Have counter-terrorist strategies worked since 9/11?

Comment: By Junaed Khan

The events of 9/11 marked a watershed moment in how the United States viewed terrorism. The American sense of invincibility was lost with the symbolic shift into an ‘Age of Terror’ following a decade of unipolarity.

The Bush administration placed Al-Qaeda in the same regards as what the mafia is to crime’. With Western concepts of security relying on shocks for its development, conventional wisdom dictated that a post 9/11 world requires new  strategies to manage the threat. Counter-terrorist strategies have taken multiple narratives to deal with the threat of terrorism.

The idea adopted by the Bush administration was that only a powerful, centralised threat can harm a powerful country like the USA. This led to the adoption of strategies that viewed terrorism as a linear challenge.

Muslim countries were seen by Bin Laden as being besieged by Islam’s historical enemies; the Jews and the Christians, and sought to regain the land loss by Muslims during the height of the Caliphate. The ideology of Al-Qaeda draws its dual heritage from Wahhabi and extremist Egyptian groups that sought to reestablish religious order, sharia and self-reliance of the Ummah (united Islamic social entity) by employing multiple doctrines of Jihad.

Establishing these goals required distributed cells of activity on a global scale. By establishing several territorial refuges around the world, the organisation will have a greater likelihood of success with terrorist tactics. Although international terrorist organisations can use the sanctuary of isolated states to launch terrorist operations, this does not disregard states as sponsors of terrorism.

The IRA and Colonel Gaddafi were known to have had a mutually beneficial relationship dating back to 1973 as both had a common enemy. The former were under pressure from the UK for causing social unrest and the latter were under US retaliatory attacks in 1986-87 after Libyan-sponsored terrorists killed American soldiers in Germany.

The idea that states would sponsor terrorism is an aspect that has been noted in counter-terrorism measures utilising  military operations. The first step would be to clarify the areas in the world where terrorism is harboured. After the event of 9/11, the Bush administration swiftly pressured neutral states to adopt a clear position through the ultimatum;“either you are with us or you are against us”.

The role of special forces was vindicated by the killing of Osama bin Laden. Surveillance technology meant greater precision for the special operatives to quickly complete the mission and allowed Obama to claim a symbolic achievement that eluded the previous administration.

9/11 drew a distinction to old terrorism and new terrorism in which the former were looking to bargain; while the latter wanted to create a spectacle of violence and was framed in cosmic, existential terms. The narrative of terrorism defined by the US administrations has allowed success to be measured in the deaths of terrorist combatants. The ability to focus on regions of the world that facilitate terrorist activities and systematically eliminating its members has claimed quantifiable achievements, most notable being the death of figureheads like Bin Laden.

The counter-terrorism strategies that focus on the decentralised nature of  modern groups  places greater emphasis on preventing and disrupting activity. States can prevent terrorists by disrupting their ability to evade state laws across territorial borders. This norm is not respected by “clandestine transnational actors” (CTAs) that violate international laws and act across territorial boundaries. Cross-border links have been accelerated by: internationalization and liberalisation of market products, financial mobility, and technology. States can also disrupt terrorist networks by working with Muslim countries to counter terrorism. As many Muslim countries that experience terrorism often feel marginalised and powerless within international society, they provide the political space for extremists to capitalise on the situation.

Transnational terrorist organisations can operate on a local level and on a global level across Islamic countries through affiliated Islamist organisations that are connected through the perspective of a global Ummah. The internet has further extended the scale and reach of the terrorist organisations in connecting these Muslim-majority areas such as Palestine and Afghanistan, with the respective states lacking the political and technological capabilities to deal with the developing networks.

Western states need to change the perception of neo-colonialism and enfranchise the moderate Islamists that opt for non-violence. When Western powers assisted demonstrators during the Arab Spring in regions such as Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, peaceful protesters were able to achieve political change in 23 days what Al-Qaeda could not achieve in 23 years.

On the other hand, it can also be argued that Islamists can be more dangerous to international security if they hold state power. Transnational Islamist links can be reinforced with state capabilities and not abide by international behaviour.

