The fight against terrorism will not be won by relying simply on military might and repressive measures. Effective private-public partnerships should focus on building good will, promoting compelling alternatives to terrorist ideologies, and providing ground-up information about the impact and effectiveness of states’ counterterrorism efforts.
I will use my time to talk about two issues—human rights and terrorism, and the Internet and terrorism—and the role of public-private partnerships in both.
I start with the overarching theme—something that we hear a lot but bears repeating: The fight against terrorism cannot be won by military might and repressive measures alone. It cannot be won simply by killing terrorists on the battlefield. It cannot be won by locking up all the would-be terrorists until there is no one else to fight.
This is one of those times when the old cliché is true: The fight against terror is a fight for hearts and minds. Human rights, the rule of law, and constraints on executive power are not mere inconveniences to be tossed aside when the state’s security is jeopardized. Doing so fuels the very anger and disillusionment that extremists feed upon, particularly as innocent men and women are inevitably caught up in practices that lack basic checks and balances.
This is not just Human Rights Watch speaking.
There is widespread recognition that steps must be taken to prevent radicalization and recruitment to terrorist groups. While there is much debate about how to do so, there is growing agreement that violating people’s rights is not only the wrong way to do it, but has the opposite effect.
This is the lesson laid out in none other than the United States Army’s 2006 Counterinsurgency Manual, written by an incredibly diverse group of military officers, counterterrorism experts, and academics that were overseen by General David Petraeus, who is soon to take over as head of the US military’s Central Command.
As the manual explains, dynamic insurgencies—like al Qaeda—can replace losses quickly. It is simply not possible to kill or detain every terrorist enemy. The only way to win is to cut off the insurgency’s recuperative power by diminishing its legitimacy and appeal while increasing one’s own. The manual cautions that the state loses its legitimacy, and therefore its ability to win the fight against al Qaeda and other insurgents, when it violates the law.
In the manual’s words: “Efforts to build a legitimate government through illegitimate action—including unjustified or excessive use of force, unlawful detention, torture and punishment without trial—are self-defeating, even against insurgents who . . . flout the law.”1
It is the lesson from Northern Ireland, when, in the early 1970s, the British government interned close to 2,000 individuals it believed to be associated with the Irish Republican Army. Violence increased, not decreased, as anti-detention anger helped fuel the conflict. Even Reginald Maulding, the British home secretary at the time, later called it an “unmitigated disaster.”2 Even the British Ministry of Defense has conceded that internment was a “major mistake.”3
And it is the lesson learned from the scandal of Abu Ghraib, extraordinary renditions, CIA-run secret prisons, and detentions without charge at Guantanamo Bay—all of which have fueled animosity toward the United States and have been a boon to terrorist recruiters.
I want to talk about Guantanamo for a few minutes because I think it provides an important cautionary tale that relates to my second topic—the Internet and terrorism.
When the US initially opened the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, it relied on an extraordinarily broad understanding of who should be detained. Hundreds of mostly Arab and Muslim men from all over the world were brought to Guantanamo based on an executive branch determination that they were somehow associated with terrorists or otherwise supported terrorist activity.
Although the Bush administration claimed that it was holding the “worst of the worst,” those in the know often told a different story. An estimated half of the detainees were literally sold to the United States for bounties, often thousands of dollars. The lack of fair process meant that there was no real way for detainees to contest the claims against them. And when in doubt, the US chose to detain rather than release. In the words of Michael Scheuer, a 22-year CIA veteran who retired in 2004, “we absolutely got the wrong people.”4
Over time, US detention policy has evolved. The US seemed to realize that it does not make sense—nor is it possible—to try to hold every young man who might possibly have an association with terrorism. Some 500 detainees have since been released, and only 20 detainees moved to the facility since 2005. The US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has complained of the “taint” of Guantanamo; and even President Bush has stated that he would like to close the detention center.5
In the meantime, some people see the innocent and guilty alike as martyrs—providing terrorist recruiters with an effective propaganda tool. And the label of “enemy combatant,” which the US pinned on the detainees, gave them undeserved martial stature. Indeed, when Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged 9/11 mastermind, went before the administrative review panels set up at Guantanamo, he embraced his “combatant” status with pride, comparing himself to George Washington.
