Counterterrorism and Civil Society

Civil Society, Aid, and Security Post-9/11

The International Journal
of Not-for-Profit Law

Volume 12, Issue 4, November 2010

 By Jude Howell*

Following President Bush’s declaration of a “war on terror” in 2001, governments around the world introduced a range of counter-terrorist legislation, policies, and practices. These included first-order measures aimed specifically at suspected terrorists, such as counter-terrorist and money laundering legislation, enhanced surveillance, renditions, and passenger profiling, and second-order measures that are built into other policies such as official aid assistance, refugee and asylum practices, education, and community-engagement initiatives. When Barack Obama became US President in early 2009, one of his first moves was to distance himself from the language of the “war on terror,” a phrase that has become irrevocably associated with President Bush. In this spirit he committed his administration to closing the Guantanamo detention facility in Cuba and banning the use of torture.

The effects on aid

How then has the post-9/11 global security framework affected aid? Since 2001, aid frameworks, structures, and operations have increasingly absorbed global and national security interests. This was already evident in the 1990s in conflicts such as Bosnia and Sierra Leone, when increasing military intervention in relief work provoked sharp debate about the implications for humanitarian workers, particularly over public perceptions of their neutrality and impartiality. Since 9/11, these processes have extended beyond individual conflicts to the broad realm of aid policy and practice. This deepening convergence of security and aid can be seen at the macro, meso, and micro levels, though its particular manifestations vary according to donor, the relative security significance of any aid recipient, and the national architecture of aid and foreign policy.

First, it can be seen in the direction of aid flows. Since 2001, both military and development aid flows to front-line states in the “war on terror” – such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Ethiopia – have increased. While in the 1990s “good governance” was the guiding principle for allocating aid, in the last decade bilateral donors have increasingly focused attention and resources on “fragile states” in order to preserve both global and national security. For example, the UK Department for International Development’s (DfID’s) 2009 White Paper committed at least half of all new aid resources to conflict-affected and fragile states.

Second, political leaders and aid ministers have increasingly linked security and aid, arguing that poverty, alienation, and terrorism are intimately connected. In his foreword to DFID’s 2005 paper Fighting Poverty to Build a Safer World: A Strategy for Security and Development, the then-Secretary of State for International Development Hilary Benn wrote: “In recent years DFID has begun to bring security into the heart of its thinking and practice. But we need to do more. As the Prime Minister said in his speech to the World Economic Forum this year, ‘it is absurd to choose between an agenda focusing on terrorism and one on global poverty.'”

Similarly, in February 2006, the former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: “It is impossible to draw neat, clear lines between our security interests, our development goals and our democratic ideals in today’s world.” The doctrinal emphasis on the “three Ds” – development, diplomacy, and defense – in the US National Security Strategy of 2002 was echoed again by Hilary Clinton, Secretary of State, in 2009 when addressing State Department employees: “There are three legs to the stool of American foreign policy: defense, diplomacy, and development … I will do all that I can … to make it abundantly clear that robust diplomacy and effective development are the best long-term tools for securing America’s future.” This juxtaposition of development, diplomacy, and security has been reflected in the “whole-of-government” approach to terrorism that the US and its allies have adopted increasingly since 9/11.

Third, the increasing convergence of security and aid has also permeated down to the operational level, not just in explicit counter-terrorist assistance projects such as equipping border police but also in more subtle, “softer” measures such as projects aimed at anti-radicalization. Indeed, the use of “soft” measures as part of counter-terrorism has grown in importance as political leaders have recognized the failure of “hard” military interventions to secure Western interests. Illustrative of these softer measures are US and UK aid programs designed to reform the curricula of madrassas, increased support to education sectors in Muslim majority countries, support for inter-faith dialogues, and community projects addressing issues of conflict.

Finally, increasing military intervention in relief and development has been a key tool of post-9/11 security strategy. Among the most prominent manifestations of this are the Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan, where military personnel work alongside civilian staff to deliver “quick impact” development projects such as wells, schools, and clinics, so as to win the hearts and minds of local people. Similarly, since 2002 the Combined Joint Task Force for the Horn of Africa has worked together with USAID to coordinate development activities such as building schools and supplying textbooks.

Changing attitudes to CSOs

The post-9/11 global security regime has not only led to an increasing securitization of aid but also has affected the way governments and donors relate to civil society. First, the “war on terror” has cast a veil of suspicion over civil society in general and certain groups in particular. Charities, especially Islamic charities, international NGOs working in the Middle East and/or conflict areas, Muslim communities and their organizations, migrants, and refugees have all come under the direct gaze of security agencies. This stands in stark contrast to the 1990s, when governments and donors embraced civil society organizations as partners in a shared agenda of democratization, participation, and service delivery. Since 9/11, charities have been seen as being at risk of terrorist abuse, whether through money laundering, diverting charitable funds to terrorist groups, or using charities as a front for terrorist activities. As Gordon Brown, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, said in a speech at Chatham House in October 2006, “We know that many charities and donors have been and are being exploited by terrorists.”

