Twenty Years After 9/11, A Need to Adapt Counterterrorism Approaches at Security Council

A cargo plane of the Norwegian Contingent serving with MINUSMA arrives at the airstrip in the aftermath of the terror attack during which six peacekeepers from Guinea were killed and many other injured in Kidal, Mali. (UN Photo/Marco Dormino)

This September marks 20 years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks and a response that transformed the international security landscape, including at the United Nations Security Council. The day after the attacks, the Council famously declared international terrorism a threat to peace and security. The adoption of Resolution 1373 soon after imposed a range of legal and operational requirements on all member states, and laid the foundation for an ever-expanding counterterrorism legal and policy framework.

These actions helped elevate international counterterrorism cooperation as a global priority, and served as the cornerstone of the now elaborate post-9/11 global counterterrorism architecture. Since 2001, the Council’s response—which consists of some 40 resolutions—appears to be based on the unproven theory that more counterterrorism measures from the Security Council equates to less terrorism. The resolutions include dozens of provisions that all countries are either obligated or expected to implement at a national level, covering an increasing range of issues including: criminalizing terrorism, securing borders, cracking down on terrorist financing, facilitating cross-border law enforcement cooperation, protecting critical infrastructure, addressing the misuse of the internet, and preventing radicalization in prison. The Council’s response also created institutions—principally the Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTC) and its expert body, the Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate (CTED), which continues to exist as a “special political mission” more than 17 years after its creation. These structures were set up to monitor and support the implementation of this elaborate framework, which has continued to grow, seemingly unchecked.

Taking advantage of the lack of an international definition of terrorism, authoritarian and other regimes continue to use the Council’s resolutions and bodies to legitimize the use of their overly broad and repressive counterterrorism frameworks against political opponents, human rights defenders, and journalists. Meanwhile, human rights experts and nongovernmental groups have criticized the closed nature of the often rushed process by which the Council continues to develop and broaden its counterterrorism framework. 

There are also legitimate concerns about the Council’s inability to ensure this framework is being implemented in a rights-respecting manner that adheres to the “do no harm” principle. In fact, there is no evidence that Council counterterrorism engagement has led to a reduced threat. More broadly, some have expressed concern that the Council’s focus on terrorism is disproportionate to the threat and undermines the body’s ability to address other thematic and country-specific issues on its agenda.   

Despite all the resolutions, the tens of millions of dollars that have been spent to support their implementation, and the challenges presented, there has never been a comprehensive, let alone independent, review of the Council’s counterterrorism work over the past two decades. One reason is the different perspectives among Council members on the successes and shortcomings of counterterrorism engagement over the past two decades. These perspectives were on full display in January when the body met to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the adoption of Resolution 1373. 

On the one hand, as the United Kingdom pointed out, Resolution 1373 and subsequent resolutions have led to the creation of numerous counterterrorism toolkits focused on legal cooperation, terrorist financing, aviation, and border security to name a few. These have helped draw attention to the importance of including gender dimensions and engaging civil society across a range of efforts to counter terrorism and violent extremism. The United States underscored how CTED’s dialogue with countries made clear the need for “new tools to fight terrorism” that could address weaknesses in bureaucracies and security practices.  

On the other hand, the Council was reminded of some of the significant limitations in its post-9/11 efforts. The US voiced concern about the politicization of the CTED-led process that assesses country implementation efforts—warning that the Council’s credibility risks being eroded if reports are censored for political reasons. Norway said it was “deeply concerned about the growing misuse of counterterrorism measures to silence human rights defenders, political opponents, and religious or ethnic minorities.” It further cautioned that counterterrorism efforts “must not prevent legitimate, principled humanitarian action.” While there is ample evidence to support Norway’s concern, Russia’s intervention, where it cautioned that “the Council pays too much attention to the human rights aspects of counterterrorism, to the detriment of ensuring security,” reminded us that the prospect of getting the Council to take meaningful action to reverse this trend is rather bleak.

The divergent views of Council members are both predictable and illuminating. As the third post-9/11 decade is about to begin and amid the growing sense that the “9/11 era is over” and the lessons learned since 2001, an independent review, focused on positive and negative impacts and conducted under the auspices of a high-level commission, is long overdue. There are three fundamental questions such a review could usefully help to answer. 

