Deep Dive: Terrorism and Counterterrorism

From the Barcelona terrorist attack to the killings of innocent students in Peshawar, Pakistan, the globe has been plagued by numerous terrorist attacks. According to the New Yorker, the deaths as a result of terrorist attacks have increased nine-fold since 2000. The emergence of religious extremist groups such as Al Qaeda has provoked fear and violence, exacerbating political instability and socioeconomic disruption in the globalized world. The major presence of terrorism in the modern world has promoted counterterrorist policy formulation worldwide. Intergovernmental offices such as the UN’s Office of Counterterrorism and social initiatives such as Life After Hate are just a few examples of how groups all over the world have dedicated themselves to combating terrorism in the 21st century. In our first Deep Dive, we will closely inspect terrorism in the 21st Century and the rise of Counterterrorism as a response to this growing global threat.

Terrorism Basics

In order to truly understand the best ways to prevent terrorism it is important to know what terrorism is and the many forms it takes. Terrorism consists of unlawful acts of violence such as killing/harming civilians for a religious, political, and other ideological cause while aiming to spread fear.

Although most associate terrorism with religious extremist groups like ISIS or Al-Qaeda, there are many types of terrorism, operating on both national or international levels to spread their ideological aims. Here are a few examples:

  • Nationalistic- Terror groups like the Irish Republican Army (IRA) desire devotion to national identity by fighting for a new state or separation.

  • Separatist- Terror groups such as Front de Liberation du Quebec (FLQ) or Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) seek to separate from governmental entities in order to achieve governance or other independent causes.

  • Political- Terror groups such as Shining Path in Peru are concerned with government and political identity. White nationalists during the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville employed violence to promote a white ethnostate.

  • Religious- Terror groups such as ISIS, Boko Haram, or Al Qaeda conduct acts of violence and propaganda in order to achieve their religious goals.

  • Eco-terrorism- Terror groups such as the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and Earth First! incite extremist behavior in order to advocate for environmental protection

What Drives People to Terror?

Since the inception of terrorism, there have always been those who seek to find its root cause. Most answers have been relatively limited to the immediate causes of terrorist activities or a significant period of terror. The deeper question is what is it that drives ISIS, Hezbollah, and Lashkar-e-taiba, to have similar characteristics. The answer may be found in the field of human development and community formation. The most broadly discussed reasoning suggests terrorism as a symptom of aggression to achieve power. But often, the intrinsic social sphere where the desire to spread terror germinates is overlooked. A look at the context in which terrorism originates may provide answers as to the root of the aggression.

In performing a holistic observation of the conditions that breed terrorism, we can gain insight into areas that must be addressed in order to have effective counter terrorism. The following are a few major characteristics to consider:

  1. The regions that are subject to substantial terror attacks and that are credited with producing terrorist groups are incredibly diverse and heterogeneous societies. This can be seen in the Middle East in areas such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia and Yemen where complex ethno-religious diversity is easily observable.

  2. These regions suffer from a lack of an effective and powerful political center. The territories of these countries contain regions with political vacuums which are beholden to anarchy.

  3. These regions contain high proportions of tribalism. These tribal areas are very diverse and there is a lack of political unity at the center. The simple way of living is mistaken as underdevelopment by the contemporary majoritarian society, neglecting the complexities of these communities.

  4. These areas have been subjected to exploitation for the territorial subjugation for a few reasons including poverty and the presence of natural resources. Often times developed powers are equally responsible in the formation of today’s global terrorism.

These characteristics help us to understand the pivot points upon which we can begin to understand the root causes of terrorism. Each of these characteristics play a role, although it is important not to label them as the sole cause.

There are a many pitfalls to make sure one avoids when attempting to understand the motivations behind terrorism. For example, it is important to distinguish between an insurgency, ethnic movement, and terrorist activities. An insurgency is solely for political gain, often against the political establishment. Here weapons are used as a means to raise the voice for political freedom and rights. But terrorism or terrorist activity is solely based upon inflicting terror over non-combatants. Although it also directed at political gains, it occurs in the state of a political vacuum over an area unlike an insurgency. As the world news report puts it “terrorism is politically motivated violence or the threat of violence against non-combatants by sub-state actors […] insurgency, on the other hand, is a ‘struggle between a non-ruling group and the ruling authorities in which the non-ruling group uses political resources and violence’ and is a ‘protracted political-military activity” that uses irregular military forces.’

