(This essay offers reflections on episode 5 of the podcast series “Reckoning with 9/11,” produced by Saferworld and the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung. Find more analysis expanding on the series here.)
As attention across the world remained fixed on the Afghanistan withdrawal and the runup to the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the Biden administration quietly delivered one of the first public insights into its developing counterterrorism policy. In a speech at the Atlantic Council on Sept. 8, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security Liz Sherwood-Randall introduced the three core principles to guide counterterrorism strategies in the future: change approaches to match changing threats, integrate counterterrorism efforts into other national security challenges, and invest in a broader set of tools to tackle emerging threats.
Scratch below the surface, and these three principles seem more like a rebranding of approaches from previous administrations than the basis for a new international counterterrorism framework. A continuation of lethal strikes around the world, accompanied by fresh investment in capacity building and technical assistance to local partners to “prevent violent extremism,” appears to be a redux of the same policies that, for 20 years, have caused significant civilian harm and undermined human rights, peace, and democracy.
The Same Mistakes, Again?
In laying out the administration’s approach, Sherwood-Randall doubled down on President Joe Biden’s commitment to maintain “over the horizon” capabilities in Afghanistan and around the world. This jargon appears to be a relabeling of the same deeply flawed counterterrorism policy — yet another U.S. president claiming the power to use force anywhere in the world, including outside recognized war zones. This program has caused significant levels of civilian harm without adequate investigation, acknowledgement, amends, or accountability. Indeed, reporting from the New York Times suggests that a new Biden drone playbook, initially planned for release around the 9/11 anniversary but now delayed, would have continued the lethal strikes program in a combination of the Obama and Trump policies. As argued by other authors in these pages, this constitutes a “tinkering with the bureaucracy of death” rather than ending these harmful policies. (More than 110 organizations from around the world, including the three of us, have called on Biden to end the program.)
The speech’s references to the need to empower partners to address the threats of terror “in their own backyards so that the United States doesn’t have to carry the entire load,” also sound too familiar. This echoes an often-shortsighted “by, with, and through” approach that has spurred a vast expansion of the U.S. security assistance architecture – to approximately $17.8 billion in 2020, according to Security Assistance Monitor — without effective monitoring and evaluation or adequate safeguards against human rights violations, civilian harm, and predatory governance by partners.
The U.S. government’s own Stabilization Assistance Review in 2018 found that counterterrorism objectives had resulted in “high volumes of security sector training and assistance to many conflict affected countries” that were “largely disconnected from a political strategy writ large, and do not address the civilian military aspects required for transitional public and citizen security.” Security partnerships have also served as a vehicle for the export of repressive counterterrorism rhetoric, policies, and laws to authoritarian governments worldwide, and provided support to predatory security forces whose human rights abuses have fueled recruitment to the very armed groups the U.S. and its partners say they’re fighting.
Alongside these same “hard security” approaches, the Biden administration also seems poised to reach for the flagship Obama policy of countering or preventing violent extremism (C/PVE). This is despite the fact that the past five years have shown how ineffective – and often outright harmful – this agenda has been. Authoritarian governments have used international support for C/PVE to crack down on opposition and dissent, exploit and overly police communities and civil society, and discriminate against vulnerable groups. Commitments in Sherwood-Randall’s speech to build capacity for partners to “prevent violent extremism” and invest in “community-based prevention efforts” in the United States are worrying signs that the current administration is not — to quote Sherwood-Randall herself — “learning and adapting from previous successes and failures.”
The C/PVE agenda, has ultimately undermined international efforts to promote gender equality and human rights and initiatives to build peace by coopting them into a C/PVE agenda rather than treating them as ends within themselves. This has meant C/PVE programs have done significant damage to women peacebuilders and women’s rights organizations by failing to listen to what these groups actually need. The programs also have accompanied and enabled sustained measures to silence and choke civil society. They have, at times, violated international human rights treaties and directly impinged on fundamental rights and freedoms. For instance, the Special Rapporteur on human rights in countering terrorism reports that the Anti-Terrorism Act in the Philippines “uses a definition of terrorism that is overbroad and vague, making it susceptible to the abuse of numerous rights.” P/CVE programming in conflict settings has also tended to focus analysis and strategy on tackling the appeal of non-state armed groups, to the detriment of more comprehensive approaches that seriously try to address issues that drive conflict, such as marginalization and human rights abuses. This has all made the world less safe.
Within the United States, the story has been similar. As covered at length in these pages, domestic CVE programming — while couched in neutral terms around “community outreach” — has, in practice, almost exclusively targeted Muslim, Black, and Brown communities.
Ending the Harmful Status Quo
Biden has repeatedly committed to putting human rights at the center of his foreign policy and ending the forever wars. But if Sherwood-Randall’s speech is the foreshadowing it appears to be, then he isn’t delivering on these promises. The term “human rights” appears nowhere in the remarks, as if the president is attempting to keep counterterrorism distinct from his human rights and democracy agenda. Yet, if the Biden administration is truly ready to make “hard choices about our priorities and resources,” then that needs to start with a recognition that for 20 years, U.S. counterterrorism policy has often fundamentally undermined the protection of human rights and democracy around the world.
There are effective ways to disrupt cycles of violence and keep people safe that do not undermine democracy or harm human rights. Over the last 20 years, civil society leaders, coalitions, activists, academics, and practitioners within the United States and around the world, most importantly from communities that have borne the brunt of U.S. counterterror policies, have all developed concrete suggestions on how to change the approach. Many of these suggestions have appeared in these pages, and many have widespread public support. We will not attempt to do them justice in this short piece. But as the Biden administration finalizes its counterterrorism review, it must meaningfully — and transparently — grapple with their insights, and with the harms and lessons of past practice.
Fail to do so, and U.S. counterterrorism policy will continue to fuel civilian harm and human rights abuses, embolden authoritarian regimes, and perpetuate cycles of violence and instability — just as it has done for two decades.
IMAGE: Relatives gather to look at the dead bodies of 10 people, including children, after a raid on their farms in Bariire, some 50 km west of Mogadishu, on August 25, 2017. Somali officials said they had killed eight jihadist fighters during an overnight operation, denying claims from local elders that they had shot civilians dead, two of them children. Somali community leaders accused the troops, accompanied by US military advisors, of having killed the nine civilians in the overnight operations. An initial government statement said its troops had come under fire from jihadists while on patrol, insisting that no civilians had been killed. A later statement acknowledged that there had been civilian casualties, in what the government seemed to suggest was a separate incident. They did not say who was responsible. (Photo MOHAMED ABDIWAHAB/AFP via Getty Images)