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The Human Experience of Counterterrorism in the Global War on Terror (GWOT)

The Human Experience of Counterterrorism in the Global War on Terror (GWOT)

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This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Qureshi, A. (2020). Experiencing the war “of” terror: A call to the critical terrorism studies community. Critical Studies on Terrorism, 13(3), 485-499.

This analysis is the third of a four-part series commemorating the 20th anniversary of September 11, 2001. In highlighting recent academic work on the disastrous consequences of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Global War on Terror (GWOT) more broadly, we intend for this series to spark a critical re-thinking of the U.S. response to terrorism and to open dialogue on available nonviolent alternatives to war and political violence.

Talking Points

  • A one-dimensional understanding of war and counterterrorism as strategic policy alone, ignoring the broader human impact of war/counterterrorism, can lead scholars to contribute to “ill-conceived” policy-making that ends up being complicit with the Global War on Terror (GWOT).
  • Whereas previously both the “warzone” and “wartime” may have been more clearly demarcated, the GWOT has broken down these spatial and temporal distinctions between war and peace, making the “entire world into a warzone” and extending war experiences into ostensible “peacetime.”
  • The “counterterrorism matrix”— how the various dimensions of counterterrorism policy “intersect and reinforce one another”—has a cumulative, structurally racist effect on individuals beyond the discrete effect of any one policy, with even seemingly benign policies—like “pre-crime” ideological deradicalization programs—constituting yet another “layer of abuse” on communities that are already targeted and harassed by authorities.
  • Violence prevention policy-making must start from an understanding of the lived experience of communities most affected by the GWOT in order to not be complicit in harmful and structurally racist policies.

Key Insight for Informing Practice

  • As the U.S. war in Afghanistan comes to an end, it is evident that exclusionary, militarist, racist approaches to security—whether abroad or at “home”—are ineffective and harmful. Security instead begins with inclusion and belonging, with an approach to preventing violence that attends to the human needs and protects the human rights of everyone, whether locally or globally.

Summary

The norm in political science and international relations is to think about war as strategic policy, as a means to an end. When we think about war only this way, however, we see it in very one-dimensional terms—as a policy tool—and become blind to its multifaceted and wide-ranging repercussions. As Asim Qureshi notes, this one-dimensional understanding of war and counterterrorism can lead scholars—even those critical of mainstream terrorism studies—to contribute to “ill-conceived” policy-making that ends up being complicit with the Global War on Terror (GWOT) and broader harmful counterterrorism policies. His motivation behind this research, therefore, is to foreground the human experience of the GWOT to help critical scholars especially “rethink their relationship to policymaking,” including countering violent extremism (CVE) programs.

The central question animating the author’s research is: How is the GWOT—including its domestic counterterrorism policy—experienced, and can this be understood as war experience even beyond official warzones? To address this question, the author draws on his own previous published research, based on interviews and field work with an advocacy organization called CAGE.

Centering human experience, the author highlights how war is all-encompassing, seeping into all aspects of everyday life with effects as mundane as they are life-altering. And whereas previously both the “warzone” and “wartime” (where and when such experiences occur) may have been more clearly demarcated, the GWOT has broken down these spatial and temporal distinctions between war and peace, making the “entire world into a warzone” and extending war experiences into ostensible “peacetime,” when an individual can be stopped at any time during their daily lives. He references the case of four British Muslims who were detained in Kenya (a country “ostensibly outside of the warzone”) and questioned by Kenyan and British security/intelligence agencies. They, along with eighty men, women, and children, were also placed on rendition flights between Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia where they were put in cages much like those used in Guantanamo Bay. In short, the GWOT has produced common practices and security coordination between multiple countries, even those seemingly at odds with one another, “draw[ing] victims, their families and indeed bystanders, in[to] the logic of a global war.”

Furthermore, the author highlights what he calls the “counterterrorism matrix”—how the various dimensions of counterterrorism policy “intersect and reinforce one another,” from “intelligence sharing” to “civil sanction policies such as citizenship deprivation” to “pre-crime” deradicalization programs. This “matrix” has a cumulative effect on individuals beyond the discrete effect of any one policy, with even a seemingly benign policy—like “pre-crime” deradicalization programs—constituting yet another “layer of abuse” on communities that are already targeted and harassed by authorities. He provides the example of a woman who was charged with possessing a “terrorism publication” but whom the judge determined was not motivated by the ideology contained in the publication. Nonetheless, the judge thought it prudent—due to uncertainty and the fact that she had brothers convicted of terrorism—to give her a “12-month custodial sentence” to force her to undergo a “mandatory deradicalisation programme,” thereby “reinforc[ing] the notion of a threat, despite no threat having existed.” To her, the response was “disproportional” to the threat, with the state now going after not just “dangerous Muslims” but “the ideology of Islam itself.” This shift to ideological control through CVE programming, rather than simply a focus on physical violence, demonstrates the way in which the GWOT has permeated nearly every arena of public life, targeting people largely based on what they believe or even how they look—and thereby amounting to a form of structural racism.

Another example—of a minor who was repeatedly profiled and, in some cases, detained and tortured in various countries due to an alleged (and dubious) affiliation with terrorism, but then also accused of being a spy—further demonstrates the “self-reinforcing war experience” wrought by the counterterrorism matrix. This case also points to the breakdown of the distinction between civilian and combatant in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency policy and the way in which this individual was not accorded the usual benefits of citizenship, essentially presumed guilty rather than being assisted and protected by the state on the presumption of his innocence.