Additionally, the lack of a clearly defined social and political anthropological approach in the assessment of the causes of terrorism and again in the fight against terror is another major pitfall. This can be seen most prevalently in the excessive use of the term ‘religious extremism’ is used excessively but little efforts have been put on inspecting this religious extremism in the human population.

Beyond the Attacks: Social Consequences of Terrorism

In addition to the tragedy brought about by the death, injury, and destruction at the hands of terror attacks, terrorism is the cause of many social ills as well.

Perhaps the most covered effect is that of the destabilization and power struggle in the Middle East. “The Islamic State in Syria (ISIS), Al Qaeda, and the Taliban are essentially the only available vehicles for protest and rebellion,” says The Nation. For example, many of the rebels in the Syrian Civil War are members of ISIS and Al-Nusra and would assume power if they topple President Bashar Al-Assad. The Taliban has taken over 57% of Afghanistan, according to the Washington Post. According to The Nation, 2.4 million in South Sudan have been displaced due the conflict involving Islamic terror.

According to the Marsh and McLennan Global Risk Center, the 2016 surge in domestic civil unrest and extremist violence in the global media have amplified social instability. Thus, populist parties/movements such as Marine Le Pen’s Nationalist Front and the Identitarian Movement have managed to exploit those who feel social instability due to fervent resentment towards a political establishment which may have failed to address socio-economic needs. When added to an already tense climate with factors such as automation, a competitive labor market, and climate change, terrorism can be the tipping point for future political instability in what are seen now as stable countries.

Moreover, a rise in hate crimes and bias incidents has occurred in countries such as the United States. Various misconceptions such as equivocating ordinary Muslims with ISIS terrorists have spread fear and hatred. For example, the Southern Poverty Law Center reports a 97% increase in anti-Muslim hate groups in 2016.

A Brief History of Counterterrorism in the 21st Century

Counter terrorism, defined as methods undertaken by governments and other organizations to defeat terrorism, has existed as long as terrorism itself. However, counterterrorism efforts became much more widely publicized in the 21st century to meet the steady increase in the frequency of terror attacks. Unfortunately, many attempts by various countries, most notably the United States, have remained largely unsuccessful.

In response to the airplane hijackings and terror attacks on September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush declared a War on Terror. Several pieces of legislation were passed for counterterrorism, including the USA PATRIOT Act and the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF). The former of the two laws removed prior legal barriers for the U.S. Intelligence Community to track down suspected terrorists. It also paved the way for the terror watch-list, which has over one million names according to the American Civil Liberties Union. The latter of the two laws gave the President great latitude to fight the Taliban and Al-Qaeda and led to the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. AUMF would later expand under the Obama administration allowing American militarily to intervene in several more Middle Eastern nations: Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and Pakistan.

European nations such as France, Germany, and United Kingdom stood in solidarity with America after 9/11. However, a divide emerged over the Iraq War. The Independent says that French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder were against the invasion. Then British Prime Minister Tony Blair pushed the Iraq War in Europe, even though many in Parliament signed a petition against it. Released in June 2016, the Chilcot Report found that the U.S. and U.K. had little plans for rebuilding Iraq post-invasion. One of the biggest criticisms of the Iraq War was the power vacuum left after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Former National Security adviser Michael Flynn admits the Iraq War caused the rise of ISIS, according to the Huffington Post.

