December 7, 2022
IntelBrief: How Counterterrorism and Great Power Competition Coexist
Counterterrorism has been deprioritized by several governments confronting the return of inter-state conflict and great power competition; however, terrorism has often been used or exploited by states for their own strategic goals and the past two decades of global counterterrorism efforts offer some valuable tools and lessons. As counterterrorism approaches reach an inflection point after twenty years of the “Global War on Terror,” there are changes at myriad levels, including tactical, operational, and strategic. The core of Western counterterrorism focus has shifted from the Middle East to Africa; consequently, regional interests, including those of European partners, are more likely to be targets than the US.
Yet, for those who argue to jettison counterterrorism, it is important to recall that many states use and exploit non-state armed groups to achieve their strategic objectives, and counterterrorism and great power competition may be two sides of a single coin. Many of the tools and lessons learned from two decades of global counterterrorism efforts may be applicable to addressing current security challenges. The portfolio of security cooperation and building partner capabilities with a network of global allies, and the relationships forged between the intelligence agencies and security services of those countering al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State, should be preserved and operationalized toward current and emerging priorities. The United States and its partners have worked through the United Nations and platforms like the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF) to harmonize international legal frameworks and partnerships, as well as strengthen the capacities of frontline officials and communities to deliver security, promote human rights and the rule of law, and build inclusive approaches. These are not unrelated to the efforts needed to support Ukraine in light of the Russian invasion, to preserve influence and gains made in the Sahel – particularly with the increased influence of the Wagner Group – or manage the range of challenges relating to Iran.
Once used as a set of tactical tools to address domestic security threats, counterterrorism was exceptionalized as a threat to international peace and security following the attacks of September 11, 2001 and elevated to a more strategic priority globally – without establishing a clear definition of terrorism. But several tactical measures, including joint combined exchange training, could pay dividends in great power competition, especially in terms of high-end capabilities such as intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR); offensive cyber operations; and a host of other activities that would fall under the domain of unconventional or irregular warfare.
This false dichotomy between counterterrorism and great power competition undermines Western interests. Counterterrorism and great power competition are dynamic and interconnected spheres; should the U.S. and its allies leave a political or operational vacuum, others can occupy the vacuum – a strong risk in places like Afghanistan and Mali where Russia and China retain levels of influence. The West, whether through NATO or other regional configurations, can and must do both to meet the challenge of a rising China and a revanchist Russia. However, counterterrorism efforts must be more carefully tailored to meet the risks and needs particular to various contexts, especially as the threat is increasingly diffuse and diverse. In addition to Salafi-jihadist groups, there is also the rise of global far-right violent extremism, the continued state sponsorship of proxy groups, and myriad other ideologies motivating violence, including anti-5G/technophobia, so-called “Incels,” and QAnon conspiracy theorists.
Despite several ongoing conflicts – from Iraq and Syria to Yemen and Mali, for example – there has been remarkable consensus among international partners in countering terrorism. For two decades, it has been one area in which all five permanent members (P5) of the UN Security Council have largely been able to find agreement. However, the ongoing war in Ukraine and tensions among the P5 – China, France, Russia, the U.K., and the U.S. – will make the kind of international cooperation achieved on counterterrorism unlikely (though not necessarily impossible, depending on whether new attacks or threats materialize) going forward. The nature of ‘great power competition’ will make such global partnerships like the GCTF less likely and the investment in efforts to prevent and counter violent extremism is likely to diminish; though many such efforts could continue to inform state and local initiatives to address the drivers and grievances that fuel support for violent groups. The war in Ukraine has been instructive in that regard, with various Western countries displaying different levels of comfort in challenging Russia, wary of drawing Moscow’s ire as the Kremlin continues to weaponize energy supplies and food reserves. Similarly, there is no uniformity of approach on how to deal with Chinese power projection, Iran’s continued sponsor of proxy groups, or North Korea’s continued nuclear saber-rattling. What is certain, however, is that the many relationships developed and tools deployed in the global war on terrorism are worth refashioning for a new era of great power competition. Moreover, while we must learn lessons from the global war on terror – particularly the negative impacts on global human rights, democracy building, and civil society protection – we must not throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.