The World’s Worst Counterterrorism Ideas
As the Washington Post explores the unwieldy and unaccountable intelligence sector developed in the United States since the 9/11 attacks, here's a look at some even less efficient ways of combating militants around the world.
DIAL "M" FOR MILITANT
Scheme: Germany estimates that it now contains as many 29 radical Islamist organizations with some 36,000 members. These figures include the so-called "German Taliban," which is said to have recruited fighters for militant groups in Pakistan. To combat this growing radicalization, the country's domestic intelligence agency recently announced that it is setting up a new "exit program," including a telephone hotline for militants who are looking for a way to get out.
DIAL “M” FOR MILITANT
Scheme: Germany estimates that it now contains as many 29 radical Islamist organizations with some 36,000 members. These figures include the so-called “German Taliban,” which is said to have recruited fighters for militant groups in Pakistan. To combat this growing radicalization, the country’s domestic intelligence agency recently announced that it is setting up a new “exit program,” including a telephone hotline for militants who are looking for a way to get out.
The program, called “HATIF” — or “phone” in Arabic — aims to help radicals transition out of militant organizations by finding them jobs or relocating them. The hotline staff will be fluent in German, Arabic, and Turkish.
In announcing the hotline, Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière warned the public to keep its expectations low — and his caution is probably justified. HATIF is based on a German program from the early 2000s aimed at deradicalizing neo-Nazi youth. Despite the call center’s best efforts, however, only a few dozen low-level skinheads out of the country’s estimated 33,000 took advantage.
THE ONE-WEEK DERADICALIZATION PLAN
Scheme: Yemen was once considered a leader in terrorist rehabilitation, after the government set up one of the first rehab programs following the 9/11 attacks. Unfortunately the program, known as the Committee for Religious Dialogue, proved to be a complete disaster.
As part of the program, hundreds of radical prisoners in Yemeni prisons engaged in “theological duels” with religious counselors, who urged them to renounce violence — a process that generally lasted only a few days.
Once the debriefing was over, the men were released into society with no support or follow-up. More troublingly, the counseling tended to focus on convincing the militants that Yemen was an Islamic state and receiving their assurances that they would refrain from carrying out attacks within the country. Discouraging militant activity elsewhere was not a priority. Perhaps not surprisingly, the program had a high recidivism rate: Some distinguished alumni were killed while fighting U.S. forces in Iraq, and many others remain unaccounted for.
Due to a lack of funding and political will, the program was cancelled in 2005. In counterterrorism circles, Yemen is now best known for releasing some of the world’s most dangerous militants from jail, including the American-born cleric Anwar al-Alwaki, who reportedly counseled both Ft. Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hasan and the “Christmas bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
THE NAME GAME
Scheme: For many years, militant front groups in Pakistan were able to take advantage of a loophole in a 1997 anti-terrorism law to hide in plain sight — so long as they changed their name.
The law treated groups with new names as entirely different groups, even if they were founded by the same members. Lashkar-e-Taiba, for instance, the anti-Indian militant group blamed for the 2008 Mumbai attacks, was first banned by Pakistan in 2002. But many of its leaders continued operating under the new name Jamaat-ud-Dawa. When that group was sanctioned by the United Nations in 2008, the Pakistani government cracked down and members rebranded themselves as “Tehreek-e-Hurmat-e-Rasool.” Most recently, senior members of the group were holding rallies under the name “Tehreek-e-Tahafuz Qibla Awal.”
To close down the loophole, the Pakistani government amended the law in late 2009 to say that a group formed by members of another banned group with the same aims would also be banned.
Countries: Chechnya, Russia
Scheme: Beginning soon after the 2004 Beslan school massacre, the regional government of Chechnya began a policy of punishing militants by targeting their families. That year, eight relatives of Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov were detained in a small room for six months and tortured with beatings and electric current. Relatives of other militant leaders simply disappeared.
Lately, authorities have adopted a new tactic — burning down the houses of militants’ families. While only top leaders used to be targeted for this treatment, Human Rights Watch documents 26 cases of punitive arson between June 2008 and March 2009. Moscow-backed Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov hasn’t exactly gone out of his way to deny responsibility; he has publicly warned the families of militants that they can expect punishment unless they turn their relatives in.
Kadyrov’s tactics are proving popular. Regional authorities in neighboring Dagestan have also taken to threatening villages with destruction unless they turn militants in. But the measures appear to have little effect, as the deadly attacks in the Caucasus and Russia continue.
Countries: Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Syria
Scheme: Throughout the Middle East, mass arrests are a popular strategy for suppressing Islamist movements. The problem is, locking up large groups of radicals in a room together is not necessarily the best way to keep their ideology from spreading. Egyptian prisons, where the father of modern militant Islam, Sayyid Qutb, wrote his most influential works during the 1950s, and al Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri was radicalized, currently hold somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 political prisoners. These include members of the banned but relatively nonviolent Muslim Brotherhood and partisans of more militant groups like Egyptian Islamic Jihad.
Rounding up the usual suspects is also a popular tactic in Jordan, where human rights groups say prisoner abuse is widespread. Jihadist groups are thought to have established extensive networks in Jordanian prisons, at times even organizing simultaneous riots in multiple prisons. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who went on to lead al Qaeda in Iraq, is said to have been radicalized during a prison stint in the late 1980s that turned him from a petty drug user into a committed Islamist militant. Mass arrests have also been used to crack down on Islamist movements in Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Syria and elsewhere — with, mostly likely, similar degrees of success.
Of course, it’s not that prison never works. Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, the former al Qaeda early adopter, began to publish books critical of his old militant friends once he was locked up for life in the Egyptian prison system.
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