The first is if and when the Security Council should take future action and adopt additional counterterrorism resolutions. Particularly since the emergence of the Islamic State as a global phenomenon in 2014, the Council has tended to take action whenever there is a new development in the threat landscape, often regardless of the need. As a result, there has been a proliferation of Security Council resolutions with often confusing and overlapping mandates over the past two decades—with diplomatic and domestic political imperatives rather than counterterrorism requirements too often the driver. A prominent example of this tendency is Resolution 2354—focused on promoting a comprehensive international framework for countering terrorist narratives—which Egypt championed from its perch as CTC Chair during its two-year Council membership as a means to try to promote Cairo’s aggressive approach to countering terrorist propaganda, irrespective of the existence of a number of resolutions or other Council pronouncements on the topic.

The list of these actions keeps growing. The CTED has developed an online portal to help member states and others to navigate the ever-expanding sea of resolutions and the various legal, policy, and operational steps they need to take to implement them. However, the question of why so many resolutions are even required remains unanswered. This is particularly so given the challenges too many countries still have in implementing the basic requirements of the Council’s foundational resolutions—e.g., resolutions 1373, 1624, and 2178 and the existence of the UN General Assembly’s Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy and the now sprawling UN Office of Counter-Terrorism charged with supporting its implementation, neither of which were in place when the Council embarked on its counterterrorism expansion after 9/11.

The second question is the steps that can be taken to improve the transparency and inclusivity of the process by which the Council’s actions are developed. This might involve allowing more opportunities for independent experts from the growing number of fields that Council counterterrorism resolutions encroach upon—including human rights, humanitarian action, and peacebuilding as well civil society actors who are supposed to be among the beneficiaries of effective counterterrorism measures—to help assess the “legal, political, and social effects” of any resolution prior to its adoption. A less opaque and exclusive process for developing counterterrorism resolutions would lead to more awareness and might engender more support for implementing them from the diversity of government and nongovernmental actors typically needed to translate Council provisions into action on the ground.     

The third is the fundamental question of impact. This means looking not only at how many laws were adopted, policies developed, operational mechanisms established, and terrorists brought to justice, but the efficacy of these actions as well. For example, have these primarily governmental actions contributed to a threat reduction in the relevant regional, national, or local context? To what extent have they been counterproductive, whether by generating new grievances or by exacerbating existing ones that terrorists often use as a rallying cry to recruit more adherents to their cause? Apart from relying on official UN reports, including from CTED or UN human rights mechanisms, an independent commission could rely on data from human rights defenders and local civil society actors to explore what harm UN member states are doing in the name of countering terrorism. Receiving and taking account of local perspectives on the impacts of governments closing civic space—often in the name of countering terrorism—for example, would better inform and contextualize the commission’s recommendations.

Beyond the impact on the terrorist threat, the review should look at the effect of the Security Council’s counterterrorism actions on the Council and wider UN’s ability to address other threats to international peace and security and broader UN priorities. These range from peacekeeping, to conflict prevention, to climate change, to humanitarian action, to the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals and the Women, Peace and Security agenda. Efforts in these areas have at times been negatively affected by the Council’s counterterrorism juggernaut. There are legitimate concerns about the extent to which counterterrorism mandates have undermined the impartiality of UN peacekeeping operations in Africa, for example. There are an array of UN efforts underway that are helping to address conditions that can lead to terrorism. The Council needs to be more attuned to those contributions and take more care not to impede them with sprawling, never-ending counterterrorism mandates.

An independent commission to review and assess the Security Council’s approach to terrorism is long overdue. The threat of terrorism, and what we know about it, is much different today than it was after September 2001. Continuing down the same well-worn path and adding more “counterterrorism” (whether resolutions, resources, or debates) in the Council is not the answer. Enough time has passed to acknowledge that the response to 9/11, while it did strengthen counterterrorism capabilities, thwart terrorist plots, and take thousands of terrorists off the battlefield, was in some ways an overreaction. The Council should be less eager to adopt new counterterrorism resolutions and more willing to adapt to a more manageable, holistic, and in the long run more effective, approach over the next twenty years.

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.

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. He tweets at @RosandEric. 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.