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Can Terror Prevention Strategies Backfire?

Do additional security measures at embassies help prevent or encourage terror attacks? Researchers at UAlbany and the University of Houston-Clear Lake examine this question in a new study.

ALBANY, N.Y. (September 1, 2017) – As the fight against ISIS continues to rage across Iraq and Syria, the threats posed by ISIS-linked terrorists remains a top concern among leaders across Europe and the globe.

How do nations protect their citizens from deadly attacks, and is it possible that terrorism prevention strategies can actually increase the risk? These are the central questions posed by criminologists at University of Houston–Clear Lake, and the University at Albany.

Writing in the Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, authors Henda Y. Hsu and David McDowall examine 31 years of terrorism data. The researchers looked at ‘target hardening’ – the work done to strengthen the security of a building or installation against the threat posed by terrorists.

“The idea behind target-hardening is to make an attack either impossible, or not worth the risk to would-be terrorists,” said Hsu, an assistant professor of criminology at the University of Houston–Clear Lake. “The question posed by past terrorism research, though, is are there unintended, harmful consequences that occur elsewhere as a result? Another critical question to ask is whether securing targets affects the lethality of terrorist attacks against protected targets.”

Hsu, who earned his Ph.D. from the University at Albany in 2011, and McDowall, a distinguished teaching professor at the School of Criminal Justice, begin their analysis with the question of whether target hardening engenders greater amounts of casualty attacks against protected targets.

Tsu McDowall researchers
Assistant Professor of Criminology Henda Y. Hsu at the University of Houston-Clear Lake and UAlbany Distinguished Teaching Professor of Criminal Justice David McDowall

“There is the possibility that increasing the effort or risk of attacking potential targets will result in more deadly attacks against the hardened targets, as terrorists may seek more forceful means to overcome security measures to successfully strike the target,” continued Hsu.

To that end, the study investigated whether an increase in aviation security and fortification of US diplomatic targets resulted in more casualty attacks (i.e. terrorist incidents with at least one confirmed non-terrorist casualty) against these hardened targets.  The authors found that the attacks did not become deadlier. 

“While our study‘s time period is from 1970 to 2001 and specifically examines the protection of aviation and U.S. diplomatic targets, target-hardening strategies aimed at protecting a variety of targets and public locations from attacks continue to be a common response to the threats of terrorism today,” said Hsu.

Security teams must review all possible avenues for defending targets, including, physical and technological barriers, or positioning of security personnel. Additionally, understanding the consequences of installing protective measures is equally important. Will terrorists seek out less-protected targets, or still try to attack high profile locations to increase ‘rewards’ by maximizing casualties.

“Thus, our research question pertaining to unintended harmful consequences remains a relevant and meaningful inquiry for current anti-terrorism efforts,” said Hsu.

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