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The Big View- May 2013

NGOs and the Containment Approach to Counter-Terrorism

By Nick Sitter and Tom Parker


Terrorism, as Walter Laqueur observed in his 1997 book Terrorism – tends to come in waves. So does counter-terrorism. Each of the four waves of terrorism commonly identified in the academic literature – elaborated by David C. Rapoport in a series of articles – prompted its own response by the states that were targeted. Our recent research – forthcoming in Global Policy as “Fighting Fire with Water: NGO and Counter-Terrorism Policy Tools” – explores the link between types of terrorism, state’s perception of the threat and the elaboration of counter-terrorism policy; as well as the role NGOs and international organisations can and do play in fighting terrorism.

Counter-terrorism policy tools reflect both the threat itself and how government interprets it. Historically, governments have seen usually terrorism as a crime, a security threat or part of a broader political campaign. Accordingly they have developed counter-terrorism policies based on law enforcement, military and diplomatic responses. International organisations have long played a supplementary role. However, until recently, NGOs have played a much smaller part. With the rise of ‘sacred terror’ some states have turned their focus on the propaganda element of terrorism, and developed ‘containment strategies’ that aim at managing and marginalising the threat. It is here that NGOs have distinct advantages.

Nineteenth Century anarchist and revolutionary terrorism – the first wave – was perceived primarily as a criminal threat. Terrorist tactics were based on ‘propaganda by the deed’ and ‘philosophy of the bomb’: assassinations included Tsar Alexander II, French President Carnot, Spanish Prime Minister Canovas, Empress Elizabeth of Austria-Hungary, King Umberto of Italy and US President McKinley. States assigned the problem to their police forces, from the Special Irish Branch of the Metropolitan Police to the Okhrana – the Tsarist secret police. Formal international cooperation took shape when the 1889 Rome Anti-Anarchist Conference established extradition procedures, common definitions of crimes and forensic cooperation. Interpol followed in 1923.

The second wave – nationalist and anti-colonial terrorism – was experienced more as a military and political challenge, and assigned to the armed forces or colonial police. The tools of diplomacy and negotiation were also invoked: Irish Home Rule had been debated in parliament for three decades by the 1916 Easter Rising; terrorism in the British-administered Palestinian Mandate took place in a political context that owed much to agreements and promises dating to the First World War. The end of these campaigns, as well as the modern terrorist campaigns in Northern Ireland and Spain, included a broader political settlement.

The third wave elicited a refined law-enforcement response. Innovations on the terrorist side included the ‘urban guerrilla’ tactics of the Red Brigades and Red Army Faction, inspired by left-wing Latin American militias. Most European states responded by strengthening criminal law, e.g. with new rules for detention, interrogation and prosecution, and special judicial and police units. European cross-border cooperation was strengthened in the form of the TREVI group and the Club of Berne forum for senior intelligence and security officials: the 1977 the European Convention on the Suppression of Terrorism eliminated the political offence exemption often used by to avoid extradition.

The fourth wave – ‘sacred terrorism’ – has drawn a wide range of policy responses. Most European states have aimed to reduce terrorism’s political salience and undermine its ideology and legitimacy. Although state-sponsored ‘counter narratives’ date back to earlier waves, it is in response to the third and fourth waves that containment has become a counter-terrorisms strategy in its own right. Terrorism is increasingly seen as a problem to be contained, and eliminated in the long term, through perseverance and addressing its social context. It is in this context – the age of ‘network’ or ‘franchise’ terrorism – that NGOs have a strong potential.

Although human rights-oriented NGOs rarely have the capacity to contribute much to military, law enforcement or diplomatic strategies to address terrorism, they have some distinct advantages in terms of the tools of containment. It is precisely because they operate in a space outside state control that NGOs have access to a set of policy tools that complement, albeit without design, those of states and international organisations. NGOs are particularly well-suited to combating network-type terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda and its franchises because such groups depend on a diffuse base of support held together by a powerful unifying narrative that is able to go unchallenged by alternative narratives in key constituencies.

Most fourth-wave terrorism groups are political entities that depend on the support of a section of the population – ‘complicit surround’. Like any other political actor, they have to pay close attention to the views of their constituents. By offering alternate narratives of change, NGOs can chip away at the complicit surround that terror groups require for their survival. When groups such as Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan lose touch with the values of its supporters – as in the case of its attempt to kill the schoolgirl women’s rights activist Malala Yousufzai in October 2012 – civil society organisations can offer an alternate path.

The development of new social media has made terrorist narratives more accessible to public contestation. By promoting human rights language and values in communities from which terrorists seek to draw support, civil society groups can reshape the linguistic and political landscape in which terrorist groups operate. Some terrorist groups have already engaged in human rights-based dialogues with civil society actors. Examples include Geneva Call’s work to educate armed non-state actors on international human rights law and persuade them to comply with these international standards, and Human Rights Watch’s dialogue in Columbia with FARC on child soldiers.

Finally, the dehumanization of ‘the other’ is an essential precursor to the sustained use of violence. As Ulrike Meinhof put it: “Of course we say the cops are pigs. We say the guy in uniform is a pig, not a human being. And that’s how we have to deal with him”. Propaganda works best when it is left unchallenged by competing narratives. By addressing information asymmetry and restoring a human face to the victims of terrorist violence, NGOs like the Global Survivors Network can reverse the process of dehumanization that is a necessary prerequisite for the casual support of violent action.

In the past decade human rights groups, and NGOs more generally, have failed to engage effectively on the issue of terrorism – in stark contrast to their activism against the excesses of state counter-terrorism in the post-9/11 world. This partly reflects normative and practical challenges, but, more importantly, it also reflects a failure of imagination. Armed groups pose a unique challenge for human rights organisations, but NGOs’ efforts to hold transnational corporations like oil and mineral companies to account on human rights offer important lessons for counter-terrorism. If they wish to remain relevant, human rights defenders must engage narratives as well as actions that address terrorist groups.

Nick Sitter is Professor of Public Policy at Central European University and Professor of Political Economy at the BI Norwegian Business School.

Tom Parker is the CTITF Advisor on Human Rights and Counter Terrorism at the United Nations Counter Terrorism Implementation Task Force. The views expressed in this article are entirely his own.