Since quiet or unreported counterterrorism programs are impossible to evaluate in real-time, they subsequently have little salience in policy debates. On the other hand, drone strikes that occur in plain sight, or widely reported special operation raids, are unmistakable and treated as privileged sources of data for evaluating counterterrorism policies. But while there are three databases that provide estimates of U.S. targeted killing operations and casualties, there is none for covert "influence" operations or for the application of financial tools.
Bear in mind that even counterterrorism operations that we "know" occurred are shrouded in mystery and motivated misinformation. U.S. civilian officials routinely tout the supposed near-infallibility of drones, and their preference for them over massive ground invasions. Meanwhile, targeted groups seek to publicize and promote alleged civilian casualties to magnify grievances among impacted local populations, and to garner support and sympathy from neutral third-parties. Furthermore, we now know (based upon U.S. intelligence community estimates of drone strikes in Pakistan) that even the CIA does not always know who is being targeted, or how many people have been killed.
Successful terrorist attacks can also be marshaled as evidence for the strength of a terrorist organization. The Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist attack against U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya, was believed to demonstrate that "al Qaeda types are really on steroids," by Sen. Lindsay Graham, and "much stronger than they were a year ago," by terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman. But, even such well-documented attacks can result in conflicting interpretations. Thus, the recent al-Shabab massacre on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, was either "an effort to send a message to the rest of the world that they're still around," said Rep. Schiff, or proof that "They're not on the decline. They're on the rise," as claimed by Sen. Tom Coburn.
There are scores of major, multi-year counterterrorism operations going on around the world, just as there committed terrorists plotting to conduct international attacks. However, few terrorism or counterterrorism activities ever come to light, and even when those activities do, they usually lack the specificity or comprehensiveness to assess their overall impact. Given this reality of such uncertainty, when thinking about the phenomenon of terrorism, we should be conscious about how little we really know, and refrain from over-interpreting those few public events that appear in the news.