. 'Counter-Terrorism' is a dangerous myth, it is high time we abolished it | Ceasefire Magazine

‘Counter-Terrorism’ is a dangerous myth, it is high time we abolished it Ideas

At a moment when demands for police and prison abolition have travelled from the radical fringes into mainstream prominence, the radical social transformation that we seek requires nothing less than the abolition of the category of ‘terrorism’ altogether and the dismantling of the global counter-terrorism infrastructure, writes Eda Seyhan.

Editor's Desk, Ideas, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Monday, June 29, 2020 14:10 - 0 Comments


Calls to “defund the police” by Black Lives Matter protesters in the US and UK have thrust the idea of police and prison abolition into the mainstream. The debate over which aspects of policing should be scrapped first has highlighted – rightly – the need to “decriminalise drugs, sex work, migration, poverty, and protest”. Counter-terrorism and national security rarely feature in these discussions, despite being an expanding source of police power and a ballooning budget line. Donald Trump’s recent call to designate ‘Antifa’ – presented as a bogeyman that bears little resemblance to actually existing anti-fascist activism – a terrorist organisation only reinforces the need to confront the national security state. The Left has a blind spot when it comes to national security – now is the time to fix it.

Among our demands for defunding the police, alongside decriminalising drugs and sex work, should be a call to abolish ‘terrorism’ as a category and dismantle the global counter-terrorism infrastructure. This is not an impossibly radical demand. At a roundtable event I attended last year with prosecutors and NGOs working on counter-terrorism, one defence lawyer made the case for subjecting ISIS militants, where there was sufficient evidence, to prosecutions for crimes against humanity or ordinary criminal offences, like murder, rather than terrorism offences. He argued that having a separate system of counter-terrorism law was not only a source of human rights violations, but simply unnecessary. If this is what prosecutors and lawyers working in counter-terrorism are debating, then we in the UK should be capable of articulating demands more radical and transformative than simply scrapping the PREVENT duty (which has effectively turned teachers, doctors and other UK public sector employees into spies for the state).

‘Terrorism’ as a concept and a separate category of criminal offences is already on shaky ground. It has no comprehensive definition under international law, despite many attempts at agreeing one. States almost always resort to the ‘terrorist’ label because it allows them to portray certain opponents as irrational and irredeemable fanatics and to deflect attention away from the origin of their grievances. Trump wants to designate ‘Antifa’ a terrorist organisation in order to delegitimise anti-fascist activism, solidify an “us v. them” dynamic and justify the use of authoritarian powers. ‘Terrorists’, after all, cannot be negotiated with, only neutralised through repression and force. In the name of this loosely defined yet frequently invoked concept, authoritarian measures are entrenched and liberties suppressed. The word ‘terrorism’ has no agreed definition in part because it does not describe an objective reality, but rather a particular relationship between the state and a group of suspected adversaries.

More often than not, those adversaries are racialised minorities. Across the world, Muslims are surveilled, profiled, controlled, detained and killed in the name of ‘national security’. The role of counter-terrorism operations in enacting and fuelling Islamophobia has been widely documented. Less well-known is the fact that many contemporary counter-terrorism practices, such as exclusion orders, travel bans and internment, were established and trialled in Europe’s colonies as tools to suppress uprisings by colonial subjects. Just as abolitionists have drawn attention to the continuity between slavery and mass incarceration in the US, so we must highlight the origins of contemporary tools of counter-terrorism in colonial methods of domination.

Liberals, and much of the wider Left, want counter-terrorism laws and practices to comply with the rule of law and human rights and to pay due attention to white supremacist violence. But counter-terrorism cannot be reformed – because it is primarily concerned with the identification and control of ‘risky’ populations, and race and religion are now firmly embedded proxies for ‘risk’ and ‘danger’. We cannot stop white supremacist violence using tools created in the colonies to protect white rule. Nor can we reform or modify a concept as ideologically biased in the state’s favour as ‘terrorism’. Taking inspiration from abolitionist thinkers, we must consider the root causes of social harm. In the case of ‘terrorist’ violence, we need to acknowledge how war, inequality, racism and state policies themselves engender violence.

We must also consider whether the current system of counterterrorism actually makes us feel safe. Passing counter-terrorism legislation has become an almost yearly ritual for UK governments, enabling an already bloated national security architecture to endlessly amass more power and resources. Decades of criminalising and incapacitating ‘suspected terrorists’ – through freezing their funds, subjecting them to house arrest, blocking their travel, depriving them of their nationality and worse – have failed to stop ‘terrorist’ violence. Just as with private prisons, private security actors have profited from this continued expansion of the national security state while ordinary people are left feeling no safer than before.

The political Left has largely ceded the debate on national security to conservatives, offering little more than the same ‘law and order’ policies repackaged within generic human rights language and toothless oversight mechanisms. The most recent Labour Party manifesto – radical by most standards – promised little more than greater parliamentary accountability and a review of PREVENT. A recent report by the Transnational Institute exploring progressive alternatives to the War on Terror noted that “counter-terrorism policy has been one of the least discussed topics within the Labour Party”, with the overriding temptation being “to not rock the boat” so as to “secure political victories in [the] core economic policy areas”.

With the exception of anarchists and anti-Islamophobia campaigners, there are few voices offering a genuine alternative to current national security policies. At a moment when demands for police and prison abolition have travelled from the radical fringes into mainstream prominence, we must resist the temptation to capitulate on the tricky terrain of national security – the radical social transformation that we seek requires nothing less than the abolition of the category of ‘terrorism’ altogether and the dismantling of the global counter-terrorism infrastructure.

Eda Seyhan

Eda Seyhan is a human rights lawyer and activist. From 2015 to 2019, She worked as a campaigner on counter-terrorism at Amnesty International, which involved helping people unfairly accused of terrorism across Europe. She has written for Al JazeeraAfrican ArgumentsEuroNews and Critical Legal Thinking. She tweets at @eda_seyhan.

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