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Talking Policy: Tom Parker on Human Rights and Counterterrorism

States have adopted a wide variety of counterterrorism measures over the past century and a half in largely unsuccessful efforts to eliminate terrorist threats. For their part, terror operations vary in different places and different situations, though the tactics of these groups are typically aimed at provoking governments. World Policy Journal speaks with Tom Parker, a former counterterrorism strategist at the U.N., about the complexities of terrorism and the importance of making human rights the foundation of counterterrorism strategies.

WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: Much of your work is in the intersection of human rights and counterterrorism. Why is it so important to include human rights and rule of law in discussions of counterterrorism?

TOM PARKER: Most terrorist organizations set out to provoke states to enact repressive measures. The idea behind that is to polarize society and marginalize the central constituents of the terrorist organization by alienating them from the government, making them feel as though they have to choose between two sides, and thus boosting recruitment to the terrorist side. At the same time they undermine the legitimacy of the government for parts the population that might not approve of the measures it has introduced, as well as for the international community. Human rights actually act as guidelines or parameters in which to act, preventing mistakes.

WPJ: When you work with counterterrorism officers on human rights issues, what advice do you give them?

TP: They already have a lot of the tools they need to do the job. Law enforcement officials and intelligence officers have a vast range of powers already—legitimate powers, proscribed by law, that they can use in pursuit of their duties. They can investigate, interview, intercept and decrypt communications, and run agents. All of these things are possible, often under cover of law, and may or may not require a warrant. They already have a wide range of intrusive powers, which if used effectively are perfectly adequate for the task of capturing terrorist organizations.

I like to remind people that you don't need computers, drones, or all this fancy kit. What you need is good investigation, and that skillset hasn't changed for 150 years. This includes the ability to conduct effective interviews, listen to what's being told to you, create a rapport with communities and individuals, analyze information effectively, and identify what is and isn't part of a well-supported narrative, by producing testimony and recovering evidence that either gives shows the story you've been told to be a lie or validates it. These are basic policing and investigative skills. All the rest is just gravy on top. Intelligence gathering has not become markedly more effective than it was in the 1980s in terms of its ability to produce intelligence that predicts the potential behaviors of our enemies. And yet, we spend exponentially more on it.

We have not managed to do is produce better intelligence officers—though it is not just about them, but also about the political direction they receive. Imagine you're the intelligence officer briefing Donald Trump. You've found a president who thinks he knows the answer before he's even thought of the question. How is a well-informed expert today going to help guide the opinion of a policymaker who's not listening?

To conduct an effective intelligence and law enforcement investigation, you also need a certain amount of humility. There is a lot of jumping to conclusions. Professional investigators follow the facts and they gather evidence, and they draw conclusions based on that evidence. They don't jump to conclusions in the first five minutes after the event, yet you see that happening all the time.

WPJ: How does the way a state responds to terrorist threats affect the way terrorists act? Is there a state, or a particular case, that you can highlight as an example of a "good" response?

TP: All terrorism is a form of political dialogue. A terrorist organization is trying to change the behavior of a state. It might be trying to do that in existential terms, but that's relatively rare. Most of the time, it is trying to mediate some sort of political outcome. Separatist groups, such as the provisional IRA or the Tamil Tigers, are seeking independence for a subset of the population in the country in which they are in conflict. That is a political program that is no different from the political program pursued by a legitimate nationalist political party. There were nationalist Sri Lankan political parties and nationalist Irish political parties that were close to and somewhat sympathetic to the terrorist organizations pursuing the same goals, but the parties were operating in reasonably democratic framework. So inevitably the way the terrorists behave is impacted by the way the governments behave.

There are a variety of different drivers of terrorists that have been commonly identified by social scientists, and none of them operate uniquely in any given situation. Some are structural, some are personal, and some are psychological. They come together in different combinations with different people and different outcomes. But there is a broad concept that comes up again and again: Terrorist organizations tend to get locked into a cycle of violence. Some of them explicitly want to do that. Terrorist organizations wanting to provoke governments into reacting is also well-established in terrorist literature. You can read communiques or manuals or statements or memoirs written by terrorists at any time in the last 150 years, from Narodnaya Volya’s publications in Russia in the 19th century to the Islamic State’s Dabiq or al-Qaida’s Inspire, and you will see the same basic concepts. This concept of provoking a reaction is fundamental. And it crops up again and again. You will find it in both Mao and Che Guevara's books on guerilla warfare, Carlos Marighella's Minimanual of the Urban Guerilla, and the Basque separatist organization’s policy called Action Repression Action in the 1960s. Fatah has a very similar approach called consecutive detonation, with the idea of pulling the Palestinian population into the wider fight with the Israelis by forcing the Israelis to clamp down on certain neighborhoods, alienating populations. The Taliban used to have an expression: "You send out the wolves to drive in the sheep," which also captures this concept.

