Looking Back to Move Forward: The Role of the UN in Addressing Evolving Terrorist Threats

View of a UN vehicle with one of its windows broken taken at the MINUSMA camp in Ber, Mali. (UN Photo/Marco Dormino)

The attacks of September 11, 2001 in the United States prompted a speedy response from the UN in the form of the adoption of Security Council Resolution 1373 just a few weeks later. Unprecedented in its breadth and scope, SCR 1373 set out a series of obligations for states to integrate into their own counterterrorism legislation and measures, filling important gaps in the international legal framework. Most significantly, it did not limit the application of these measures to Al-Qaida, unlike the existing sanctions regime under Resolution 1267, nor did it offer a “sunset clause” for their expiration.

However, while the adoption of the resolution signaled intent by the Security Council to appear responsive, it left more questions than answers about the role and impact of the United Nations in addressing an increasingly transnational threat posed by violent, well-resourced non-state actors with little interest in political negotiations. With the adoption of the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy in 2006, the General Assembly added its voice to the chorus of international counterterrorism efforts.

Since then, and notably in the past five years, the proliferation of UN resolutions and activity on counterterrorism has generated tension between existing multilateral entities working on related fields such as conflict prevention and mitigation; development; gender and children; and the more specific tasking to new entities focused specifically on counterterrorism and preventing violent extremism. Moreover, some have argued that the application of a counterterrorism lens has compromised traditional UN functions such as mediation and the provision of humanitarian assistance.

Yet with internationally designated terrorist groups and their affiliates operating in a majority of countries where the UN has a presence, either through a political mission or peace operation, the lack of a unified UN doctrine or approach to engaging with terrorist groups has left many entities still adopting divergent and ad-hoc responses. This is despite the establishment of the Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate (CTED), to support Security Council members in monitoring compliance with Council resolutions, and the Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT), to provide a coordinating framework and support the delivery of counterterrorism capacity-building assistance. Nonetheless, in systemic terms, despite the establishment of the UNOCT, tensions between the Security Council and General Assembly make it difficult to identify a centralized voice on counterterrorism, and a lack of clarity regarding the financial sustainability of much of the capacity-building support remains, given its dependence on voluntary contributions.

The UN and its members have clearly sought to innovate when needed; the establishment of CTED as a Special Political Mission co-located within UN Headquarters in New York, and the evolution of their assessment visits and thematic analyses signals the speed and creativity with which the UN can respond to an emerging threat. Yet, the central question on the ultimate impact of all this activity, and whether it has left the UN equipped to address new and evolving threats and challenges, remains unclear. For many reasons, including the sensitive nature of data related to terrorism and counterterrorism; the near impossibility of coordinating the bureaucratic processes of over forty different entities; the political nature of the relationship between the UN and its member states; and a focus on outputs rather than outcomes, it has been difficult to provide a comprehensive assessment of the UN’s overall impact.

Some of this is attributable to the nature of the mandates and directives in resolutions given to bodies like CTED. For example, by design and as illustrated by the Counter-Terrorism Committee’s Technical Guide to the Implementation of Resolution 1373, most of CTED’s assessments focus on process: whether certain laws and measures have been adopted; whether certain processes are put in place; and the resources (like personnel) allocated to a function. While this does demonstrate compliance at some level, it does not indicate longer-term impact or sustainability. Vague language in Security Council resolutions contributes to this challenge. In SCR 2462—notable for its reference to the importance of protecting principled humanitarian assistance—states are urged, when designing and applying measures to counter the financing of terrorism, to “take into account the potential effect of those measures on exclusively humanitarian activities.” The resolution offers no further guidance or benchmark to states, or CTED, for how to assess this.

