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The Authoritarianization of U.S. Counterterrorism

How has the fight against terrorism been affected by other authoritarian countries? What are the consequences? Professor Sahar Aziz, Director of the Center for Security, Race & Rights, Rutgers University Law School, studies the US position over the last decades.


More than seventeen years since the “War on Terror” began, the United States has failed to recognize how its authoritarian allies, rather than its adversaries, have defined its counterterrorism practices. Western democracies have adopted signature practices of authoritarian regimes. Torture, secret renditions to black sites, indefinite detention, mass surveillance, targeted killings, selective anti-terrorism enforcement against dissidents and minorities, criminalization of political beliefs, and decreased due process rights are among the counterterrorism practices found in both the United States and their Middle East allies, albeit in varying degrees.

Human rights are de-coupled from security, or worse, treated as an impediment to preserving national security. Although the balance between security and liberty has been the topic of lively debate since 9/11, I proffer that the impetus behind rights violations is not limited to perennial tensions between security and liberty in times of war. Increased international coordination in counterterrorism between authoritarian regimes and liberal democracies also adversely affects human rights.

As terrorism crosses borders with ease, transnational counterterrorism has become a necessity. International organizations and states coordinate preventing terrorism, identifying and apprehending known terrorists, and prosecuting terrorism suspects between nations. One consequence of such coordination is the normalization of illiberal counterterrorism norms and practices common among democratic nations.

While coordinated counterterrorism is warranted to combat transnational terrorists, the current rights subordinating approach is counterproductive. Western governments that engage in or directly support rights-infringing practices ultimately aid terrorists as they proclaim themselves legitimate defenders against transnational state violence. Aggressive state measures trigger backlash attacks as new grievances arise; thereby feeding a cycle of state and non-state violence at the expense of civilian lives. The challenge for Western democratic nations is to avoid a race to the bottom in their counterterrorism coordination with authoritarian regimes.


To be sure, the deplorable techniques used in the “War on Terror” did not originate solely in the authoritarian regimes of the Middle East and Central Asia.(10) Such practices originated from colonial powers in Algeria, Palestine, and Afghanistan, and were subsequently adopted by new ruling elites post-independence.(11) The United States innovated other practices, such as rendition and targeted killings with drones.(12) This Article, thus, explores the narrow issue of the impact on democratic states’ conformity with human rights arising from working with authoritarian states in the Middle East. Specifically, I proffer that counterterrorism coordination with dictatorships normalizes the use of violence and dehumanization of suspects by the U.S. government.(13) As more agents work with foreign agents who operate in a legal and political context where rights are subordinate to authoritarian security practices, the toleration, aiding and abetting, or direct violations of human rights may rise as the institutional culture of an agency shifts towards a more authoritarian mentality.

The adverse consequences of this drift away from liberal principles are not limited to the subordination of individual rights. Security interests are also compromised. Terrorists astutely exploit state violence and rights violations to legitimize their claims as defenders of justice against state oppression. (14) Terrorist recruiters point to the wide net of suspicion and prosecution cast upon Muslim minorities as evidence of the state’s illegitimacy.(15) Such trends are consistent with some scholars’ findings that human rights abuses may correlate with terrorism.(16)

Prescriptively, I recommend that financial and legal restrictions should be imposed on U.S. intelligence and security agencies’ collaboration with authoritarian regimes with a track record of rights violations in their counterterrorism practices. Existing legal restrictions on the delivery of U.S. foreign aid to countries that violate human rights should be expanded to encompass financial support and coordination in counterterrorism.(17) Put simply, U.S. security agencies should be restrained in the degree to which they can cooperate with countries that violate human rights in counterterrorism.

This Article looks to the authoritarian practices of Egypt, one of the United States’ major allies, as a case study. Having long practiced torture, indefinite detention, trial of civilians in military courts, and other human rights violations, Egypt was a destination, among other nations, of terrorism suspects in the U.S. extraordinary rendition program.(18)

In comparing the United States’ counterterrorism practices with Egypt’s, the authoritarianization effect of coordination is brought to the forefront. Specifically, American national security policies and practices post-9/11 have become rights-infringing in ways that mirror those of Middle Eastern authoritarian regimes, and their predecessor colonial powers.(19) Hawkish U.S. government national security rhetoric and fear mongering translates into fewer civil liberties and more human rights violations—first for Muslims and eventually for the American public at large.(20) Ranging from the extreme practices of torture, indefinite detention, and targeted assassinations to prosecutions that deny defendants’ due process, habeas corpus, and confrontation rights, America’s counterterrorism practices in the “War on Terror” are troublingly similar to those of their authoritarian partners. (21)

II. Theorizing the Causes of Terrorism

For centuries, people have fought asymmetrical wars against sovereign nations in pursuit of political, social, economic, and religious goals.(22) The conflicts are often grounded in local grievances against the ruler, ruling elites, and external powerful actors.(23) The surge in international travel, trade, and migration has expanded the reach of terrorist groups.(24) Access to the internet, social media, and other technological advancements provides ample opportunity for non-state actors to recruit and perpetuate violence transnationally.(25) As a result, the constrictive effects of state borders are dissipating while asymmetrical conflicts between state and non-state actors surge.(26)

