Counter-Terrorism: New Challenges Call for Better Cooperation

By He Sheng*

Foreword: Terrorism has become the biggest non-traditional security threat in today's world, and how to effectively counter it is one of the most pressing tasks in global governance. At the moment, terrorism is posing a serious threat to international and regional security and stability, and the international counter-terrorism situation remains complex and grave. China, being a victim of terrorism, has taken an important part in and contributed significantly to the international counter-terrorism endeavor to uphold international and regional peace and stability, as well as the safety of life and property of the people.

I. International Counter-Terrorism Situation

According to incomplete statistics, terrorist attacks took place in more than 90 countries in 2015. In the first ten months of 2016, there were nearly 1,800 such attacks globally. The leader of a Western country even suggested that the world had entered an era of "super-terrorism". The following features are the most salient ones in the counter-terrorism situation:

First, terrorist activities come in more diverse ways. With terrorist forces stepping up propagation of extremist ideologies and methods of violence, many "lone wolf" terrorists have come into being. They are self-radicalized and without any organizational affiliations. The targets of attacks are also gradually shifting from "hard" ones such as military and political installations to "soft" ones such as mass rallies and transportation vehicles which are normally less guarded. The means of perpetration are also changing from bomb attacks, shooting and kidnapping to more simple and low-cost ones such as chopping with knives and ramming with vehicles. A knife, a gun, a car or even a retrofitted pressure cooker would suffice for a terrorist attack. 

Second, terrorist threats are increasingly global, network-based and spontaneous. As they are losing ground in West Asia, extremist organizations are attempting to incite terrorist attacks worldwide to offset the pressure on the battlefield. Terrorist attacks in the Asian, European and American continents are mostly orchestrated directly by extremist organizations or their sympathizers. The perpetrators usually claim responsibility immediately after the attacks.

Third, the return of foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) is posing greater challenges. As the international community intensifies military strikes, a large number of FTFs in the Middle East begin moving to other parts of the world or return to their home countries. These fighters have a good knowledge of their home countries and abundant experience in the battleground as well as radical and extremist ideologies. When they return, they wait on an opportunity to launch attacks or secretly propagate violent and extremist ideologies. Such FTFs are extremely hard to track down and defend against, like stealth bombs that can explode anytime.

Fourth, interwoven with other issues, terrorism is getting more intractable. In recent years, international terrorist forces are increasingly involved in regional hotspot issues. As a result, counter-terrorism is intertwined with these issues. The Syrian crisis has lingered on for five years and has become a hotbed for terrorist forces. Peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan remains elusive, which is another breeding ground for terrorism. Terrorism-related hotspot issues have become an important factor in shaping the international counter-terrorism situation, and their resolution has a direct bearing on the success of counter-terrorism.

II. Reasons Behind the Increasingly Challenging Counter-Terrorism Situation

Since 9/11, the international community has taken the threat of terrorism more seriously and countries have intensified counter-terrorism efforts. But in recent years, international terrorist activities have exacerbated. The reasons behind it deserve scrutiny.

What is happening? First, the spread of violent and extremist ideologies is significantly faster. International terrorist forces are spreading violent extremism all over the world, which has activated many once "dormant" terrorist organizations and generated more FTFs and "lone wolf" terrorists. As a result, the international counter-terrorism situation is increasingly challenging. Driven by violent extremism, terrorism is heading toward a dangerous scenario where "anyone can be a perpetrator". Second, the threat of cyber terrorism is worsening. Terrorist organizations have greatly enhanced their capabilities in idea spreading, member recruiting and action taking by exploiting the Internet, which is wide in influence, fast in communication, easy to use and hard to regulate. The cycle of terrorist activities is shortened and their frequency much higher. It is also mainly through spreading violent and terror audios and videos on the Internet that the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) propagates extremism, demonstrates how to make explosives and incites extremists to carry out violent and terrorist activities. Third, international counter-terrorism cooperation has not been effective. In recent years, more attention has been given to international cooperation on this front, but there has not been effective synergy formed due to factors such as major country rivalry, geopolitics and different approaches in counter-terrorism. 