Very few states have ever gotten counterterrorism right. The Brits had pretty effective counterterrorism operations in Northern Ireland in the 1990s; they got it very badly wrong in the 1970s, but they did manage to learn from their mistakes. You could also look at the German and Italian counterterrorism campaigns against the Red Army faction, though in that case you're only talking about 200, maybe 300 terrorists. So it wasn't an overwhelming threat, and even then the Germans made mistakes. But in reality, it is hard to do, partly because people get angry when terrorist attacks target their friends and family, and governments tend to listen to that voice of anger. In a democratic society they feel they need to show toughness and there are lots of theatrical politics in the aftermath of attacks. That is incredibly unhelpful. Some of the responses are intuitively wrong. We intuitively think that if we become tough, we can beat these guys. But it doesn't work like that. It is very hard to use force against people you can't find. There is a very good phrase from a Russian pamphlet about terrorism around the 1880s about how force is dreadful against the known enemy, but it is useless against the invisible enemy. If you don't know where to land a punch, there is not much point talking about how strong and tough you are. And if you look at torture, it’s mostly about frustration. It is not about getting information. That might be the stated purpose behind it, but it is a terrible tool for eliciting truth. It is not that it can't get someone to tell the truth; it obviously can in some circumstances. But it also ultimately has demonstrated time and time again to be an ineffective way to get hold of information. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded 150 times and was able to lie about the identity of Bin Laden's courier. And this is a problem with physical force; it is much more about working out our frustration than it is about achieving any strategic goal or actively stopping terrorists. 

WPJ: Historically, governments have often overreacted to acts of terrorism. How has the increasing involvement of non-governmental groups affected the broader effort to combat this problem, and has this trend helped or further complicated the inclusion of human rights considerations?

TP: Civil society has an important role to play. The idea is you try to get upstream of the radicalization process and engage communities before the situation deteriorates to the point of alienating people who are prepared to consider using political violence. When people turn to terrorism, they don’t do it necessarily because they are bad people, they do it because typically there is no other way out—they have exhausted all the alternatives. If you look at the Catholics in Northern Ireland, they were a minority population in a democratic system. If people vote on the basis of religion or ethnic loyalty or group loyalty, the group with 40 percent of the vote is never going to have a say in what happens. With a certain amount of gerrymandering on top of that, there isn’t a non-violent solution to your problem. Catholics were getting a raw deal on housing, a raw deal on jobs, and a raw deal on education, and they had no way of changing things. Countering violent extremism is about trying discover a community’s grievances before they boil over, and then trying to find ways of addressing those. And in those circumstances, you want to engage with the widest range of people you can. NGOs can play a role on that, though it's not simply the case that every NGO is a net benefit in every situation. Some could be very angry and some could be very poorly informed, and some could be very difficult to deal with, but at the end of the day they are to some degree representative of part of a segment of the community. Of course there are NGOs that have some really good insights, just like academia generates a lot of good insights.

But nobody has the answer, so wherever you are confronting terrorism you want to elicit a range of insights from experts, community members, cops working on the street, people you have detained and interviewed, and people you have helped leave a terrorist organization—all of these people can give you insights and ideas that might help you solve the problem, but there is no off-the-shelf solution. It is a long-term process of engagement, aware of the different approaches governments have adopted. The law enforcement and intelligence community has to identify the bad actors detach them from the community. And you need to address the underlying causes of the violence, because it hasn’t dropped out of the sky—something caused it. Even if grievances can be frustrating and overblown, they usually have some kernel of truth at their core, or they wouldn’t exist.

Sri Lanka is a great example. You can kill your way to victory if you don’t care how many innocent people die in the process, as the Sri Lankan military was able to do in the beginning of the 2010s. But the underlying situation of Tamils, a minority population, has not changed in Sri Lanka, and until that is addressed, there is always going to be the likelihood that some form of Tamil nationalist violence could break out again. Any solution to terrorism is going to range across a wide spectrum of different activities, some of which will involve community engagement and NGOs, and some of which will involve using police law enforcement and intelligence communities to actively identify, detain, and prosecute terrorists.

WPJ: Where is there the greatest need for improvement in global counter-terrorism operations? 

TP: I would say under the banner of the primacy of human rights. One of the four pillars of the U.N. global counterterrorism strategy is the recognition that human rights should be the foundation of effective counterterrorism policy. It's there, but it often is neglected by member states. People know they have to pay lip service to it, but they don't believe it—particularly the people in the national security establishments of different countries. They tend to think that human rights are wooly, liberal, progressive values that have no place in the tough, hard, dirty fight against violent and, in some cases, evil people. And it's easy to understand why they feel that way.

What needs to register with these people is the utility of putting human rights at the heart of counterterrorism measures. At the moment, the pitch tends to be one of moral and legal imperative: This is the law, this is the global moral standard, this is the legal global standard. But those arguments don't tend to hold much water on the fringes of violent and failing societies, which results in a much more muscular approach to solving problems. It is important that people understand their moral and legal obligations, but it is also important that they have faith that human rights compliance methods can get the job done. And that, I think, is the missing link. They may appreciate that human rights are important, and they may appreciate that they have liabilities because this is the legal standard, but a lot of people involved in counterterrorism around the world—particular in frontline places like Mali, Somalia, Afghanistan, or Iraq—don't have faith that human rights-compliant approaches can get the job done. There is quite a lot of evidence to suggest they're wrong in thinking this way, but we have not managed to educate people on that issue. It doesn't intuitively seem to make sense; most people start talking about human rights tying their hands behind their backs. I like to use a different analogy. It is not that you're a boxer with your hands tied behind your back; human rights are actually like a boxing coach. This approach teaches you how to land your punches, how to punch more effectively. It teaches you how not to waste blows and to strike the wrong areas. It is really about honing your skills so that when you do punch, you punch with more weight and more efficacy. That is a different way of thinking about human rights in counterterrorism, but it is a more accurate analogy. 

*****

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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Visit the Talking Policy archive page for more World Policy interviews!

[Interview conducted by Emily Munstedt]

[Photo courtesy of ricky9950]

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