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14.5: Countering Transnational Terrorism

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  • The consequence of terrorism operating transnationally is that states have been presented with a number of decision points about when and how to intervene, and these are intimately connected. The first set of decisions is about where to intervene. Some Western states have been tempted to intervene internationally in order to prevent the emergence of terrorist groups or minimise the efficacy of existing terrorist groups in ‘frontline’ states. Such intervention comes in the form of international aid, military advice and training, and financial and military support to governments. This has entailed the risk of supporting undemocratic governments and engaging in militarised activities in contested spaces. The use of drones by the United States in Pakistan is one instance that has given rise to considerable controversy. First, because of the transnational element potentially undermining Pakistani sovereignty. A second point is that it imposes a state of fear on ordinary civilians, who find themselves under threat of strikes termed ‘surgical’ or ‘targeted’ by those operating them but which feel and are perceived as random by civilians in these areas (Coll 2014). Such operations can actually help terrorist groups by giving them a narrative to spin their agenda around, reinforcing local fears of an aggressive Western intervention in their societies that must be opposed.

    A parallel approach has been to intervene at home by increasing state powers to minimise the effects and capability of terrorist groups to attack in Western societies. The consequence however, whether at home or overseas, has been to reduce civil liberties and restrict human rights. It is presumed that there is a necessary balance between human rights and human security and that protecting citizens, namely their security, is the first duty of government. However, a counter-argument is that failures to uphold these basic principles reward terrorist behaviours by treating them as ‘outside’ usual criminal processes, while at the same time punishing law-abiding citizens. Indeed, the human experience of counter-terrorism and counter-radicalisation policies and processes has been overwhelmingly negative. We can see this in the crackdown on protestors in Egypt, including journalists and civil rights groups, in the name of fighting terrorism. Human Rights Watch (2015) has reported that Egypt is undergoing the most serious human rights crisis in its modern history, with the government invoking national security to muzzle nearly all dissent. Egypt has attempted to justify these policies in light of transnational terrorist actions and the existence of opposition groups that appear to have overseas links with terrorist organisations. Similar patterns are seen in Turkey, especially following a failed coup attempt in 2016.

    In Western nations, state attempts to impose security have often disproportionately affected certain groups – especially Muslims. The transnational element is perhaps most keenly felt at airports. Blackwood, Hopkins and Reicher (2013) found there was a ‘prototypical’ Muslim story of travelling through airports that was characterised by discrimination, humiliation and fear because of the actions by airport and border authorities. The ability of states to use violence so that a ‘state of fear’ is produced for (a section of) a population even when in the name of countering terrorism has even led some to call for the definition of a terrorist actor to include states (Jackson 2011, Blakeley and Raphael 2016). Those researching in the field of critical terrorism studies advocate this approach, arguing that the only significant difference between terrorism by state and terrorism by non-state actors is the agent carrying out the act of violence. For example, when the Israeli military attacks a Palestinian group this is commonly seen as ‘defence’ or ‘national security’. But, when a Palestinian group attacks an Israeli troop convoy, which they perceive as invaders or occupiers, they are commonly deemed ‘terrorists’. If we remove the binary of state and non-state actors, we might see this instead as a conflict between two opposing forces – both sharing legitimate aims and objectives. Due to examples such as this, complex and emotive as they are, there is often a failure to fully examine state actions that critical scholars blame for a significant cause of human insecurity worldwide. It is also important to look beyond the state toward civil society and everyday acts of resistance.