Our reckoning with the consequences of two decades of counterterrorism

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The approaching 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 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? An honest reckoning with the consequences for human rights, civic space and human security demands a new approach that prioritizes nonviolent, inclusive security solutions.

The grim reality is that the past decade has been marked by the greatest surge in terrorist activity of the past 50 years. The Taliban again control Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda and other Islamist terrorist organizations are emboldened after the U.S.’ chaotic withdrawal. Despite battlefield successes in Iraq and Syria, ISIS affiliates remain active across the Middle East, Africa and Asia. And domestically, white supremacist and ethno-nationalist terrorism has seen a steep rise in the United States as well as across Western Europe and elsewhere. 

Twenty years after 9/11, the threat of terrorism is more diverse, diffuse and decentralized than ever before.

International terrorism rocketed to the top of the security agenda post 9/11 — resulting in an ever-expanding international legal framework, significant investments in new domestic government agencies and programs, and a multiplicity of military interventions around the world. The U.S. and its allies have sunk trillions of dollars into combatting terrorism, with the U.S. government now conducting counterterrorism activities in some 85 countries.

Efforts to internationalize the counterterrorism agenda via the United Nations and other multilateral platforms have generated reams of new legal obligations for states along with an alphabet soup of international counterterrorism bodies. Despite those efforts, there is still no universally agreed upon definition of terrorism, which leaves states wide latitude in determining whom they consider a terrorist.

Faced with the challenges of securing military victory against a disperse and undefined threat, the counterterrorism community adopted softer approaches aimed at preventing and countering violent extremism. At their best, those efforts seek to engage communities to help prevent or interrupt the radicalization and recruitment. In practice, many initiatives have contributed to the marginalization and stigmatization of minority communities. In the U.S. and Europe over the last two decades, programs to prevent and counter violent extremism have almost exclusively targeted Muslim and immigrant communities.

The normalization of exceptional legal and administrative measures to counter terrorism has emboldened many governments to violate fundamental rights under the pretense of countering “terrorism.” From arresting Saudi Arabian women who demand the right to drive to prosecuting journalists and other “dissidents” in the Philippines as terrorists, repressive governments use terrorism laws to crack down on domestic opponents and justify arbitrary arrests, killings and other extrajudicial actions.

The proliferation of counterterrorism and programs to prevent and counter violent extremism — including those that address the financing of terrorism — has fueled the securitization of civil society, with national security invoked to target activists, muzzle the media and otherwise trample basic civil liberties. As a whole, 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. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the inequity and injustice upon which our social, economic and political systems are built. Mis- and dis-information about the virus, coupled with nationalist and xenophobic tendencies, are fanning the flames of conspiracy theories and hate. Authoritarian and democratically elected governments alike have retooled counterterrorism measures in the name of coronavirus response to expand extraordinary powers, many with significant implications for fundamental rights and freedoms — from banning protests to cancelling elections. 

As the head of an organization that was borne out of the conviction that reactive security measures alone would not address the root causes of violent extremism, I am familiar with the cumulative harms of counterterrorism and the efforts of programs to prevent and counter violent extremism. On this inauspicious anniversary, and considering the consequences of the U.S.’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, we must confront the damage wrought by the counterterrorism agenda. If these trends continue, counterterrorism efforts risk further fueling grievances, radicalization and violence. Three key principles should guide a rebalanced approach going forward. 

First, we should avoid the exceptionalization of terrorism, as it has engendered extraordinary government powers and the abuse of counterterrorism policy. Rather than persist as siloed operations, counterterrorism measures must be better integrated in broader peace, security and development efforts that tackle the root causes of the phenomenon.

Second, responses must be locally driven, community-based, gender- and age-sensitive and inclusive of a broad range of stakeholders. Civil society actors, often best placed to address the drivers of violent extremism and prevent radicalization and recruitment, need the resources and support to realize their critical roles and inform policy and practice. 

Finally, human rights and human security — not state security — should be centered in all counterterrorism efforts, prioritizing appropriate, proportionate criminal justice and socioeconomic responses over repressive actions.  

If left unchecked, the erosion of human rights, the growing chasm between counterterrorism policy and the realities facing affected communities and the broader securitization of everyday life will only become more acute. These realities underpin the urgency of a new model of security that foregrounds human rights, trust and citizen engagement. 

Eelco Kessels is executive director of the Global Center on Cooperative Security, a nonprofit organization that works towards a more just and secure world by addressing the root causes of violent extremism.

Tags Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism counterterrorism Definition of terrorism Global Center on Cooperative Security Global Counterterrorism Forum Radicalization Terrorism Violent extremism

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