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The Global Agenda Council on Terrorism was formed in 2010 as an offspring of the former Global Agenda Council on Terrorism and Weapons of Mass Destruction. The focus on terrorism has brought about new opportunities to analyse risks and threats from terrorism and to come up with profound conclusions and recommendations. New options for cross-council collaboration have been brought about as well, for instance with councils from industry and technology. The Global Agenda Council on Terrorism is comprised of analysts and practitioners, government officials, distinguished experts and leaders of international organizations, academia, government and business. The focus of our report is on the insights we have achieved and recommendations we have come up with during the session 2011-2012.

I. Insights

Issue Focus

A decade after 9/11, terrorism continues to endanger peace and security, to threaten trade and the economy, and to challenge the ideas of freedom and democracy.   Terrorism, being a criminal act, has manifold faces and is neither limited to a particular region, nor are the perpetrators affiliated to a particular culture, religion or ethnic background. Effective responses require intense cooperation from the international community and between states, but also within states and societies, since terrorism can also aim at disrupting political legitimacy and social cohesion. Approaches to counter and contain terrorism face many dilemmas. The three most important are as follows:

  • (a) Enhancing security may lead to more extensive and more intrusive measures of control, which shift the factual and perceived balance between security and democracy to the disadvantage of the latter;
  • (b) Whereas terrorists do not care about violating international and humanitarian law, accountable states and elected governments must in their prevention and prosecution policies comply with elementary legal standards at all costs to preserve their legitimacy, although the inability to protect their people from terrorist attacks may itself undermine the legitimacy of the states, the police, state-community relations and trust. This tends to leave operational advantages to the perpetrators;
  • (c) Terrorists are only a small group of perpetrators but they hide and shield themselves in larger communities; counter-terrorism thus often may target, affect or suspect people who are innocent. Violating the rights of, injuring or sometimes even killing innocent civilians may discredit a state, regardless of the existence of a just case.

Terrorism has shifted most paradigms of defence. It is neither only states nor statutory armed forces that may be held responsible for attacking other states and societies. Terrorist plots are neither declared nor announced. It is not even clear if and when plotters or perpetrators can be considered illegal combatants or ordinary criminals, i.e. before or only after evidence of (potential) criminal action is proven. Like evolving concepts of sovereignty, war, and even peace, terrorism will never be perfectly defined. The notion of terrorism is intentionally stigmatizing, but it is exactly that stigma that makes it so difficult to find a global framework of counter-terrorism, because terrorist plots are being looked at from so many different political perspectives. This said, there is a common understanding that although being a pejorative term, terrorism intends, as the former Secretary General of the UN, Kofi Annan, stated in 2005, “to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants with the purpose of intimidating a population or compelling a Government or an international organization to do or abstain from doing any act”.

Counter-terrorism, to become more effective, must create new and innovative state-society and international alliances. Strengthening governmental and societal bulwarks against terrorism requires new thinking about the rule of law, a better understanding of the real risks and costs of terrorism, and a more encompassing approach of dealing with it, since it is societies and the way of life as such which tends to be at risk. Even if 100 per cent protection from terrorism is an unrealistic objective, standing together firmly and in a confident way may delegitimize and destroy terrorist narratives, as Norway demonstrated so well in the summer of 2011.

Our Council work during the session 2011-2012 was inevitably influenced by memories of 9/11 and the question about lessons learnt from 10 years of counter-terrorism and what is referred to as the “global war on terror”. Has the global terrorist threat really receded, as some suggest, and what evidence is there for such an assessment? What changes taking place during the decade after 9/11 will prove to be enduring — effects on air travel and mass transit, or the protection of critical infrastructure — and which will be less long-lasting? What kind of measures will be necessary, for example, as the threat shifts from overseas to “within”? How effective are present approaches to deal with these shifts and new challenges from a diversification of terrorist threats?

The Council has generated insights particularly on three issues of key importance in addressing terrorism, which we started to work on in 2010 and have developed during the 2011-2012 session:

  • (a) Terrorism – Counter-terrorism and the Rule of Law
  • (b) Counter-Terrorism and Risk Assessment
  • (c) Approaches to Counter-Recruitment

In 2012 the first dimension attracted most of our time.

Terrorism – Counter-terrorism and the Rule of Law

The Global Agenda Council on Terrorism focused in 2011-2012 on the influence of technology development on terrorism, counter-terrorism and the rule of law, and especially on the importance of unmanned warfare devices and the laws of war. 

The council’s emphasis on robotic or unmanned warfare originated with two observations that are partly interlinked. One is the increasing use (especially by the US) of drones for the purpose of targeted killings as a means of counter-terrorism, as was visible in the use of unmanned PREDATORS to target and eliminate al-Qaeda figures in the Afghan-Pakistan border region. This in turn raised unanswered legal, moral and strategic questions about the use of this tool of counter-terrorism as a weapon of choice. A second observation refers to a growing international weariness with large-scale military interventions. Several massive military interventions have not met their goal but rather exhausted financial resources at a time of fiscal stress for many countries, and led to the loss of public support and trust. Against this background targeted killings from automatized warfare carried out remotely might be considered as a less costly and risky alternative. Nevertheless, and this also has influenced our focus this year, technology has triggered a revolution in military affairs that is not only radically changing the understanding of the concept of the “battlefield”, but which also has started to undermine the potential of International Humanitarian Law to curb the use of military force.

