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On October 4, the White House issued its new National Strategy for Counterterrorism. This is a long and welcome document, and I want to discuss only one element of the strategy: the role of civil society.
The White House strategy correctly states that fighting terrorism includes "prioritiz[ing] a broader range of non-military capabilities, such as our ability to prevent and intervene in terrorist recruitment, minimize the appeal of terrorist propaganda online, and build societal resilience to terrorism." It adds that "To defeat radical Islamist terrorism, we must also speak out forcefully against a hateful ideology that provides the breeding ground for violence and terrorism."
The view that terrorists have an ideology, and that we need to combat it, rightly permeates the document. At one point it says "We will undermine the ability of terrorist ideologies, particularly radical Islamist terrorist ideologies, to create a common identity and sense of purpose among potential recruits. We must combat the resilience of terrorist narratives by acknowledging that their ideologies contain elements that have enduring appeal among their audiences." This is an important statement, because it shows that the administration views the fight against terror as going far beyond kinetic or military action.
Here is the paragraph on civil society:
INCREASE CIVIL SOCIETY'S ROLE IN TERRORISM PREVENTION: Through engagement, public communications, and diplomacy, we will strengthen and connect our partners in civil society who are eager to expand their limited terrorism prevention efforts. We will raise awareness of radicalization and recruitment dynamics, highlight successful prevention and intervention approaches domestically and overseas, and empower local partners through outreach, training, and international exchanges. We will also promote grassroots efforts to identify and address radicalization to insulate civilian populations from terrorist influence.
All this strikes me as quite right, but it points to a problem the document does not acknowledge: some of our putative allies in the struggle against terror view civil society not as a partner but as an enemy. They simply seek to crush it, in ways that can only assist people trying to sell terrorist ideology.
The best (or rather, worst) example is Egypt. The regime there has under way a broad effort to destroy civil society. This began in 2011 with the closing of several American NGOs, including the International Republican Institute, National Democratic Institute, and Freedom House. Their offices and personnel were accused of receiving foreign money, and in fact because Egypt is a very poor country most NGOs depend on foreign money. Those now-infamous "NGO trials" continue to this day. While U.S. officials often refer to Egypt as a close ally, the United States government has not yet succeeded in getting the government of Egypt to drop charges even against the American citizens who were working for those semi-official U.S. NGOs.
The repression of civil society goes much further. President Trump himself intervened in 2017 to get Egypt to release Aya Hegazy, an Egyptian-American who with her husband ran an NGO dedicated to helping street children. Most recently, Egypt jailed a woman who complained about sexual harassment in Egypt, for the crime of "spreading false news."
As a Carnegie report stated,
In February 2015, [Egyptian President ] Sisi issued a law for “organizing lists of terrorist entities and terrorists” that conflates any “breaches of the public order” as defined by the state with terrorist activities. Once again, the use of vague legal concepts opens the door for civil society organizations, activists, and political parties to be included on the list of terrorists and terrorist entities.
Here we get to the heart of the problem: there is an important contradiction between the White House strategy, which rightly says civil society must be a key ally in fighting terrorist ideology, and a policy of destroying civil society. One more example: in Egypt today there are between 40,000 and 60,000 political prisoners.They languish in overcrowded prisons where they have years to contemplate the injustices done to them while jihadis offer ideologies that explain why this happened and try to recruit them. Egypt's prisons are jihadi factories. How does this fit with anyone's counter-terrorism strategy?
The new administration strategy is absolutely right to prioritize actions that fight terrorist ideology "to prevent and intervene in terrorist recruitment, minimize the appeal of terrorist propaganda online, and build societal resilience to terrorism." Countries that crush civil society cannot achieve this, so defending civil society should be a serious element in our national counter-terrorism strategy--even if some of our allies think otherwise.