Terrorism and Homeland Security
Congressional Newsletter
Quarterly updates to Congress on RAND's work in Terrorism and Homeland Security


National preparedness month emphasizes the continuing need for readiness in the face of any form of emergency, be it natural or manmade. Over the past year, RAND researchers have worked to help policymakers think about and prepare for emergencies. Much of that research has focused on public health preparedness and, in particular, on planning for a flu pandemic. A complete list of RAND emergency preparedness and response research can be found at www.rand.org/topics/emergency-preparedness/.

READ THE FACT SHEET: A Step Forward in Accountability for Public Health Emergency Preparedness: Developing Standards for Mass Antibiotic Dispensing

READ THE RESEARCH HIGHLIGHT: Are Communities Ready to Conduct Rapid and Large-Scale Dispensing of Medications During a Public Health Emergency?

READ THE COMMENTARY: Swine Flu: A Real Security Threat

Why Do Terrorist Operations Succeed or Fail?

masked terrorist, photo courtesy of www.topnews.in

For homeland security and counterterrorism planning to be as effective as possible, policymakers must understand why some terrorist attacks succeed and others fail. Numerous past research efforts have sought to identify factors that shape why some terrorist operations go as planned and others break down. While a focus on identifying such factors can provide insights, it does not yield a comprehensive picture; there is a need for a clear, overarching framework for assessing how the many variables and factors that might correlate with or affect the outcomes of terrorist operations relate to and influence one another.

Delving into the literature on the topic, RAND Corporation researchers have constructed such a framework. The researchers contend that the success or failure of a past terrorist operation—or the likelihood that a future attack will succeed—can be best understood by thinking about the match or mismatch among three key sets of characteristics: (1) terrorist group capabilities and resources, (2) the requirements of the operation it attempted or is planning to attempt, and (3) the relevance and reliability of security countermeasures. For a terrorist attack to have the greatest chance of success, there needs to be a match between its capabilities and resources and the operational requirements of the attack it is seeking to carry out and a mismatch of security countermeasures and intelligence/investigative efforts with both the group and its plans.

They conclude that the framework has several elements of value. First, organizing thinking in this way gets beyond analyzing factors in isolation to focus on key relationships; in many cases, it is the nature of the relationship—rather than the absolute values of any of the factors—that truly contributes to a terrorist attack proceeding its authors planned. This is important for developing accurate threat assessments because focusing on factors rather than relationships could lead to either artificially high or low assessments of the threat posed by a terrorist group.

Second, focusing on these sets of matches and mismatches provides a more systematic way of thinking about how different classes of security measures align or do not align to different types of threats. The search for certain mismatches between protective measures and possible attack operations is a traditional part of vulnerability-based threat assessment, but combining thinking about how a specific attack team might or might not overmatch a guard force of known capability with a consideration of how well passive measures do or do not match those same threats provides a more integrated approach to protective planning.

Finally, identifying mismatches between a group's capabilities and what is known about its intentions may also provide clues to security organizations about what activities to watch for in the future. A significant mismatch (if it has been recognized by the group) would suggest the need for more pre-attack preparation on the terrorists' part to reduce the shortfall, potentially creating additional opportunities to detect and disrupt their activities.

READ THE OCCASIONAL PAPER: Understanding Why Terrorist Operations Succeed or Fail

Forthcoming: What Are the Policy Dimensions of Cyberwar?

As long as nations rely on computer networks as a foundation for their military power and as long as such computer networks are accessible to the outside, they are at risk from enemy operations. Although such threats are real, does that mean that cyberspace is a domain—like air and space—that can be controlled in any meaningful sense of the word or that can realistically alter the military balance of power? A RAND Corporation study seeks to answer that question, focusing on the policy dimensions of cyberwar: what it means, what it entails, and whether it is possible to deter others from resorting to it.


Christopher Nelson

Christopher Nelson

Christopher Nelson is a senior political scientist at RAND. Nelson is currently leading a set of projects to develop performance evaluation systems and operational standards for responses to large-scale public health emergencies (e.g., pandemic influenza and bioterrorism). Other recent projects in the area of public health preparedness have focused on applications of quality improvement methods to rare-event phenomena, the role of intergovernmental structure in preparedness, and strategies for designing program guidance. He holds an M.A. and Ph.D. in political science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a B.A. summa cum laude from the University of Minnesota.

Read more about Mr. Nelson »


Christopher Nelson and Edward Chan will present The H1N1 Pandemic: Lessons Learned from the Cities Readiness Initiative on September 14, 2009, at 1:00 p.m. in Room 203 SVC Capitol Visitor Center. For more information contact Kristy Anderson at kristy_anderson@rand.org or (703) 413-1100, ext. 5196.


Lindsey Kozberg
Vice President, Office of External Affairs

Shirley Ruhe
Director, Office of Congressional Relations

Carmen Ferro
Homeland Security Legislative Analyst

RAND Office of Congressional Relations
(703) 413-1100 x5395


More Congressional Resources on Terrorism

More Congressional Resources on Homeland Security

Terrorism and Homeland Security Research Area

RAND Congressional Web Site

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