How to Conduct Effective Counterterrorism that Reinforces Human Rights

The current national security environment prioritizes military responses to terrorist threats, through a legal and policy framework that puts the United States on a perpetual war footing. The emphasis on ad hoc, military action has arguably increased, rather than diminished the attraction to terrorism and has proven problematic for human rights abroad and at home. Meanwhile the long-term tasks of addressing conditions conducive to violent extremism and of helping other states develop their own ability to prevent and confront violent extremism has received insufficient consideration and resources. A state of permanent warfare skews toward policies designed to eliminate—rather than manage and mitigate—threats, an unrealistic goal that leads to unbalanced and unhealthy policy results. The longer the United States remains on a war footing, the more likely it is that extraordinary powers become the norm. In the worst case, this means that policies which are the hallmarks of dictatorships and enemies of human rights— such as detentions without charge or trial, extrajudicial killings, torture, military tribunals, and mass surveillance—also become normalized.

In recent years, American military and diplomatic leaders have encountered the high costs of over-broad recourse to the use of force: partners and allies becoming reluctant to cooperate on counterterrorism operations, authoritarian leaders cynically pointing to U.S. excesses to justify their own repressive policies, and loss of support and trust in American efforts among global publics. At home, counterterrorism professionals continue to point to a range of core competencies—non-military policies that are essential to our security—that are under-emphasized and under-resourced.

The United States has now been involved in more than a decade of war. Despite 9/11-era al Qaeda being diminished to “a mere shadow of its former self,” our country’s counterterrorism strategy still heavily relies on kinetic options, justified under the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), which was enacted specifically to target the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks and those who harbored them.

Now, regionally-focused groups like the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and others across South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, are painted with the same brush, despite having widely-differing capacity, capability and aims. None has the reach of the organization that planned and conducted the 9/11 attacks and “[t]he threat complex, sophisticated and large scale attacks from the core of al-Qa’ida against the US Homeland is significantly degraded.”

Too much of the United States’ strategy and public discussion of counterterrorism continues to operate as part of the post-9/11 war paradigm. The problem of terrorism is real but current threats are not the same as those posed by the al Qaeda of 2001, more than 13 years ago, and cannot be defeated with the same response. Even when concerns arise that call for immediate action, the United States must not allow itself to be distracted from the task of shifting to a legal and policy framework for counterterrorism that reinforces human rights. Observing and prioritizing the advancement of human rights is not only central to stemming the spread of violent extremism, it is fundamental to American values.

To this end, this blueprint proposes specific policy changes in three areas: ensuring counterterrorism partnerships and assistance promote, rather than undermine, human rights; aligning core counterterrorism competencies with the goal of promoting rule-of-law societies; and shifting counterterrorism policy out of a wartime legal framework, which makes human rights abuses more likely and harder to redress.


Published on December 8, 2014


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