University of Notre Dame
Kroc Institutde for International Peace Studies

After 20 years, culminating in the collapse of the U.S.-supported government in Afghanistan, it is clear that militarized counterterrorism policies have failed. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq led to increased numbers of global terrorist attacks which remain at high levels today.[1] Repressive security measures imposed in many countries in the name of fighting terrorism have led to democratic backsliding and an erosion of civil liberties and human rights, in some cases prompting a rise in violent extremism.[2] Hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost and trillions of dollars spent in wars against terrorism over the past two decades,[3] yet Al Qaida, ISIS, and affiliated violent extremist groups remain active in many countries, and the Taliban has now taken over in Afghanistan. 

The core premises of militarized and repressive counterterrorism policy are flawed. Too often policymakers have focused on the symptoms rather than the causes of terrorism. They have employed overly securitized policies and repressive measures against civilian populations that often lead to greater violence.[4] The major drivers of terrorist recruitment are not religion or ideology, but repression, corruption, poor governance, and the lack of equitable opportunities for development, as research from the U.S. Department of State confirms.[5] Many studies show a direct relationship between terrorist violence and conditions such as youth alienation and marginalization and the lack of trust between public authorities and local communities.[6] 

The repercussions of misguided counterterrorism policies have been felt by civil society actors working to defend human rights, promote development, and mediate conflicts in the Global South. Nongovernmental groups seeking to reform policies or hold political leaders accountable have faced greater repression. Governments have imposed regulations and restrictions that are disproportional to the threat and restrict the operational space of citizen groups, especially those that challenge social exclusion and unequal power relations. Many who work against extremism by promoting human rights and development are themselves being labeled extremist and are facing constraints on their ability to operate.[7]

Alternative approaches are available. In recent years, the practices of many states and the policies of the United Nations have been recalibrated to allow for a more holistic, less militarized approach. Effective counterterrorism policy depends upon multifaceted approaches that involve a broader range of governmental and nongovernmental partners, and that draw upon expertise in a wide range of fields, including education, accountable governance, development, gender equity, media and strategic communications, youth engagement, and peacebuilding.

The following are four core principles for guiding effective policy against violent extremism.

Multidimensional. Bring together a wide array of essential policy approaches guided by coherent strategic objectives over the near, medium, and long term, with sufficient resources to sustain those efforts. Paul Pillar uses the example of highway safety to highlight the need for an array of well-coordinated policies—speed limits, seatbelt laws, auto safety standards, and road maintenance, in addition to police patrols.[8]  Success in preventing violent extremism means supplementing appropriate security measures with substantially larger investments in governance, development, peacebuilding, and human rights programs. 

Inclusive. Actively involve governmental and nongovernmental actors with practical expertise in the full range of necessary non-military policies and programs. Engage the private sector, and bring in civilian educators, experts on development, community leaders, communications specialists, community health workers, anthropologists, psychologists, human rights lawyers, and others. Assure diversity and sensitivity to gender, ethnicity, language, and other cultural and social realities in all programs within affected communities. 

Multilateral. Embrace cooperative action at the global and regional level to sustain international support. Ensure that norms and strategic aims developed at the United Nations and in other international agencies are respected across borders and at the local level.

Rights-based. Insist upon respect for human rights and the principles of international law. Urge states to halt abusive security measures and policies of repression. Provide support for criminal justice systems and rule of law programs that uphold human rights and protect individuals and their communities. 

Preventing terror attacks requires not only improved security, but better efforts to address the underlying conditions that give rise to violent extremism. Resolving conflicts, ending foreign occupations, overcoming oppression, eradicating poverty, supporting sustainable development, empowering the marginalized, defending human rights, and promoting good governance are all vital to the struggle against terrorism, yet addressing these challenges continues to be made more difficult by repressive counterterrorism policies. 

Alistair Millar is President of the Fourth Freedom Forum and adjunct professor at The George Washington University. He co-founded the Global Center on Cooperative Security in 2005 and served as its executive director until 2017. He is the author or co-author of numerous chapters, articles, and reports on counterterrorism, sanctions, and nonproliferation, including with Eric Rosand, “Allied against Terrorism: What’s Needed to Strengthen Worldwide Commitment” (Century Foundation Press, 2006). 

David Cortright is Professor Emeritus of the Practice at the Kroc Institute and Director of the Global Policy Initiative of the Keough School of Global Affairs. He is the author, co-author or co-editor of more than 20 books, including “Uniting Against Terror: Cooperative Nonmilitary Responses to the Global Terrorist Threat,” co-edited with George A. Lopez (The MIT Press, 2007).


[2] International Commission of Jurists. “The Report of the Eminent Jurists’ Panel on Terrorism, Counterterrorism, and Human Rights,

[3] Neta Crawford, “United States Budgetary Costs and Obligations of Post-9/11 Wars through FY2020: $6.4 Trillion” Brown University, 13 November, 2019. Available online at

[4] David Kilcullen, The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

[5] David M. Robinson, “Remarks at the Geneva Conference on Preventing Violent Extremism” (7 April 2016), (Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations),

[6] See for example Mercy Corps, “‛Motivations and Empty Promises’: Voices of Former Boko Haram Combatants and Nigerian Youth,” April 2016,; and George Packer, “Exporting Jihad,” The New Yorker (28 March 2016),

[7] Summary of A/HRC/40/52,

[8] Paul R. Pillar, Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2003), 29.