Reckoning with the Consequences of Two Decades of Counterterrorism

The 20th anniversary of the September 11th attacks compels the international community to take stock of the past two decades of counterterrorism policy and ask: Have these efforts made us safer, and at what cost?

This opinion piece in The Hill penned by executive director Eelco Kessels reflects on the twenty years since September 11th to underscore the urgency of restoring human rights and centering civil society in global security efforts.

The threat of terrorism today is more diverse, diffuse, and decentralized than ever before. At the same time, the growth of counterterrorism has spurned the unraveling of hard-won human rights protections and democratic norms and the shrinking of civic space. There is no evidence indicating that these restrictions reduce terrorist attacks; quite the opposite, they may in fact help galvanize radicalization and recruitment.

Twenty years after 9/11, the upcoming 76th Session of the United Nations General Assembly in September is sure to be a time for reflection on UN and global efforts to counter terrorism and prevent the spread of violent extremism. However, insights for the upcoming discussions can already be gleaned from the recent negotiations and seventh review of the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy. The seventh review resolution, adopted by the General Assembly on June 30, shows both the progress that has been made since 2001 and reveals the many challenges that still lay ahead. In this Just Security article, Eelco Kessels and Melissa Lefas argue that while the adoption of the seventh review resolution demonstrates a commitment to consensus, a closer inspection reveals significant cracks in the global approach.

Civil society organizations (CSOs) are often more knowledgeable, experienced, and trusted by local communities than governments, and their contributions have been well documented across various aspects of counterterrorism and prevention. As part of a series on the role of the UN system in preventing violent extremism and countering terrorism by the International Peace Institute’s Global Observatory, this article explores the UN’s engagement with civil society and the need for more meaningful and beneficial interactions with CSOs.

Without meaningful civil society engagement, the UN system’s counterterrorism policy, coordination, technical assistance, and advocacy risk causing more harm than good. This article argues that the United Nations needs to take its commitments to civil society seriously and uphold its do-no-harm principles of engagement in the field, which would require transforming the way it works with civil society organizations and consults them as part of counterterrorism and preventing and countering violent extremism policy discussions and programmatic efforts.

Research for this article was conducted as part of the Global Center’s project assessing UN counterterrorism efforts ahead of member states’ biennial review of the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, funded by the governments of the Netherlands, Norway, and Switzerland.

Violent extremism is a key issue on the regional security agenda in East Africa. However, our review of the relevant literature, complemented by original primary research, suggests that the evidentiary baseline regarding violent extremism in East Africa is modest. The existing literature focuses largely on Somalia and Kenya and serves to underscore that mobilization to extremist violence in the region is diverse. These findings have important implications for development actors seeking to advance “countering violent extremism” (or sometimes “preventing violent extremism”) measures in East Africa. Those measures should be variegated across the states in the region. More generally, development actors seeking to advance countering violent extremism measures in East Africa or elsewhere should ensure that their approaches are evidence-based, responsive to the problems they are designed to address, proportional in light of existing development and security priorities, and effective.

The research for this article was conducted as part of the Global Center’s program to produce a rigorous literature review of drivers of radicalization and extremism in Eastern Africa under the East Africa Research Fund of the UK Department for International Development.

This article was published in African Security Volume 11, Issue 2 (2018) pp. 160-180.

Multilateral development actors have recently embraced the ‘PVE’ (preventing violent extremism) agenda. This includes consideration of PVE measures in countries like Uganda, where interpretations of non-state violence are contested and where the government has a history of strategic rent-seeking behavior regarding counter-terrorism assistance. This article assesses the threat of terrorism and violent extremism in Uganda. We argue against a strategic reorientation towards PVE among development actors. Current and emerging threats do not justify a departure from existing development priorities. Importantly, consideration of the political context pertaining to PVE in Uganda commends a cautious approach.

The research for this article was conducted as part of the Global Center’s program to produce a rigorous literature review of drivers of radicalization and extremism in Eastern Africa under the East Africa Research Fund of the UK Department for International Development.

This article was published in Conflict, Security & Development Volume 18, Issues 2 (2018) pp. 159-179.

Over the past decade, counterterrorism policymakers and practitioners have increasingly focused on developing a broader strategic approach that stresses prevention and addresses the enabling environment for terrorism and violent extremism. This article published by the United Nations Association, UK focuses on the potential overlap between countering violent extremism and development assistance, and what the United Nations can do to ensure that actors in both realms mutually benefit from the work they are doing.

As the so-called Islamic State expands its reach and influence, it is evident that many find its narratives and tactics appealing. Countering that appeal and preventing the spread of the group’s violent ideology is essential to its long-term defeat. Partly as an acknowledgment of this fact, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon launched his new plan of action on preventing violent extremism in January. This International Peace Institute Global Observatory piece by Alistair Millar, Executive Director of the Global Center, explores whether the United Nations is equipped to deliver on the Secretary-General’s new plan of action.

The new plan to prevent violent extremism has already drawn some criticism for dwelling too much on what member states ought to do to prevent extremism, rather than offering a concrete plan of action for the United Nation to undertake. However, it does build on a host of initiatives emanating from the UN Security Council and General Assembly over the past decade, and expands the preventive dimension of multilateral activities in this area.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is expected to roll out a plan of action to improve multilateral efforts on countering violent extremism (CVE), or what the United Nations increasingly calls “preventing” violent extremism, known under the acronym PVE. The forthcoming UN plan of action on preventing violent extremism will cap an intense year for new policies and programs in the field, which kicked off during the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism hosted by President Barack Obama and followed up at the opening of the UN General Assembly. The article explores why CVE is more critical than ever and why it is important to differentiate CVE from traditional counterterrorism measures. Looking ahead to discussions among member states and the UN system on a plan of action on CVE, the article encourages states to invest sufficient political capital to ensure that the outcome is best suited to their strategic goals. Overall, the article underscores that CVE measures represent a valuable opportunity to shape more concrete prevention efforts with an urgency that reflects the scale of the challenge.

This workshop discussion paper was presented in November 2014 in Doha at the International Conference on Security and Human Rights in the Arab region hosted by the National Human Rights Committee of Qatar with the support of the Arab Council of Interior Ministers, the General Secretariat of the League of Arab States, the Arab Network for National Human Rights Institutions, and the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The paper was prepared to help foster constructive dialogue between national security agencies and human rights organizations and offers perspectives on linkages across national, community, and individual security, and their common interdependence with the promotion and protection of human rights. It also provides examples of practical measures that can strengthen the governance, accountability, and public service-orientation of the justice and security sector to more effectively promote and protect human rights across the criminal justice chain in collaboration with civil society and local communities.