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Counterproductive Effects of Military Counterterrorism Strategies

Counterproductive Effects of Military Counterterrorism Strategies

Photo credit: Peretz Partensky

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following researches:

Lind, J., Mutahi, P., & Oosterom, M. (2017). “Killing a mosquito with a hammer”: Al-Shabaab violence and state security responses in Kenya. Peacebuilding, 5(2), 118-135.

Williams, D.U. (2016). The role of conflict resolution in counterterrorism in Nigeria: a case analysis of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) and Boko Haram (BH). The Canadian Journal of Peace and Conflict Studies, 48(1-2), 173-202.

Talking Points

  • Military action is often an ineffective and counterproductive tool for countering terrorism, as it fuels grievances of already marginalized communities, feeding into narratives employed by terrorist groups and providing these groups with new recruits.
  • Framing terrorism as an “external threat” or as “war” or “crime” limits the options available for effectively addressing it.
  • To better understand and address terrorist violence, it is necessary to analyze terrorism as a tool (like other forms of political violence) for pursuing interests in a broader conflict context and to view security/insecurity from the perspectives of those most marginalized in society.
  • Conflict resolution or peacebuilding approaches to confronting terrorism take the broader historical, political, and socio-economic context into consideration and include engaging in dialogue with members of terrorist organizations and the communities that support them, addressing legitimate grievances of these actors, and countering the alienation felt by those on the margins of society.


The widely acknowledged shift over the past half-century from traditional warfare—where one country’s military confronts another’s on a clearly designated battlefield—to so-called irregular warfare only further highlights the shortcomings of military tools for addressing security threats. Although countries tend to fall back on military action when threatened, it is largely ineffective at countering terrorist or insurgent groups, as numerous cases of failed military counterterrorism and counterinsurgency can attest. Two studies focused on such cases in subSaharan Africa—Nigeria’s responses to both Boko Haram (BH) and the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) and Kenya’s responses to Al-Shabaab—are examined here to flesh out some of the weaknesses associated with military counterterrorism, in particular.

Nigeria: Boko Haram and MEND

The first article asks how terrorism can be most effectively countered. To address her question with reference to Nigeria, the author engages in the kind of conflict analysis she argues governments should engage in: a full examination of the historical, political, and socio-economic context of the conflict from which terrorist violence emerges. Critically assessing “war” and “crime” framings of terrorism and offering a “conflict resolution” frame instead, she argues that terrorism is best understood as strategic/ instrumental action to bring attention to grievances and put pressure on adversaries. In this framing, terrorist groups are seen as multidimensional and embedded in broader conflict systems and communities that may lend support or provide recruits. According to the author, a conflict resolution approach that engages members or supporters of terrorist organizations in dialogue, taking into account their grievances, opens up more options for action than war and/or crime framings do. In fact, in outlining the Nigerian state’s various responses to both MEND and BH—and how these responses interact with the groups’ motivations/grievances/objectives, organizational structures, and funding sources—she points to the ways in which military counterterrorism efforts have been ineffective and often counterproductive.

For instance, military action against Boko Haram and surrounding communities has often only created greater sympathy for the group within those communities, facilitating further recruitment and at the same time eroding trust between these communities and the Nigerian state. In other words, only by looking at the conflict more broadly—and the grievances that feed into support for and participation in terrorism—can one begin to see why and how military action might be counterproductive. This broader, context-informed view also suggests other inroads for influencing the conflict and the use of terrorism, such as addressing the socio-economic grievances that give rise to support for extremist movements in the first place. While conflict parties that mobilize around rigid and deeply held religious demands might seem impossible to negotiate with, many underlying grievances including “perceptions of social exclusion, discrimination, failed governance, frustrated expectations, and government repression” can be addressed and negotiated, preventing further “radicalization.” That said, the author also notes the importance of taking seriously the religious experience and belief of many conflict actors as yet another entry point for engaging with them, as well as with religious leaders who may influence and/or support these actors.

Although the author emphasizes the need for a context-specific conflict resolution approach for dealing with terrorism, she ultimately argues that this should be combined with limited military counterterrorism, as the former is necessary to address root causes of the conflict so sustainable peace can emerge, while the latter is necessary, she argues, to address the conflict’s symptoms (violence) in the short term. Yet, she maintains that “[c]ounterterrorism strategies of force provoke more violence from terrorist groups, generate more conflicts, and worsen the situation rather than solve existing problems.”

Kenya: Al-Shabaab

The second article highlights similar findings as the first: the counterproductive effects of military counterterrorism; the importance of critically assessing dominant frames shaping counterterrorism responses and of understanding these responses in their broader historical context; and the necessity of viewing conflict and security from multiple perspectives. Focusing on the dynamics of the Kenyan state’s responses to Al-Shabaab’s violence, the authors interviewed numerous civil society and governmental actors who represented Kenyan state or Kenyan Somali/ Muslim perspectives and also analyzed national/international media sources.

