Do We Really Understand What the Comprehensive Approach is All About in Counter-Terrorism and Counter-Radicalisation
Stef Wittendorp 25 Apr 2018
Counter-terrorism is no longer the domain of a select few actors, such as the intelligence and security services, together with the police and the judiciary. Traditional methods of detection and investigation by the former two, and court proceedings by the latter, have been supplemented by the use of administrative and restrictive measures, including asset freezing, passport revocations, and area bans for suspected and/or convicted terrorists.
Banks and financial institutions have to report suspicious financial transactions, and social and health care professionals, police officers on the beat, teachers in schools and universities, and religious and community leaders are called upon to spot and report signs of radicalisation. There are (huge) differences between countries with regard to the degree of implementation and the conditions under which this approach is conducted varies enormously.
Two new reports by Leiden University’s Institute of Security and Global Affairs shed light on this evolving assemblage of measures. What stands out is that the so-called comprehensive approach has become the dominant frame for conducting counter-terrorism and counter-radicalisation. It entails a multidimensional undertaking, in other words, to involve many government departments and agencies, rather than to park the problem with just one department.
The need for such an approach is often attributed to the intricate or complex nature of the problem. With the comprehensive approach becoming the standard in many European countries as well as the United States, it is time for a closer examination of the concept itself.
The comprehensive approach as a paradigm of governance was not the immediate effect of the attacks on 11 September 2001 in the U.S., but emerged gradually as a response to (the threat of) attacks. An early initiative was the United Kingdom’s 2003 strategy on countering international terrorism, which was classified at the time and did not become public until 2006, although the original version was already organised according to four so-called strands:
Prevent, Protect, Pursue, and Respond. It reads that “[t]errorism is a difficult and complex problem and our response to it is wide-ranging and comprehensive”. The four strands model was also the template advocated by the UK during its EU presidency in the second half of 2005 when the Member States deliberated about a counter-terrorism strategy.
The United Nation’s Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy of 2006 promotes a “comprehensive, coordinated, and consistent” response. The Dutch counter-terrorism strategy, which first appeared in 2011 and was renewed in 2016, adopted a model similar to that of the UK, with the only difference being a separate strand emphasising the importance of “acquiring” intelligence to enable a timely response to terrorist plots.
A key moment in policy development were the March 2004 bombings in Madrid, the murder of film maker Van Gogh in Amsterdam in November the same year, and the July 2005 bombings in London. Particularly for European countries, these attacks were linked to the appearance of a new phenomenon – homegrown terrorism – and triggered policy responses, initially in the UK and the Netherlands, aimed at reversing such trajectories of “radicalisation”.
Although the radicalisation discourse quickly gained currency in academic and policy-maker circles, actually translating insights from these debates to concretely implemented policies proved to be a much slower process, both across Europe and in the U.S. While the Belgian Action Plan Radicalism dated from 2005 it was not until 2015 that resolute policy implementation followed. The U.S. federal government, under the heading of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), initiated activities in 2011. France did not seriously consider counter-radicalisation until the 2012 aftermath of the shootings by Mohammed Merah, and a specific plan would not appear until 2014, spurred on by the additional pressures of youngsters leaving for Syria and Iraq.
However, even for a “first-mover” such as the Netherlands, policy making and practice in the context of counter-radicalisation was never a straightforward exercise.
In the Dutch case, a gradual decrease in policy and political attention to terrorism coupled with serious cutbacks in government spending resulted in a decrease in capacity for counter-terrorism and counter-radicalisation between 2011 and 2013.
Much had to be rebuilt when concerns about terrorism resurfaced as the foreign fighter problem rose to the top of the political and security agenda starting in 2013. The new impetus was evident in the Dutch Comprehensive Action Programme to Combat Jihadism (2014). The publication of many action plans and especially strategies by European countries and the U.S. in the years since 2001 can be seen as a desire to outline principles that locate government policies beyond responding to incidents by introducing new measures, i.e. from ad hoc to structural persistence. However, it seems that counter-terrorist policy-making and the implementation thereof is difficult to move beyond the dynamism of the incident.