Why does that happen? First, economic and social problems are the root causes. Unbalanced development in the world has given rise to extremism in some countries and regions, which can easily lead to terrorism. In particular, when global economic recovery remains sluggish, there are deep fault lines between different social classes, and unemployment rate among young people has remained high. Vulnerable groups are particularly prone to extremism. Second, hegemony and power politics are important reasons behind terrorism. Some major countries, guided by their "values diplomacy" in West Asia and North Africa, have wilfully interfered in the internal affairs of other countries, thus sowing the seed of hatred and aggravating tensions with Islamic radical forces. 

It can be expected that terrorist attacks will remain unabated in the short term.

III. China's Contribution to International Counter-Terrorism 

Like many other countries, China is a victim of terrorism. The most direct and immediate terrorist threat China faces is East Turkestan terrorist forces represented by ETIM. Combating ETIM is a priority of China in international counter-terrorism cooperation. ETIM, a UN-listed international terrorist organization, has in recent years incited, orchestrated and carried out many terrorist attacks in China, resulting in huge casualties. Meanwhile, it is also increasingly targeting China's organizations and personnel aboard. 

Not merely a menace to China, ETIM terrorists also penetrate West, Central, South and Southeast Asia, posing immediate security threats to many countries. Combating ETIM has become an important part of the international fight against terrorism. Some countries have already intensified their restrictions and strike against ETIM. On 15 July, the British government added ETIM to a renewed list of "proscribed terrorist organizations". The US also once again confirmed the nature of ETIM as a terrorist organization in the outcome list of the meeting between Chinese and US presidents in Hangzhou. Many countries have made it clear that the UN Security Council's designation of ETIM as a terrorist organization is legally binding.

Facts have shown that ETIM is closely related to the World Uyghur Congress (WUC). It is worth noting that the WUC and other East Turkestan forces are quite active in some Western countries. They use the pretext of "democracy", "human rights", "religion" and "freedom" to swindle support out of local governments and people and frequently carry out anti-China secessionist activities through various means. 

China has taken an active part in and contributed significantly to the international counter-terrorism cause. China has fought resolutely against all forms of terrorism and is committed to stronger counter-terrorism cooperation with the rest of the international community. We have followed a new security concept and a distinctly Chinese approach. First, China maintains that the UN plays a central and leading role in counter-terrorism cooperation, and that countries should respect each other in equal-footed cooperation. China opposes double standards and has worked vigorously for the implementation of the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy and counter-terrorism resolutions of the Security Council and the establishment of a global counter-terrorism system featuring win-win cooperation. Second, a holistic approach should be adopted to address both the symptoms and root causes. In particular, the sources of terrorism should be tackled to prevent terrorism from happening in the first place. More importantly, efforts should be made to seek political solutions to regional hotspot issues and advance economic and social development of developing countries so that the solutions will be durable and sustainable. Third, we should oppose associating terrorism with particular countries, ethnicities or religions. Instead, we should work for equal-footed dialogue among different civilizations to create a favorable environment for international counter-terrorism cooperation. 

China is spearheading counter-terrorism exchanges and cooperation in the international community. In recent years, as international terrorist organizations have increasingly used the Internet to enhance their influence, it has become a priority in international counter-terrorism cooperation to combat cyber terrorism. In this context, China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs hosted in Beijing the second Global Counterterrorism Forum Symposium on Preventing and Countering Terrorists' Use of the Internet on 21 October. Delegates from 44 countries and international organizations and Internet companies and academic institutions from China and abroad attended the symposium. The symposium has helped to deepen people's understanding of the harm of cyber terrorism, increased various parties' willingness for cooperation against cyber terrorism, and discussed practical steps to combat cyber terrorism. This well-received symposium is China's important diplomatic endeavor to provide public goods in the security realm to the international community. 

Going forward, China will, with a greater sense of community of shared future for mankind, share interests and responsibilities with other countries to jointly prevent the spread of terrorism and protect the safety of life and property of the people. China will build more platforms for international counter-terrorism cooperation, step up exchanges and communication with other parties and deepen bilateral and multilateral counter-terrorism cooperation. China will continue to push for greater synergy in the international community's counter-terrorism efforts with the UN at the center. China will work for greater counter-terrorism cooperation under multilateral frameworks such as APEC, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, BRICS and the GCTF to uphold the security interests of developing countries and inject more positive energy into global counter-terrorism cooperation. China will continue to work with the international community to pursue win-win cooperation and shared security. Together, we will write a new chapter in international counter-terrorism cooperation and build a global security architecture that features justice and shared contribution. 

*He Sheng is an International Affairs Analyst.