Unmanned warfare devices may indeed change the way wars are perceived and fought. Conflicts may no longer be man-to-man battles and may become more and more robotized (robotic warfare). The level and nature of casualties and damages during war could be dramatically different if it becomes possible to wage a war and to conduct hostilities almost without any human intervention. Most likely, technological innovation will soon prompt the need for the laws of war to adjust to such new realities. Throughout history, every new method of warfare or any new weapon has led to new regulations. Without an evolution of the legal framework, there will be a real hiatus between the laws of war and the reality of conflict. Forty-five nations are now building, buying and using military robots. The US Army possesses 7,000 unmanned aerial systems and 12,000 unmanned ground vehicles. First-generation military robots are generally operated under direct human control (drones), but robotic military systems tend toward increased autonomy. There are many different types of unmanned or robotic warfare devices. They can be used to support field operations, to gather information, to undertake specific reconnaissance or surveillance operations, or to take pictures of the battlefields. Some are utilized to kill and can be equipped with lethal weapons. Robots can be fully autonomous or semi-autonomous and can be operated by remote control functions (wireless modem or internet-controlled by a human). They are therefore extremely attractive for terrorist plotters.

As of today, there is no agreed legal definition of unmanned warfare devices. There is no specific international treaty prohibiting or regulating their use. As no specific international legal instrument exists, one must refer to existing regulations to assess their legality (both treaty law and customary law). It is of note that Article 36 of the Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Convention imposes on States that the use of any new weapon respect the requirements of International Humanitarian Law (IHL). Unmanned weapons are not inherently inhuman or indiscriminate weapons. They are not illegal per se. The most compelling issue seems to be the extent to which unmanned warfare devices including robots can actually respect the core IHL principles of distinction and proportionality. Is a robot able to discriminate between a soldier and a civilian? Between a retreating or surrendering soldier and a fighting soldier? Between a child and a mercenary?

Could a machine guided by artificial intelligence undertake an assessment of the military advantage and the expected collateral damage? Some authors firmly believe that one day it will be possible to inculcate in robots some ethical codes and to make them respect laws. The majority of commentators, however, agree that this kind of evaluation requires some rational reasoning, which takes into consideration the external environment and other factors relevant to the situation. Only a human being is able, for the moment, to undertake this mental exercise. IHL rules are very often complicated and need to be interpreted and enforced in light of the context on the ground and after considering the consequences of particular acts or omissions. For the time being, robots do not possess the capacity to make such multiple-factor assessments. Finally, it should be noted that the wide range of exceptions to the applicable rules as well as the unpredictability of a factual combat scenario could hardly be programmed in advance.

And other issues must be addressed as well that go beyond sheer legal implications. Some technologies, such as drones, were initially means of arms control or of multifold civilian use. The same applies to robots for industrial use or disaster relief. Would these forms of use be affected by more intrusive legal regulations? And if so, to what extent and what are the potential consequences? Similarly, governments now “request” or require different forms of electronic information from companies and individuals (e.g. records of telephone calls) for counter-terrorism purposes. Should those initiatives be resisted and, if so, to what extent? And what will the most likely consequences be? Legalistic approaches are not advisable because they would neglect the need for transparent and effective legal norms to comply by states and governments that help to nurture the fruits of technology development for the benefit of mankind.

Challenges and Risks of Cost-Effective Counter-terrorism

Cost-effective counter-terrorism means in essence to engage on the basis of a reality-based assessment of threats that neither underestimates nor overestimates the risks. The dilemma of a counter-terrorism policy is that one can never be sure if the policy is “successful”, “not successful” or just “irrelevant” – until either a terrorist plot is successfully prevented or an attack has taken place.

States and governments, being responsible for the protection of their citizens, tend to adopt hyperbolic attitudes and prepare for a broad spectrum of potential risks – thereby increasing popular anxiety alongside the counter-terrorism budget, and making counter-terrorism measures ultimately less effective. But underplaying the threat can also be counterproductive because it downplays the risks of terrorist attacks, leads to public complacency and invites perpetrators to exploit opportunities. A balanced, transparent approach that puts the risk into perspective is essential. An important indicator for effective – and thus successful – counter-terrorism is that plotters and perpetrators fail to divide the opinion in the targeted governments, organizations or populations over how to steadfastly counter the common threat.

