Fighting Fire with Water: NGOs and Counterterrorism Policy Tools



The policy tools of counterterrorism reflect both the nature of the terrorist group in question and the strategies of the actors that engage in counterterrorism. Historically governments have perceived terrorism primarily as a crime, a threat to the state's security or part of a broader political campaign. Accordingly, states have adopted counterterrorism policies based on law enforcement, military or diplomatic strategies, or a combination of these. While international organisations have played a supplementary role in terms of law enforcement and diplomacy, NGOs have, until recently, played a much smaller role in this field. Over the last couple of decades, however, with the rise of ‘sacred terror’ and as many states have accorded more weight to the propaganda element in terrorist campaigns, containment strategies that aim at managing and marginalising the threat have become more prominent. This article explores the increasing role of NGOs in this changing context, and suggests that the policy tools of NGOs are particularly well suited to combating network-type terrorist groups like al-Qa'eda and its franchises because such groups depend on complicit society, a convincing narrative and information asymmetry vis-à-vis their supporters. Here NGOs have distinct advantages because of their potential to credibly challenge terrorist narratives on the ground.