Rethinking counter-terrorism: lessons from Iraq


Over the next four weeks, LCHR is partnering with Progress to produce a series of four articles on counter-terrorism and human rights. The series will explore counter-insurgency, drones & targeted killings, tackling terrorism in our own communities, and small wars. The articles will be written by LCHR activists and Labour parliamentarians. The first article, written by our Chair Andrew Noakes, is below. It is also posted here on Progress Online.


Rethinking counter-terrorism: lessons from Iraq

All being well, in 2015 Labour will return to government and regain control of Britain’s defence policy. Once again the primary threat we face will be from international terrorism – the dangerous, globalised nexus of ideology, networks, and conflict that links wars in places like Syria, Afghanistan, and Nigeria to extremism, radicalisation, and home-grown terrorist plots here at home.

Over the next four weeks on ProgressOnline, the Labour Campaign for Human Rights is releasing a series of articles on counter-terrorism policy. Our aim is to promote debate and encourage Labour to think carefully about how to approach the big questions and challenges in this field. The theme uniting all the articles is the relationship between counter-terrorism and human rights. All of our authors, in their own way, attempt to challenge the idea that effective counter-terrorism and respect for human rights are incompatible. In fact, we show how the two can go hand in hand.

We have asked all our contributors to pick on the subject they feel best exemplifies this unexpected compatibility. The articles will cover issues like the use of drones in counter-terrorism, radicalisation in our own communities, and Britain’s role in ‘small wars’ around the world.

To get the series started, I’ve picked my own example: Iraq, 2006. It was the bloodiest year of that conflict, and contained plenty of important lessons for how (and how not) to do counter-terrorism. British and American soldiers were losing control of the country. In a brutal and desperate attempt to stop the violence, Shia militants were drafted into the Iraqi security forces to crush the Sunni insurgency. Reports emerged of death squads and torture chambers. As the Americans pitted Shia against Sunni, Iraq was sent spinning hopelessly into full-blown civil war. The death toll that year reached 30,000.

It was a classic example of counter-terrorism gone wrong. The brutal sectarian conflict threatened to tear the country apart. Commentators even started talking about partition.

And then everything changed. By 2009, the mass killing had stopped – that year 5,000 people died in the war, a far cry from the 30,000 who lost their lives in 2006. So what changed? Rethinking their strategy, American commanders started building alliances with Sunni tribes who had long felt alienated from the new Iraqi government. They managed to win their trust and enlist their help in tackling Sunni insurgents linked to al-Qaida. This came to be called the ‘Anbar awakening’, and within a few months casualty rates started to plummet. The recent upturn in violence around Fallujah, brought on by the divisive governing style of the current Iraqi leadership, is further evidence that exploiting sectarian tensions and using brutal tactics is no way to beat an insurgency.

The answer to terrorism in Iraq turned out not to be the Shia death squads or the torture chambers. It was internal diplomacy. In fact, repression is rarely – if ever – a good solution for dealing with insurgencies. By their nature, these kinds of wars are asymmetric. One side has the ability to overwhelmingly dominate on the battlefield, and so the other side chooses not to engage them directly. Instead, they carry out small surprise attacks and then hide.

To fight this way, insurgents depend on local support to shelter themselves and their weapons. It’s how the insurgency worked in Iraq, and Afghanistan too. It also explains how Boko Haram in Nigeria continues to thrive despite a heavy-handed military offensive by the Nigerian army over the last few months, and how al-Shabaab continues to defy national and international forces in Somalia.

To win a war like this, you have to gain the support of the local population. You have to get them to flush the insurgents out for you. When the Sunni tribes rose up against al-Qaida in Iraq, there was nowhere left for the insurgency to hide. Conversely, when Shia militants were drafted in, it reinforced Sunni loyalty to al-Qaida and made it harder to win.

The lesson we learned from this can be applied across the board in counter-terrorism, and is central to the other articles in this series: violating human rights aggravates civilians. But you need the support of those civilians if you’re going to defeat the enemy in an unconventional war. To secure their support, you have to engage in a genuine dialogue, build and reinforce a political narrative that persuades them to side with you and not the enemy, and fully commit yourself to their security – often by living alongside them and the threats they face. You have to respect their customs and show evidence of bringing about positive change in their communities by aiding educational, healthcare, and infrastructure development. If you succeed, they will turn away from the insurgents and the terrorists and even build up their own paramilitary capacity to fend them off, which is precisely what happened in Iraq.

