Counterterrorism at the UN Security Council: Has Proactive Become Pro Forma?

The Security Council unanimously adopts resolution 2395 (2017), extending the operations of the Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED) until 31 December 2021. (UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe)

Later this month—with little fanfare—United Nations (UN) Security Council members are expected to adopt a resolution extending the expiring mandate of the Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate (CTED). The Council acted swiftly to respond to the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. Two decades later, despite the emergence of a wide array of other, arguably more pressing, security threats, as well as a now sprawling multilateral counterterrorism architecture, the Council is showing no intention of rolling back or even assessing its role in countering terrorism.

CTED is a unique UN body of some 40 counterterrorism experts that the Council created more than 17 years ago to help it monitor countries’ efforts to implement the various legal and operational counterterrorism obligations the Security Council imposed on all countries less than three weeks after the September 11 attacks. The adoption of this resolution will mark the end of the twentieth anniversary year of 9/11, where counterterrorism featured prominently on the UN’s agenda, including UN member states reviewing or renewing individual UN counterterrorism resolutions or entities, different UN counterterrorism bodies hosting high-level counterterrorism meetings and conferences, and the continuing expansion of the UN counterterrorism architecture.

This confluence of events in 2021 has taken place amid a growing sense that the “9/11 era,” where counterterrorism was the lens through which other foreign and security policy issues were viewed, is over. There is currently no shortage of reflections on the past two decades of counterterrorism, including those triggered by the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan. However, counterterrorism has been overtaken by other global challenges that are now seen as a higher priority for a growing number of countries. Climate change, the resilient global pandemic, conflicts in Ethiopia and elsewhere in Africa, great power competition, the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan, and tensions with Russia over the Ukraine are notable examples of pressing issues.

Yet, instead of recognizing this inflection point and taking a step back to think more broadly and strategically about the UN’s role in addressing terrorism and violent extremism in a multilateral, geopolitical, and threat environment that is vastly different than the one the UN was confronting in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, member states, particularly in the UN Security Council, acted as if it was business as usual. Rather than taking advantage of the unique opportunity to begin to take steps to “right-size” the UN’s counterterrorism approach, taking into account both the lessons learned from its past work and the changed environment, it reinforced the status quo. By doing so, it has (inadvertently) undermined efforts in Washington and other capitals to turn the page on the “9/11 era.”  The Council’s approach to the expiration of CTED’s current mandate on December 31, 2021, exemplifies this.

As with all prior Council discussions about the renewal of CTED’s mandate, attention this month has focused on what tasks CTED should perform (e.g., assessing member state implementation, facilitating technical assistance, and identifying new trends) and how it should go about its work, addressing issues such as transparency, inclusivity, engagement with civil society, and attention to human rights and humanitarian law.

Never, however, has the Council reflected on whether CTED’s mandate should be renewed or whether its tasks could be carried out by the now vast UN Secretariat counterterrorism architecture. The assumption—despite the lack of any independent assessment of its impact during its prior mandate—has always been that it should. Yet, this was not the Council’s intention when it took the unprecedented step to establish CTED as a “Special Political Mission” with a sunset clause in 2004, under a set of circumstances that no longer exist.

Extraordinary Threat, Extraordinary Response

The Council decided to establish CTED for a number of reasons. First, it realized that the Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTC)—the body the Council had created to oversee the implementation of Resolution 1373—needed a larger, more permanent, and professional team to support its work with member states, given the breadth and long-term nature of its mandate. Continuing to rely on the handful of secretary-general-appointed consultants to review and comment on implementation reports (prepared by the member states themselves) was neither sustainable nor did it allow the Council to focus the necessary attention on the implementation challenges and gaps.

Second, with the unpopular US-led “global war on terror” on the minds of many member states and UN officials, the UN Secretariat was largely a bystander when it came to counterterrorism. Some felt that the UN’s involvement in counterterrorism could taint the organization’s hard-earned legitimacy by creating the perception that it is aligned too closely with US interests. According to one senior UN official speaking at the time, “some in the UN community, in fact, seem to view counter-terrorism as more of a threat to the UN than terrorism itself. Although shortly after 9/11 the secretary-general did establish an interdepartmental policy working group, which a few months later produced a comparatively coherent report on the UN’s role in counterterrorism (the first-ever attempt to produce a strategy on this issue in the Secretariat), there was no follow-up on the modest recommendations. The working group met irregularly and without any sense of purpose. In fact, the UN Department of Political Affairs, which chaired the working group and nominally acted as the UN Secretariat’s “focal point” on counterterrorism, never dedicated any staff to the issue and senior Secretariat aides were openly critical of the “US” counterterrorism agenda.