The authors first highlight the dominant “external stresses” framing employed by the Kenyan state to understand the threat of Al-Shabaab violence, a discourse that casts what is inside Kenya as safe/secure and what comes from outside as threatening. In this discourse, Kenya is seen as an “island of peace” amid a broader context of external dangers—including Al-Shabaab across its border in Somalia—that threaten its security. This framing results in both an overemphasis on the external nature of AlShabaab violence (underplaying some of its sources within Kenya) and the targeting of Somali and Muslim populations in Kenya as “external” threats to the country. The latter is part of a longer history of unequal citizenship for Kenyan Somalis and/or Muslims, populations that the colonial and then post-colonial governments have tried to control through restricted movement, forced villagization, identity screening, military coercion, and collective punishment. Therefore, current military responses to Al-Shabaab across the border in Somalia and repressive counterterrorism activities/ policies within Kenya have only strengthened Kenyan Somalis’ and Muslims’ sense of alienation and victimization in relation to the Kenyan state, grievances that are used by Al-Shabaab to gain support and recruits. Indeed, the author notes that Kenya’s military operation against Al-Shabaab in Somalia in 2011—though intended to protect Kenya from further violence—resulted in greater numbers of Al-Shabaab attacks in Kenya, including the Westgate Shopping Centre attack of 2013.

Therefore, in order to fully understand and effectively address AlShabaab violence in Kenya, the author argues, it is necessary to look at security/insecurity from the perspectives of those most marginalized in Kenyan society; doing so enables a recognition of the ways in which the Kenyan state is itself often experienced as a threat by these populations, which explains why its military operations against Al-Shabaab may be counterproductive, as these often galvanize further support for the group. In other words, the insecurity created by Al-Shabaab stems not from “external stresses” alone but from the interaction between “external stresses” and “internal stresses” (the history of state persecution against Kenyan Somalis and Muslims upon which Al-Shabaab strategically builds).

Contemporary Relevance

The relevance of these cases extends beyond Nigeria and Kenya to other countries struggling with how to respond to the threat of violence from terrorist organizations. They remind us how common it is to fall back on the comfortable framing employed by so many countries to justify their military policies (and defense budgets) when contending with a range of threats (including terrorism): inside = safe/peaceful; outside = threatening/violent. As convenient as it is, this framing—like all discourses—comes with real implications for the kinds of policies deemed possible and/or necessary. In the case of the U.S., it has meant repeated attempts by the Trump administration to ban refugees and immigrants from several Muslim-majority countries in the name of counterterrorism, as well as a surge in the U.S. bombing campaign against ISIS (and a related rise in civilian casualties).

Not only is this framing inaccurate, but it also brings with it disastrously ineffective and counterproductive policies. First of all, a majority of convicted terrorists in the U.S. are, in fact, U.S. citizens; and, more generally, U.S. citizens commit crimes at a higher rate than immigrants do. In other words, security threats clearly come from “inside” as much as—if not more than—they come from “outside.” And, in one particularly horrendous sub-set of violent crime in the U.S., mass shootings, white males are by far the most common demographic responsible. Yet do we see calls to round them up or profile them or collectively punish them? No, because we know that these horrific acts of violence are the responsibility of the individuals who commit them, not of the entire social identity group to which they belong. By the same token, it is unjust to collectively punish or victimize—whether through immigrant/refugee bans, military action, or other repressive policies—entire religious or racial or national communities for the acts of a few of their members. It is unjust—and it is strategically stupid and deeply counterproductive, as doing so only fuels the violence that such actions are meant to eradicate. As Souad Mekhennet, a journalist who has interviewed multiple members of groups such as ISIS and al Qaeda, recently noted, ISIS has in fact “been cutting and pasting some of the statements President Trump made during the campaign [about a “vicious” response to ISIS, bringing back torture, a “Muslim ban,” etc.] and are using those in order to show Muslims in the West, look, this is how Western leaders are thinking about your religion and about you…using [them] for their recruitment.”

Practical Implications

The studies examined here suggest a few main courses of action for concerned citizens in affected countries to take. First, we must critically assess and break down the dominant discourses that make “outsiders” into “threats”—or that make some “insiders” into these “dangerous outsiders” (as when, for instance, Muslim Americans are considered to be outside of the national “we”). Accordingly, we must recognize the futility of policies that simply aim to keep “bad” people out and accept that those willing to carry out acts of violence live among us, are of all races and religions, and have a complex range of motivations and justifications that must be addressed if this violence is to be prevented. As such, what is needed is the hard, slow, steady work both of integrating diverse communities into the national “we”— so members of all communities feel not alienated and victimized but connected, supported, and accepted into the broader societal mosaic—and of funding mental health initiatives that can give people the support they need to not become a threat to others or themselves. (Sensible gun policies are of course also a key priority, especially in the U.S. context.) This is how trying to understand security/ insecurity from the “margins” can actually assist in identifying new strategies for dealing with this violence. Instead of taking repressive measures that simply feed into and reinforce the narratives that justify participation in terrorism, we can take actions that counter those narratives—and also support the dissemination of counternarratives as voiced by credible figures within affected communities.

On a related note, we should see terrorist organizations not as monolithic or isolated but as complex groupings of individuals who may hold onto the group’s ideology with different levels of devotion and who are embedded within broader communities that may or may not support them. Appreciating this complexity provides a greater number of leverage points for those wishing to influence members of terrorist organizations and also makes clear why addressing underlying grievances can pull away broader sources of support, without which these organizations could not function.

Finally, before promoting a mixed counterterrorism strategy that involves both conflict resolution and military approaches (as advocated by one author noted above), we should investigate more closely the potentially counterproductive interaction between those two approaches—with even limited military action possibly diminishing the gains made by efforts to reach out to terrorist group members or supporters—and the tenacious assumptions about the effectiveness of military action that inform such hybrid policies.

Keywords: Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, counterterrorism, Kenya, MEND, Nigeria, peacebuilding, terrorism

The above analysis is from Volume 2, Issue 3, of the Peace Science Digest.

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