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For more information, see: Terrorism.

Counterterrorism and antiterrorism are sets of tactics, techniques and strategies used by organizations to prevent or mitigate terrorist acts. Counterterrorism is not specific to any one field or organization; rather, it involves entities from all parts of society. Government agencies have an obvious concern, but healthcare providers need to consider being both targets of, and responders to, terrorism. Businesses can no longer assume that such things as hurricanes and fires are the only threat to their function, or that their disaster recovery plans can ignore deliberate attacks.

Increasingly, counterterrorism, antiterrorism, and counterinsurgency are considered different, complementary doctrines. Counterterrorism is "enemy-centric" and tries to eliminate terrorists and their support networks. Counterinsurgency regards terrorism as one tactic in an insurgency, and is "population-centric", focusing on both protecting civilians from the terrorists, but also changing civilian attitudes such that they will not participate in support networks.

Terrorism is a tactic used by some insurgents or governments. Not all insurgents use terror as a tactic, and some choose not to use it because other tactics work better for them in a particular context. Individuals, such as Timothy McVeigh, may also engage in terrorist acts such as the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing; such individuals are usually self-radicalized.

Anti-terrorism versus Counter-Terrorism

The concept of anti-terrorism emerges from a thorough examining of the concept of terrorism as well as an attempt to understand and articulate what constitutes terrorism in Western terms. It must be remembered that in military contexts, terrorism is a tactic, not an ideology. Terrorism may be a tactic in a war between nation-states, in a civil war, or in an insurgency.

Counter-terrorism refers to offensive strategies intended to prevent a belligerent, in a broader conflict, from using the tactic of terrorism. The U.S. military definition, compatible with the definitions used by NATO and many other militaries, is
Operations that include the offensive measures taken to prevent, deter, preempt, and respond to terrorism.[1]
In other words, counter-terrorism is a set of techniques for denying an opponent the use terrorism-based tactics, just as counter-air is a set of techniques for denying the opponent the use of attack aircraft. Anti-terrorism is defensive, intended to reduce the chance of an attack using terrorist tactics at specific points, or to reduce the vulnerability of possible targets to such tactics.

Defensive measures used to reduce the vulnerability of individuals and property to terrorist acts, to include limited response and containment by local military and civilian forces.[1]

To continue the analogy between air and terrorist capability, offensive counter-air missions attack the airfields of the opponent, while defensive counter-air uses antiaircraft missiles to protect a point on one's on territory. The ongoing Israel-Palestine Conflict,[2] and Colombian Civil War.[3] are examples of conflicts where terrorism is present, along with other tactics, so that a participant uses counter- and anti-terrorism to limit the opponent's use of terror tactics.

Intelligence about terrorism

See also: Terrorism and U.S. Intelligence (1970-2004)

Good intelligence is at the heart of such preparation, as well as political and social understanding of any grievances that might be solved. Ideally, one gets information from inside the group, a very difficult challenge for HUMINT because operational terrorist cells are often small, with all members known to one another, perhaps even related.Counterintelligence is a great challenge with the security of cell-based systems, since the ideal, but nearly impossible, goal is to obtain a clandestine human source within the cell. Financial tracking can play a role, as can communications intercepts, but both of these approaches need to be balanced against legitimate expectations of privacy.[4]

Building a counterterrorism plan involves all segments of a society or many government agencies. In dealing with foreign terrorists, the lead responsibility is usually at the national level. A comprehensive program of couterterrorism requires not merely the recognition of terrorists and indications of impending attacks, but also an understanding of motivations and sources of support. See the series of articles beginning with intelligence cycle management, and, in particular, intelligence analysis. Human-source intelligence presents techniques of describing the social networks that make up terrorist groups. Also relevant are the motivations of the individual terrorist and the clandestine cell system used by recent non-national terrorist groups.

Strategic counterterrorism

Strategic counterterrorism will deny resources, such as finances or base areas, to the terrorists. It will capture, kill, or convert terrorist leaders. There are UN[5] and national procedures for freezing terrorist assets found through financial intelligence; such assets are not only in the international financial system, but in informal value transfer systems and fungible goods such as illicit recreational drugs and blood diamonds. Some sophisticated terrorist groups, and countries using terrorism, have sophisticated clandestine purchasing organizations.

Tactical and operational counterterrorism

Today, many countries have special units designated to handle terrorist threats. Besides various security agencies, there are elite tactical units, also known as special mission units, whose role is to directly engage terrorists and prevent terrorist attacks. Such units perform both in preventive actions, hostage rescue and responding to on-going attacks.

Most of these measures deal with terrorist attacks that affect an area, or threaten to do so. It is far harder to deal with assassination, or even reprisals on individuals, due to the short (if any) warning time and the quick exfiltration of the assassins [6]. Of course, if the assassination is done by a suicide bomber, exfiltration becomes moot..

In some countries, the military may be called in as a last resort. Obviously, for countries whose military are legally permitted to conduct police operations, this is a non-issue, and such counter-terrorism operations are conducted by their military.


