New UK counter-terror strategy lacks a coherent approach to conflict overseas

The UK’s updated counter terrorism strategy (CONTEST) acknowledges the links between terror threats in the UK and conflict overseas. Yet it fails to apply the hard lessons from flawed efforts in recent years.

Bénédicte Goderiaux
4 July 2018

UK military assisting Afghan forces: Major Paul Smyth, RIFLES/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

 ‘A large proportion of terrorist plots that have targeted the UK in recent years have had an international link or have begun overseas’ (Her Majesty's Government, CONTEST, 2018)

Extra powers for the security services

CONTEST sets out the risks faced by the UK at home and abroad. Domestically, the UK government notes alongside ‘Islamist terrorism’ the growing threat of ‘extreme right-wing terrorism’. The strategy focuses heavily on domestic policies and proposes new legislation “ensuring the police and Crown Prosecution Service have the powers they need” to prosecute, imprison and rehabilitate offenders.

The strategy also beefs up information-sharing between MI5 and local authorities on suspects as well as working with the private sector to flag suspicious purchases. These proposals have been criticised by UK civil society for their lack of fresh thinking and have raised human rights concerns.

Reaffirming military and security approaches overseas

The bulk of CONTEST’s focus is domestic, but it also spells out an international dimension to the threat: the protracted war in Syria, the rise of Islamic State (ISIS), the continuing threat from al-Qaeda and the 2015 Sousse attack in Tunisia which claimed many British lives. CONTEST proposes new actions overseas, such as ministers promoting aviation security and pushing industry to do more about violent groups’ use of the internet.

CONTEST also reaffirms the UK’s military and security approaches, including a commitment to “the Global Coalition’s campaign against Daesh [ISIS], to remove its control of territory, degrade its media capabilities and disrupt key senior leaders and networks”, to “degrade al-Qaeda and its affiliates” and to strengthen the capacity  of regional partners to tackle terror threats. To do this, the UK Government will “create a new cadre of experts” for deployment overseas.

Acknowledging conflict drivers and human rights without offering a coherent response

While the UK acknowledges that it must work overseas to “weaken the drivers of terrorism” in a human rights compliant way, its efforts to do so appear piecemeal and incoherent. CONTEST spells out a joined-up approach to counter-terror abroad, “using capabilities across security, defence, diplomacy and development”, but displays no careful reflection about the relationship between counter-terror and the UK’s role in wars abroad. Yet another opportunity to foster coherence by stressing the importance of investing in dialogue, human rights defence and peacebuilding efforts has been lost as a result.

Somalia: dangers of ignoring human rights and corruption

CONTEST commits the UK Government to working with partners in a way that respects human rights. Yet to counter al-Shabaab in Somalia, the UK provides support to the country’s security forces, despite their abuses against civilians and lack of accountability, which fuel discontent and motivate people to support the armed group. CONTEST acknowledges corruption as a terror threat, citing how corrupt officials may have facilitated a 2016 aviation attack in Mogadishu. However it fails to recognise the potential for UK counter-terrorism support to be misappropriated by corrupt Somali officials, let alone spelling out measures to tackle this.

Saferworld has shown how such corruption drives conflict in Somalia – highlighting the defection of trained soldiers along with their weapons and uniforms. Weapons and equipment supplied by the west to Somali security forces have time and again ended up in the hands of al-Shabaab. The UN Security Council recently stressed “the need to keep such weapons out of the hands of other parties” – as safeguards against the diversion of weapons remain weak. Ultimately, building the capacity of security forces without a coherent strategy to tackle injustice and other drivers of violence will not result in sustainable security for Somalis.

Allying with problematic partners  

CONTEST highlights UK counter-terrorism cooperation with Turkey, particularly on people travelling to and from Syria and terrorism-related prosecutions. Yet in the past two years Turkey has orchestrated a massive crackdown – arresting and prosecuting thousands of people on terrorism-related charges, including journalists, human rights activists, civil servants and teachers. Torture of people detained under anti-terror legislation is rife. As Saferworld has argued in the case of Egypt, UK support provides important political cover to countries whose terrorism policies are counter-productive, destabilising and need to be opposed – and also feeds resentment against the UK.

