(Editor’s Note: This article is part of our Ending Perpetual War Symposium. The article derives from a chapter in Brianna Rosen, ed., Perpetual War and International Law: Legacies of the War on Terror (Oxford University Press forthcoming 2024)). 

Writing in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Israel, attacks on an Islamic religious gathering in the Mastung district of southwestern Balochistan Pakistan, and continued attacks on civilians in the Sahel, the profound individual and societal harm caused by terrorism across the globe remains visible and devastating. The events of Oct. 7 – and Israel’s response to them – may yet prove to be a tipping point in the entrenchment of national, regional, and global action on counterterrorism, but the costs and consequences of more than two decades of the “war on terror” should be instructive about the failures and limitations of current strategies. It remains the case that while the counterterrorism mantra provides rhetorical talking points for leaders at the United Nations General Assembly and the Security Council, the fundamental failure to address the conditions and drivers that produce and sustain violence across the globe is indicative of broader failures that result in perpetual cycles of violence, including the most recent devastating violence in Israel and Gaza.

Two Decades On, Flawed Approaches to Counterterrorism Endure

More than twenty years since 9/11, counterterrorism remains ascendent in the U.N. system and beyond, despite little empirical evidence that the playbook of recent decades has actually worked to prevent and counter violence. The evidence may be precisely the opposite in places like the Sahel, where a decade of investment in counterterrorism has led to sustained human rights violations and a collapse of the democratic state. Counterterrorism has abjectly failed to address the root causes of violence in Israel and Gaza. While domestic regulation of terrorism has grown – deriving its legitimacy from U.N. Security Council regulation – the terminology of terrorism, including new vocabularies of preventing and countering violent extremism, has widened and deepened over the past two decades, resulting in counterterrorism laws and practices being systematically used against civil society actors, dissenters, journalists, humanitarians, and those who simply disagree with their governments. In short, permissive domestic regulation has facilitated the politicization and misuse of the term “counterterrorism.”

Failure to address the drivers of violence have sustained the violence itself.

In addition to the counterterrorism international treaty framework, for decades multiple States have extended (with international and bilateral incentives) their regulation of terrorism at the national level, using various exceptional legislative measures designed to define, regulate, and punish acts of terrorism. Notably absent alongside the widened application of the “terrorism” label is a general terrorism treaty, which has continued to elude broad international consensus. Conveniently, the lack of definition has served other nefarious purposes by providing no brake on the unstoppable proliferation of counterterrorism laws and practices, as well as ensuing rule of law abuses.

Unquestioned validation of counterterrorism comes with considerable costs, none of which States have been prepared to reckon with to date. Such costs include the weakening effect of counterterrorism exceptionalism on the rule of law, governance, accountability, and democracy. Counterterrorism provides cover and succour to authoritarian regimes and backsliding democracies alike. Tragically, genuine counterterrorism efforts focused on defined acts of terrorism under international law remain woefully under-addressed and the victims of terrorism are those who suffer most from largely empty promises of support and a lack of remedy for the harms they have endured.

Imagining Alternatives: How Can States Do Counterterrorism Differently?

What alternative approaches to counterterrorism exist? In short, a change to the ineffective and performative status quo would require profound recalibration of contemporary security and counterterrorism models. It would mandate engaging new forms of multilateralism which, despite their current elusiveness, are a necessary part of reinvigorating the largely marginalized role of international institutions in preventing terrorism. Crucially, prevention work must genuinely focus on addressing the root causes of violence. Some discussion on how best to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) during U.N. High Level Week this past September touched on the importance of progress across gender, climate, poverty, and child development. But those discussions failed to deliver a resounding financial and political commitment to the SDGs, or fundamentally address how development itself is being undermined (albeit stealthily) by security-driven agendas such as preventing and countering violent extremism.

There are no shortcuts to reigning in the bloated counterterrorism architectures that have emerged nationally and globally. A good start, however, would be to reform the U.N. counterterrorism framework, which continues to grow exponentially — despite little evidence that counterterrorism is delivering value for money or answers to the societal problems producing violence on the ground. This would mean reallocating the resources being amassed by the U.N. Office of Counter-Terrorism to the peace and development architectures of the United Nations. It would entail an end to the continued production of counterterrorism norms in the United Nations system, whose added value is limited but whose permissiveness to rule of law abuse is well-evidenced.

Second, in a world increasingly devoid of a meaningful commitment to peace, peace-making must become a fundamental U.N. policy imperative. Here, the present danger is that loose counterterrorism agendas will creep into the New Agenda for Peace, undermining the hard work necessary to identify and address the push and pull conditions that breed terrorist violence in societies. This is not only a question of resources, for example, to provide much needed funding to the peacebuilding commission, but it is fundamentally about the prioritization of active and pre-emptive peace building in fragile and complex geographies. The horror of the siege and counter-offensive to terrorist acts in Gaza demonstrates the long-term costs of counterterrorism strategies which bring neither security nor the basic elements of a flourishing human life.

