European counter-terror wars risk failing to prevent attacks while weakening international law
As Iraqi forces and their international partners begin a long-planned operation to recapture Mosul, European countries are playing a significant role. Their involvement is typical of an emerging pattern of European military action abroad, which marks a distinct departure from previously held principles.
According to a new report from the European Council on Foreign Relations, there are serious question marks over both the legal justification and the efficacy of ‘Europe’s new counter-terror wars’.
Legality of European actions
Despite vocal European critiques of the United States’ “global war on terror” in the years following September 11, several European countries - led by France and the UK - are now involved in direct military action against terrorist groups in Syria, Iraq, the Sahel and Libya. Between them they have conducted thousands of airstrikes, as well as – in the UK’s case – targeted drone strikes on enemy fighters.
Military action against ISIS in Syria, in particular, has involved a shift in European positions, due to the fact that the Syrian government has not given permission for the use of force by European countries on its territory. For this reason, a Dutch official said in 2014 that there was “currently no internationally legal mandate” for military action in Syria. Yet by early 2016 the Dutch government had changed its view and begun conducting strikes alongside British and French forces.
Another thorny legal issue that recent European interventions have swept aside is the stipulation in the UN Charter that the use of force on foreign soil is only permissible where the threat posed by the enemy constitutes an “armed attack”. These conditions are not obviously met when European forces target terrorist fighters overseas who may have no personal links to any existing or specific planned attack on European soil.
In undertaking these interventions, European governments have shifted their legal position towards a much more permissive interpretation of international law, setting a potentially dangerous precedent.
Anthony Dworkin, author of The new European counter-terror wars, said:
“If European countries allow an expansive precedent for the use of force against external armed groups, they could make it easier for China or Russia to launch military strikes against fighters they describe as terrorists in other countries. This could have a disastrous impact on European efforts to promote the international rule of law.”
Strategic value of military counter-terrorism
European military action also risks being ineffective and even counterproductive. French airstrikes in Syria, for example, beginning in September 2015, did not lead to any reduction in the threat ISIS posed to Europeans. Instead, the following months saw the first high-casualty attacks by ISIS in Europe, in Paris in November 2015 and in Brussels in March 2016.
It is essential for successful outcomes that military action be combined with a broader political solution – a criteria that is arguably absent in the current battle for Mosul. In the absence of such conditions, military intervention has often only served to exacerbate local tensions and act as recruitment tools for extremists.
This counter-productivity is explained by the fact that these operations are often driven primarily by political, rather than strategic, considerations. As one French security official put it, they are “mainly a domestic response to show we are doing something, though we all know it is not the most efficient response to foreign terrorist groups.”
As Anthony Dworkin, the report’s author, says, “Airstrikes are often undertaken to serve a political need within Europe rather than as an effective action to prevent future terror attacks, but there is a danger that they will be a wasted effort or even make matters worse.”
In balancing strategic, legal and political considerations, European governments have at times elevated the latter over the former in order to reassure a public scared by images of extremist attacks. But given that the new counter-terror wars are 1) unlikely to destroy the groups they target, and 2) at risk of weakening international law to the detriment of European interests, this is a choice that they may in time come to regret.