Preventing terrorism: Towards a new approach

In the aftermath of the tragic events of Sept. 11 and the continuing military strikes against Afghanistan, the danger looms of an endless cycle of violence and retribution. To prevent future terrorist acts, what needs to be done? Based on the research literature and the practical lessons of past efforts to address terrorism, six major principles to guide an effective, truly international campaign are:

• Bringing the masterminds to justice based on lawful procedure and respect for the rights and safety of innocent civilians.

A long history of attempts to “combat” terrorism shows that a military quid pro quo for terrorism usually fails, causes immense human suffering, and has unpredictable, longer-term consequences, or “blowback.” The bombing campaign across Afghanistan and inevitable “collateral damage” amount not to a solution to an intractable problem, but to answering one form of terror with another.

The most prudent course is to explore every avenue to apprehend suspects legally without responding with inappropriate force that kills innocent civilians and provokes new terrorist acts. Those who planned the attacks of Sept. 11 could be tried in absentia in an ad hoc international court pending the establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC). The ICC could be a powerful institution to bring to justice those who commit crimes against humanity. The U.S. and other states should actively support the creation of the ICC.

• Unequivocal condemnation of all acts of terrorism. Unless there is condemnation of all acts, methods, and practices of terrorism, including all forms of state-sponsored terrorism, the so-called coalition against terrorism will be an opportunistic, tactical one rather than a longer-term, broadly supported, strategic one. Coalition members must develop an objective definition of terrorism (there is no such agreement at present) and desist from double standards.

As noted at the September 2001 international conference on terrorism held in Geneva, Western states (and especially the United States) have historically played “naming games” with terrorism, “putting countries on and off a list out of diplomatic convenience,” rather than according to any commonly-held, rigorous criteria. As has often been raised at the United Nations, a viable, long-term strategy will need to distinguish between terrorism and legitimate acts of resistance.

The tragic irony is that terrorists such as Osama bin Laden were hailed as “freedom fighters” in the 1980s by the very same Western governments and politicians that, at that time, labeled national liberation and social justice leaders such as Nelson Mandela as “terrorists.”

• Preventing the strategic escalation of conflict and a new cold war.

Carte blanche endorsement of an open-ended war on an ill-defined enemy risks the destabilization of many regions, including those of central, south, and southwest Asia. Beyond a “limited” war in Afghanistan is the possibility of conflict in and around regions such as central Asia, a significant geostrategic location at the intersection of Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran.

Many states are seeking access to central Asia’s vast reserves of oil and natural gas. As part of this “bigger picture” in central Asia and other regions, some Western states are seeking to limit the influence of the Russian-oriented Commonwealth of Independent States. In 1998-99, with U.S. support, the GUUAM group of countries (the former Soviet republics of Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Moldova) was established.

The climate for rapprochement between the two most powerful nuclear states of Russia and the U.S. is currently favorable. Whether it remains so will depend on how far various Western states are prepared to push this dangerous regional realignment and struggle for power and resources.

• Refocusing government resources on prevention and solving social, economic, and environmental problems.

A 2001 United Nations report on terrorism is adamant as to the responsibility of all governments to act on the underlying causes of terrorism: “were all states to do this in an unbiased way, the incidence of terrorist acts would dramatically decline.” Poverty, famine, mass movements of refugees, and brutal and repressive regimes (that have often been shored up by Western military aid) fuel frustration and desperation.

While, of course, no “root cause” can ever possibly justify a heinous crime against humanity such as what happened on Sept. 11, to simply ignore causal factors is to increase the risk of future terrorist acts. The September 2001 report, Reforging the Sword, written by retired U.S. Colonel Daniel Smith and others for the U.S. Center for Defense Information, contrasts the past tendency to deal with “symptoms,” via “drive-by attacks using cruise missiles or bombing raids,” with the “lack of U.S. willingness to truly engage over the long haul with the causes of conflicts.”

In the longer-term, the U.S. and other states have some hard decisions to make about resource allocation, which has implications for crime, violence, and terrorism prevention. Pentagon spending (of roughly $350 billion in fiscal year 2002) accounts for over half of all U.S. federal government discretionary spending (and is more than six times what Russia, for example, spends). Yet, discretionary 2002 U.S. federal funding for program areas such as education, health, and justice is less than $50 billion for each. And in these areas, genuine prevention strategies receive a minuscule amount.

Resources that were gradually reallocated from defense spending to fund strategic, preventative projects in health, education, sustainable economic development, and violence prevention could help rebuild many local communities worldwide and start a process of establishing a new international security system, tackling the deeply-rooted causes of terrorism.

• Vigilance against racial vilification, the violation of civil liberties, and the use of apocalyptic language.

There are many legitimate security measures such as improved protection of ports and airports and better coordination of emergency services. After Sept. 11, these issues are, understandably, high on the agenda of many states, and need to be addressed systematically. Legal scholars and human rights advocates must scrutinize anti-terrorism legislation.

A real danger for the U.S. is that steps toward suppressing domestic civil liberties in the name of national security could act as a catalyst for future homegrown terrorists, a la Timothy McVeigh. In a climate of fear, some countries may run a heightened risk of not only the curtailment of civil liberties and human rights, but also of generalized racism and religious intolerance. Loose talk of a war to “rid the world of evil” lends dangerous credence to those terrorists who do believe the world is caught in an eschatological confrontation between the forces of good and evil.

• A comprehensive strategy under the auspices of the United Nations and linked to non-governmental organizations.

To develop a comprehensive, multi-issue, genuinely preventative strategy (that goes beyond the current focus of governments on ‘symptoms’ and single issues such as terrorism, crime and drug trafficking), there must be a high-level conference under the auspices of the U.N. The world needs a new international security strategy that redefines security as more than military power: as economic security, sustainable development, social justice and real human rights.

States should also support international agreements to ban chemical, biological and toxic weapons; ban land mines; and limit the international small arms trade. An urgent issue is a worldwide campaign under U.N. auspices for the resettlement of refugee populations.

• Finally, for an effective campaign against terrorism to proceed in the longer-term, a reformed U.N. needs new models for non-government and citizen involvement in domains of global governance historically dominated by states.

Nicholas Abbey is the former executive officer of the Campaign for International Cooperation and Disarmament, a key peace coalition in Australia in the 1980s. (Contact him at: nabbey@eisa.net.au)