Teona Tsintsadze/getty images

Government-sponsored repression launched across borders leaves democracies struggling to respond

Governments reach for counterterrorism tools to stem violence from foreign adversaries operating with impunity

There was a time when dissidents or independent journalists could find safety across national borders when faced with persecution by state agents. But exile is not what it used to be, and authoritarian governments are not deterred in the same ways they once were. What was once a brazen act, like attacking a dissident living in a faraway country, has become commonplace. And the tools available to repressive governments have been transformed to include tactics like deportation, surveillance, abuse of multilateral institutions, detention, or digital harassment.

An umbrella term has emerged to describe how governments are locating their citizens across national borders: “transnational repression.” In a recent example in the United States, as a federal indictment outlined, the government of Iran targeted Iranian-American journalist Masih Alinejad, coercing her relatives and using surveillance tactics to attempt to kidnap and transport her to a country that would cooperate with her extradition to Iran.

In another recent case, a U.S. citizen was arrested on charges of spying on Uyghur and Tibetan activists with the aim of silencing their criticism of the Chinese government. Transnational repression has been especially trained on Uyghurs and journalists.

Combating transnational repression is different from counterterrorism efforts, Isabel Linzer, a Freedom House analyst specializing in transnational repression, told me. “If we’re able to raise more awareness among security officials who work on counterterrorism, who engage with refugees and asylum seekers, then maybe you can catch instances or risk of transnational repression before they occur.”

In a recently released report, Freedom House found that in more than half of the cases of transnational repression, accusations of terrorism or extremism were cited to justify state-sponsored attacks across borders, allowing the abuse of another country’s security procedures to carry out campaigns of harassment and intimidation. 

Freedom House urged democratic governments to end the impunity enjoyed by perpetrators such as China, Rwanda, Russia, Algeria, Belarus, and Nigeria, and limit their opportunities to target exiles. The question for national security experts is how. Rebekah Robinson discussed options with Javed Ali, an associate professor of practice from the Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, in a conversation that has been edited for length and clarity.

How in your work within counterterrorism and national security have you encountered instances of transnational repression? 

From a U.S. perspective, the number one actor on that list was the Iranian government. There have been times over the 40-year stretch when the Iranians have tried to launch terrorist attacks or assassinations against political opponents or dissidents. But the best example that caught a lot of people by surprise, and I was in government when it happened, was in 2011. The Iranians tried to basically sponsor an assassination attack against the Saudi ambassador in Washington. They didn’t care; the attack would have happened in daylight in Washington, DC. There’s been media reporting that the Iranian government has likewise thought about other similar types of attacks here in the United States. 

Many victims of transnational repression have been under surveillance and targeted by cyber attacks. When is this espionage? Should it be considered part of terrorism? 

When you look at the use of cyber tools to stalk, harass, bully, and collect intelligence, that wouldn’t be, at least from a U.S. perspective, considered something that falls within the counterterrorism domain. But if foreign government intelligence services are using these cyber tools to go after dissident targets or opposition targets here in the United States, I would think that would fall amore in the counterintelligence world. And that is the question: what laws have been broken that could potentially build a case against one of these foreign intelligence actors or services? 

Are there ways that you can take these national security strategies to address these instances of transnational repression, or are they separate?

They’re separate but related because you’re trying to build an integrated strategy that brings all these different tools to limit their ability to conduct harm against us, either at home or abroad. When it comes to these kinds of operations in the U.S., we haven’t seen the Chinese, the Russians, or the North Koreans try to engage in lethal assassination attacks. You’re blending the counterintelligence world with cybersecurity, at times terrorism. Then you’re trying to come up with a multi-tiered approach to limit these countries’ ability to project their influence here in the United States. I think more of this is in the cyber world and less so in the physical world, although I don’t think that’s the case overseas; like, look at what the Russians have done in England twice.

Is there a deterrent that you think maybe deters Russia from carrying out these attacks on U.S. soil?

Well, I think deterrence might actually be lower now. All bets are off with Ukraine. So, I think we’re in a somewhat unusual moment where the risk-taking calculus for Russia for lethal operations here might even be higher than it was in the past. We’re in a different phase of conflict with Russia now. And, as things get more dire for Russia and Putin, they’re not going to change the strategic balance, but they can send a message. 

Do you see that there might be a landscape shift to embolden repressive governments to take on lethal tactics in the U.S.?

I think the lethal part is still the lowest probability because it engenders the highest consequences. But the cyber world now makes it a more wide-open playing field for these repressive governments to go after targets here.

Are there policy deterrents?  

Yeah, there’s a range of policy tools. You can use a naming and shaming sort of tactic. You can add more sanctions. You can do things on the diplomatic side and build pressure campaigns. With some governments, that may not really change their behavior, but you’re trying to do the best you can. 

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