The Global Agenda Council reiterated its conviction that risk assessment is best done as a global effort. Assessments of risk should be integrated by coordinating private industry (e.g. insurance, security, finance, transportation) and government agencies (e.g. military, police, foreign affairs, homeland defence, intelligence) on vertical (state-society) and horizontal (state-to-state, across states) levels. Private actors’ risk assessments may provide added value and cost-savings for governments and international stakeholders. However, the reliability and the protection of data and safe information-sharing systems remain serious challenges. Of particular importance is closer, integrated and de-politicized cooperation at lower levels of police and intelligence, and with civil society. Equally important, the sharing of secret intelligence between nations must be improved. There is plenty of scope for low-level intelligence to be shared, and this may enable not only partner agencies but also governmental, business and civil society actors to change the environments that are potential breeding grounds of radicalization.

Counter-recruitment Initiative

Counter-recruitment has been considered an ongoing interest for the Global Agenda Council on Terrorism and a potential issue for initiatives undertaken by the Forum. De-radicalization should not be seen as a task with respect to individuals, but rather as a challenge for communities and civil society. It can be learned from the Arab Spring that extremist propaganda and preaching may miss their goal if the strength of a society that is mobilizing against an autocratic rule is dependent on a large consensus and broad participation. If prominent extremists recant and reform, their experience will certainly affect community attitudes, although we don’t yet know exactly how. If terrorists cannot hide themselves within communities, the community potentially holds vital intelligence and has an important role to play in avoiding polarization and supporting de-radicalization.

More assessment, based on empirical data and story-telling, is necessary to better understand why radical narratives work in some cases while not in others. The credibility and legitimacy of de-radicalization approaches are very important. The Council suggests that NGOs could play a more important role here, being able to reach out in ways governments cannot. But the effectiveness of this role might benefit from more state-society initiatives based on collaboration between state and non-state actors.

II Recommendations

The most tangible recommendations made by the Council in 2012 have been presented and discussed with regard to the technology and law dimension, which has also been an issue for cross-council consultation in Abu Dhabi.

 1. A first useful step might consist of defining, or at least classifying, what is considered to be an autonomous unmanned weapon and agree on its role and functions in warfare.

What would be the best solution to regulate the use of unmanned warfare devices? It is clear that some regulation is needed because the applicability of existing rules is often unclear. IHL addresses human conduct and in the case of fully autonomous weapons, some new rules will be necessary. The issue of how to prevent the proliferation of unmanned warfare devices is also important, as terrorist and non-state actors can easily acquire them.

2. It is crucial to establish a clear chain of responsibility; each individual involved in the process should take responsibility and be aware that she/he has some legal obligations.

 A crucial question is the issue of responsibility for violations of the laws of war. Unmanned warfare systems clearly do not fit the traditional chain of command paradigms of the laws of war. Who will be held responsible if a robot commits a violation or a war crime: the manufacturer, the program or software designer, the commanding officer who authorized the operation, the operator, the politicians who decided to launch the war? The dilemma is even harder in relation to fully autonomous systems that are able to take decisions without any human intervention. How can one imagine that a fully autonomous robot could be held accountable for breaching the law?

3. The first step could be to draft a soft law instrument: guiding principles addressing ethical restraints and accountability for the use, design, development, acquisition, transfer and deployment of unmanned weapons (to be tentatively defined).

A big issue is that by using robots instead of human soldiers, violence and conflicts are depersonalized. Wars become less bloody, more acceptable for the public, and thus easier to wage. A rapid response to the advances of military technology in the domain of unmanned warfare devices is warranted. In particular, the issue of legal accountability for their use under the laws of war seems the most urgent question to be tackled.

Given the presence of a great deal of potential stakeholders (scientists, industry, governments and civil society), the World Economic Forum might be a particularly suitable place to start this debate. In particular, collaboration with the Global Agenda Councils on Conflict Prevention, Emerging Technologies, Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Weapons, Robotics and Smart Devices, Rule of Law, Human Rights, Information and Communication Technologies, and Values in Decision-making could be envisaged with a view to developing a comprehensive set of guiding principles. During the 2011-2012 session first consultations on the issue took place in a cross-council meeting in the UAE and successive phone conversations with members of the Council on Robotics and Smart Devices.

As for the other dimensions – cost-effectiveness of counter-terrorism and counter-recruitment – the Network of Global Agenda Councils also offers plenty of opportunities for inspiring communication and collaboration in the future. Cost-effectiveness of counter-terrorism might be addressed in cooperation with the Councils on Fiscal Sustainability, Catastrophic Risk, Geopolitical Risk, New Models for Travel and Tourism, Illicit Trade, Organized Crime, and some of the region-focused Councils.

Mitigating risks from radicalization and polarization as potential sources for recruiting terrorists calls upon a closer collaboration particularly with the Global Agenda Councils on Poverty and Economic Development, Fragile States, Future of the Internet, Future of the Media, Informed Societies, Role of Faith, Migration and Population Growth, the Role of Society, and Youth Unemployment.


The opinions expressed here are those of the individual members of the Council, and not of the World Economic Forum or any institutions to which they are affiliated.