Combatting Terrorism: National, Regional, and Global Lessons for the Next Decade and Beyond

Remarks by Carl Gershman to The Inter-University  Center for Terrorism Studies conference:

April 30, 2018     National Press Club, Washington, DC

Thank you Yonah and General Gray for inviting me to speak today. Let me say at the beginning that since we’re meeting in the National Press Club and talking about terrorism, I want to note that I just got a message ten journalists were just killed in a terrorist attack in Afghanistan. Two of them worked for the RFE/RL. This underlines, I think, the intersection between terrorism and the need to maintain a free press.

I have been asked to talk about the relationship between terrorism and democracy. I want to begin by noting that around the time of 9/11, the conventional wisdom that was expressed by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft in Senate testimony after 9/11 was that terrorists “…exploit our openness.” He mentioned a captured al-Qa’ida training manual and warning that “terrorists are told how to use America’s freedom as a weapon against us.”

The National Endowment for Democracy, that I run, publishes the Journal of Democracy which in January 2018 ran an article by Amichai Magen challenging this assumption that democracy’s openness makes it vulnerable to terrorism . Magen is an Israeli political scientist at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya. His article entitled “Fighting Terrorism: The Democracy Advantage,” used data from the Global Terrorism Database to show that over the past decade, higher-quality liberal democracies have experienced fewer terrorist attacks than all other regime types, and that there have also been fewer fatalities connected with these attacks. He calls this the “democracy advantage.”

I think that Assistant Secretary Roberts touched on this when he talked about the resilience of our societies and the readiness of our forces. These are the reasons given by Magen to explain the so- called “Democracy Advantage.”

Political openness, according to Magen, and the protection of civil liberties allow grievances to be peacefully and publicly expressed and redressed. Responsiveness to citizens’ desire for physical safety also generates higher rates of life-saving investments in intelligence, infrastructure protection, first responders, social resilience, and specialized medical care. These measures reduce incidences of terrorist assaults and make them less deadly when they occur. Magen goes so far in his article to say that against the background of a surge in global terrorism, “…a consolidated, high-quality democracy is increasingly proving to be the best counter-terrorism organization known to humanity.” That’s quite a remarkable statement.

Magen cites the work of the economist Alberto Abadie who believes that the incidence of terrorism is explained more by the level of political freedom than poverty.  In an essay in 2006 in the American Economic Review, Abadie wrote that the relationship of regime type to terrorism takes the form of an inverted U because “countries with intermediate levels of political freedom [are] more prone to terrorism than countries with high levels of political freedom or countries with highly authoritarian regimes.”  The reasoning is that intermediate regimes, such as electoral and minimalist democracies, are the most vulnerable because they lack what Magen calls “the grievance-assuaging and cooptation capacity” of liberal democracies” as well as “the brutal, no-holds barred crackdown abilities of hardened autocracies.”

But statistics that Magen cites from the GTD over the 2002-2016 period do not back up this thesis.  They do show that higher quality democracies were less prone to terrorist attacks than all other regime types, and that intermediate regimes showed a far higher rate of increase in such attacks.  Yet the greatest absolute rise in the number of terrorist attacks occurred in the more repressive regimes that the survey calls “multiparty autocracies” and “closed autocracies.”  The multiparty dictatorships were more vulnerable, according to Magen, because they “provide greater political space within which terrorists and their ideological and financial supporters can organize and mobilize, yet lack the avenues for meaningful political access and expression that even bare-bones democracies have.  Whatever opportunities for political contestation do exist in multiparty autocracies amount to a sham, and are therefore ineffective in assuaging grievances and countering extremists’ claims to legitimacy.”

Significantly, the GTD data also show that the greatest percentage increase in terrorist attacks occurred in closed autocracies, the most illiberal and repressive category in the survey.  This seems to be for two reasons, according to Magen.  First, advanced communications technologies have made it easier for terrorists to generate and exploit strategic opportunities that exist in closed systems.  And second, smartphones and social media have made it more difficult for autocratic regimes to hide terrorist incidents and have thus undermined the illusion inherited from an earlier time that dictatorships are less vulnerable to terrorism.

Egypt is an example of an authoritarian regime that is failing in its efforts to counter terrorism.  An article last February in The Washington Post by two Egyptian-American human rights activists – one of them Aya Hijazi who became famous when President Trump intervened to secure her release from prison in Egypt – notes that:

Sisi’s counterterrorism policies, which serve as an important justification of his dictatorship, have created a fertile ground for radicalization. The authors of this article witnessed this firsthand during the collective 60 months we spent in prison between 2013 and 2017. We watched the process of radicalization unfold as recruiters for the Islamic State, while jailed themselves, appealed to innocent young prisoners who were facing unjust detainment, harsh sentences, and inhumane conditions. Sisi’s heavy-handed crackdown has thus actually contributed to an increased Islamic State presence in Egypt.

A study by the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy has found that over Sisi’s time in office, despite extensive military and police operations, terror groups are becoming more established and attacks still continuing regularly.

Not least, in a recently published article, an Egyptian judge criticizes the harmful effect of the emergency law now in effect in Egypt.  “All doors,” he writes, “are closed before any opposition and political activism. This is, indeed, a primary factor for the increasing rates of violence and extremism.”

Because security forces in Egypt are focused on preserving the regime, they target nonviolent political opponents as much as or perhaps even more than militant groups.  This means that civil society and dissenting political groups don’t have the space to operate, expand their influence, and develop politically and organizationally.  Thus, if and when another political opening comes, as it did in 2011, the democrats committed to nonviolence won’t be organized and ready to compete politically.  As a result, there will be the same kind of destructive polarization that existed after the Tahrir Square uprising between the Islamists and the autocrats.

Democracy doesn’t just blossom automatically when dictators fall.  If democrats and civil society activists are repressed, atomized, and helpless, they can’t fill the political vacuum that is created when a dictatorship falls.  That’s why it’s in the interest of fighting terrorism to pressure the Sisi regime to allow space for nonviolent groups to function and grow.

Tunisia offers a different and more hopeful example.  In an accompanying article to the Magen piece in the Journal of Democracy, Geoffrey Macdonald and Luke Waggoner warned that while Tunisia has been a political success story, the failure to address corruption, unemployment, and inadequate social services dashed hopes for progress that were engendered by the Jasmine Revolution.  According to Macdonald and Waggoner, the resulting disillusionment inflamed grievance-driven radicalism and led thousands of young Tunisians to join ISIS in Syria and Iraq.  The authors concluded that if a democratic political transition is not accompanied by an economic and social transformation, it could actually heighten the threat of terrorism.

But the flawed start in Tunisia was not the end of the story there because the democratic process is on-going and gives people the opportunity for self-correction.   The next phase of strengthening Tunisian democracy will take place on May 6 with the holding of municipal elections, which is an important milestone in Tunisia’s progress towards local governance and decentralization.    These elections will give civil society and ordinary citizens unprecedented opportunities to participate and to make their voices heard.  It’s especially encouraging that 52% of the candidates for local office are under the age of 35.  This strong participation shows that young Tunisians are embracing democracy’s possibilities for reform and inclusion.  Hopefully, this will counter the appeal of the extremists and make it possible for Tunisia to begin to reap the benefits of “the democracy advantage.”

Thank you.