Alexander Cooley, director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University and co-author of “Dictators Without Borders,” which focuses on Central Asia, said at a Senate hearing on the tools of transnational repression in September 2019 that the current wave of extraterritorial repression is “primarily the result of the recent global backlash against democratization,” which has produced “a more aggressive and savvy race of autocrats.” These despots have reframed Democratic opponents and civil society activists as security threats and have decided to pursue them wherever they flee.
What makes the practice particularly malignant is that by continuing their criticism, authoritarian leaders have often adopted the tools and arguments of liberal democracies, giving their actions the sparkle of legitimacy or at least the pretext that everything the world does. The global war on terror launched by the United States following the September 11 attacks two decades ago has provided a particularly useful rhetorical tool for portraying political horseflies as terrorists or extremists.
Interpol, the international criminal police organization, has been a particularly popular tool for autocrats to track down critics. Although Interpol is specifically prohibited in its constitution from using its alert system for political reasons, according to testimony at this 2019 Senate hearing, Interpol’s alert volume has skyrocketed over the years. two decades, and their main users have included Russia, China and smaller countries. illiberal governments like Azerbaijan, Egypt, Iran, India and Venezuela. Tajikistan, the smallest of the Central Asian states, with a notoriously brutal government, has single-handedly issued at least 2,500 “red notices,” Interpol’s request for global assistance in catching a fugitive. Russia is responsible for 38% of red notices.
Authoritarian regimes have become smarter about using the internet and social media to track down and spy on dissidents. Ramzan Kadyrov, the shamelessly brutal leader of the Chechen Republic of Russia, made no secret of this in remarks to the Chechen diaspora in 2016, stating: “This modern era and technology allows us to know everything, and we can find any of you.
The irony is that much of this technology was developed in democracies to protect them from people like Mr. Kadyrov. Last month, the Washington Post and a number of other news outlets reported that the sophisticated spyware Pegasus developed by the Israeli group NSO has apparently been used by a number of governments to target journalists, rights activists humans and private citizens. (NSO disputed the findings of the investigation.)
The moral ambiguity inherent in such technology makes it difficult to refute the familiar claim of strong men that they only do what leaders of democracies do on a regular basis. Mr Kadyrov’s quote eerily resembles what former President George W. Bush’s press secretary Ari Fleischer said after the CIA began using armed drones to strike terrorists: “We will lead the war on terrorism wherever we need it. “
The use of lethal drone strikes has increased dramatically under President Barack Obama’s administration. At the end of 2009, its first year in power, the CIA carried out its 100th drone strike in Pakistan, a country with which the United States was not at war. His administration also ordered the first targeted assassination of an American by drone without due process, the strike against Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni American imam, in 2011.