What is the most significant counterterrorism trend of the 21st century so far?

We decided that constantly reviewing books and articles was getting a bit on the monotonous side, so we decided to look at answering questions to be a bit more thought-provoking and generate a bit more discussion.

We’ve also decided to incorporate the points made at our face-to-face reading groups into the main posts, rather than a separate post.


Considering that counterterrorism has shifted considerably since the beginning of the ‘Global War on Terror’ from being an almost exclusively police affair, with a bit of military support, to having military forces at the forefront of the fight against international terrorism, we thought it was something we needed to think about.


Here’s what we talked about at our reading group, followed by some individual thoughts from members:

  • The larger role of military counterterrorism seems to have been the biggest trend.
  • Anthony Dworkin suggests that military counterterrorism used to be similar to counterinsurgency, where the winning of hearts and minds was as important at neutralising ‘irreconcilable adversaries’. However, due to there being zero political will for boots on the ground in order to carry out the required role in winning hearts and minds, only the targeted killing of irreconcilables can be carried out.
    • This approach of stopping key adversaries, but not having the power, or political will, to affect a societal change in order to eliminate the root causes of terrorism has a parallel with organised crime. Police forces often ‘keep a lid’ on organised crime so that they do not grow too powerful, but cannot eliminate it completely because it is expensive in both manpower, cash, and political backing. Also, the risk that when one organised crime group is removed, other will then fight for their territory, businesses and power can be too great – it seems a similar approach is being taken towards international terrorist groups.


  • The rhetoric of the ‘Global War on Terror’ immediately put Al Qaida and Osama Bin Laden into a war with the US, rather than being seen as criminals. This gives them more perceived power, as they are in a war with the US which gives them a greater platform, and possibly an assumed equal playing field. This doesn’t reflect the truth in that Al Qaeda were, although effective, just a small group of relatively poor and ill-equipped ex-mujahedeen fighters.
  • In terms of language, both Osama Bin Laden, and George W. Bush used very similar rhetoric to persuade people to join their side.


  • The use of the term ‘loser’ for terrorists by President Trump is, although blunt, probably an accurate description for what are often just young disaffected young men with no prospects and no hope – whether through their own failures, or structural difficulties in their societies. This links in with greater global challenges surrounding the role of men in modern societies, which many young men are struggling to deal with.
  • For some of these people, being subject to targeted killing could become a ‘badge of honour’, in that they have managed to make such a mark with their actions that a foreign government is out to kill them.


Profiling and surveillance are two key areas that have seen massive growth in the 21st century. Harnessing cloud computing and big data, these technologies have given law enforcement agencies access to tools that make them more effective and more efficient at what they do.

And yet these technologies come with great risks. The biggest perhaps is an overreliance on technology, and a prevailing sense of confidence that the technology will always come out on top. This technology has also given successive governments an easy method to justify cuts, relying on the greater efficiency of these new systems, while neglecting the need for community engagement and responding to community concerns.

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University


Manhunting/ Kill or Capture. Although these tactics have been around for a long time, they were never the main strategy of fighting the enemy. Yet, in today’s modern counter-terrorist conflicts, it seems that this is all there is. There’s no expansion into counter-insurgency, and trying to win hearts and minds, just the killing of the ‘irreconcilables’. Potentially, the ‘outsourcing’ of the friendly parts of COIN to parts of the state such as DFID make it too great a distance for people to see the link between being nice and not having to fight future wars. Also, the number of aid workers at DFID, rather than defence people mean that the running of international aid could be focussed on helping those in need, rather than those we want to dissuade from becoming adversaries – although this is, of course, a good aim. As long as the military doesn’t do any nation building, and there isn’t the money available for any sort of mass re-building, pure lethality might be the only thing on the table.


Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University


As always, let us know what you think in the comments below, or e-mail us to join the network.

11 thoughts on “What is the most significant counterterrorism trend of the 21st century so far?

