of terrorism. One reason why terrorism has become such a great threat is that opportunities for applying this technique of asymmetric conflict waging has greatly increased in recent years. Borders have become more easy to cross, long-distance communication and international travel became much more affordable, and instant worldwide attention is within reach for those willing and able to create newsworthy atrocities thanks to 24/7 news channels and the Internet.

The basic idea behind situational crime prevention is to reduce opportunities by making it harder for perpetrators to get what they want, by increasing the risk of being caught, by reducing the possible rewards they can gain and, if possible, induce guilt or shame. Based on principles of situational crime prevention (but going beyond them), Tore Bjørgo, Professor in Police Science at the Norwegian Police University College, has developed a comprehensive model for the prevention of terrorist crimes based on nine elements:

•  Establishing norms against the acceptance of violence and terrorism;

•  Deterrence through the threat of punishment or reprisals; •  Disruption of planned terrorist attacks;

•  Incapacitation by eliminating the capacity of (potential) terrorists to carry out acts of terrorism;

•  Protecting vulnerable targets by making terrorist attacks more difficult and more risky; •  Reducing the harmful consequences of acts of terrorism; •  Reducing the rewards from acts of terrorism;

•  Reducing the root causes and motivations that lead people to get involved in terrorism;

•  Disengagement from terrorism – as individuals or groups.

Situational crime prevention measures can be broken down into three components: (i) context-related factors, (ii) perpetrator-related factors and (iii) victim-linked factors:

(i) The first of these involve general structural measures such as removing known causes of unwanted developments, creating conditions where harmful activity is made more difficult and where chances of conflict escalation and spreading is reduced.

(ii) The second set involves measures focusing on the perpetrators like dissuading or deterring potential offenders by increasing the risk of being identified, arrested or killed. It also involves reducing potential rewards for terrorist(s) leaders by denying them opportunities for success and for finding followers willing to implement their criminal policies.

(iii) Last but not least, one has to empower past, present and potential future victims. They are, after all, the main stakeholders and have a more than political or humanitarian interest in removing or at least reducing existential threats. Victim-linked measures include giving victims/survivors a role in the fight against terrorism, e.g. by providing them with opportunities to educating the public and informing the constituency of terrorists about the true costs of terrorism and by creating official victim support mechanisms and compensation schemes for those who have been attacked by terrorists and their relatives.


It is worth exploring further the utility of situational crime prevention concepts for terrorism prevention. ICCT deals with prevention mainly in the framework of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) and reducing the factors conducive to violent radicalisation. CVE covers all but two of the categories developed by Tore Bjørgo (the exceptions being "disruption' and "protection"). In the field of counter-terrorism much money has been spent, often with little or no efforts to assess the effectiveness of measures taken. When something was labeled "terrorism prevention" it has often escaped closer scrutiny. Some populist politicians have promised their citizens absolute security against terrorism. But that level of security is not possible without closing down open, democratic societies. Dealing with terrorism in terms of situational crime prevention rather than treating it as the dominant national security threat might not be an unwise step to de-escalate unrealistic expectations about what can and cannot be done with regard to terrorism. Such a shift would also put the terrorist threat into perspective. Like many other forms of crime, terrorism will probably never go away - but it can be made a manageable risk if there is greater focus on situational and structural prevention.