Reflecting on the UN’s Role in Counterterrorism Twenty Years After 9/11

The Statue of Liberty as seen from Jersey City, N.J., September 15, 2001. (AP Photo/Dan Loh)

The September 11, 2001 attacks were a devastating act of violence against the United States and demonstrated that even the most powerful countries were vulnerable to emerging transnational threats. The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) responded swiftly, and on September 12 adopted Resolution 1368, declaring “international terrorism as a threat to international peace and security” and expressing its “readiness to take all necessary steps to…combat all forms of terrorism.” 

On September 28, 2001, in a meeting that lasted only a few minutes and without making any statements, UNSC members adopted Resolution 1373, under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. The resolution required all states to criminalize the financing of terrorism at the domestic level and to prevent acts of terrorism through financial and administrative measures, as well as through international judicial cooperation.

The resolution marked a turning point for the Council and the UN Secretariat in responding to terrorism, unleashing a still-growing body of decisions and a new institutional architecture that have had a profound effect in the two decades since. As the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, there is value in assessing the emergence of this “fourth pillar” of the UN, its effectiveness to date, and the way ahead.

The growing role of the UNSC

Prior to 9/11, the UNSC had taken occasional steps to respond to specific acts of terrorism, starting with the 1992 sanctions against Libya after the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Scotland and against Sudan in 1996 for harboring suspected terrorists. The UNSC also adopted resolutions to condemn international terrorism related to the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam. A few months later, Security Council Resolution (SCR) 1267 imposed targeted sanctions on the Taliban, while SCR 1269 called on member states to adopt pending conventions on terrorism and for bilateral and multilateral cooperation in combating international terrorism.

Since 2001 and the adoption of SCR 1373, the UNSC has made more than forty executive decisions on counterterrorism. These were often in response to new and emerging threats, such as the growing number of “foreign terrorist fighters” (FTFs) joining the ranks of ISIS in Iraq and Syria (SCR 2178 in 2014) and their anticipated movement or return to their countries of origin (SCR 2396 in 2017). Collectively, these decisions have created a broad framework for international cooperation on counterterrorism across several areas: preventing recruitment and radicalization; bringing “terrorists” to justice and developing rehabilitation strategies; restricting the movement of FTFs and securing borders; countering the misuse of the internet and new technologies; halting and suppressing the financing of terrorism; and imposing targeted sanctions on individuals and groups supporting terrorism.

In particular, the Council has contributed to transnational criminal law by requiring states to establish a series of terrorist acts “as serious criminal offences in domestic laws and regulations.” Most notably, SCR 2178 (2014), SCR 2396 (2017), and more recently SCR 2462 (2019) require states to go far beyond the obligations enshrined in counterterrorism conventions.

The Council also established the Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTC) in 2001 and the Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate in 2004 to support the CTC in monitoring implementation of the growing international counterterrorism framework and assisting states to incorporate it into national law.

These developments speak to the UNSC’s growing role in counterterrorism since 9/11. In the global response to terrorism, the Council has become a central international policymaking body and, to some extent, a quasi-judicial body. While Council members are often divided over the other thematic files and situations, they usually find a unified voice to support measures against terrorism.

However, the Council has established this robust system without defining terrorism. It has endowed the terms without defining or delineating the constitutive elements of the crimes. While all UNSC resolutions since 2004 have recalled that counterterrorism measures should be adopted in accordance with international law, including human rights and refugee and humanitarian law, the lack of definition has allowed for a broad interpretation of the crime at the national level, sometimes opening the way to abuses by states, including in restricting civic and humanitarian space. It also makes political engagement and mediation more complex in certain contexts, including in peacekeeping operations. 

Institutionalizing an all-of-UN approach to counterterrorism: the role of the UNGA and the Secretariat

In parallel to the decisions of the UNSC, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) and the secretaries-general have contributed to the development of an all-of-UN approach to countering terrorism. This was set in motion in 2006 by UNGA’s adoption of the Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy (GCTS)—“a common strategic and operational approach to fighting terrorism.” The UNGA has since reviewed the strategy biannually and is currently negotiating its seventh edition.

The GCTS identifies four pillars that should serve as the basis for all UN and member state efforts to address terrorism. The lengthy document reflects areas of broad consensus and, as such, sometimes includes vague terminology, principles, and guidance that all member states and the UN system are supposed to put in place, resulting in inconsistent implementation.

The UN further bolstered its system-wide approach to counterterrorism with the 2016 adoption of the Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism, which is to be implemented at the international, regional, and national level in seven priority areas. The plan calls for using all UN efforts—including on conflict prevention, governance and rule of law, human rights, sustainable development, and gender equality—to prevent “radicalization” and ultimately “violent extremism.”

Finally, in 2017, UN Secretary-General António Guterres streamlined and empowered the UN counterterrorism architecture by creating the standalone Office for Counterterrorism (UNOCT), currently headed by Under-Secretary-General Voronkov. This office is meant to provide leadership on UNGA-led counterterrorism mandates, enhance coordination and coherence across the 43 entities of the Global Coordination Compact, and mobilize resources for UN counterterrorism efforts. The office also oversees the UN Counter-Terrorism Centre, which provides capacity-building assistance to member states across the four pillars of the GCTS. Although less than 4% of UNOCT’s annual funding is covered by the UN regular budget, making it reliant on voluntary contributions through the UN Trust Fund for Counter-Terrorism, it has grown rapidly since its establishment.

The rapid evolution of the UN counterterrorism architecture is one of the most striking changes within the UN system to date. The all-of-UN approach to terrorism has required UN Global Coordination Compact entities to navigate between their traditional mandates and the request to support efforts to prevent violent extremism (PVE). In country settings, UN country teams’ entities have been involved in supporting PVE national capacity and have sometimes engaged with UNOCT liaison offices. This focus on CT/PVE by the UN in country-setting highlights the need to strike the right balance between the UN traditional mandate and the counterterrorism mandates, in particular in supporting member states in their regional and national implementation of the GCTS.

As the UNGA prepares to complete its seventh review of the GCTS and the UNSC will commemorate the 20th anniversary of 9/11, issues remain around how the embrace of counterterrorism as a top priority for the United Nations has influenced the organization, from headquarters to field operations. These issues need critical assessment and new perspectives to support the international organization in addressing the ever-changing transnational threats while remaining true to the UN’s original mission set by its charter.

This article is the first in 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.

Jake Sherman is IPI’s Senior Director of Programs. Agathe Sarfati is a Policy Analyst at IPI’s Brian Urquhart Center for Peace Operations. She tweets at @AgatheSarfati.