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Dismantling organisational barriers can be a force in preventing terrorism death

8th July 2024

By Jamal Abbasi, Tansiq Programme Director

The Global Terrorism Index Report for 2024 was never likely to be a light read. But a 22 percent increase in deaths from terrorism in 2023, climbing death tolls per incident, and the rise of Sub-Saharan Africa as the region most impacted by terrorism, amounted to a row of new flags.

Yet, amidst the accounting of the year's terrorism-driven violence and insecurity, one nation had delivered a remarkable turnaround, providing proof that targeted support in building counter-terrorism efforts saves lives.

The Institute for Economics and Peace reports:“Iraq is no longer amongst the ten countries most impacted by terrorism, with total deaths falling 65 per cent in the past year”.

Iraq had been ranked in the top ten most terrorism-afflicted countries in the world every year since the inception of the index in 2012. But, in Iraq, years of support work had, by 2022 created  a counter-terrorism operation that was drawing from all the country’s intelligence agencies, numbering seven plus.

To see the drop in deaths that followed so swiftly speaks to the power of programmes such as our own Tansiq, funded by the European Union, in developing effective counter terrorism.

Yet, perhaps the biggest lesson from Tansiq were the results that follow from providing support in developing counter-terrorism strategy, legislation and coordination that is genuinely supportive, and not a helicoptered-in blueprint that simply cannot work in the national context, or address its specific challenges.

The key to that difference in uptake and success was our understanding, from the start, of the nature and role of the technical expertise we provided.

No consultant, however knowledgeable, will achieve any change or reform if they do not deeply understand the pressures on the organisations they work with, local taboos, constraints, and imperatives. So we began by setting up a local presence with core experts, who were all former senior European intelligence and security sector consultants, who moved to Baghdad. It was critical to trust that they had to be retired: there was no scope for experts working with the Iraqi intelligence services that the Iraqis could not trust with their internal information.

Nor were these consultants we could have found in a digital search or through recruitment. The assignment was sensitive and challenging and required consultants who excelled under these pressures – which, as it turned out, included protests, political vacuums, the fallout after the Soleimani killing, and the Covid-19 pandemic. The vulnerability we could have created by drawing in experts from open databases or fresh searches would have been countless, and could even have undermined the whole programme. This is where a long history, long-standing relationships, and learning from the delivery of other challenging projects come into play. 

We needed experts who were respected internationally, but it was also imperative that they gelled well with their Iraqi counterparts, which is a skill of itself across language and culture. Because we had the specialism and experience in place, we knew how our long-serving consultants worked, meaning we could start with the tried and tested.

For, above all things, they needed to be able to build relationships, move at a pace that was comfortable for their Iraqi peers, and fully understand their role as providing expertise to upgrade the Iraqi system in the ways that the Iraqi government sought. We could not go in and drive restructuring, change the political fabric of the nation, or run against the change that was sought.

We did, however, embed a gender lens into every training course that we delivered to more than 1000 Iraqi intelligence officers. This brought remarkable shifts, sparked by the insights shared, rather than the implementation of any prescriptive model.

As a result, every Tansiq course from late 2020 was attended by at least one female intelligence officer, and, in mid-2021, the Iraqi Office of the National Security Adviser (ONSA) set up a network of Women’s Empowerment officers.

We worked closely with its lead officer based at the Al Nahrain Centre for Strategic Studies (ANCSS), who went on to drive a strategic communication campaign around violence against women. 

Our core team in Baghdad was further supported by 15 highly regarded visiting experts from Spain, France, Denmark, Italy, Belgium, the US, the UK, and elsewhere in Iraq, whose input was made all the more relevant thanks to the presence and knowledge of the local core team.

The structuring of the programme – around frequent training that brought together officers from all the seven intelligence organisations – was also a critical factor in its ultimate success. 

These officers had rarely worked together before, and the country’s history of conflict and insecurity had created deep suspicions between their sometimes competing agencies. That was, of itself, undermining the country’s overall counter-terrorism efforts, creating gaps in information and weaknesses that terrorist cells were exploiting.

They also faced structural challenges that most countries have faced in tackling terrorism – seeing signals and human intelligence handled separately, agencies in parallel functions that are unfamiliar with the needs of other agencies, and the absence of a shared plan to tackle terrorism, which can see counter terrorism slightly orphaned in agencies with other, clearly defined priorities.

The shared training programme was able to address many of these gaps, as participants from different agencies shared their experiences, identified ways to coordinate, and built trusted relationships. 

The country had additionally suffered from disjunctures in security communications between the capital and the liberated provinces, and Tansiq was able to open a channel of communication between the Iraqi Office of the National Security Adviser (ONSA) in Baghdad and the Governor’s office in Mosul.

Finally, we supported the Iraqi leaders of the Tansiq programme in engaging all the agencies in the development of a performance management model for the intelligence community. This was a first in designing policies internally for the whole sector. We also supported the process of  securing legislation to form the multi-agency counter-terrorism centre. 

We could not have built the country’s capacity to counter terrorism rapidly. It had to be undertaken as a progressive and adaptable journey. But, as we finally closed the programme and left Iraq, the country had launched a coordinated counter-terrorism unit staffed and run by all the agencies in co-operation. Its approach was professional with literally thousands of former information barriers and gaps removed.

Despite the sharp fall in the country’s deaths from terrorism the following year, we cannot know that incidents will not surge again in future. But on the basis of such a solid and steady exercise in problem solving on the ground, we can be sure that whatever terrorism Iraq faces ahead it will handle with a far stronger counter-terrorism function in place, and lives saved every year that would not have been.