15 May 2023

Over-the-Horizon Counterterrorism

The war in Afghanistan as we know it is over. The last frantic withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan in 2021 represented not only the end of the conventional war in the country, which has been going on since 2001, but also a more general shift in the global strategy to fight terrorism. For more than 20 years, US and NATO forces fought a full-scale war against the Taliban and allied terrorist groups in order to defeat the physical enemy while building the Afghan state to a level where it could be responsible for its own security. The new CMS report "Over-the-horizon Counterterrorism - Implications of the new Western approach to counterterrorism" examines the significance of the new counterterrorism strategy, which previously consisted of large-scale land operations, and which now consists of so-called "over-the-horizon ” (OTH) air operations.

OTH as a strategy for counterterrorism
Through a focus on the US- and French-led operations in Afghanistan and the Sahel, the strategic shift in counter-terrorism is analyzed, including the central drivers behind the shift and the potential for it to have a positive impact.

The report's argument is that OTH is essentially a political fig leaf and the result of a deprioritization.

Where the West's security policy agenda was previously about the terrorist threat from militant Islamism, it now focuses more on challenges with Russia, China and cyber.

However, the assessment is that OTH as a military doctrine will fail to win the battle against terrorist groups, despite a limited potential to prevent specific terrorist attacks.

With decreasing military pressure on terrorist groups globally, there is a risk that the groups will have space and time to rebuild themselves. The conclusion is shared by the former head of CENTCOM, General McKenzie, who has previously warned that if terrorist groups are left "unmonitored and unchecked, a resurgence of VEO [violent extremist organization] capabilities could manifest with new attacks on the United States and the homelands of our allies.”

Implications for Denmark
While it is leading Western military powers such as the USA and France that define the shift in doctrine and strategy, it is a development that will undoubtedly have strategic implications for smaller states such as Denmark, which have typically taken a supporting role in international counterterrorism efforts.

Therefore, it is also crucial that Denmark begins a process of redefining the country's counterterrorism strategy. Such a strategy should focus on orienting Denmark towards new cooperation partners in the area of counterterrorism and adapting the country's capacities to a new future commitment. 

Download report "Over-the-horizon Counterterrorism - Implications of the new Western approach to counterterrorism"