Strife Series on Counterterrorism and Human Rights, Part IV – Balances, trade-offs and divisions of labour in the strategy of countering terrorism

By: Samir Puri

Perhaps a division of labour will arise, in which the credible agents of countering violent extremism will be within society itself

Balance. It takes just one word to convey the strategic essence of a national effort against terrorism. Trade-offs are inherent in its implementation. Policy responses to terrorism rest on tough judgement calls. One such dilemma is that of potential intrusion into privacy in order to boost the reach of security agencies. This debate has been indelibly shaped by the coincidence of 9/11 occurring at the dawn of the information revolution. The age of mass casualty suicide terrorism and the age of massive data arrived in quick succession. Their juxtaposing has indelibly shaped 21st-century counterterrorism debates.

Contrastingly, the dilemma of human rights infractions occurring in the pursuit of security has perhaps more continuity with the past. Amartya Sen pointed out the contrast between ‘national security’ and ‘human security’. The security interests of people are not necessarily always synonymous with that of the state. The UN declaration of human rights, adopted in 1948, in which “everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”, remains a vital coda to the horrors of the wars that it followed. Its relevance to the age of mass casualty terrorist attacks is ground that is being explored with every passing day.

The tension is relatively straightforward to explain. The ‘softer’ responses to terrorism that, for example, reassure alienated populations to reduce their vulnerability to recruitment by terrorists, unfold concurrently with ‘harder’ security responses against the terrorists themselves. This juxtaposition is inescapable. As is the friction, incoherence and provocation that follows its wake.

Phillip Bobbitt, in Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-First Century, contends that the relationship between law and strategy had to adapt to the unique exigencies of the modern terror threat. Bobbitt takes it seriously that: “the objective of these wars is not the conquest of territory or the silencing of any particular ideology but rather to secure the environment necessary for states of consent and to make it impossible for our enemies to impose or induce states of terror”.

Counterterrorism (CT) is the basis of the response. In an age in which terrorism is so often aimed at soft civilian targets, whether in the Paris attacks of November 2015, or the New Year’s Day massacre in Istanbul, stopping an attack that is already underway often means that it is already too late. Intelligence-led investigative efforts by the security forces must try to pre-empt the plotters and conspirators before their attack plans reach fruition. This is an incredibly difficult art to achieve with consistency.

But it is vital to get right, both for human security and for privacy. Imagine the horrors facing a country that experiences a brace of mass casualty terror attacks: suicide bombers and marauding gun attacks, one after the other, striking several cities over the course of days. The urgency of the security imperative to respond to murder on such a scale could tip the balance towards becoming a police state.

Indeed, Orwell’s ‘1984’ retains its relevance in the modern age of terrorism precisely for painting its vivid picture of a dystopian police state. Absolute security requires reaching into the minds of citizens. Nobody would want the thought crimes, the torture and the mass imprisonment that might accompany such an expansive programme to root out of enemies of the state.

The balance to be struck is, therefore, the critical matter. It is also highly subjective, given that it is dependent on the nature and severity of the threat that a country faces, as well as its legal and humanitarian norms. Turkey is a case in point. Over the course of 2016, Turkey’s government has – unwisely perhaps – waged war against the Islamic State (IS) while renewing its war with the Kurdish Workers Party (PPK). In attack after attack, IS has tended to strike civilian targets, while attacks claimed by the PKK affiliate TAK have often struck the security forces. And, after a failed coup by disgruntled members of the state apparatus, the government has clamped down on the multitude of threats it faces with an uncompromising response involving mass arrest, detention and allegedly torture.

The tendency towards overreaction is inherently tied to the human instinct for revenge, as well as a succumbing to fear. These tendencies are part of the human condition and, as result, contribute to political realities. What unfolds in one country can be unfathomable to even its closest allies. Guantanamo Bay, in which terrorist suspects are interred within the confines of America’s Cuban naval base, is a testament to the loss of legitimacy that flows from detaching the immediacy of security objectives from law.  Set up in the haze of outrage that followed 9/11, now former US President Obama has failed to close the facility. In a worrying portent, Turkey incarcerated PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan on a prison island in the Mamara Sea in 1999 – and there he still remains today. The UN declaration on human rights implores that: “all are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law”. What to do with captured terrorists, actual or suspected, remains a burning issue.

Respect of human rights is intrinsic to the response to terrorism. CT should always be the preserve of the government. On the spectrum of responses to terrorism, CT denotes the most securitized and invasive. Pursuit, arrest or – in extremis – forceful action to restrain or injure, ought to be directed only at those who are mounting terrorist attacks. Ought is the relevant word here. Mistakes and miscalibration can occur as the security forces contend with plotters and attackers who prepare their attacks in secret. Every mistake can add fuel to the terrorist cause by eroding human dignity.

Countering violent extremism (CVE), called preventing violent extremism by the UN, starts from the other end of the response spectrum. It is aimed at dissuading those who might be vulnerable to the attraction of extremist rhetoric from setting down a path that could lead to terrorist violence. Perhaps a division of labour will arise, in which the really credible agents of CVE will be within society itself. Not to police itself, nor for people to spy on each other, but for the people of the polity to exercise the very courageous restraint expected from the security forces, and to reject the attitudinal pulls of extremist ideologies. Civil society organisations may well be the more credible transmitters of the societal response to terrorism than governments. Such is one possible division of labour.

To think seriously about responding to terrorism is to reject absolute positions. To argue that democratic ideals are sacrosanct in all instances is to ignore the complexity of the security effort required to disrupt terrorist plots. Conversely, to argue for an unfettered security response is to ignore how delicate the ideals of democratic state and society are. And there the debate sits; along a scale that awkwardly tips first in one direction and then in the other, reflecting a perpetual and irresolvable tension.


Dr Samir Puri is a lecturer in International Relations at King’s College London. He has researched and written extensively on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, international security, as well as diplomacy and peace processes. His most recent book is called Fighting and Negotiating with Armed Groups: the Difficulty of Securing Strategic Outcomes.


Image source: https://www.pexels.com/photo/people-walking-on-gray-pavement-42384/

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