Looking to the Future of Counterterrorism

Ever-changing threat: fighters from the Islamic State Khorasan group in Afghanistan. Image: HatabKhurasani / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0

The UN General Assembly has restarted in-person debates and activities on counterterrorism, ending a hiatus caused by the pandemic. But the international conversation on counterterrorism has fundamentally changed.

The conversation across the various counterterrorism (CT)-focused side-events in New York highlighted how the exceptional focus on terrorism, which has guided the activities of governments over the last two decades of international military action against Islamist extremists, is coming to a close. This is not to say that the likes of Islamic State and Al-Qaida are not still a threat, but as their territorial land grabs in Iraq and Syria have petered out, it was argued by various representatives that the threat they now pose is more diffuse. This has prompted a reconsideration of the UN’s CT frameworks and whether they are fit for purpose, given the wide array of terrorist threats globally, their various ideological perspectives, and the competing array of security challenges. The challenge of requiring consensus at the UN level and in other similar multilateral environments certainly limits the complexity of conversations that can be held. As the definition of terrorism and extremism remains unclear, it seems unlikely that there will be a global and useful agreement about what kind of extremist ideas and movements pose a threat to the global order, or at what level political and social extremism would be considered a terrorist threat.

Yet, after attending a week of international gatherings on the side of the UN General Assembly, it also became obvious that the actions of some states towards others or even their own citizens often parallel or mirror manifestations of terrorist violence. There has largely been agreement within terrorism studies that terrorist activity is the domain of non-state actors who are seeking to gain or influence power through the use of violence. However, when looking at the security landscape today, there is undoubtably a bigger question of how to deal with the actions of aggressor states in a system of international relations that was built upon the assumption that multilateralism and mutual dependence would prevent massive interstate conflicts. Multiple representatives argued that the recent violent activities of some states have worked to derail faith in both the UN and the international relations order itself, as well as to divert attention away from the threat terrorism still presents.

And, as the world grapples with massive challenges such as pandemics, climate change, economic turbulence, and social and political polarisation, it became clear during the discussions that all these competing challenges are overriding the priority that has been placed on terrorism over the last two decades. However, it is important to continue investigating how these wider challenges are interconnected with potential terrorist threats, including how they can feed conflict and the spreading and mainstreaming of extremism that could lead to terrorism.

The challenges for security services are more complex than ever, with the transnational connections of organisations and individuals making violent extremism and terrorism a truly global affair

With all these priorities and shifting security concerns competing for resources and policy attention, it seems fair to conclude that CT efforts are being scaled back, and that there is a refocusing on the need for greater accountability within CT measures and on finding approaches that are the most effective and make best use of more limited resources. This often remains an elusive goal in a field that is still struggling to find effective means of evidence gathering and impact measurement for its activities. It became clear, from the various presentations, that it is a challenge to square the fact that often what is needed to design effective CT programming is increased complexity of analysis, time and budget, with the reality that the allocation of resources to this space is shrinking.

Across the events, there was a focus on understanding how gender, socioeconomic, racial, class and many other intersecting inequalities encourage insecurity, and how they impact perceptions of what security is. Contextualised and individualised approaches must be at the foundation of efforts to design effective CT programmes and activities, and they must be implemented with a human rights-based approach. Such imperatives demand a greater connection between research, policy and practice – with a wider gathering of evidence on drivers of insecurity and violent extremism, and a deeper understanding of both risk and protective considerations in each specific instance.

The challenges for security services are more complex than ever, with the transnational connections of organisations and individuals making violent extremism and terrorism a truly global affair. The ease with which individuals can engage with hateful and extreme content online or in the physical world encourages the mainstreaming of these perspectives and ideologies and seemingly allows for a blurring between them. It was evident from the discussions that lone or self-initiated terrorist attacks present an extraordinarily difficult target to track and intercept, and an equally challenging one to prevent. The individualised approach to formulating effective preventative strategies is thus magnified in this context, with several representatives highlighting that this approach is difficult and resource-intensive to target. Additionally, the threat of mass social acceptance of mainstreamed extremist or even violent extremist content is an equally real and present danger.

As the world grapples with how to balance challenges with resources and how to navigate an international relations system under threat, it seems that the future of counterterrorism is likely to look different to its past

Coming away from this useful exchange of perspectives during the UN General Assembly side-events, it is essential to reflect on our own research on terrorism and conflict here at RUSI. In an effort to streamline processes and reduce demand on time and resources, it can be easy to fall into the trap of over-simplified assumptions and solutions. There is an increasing focus on mental health in the CT space, as a risk or warning factor for those that might be susceptible to violent extremism. It is essential that more evidence is gathered to better understand how representative this is of resilience levels in a population and that we do not instrumentalise, stigmatise or securitise categories of people. This is a lesson that was also learned from the implementation of the Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) agenda. While the WPS agenda offers a high-level policy space in which there is agreement on the importance of including women in peace and security solutions, the necessary consensus required in this multilateral space often lacks complexity – thus leaving it open to the risk that varied implementation of the agenda may homogenise and instrumentalise women in some cases. Every person, group and community is complex, and their identity, vulnerabilities and resilience are multifaceted. Thus, the approaches taken to increasing resilience and decreasing vulnerability must be equally complex in their analysis and multifaceted in their implementation, while also considering the interactions between individual resilience and social cohesion and resilience.

Therefore, it is essential that as we move forward with CT, research and evidence gathering continues and is adaptable in the face of changing environments and threats. There must be a focus on engaging local communities and priorities and making the goal of preventing and countering violent extremism a responsive, locally owned priority. This priority must be proportionate to other challenges that are impacting people’s security and prosperity, while recognising the importance of resisting the normalisation of polarisation, conspiracy, distrust and extremism that can quickly and nimbly manifest itself in an act of terrorism.

As the world grapples with how to balance challenges with resources and how to navigate an international relations system under threat, it seems that the future of CT is likely to look different to its past. However, it remains as important as ever to consider the constantly changing threat spectrum of terrorism, and more widely to work towards societies that can identify and reject extremism.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Dr Jessica White

Senior Research Fellow

Terrorism and Conflict

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