Iran has historically supported Hezbollah on religious and ideological grounds, as well as pursuing a nuclear programme that threatens regional stability. Even if the regime defines itself as moderate, it can still utilise Islamism as a political mobilising force, distinct from terrorism in the name of Islam.

Conventional discourses on counterterrorism that dictates the military approach only go as far as examining the precipitating conditions of terrorism and hardly look at the more long-term factors. The problem also lies in the transnational nature of modern terrorism that makes state strategy ineffective as even the US will have to rely on international support to cover the global scope of the threat.

The following decade after 9/11 has experienced two countervailing trends as successes abroad have been offset by growing concerns about terrorist operations on the home front. From 2006 to 2008, only two per cent of victims were from the West with the remaining 98 per cent were inhabitants of countries with Muslim majorities. It has caused terrorist activities to become less successful outside the West as public support in Muslim countries is slipping.

The “Sunni Awakening” saw local Sunni leaders and media support the US’s fight against Al-Qaeda. A similar trend of anti-terror disposition from the public is occurring in Pakistan, with a poll indicating that the majority strongly oppose suicide bombing. The West has capitalised on the shifting perception within Muslim countries by supporting states to tackle the threat in their countries.

Top leaders also joined in the counter-terrorism efforts, with the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia issuing a fatwa in October 2007 that prohibited joining Al-Qaeda. Islamic terrorism has however shifted downwards and sideways by radicalising home-grown terrorists to carry out amateur attacks within Western soil.

The conventional assumption posited by the media and government blame ideology, alienation, influence and the internet as the causes of radicalisation. A cultural narrative is also popularised with ‘Muslim culture’ being at odds with ‘traditional British values’ that is exacerbated with immigration policies as a security issue. But these factors alone do not inspire an individual to carry out terrorism within the West as radicalisation happens when these feelings are capitalised on by terrorist groups like Hizb-ut-Tahrir.

The disenfranchised individuals are offered a solution through the feelings of fraternal bonds and gradually accept the glorification of Jihad and martyrdom. The 7/7 attacks reinforced the possibility of a community based approach to deal with the threat of radicalisation. The UK government established ‘Preventing Extremism Together’ (PET) to help fund community-led strategies, investing £134 million more in 2008 than its initial funding in 2006 in the aftermath of the terrorist attack. A multi-faceted community approach seeks to deal with a wide section of radicalisation. The ideological moral high ground is maintained with the legitimacy of the community to gain confidence in the approaches. Terrorists that are integrated in certain communities can be noted by locals to the police under the “suspect it, report it” ethos.

Communities reach their full potential by having a mutual trusting relationship between state agencies and communities, in return for local government to be efficient and transparent.

The aftermath of 9/11 has created responses to tackle with the threat of Islamic Terrorism. The counter-terrorism strategy with the narrative created by the Bush administration is fixated on viewing the threat as a military struggle. Success is mostly drawn on the quantifiable evidence such as deaths of terrorists and dealing with the immediate threat posed by hostile insurgents.

Although this approach alone does not deal with the more long-term issues and actually creates a counter-productive war of attrition. The use of Western military personnel and equipment has created a climate of tension and disdain that can be capitalised on by terrorist recruiters; the death of one combatant may inadvertently create more terrorists.

Strategies that approach terrorism as a network succeed by intercepting and disrupting terrorist capabilities. This can be done by restricting movement with state border controls, as well as hindering the logistics of finance and communication. Greater success can be achieved by collaborating with Muslim countries to disrupt terrorist organisations by empowering political groups that oppose terrorism.

For counter-terrorism to work in the long-run, there will need to be approaches that deal with the ideological aspects. This means winning the hearts and minds of relevant demographics  through learning, and getting to know the people, understand local contexts and allied organisations.

The limitations of each strategy can be compensated with another to create a more effective counter-terrorism stratagem that operates across multiple timeframes and issues. The militaristic and network orientated strategies can work to deal with terrorism within a short to medium time frame and deal with the more immediate threats, while the ideological strategies would assist a more long-term goal of changing perceptions and attitudes.

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