Walking the Thin Line between Law and Liberty to Prevent Terror and Extremism

Blog | March 15, 2019


With ISIS on the brink of losing its last stronghold in Baghuz, it is worth remembering that the end of ISIS in Iraq and Syria “doesn't mean the end of the organization,” as General Joseph Votel, the head U.S. Central Command, warned in February 2019. Even less so will it mean the end of extremism. The territorial defeat of a group that claimed tens of thousands of lives since announcing its caliphate five years ago provides an opportunity to reflect on what went wrong in this prolonged fight against ISIS.

Terrorist attacks killed hundreds of innocent lives across the UK, Europe and the U.S. in recent years. Unprecedented waves of jihadist and far-right terrorist atrocities have left Western populations in a state of shock, fear and anger. As a result, the public’s calls for visible counter-extremism measures have become louder and voting shares of populist parties bigger. Politicians have been confronted with rising levels of public pressure to make their countries safe again and to prevent future terrorist attacks at any cost.

In an effort to appease their support bases, many governments have resorted to adopting draconian laws and policies, often at the expense of human rights and liberal values. They focused on measures such as stepping up surveillance, clamping down on extremist propaganda, expanding stop and search powers and sending drones and special forces to conflict areas. They were treating the sources rather than the symptoms of extremism.

“Unfortunately, current policies seem almost guaranteed not to reduce extremist violence but instead to make it easier for terrorists to spread their hateful ideas, recruit new members, and carry out attacks,” writes former U.S. diplomat and Special Representative to Muslim Communities Farah Pandith in her upcoming book How We Win.  

At ISD, we have been closely following counter-terrorism and counter-extremism policies that have been debated, adopted and amended since 9/11 and the “war on terror.” Our observations show that sharp-end, draconian measures in the online and offline world have tended to produce little more than an illusion of security. In particular, policies that cut down on civil liberties, disproportionally target minority groups and are characterized by vague statutory drafting and extensive executive powers have contributed to an environment in which extremists can thrive.

Not only have such policies failed to address the underlying sources of extremism, they have also fed into grievances, identity crises and narratives that drive radicalization. By fueling societal tensions and alienating entire communities, they have decreased the population’s overall resilience and increased the risk that vulnerable individuals embrace extremist, anti-establishment narratives.

A host of grievances are driving Islamist and far-right extremists towards violence. For example, Islamist groups mobilize when laws are perceived as discriminatory or disproportionally targeted towards minority faith groups. This is especially true for policies such as Trump’s 2017 travel ban on citizens from six predominantly Muslim countries, or UKIP leader Gerald Batten’s proposed introduction of special security screening for Muslim would-be immigrants. Likewise, the French burqa ban has caused a severe backlash from Muslim communities, who felt stigmatized and offended. Such policies have deepened societal rifts and exacerbated perceived identity conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims.

Similar dynamics can be observed among far-right sympathizers in reaction to no-platforming or removal policies that are perceived as unjust or disproportionate. Draconian online laws such as the NetzDG legislation in Germany have led to over censorship and inconsistencies, which the German far-right could capitalize on. In recent years, far-right movements have successfully exploited grievances around freedom of speech to reach more mainstream audiences and mobilize angry online communities.

Almost two decades after 9/11, we are still nowhere close to understanding the interplay between security- and law-heavy counter-extremism policies and the prevention of radicalization in the long run. Many questions remain underexplored in academia and are absent in policy considerations, for example: Have bans, controls and military operations undermined values-based approaches to counter-extremism? Do intrusive counter-extremism policies drive communities further apart? What are their effects on community cohesion and societal resilience to extremist propaganda? And ultimately, are sharp-end counter-terrorism and soft-end counter-extremism measures inherently contradictory or can they complement each other?

With newly arising challenges about the future of foreign fighters and their families these questions become imminently important. Most recently, British Home Secretary Sajid Javid announced to revoke the British citizenship of Shamima Begum, who left the UK at the age of fifteen to join ISIS and has made a public plea to come back home. This might appease worried voters and create an illusion of security in the short-term.

But, stripping terrorists of their citizenship is not only likely to be unsustainable but potentially also counter-productive—particularly at a time when extremism is increasingly transnational, digital and cumulative. Against this background, it will be necessary to reassess current approaches to combatting extremism and terrorism by looking beyond short-term effects of policies and paying attention to the dynamics they set in motion in the long-run.

Julia Ebner is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) and author of the bestselling book The Rage: The Vicious Circle of Islamist and Far-Right Extremism. Her research focuses on terrorism prevention, far-right extremism, polarization dynamics and online disinformation. She tweets at @julie_renbe.

The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the EastWest Institute