The Promises and Pitfalls of Counterterrorism


This year Canadians will mark a solemn anniversary: the centennial of World War One. The prelude to the world’s most brutal war began on June 28, 1914 with the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. Tens of millions of souls perished in the ensuing years. But like all traditional wars, WWI also eventually ended. Canadians solemnly mark that date every single year.

On November 11 at 11:00 AM, Canadians stand for two minutes of silence. We do so to recall the terrible sacrifice this country paid during the conflict and to pay tribute to our veterans of all subsequent wars. Eleven AM holds special resonance because at precisely that time, on the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, World War One officially ended. The Armistice – the agreement signed by Germany and the allies – dictated the terms of the peace.

Think about that for a second: the warring parties sat down, around a table, and negotiated an end to a vicious war. The guns fell silent, the armies eventually packed it in, and the peace held for roughly 20 years.

Now picture that scenario today with an adversary like al Qaeda. Can you imagine two minutes of silence commemorating the end of this conflict? It is impossible to do so: this conflict is so utterly different from traditional war that it is hard to envision any ending at all. There is no way al Qaeda is going to join us at the table to negotiate some form of lasting and meaningful truce. Fanaticism is its raison d’être. But we should not fool ourselves, either. We, too, will prove exceptionally poor negotiating partners. What might we realistically give al Qaeda to ensure an end to hostilities: what piece of land, or foreign community, or policy would we be willing to trade or sacrifice? The bottom line is that this conflict is unlikely to end in any negotiated settlement.

At the same time, outright victory against al Qaeda will prove elusive. It has repeatedly demonstrated its ability to exploit weak and failing states, and to take advantage of civil conflict in order to carve itself new safe havens. It feeds on political instability. Al Qaeda also continues to attract foreign militants to its cause, who pick up its flag and mantra as their own. And it has a knack for recruiting Westerners.

The upshot is that the conflict with al Qaeda-inspired, Jihadi-Salafi Islamist militancy will go on. Instead of a modern Armistice we are stuck with perpetual counterterrorism. We do our best to destroy them; they do their best to hurt us. In the meantime, terrorism in Canada and abroad remains a persistent if low-level threat as we hone our counterterrorism strategy to better defend our interests.

Along the way we will score some victories, like we have by dismantling al Qaeda’s core leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But at other times al Qaeda will regain the momentum, as it did in 2012 by nearly overrunning Mali, and as it is doing again today in parts of Syria and Iraq. These developments cannot be dismissed. A 2013 CSIS report noted that “the oxygen” al Qaeda has depended upon throughout its history has “been its possession of, or access to, physical sanctuary and safe haven.” Al Qaeda’s new toehold in Syria, for instance, is attracting scores of foreign jihadists, including thousands from the Middle East, Western Europe, Russia, and the United States.

Canadians have not been immune to this siren’s call: at least a hundred have travelled to Syria to join rebel groups, and many are suspected of having joined al Qaeda’s local franchise and other jihadi organizations. Most notably, Ali Dirie – a self-confessed, convicted, and later released member of the Toronto 18 – recently evaded Canadian authorities despite not having his own passport, travelled to Syria, and died fighting alongside hardcore militant Islamists.

If a settlement is improbable and outright victory over al Qaeda unlikely, the best we can do is manage the threat over the long run. Herein, what does good counterterrorism look like? In my view, counterterrorism has two overarching requirements. First, we need to counter the capability of militant groups; and second, we need to counter the motivation of groups and individuals to facilitate acts of terrorism and political violence. What follows is a summary of these processes along with a discussion of why even good counterterrorism sometimes falls short.

Counter-capability approaches are tactical in nature. The idea is to eliminate the sources of power that allow terrorist groups to organize acts of violence. We are talking about the sharp end of the stick, here, the sorts of things we do in order to destroy militant training facilities, or eliminate militant leaders, or deter state sponsorship of terrorism. But other forms of counter-capability involve strengthening domestic and international institutions that help states better control their territory, or constricting the international financing of militancy, and uncovering, disrupting, and thwarting plots. Each process limits a group’s capacity to commit acts of violence.

Alone, however, counter-capability is probably not enough. Terrorism is not just violence, but violence with a political purpose. If we expect to develop strategies that have a lasting effect, we need to challenge the logic and legitimacy of al Qaeda’s ideology and goals. Counter-motivation processes help fill the void: they are ideational in nature. The objective is to impede al Qaeda from achieving its larger social, political, and strategic goals, to foster global anti-terrorism and anti-al Qaeda norms, and to champion and reward non-violent alternatives. We are not talking about root causes, per se, but rather about hearts and minds.

Terrorists lose when the violence they orchestrate no longer resonates with a (purportedly) supportive community. Counter-motivation involves tackling the concepts and rationales that sustain al Qaeda’s larger movement. The focus here is on de-legitimizing its ideology and on denying terrorism’s efficacy for addressing real or perceived political grievances. Importantly, counter-capability and counter-motivation are intertwined. By diminishing a group’s capability, for instance, we dissuade participants; and by dissuading participants, we diminish militant capability.