George Bush began using the Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay to interrogate suspected terrorists without giving them the same rights in a U.S. court of law. The use of this prison has yielded little success. Over 90 percent of the 780 Guantanamo detainees have been released without any charges. According to CNN, 41 detainees are still being held indefinitely. Most of the suspected terrorists are held without charges or a trial indefinitely. The lack of success in this program is concerning given the extreme lengths that it goes through in order to extract information. BU Today reported Amnesty International and several other human rights organization believe that what Guantanamo detainees experienced could be considered human rights violations. The use of Guantanamo Bay potentially breaks international law, given how the Geneva Conventions say that enemy combatants, including suspected terrorists, have the right to a fair trial. America has created the Combatant Status Review Tribunals to prevent detainees from receiving a trial in a federal court of law. The Supreme Court later declared that court system unconstitutional due to it violating Uniform Code of Military Justice and Geneva Conventions in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld. However, in the minds of many, including many political leaders, there is no current feasible alternative to Guantanamo Bay, particularly if national security is a top priority. The legitimate fear that some who are currently detained may come back to cause real harm locks the debate in a stalemate.

Saudi Arabia has attempted to reduce the rise in Islamic terror by having a program to rehabilitate jihadists. Their program has been criticized for imprisoning dissidents and ineffective re-education. Despite funding members of Al-Qaeda themselves, Saudi Arabia had not received much scrutiny after 9/11. America and many of its companies still maintain an alliance with the Saudi government due to oil interests. It was not until September 2016 that Congress passed a law allowing 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia, overriding President Obama’s veto. President Donald Trump later issued a travel ban on six Muslim-majority nations, not including Saudi Arabia, to prevent Islamic terrorists from entering the U.S. However, this ban has been stopped by the judicial system on numerous occasions.

The argument for limiting immigration from these Muslim-majority nations is that ISIS members will pose as immigrants to commit acts of terror if Western nations accepts refugees from war-torn Arab nations. European countries like Poland, have been resistant to Syrian refugees for that very reason. France, in contrast, became more sympathetic to them. After the 2015 Paris attacks, then-President Hollande promised to accept 6,000 more Syrian refugees than he originally committed. According to ThinkProgress, Hollande also promised to invest $53 million in housing those refugees, saying it was France’s “humanitarian duty.”

What is the Future of Counterterrorism?


A solution to addressing extremism is to examine the ideological roots of various terror groups such as ISIS, Knights of the Klu Klux Klan (KKK), and Jewish Defense League (JDL). Examination identifies controversial viewpoints and analysis on the foundations of religious, socio-economic and political aspects of extremist groups. Thus, local government entities may collaborate with experts from academia, think tanks, and if applicable, religious or cultural experts.

Organizations such as Southern Poverty Law Group study extremist groups in the United States while providing materials for educational schemes to promote tolerance and combat misconceptions on cultures or religions through initiatives such as Tolerance.Org. Thus, educational events may prevent dehumanization of others and promote civil dialogue for people of different beliefs and cultures. In addition, educational materials can be used for de-radicalization programs such as Germany’s Hayat to facilitate the integration of former extremists into ordinary society through psychological support and vocational workshops.

Policy Shift:

Several nations in the West have loosened civil rights protections for national security interests. The New York Times reported in 2005 that the Bush administration authorized warrantless wiretapping of phone conversations. In June 2013, Edward Snowden revealed to The Guardian and several other news publications that the NSA has been secretly spying on American citizens through their electronic devices. The intelligence agency had also partnered with European nations, including U.K., to have broad global surveillance networks live “Five Eyes”. NSA also again access to the servers of huge telecommunication companies like Google for their surveillance program called Prism, and shared that information with British spying agency GCHQ. BCC reported that the surveillance extended to spying on the European Union, Latin America, and international embassies. Countless human rights abuses have been committed by America and its allies when attempting to capture suspected terrorists, according to the ACLU. The world overall has seen an increase in authoritarianism due to counterterrorism, yet attacks still occur as regularly as ever. Perhaps it is time to reevaluate our policy and shift focus to new and innovative methods of foiling plots.

Additional Links used to Research: to Religious Motivated Terrorism Solutions to Religious Motivated Terrorism Types of terrorist group - Causes of terrorism - What causes terrorism - Difference between insurgency and terrorism

#AmeyaAatman #CrystalForetia #KymberleyChu #DeepDive #terrorism #counterterrorism

The opinions expressed above are solely those of the author, and in no way reflect the opinions of Bridge the Divide or its affiliates.

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