Terrorist Attack Mali

Where is UN Counterterrorism Headed 20 Years After 9/11? 

The aftermath of a terrorist attack that killed six peacekeepers at the UN Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) Camp in Kidal, Mali. (UN Photo/Marco Dormino)

Counterterrorism will feature prominently on the United Nations’ agenda this year, as it increasingly has for much of the past two decades since the September 11, 2001 attacks. The organization will be marking the 20th anniversary of the adoption of Security Council resolution 1373, and the 15th anniversary of the elaboration of the UN General Assembly’s Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy. These resolutions set in motion the development of a robust and distinct UN counterterrorism architecture that has continually expanded with new mandates and requests for more resources since then.

There is now a vast array of stand-alone UN counterterrorism resolutions requiring or encouraging governments to strengthen their counterterrorism capabilities or to otherwise address the threat. This includes more than forty adopted by the Security Council alone over the past two decades. There is also a counterterrorism trust fund of more than $250 million to support UN-led counterterrorism programs around the globe, and more than 250 staff spread across multiple offices at the UN and in UN counterterrorism outposts in nearly a dozen countries.

The pace of the expansion has been remarkable considering that for much of the first decade after 9/11 there were no more than a handful of dedicated counterterrorism staff in the UN Secretariat. Few UN peacebuilding, development, and human rights entities were willing to be associated with the topic, and there was a lingering perception among the membership that counterterrorism was a Western-imposed agenda that risked undermining the UN’s longstanding peace, security, development, and human rights work.

Yet, over the past decade, in particular with the emergence of the Islamic State (ISIS) as a worldwide threat, counterterrorism activities at the UN increased rapidly. An ever-increasing number of member states expressed the view that the more the UN was involved in “counterterrorism” the better.

After two decades of layering one additional piece of the bureaucracy on top of the other in the name of countering terrorism, it is time to ask: is the UN heading in the right direction? Three lessons help to answer this question.

The first is that counterterrorism measures have too often exacerbated rather than mitigated the threat. The UN’s own research has underscored how repressive security measures, including those instituted in the name of countering terrorism, are a key driver of radicalization and violence. Yet, there is little evidence to suggest that more UN counterterrorism has led to a reduction in repressive approaches.  In fact, some have argued the opposite.

The second is the recognition of the increasing salience of local contexts and thus the critical role that local actors, including civil society and local governments, play in any effective counterterrorism response. Yet, despite well-intentioned efforts, the opportunities for local actors to contribute to the development of UN counterterrorism resolutions, norms, and programs, let alone influence how the organization engages with local communities around issues of terrorism and violent extremism, are still too few and far between.

And finally, while thousands of terrorists have been killed or captured and numerous plots thwarted, there is awareness that too much of the focus of the past two decades has been on the symptoms of terrorism and that, going forward, more attention needs to be given to prevention. This involves addressing conditions that include poor governance, corruption, inequality, human rights abuses, marginalization, and exclusion. These factors are often due to or exacerbated by predatory and other government behavior. Terrorists exploit them to recruit and radicalize supporters, which then drives other forms of violence and conflict and fragility. Emphasizing prevention also means including a wide array of actors outside the law enforcement and broader security fields, actors who have typically not been a priority for UN counterterrorism engagement.

Rather than receiving increased attention, prevention of violent extremism is treated as an appendage of the wider counterterrorism agenda. Not only is it subsumed under the UN’s Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, but bureaucratically it falls under the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism, giving the correct impression that the traditional security approach to addressing the threat prevails. Moreover, some have argued that the organization’s ever-intensifying embrace of counterterrorism has undermined its ability to prevent and mitigate conflicts, promote the rule of law, and protect human rights.

In short, adding more “counterterrorism” really may not be the most effective way to mitigate terrorist threats and that a more effective and sustainable approach is to situate these efforts within the broader strategic and programmatic approach for addressing political violence, conflict, and fragility. This was one of the conclusions in the final report of the United States Institute of Peace’s Bipartisan Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States that led to the adoption of the 2019 US Global Fragility Act.

Although there will be a number of opportunities on the UN’s 2021 calendar for member states to review or renew individual UN counterterrorism resolutions or activities, member states should avoid missing the forest for the trees. As the international community enters its third post-9/11 decade, the time is ripe to reflect on the UN’s overall approach to addressing the threat effectively—learning from the lessons of the past two decades—to challenge the assumption that more UN “counterterrorism” is good for the UN or for counterterrorism. Such reflection should be underpinned by a recognition that the “9/11 era” is over, something the COVID-19 pandemic, which has claimed exponentially more lives in just one year than terrorism has over two decades, has only served to reinforce.

The tendency at the UN to adopt an ever-expanding set of stand-alone counterterrorism resolutions and tools, many of which are misused by governments against their own citizens, is based upon an outmoded model that has been developed and applied through a narrow state-centric security lens. This method has contributed to the UN’s fragmented approach to preventing conflict and other threats to peace and security, something the UN secretary-general has expressed his own concerns about.

Now is time to pursue a rebalanced approach at the UN (and beyond). This involves situating terrorism and thus the strategy, structures, and resources for addressing it within a broader framework for preventing conflict and violence and strengthening human rights and the rule of law. This would streamline the UN’s counterterrorism architecture and activities once and for all, and save money which can be allocated to address more pressing needs that have emerged since 9/11. Our knowledge of the threat of violent extremism and how to address it will continue to increase. The size of the UN’s bureaucracy should not have to grow with it. As part of a system-wide effort to improve governance, prevent conflict, and build peace, more can be achieved with less.

Eric Rosand is the President of PVE Solutions, Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (UK), and a former Senior Counterterrorism Official in the US State Department. Alistair Millar is the President of the Fourth Freedom Forum and an adjunct professor at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.