Common Sense Counter-Terrorism

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By ICRD Intern Eamon Lebow

As civil society leaders around the world struggle to develop innovative strategies for countering terrorism that can go beyond the use of force, one pivotal legal decision casts a shadow over this work. In 2010, the Humanitarian Law Project (HLP) challenged the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project. The HLP—which promotes the peaceful resolution of conflicts within the framework of human rights law and humanitarian law—sought to advise the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group listed by the U.S. as a foreign terrorist organization, on peaceful conflict resolution with the Turkish government.

Under the AEDPA and provisions of the Patriot Act, it is illegal for anyone to provide “material support” to groups designated “foreign terrorist organizations” by the U.S. government. In addition to weapons and cash, the legal definition of “material support” includes “training,” “personnel,” “service,” and “expert advice or assistance.” In effect, it is illegal under this law to teach militants how to abandon violence and resolve conflict peacefully and constructively. The Court ultimately ruled against the HLP and the law remained intact. The decision, unfortunately, fails to recognize and therefore capitalize on the potential that non-governmental organizations like the HLP have to disrupt violence efficiently and non-violently.

Although it is essential to prevent militants from receiving material support that strengthens their activities, legal rulings such as Holder v. HLP may inadvertently undermine some of the most effective methods for stamping out the root causes of violent conflict. Violent and extremist ideologies typically don’t spring forth from a vacuum; and often resonate strongly among those who haven’t been able to find answers elsewhere. Legitimate concerns about social injustice or difficult economic circumstances are easily exploited by radical organizations when legitimate institutions fail to address these grievances.

In Turkey, for example, the conflict between the PKK and the Turkish government emerged from years of government efforts to suppress Kurdish identity and consequent Kurdish rebellions. The Turkish government lists both the military and political wings of the PKK as terrorist organizations. Although the Turkish government has a moral obligation to protect its citizens, most prosecutions under Turkish terrorism laws have not involved violent activities, leading to allegations that the government misuses these laws to repress legitimate Kurdish civil society initiatives. International NGOs such as the HLP could help the PKK channel their grievances in a constructive manner, but according to Holder v. HLP this work is equivalent to financing al Qaeda or Hezbollah. A Washington Post editorial observed the irony that “members of the [HLP] legally can stand on a street corner and praise the PKK for carrying out terrorist acts, but they cannot work with the PKK in an effort to stop the violence.”

Tragically, these laws suggest to policymakers that it is impossible for NGOs to offer constructive guidance to hardline militants or extremists. There is no better counterexample, though, than the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy’s (ICRD) efforts to enhance madrasa education by training teachers in critical thinking, religious tolerance, and human rights. For years, Pakistani militants have notoriously drawn recruits from some of the nation’s more extreme madrasas, while many other of these religious schools indoctrinate students with sectarian and intolerant ideologies. Changing this state of affairs requires close cooperation with madrasa leaders, many of whom are deemed too hardline or militant to accept reform. However, ICRD has managed over time to develop trusting relationships with a number of highly conservative madrasa leaders, who have been engaged in ICRD’s workshops and trainings for more than ten years.

The impact of these trainings has been dramatic: in one workshop in the Swat Valley a local militant commander attended with the intention of discrediting all that was being taught. However, by the end of the session, he experienced a change of heart, saying, “My kids need to know that only through being peaceful can they spread true Islam.” The positive impact of such work is undeniable, but the Holder v. HLP ruling discourages groups like ICRD or HLP from even attempting to effect change among radicals.

Broad definitions of material support like the one upheld in Holder v. HLP discourage or prevent conflict resolution and peace-building work where it is desperately needed. Diplomacy is fundamentally about reaching across lines toward “enemies,” and NGOs have the capability and will to open new diplomatic channels, especially when dealing with non-state actors. Today’s laws reflect an outdated strategy and ought to be revised to accommodate the vital work of unofficial peacemakers.

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