Notable about current counter-terrorism practices compared to previous efforts between the late 1960s and the 1990s is the broad range of actors involved, especially non-traditional actors from the social (e.g. care professions), services (e.g. banks and financial institutions) and societal (e.g. communities and religious institutions) spheres.
The adoption of an emphasis on the early-detection of terrorism and other forms of serious crime in politics, policy making and the judiciary underlies these developments. This notion of “pre-crime” refers to intervention before actual wrong-doing occurs and signifies a break with established doctrines of acting after a criminal offence has occurred.
Counter-radicalisation also subscribes to this logic of early-detection or anticipation with its focus on processes and conditions “before the bomb goes off”. Actors from the social and societal domains were allowed or asked to assume responsibilities in the name of counter-terrorism and counter-radicalisation.
These (pre-crime) developments fit a larger politico-historical shift towards anticipation which manifested in the 1980s and 1990s most prominently in the domain of fighting crime. With the anticipation of potential future behaviours increasingly becoming the norm across Western societies in a variety of domains, it begs the question whether politicians and policy makers had conceivable alternatives to adopting comprehensive approaches. Not (being seen to) do everything possible against terrorism and radicalisation is arguably not acceptable in the current political climate.
The adoption of the comprehensive approach seems informed more by a lack of credible alternatives than reflecting a deliberate choice.
There is a fundamental concern with bringing together a broad variety of actors as part of a comprehensive approach, as it affects the conditions under which the involved actors do their jobs. This goes beyond whether or not the topic has received sufficient political and policy attention, human resources or know-how. Instead, on a deeper level, the comprehensive approach puts pressure on what are considered acceptable professional standards and objectives.
Social workers, bankers and financial analysts, religious leaders, police officers on the beat, school and university teachers and health care professionals have been mobilised as agents capable of spotting signs of radicalisation or other terrorism-related activities. The degree to which this is organised differs per country. The most far-reaching case is probably that of the UK where, since 2015, teachers and health care workers are legally obliged under the PREVENT-program to report signs of radicalisation among their students or patients.
The collaboration between (fundamentally) different professions for realising objectives of counter-terrorism and counter-radicalisation is also where different objectives, practices and standards defining these professions confront each other.
Information sharing with national security professionals is a case in point. Where social and health care professionals face considerations of client or patient privacy, national security professionals face restraints in divulging information that is classified as secret not to risk exposure of sensitive operational details or practices.
 Moreover, local professionals, acting with the inevitable discretion in judging cases, then confront the difficulty of establishing what constitutes a risk to national security and when this is sufficiently developed to warrant further actions. Trying to meet in the middle for the purposes of handling a case satisfactorily is very hard indeed, if possible at all. Professional differences can lead to frictions and tensions relating to professional objectives and standards. As a consequence, professional practices limit the capacity for coherence and consistency in the name of counter-terrorism and counter-radicalisation.
Relatedly, the comprehensive approach not only mobilises different actors under the same umbrella, in doing so it also impacts the very nature of these professions.
The relations bankers and financial analysts, teachers, social and health care professionals and religious leaders enjoy with their clients, students, patients or congregants is based on trust, and as part of the comprehensive approach such relations are interwoven with elements of suspicion and surveillance.
This might seem far-fetched, as after all, these are professionals drawing on non-repressive techniques. But what they are asked in the context of counter-terrorism and counter-radicalisation is to play a (small) role in avoiding a worst-case scenario of radicalisation or, worse still, an attack. Even though for many of these professionals this might often be only a distant scenario, it nevertheless fosters an element of suspicion as part of their professional repertoire, and inevitably turns part of their job into that of a security professional.
