In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the United States spearheaded an international campaign to contain the threat from militant groups, like al-Qaida, by encouraging states to blacklist “terrorist” groups. Perhaps the most significant part of this effort was the passing of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1373 (UNSC 1373), on 28 September 2001. Twenty years later, the return to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan is just one example of how this heavy-handed anti-terror strategy failed.
The global blacklisting regime has not only failed to contain the Taliban but it has also made it harder to end wars across the globe. Resolution 1373 encouraged member states to set up their own blacklists to sanction the support of terror groups. But in the absence of a UN definition of what actually constitutes “terrorism”, the resolution led to states identifying suspects in light of their own national interests. Beyond al-Qaida and the Taliban, armed groups as diverse as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), the Communist Party of Nepal, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in Turkey, the Communist Party of the Philippines and Hamas in Palestine were listed as terrorists.
States had been designating terror groups for decades, of course, but being labelled as such took on a whole different meaning following 9/11. UNSC 1373 was the first legally binding UN security council resolution to address international terrorism as a global phenomenon with no reference to a particular state or region, imposing a blanket mandatory sanctions regime on all terrorists. It was also the first time the right to self-defence had been invoked in the context of violence by a non-state actor.
Ultimately, the resolution furthered the sense that one side in conflicts – the non-state actor – is illegitimate and violent, and the other side – the state – is legitimate and should be unquestionably supported in its fight against “terrorists”.
In Colombia this framing deeply affected people’s perceptions of one another in the context of the civil war. One civil society activist that I spoke to recalled the moment when a bounty was offered for the severed hand of Mono Jojoy, a member of the Farc Secretariat. This intense dehumanisation and polarisation continued to have an impact during the negotiations and beyond. It was ultimately by distancing itself from the terrorist tag that the Colombian government put in place what might be described as a “linguistic ceasefire”, which helped get negotiations off the ground. But the terrorist label stuck, and it made any negotiated agreement very hard to sell to the public at large, resulting in the rejection of the peace plan in a referendum in October 2016.
The post-9/11 blacklisting regime has made the possibility of peace harder – we might even ask whether something like the Good Friday agreement would have been possible had negotiations been conducted in the 2000s. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) had, after all, been listed as a terrorist organisation by the United Kingdom since 1974, even though it was not listed internationally. In fact, much international involvement in the Good Friday agreement in 1998, particularly from the United States, was very supportive of negotiating with the IRA. As a number of mediators involved in negotiation attempts pre- and post-9/11 have said – what was possible then is no longer possible now.
And while before 9/11 the argument could be made that particular non-state armed groups should be considered as insurgents, or fighting for self-determination, today they are all just “terrorists”. This includes social and political organisations with no links to violent actions, as seen in Spain’s Basque country, where youth and cultural associations have been blacklisted, and more recently in the Philippines, where President Rodrigo Duterte pushed through a controversial anti-terrorism bill allowing even the mildest government critics to be labelled as such. In Egypt today human rights defenders, academics and even business owners are routinely accused of being part of terrorist organisations.
The terrorist tag is no longer just a label used by belligerents against each other; the whole international community has been standing behind this label for 20 years, with clear implications. Armed conflicts have been reshaped globally, pushing politics underground and raising the entry cost for dialogue and negotiations. It has encouraged a blunt-edged, security-oriented approach that allows little space to tackle the root causes of violence and has even lent targeted groups credibility as resistance movements. Armed organisations such as Al-Shabab and Hamas have used the labelling strategically to raise their status within their constituency and enhance their perceived victimhood.
Moreover, while the objective of blacklisting is to contain security threats, it has not succeeded in hurting listed armed groups in material terms. To be effective, policies would need to be tailored to specific local circumstances, but these regimes stress uniformity. The anti-terror blacklisting mindset has also made international policy lose sight of a cental conflict dynamic: state violence. Western governments and international organisations have found themselves aligned with and supporting dubious military and policing strategies, often accompanied by human rights violations, in the name of combating blacklisted groups. Accordingly, they end up pouring more fuel on the fire of such conflicts.
It is time to change this failed policy of blacklisting, which merges the actor and the act of terrorism. Instead of listing non-state armed groups, international policy should focus on criminalising the acts instead – both those of armed groups and those of the state. By doing this, and rejecting the go-to solution of dehumanising all groups and their supporters as “terrorists”, change – and thus peace – is put within closer reach.
Sophie Haspeslagh is an assistant professor in political science at the American University in Cairo. She is the author of Proscribing Peace: How Listing Armed Groups Hurts Negotiations