In all these ways, the “logics of war continue to pervade… peacetime geographies” in the GWOT—at both the physical and the ideological levels—with domestic institutions like the police participating in war-like counterinsurgency strategies even in supposed “peacetime.” By starting from an understanding of the lived experience of communities most affected by the GWOT, scholars can resist “complicity… with structurally racist systems” and rethink how to keep societies safe from terrorism without sacrificing the rights of those in these targeted communities.

Informing Practice  

Twenty years after the beginning of the Global War on Terror (GWOT), the U.S. has just withdrawn its last troops from Afghanistan. Even if judged narrowly on the basis of the goals it was supposed to serve—to prevent Al Qaeda’s operation in the country and wrest control from the Taliban—this war, like so many other uses of military violence, reveals itself to be woefully inadequate and ineffective: The Taliban just regained control of Afghanistan, al Qaeda remains, and ISIS has also gained a foothold in the country, launching an attack just as the U.S. was withdrawing.

And even if the war had reached its goals—which it clearly did not—there would still be the fact that war, as the research here demonstrates, never solely works as a discrete instrument of policy, as simply a means to an end. It always has broader and deeper effects on real human lives—those of its victims, its agents/perpetrators, and the wider community—effects that do not disappear once the war is over. Although the most obvious repercussions of the GWOT are visible in the raw numbers of casualties—according to the Costs of War Project, around 900,000 people directly killed in post-9/11 wartime violence, including 364,000-387,000 civilians—it is perhaps more challenging for those who have not been directly affected to see the other, more insidious impacts on fellow community members (ostensibly not in the “warzone”) who have been targeted in counterterrorism efforts: months or years lost in detention, the physical and psychological trauma of torture, forced separation from family, a sense of betrayal by and lack of belonging in one’s own country, and hyper vigilance at airports and in other routine interactions with authorities, among others.

The prosecution of a war abroad nearly always entails a war mindset that is brought back to the home front—the blurring of civilian and combatant categories; the emergence of states of exception where the normal democratic procedures are not seen to apply; the separation of the world, down to the community level, into “us” and “them,” into those who are to be protected and those who are deemed threatening. This war mindset, firmly grounded in racism and xenophobia, changes the fabric of national and civic life—the baseline understandings about who belongs and who has to prove themselves on a regular basis: whether German-Americans during WWI, Japanese-Americans during WWII, or most recently Muslim-Americans during the GWOT as a result of counterterrorism and CVE policy.

While there is a clear and applicable critique here of military action in the GWOT and its broader implications at “home,” another word of caution is merited: We risk complicity with the GWOT and this war mindset even by supporting seemingly “nonviolent” approaches to countering violent extremism (CVE), like deradicalization programs—approaches that putatively “demilitarize” security, as they do not depend on the threat or use of direct violence. The caution is twofold: 1) these activities run the risk of “peace-washing” the military action that often accompanies them or which they serve, and 2) these activities themselves—even in the absence of a military campaign—function as yet another way of treating certain populations but not others as de facto combatants, with fewer rights than civilians, creating second-class citizens out of a group of people who may already feel as if they do not fully belong. Instead, security begins with inclusion and belonging, with an approach to preventing violence that attends to the human needs and protects the human rights of everyone, whether locally or globally.   

Yet, an exclusionary, militarist approach to security is deeply entrenched. Think back to late September 2001. Although we now understand the failure of the War in Afghanistan and its (and the broader GWOT’s) extremely harmful broader effects, it was nearly impossible to suggest—literally almost unspeakable—that the U.S. should not go to war in response to the attacks of 9/11. If you had had the courage and presence of mind at the time to propose an alternative, nonviolent policy response in lieu of military action, you most likely would have been labeled downright naïve, out of touch with reality even. But why was/is it not naïve to think that by bombing, invading, and occupying a country for twenty years, while further alienating marginalized communities here at “home,” we would eliminate terrorism—instead of fomenting the kind of resistance that has sustained the Taliban all this time and given rise to ISIS? Let’s remember next time where the real naïveté actually lies. [MW]

Discussion Questions

If you were back in September 2001 with the knowledge we now have about the effects of the War in Afghanistan and broader Global War on Terror (GWOT), what sort of response to the 9/11 attacks would you advocate for?

How can societies prevent and mitigate violent extremism without wrongfully targeting and discriminating against whole communities?

Continued Reading

Young, J. (2021, September 8). 9/11 didn’t change us—Our response to it did. Political Violence @ a Glance. Retrieved September 8, 2021, from https://politicalviolenceataglance.org/2021/09/08/9-11-didnt-change-us-our-violent-response-did/

Waldman, P. (2021, August 30). We’re still lying to ourselves about American military power. The Washington Post.Retrieved September 8, 2021, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/08/30/were-still-lying-ourselves-about-american-military-power/

Brennan Center for Justice. (2019, September 9). Why countering violent extremism programs are bad policy. Retrieved September 8, 2021, from https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/why-countering-violent-extremism-programs-are-bad-policy

Organizations

CAGE: https://www.cage.ngo/

Key Words: Global War on Terror (GWOT), counterterrorism, Muslim communities, countering violent extremism (CVE), human experience of war, War in Afghanistan

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