In the UK, where the PREVENT-program has given rise to much controversy, concerns about patient or client confidentiality have surfaced explicitly. In turn, when professionals are asked to second-guess or report on “suspicious” motives and behaviour of clients or patients, it might affect the quality of care or service that is given. While these are UK examples, and while the extent of UK prevention policy might be viewed as exceptional in terms of the statutory duties imposed upon professionals in particular the social care sectors, any concerns or lessons should not be ignored for other countries where similar, albeit perhaps less explicit, dynamics are at play.
With the comprehensive approach as the de facto standard for conducting counter-terrorism and counter-radicalisation in much of Europe and in the U.S., it demands a closer look at what is at stake. Forms of governance are not independent of the times in which they are enacted.
They are simultaneously expressions of changing constellations of political and societal norms and shape them through their implementation. What is acceptable in terms of counter-terrorism and counter-radicalisation is subject to similar dynamics.
What can be expected in terms of domestic inter-agency cooperation or between different professions, and the conditions under which this is possible, is a question that inevitably lays bare various frictions.
The focus on early-detection in the context of counter-terrorism and counter-radicalisation has limits: the further one tries to see into the future in order to detect signs of suspicion or risk, the broader the indicators will need to become. This runs the risk of losing not only explanatory power, but also making policy less effective and more indiscriminate because making well-informed selections under these circumstances is more difficult rather than less so.
Stef Wittendorp et al, “Measures Against Jihadist Foreign Fighters: A Policy Comparison between the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, France, the UK and the US (2010 to 2017),” Leiden University Institute of Security and Global Affairs (2017).
 Her Majesty’s Government, “Countering International Terrorism: The United Kingdom’s Strategy” (2006): 5
 For the 2011 strategy, see https://www.nctv.nl/binaries/nationale-contraterrorismestrategie-2011-2015_tcm31-30099.pdf; For the 2016 strategy, see https://www.nctv.nl/binaries/CT-strategie%202016-2020_tcm31-80007.pdf
 Rik Coolsaet, “Hoe gevoel niet gewenst te zijn,” De Standaard (30 November 2015).
 Universiteit Utrecht, “Gericht, gedragen en geborgd interventievermogen? Evaluatie van de nationale contraterrorisme-strategie 2011-2015,” Universiteit Utrecht USBO Advies (2016).
 Louise Amoore and Marieke de Goede (eds.), Risk and the War on Terror (Abingdon / New York: Routledge, 2008); Marieke de Goede, “Blacklisting and the Ban: Contesting Targeted Sanctions in Europe,” Security Dialogue vol. 42, No. 6 (2011): 499-515.
 Peter Neumann, “Introduction” in Perspectives on Radicalisation and Political Violence: Papers from the First International Conference on Radicalisation and Political Violence, ed. Peter R. Neumann, Jacob Stoil and Dina Esfandiary (International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, King’s College London, 2008): 4.
 See Jonathan Simon, Governing Through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear (Oxford / New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).
 See Quirine Eijkman and Joyce Roodnat, “Beware of Branding Someone a Terrorist: Local Professionals on Person-Specific Interventions to Counter Extremism,” Journal for Deradicalisation no. 10 (2017): 175-202.
 Ibid., p. 196.
 See Francesco Ragazzi, “Suspect Community or Suspect Category? The Impact of Counter-Terrorism as ‘Policed Multiculturalism’,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies vol. 42, no. 5 (2016): 724-741; Francesco Ragazzi, “Countering Terrorism and Radicalisation: Securitising Social Policy?” Critical Social Policy vol. 37, no. 2 (2017): 163-179; Charlotte Heath-Kelly and Erzsébet Strausz, “Counter-Terrorism in the NHS: Evaluating Prevent Duty Safeguarding in the NHS,” University of Warwick Report (2018).
 Open Society Justice Initiative, “Eroding Trust: The UK’s PREVENT Counter-Extremism Strategy in Health and Education,” Open Society Foundations (2016).
 Anne Gulland, “Is There Any Place for Counterterrorism in the NHS?” The BMJ (2016).
The International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague (ICCT)