Finally, the United Nations must help States from Mali to Sri Lanka end the practice of leveraging counterterrorism as a cover for poor governance, economic failure, and crackdown on civil society. To do so, the United Nations itself must be clear-eyed in calling out abuse and violations of human rights in the name of “countering terrorism.” The United Nations cannot have moral ambiguity on the causes or costs of terrorism, but rather must be unflinchingly focused on ending the conditions that produce it.

Mali is a particularly illuminating example of the challenges that arise from the overuse of and reliance on counterterrorism as a framework to address disparate societal problems. Defining Mali’s challenges through the lens of counterterrorism enabled the direct supply of weapons, technical assistance, and capacity building to a state where democracy and the judiciary were weak, and security sector reform and civilian control were disregarded. In a situation where the continued human rights violations by the military became unacceptable to western and other States supporting the G5 Sahel initiative, constructed as a military response to prevent the spread of armed and violent extremist groups in the region, the armed forces dismantled and overthrew the civilian government and simply established military rule. It then sought and received support from mercenaries to ensure its “counterterrorism” responses could be continued. This circularity of counterterrorism governance, and its relationship to rising authoritarianism and the inversion of civil-military relations, demonstrates the under-estimation of threat assessment in the practice of counterterrorism responses at the United Nations and beyond.

Challenges to Moving the Needle on Counterterrorism

Nonetheless, counterterrorism rhetoric at the United Nations remains particularly challenging because there is evident tolerance for sustained counterterrorism abuses and plenty of shade for those who perpetuate them. Perhaps for this reason, none of the solutions identified to counterterrorism and security abuses are new. But the failure to adopt an approach to counterterrorism grounded in identifying the casualties and naming the abuses that define it has made the proliferation and abuse of counterterrorism de rigueur. The long-term suppression of terrorist movements and development of sustainable approaches to the problem of extremist violence would be better served by a long, hard look at the untrammelled growth of counterterrorism.

For many States, a counterterrorism legal framework is preferable to others precisely because of its inherently malleable application to a range of actors that are perceived to threaten States’ narrow (read: political) security interests. For this reason, there is an evidenced tendency to consider any act of violence, and many nonviolent acts carried out by a non-state armed group in a non-international armed conflict, as being “terrorist” by definition, sidestepping assessments of lawfulness under international humanitarian law as well as the need to address the legal and political significance of non-international armed conflicts on the territories of States.

Going Forward: A Fundamental Shift in National and Global Approaches

The conditions that give rise to sustained violence in many societies – namely, continued human rights violations and an absence of the rule of law, justice, or accountability institutions – remain under-addressed by global leaders and in global fora. Ongoing challenges triggering and sustaining armed conflict also include climate change, grinding inequality, unresolved questions of self-determination, meaningful political participation, and adequate representation in fragile, complex, and disputed sovereignties. None of these issues – that is, the reframing of what are essentially complex conflict contexts as “terrorism” problems, in whole or in part – have been adequately addressed in the United Nations or elsewhere.

It is only through a willingness to spotlight the misuse of counterterrorism and those who benefit from this approach that the space for alternative approaches can emerge. Indeed, imagining alternative approaches to counterterrorism requires a fundamental shift in national and global approaches to regulating complex and entrenched violence. It means downsizing existing counterterrorism institutions, ending exceptional legal augmentations to enable the nomenclature of terrorism to apply to more actors and contexts, and substantially defunding counterterrorism agendas. This would lead to a sizable portion of the actors and events States currently label as terrorism no longer rightfully falling in that category. In this regard, any alternative to the status quo requires rethinking what constitutes a “threat” in national security terms.

An alternative approach to counterterrorism also means addressing the conditions fundamentally conducive to violence. These include deep rule of law deficits, a lack of judicial independence, a failure of social systems to provide for individual and community needs, disenfranchisement from social and economic benefits, poverty, insecurity, and a lack of investment in marginalized communities who have experienced historic discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, nationality, or religious belief. None of this is new, and the social science and policy research demonstrating the link between these conditions and the rise of insecurity, politically-motivated violence, and armed conflict is overwhelming. Unfortunately, it is clear that States are not yet ready for hard conversations on counterterrorism, and the horrific terrorist attacks of recent weeks in Israel may set back such a reckoning again. But such conversations cannot be avoided forever, for the failure of counterterrorism policy and practice will be continually evidenced in societies across the world locked into unending cycles of violence.

IMAGE: A general view shows the UN High-level Conference of Heads of Counter-Terrorism Agencies of Member States at UN Headquarters on June 19, 2023 in New York. (Photo by YUKI IWAMURA/AFP via Getty Images)