Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Strengthening Democracy Is a Better Counterterrorism Strategy

The spread of transnational violent groups is primarily a governance problem. Time to start treating it like one.

By , head of the Washington office of Saferworld, an international peacebuilding organization, and , a senior advisor at the National Democratic Institute.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks during the virtual Summit for Democracy in Washington on Dec. 9, 2021.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks during the virtual Summit for Democracy in Washington on Dec. 9, 2021.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks during the virtual Summit for Democracy in Washington on Dec. 9, 2021. NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images

Last month, U.S. President Joe Biden hosted the virtual Summit for Democracy, convening more than 100 countries to draw attention to rising authoritarianism and the erosion of democratic norms. The summit addressed many threats to democracy posed by autocratic regimes and illiberal political systems. One of the things the summit did not adequately explore was the continuing impact the United States’ two-decade fixation on countering terrorism and violent extremist groups had on fragile democracies during the global war on terror. If the administration maintains this blind spot, Biden’s democracy agenda will ultimately fail where it’s most needed. If, on the other hand, the administration encourages countries to fulfill their summit commitments on anti-corruption, human rights, and opening civic spaces, it could have a positive and lasting impact on both democracy and counterterrorism.

Research and experience show that the spread of transnational violent groups is primarily a governance problem. These groups exploit grievances against states that have failed their citizens in one way or another, whether through marginalization, corruption, discrimination, or abuse. These governance failures, in turn, swell the ranks of violent groups offering an outlet to aggrieved people hungering for justice and social status—often young people who have experienced violence at the hands of the state. The relationship between autocratic regimes and harsh crackdowns in the name of counterterrorism is well understood, but in weak democracies, it is often predatory political elites that use democratic institutions and systems to exploit their citizens, further driving the spread of violent groups.

Not only has the counterterrorism/countering violent extremism paradigm not addressed these problems, but it has also too often strengthened the systems of predatory misgovernance. The credibility and legitimacy of Afghanistan’s democracy in the eyes of many of its citizens, particularly in rural areas, were undermined by the political elite’s rampant corruption and the killings and rights abuses perpetrated by warlords and paramilitary forces allied with the United States. In less severe contexts like Kenya or Mozambique, the counterterrorism strategies that target minority youth and their communities reinforce and empower existing systems of elite predation that do the same. What’s doubly insidious about this flawed approach is it undermines faith in the very democratic systems that could bring positive change, instead empowering already dominant and often illiberal elements in society. This erosion of legitimacy in democratic systems is occurring as the United States is increasingly concerned about the global democratic recession and what it means for its international standing and security.

Last month, U.S. President Joe Biden hosted the virtual Summit for Democracy, convening more than 100 countries to draw attention to rising authoritarianism and the erosion of democratic norms. The summit addressed many threats to democracy posed by autocratic regimes and illiberal political systems. One of the things the summit did not adequately explore was the continuing impact the United States’ two-decade fixation on countering terrorism and violent extremist groups had on fragile democracies during the global war on terror. If the administration maintains this blind spot, Biden’s democracy agenda will ultimately fail where it’s most needed. If, on the other hand, the administration encourages countries to fulfill their summit commitments on anti-corruption, human rights, and opening civic spaces, it could have a positive and lasting impact on both democracy and counterterrorism.

Research and experience show that the spread of transnational violent groups is primarily a governance problem. These groups exploit grievances against states that have failed their citizens in one way or another, whether through marginalization, corruption, discrimination, or abuse. These governance failures, in turn, swell the ranks of violent groups offering an outlet to aggrieved people hungering for justice and social status—often young people who have experienced violence at the hands of the state. The relationship between autocratic regimes and harsh crackdowns in the name of counterterrorism is well understood, but in weak democracies, it is often predatory political elites that use democratic institutions and systems to exploit their citizens, further driving the spread of violent groups.

Not only has the counterterrorism/countering violent extremism paradigm not addressed these problems, but it has also too often strengthened the systems of predatory misgovernance. The credibility and legitimacy of Afghanistan’s democracy in the eyes of many of its citizens, particularly in rural areas, were undermined by the political elite’s rampant corruption and the killings and rights abuses perpetrated by warlords and paramilitary forces allied with the United States. In less severe contexts like Kenya or Mozambique, the counterterrorism strategies that target minority youth and their communities reinforce and empower existing systems of elite predation that do the same. What’s doubly insidious about this flawed approach is it undermines faith in the very democratic systems that could bring positive change, instead empowering already dominant and often illiberal elements in society. This erosion of legitimacy in democratic systems is occurring as the United States is increasingly concerned about the global democratic recession and what it means for its international standing and security.