The families and friends of those who continue to be detained without charge grow frustrated and angry as time goes by. Just a few months ago, I met a young man who was a schoolmate of a Kenyan arrested in 2006, handed over to the United States and sent to Guantanamo, where he has been held without charge for more than two years. “Now, every time I go to the mosque,” this man told me, “I pray to God to punish the Americans.”
When detainees who have been released tell stories of abuse, extremists tout them as just another reason to hate the West. Here is one example among many: In March 2008, Murnat Kurnaz, an ethnic Turk and German resident who was held in US custody for close to five years despite compelling evidence of his innocence, appeared on the popular US news show “60 Minutes.” He described in detail the abuse he suffered in the initial days of detention in Afghanistan and in Guantanamo. The next day the link and transcript appeared on numerous extremist blogs and websites, distributed as an example of US abuse of Muslims around the world.
There are two important lessons to take from Guantanamo. They are also the lessons from Northern Ireland.
First, states should not over-rely on detention in fighting terrorism. States can and should target the leaders, the financiers, the master-minds, and the recruiters that constitute terrorist networks, and certainly the operatives who carry out terrorist acts. But it is simply not possible, nor legitimate, to detain every person for whom there is some tenuous evidence of association with these networks. It is dangerous to cast an overly broad net. Many states have erred egregiously by going far beyond focusing on specific persons suspected of terrorist activity and targeting instead entire national or religious communities. Such efforts inevitably give rise to alienation and resentment in those communities, opening the door to radicalization and making it harder to fight terrorism in the long run.
Second, detentions—like all state actions—must be lawful and perceived as lawful. Otherwise the state runs the risk that someone like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed—who has acknowledged his responsibility for some of the world’s most heinous terrorist crimes—is viewed as a martyr and victim, rather than a criminal.
Watchdogs like human rights groups, civil liberties organizations, and community-based organizations are not merely thorns in the side of a government trying to fight terror. They are key players who can provide invaluable information about how policies and practices are perceived by the local population. States should welcome their input and establish regular mechanisms for consultation.
Moreover, NGOs like Human Rights Watch, as well as community-based organizations in affected communities, should know that their concerns about discrimination, detention, unfair trials, and other abuses are taken into consideration, and that government counterterrorism policies respect human rights. That is the ultimate way to ensure a healthy partnership with civil society in what should be a mutual fight against terrorism.
I turn now to my second topic—terrorism and the Internet.
Exploitation of the Internet to promote terrorist ideologies and related criminal activity gives a serious cause for concern. Over the past decade, the number of terrorist web sites has reportedly skyrocketed from fewer than 100 sites to several thousand. Terrorists have used—and continue to use—the Internet quite effectively for recruitment, planning, training, financing, and dissemination of their radical ideologies.
But the Internet has also been a boon for law enforcement. Governments can track who is posting, who is paying for it, and what they are saying. Chatter can provide the government with a host of information about the mood in the community, the effectiveness of government counterterrorism measures, and possible plans for terrorist attacks.
Discussions about radicalization online often focus on ways to stop the use of the Internet for such activities—and the role of public-private partnerships in shutting down these sites, blocking access, and identifying and prosecuting those who use the Internet to spread extremist ideology.
I want to suggest a different role for public-private partnerships—one that embraces speech rather than trying to stop it.
To be sure, those who use the Internet to post suicide-bomber want ads, fundraise for terrorist activities, or distribute details about how to make bombs and where and when to use them can and should be tracked, arrested, prosecuted, and held accountable for their crimes.
But it will never be possible to stop all the chatter. Although sites can be shut down temporarily, they will almost inevitably pop up again. The only foolproof way to close down a site is to stop the webmaster. But not only is that difficult to do, it also—rightly—raises significant free speech issues.
Now I am well aware that Europe and the US have different approaches to free speech. International and European law provide for the basic right to free expression but tolerate wider restrictions than the First Amendment approach of the US. But recent attempts to prosecute those who post or download extremist material on the Internet are troubling, no matter which side of the Atlantic an observer resides on.
