Counter-Terrorism: Challenges and Perspectives


Panel Discussion, Counter-Terrorism Strategies: Challenges and Perspectives, Atlantic Treaty Association, 12 June 2015.

5596700-3x2-940x627Despite the considerable number of studies that have recently been dedicated to terrorism, they have not, so far, come up with a unified definition for this serious global phenomenon. Definitions have been diverse according to the available interpretations in the different times and places.

Those two phenomena, terrorism and extremism, are not the new consequences imposed by historical evolutions and the misdeeds of urbanization. More than that, they represent men’s footprint at the beginning of their existence, as demonstrated by recent studies. They date back to the Roman era, when political crimes and terrorism were difficult to differentiate. Since, the world has been facing terrorism, as a means for feudal leaders to impose their authority onto the territories they administered and exercise their diktat on the slaves they used for diverse tasks. 

The beginning of the 19th century, which consecrated the domination of European States on maritime sea routes, saw the multiplication of trade ships to deal with commercial transactions between the East and the West, leading, as a consequence, to the emergence of acts of maritime piracy, considered as a form of terrorism, that continued until the 20th century.

Plus, terrorism is neither linked to a specific religion nor to a particular nationality, as the phenomenon emerged in Latin America, in Europe (especially in Spain and Italy), and in Africa. For example, there were the Red Brigades in Italy, the Red Army in Japan, the Basque movement in Spain, the separatist militias in Ireland, and the militias in Central and South America.

It is then plausible that acts of terror, which ignore international regulations relative to human rights and international regulations, are not linked to Islam, which preaches for tolerance, respect of the other, and condemns violence and hatred in accordance with the Quran which commands Muslims to preach Islam with intelligence, conviction and to strive for the utmost values.

During the last few years, the exploitation of Islam by various types of extremists, who ignore the principles of the Quran, Sunna and of the Prophet Mohamed PBUH, favored the confusion and the false image that some have of Islam, linking it to terrorism, although it is nothing else than a global phenomenon that is developing wherever the necessary conditions are present.

Causes and motives of terrorism:

Terrorism is not an accidental phenomenon. It is the result of different causes and motives, some of which are personal, others have a collective incentive.

First, the personal incentives. Acts of terrorism can be triggered by personal motives which can be summarized with the following:

  1. Psychological causes. Studies show that the development of the human body and mind, emotional reactions, and an unhealthy social background have a direct link with terrorist acts. Other analysis have come to the conclusion that most terrorists’ behaviors present similarities, such as problems in their childhoods, withdrawal, conflictual family relationships especially with parents, and giving up on relationships with friends, etc.
  2. Political causes. It is possible that acts of terrorism are motivated by political incentives, as terrorist attacks raise the target’s attention. In general, the recourse to acts of terror for political reasons is a response to the practices of dictatorial regimes, the usurpation of citizens’ rights and denial of freedom.
  3. Causes motivated by communication. With the important development of new technologies of information and communication, terrorists now possess the necessary means to raise awareness on their acts, plead their cause, expose their conditions and negotiate the release of their hostages, etc. Plus, by covering acts of terrorism, media contributes to making terrorists heroes, which inspires some to emulate their acts.  This is what we are witnessing today with the influx of thousands of young people towards the “Islamic State”, Daesh, following the media reports that show their military conquests. Deprivations, injustice and repression in some countries most probably also contribute to this influx of young people.

Second, the social environment causes: This designates the motives that make the social environment on which one lives have a negative impact and facilitates one’s incline towards terrorism. These motives can be motivated by economic, political, historical, ethnical and ideological reasons.

Economic motives: poverty, destitution and the gap between the poor and rich of the world motivate the desperate individual’s feeling of discomfort that can lead to heinous behaviors towards society. This situation of despair, developed in an environment characterized by the absence of social justice and unfair distribution of wealth, can trigger unhealthy behaviors that can degenerate into terrorist acts.

Social motives: These are the motives linked to individuals’ living conditions; broken families are fertile ground where family conflicts and ignorance dominate, exposing children to all sorts of frustrations. This situation leads to deviant behaviors and to the possibility for terrorist groups to exploit these young people, exploitation made possible by the absence of the educating role of the family and school, but also by unemployment, etc. As a result, these elements create the ideal conditions to raise terrorists’ interest in these lost and abandoned young people.

Historical motives: It is possible that historical events and attempts of vengeance are powerful motives for the recourse to terrorism. Many examples could be cited to illustrate this point.

Ethnic motives: These kinds of motives manifest themselves when an ethnic group seizes power in a multicultural country.

Ideological motives: It is also possible that ethnic or religious reasons explain the use of terrorist acts and extremism in an attempt to impose one’s extremist vision on society. This ambition translates into the willingness, by any means, to seize the reins of power in order to impose one’s societal project. It is also possible that ideological indoctrination and religious fanaticism can lead those who are lost to use violence and undertake terrorist acts with the unavowed aim to impose the principles they support onto society.  This conviction can lead them to want to seize power by force to impose their will on all.

Problems of counter-terrorism, an unidentified enemy

The fight against terrorism is a real problem because of the difficulties to identify the enemy, especially due to the fact that there are not common signals between terrorists as they are recruited in different countries, ethnicities, and age groups, which makes tracking this enemy, and defeating it difficult with traditional means. This fight is more and more difficult to conduct as terrorist groups recruit more and more young people amongst Americans and Europeans who go to the battlefield in Syria and Iraq.

This situation is worrying for the countries from which new recruits come from: high level meetings have been organized, experts and security services are working on this question which is of high importance for Western governments as information is currently circulating about the terrorist groups’ new strategy, which is to organize missions in Western countries that would be executed by local cells. In fact, the Director of the CIA has declared that 2,000 extremist fighters coming from 50 countries, including Europeans, are fighting in Syria. They are committing numerous crimes in the name of Jihad.