These harmful consequences have long been understood and rest on an implicit calculus by the U.S. government to trade security at home for reliable partners against violent groups. With an increased understanding of how counterterrorism approaches undermine the legitimacy of democracy in fragile states, this calculus must be reassessed. Has the short-term sacrifice to partner with toxic regimes or predatory elites been worth the United States’ increased strategic disadvantage as a result of democratic backsliding globally?

In many so-called fragile states, government institutions are weak. However, in A Savage Order: How the World’s Deadliest Countries Can Forge a Path to Security, author Rachel Kleinfeld cautions that we must be careful regarding our assumptions about state fragility. Some countries do suffer from weak institutions despite efforts to strengthen them. In other countries, however, elites intentionally keep state institutions weak so they can maintain their political and economic privileges. Kleinfeld discusses the impact of “intentional fragility” on security forces and the exercise of violence, but it extends to democratic institutions as well. The West’s flawed assumptions regarding the drivers of violent terror groups—religious radicalization and community breeding grounds—have played into elite manipulation at the expense of democratic reformers. The deliberate amplification of genuine security concerns through divisive threat narratives that oversimplify the issue and polarize opinion drives citizens to support increasingly securitized responses out of fear and closes down debates on alternative approaches.

In Ivory Coast, political parties on all sides form youth vigilante groups (called microbes) to intimidate political opponents, drive their supporters out of communities, and commit acts of violence to curtail opposition voting. At the same time, the ruling elites scapegoat these groups and the communities that provide them safe haven, partly to hide their association with them but also so they have a convenient excuse—that is, rampant insecurity, for not governing or delivering on election commitments. In Kenya, politicians sponsor criminal gangs that provide services to the community, such as electricity, transport, and waste management. Yet, politicians will blame communities for poor social conditions (like poor parenting and values) that drive gang activity. They will also cite criminal gangs as the reason why they can’t deliver on their elected responsibility to provide services, even as they line their pockets with the illicit wealth their gangs generate.

This pattern should seem familiar. Counterterrorism strategies also encourage states to root out groups of deviant young people and blame their communities for the environment that radicalized them. These core counterterrorism assumptions reinforce current systems of political predation but with more teeth: unleashing security forces against youths and communities with impunity. At the same time, these assumptions paper over the real sources of grievance and inequality that may lead young people and communities to support or join violent groups: long-term exposure to political exploitation and marginalization by the political class, exercised through democratic processes and institutions, which reinforces the reality that citizens have few avenues for democratic recourse.

In some contexts, politicians and traditional leaders exploit poor regulation of land tenure to seize (officially untitled) communal land to give or sell to political cronies or private corporations. Youth growing up in these societies are triply dispossessed: They lose community, status, and access to economic resources. Forcibly unmoored, some join violent groups seeking community and retribution, as justice through a corrupt formal system is not an option available to them. Programs to prevent or counter violent extremism rarely support young people challenging and changing the systemic political and economic injustices they face. Such programming would necessarily challenge the behavior of those in power and the inequalities and injustices their systems perpetuate. It would threaten counterterrorism approaches that rely on young people’s pacification to maintain regime stability.

The record of autocrats who have manipulated security responses in the fight against terrorism to impose draconian laws that impinge on fundamental rights and crack down on civil society activists is well established, but it is happening in democracies as well. Rodrigo Duterte’s government in the Philippines passed the 2020 Anti-Terrorism Act, with the stated intention of countering insurgents in that country’s long-running internal conflicts. Instead, the government uses the law to intimidate and silence critics, criminalize student protests, suspend bank accounts of human rights and humanitarian organizations, attack Indigenous and environmental defenders, and otherwise restrict civil society groups. The law has increased the opacity of the government’s counterterrorism program, which threatens to undermine local peace processes and security institutions’ democratic accountability.

The cumulative fallout from an overly militarized and violent counterterrorism response helped erode the legitimacy of elections and the democratic government in Burkina Faso, where hopes for democracy were high following the ousting of long-time dictator Blaise Compaoré in 2014. The Burkinabé government’s military response to the spillover of violence from Mali, couched in a full-throated counterterrorism narrative and supported by U.S. military equipment and nonlethal security assistance, has carelessly painted Burkina Faso’s Fulani minority as jihadis and enflamed ethnic tensions. Extrajudicial killings and massacres committed by government-sanctioned volunteer militias and community defense groups stoked anger among the Fulani and, in some cases, fueled recruitment and further violence. In response to public criticism of the military, the government passed changes to the legal code in 2019, feeding the suppression of the media and human rights groups. Ahead its 2020 elections, the ruling party also amended the electoral code to suspend voting in insecure areas and limit forms of voter identification, both of which were perceived to benefit the incumbent party. The decline in international measures of Burkina Faso’s democracy is a direct result of the government’s growing lack of accountability for its counterterrorism response.