Police, fire, and emergency medical response organizations have obvious roles. Local firefighters, and emergency medical personnel (often called "first responders") have plans for mitigating the effects of terrorist attacks, although police may deal with threats of such attacks.


Whatever the target of terrorists, there are multiple ways of hardening the targets to prevent the terrorists from hitting their mark, or reducing the damage of attacks. One method is to place Jersey barrier or other sturdy obstacles outside tall or politically sensitive buildings to prevent car and truck bombing. Aircraft cockpits are kept locked during flights, and have reinforced doors, which only the pilots in the cabin are capable of opening. English train stations removed their waste bins in response to the Provisional IRA threat, as convenient locations for depositing bombs. Scottish stations removed theirs after the 7th of July bombing of London as a precautionary measure. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority purchased bomb-resistant barriers after the 9-11 Attacks.

A more sophisticated target-hardening approach must consider industrial and other critical industrial infrastructure that could be attacked. Terrorists need not import chemical weapons if they can cause a major industrial accident such as the Bhopal disaster or the Halifax explosion. Industrial chemicals in manufacturing, shipping, and storage need greater protection, and some efforts are in progress [7]. To put this risk into perspective, the first major lethal chemical attack in WWI used 160 tons of chlorine. Industrial shipments of chlorine, widely used in water purification and the chemical industry, travel in 90 or 55 ton tank cars.

To give one more example, the North American electrical grid has already demonstrated, in the Northeast Blackout of 2003, its vulnerability to natural disasters coupled with inadequate, possibly insecure, SCADA (system control and data acquisition) networks. Part of the vulnerability is due to deregulation leading to much more interconnection in a grid designed for only occasional power-selling between utilities. A very few terrorists, attacking key power facilities when one or more engineers have infiltrated the power control centers, could wreak havoc

Command and Control

In North America and other continents, for a threatened or completed terrorist attack, the Incident Command System (ICS) is apt to be invoked to control the various services that may need to be involved in the response. ICS has varied levels of escalation, such as might be needed for multiple incidents in a given area (e.g., the 2005 bombings in London or the 2004 Madrid train bombings, or all the way to a National Response Plan invocation if national-level resources are needed. National response, for example, might be needed for a nuclear, biological, radiological, or large chemical attack.

Damage Mitigation

Fire departments, perhaps supplemented by public works agencies, utility providers (e.g., gas, water, electricity), and heavy construction contractors, are most apt to deal with the physical consequences of an attack (or natural disaster) that involves physical destruction.

Against chemical, biological and radiologic weapons and radioactive effects of nuclear weapons, there are two dimensions: decontamination and medical treatment.

Public response

Depending on the nature of the attack, an appropriate public response may be evacuation or sheltering in place. Prior education is important, including first aid and home nursing, which are valuable for natural disaster threats as well. People in areas subject to hurricanes, for example, are advised to have evacuation supplies prepacked, while those in tornado-prone areas need to be self-sufficient in place, including after the loss of utility services.

Again depending on the nature of the threat, some more specific preparations may be in order. Populations downwind of nuclear power plants may be issued potassium iodide tablets, which, in the event of an accidental or deliberate reactor breach, can reduce absorption of radioactive iodine. Israel, for example, issues gas masks to the population, although there were some fatalities during the Gulf War due to improper training, such as suffocation by donning a gas mask but not removing the storage seal on the mask's filter.

Local Security

Again under an incident command model, local police can isolate the incident area, reducing confusion, and specialized police units can conduct tactical operations against terrorists, often using specialized counterterrorist tactical units. Bringing in such units will normally involve civil or military authority beyond the local level.

Medical Services

Emergency medical services will bring the more seriously affected victims to hospitals, which will need to have mass casualty and triage plans in place.

Public health agencies, from local to national level, may be designated to deal with identification, and sometimes mitigation, of possible biological attacks, and sometimes chemical or radiologic contamination.


  1. 1.0 1.1 US Department of Defense (12 July 2007), Joint Publication 1-02 Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms
  2. Metz, Helen Chapin (1988), The Occupied Territories, Israel: A Country Study, Library of Congress
  3. Hanratty, Dennis M. & Sandra W. Meditz (1988), Post-National Front Political Developments, Colombia: A Country Study, Library of Congress
  4. Feiler, Gil (September 2007), The Globalization of Terror Funding, Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, Bar-Ilan University, Mideast Security and Policy Studies No. 74, at 29
  5. Press Release: Security Council Unanimously Adopts Wide-Ranging Anti-Terrorist Resolution; calls for suppressing financing, improving international cooperation;Resolution 1373 (2001) Also Creates Committee to Monitor Implementation, United Nations Security Council, 28 September 2001, SC/7158
  6. Stathis N. Kalyvas (2004). "The Paradox of Terrorism in Civil Wars". Journal of Ethics 8 (1): 97-138.
  7. Weiss, Eric M. (January 11, 2005). D.C. Wants Rail Hazmats Banned: S.C. Wreck Renews Fears for Capital.