Third, and related, not only did the Secretariat have little to no counterterrorism expertise in 2003 when the Council began considering how to give a boost to Resolution 1373 efforts, but the US and UK—in large part because of the fall-out over the invasion of Iraq—did not fully trust the Secretariat to handle what they saw as the politically sensitive issue of terrorism.

The US-UK-led efforts—with backing from the other “permanent five” (P5) members of the Council—to create a larger and more professional expert group to support the CTC were heavily influenced by these dynamics. Yet, significant differences emerged between the P5 and many of the elected members of the Council, the wider UN membership, and the UN Secretariat. Differences centered on the extent of control the Council (as opposed to the Secretariat) would have in overseeing the day-to-day monitoring of states’ efforts to implement Resolution 1373. The P5 wanted to create a permanent structure to support the CTC that would be under the direct authority of the Council rather than the Secretariat, as was the general practice. The elected members, however, were concerned over the precedent this might set for ceding control over the implementation of Council mandates away from the Secretariat, which traditionally has responsibility in this area and is directly accountable to the more broadly representative UN General Assembly.

The compromise was a sui generis Secretariat body that, although technically reporting to the CTC through the secretary-general, receives policy guidance from CTC. Further, unlike every other UN staff position, the Council rather than the secretary-general would be given the final word on the CTED Executive Director’s appointment. UN lawyers at the time argued that this violated Article 101 of the UN Charter. Yet, reflecting the significant concerns of the Council’s elected members (and wider UN membership), the resolution establishing CTED explicitly states that the creation of such a body is needed to help the Council address the extraordinary terrorist threat but “without setting a precedent for other bodies of the Security Council.”

Recognizing the extraordinary (and what some UN lawyers at the time argued, ultra vires) step the Council would be taking by establishing CTED along the above lines, there was an agreement to include a sunset clause in the founding resolution. UK Ambassador Jeremy Greenstock, the CTC’s first chairman, recognized the importance of ensuring CTED has a built-in sunset clause, which, without setting a hard and fast deadline, “would provide member states with a target to work toward… [and] convey a sense of both urgency as well as an end to the process. Both of these have a tendency to focus the attention of member states.”

As a sign of just how controversial the proposal was at the time, it took the March 2004 terrorist attacks in Madrid to break the weeks-long logjam in the Council over whether and how to create a larger and more professional expert group as a “Special Political Mission” to support the CTC, and what the structure of such a group should be.

Nearly 17 years later, the conditions that triggered this extraordinary Council response have long ceased to exist and do not seem all that “special.” The wider UN membership no longer views counterterrorism as a US-driven agenda. In fact, the UN General Assembly not only adopted a comprehensive Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, but has updated and renewed it seven times. Not only is the UN Secretariat now willing to engage on counterterrorism, but there are increasing concerns that its work in this area is crowding out (and potentially undermining) the organization’s efforts to make progress on its core priorities of peace and security, development, human rights, and humanitarian affairs. The UN Office of Counter-Terrorism, led by an under-secretary and with its 150+ staff, growing number of field offices, more than $250 million trust fund, and leadership of the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Coordination Compact—which includes some 40 UN entities—is a testament to that.

Moreover, whereas in 2004 the CTC was a top priority for the P5 and other Council members, with it being one of the few intergovernmental counterterrorism bodies, today the multilateral landscape is littered with such bodies and initiatives—including the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and the Global Counterterrorism Forum—with the level of political interest in the CTC continuing to drop.

All of this underscores the shortsighted nature of the Council’s expected decision to renew CTED’s mandate for the fourth time without considering the changed threat environment. It also begs the question as to whether it continues to make sense for the Council to prioritize counterterrorism in its engagement with member states on the ground in a never-ending cycle of dialogue and reporting that was not designed to last forever.

It is time to begin the process of “right-sizing’ the UN’s counterterrorism architecture. An opportunity to initiate the recalibration process has again been missed on this anniversary year. While the “9/11 era” may be over in some countries, it is alive and well in the Security Council and the wider UN.

Eric Rosand is a Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London and a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Soufan Center. He was the lead drafter and US negotiator of UN Security Council Resolution 1535, which created CTED.