In another example, when military officers overthrew the Malian government in 2020, there was little resistance from a citizenry angry at elite corruption, poor governance, and an absence of accountability for the state’s violence against its civilians. As a United States Institute of Peace report highlights, Western security assistance for counterterrorism operations diverted resources away from basic services to the Malian people and neglected to build up systems of oversight and military accountability. The subsequent military campaigns were brutal and harsh, killing many civilians with impunity and helping to make the civilian government and democratic institutions look unresponsive and incapable of regulating their armed forces—a key democratic norm. The international community had privileged a robust counterterrorism response at the expense of rights and accountability, effectively contributing to the democratic recession.

Although the U.S. government has been willing to accept a status quo ante—support for existing autocratic regimes willing to combat terrorism—is it willing to swell the ranks of failing democracies and contribute to growing global cynicism that political violence, dysfunction, corruption, and maladministration are democracy’s defining features? Does it continue to accept the unintended consequences of rising authoritarianism and democratic decline to sustain a reactive posture to imminent threats? The ongoing democracy recession is not just a crisis for democracy: It is a critical national security issue for the United States that relies on this community for strategic alliances; its geopolitical position; and to preserve the international, liberal rules-based order.

The Summit for Democracy’s three principle themes—anti-corruption, human rights, and preservation of civil society spaces—take direct aim at the roots and consequences of elite predation which enables the spread of transnational violent groups. By giving greater attention to how counterterrorism responses impact these issues, the administration can ensure mutually reinforcing responses. The recommendations below are not exhaustive but suggest the type of integrated thinking that will advance both U.S. democracy and counterterrorism goals:

  • Anti-corruption: The White House’s recently released United States Strategy on Countering Corruption considers both international and domestic networks, including “the ways that corruption impacts vulnerable groups at a disproportionate rate.” In demanding greater intelligence-gathering and improved interagency strategies, the U.S. government should prioritize the identification and disruption of privileged networks preying on marginalized groups at the center of violent group recruitment efforts.
  • Democratic governance, security assistance, and human rights: Although the White House strategy appropriately ensures anti-corruption issues are integrated into U.S. security force assistance, the Biden administration must go further to end the deleterious effects of security force counterterrorism operations on democratic and human rights. Earlier U.S. efforts to introduce principles of democratic governance into managing security forces should be resurrected and reinforced by the Summit for Democracy’s human rights commitments. These would end security force impunity in rights violations by identifying and prosecuting abuses; establishing robust checks and balances over the security sector, including expanded interagency and legislative oversight mechanisms; and ensuring civil society and the public are involved in how the government defines and responds to security threats.
  • Expanding civil society space: In 2020, the United Nations’ envoy for human rights while countering terrorism released a hard-hitting report on how counterterrorism-driven restrictions on civil society contribute to closing democratic spaces. Internationally supported national action plans (NAPs) to prevent violent extremism and counterterrorism too often side step these restrictions on political rights and further privilege state concerns over those of wider society. Going forward, in line with the Summit for Democracy’s priorities, international actors must confront government restrictions and ensure that not only civil society is included in NAP creation, implementation, and evaluation, but these plans become increasingly centered around governance, rights, and peacebuilding solutions.

Framing Summit for Democracy commitments as integral to national security priorities prevents marginalizing the democracy agenda to a discrete group of reformist actors and activities and puts pressure on factions that manipulate democratic processes and institutions for their own gain.

Previewing the future of the U.S. counterterrorism mission, U.S. homeland security advisor Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall missed an opportunity to link this critical issue to the summit’s anti-corruption, civic space, and human rights goals. However, she acknowledged that the administration seeks to right-size the mission compared to other policy goals. The year of action leading to the next summit is a golden opportunity to address the links between counterterrorism and virtual Summit for Democracy outcomes, ensuring the pursuit of terrorism and violent extremism does not come at the expense of the very democratic systems that hold the most promise for sustained peace and prosperity.

Jason S. Calder is head of the Washington office of Saferworld, an international peacebuilding organization. He specializes in policy and programming at the nexus of governance, security, and conflict. Twitter: @JasonCalder15

Lauren Van Metre is a senior advisor at the National Democratic Institute supporting its peace and security initiative to strengthen its governance work in fragile and conflict-affected states. She has worked on major conflict resolution and prevention initiatives at the U.S. Defense Department, State Department, and the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.

What’s the Harm in Talking to Russia? A Lot, Actually.

Diplomacy is neither intrinsically moral nor always strategically wise.

Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.
Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.

Ukraine Has a Secret Resistance Operating Behind Russian Lines

Modern-day Ukrainian partisans are quietly working to undermine the occupation.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.

The Franco-German Motor Is on Fire

The war in Ukraine has turned Europe’s most powerful countries against each other like hardly ever before.

U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.
U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.

How the U.S.-Chinese Technology War Is Changing the World

Washington’s crackdown on technology access is creating a new kind of global conflict.