Comment & analysis

Counter-terrorism: who will act on evidence in 2018?

16 January 2018 Jordan Street and Murray Ackman Counter-terrorism: who will act on evidence in 2018?

The evidence that mainstream counter-terror strategies need a rethink is crystal clear. Will 2018 be the year decision-makers begin taking it seriously? The failure of current counter-terror strategies – in countries like Afghanistan, Egypt, Somalia, Yemen and Syria – is painfully obvious. Reducing the global threat of terrorism will not happen with a doubling down on past approaches, but instead requires a strategic focus on resolving conflict by addressing its causes.

Terrorism has spread into more countries since the ‘war on terror’ began: and while we saw a temporary decrease in the overall deaths from terrorism, evidence shows that for the first time ever, two out of three countries experienced a terror attack in 2016.

While terror attacks in Britain, Europe, and the US have dominated news cycles and political debates worldwide, three-quarters of terror attacks occur in just five countries – Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan and Syria. The Institute of Economics and Peace’s Global Terrorism Index shows that countries in the Global South remain on the sharpest end of the terror threat with a 67 per cent increase in attacks in 2016 and a nearly six-fold increase in deaths between 2014 and 2016.

There are countless examples of how international counter-terror and stabilisation strategies exacerbate the drivers of conflict. The US and UK continue to arm – and diplomatically cover – the Saudi-led coalition in its bid to reinstate the Government of Yemen, precipitating a devastating humanitarian crisis and further destabilising the wider Gulf region. Early in 2016, we reported on how the Western-backed Saudi intervention was worsening the conflict and enabling groups like Al-Qaeda and Islamic State (ISIS) to transform and grow within Yemen. Yet the indiscriminate aerial bombardment and blockade of Yemen drag on.

Western actors continue to act based on superficial understanding – relying on untrustworthy partners. In August last year US forces in Somalia were seemingly manipulated by one side of a clan conflict to target the other side, under the pretext that they were al-Shabaab. This resulted in a disastrous counter-terrorism operation in which many civilians were killed, and this in turn appears to have motivated the car bomb attack in Mogadishu in October that killed over five hundred people.

The physical elimination of terrorist fighters remains front and centre in many counter-terror strategies, despite the poor track record of military action in bringing conflicts and violent movements to an end. In places supposedly ‘cleared’ of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the lack of reconstruction initiatives is offering fertile ground for violent actors to regroup within a society long brutalised and now abandoned. A comprehensive strategy to address the conditions that gave rise to the likes of al-Qaeda, ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra and its successors is still glaringly absent.

Fear of blowback does not appear to alter policies. Huge quantities of Western arms have fallen into the hands of ISIS, al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda and armed groups in Yemen. Yet foreign governments continue to pour weapons into volatile regions to back unpredictable allies in dangerous ways. Currently American weapons are being channelled into countries like Lebanon – despite its obvious vulnerability to future instability that could result in them being diverted and falling into the wrong hands.

It is high time for such counter-productive international counter-terror approaches to be consigned to the dustbin of history. Decision-makers and leaders need a new game-plan to halt the upward trend in violence and to stop making the same strategic mistakes. Ultimately, the current strategy benefits only arms companies, politicians who try to look tough on terrorism, and violent groups themselves.

Research shows that in almost every case, the prevalence of terror attacks is closely tied to an increase in political unrest and conflict, yet Western actors continue to embrace allies who are part of the problem. In 2016, the Global Terrorism Index shows that 99 per cent of all deaths from violent attacks associated with terror and 96 per cent of all attacks globally occurred in countries that were both involved in an armed conflict and had high levels of political terror.

A recent study by the United Nations Development Programme shows that counter-terrorism strategies and overzealous militarised responses have led to distrust in government institutions and alienation in segments of the population. In interviews with over 500 former violent group members in Kenya, Nigeria, Somalia, and Sudan, 71 per cent of respondents affirmed that ‘government action’ was the tipping point for them to join a violent group.

If international leaders are genuinely interested in reducing the threat of terrorism around the world, their strategies should focus on resolving conflict by addressing its causes. Successful counter-terror strategies would focus on preventing abuses by security forces, challenging and improving weak or corrupt governance, supporting equitable access to services, protecting and empowering civil society, and investing in peace and reconstruction processes in which conflict-affected people and societies are supported to lead.

When counter-terrorism approaches are replaced by more comprehensive peace strategies – real results can be achieved. In Garissa County in Kenya, which has suffered terribly from terror attacks, a 2017 study highlighted the positive impacts of a new strategy that tackled abuses by security forces and restored trust and partnership with the population – leading to a marked decline in attacks and improved perceptions of security.

Until we recognise that becoming secure in the West paradoxically depends on focusing strategy on the problems conflict-affected people see as most important, we are unlikely to see real change. Western security cannot be achieved at the expense of others. Unless we reframe strategy based on this understanding, as Global Terrorism Index data shows, communities living in conflict-affected and fragile countries will continue to suffer the most – but the blowback will increasingly impact OECD members.

Casualties from terror attacks have risen more than seven-fold since the ‘war on terror’ began. The mounting pressure on leaders to act fast and achieve results makes it harder to adopt the smart, long-term solutions the problem requires. But if we are serious about a desire to tackle the issue of terrorism, leaders need to reflect on why we are failing and forge better foreign and domestic policies.  If not, the threat of terrorism at home and abroad will persist and grow in coming years.

A version of this article first appeared on LobeLog.

Photo: Alisdare Hickson/Flickr