Violence that backfires

Another vital lesson from UK and US military engagement in Afghanistan and Iraq is that indiscriminate and unaccountable violence that harms civilians ultimately feeds armed rebellions rather than ending them. The US, UK and France were recently criticised for the extensive aerial bombardment that destroyed Raqqa in the fight against ISIS, which killed and injured many civilians. Following ISIS’s defeat, only time will tell how resulting grievances will re-emerge, hastened by the harsh treatment of relatives of ISIS combatants, the rush to hand death sentences to women associated with the group, or the failure to invest in reconstruction in places like Sirte , Mosul, Ramadi and Fallujah.

Coherence in addressing conflict drivers: progress or hollow words?

It is difficult to ignore the consensus among terrorism experts about the central importance of governance and human rights for tackling conflict and reducing the risk of terrorism. CONTEST does improve on its predecessors by recognising political violence, exclusion and ‘real and perceived’ grievances as drivers of terrorism, and affirms that the UK government will address these root causes by ‘helping to tackle conflict, marginalisation, discrimination and human rights abuses through our development programmes, integrated with wider diplomatic and defence efforts’.

The recent National Security Capability Review (NSCR) makes a similar commitment, but like CONTEST, it lacks details on how the UK will tackle international law violations and promote human rights.

Ignoring the UK’s failure in Yemen

CONTEST, like the NSCR, does not recognise that incoherent UK strategy risks fuelling conflict. It mentions aid to Yemen but fails to question the flow of UK arms and assistance to the Saudi- and UAE-led coalition. The coalition is using UK military support to combat a rebel movement that emerged after years of misrule by kleptocratic and repressive elites. Its campaign has killed thousands of civilians, precipitated a humanitarian disaster and aggravated rather than addressed the conditions that have given predatory militias – some of them al-Qaeda and ISIS affiliates – a foothold in the country.

This continues years of flawed UK counter-terror and stabilisation assistance in Yemen and undermines any prospect of UK aid “tackling drivers of instability”.

Improvements required for the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund

CONTEST highlights the role of the UK’s Conflict, Stability and Security Fund in addressing conflict drivers. However, the Independent Commission for Aid Impact’s recent review criticised the fund’s over-reliance on programmes that ‘train and equip’ forces of partner countries – for example, human rights implications were not sufficiently considered before providing support and there wasn’t enough clarity about how such programmes help achieve peace.  A number of Saferworld studies underline the perverse impact of train and equip programmes in creating perverse incentives and failing to improve behaviour of abusive and corrupt security forces.

If the UK wants to tackle drivers of terrorism, it needs to take seriously the recommendations for promoting peace and human rights by reviewing and improving how its diplomatic, defence and development engagement affects conflict and peace dynamics.

Doubling down on PVE

CONTEST also emphasises UK support for Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) programmes abroad, including “educational programmes to build resilience in vulnerable young populations, institutions, civil society and the media”. But it does not offer any solutions to addressing the shortcomings of PVE programmes – which are increasingly seen as ineffective and counter-productive.

Saferworld has criticised PVE approaches for putting UK security interests above those of conflict-affected people, for blaming conflicts wholly on ‘extremists’ while letting abusive and corrupt governments off the hook, and for therefore putting vital conflict prevention resources into superficial, misdirected and risky campaigns.

Building lasting peace to ensure security

If the UK is serious about addressing conflict drivers, it should have a clear and realistic long-term strategy for influencing states and communities in the direction of respecting human rights and discouraging those partners whose abuse has ultimately put Britain’s prosperity, security and global reputation at risk.

The true national interest lies in resolving conflict and achieving lasting peace. This requires avoiding military options wherever alternatives exist, ending abuses by security forces, tackling poor governance, supporting equitable access to services and empowering civil society to work for peaceful change. These are not impossible or idealistic aspirations – they are consistent with the kinds of British values that are regularly hailed by politicians and the media alike: promoting a rules-based international system, challenging human rights violators and supporting people through peaceful political transitions. These principles should be central to the CONTEST strategy, not an afterthought.

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