However, while the importance of evaluation has become a familiar refrain among experts and UN entities, there has been too little attention on the question of audience and purpose: effective to what end? For whom? And, finally, which UN? Does it refer to the Secretariat, field missions, or UN entities including the various funds and agencies, such as the UN Development Programme, UN High Commission for Refugees, or UN Women, for example? For states, effectiveness might be measured in the number of counterterrorism laws adopted, numbers of terrorist prosecutions, or political recognition of their efforts from strategic partners. For the UN system, effectiveness has often been measured via process or outputs—numbers of meetings or attendees, publications or expenditure—because there is little budget, capacity, or political will to focus on tracking longer-term outcomes. Moreover, causality remains difficult to prove: was it in fact UN intervention that prompted the adoption of laws, prosecutions, or strategic political dialogue? A better understanding of the impact and potential of UN counterterrorism activities will be dependent on the allocation of sufficient resources for establishing a process to monitor and evaluate projects, from inception to post-completion follow-up, even several in some cases.

The role and impact of the UN in addressing the terrorist threat posed by Al-Qaida and the Islamic State (ISIS) is an important consideration in determining its role in addressing emerging terrorist threats, most notably from far-right violent extremist groups, or racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists. Such groups have been primarily considered as terrorist or criminal threats within their own domestic contexts, in the United States, Germany, Norway, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, for example. However, there are reports of increased transnational connections between like-minded groups and individuals, with money, persons, and ideas moving across borders, including individuals who have traveled to conflict zones and international training camps to gain combat experience.

The overall picture of the organization and trajectory of these groups is complicated by the diversity of objectives of many groups within the violent far-right movement, which includes anti-government militia-type organizations, white supremacist extremists, explicit neo-Nazis, and conspiracy theorists. While they lack the ideological and operational cohesiveness of Al-Qaida and ISIS, an increase in convergence of objectives and operations will increase the tempo of demands for international and UN action. Already, the self-announced dissolution of the Canadian chapter of the Proud Boys, a far-right group associated with several acts of violence, has highlighted the impact of a terrorist designation on raising the cost and consequences for groups. But can the UN follow suit?

The terrorism sanctions regime established by Resolution 1267 is specific to Al-Qaida and was later expanded to include (then remove) the Taliban and finally ISIS. It is not likely that international far-right terrorists could easily be added to this list. However, it is possible to consider a wholly new UN sanctions regime for violent far-right groups that have branches in several countries where they are designated as terrorists, for example. Within the Security Council’s purview, Resolution 1373 (and its subsequent iterations) is not limited in its application to any single terrorist group, leaving open the opportunity for CTED to increase its focus on this issue.

Consequently, including considerations related to various forms of terrorism, including violent far-right, or racially and ethnically motivated ones, requires no amendment to its mandate to assess states and identify emerging trends. The country-specific reports produced by CTED include components related to national threat assessments; legal and criminal justice measures; terrorist financing; border management; human rights; and countering violent extremism. Each of these elements, and related activities and publications, such as the Biometrics Compendium, for example, can be adapted to include a focus on multiple forms of terrorism and emerging threats. Similarly, the work of UNOCT, which is not limited in its mandate to any specific terrorist group, can adapt a number of capacity-building projects and initiatives to address multiple forms of terrorism, such as projects on protection of soft targets and critical infrastructure; preventing terrorist travel; and preventing violent extremism.

In 2001, there were questions as to whether or not there was a role for the UN in fighting terrorism and, as the threat evolved with the emergence of the Islamic State and regional affiliates, whether it was fit for purpose. Indeed, the global and multifaceted nature of the threat highlighted three important roles for the UN that individual states have not yet been able to match: the legitimacy of an approach premised on the consensus of all member states, either through the General Assembly, or the Security Council, where approximately 100 states have rotated through in the two decades since 9/11; the convening power to bring together experts, governments, and communities; and the strategic communications potential associated with the UN.

In 2021, there will be several opportunities for UN member states to decide on the UN’s form and function in addressing terrorism: the review of the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy in the General Assembly, mandate renewals for CTED and the Al-Qaida and ISIS Sanctions Monitoring Team, as well as a series of inevitable negotiations on the activities of these bodies and even, potentially, new resolutions. However, whether states turn to the UN to actively address emerging terrorist threats will depend on their assessment of its role over the past two decades.

This article is part of a series on the role of the UN system in preventing violent extremism and countering terrorism (PVE/CT), done in collaboration with the Brian Urquhart Center for Peace Operations.

Naureen Chowdhury Fink is Executive Director at The Soufan Center. She tweets at @NaureenCFink.