Training camps for extremists close to Al-Qaeda which prepare fighters to act around the world also need to be mentioned, as they demand the international community to gather their efforts to take urgent legal and statutory measures and reinforce the existing ones. For example, the League of Nations adopted a convention condemning terrorism and fighters in 1937, which allowed member states in the 60’s to take part in the negotiations relative to the conventions on counter-terrorism.

In 1963 and 1999, the international community managed to put in place 12 texts of international law to combat terrorist acts. The United Nations General Assembly adopted several international conventions against terrorism. In addition to the protocols on the topic and the international systems of counter-terrorism, this legal basis constitutes a solid and appropriate framework to combat this phenomenon. These texts recommend that states adopt national laws in accordance with international jurisdictions. A sanction committee against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban was created with the mission to gather a list of individuals and institutions linked to terrorist organizations, and to control the sanction mechanisms. A committee dedicated to counter-terrorism and responding to the UN Security Council was also created to control the execution of this decision and reinforce countries’ capacities in regards to counter-terrorism. The work of the international summit on the fight against terrorism of 2005 led the UN General Assembly to adopt the first UN’s strategy against terrorism on July 8th 2006.

This strategy entails an Action Plan that aims to counteract the development of conditions that favour terrorism, to combat it, take measures to reinforce States’ capacities, reinforce the UN’s role, and respect human rights in the fight against terrorism. In addition, the G8, the European Union, NATO, the Organization of American States and the Arab League have been acting in trying to determine the causes of extremism, identify its roots and counteract its negative effects.

The G8 held several summits to examine topics linked to terrorism and the causes of its expansion in the world, risks linked to arms of mass destruction, social problems, regional conflicts in the Middle East and Africa. An action plan was put in place for the protection of nuclear resources and infrastructures, technical information, the reinforcement of financial contributions, the fight against poverty and the support to health programs in the poorest countries.

In addition, the European Union adopted an action plan to fight terrorism through several measures directed at various sectors: legal cooperation, cooperation between security agencies, securing of transportations means, border control, document protection, the fight against covert financing (money laundering), political dialogue, external relations, defense against biological, bacteriological and nuclear weapons. The EU also took additional measures, such as the reinforcement of their strategic assets, at the national, regional and international level.

It needs to be reasserted that the EU’s counter-terrorist strategy preventing attacks rests on three axes:

First, prevention and protection of populations, infrastructures and transports via the support to security infrastructures.

Second, tracking down terrorists.

Third, preventing radicalization and enrollment of young people.  

This effort is led with the specific aim to reinforce the capabilities to stop the conditions that favor extremism, radicalization and the enrollment of young people, using cooperation between member countries and institutions of the EU but also with external partners and international organizations. The European Border Agency is working to coordinate the cooperation to limit illegal immigration. In this regard, it is planned that immigrants will be monitored at border controls within the EU.

NATO has already initiated a series of special measures in relations to counter-terrorism in an effort to develop performing technology to be able to respond to terrorist threats, such as the protection of allied forces against attacks, to launch rockets to protect harbors, sea patrols, as well as other measures.

The new structures introduced by NATO, such as the Partnership for Peace, the NATO-Russia permanent Council and the NATO-Ukraine charter, are considered to be key initiatives in the fight against terrorism. NATO has also widened the scope of its missions to zones presenting threats, in order for the Alliance to have, at least theoretically speaking, the ability to intervene outside of its traditional area of operations for various reasons such as countering terrorism, prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and protect minority rights.

The new structures and missions of the Alliance demonstrate that NATO is showing interest in developing an expansionist strategy towards the East through cooperation with military and political institutions outside of its traditional area of operations. This new strategy was emphasized during NATO’s 50th Anniversary in Washington.

The counter-terrorism commission of the Organization of American States held a special meeting in New York in 2003, during which all the regional organizations vowed to exchange information to fight terrorism.

In regards to the fight against the financing of terrorist groups acting in the USA and abroad, the United States committed themselves to support the OAS technically to watch over terrorist activities and freeze terrorists’ assets.

The UN has also decided to fight against the financing of terrorist organizations, for which 9 recommendations have been adopted, thus adding to the previous 40 recommendations on money laundering.

The Arab League is acting strongly against terrorism, extremism and fanaticism. In this regard, the Arab Convention Against Terrorism was adopted in 1998, thus updating cooperation amongst Arab states on counter-terrorism. These measures focus on the fight against terrorist crimes, on awareness-raising actions, cooperation with the civil air force organization, the international police organization, INTERPOL, the international maritime organization, the UN Refugee Agency, the World’s Custom organization, etc.

Arab states committed themselves to neither perpetrate terrorist acts nor finance terrorists, to neutralize terrorists, to judge them according to national regulations or to extradite them, and to protect the employees of the judiciary.

These local, regional and international efforts remain insufficient and inefficient in countering terrorism and extremism, which demands the reinforcement of cooperation and the elaboration of an appropriate strategy:

– A strong international cooperation in line with a consequent political will;

– A resolute action to solve conflicts and civil wars in a peaceful way, such as through mediation, mutual agreements and justice, which should be supported by the big powers’ nonintervention when they triggered the problems that Syria, Libya, Iraq and Yemen are now facing. It resulted in the proliferation of terrorist groups in these countries who have access to resources to undertake their subversive and criminal activities;

– The prohibition of activities of communication supporting terrorism and extremism;

– Strengthening international cooperation on information exchange;

– Drying up international terrorism‘s financial sources;

– Restoring an atmosphere of understanding, agreement and confidence among the different parts of the society in order to face terrorism together.