  1. With regards to targeted killing, does anyone know why, if we can put guided missiles on a drone, we don’t use some sort of sniper rifle, to reduce collateral damage? Is it a question of technology and cost, or is there something to be said for the ‘terror’ aspect of a hellfire missile?


  2. Hi Mike, this is really interesting and I think could be one of a new of next steps in the evolution of weaponry. As Dapo Akande has said, drones get closer to perfect distinction in combat. Taking it one step further so that only the target will be killed, rather than creating any collateral damage seems like a logical step. I think it must be to do with the fact that bullets cannot be guided after they have been fired, where as missiles can have guidance mechanisms inbuilt, a bullet is subject to the wind without any additional guidance.

    In terms of the ‘terror’ aspect, this could be a factor, but using drones with a primary purpose to spread terror would breach Additional Protocol 1 Art.51(2): ‘Acts or threats of violence the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population are prohibited.’I couldn’t really see this being breached, as of course, the primary purpose of the hellfire missile is to kill, rather than terrorise. Although, as a number of scholars and commentators have noted, people living under drones do often feel terrorised.


    1. That’s a really interesting idea. I’d have to say no. Primarily warfare is about dominating the enemy so that they do what you want them to, so in that sense I would say as mechanisms of violence all weapons are a form of domination. Whether terror is a fundamental part of being dominated, I don’t know.

      To put it in a different context, police armed response units shoot to stop (unless confronted with a suicide bomber), and only do so when absolutely necessary to protect other lives. So in that way, their weapons are forms of protection for those in danger.

      I guess it depends on your perspective on the weapon being used. A civilian subject to bombardment of their home city might well feel terrified of being caught up it a bomb blast. But only those being targeted should feel terrorised as they are the targets, and they are the people essentially being hunted. Although , it would all be quite blurry and confusing in a war zone, no doubt.


      1. There’s an interesting distinction to be made here I think between a weapons function, and its use. You use the police example, but the weapon is still a weapon of war — only the use means that in that context it is being put to use to ‘stop’ (for the most part).

        With regards to terror, it’s interesting that you say ‘only those being targeted should feel terrorised’, but I guess there’s a human rights implication there in that a) you say they should feel terrorised, but really ‘should they’? We try to minimise terror in animals when we ‘sentence them to death’ (i.e. kill them for meat). But also b) they might not be legitimate targets at all. And what about also the collatoral terror of drones constantly hovering overhead, and the terror that that incites? Are we saying then that all foreign citizens ‘should feel terorised’ because any of them could at any point become targets?


  3. But, it only becomes a weapon of war when it is used in war. Admittedly a weapon is always going to be a tool of violence, but it is the purpose of that violence which determines the reason for its use. A weapon of war can simultaneously be a weapon to stop terror, and of protection.

    No, what I meant by ‘should’ is that in a perfect world, only actual members of adversarial forces would be targeted – civilians cannot be the subject of targeting under the law of armed conflict. They can however become collateral damage, so as you mention they could become ‘collaterally terrorised’ as well. I’m sure there has been a move towards evaluating psychological harm as part of collateral damage estimations done by targeteers, but I have to confess it’s not something I’ve looked into.


  4. I suppose we then get into a question of intention vs effect. So is it worse if it’s intended as an act of ‘terror’, or if the effect of the act is to cause terror? What does the law say about this?


    1. Although there isn’t an internationally agreed upon definition of terrorism, the law would focus on the intention behind the act. Even if the effects of the act, rather than the act itself, are intended to cause terror, it’s still the intention that distinguishes terrorism from simple criminality. For example, say a government official was murdered by ISIS in their own home at night with nobody around. The act does not cause terror to the general population, nor to government officials as it is all happening behind closed doors. But, the effect of the act is that once discovered, all government officials are scarred to do their jobs. Whether intended to cause terror through the act, or through it’s effects, the distinguishing factor behind terrorist criminality is it’s intention.


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