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.