Armed forces have often engaged in counter-terrorism asymmetric operations, but these bring a variety of ethically complex dilemmas different to traditional warfare. Threat forces are not necessarily following rules of engagement, not always in uniform, not fixed behind an enemy line, and not just adults.
The mission is often not just threat projection but also humanitarianism and peacekeeping. What is best practice to win hearts and minds? When is moral injury triggered in counter-terrorism operations? What are the ethical implications of operating in one’s home country? What are the implications for the military’s relationship to the State and police, and for democracy and the use of emerging technologies?
These are relevant questions for political and military leaders alike, but also for individual units and soldiers at the frontline of counter-terrorism, albeit rarely a clear line in the context of crowded urban centres.
These issues were explored at the International Society for Military Ethics (ISME) conference at Oslo in 2016 hosted by Norwegian Defence University College (NDUC) and the Norwegian Armed Forces Chaplaincy (now the Faith and Philosophy Corps). The resulting book includes 14 chapters from 16 contributors of nine countries. The writers are mainly academic military ethicists, but five have a military background – including one serving chaplain.
For me as a chaplain, there were three especially helpful chapters. The first was relevant to our character training role. Benjamin Grove-White wrote “Understanding Core Values: Observations on the British Military” about how the British military’s focus on core values in response to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), moral injury (MI), and counter-insurgency (COIN) operations.
For COIN, soldiers need to learn to be more like police, who are at their best when they exercise restraint since the more force you use the less secure you and your colleagues may be. This chapter also helped me understand the dynamics of Kapooka bootcamp style training, including the learning journey of the British in how to inculcate integrity, moral courage, and respect for others as intuitive ethical responses supported by an organisational culture.
A second most-helpful chapter was Catholic Theologian Markus Thurau’s “Is There Anything New under the Sun? From Holy War to Modern Terror: On the Importance of Religious History for Understanding Terrorism”. This explored the question of the religious ideology of terrorism and the imperative of advocacy for inter-religious dialogue, especially regarding radicalisation and inviting religious leaders to be part of the solution.
A third and fascinating chapter was by Boris Kashnikov, a retired Russian colonel, who untangled definitions and different forms of terrorism in his chapter “What Terrorism is and is Not”. He argued we need to move beyond vague generalisations and include consideration of how some terrorism is constrained by Just War principles (in fact more than some contemporary conventional wars).
Two significant themes emerged from the other chapters. One is the importance, while not excusing terrorism, of seeking to understand its motivations in the context of global inequality and globalisation. Arseniy Kumankov’s “Terror War: Complicity and Responsibility” explores this. So too does Patrick Mileham’s “21st Century Global Crises: Sovereignties, Identities, Terrorists” which suggests terrorists are driven by fear and anger, but also courage and fearlessness.
Asta Maskaliūnaitė offers an overview of terrorism studies in “Divided by Ethical Choices? New or Old Debates between “mainstream” Terrorism Scholars and Their Critics”. The most insightful chapter on this theme was Desiree Verweij in “The Hate Trail: Counter-Terrorism of the 21st Century and Its Challenges”. She offers two of my favourite references of the book citing Sun Tzu “Know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles you will never be in peril” and urging a mapping of the hate trail and sense of sacred goals of terrorists. Yet she also urges acknowledging their humanity and profoundly suggests: “The ultimate test of conscience and integrity of good in humanism and many religions is love your enemies enough and you won’t have to die for your friends. [Matthew 5, 11 and John 15, 13]”.
If understanding terrorists can de-escalate conflict, then this is worth our best intellectual and empathetic effort.
The other theme is what are appropriate ethical counter-terrorism actions. French military chaplain Olivier Risnes discusses the preventative use of surveillance and robotics in “Methods for Preventing Terrorist Attacks under Question.” Kristina Tonn evaluates the controversial use of the German military in domestic counter-terrorism in “Terrorism and Democratic Governance”. Michaël Dewyn, previously a logistics officer in Belgium, evaluated the revisionist argument that combatants on the unjust side of a battle are morally unequal and can be treated differently, including in peacetime, in “Targeted Killing of Terrorists in War and Peace”.
Camilla Serck-Hanssen and Andreas Brekke Carlsson in “Counterterrorism and the Problem of Moral Exploitation” argue there is a need for new ethical frameworks for terrorists as to who should have the right to move in and out of the role of civilians and combatants, yet using local rebel groups to fight them risks moral exploitation.
Two chapters investigate the role of drones. Trish Glazebrook exegetes "Eye in the Sky" with the paradoxes of imminent threats alongside risks of dehumanisation and moral injury. Michaël Dewyn questions “Should Collateral Damage be Considered Morally Acceptable when Using Armed Drones?”, especially when estimates are that for every one terrorist, 9-28 civilians are killed – and this is during “peacetime” and in countries Coalition forces are not at war with!
The book begins with French Brigadier General (Retd) Benoit Royal’s chapter “Counter-Terrorism: The Border Not to Cross” which explores dilemmas of facing opponents who do not share our ethics. He offers an honest appraisal of how the French in Algiers and the British in Northern Ireland may have won battles but had their legitimacy undermined by harsh tactics. Yet French General Pierre Billotte maintained: “One of the keys to victory, is to afford the greatest respect for moral and human values, as this goes right to the heart of [those] you are fighting” (p.3).
The underlying challenge of the book for me is to consider carefully whether counter-terrorism actions do ultimately reduce its terrible impacts.