The tactical advantages of death squads, night-raids, drone strikes, and torture may seem considerable. But they are often heavily outweighed by the strategic damage they do. If we’re going to win these fights, we must learn the lessons of Iraq – focus on the strategy, avoid alienating people, build alliances. These are the basics.

– Andrew Noakes, Chair of LCHR

Smart and effective counter-terrorism must be the response to Westgate and other terrorist atrocities

Dozens of civilians have been murdered in cold blood, both Kenyans and foreign nationals. Six Britons are among the dead, and the Kenyan President’s own nephew has been slain. The Kenyan security forces have been fighting the terrorists in the mall, next they will take the fight to Kenya’s streets in response to this atrocity. Britain should use its influence to urge a smart and effective counter-terrorism response.

We learnt too late in Afghanistan and Iraq that counter-terrorism should be primarily a political rather than a military endeavour. The golden rule of defeating terrorism or insurgency is that you must drain support from those you are fighting. When it comes to using force in support of that objective, less is usually more.

In Kenya, the authorities will feel under great pressure to respond aggressively to this horrendous act. But the Kenyans already have experience of how this approach can go wrong. In August 2012, the security forces allegedly murdered Sheikh Aboud Rogo Mohammed, a Muslim activist in Mombasa and possibly a terrorism suspect. His killing prompted days of deadly riots in Mombasa, doing lasting damage to the Kenyan state’s relations with the city’s Muslims. Killing Rogo may have had some tactical value, but the wider strategic objective of winning support from Mombasa’s Muslims was undermined.

Britain and the United States have partially learnt this lesson. We know that whatever tactical value holding prisoners in Guantanamo Bay may have had, it did a great deal more damage to our moral authority around the world. It damaged our ability to fight terrorism because it prevented us from building relationships of trust and respect with partner countries and communities. And so too with rendition and torture.

In late 2012, hundreds of ethnic Somalis were detained by Kenyan security forces in Nairobi following bomb attacks – a collective punishment that alienated and stigmatised the very community whose support Kenya desperately needs in the fight against Al-Shabaab. The temptation may be to repeat this tactic, but Britain should warn Kenya against it. It is folly. Now more than ever Kenya must reach out to ethnic Somalis and Muslims in places like Mombasa. Now is the time to build alliances and solidarity.

Though Kenya is dominating the headlines right now, this problem is broader. Other British partners are contending with Islamist militancy and making the same mistakes. In Nigeria, security forces have responded to Boko Haram’s appalling terrorism by carrying out collective punishments on Muslim communities, including beatings and house burnings. In Pakistan’s Tribal Areas, the security forces have detained thousands of men and boys in secret detention centres. Many have been tortured or have disappeared without a trace, or have turned up dead.

Instead of using these tactics, we should encourage our allies to address the chronic poverty and underdevelopment that afflicts some of these communities and work with them to root out extremism. Security operations should be targeted exclusively at terrorism suspects rather than at whole communities with whom they are allegedly associated. And they must stick rigidly to the rule of law lest they provoke the sort of resentment and riots we saw in Mombasa in 2012.

It is not just Kenya’s security that depends upon an effective response to this terrorism – or Nigeria’s, or Pakistan’s. Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, the Taliban – they are a threat to Britain as well. It is vital for our own protection that we encourage the sort of counter-terrorism that is going to make the world a safer place, not more dangerous.

– Andrew Noakes, Chair of LCHR


Welcome to the official website of the Labour Campaign for Human Rights. On Monday we are publicly announcing the formation of our campaign, and over the next few weeks we will be reaching out to Labour activists, MPs, peers, and civil society to hear their ideas and take the campaign forward. We will also be recruiting activists to get involved with LCHR. If you want to join us, send me an email at

LCHR’s flagship campaign will be on counter-terrorism and human rights and will launch in October. This will encompass emerging issues such as drones and targeted killings, as well as longstanding concerns such as the use of illegal and arbitrary detention, torture, and other excessive measures in counter-terrorism around the world.

We are consulting on ideas for further campaigns, including on defending the Human Rights Act, protecting women’s rights in Afghanistan, and the impact of the arms trade on human rights.

We look forward to getting started and to hearing from you. Send us your ideas for future campaigns, events, policy, and activism. If you are Labour and you care about human rights, this is your campaign – so get in touch!

– Andrew