Both processes are built into Canada’s Counter-terrorism Strategy. The strategy’s four pillars – prevent, detect, deny, and respond – are based on the logic of counter-capability and counter-motivation. The buzz word that weaves the four pillars together is resilience: resilience at the community level to repel and reject violent ideologies, and resilience at the national level to defeat terrorists at home and to bounce back, as a free and democratic society, if attacks do take place. Each pillar is mutually reinforcing.

The message is that terrorists will meet stiff resistance: Canadian security agencies have the mandate and the means to identify and deal effectively with threats. Plots will be thwarted, perpetrators jailed. The strategy’s general point is to communicate to would-be militants that they will fail to attract support among other Canadians, that their plans will be foiled, and that Canadians will stand together and resolutely against radicalism and political violence. In an ideal world, a terrorist contemplating an attack in Canada will realize just how unlikely they are to succeed. And theoretically, a militant who believes they are likely to fail may be less willing to try.

In the real world, however, things get messy. Even smart counterterrorism faces unintended tradeoffs and runs into the occasional paradox. Expectations then go out the window. Two specific tradeoffs are worth exploring in detail.

First, some counter-capability operations are double-edged swords: the benefit we gain is neutralized by an unanticipated cost. Take the U.S. targeted killings program. Targeted killings are the intentional slaying of foreign-based militant leaders and facilitators taken with explicit government approval. Most Canadians are familiar with the U.S. drone program – where remote-controlled aircraft identify and kill individual militants overseas, usually in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and Iraq. Last November, for instance, Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) – the group responsible for the 2010 attack in Times Square, New York – was killed in a U.S. drone strike in western Pakistan. Hundreds, if not thousands, of such strikes have occurred in recent years. And besides drones, targeted killings are also carried out by Special Operations Forces, like the 2011 U.S. raid that killed Osama bin laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

There is a compelling case to be made that targeted killings effectively degrade militant capability. When leaders are killed, power struggles can emerge – as appears to have happened among TTP members following Meshud’s death. And replacement leaders are forced deeper underground, wasting time, money, and energy evading death rather than planning further atrocities. When skilled facilitators, like bomber makers, are eliminated, a group’s competence, capacity, and professionalism may be impaired. Even a group’s morale can take a hit, upsetting the recruitment and retention process. Despite significant legal, ethical, and practical concerns, these are some of the likely counter-capability benefits of targeted killings.

But on the flip side, targeted killings and drone strikes might actually radicalize individuals. That is, they drive rather than diminish recruitment, and motivate people to participate in militancy. This may be especially the case when drones mistakenly kill civilians. For example, the Time Square bomber, Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad, justified his recruitment to the TTP by arguing that “when the drones hit, they don’t see children.” He was out for vengeance, radicalized by a perceived injustice.

It is, however, far too easy to oversell this point. A lot of new social science research is going into parsing the counter-capability and potentially motivating effects targeted killings and drones have on militants and their supporters. At the moment, however, we simply do not know enough to come down with definitive findings. But the specific case does highlight the tradeoffs we face when thinking about putting our counterterrorism strategy into practice.

A second paradox worth exploring is that at times our counter-capability operations do not translate into counter-motivations. What we think should influence or deter militants simply does not; our intentions and objectives appear to have little traction. Take airplane and airport security as an example. After al Qaeda turned passenger jets into cruise missiles on 9/11, we have taken steps to ensure that such attacks cannot easily happen again. Cockpit doors have been locked. Passengers are extensively screened. Air Marshals sit among us. And the police presence at airports appears robust. In the counterterrorism business, we call this target hardening: we have beefed up our defenses to thwart and dissuade militant attacks on airport infrastructure. At this point commercial aviation is perhaps the most hardened and best protected civilian target.

But time and time again, al Qaeda and other terrorist groups continue to attack airplanes and airports with new devices: 9/11 box-cutters gave way to two British shoe bombs in 2001; then to a shoulder-launched missile attack in Mombasa, Kenya in 2002; then to suicide attacks out of Moscow airport in 2004 and 2011; then to liquid bombs out of the U.K. in 2006; car bombs at Glasgow Airport in 2007; underwear bombs in 2009; cartridge bombs in 2010; bus bombs at a Bulgarian airport in 2012; and a new and improved underwear bomb that same year.

Despite very low odds of success, terrorists appear hell-bent on attacking civil aviation. Logic tells us that they would be better off focusing their energies elsewhere, on less-hardened “soft” targets. And yet they persist. There is no easy answer for why this is. Perhaps some militants see value in conducting attacks that are nonetheless likely to fail because they equate the sensationalism of the attack as a value in and of itself. Al Qaeda repeatedly targets commercial aircraft despite a losing track record, the argument goes, because the plots, even when foiled, generate value, like public fear, political embarrassment, and government spending. If so, this presents us with a conundrum: even al Qaeda’s failures can be perceived as successes. This will hamper how we operationalize our counterterrorism strategy.

In sum, we know that we will be facing al Qaeda and its allies for some time yet. Thankfully, we also know what the contours of good counterterrorism looks like: counter-capability and counter-motivation must go hand-in-hand. The problem is that in confronting a complex and evolving security challenge, we may occasionally have trouble translating our strategy into meaningful and lasting successes.