Does Counter-Terrorism Work? by Richard English review – a thoughtful and authoritative analysis

The Guardian

In January 2002, during his State of the Union address, President George W Bush said that in “four short months” the US had “rallied a great coalition, captured, arrested and rid the world of thousands of terrorists … and terrorist leaders who urged followers to sacrifice their lives are running for their own”.

The term “war on terror” had been coined a few days after al-Qaida’s attacks of 9/11 to describe the most extensive and ambitious counter-terrorism operation the world had seen. As Bush spoke, it all seemed to be going rather well.

Two decades later, with more than 300,000 people killed in Iraq, according to some estimates, and perhaps 240,000 deaths in Afghanistan, the violence of the “war on terror” can be seen to have created further chaos and carnage. Even excluding Iraq and Afghanistan, the numbers killed in terrorist attacks around the world rose from 109 a month in the years before 9/11, according to one study, to 158 a month during the six years that followed. Meanwhile, some of those whom Bush said were running for their lives are now in power in Kabul.

In Northern Ireland, on the other hand, the conflict came largely to an end – after 30 years – once British governments began to use the military and police to contain, rather than attempt to brutally extirpate, anti-state violence. Security forces patiently developed their intelligence-gathering capacities, while government ministers acknowledged the political causes of terrorism and, eventually, formed partnerships with those whom they had been fighting.

Richard English, the author of Does Counter-Terrorism Work?, is a professor of political history at Queen’s University Belfast, and has dedicated decades to the analysis of terrorism and to governments’ efforts to overcome it. Given that the choices made in counter-terrorism policy impact directly upon each of us every day, it is a vitally important area of study.

His previous work includes a 2016 volume, Does Terrorism Work?, and a highly regarded history of the IRA. Here, he offers a thoughtful and authoritative dissection of the counter-terrorism efforts of the “war on terror”, Northern Ireland’s Troubles and the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and the lessons that each can offer.

English believes that post-9/11 counter-terrorism was far too short-termist, that the histories of Afghanistan and Iraq were “substantially ignored in a disgraceful fashion” and that the US became overly impressed with its own early military successes in both countries.

In Iraq, the claim that the removal of Saddam Hussein from power was a necessary part of a global counter-terrorist campaign was, of course, founded on the false claim that Saddam was supporting al-Qaida and the mistaken belief that he possessed weapons of mass destruction. Moreover, English writes, the assumption that the Middle East could be recast “through naive invasion” took no account of the region’s past, its complex allegiances, or the possibility of something simply going wrong.

He cautions that very few counter-terrorism campaigns will ever achieve complete strategic success. Unconvinced by those who claim bullishly that the Provisional IRA was “defeated”, he argues persuasively that the republican movement’s sustainable campaign of violence was suspended only because its pragmatic leaders decided that they might more likely achieve their objective – a united Ireland – by peaceful means. Equally, he is sceptical of those among his fellow academics who argue that counter-terrorism operations will inevitably promote terrorism.

However, he writes, there are times when “those who criticise counter-terrorists for worsening their state’s strategic position regarding terrorism, and those who celebrate tactical-operational successes against terrorist adversaries, might shout past each other while yet both being right”.

English judges that if any counter-terrorism campaign is to achieve even partial strategic victory, it must be conducted in a patient, well-resourced manner, with clear objectives. Given that terrorists often seek to provoke outrage and overreaction, the public should be encouraged to be realistic about the limits to what can be accomplished.

He also concludes that to avoid failure, counter-terrorist efforts must be integrated into broader political initiatives: “We should not mistake the terrorist symptom for the more profound issues that are at stake.”

Although this book was written before the Hamas attacks of 7 October and the war in Gaza, English was already convinced that Israeli counter-terrorism tactics, no matter how carefully conceived or brilliantly executed, will not resolve the conflict unless there is a strategic engagement with Palestinian grievances and desire for statehood.

Finally, he cautions that his three case studies present serious warnings about the self-harm that can be inflicted by state actions judged to lack morality. All three have involved the abuse of prisoners; that an overreliance on aggressive military methods can shatter public support; that technical surveillance should be lawful and proportionate; and, as a senior British police officer warned in a report published this month, that there are serious questions to be asked about the morality and legality of allowing informants within terrorist organisations to commit serious crimes.

“A successful counter-terrorism will be a just counter-terrorism,” English writes: legally bound, accountable and proportionate. To stray from this, he says, risks delegitimising the objectives of the state. Or as a mural in Northern Ireland used to say: “When those who make the law, break the law, in the name of the law, there is no law.”

Ian Cobain is the author of Anatomy of a Killing: Life and Death on a Divided Island (Granta)

  • Does Counter-Terrorism Work? by Richard English is published by Oxford University Press (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

Does Counter-Terrorism Work? by Richard English review – a thoughtful and authoritative analysis