Fighting Fire with Water: NGOs and Counterterrorism Policy Tools

Fighting Fire with Water: NGOs and Counterterrorism Policy Tools

The policy tools of counterterrorism reflect both the nature of the terrorist group in question and the strategies of the actors that engage in counterterrorism. Historically governments have perceived terrorism primarily as a crime, a threat to the state's security or part of a broader political campaign. Accordingly, states have adopted counterterrorism policies based on law enforcement, military or diplomatic strategies, or a combination of these. While international organisations have played a supplementary role in terms of law enforcement and diplomacy, NGOs have, until recently, played a much smaller role in this field. Over the last couple of decades, however, with the rise of ‘sacred terror’ and as many states have accorded more weight to the propaganda element in terrorist campaigns, containment strategies that aim at managing and marginalising the threat have become more prominent. This article explores the increasing role of NGOs in this changing context, and suggests that the policy tools of NGOs are particularly well suited to combating network-type terrorist groups like al-Qa'eda and its franchises because such groups depend on complicit society, a convincing narrative and information asymmetry vis-à-vis their supporters. Here NGOs have distinct advantages because of their potential to credibly challenge terrorist narratives on the ground.

Policy Implications

  • NGOs have access to a set of policy tools that complements those of states and international organisations and is very pertinent in the age of ‘ network ’ or ‘ franchise ’ terrorism.
  • Armed groups pose a unique challenge for human rights organisations. NGOs ’ efforts to hold corporations to account on human rights standards offer important lessons for counterterrorism strategy.
  • Terrorist organisations depend on complicit society, a convincing narrative and information asymmetry. NGOs can develop policy tools to weaken all three elements.
  • If they wish to remain relevant, human rights defenders must engage narratives as well as actions that address terrorist groups.
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