Q&A with Alessandro Politi: How much have counterterrorism efforts accomplished?

Francesca Astorri
Francesca Astorri - Special to Al Arabiya English
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Rome, Italy: The war against terror has been a past political and strategic construct that has at the same time reduced the forces under the banner of Al-Qaeda and ISIS, but also complicated the mitigation of several regional crises, especially in the Gulf and Levant regions, according to the NATO Defense College Foundation.

An upcoming NDCF conference, which Al Arabiya is a main media sponsor of, in Rome, Italy, on Dec. 6 will focus on counterterrorism and efforts in fighting extremism, radicalism and illegal trafficking.

Al Arabiya English sat down with Alessandro Politi, the director of the NATO Defense College Foundation (NDCF), as he is getting ready to host the Dec. 6 NDCF conference: “Targeting the de-materialized "Caliphate" - Extremism, radicalization and illegal trafficking”.

“Counterterrorism has achieved probably the maximum possible,” Politi told Al Arabiya English, “but the maximum means also that politically it changes very little” he added. Watch the video to know the full answer to the question “How much did counterterrorism accomplish?”.

Al Arabiya English: What are the most relevant figures when it comes to today’s counterterrorism?

Alessandro Politi: The most interesting thing in data is that they show a decline in terrorist attacks. If you take into account 2016 attacks by the major groups (IS, AQ, Taliban, Boko Haram, Al Shabaab and the non jihadist PKK), there were 1.487 attacks with 14.801 fatalities: these are major groups. In 2017, all major terrorist groups, including also non jihadist ones, totalized 1.347 attacks and 8.354 fatalities. In 2018, by mid year, we had 445 attacks and 2.267 fatalities. The numbers show that there is a decrease in attacks and fatalities. So, apparently, counterterrorism is successful: that is a half-truth, to say the least.

Al Arabiya English: What data do you take in consideration when it comes to reviewing a counterterrorism strategy?

Politi: There are official data, there are unofficial data and there are fake data. A political strategy that relies on quantitative elements is flawed at best. Numbers help for public relations. It is the quality of the political and social dynamics that bring to a reduction in terrorism. Certain countries can tell you that their data demonstrate that, but they tend to forget that the underlying political and social problems are still there.

Al Arabiya English: Military action vs Intelligence: what is the right combination?

Politi: The right combination is: intelligence, intelligence, intelligence and politics. Then, when you need a scalpel, you use it. But always in a limited and targeted way: you avoid cutting a whole leg to stop a cancer.

Al Arabiya English: What counterterrorism strategy has been more successful in the last decade?

Politi: You have to define success. If you think that the total annihilation of the adversary is a good idea, have a look at Chechnya and Sri Lanka. If you want a viable region or country, probably Colombia is one of the biggest successes. They ended by a combination of negotiation and consensus the longest civil war we know in contemporary age. Of course, before, there were decades of counterguerrilla, but the solution of the problem is political, as we are understanding now in Afghanistan.

Al Arabiya English: Which are the current counterterrorism priorities to address now?

Politi: The priority is increasing in a consistent and visible way the activities to counter and prevent violent extremism. If you for instance have invaded a territory, you must address the grievances of the occupied population, make their lives dignified or end the occupation. If you have a transnational movement, you have to address the recruitment pockets of these movements, addressing social, personal and political issues. It is not something politically very sexy, but prevention is better than cure. When you need the cure it is too late and it takes a long time. In most of major terrorist hotspots the problem is not jihadism but an ongoing civil war, where jihadism is just one lethal ingredient.

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