How Misguided Counterterrorism Strategies Lead to Misguided Programs

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December 20, 2011
By John Filson, Program Manager, 3P Human Security

Terrorism is powerful because it makes people afraid. But on a macro political scale fear has not guided the U,S, to the best objective strategy for stopping the threat. It is natural after the trauma of violence to conclude that the perpetrators are inherently evil and therefore cannot--and should not--be reasoned with. The policy result of this collective reaction is to take extraordinarily extensive and expensive measures to avoid having any contact with designated terrorist groups, and to make sure not a single penny ends up in terrorist hands. Public support for severed diplomacy, "material support" prohibitions on conflict resolution, and full-scale preemptive war is a manifestation of natural fears, misdirected. While defining and alienating enemy groups may help our brains cope with the confusion of trauma, it makes the task of solving the actual problem more difficult.

In the world of foreign assistance, partner vetting is an operational issue that reflects this larger political context in the US. USAID and other federal agencies must follow certain vetting procedures in order to avoid indirectly financing terrorism, such as requiring local grantee organizations to provide the U.S. with identification information for their staff. There is nothing wrong with the intention behind such a precaution, as real dangers exist. But by placing so much energy and attention on monitoring every development penny and partner, the U.S. risks losing the much larger opportunity to stop terrorist recruitment at its source by playing a significant role in improving the lives of communities at risk. 
In the conflict-affected hot spots around the globe where the U.S. is seeking real impact through development, local people already assume that providing one's personal information in order to apply for U.S. grants exposes them to the U.S. intelligence and counter-terrorism apparatus. This means the small fraction of groups in Pakistan or Iraq or Yemen that are willing to take US money is already more pro-Western than the majority of society. But it is in the hinterlands where there is healthy skepticism of US intentions where the U.S. desperately needs to be seen as playing a more constructive role in addressing poverty and global inequality. 
Placing even more invasive reporting requirements on local organizations may succeed in preventing pocket change from reaching terrorist groups. But it is not going to help the US catch any additional terrorists, and it will further isolate U.S. development dollars and strategies from the majority of at-risk communities who need help the most. That is neither good development nor effective counter-terrorism. 
If the U.S. is to succeed in stopping terrorism, policymakers and public opinion shapers have to chart a clear vision to direct people's fears (and hopes) toward addressing the roots of the problem itself, not just further isolation of our enemies. The game will truly change when even the critics of US policies recognize the U.S. hand in genuine improvement in the lives of the world's poorest and most disaffected communities, and when the trauma of violence leads us to call for the safety of all people who live in fear.