To effectively counter transnational terrorism, policy makers look to what causes individuals to use violence in pursuit of their aims. This central question has triggered lively debates among scholars and policy makers.(27) Among the cacophony of competing theories, two schools of thought have emerged that inform counterterrorism policies and practices.(28) The first argues that political and socioeconomic factors such as poverty, authoritarianism, human rights violations, political repression, an absence of the rule of law, and inequality contribute to political violence by non-state actors.(29) The second argues ideological factors such as religious fundamentalism, anti-capitalism, Marxism, xenophobia, hyper-nationalism, or racism drive political violence.(30) The school of thought followed by a particular country influences its counterterrorism strategy. The first school of thought leads to a development and rights-based approach and the second leads to a militarized approach. Although the United States pays lip service to the political and socioeconomic factors that contribute to terrorism, its counterterrorism strategies and practices follow the militarized approach.(31)

The development-focused approach connects violence and militancy to poor development indicators such as illiteracy, poverty, rootlessness, poor governance, and rights abuses by the state.(32) Grievances arising from such conditions fester to push recruits for foreign terrorist groups.(33) Although the majority of poor people are not terrorists, poverty combined with structural inequalities may facilitate terrorism recruitment.(34) Relatedly, rapid urbanization coupled with bulges of educated youth unable to find employment commensurate with their education may explain why middle and upper middle class individuals join terrorist groups.(35) When democratic processes are not equally accessible to all residents or rule of law is selectively enforced to the detriment of marginalized groups, violence becomes an attractive means to effectuate change.(36)

A study of sixty-one “Islamic extremist terrorists” in the United States, for example, found most of the suspects were at the margins of society.(37) Many were friendless, petty criminals, drug addicts, from broken homes, or suffering a personal identity crisis. (38) Few of the would-be terrorists sought to spread Islam or establish a caliphate. Instead, they saw themselves as defenders of their religion against what they perceived as America’s war on Islam.(39) The American citizen who attempted to bomb Times Square in 2010 admitted to being motivated by the United States terrorizing Muslim people and Muslim countries through drone strikes, among other practices.(40) Ironically, the more the U.S. government imputes a criminal connotation to the term “Islamist,” the more members of terrorist organizations believe their violent acts are a form of legitimate revolt against state oppression.(41) That is, calling terrorism “Islamist jihad” validates terrorist groups’ propaganda that America is at war with Islam.(42)

Armed conflict also correlates with terrorism. The Global Terrorism Index found that state violence and the presence of an armed conflict are closely associated with terrorist activity.(43) Over a twenty-five year span, 92% of terrorist attacks occurred where state violence was prevalent.(44) In contrast, fewer than 0.6% of terrorist attacks occurred in states without conflict or state violence.(45) Predictably, failed states are a magnet for terrorist groups to set up bases from which to launch domestic and transnational attacks.(46) Indeed, the Middle Eastern countries of Iraq, Syria, and Libya with governments who lack a monopoly over the use of force are now hosts to branches of Al Qaeda, ISIS, and other transnational terrorist groups.(47)

Taking stock of this data, the Bush Administration made democracy promotion the defining component of its post-9/11 Freedom Agenda, thereby continuing America’s long history of spreading democracy as a mainstay of its foreign policy. (48) The U.S. National Security Strategy in 2006, 2010, and 2015 all acknowledge that for democracy to exist, civil liberties, minority rights, and equality of all citizens must be preserved.(49) The U.S. strategy rhetorically commits to using “economic assistance, development aid, trade, and good governance” to support new democracies.(50) By promoting democracy in Muslim majority countries, the U.S. government believed Western security also would be improved.(51) But contrary to its rhetoric, the United States’ counterterrorism practices bred violence.

The second school of thought attributes ideology as the cause of terrorism, ranging from ethno-nationalism, separatism, anarchism, anti-capitalism, neoliberalism, and religious fundamentalism.(52) During the end of the Cold War, non-state actors using religion to justify political violence emerged.(53) The Middle East and Central Asia became the center of fundamentalist, extremist groups seeking to overthrow authoritarian regimes beholden to American interests.(54) These terrorists began by targeting Middle East regimes deemed the “Near Enemy” and eventually spread to their Western backers—the “Far Enemy.”(55)

Al Qaeda and its progeny, ISIS, reject the Westphalian nation-state European model and seek to replace it with an Islamic caliphate order.(56) Attributing the Middle East’s delayed development and moral corrosion to Western political and economic models and American imperialism, these transnational terrorists call for a pan-Islamic caliphate ruling all states with Muslim-majority populations.(57) To them, the Middle East’s problems are a direct result of European colonialism that continues to the present day through lackey dictators.(58) Muslims, therefore, have a religious duty to revolt against Western hegemony through an Islamic awakening that will return Islamic civilization as a dominant actor in world politics.(59) For these reasons, some scholars argue that political reforms, economic development, or democracy promotion in Muslim majority countries will not affect the behavior of transnational terrorists.(60)

This reasoning, however, incorrectly assumes the rise of Islamic political movements in the Middle East take both violent and nonviolent forms—and overlooks that most political Islamists are nonviolent. (61)

A nation’s position on the causes of terrorism shapes its counterterrorism practices. Those who believe terrorism is ideologically driven are more likely to adopt militaristic, rights-infringing practices based on essentialized perceptions of the target group’s identity.(62) In contrast, a more nuanced understanding of the social and economic causes of terrorism recognizes the importance of civil and human rights in preventing terrorism, thereby leaning towards a development-based approach.(63)

While international legal instruments acknowledge the importance of human rights, civil liberties, and development, it is up to each individual nation to determine the extent to which its counterterrorism practices comport with domestic and international rights norms.

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Sahar F. Aziz is a Professor of law and Chancellor’s social justice scholar at Rutgers Law School and Director of the Center for Security, Race & Rights

Rutgers University Law School

Suggested citation: Aziz, Sahar F., The Authoritarianization of U.S. Counterterrorism (September 12, 2018). Washington and Lee Law Review, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN:


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