Second, aid agencies and donors have responded in varying degrees to the perceived risk that civil society organizations might be vehicles for the pursuit of terrorism. USAID has gone furthest among bilateral donors with the introduction of Anti-Terrorist Certificates, which any recipients of US funds abroad are required to sign. Since 2007 it has piloted in its Palestine program a Partner Vetting System, which requires grantees to submit personal information about key personnel and leaders that is checked against an intelligence database. The Bush administration also put pressure on foundations such as the Ford Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation to introduce similar checks into their grantee agreements.

The creation of a climate of suspicion around charities has also impinged on philanthropic donations, particularly in the Middle East. For example, since the bombings of the US embassy in Nairobi in 1998, greater restrictions on the flow of funds from the Gulf and Middle East, as well as a fear among Middle Eastern philanthropists and charities that their funding might be misconstrued as supporting terrorism, have reduced support to Muslim charities working in the Muslim-dominated North Eastern Province of Kenya.

Third, as mentioned above, the soft “hearts and minds” approach of the post-9/11 global security regime has affected the way civil society actors are conceptualized in national security strategies. Both Colin Powell and later Hillary Clinton have underlined the strategic role that NGOs play in security policy as “force multipliers” for the government (in other words, they are – albeit unintentionally – part of a general effort to neutralize hostility, armed or otherwise). In conflict situations such as Afghanistan, this has heightened debates among humanitarian workers about the dangers posed by military intervention to the principles of neutrality, impartiality, and independence. In 2008, 33 aid workers were killed in Afghanistan, the highest figure since 2001. According to an Overseas Development Institute (ODI) Policy Brief published in April 2009, the number of aid workers killed worldwide in humanitarian interventions spiraled to 122, the highest figure in 12 years tracked by ODI, most being killed in Sudan, Somalia, and Afghanistan. Humanitarian workers argue that military use of civilian vehicles and civilian dress when delivering aid has blurred the lines between “civil” and “military” and has made NGOs a legitimate target in the eyes of insurgents and political opponents.

Fourth, post-9/11 counter-terrorism measures and practices have also impinged on other parts of civil society. For example, in countries with weak policing and judicial systems, poor, marginalized, and vulnerable groups are often the first to experience the blunt edge of counter-terrorism measures. In India, a fact-finding mission in 2003 found that most of the 3,200 cases of people arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which has since been repealed, were poor, landless, tribals or Dalits. Governments have also used the language of the “war on terror” to crack down on political opponents or secessionist groups. Furthermore, the application of the arsenal of counter-terrorism has led to the “normalization of the exceptional,” whereby legitimate protesters such as anti-arms trade campaigners, animal rights activists, or environmental protestors are detained under “exceptional” counter-terrorist legislation.

How should civil society respond?

Post-9/11 global security measures have thus created challenges for international development and civil society actors. How can civil society actors best preserve the autonomous spaces and values of civil society when the balance between freedom and security tips toward the latter? How can they ensure that minority communities rendered suspect under counter-terrorist measures are able to organize and articulate their interests without fear of prosecution or persecution? How should they engage with security debates and agencies, especially when these infringe on nongovernmental spaces? How can aid agencies, foundations, and philanthropists best ensure that their partners are not linked to listed terrorist groups while also maintaining relations of mutual trust? And how can aid agencies best maintain a focus on developmental priorities when under pressure to consider national and global security issues?

While human rights activists and Muslim leaders and groups have taken the lead in challenging the post-9/11 security framework, many non-profits and voluntary sector organizations have remained remarkably silent about the effects on civil society, at least until they were themselves directly affected. As stated above, the counter-terrorist legislation, policies, and practices introduced in the wake of 9/11 remain deeply entrenched. It is time for international aid and civil society actors to seriously reflect on the lessons of the last decade and think more strategically about how best to engage with security issues.


* Jude Howell,, is Director, Centre for Civil Society at the London School of Economics. With Jeremy Lind, she is coauthor of Counter-Terrorism, Aid and Civil Society: Before and After the War on Terror (Palgrave Press, 2009), and coeditor of Civil Society Under Strain: Counter-Terrorism Policy, Civil Society and Aid (Kumarian Press, 2010). This article originally appeared in Alliance Magazine,, and is reprinted with the permission of the author.