Here, the lessons of Guantanamo—as well as Northern Ireland—should serve as a warning. As Guantanamo shows, the state can’t and should not try and detain every young man or woman who may have a tenuous association with terrorism. It also can’t and shouldn’t try and detain every person who expresses extremist sympathies. There are literally thousands of extremist web sites. But it is simply not possible to go after every young man or woman who posts an extremist message or downloads offensive material from one of these sites. Efforts to do so waste valuable law enforcement resources, turn truly marginal characters into martyrs, and serve to further fuel the perception of the West against the Muslim and Arab world. Even worse, such prosecutions often end up being used to stifle legitimate criticism of the state.
Consider some of the cases to date:
- Hicham Yezza, an administrator at Nottingham University, was arrested in the UK in May 2008 on suspicion of instigation and preparation of acts of terrorism. His arrest was based on the fact that he downloaded a copy of a widely available al Qaeda training manual sent by a friend doing research on terrorism. In fact, the manual is so widely available that it was even posted on the US Department of Defense’s website. Although never formally charged, he is now threatened with deportation to Algeria.
- Savva Terntyev, a previously obscure musician and blogger from Russia’s northern republic of Komi, was recently sentenced to a one-year suspended jail term for inciting hatred or enmity against members of the police. To be sure, Terentyev’s satirical comment, which was part of a ranting post against police alleged misconduct, was offensive: it called for burning bad cops twice daily in Russian squares. But it was hardly a credible call to violence.
- Samina Malik, the self-proclaimed “lyrical terrorist,” who at age 23 posted poems on the Internet in the UK about pursuing martyrdom and raising children to be holy figures, was convicted of possessing terrorist literature, including poems she had written. Her conviction was ultimately overturned, but only after she spent close to a year as a convicted terrorist.
By wasting scarce resources in going after speech rather than action, these governments are arguably doing more harm than good. A few dozen—or even hundreds—of such prosecutions will do little to tamp down real terrorist chatter over the Internet. Meanwhile, defendants, their families, and their communities likely see such cases as little more than religious or political persecution.
A much better and smarter approach to this problem is what the UK has reportedly been trying—embracing the Internet and other media as part of its counterterrorism strategy and countering speech with speech.
According to recent news reports, a counterterrorism unit in the British Home Office has launched a new global information program designed to discredit al Qaeda. It appears that the project focuses on disseminating articles, statements, and other materials to the BBC, other news media, and Internet forums that show al Qaeda is in decline.
What makes the British initiative particularly interesting is that the material has to be good enough for the press to use it. This is not a case where the UK is simply pushing its message to a state-controlled media outlet. That was tried by the US with the creation of al Hurra, the US-run TV station in the Middle East. Everyone knew that the United States government controlled the message, and the station has largely been discredited.
Here, the British government is pushing the message to an independent press which gets to decide whether the material is worth running. The independent filter gives the material credibility and forces the government to tailor a more effective message.
No doubt, private-public partnerships have an important role to play in countering terrorist ideologies that can lead to radicalization, recruitment, and violent attacks. But partnerships focused on censorship and shutting down websites will ultimately fail. Rather, private partnerships should focus on increasing speech by spreading alternative messages and countering extremism, with the key caveat that the partner must remain truly independent and not become just another mouthpiece of the government.
Private partners can and should also be relied on to monitor websites, to track terrorist chatter, and to identify those who truly pose a terrorist threat—not just because they express support for extremism but because they are actively recruiting suicide bombers or directly inciting people to build explosives and target civilians.
To summarize, the fight against terrorism will not be won by relying simply on military might and repressive measures. States cannot just kill, detain, and censor their way out of the terrorist problem. Effective private-public partnerships should focus on building good will, promoting compelling alternatives to terrorist ideologies, and providing ground-up information about the impact and effectiveness of states’ counterterrorism efforts.
1 US Army, “Counterinsurgency Field Manual,” FM 3-24, December 2006, para. 1-107.
2 Peter Taylor, Provos: The IRA and Sinn Fein (London: Bloomsbury, 1998), pp. 129-30.
3 British Ministry of Defense, “An Analysis of Military Operations in Northern Ireland,” July 2006, http://www.patfinucanecentre.org/misc/opbanner.pdf (accessed September 8, 2008), p. 2-7.
4 Corine Hegland, “Empty Evidence,” National Journal, February 4, 2006.
5 House Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on Defense, Hearing on the Defense Budget, 110th Cong., 1st sess., March 29, 2007; President George W. Bush, "Press Conference of the President," June 21, 2006, Washington, DC.