This week, Politically Speaking takes an in-depth look at questions related to terrorism, including the rise of extremist groups like ISIL and Boko Haram and the phenomenon of foreign terrorist fighters. Below, Jehangir Khan, Director of the UN Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force (CTITF) and the UN Counter-Terrorism Centre (UNCCT) in the Department of Political Affairs (DPA), explained the UN’s work in the prevention of terrorism. Mr. Khan underlined that a decade after the 11 September attacks, the international community has been forced to rethink its approach to confronting violent extremism.
The emergence of new transnational terrorist groups like ISIL and Boko Haram more than a decade after the 11 September attacks is forcing the international community to rethink its approach to confronting violent extremism, one of the greatest threats to international peace and security today.
Increasingly, emphasis is shifting to addressing the underlying causes that lead people to join extremist groups, within a framework of respect for human rights and dignity, balancing out military and law enforcement responses.
According to Jehangir Khan, Director of the UN Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force (CTITF) and the UN Counter-Terrorism Centre (UNCCT) in the Department of Political Affairs (DPA), the approach that prevailed since 9/11 had been too narrow.
“The focus had been on countering terrorism, emphasis on ‘counter'. This approach was too reactive,” he said. “There is a shift to a more integrated policy of preventing violent extremism, emphasis on ‘preventing’.”
“Missiles may kill terrorists. But good governance kills terrorism.” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon signaled this more comprehensive approach last month when he announced that he will present a UN Plan of Action on Preventing Violent Extremism to the UN General Assembly later this year.
“All countries – along with regional and international organizations – as well as political, religious, academic and civil society leaders – should join hands to forge a multi-faceted response that respects international human rights and humanitarian law,” Mr. Ban said on 19 February at the Summit for Countering Violent Extremism in Washington, D.C. He was accompanied by Mr. Khan, DPA Under-Secretary-General Jeffrey Feltman, UN Human Rights Chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, and UN Youth Envoy Ahmad Alhendawi.
“Missiles may kill terrorists. But good governance kills terrorism,” added Mr. Ban. “Human rights, accountable institutions, the equitable delivery of services, and political participation – these are among our most powerful weapons.”
He noted that counter-terrorism strategies that lack basic elements of due process and respect for the rule of law are often the most effective recruiting agents for extremism.
As part of a new global counter-terrorism project, announced by the Secretary-General last year, the UNCCT will be surveying and interviewing returning foreign fighters to better understand their motivations for joining extremist groups, some of which are sanctioned by the Security Council.
“No one has answered what are the drivers,” Mr. Khan said. “We see this phenomenon is mushrooming. What is the oxygen fueling it?”
More than 13,000 foreign terrorist fighters from over 80 Member States have joined ISIL and the Al-Nusra Front just as of mid-2014, according to estimates from the UN’s Al Qaeda-Taliban Monitoring Team.
“There is increasing recognition of the need for a global multi-lateral response (...)" Director of UN CTITF and the UNCCT, Jehangir Khan
The UNCCT, which recently received a $100 million contribution from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, is ideally placed to work on such issues. Established in 2011 within DPA/CTITF to support the implementation of the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, the Centre today implements and supports counter-terrorism capacity building projects at the national, regional and global levels, including on counter-narratives, regional counter-terrorism strategies and the foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) phenomenon. In September 2014, the Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution highlighting the need to address foreign terrorist fighters and, for the first time, counter violent extremism.
“There is increasing recognition of the need for a global multi-lateral response, not just solely military, which is sometimes necessary” said Mr. Khan. “It behooves countries to work together to respond to security challenges and address the root causes of violent extremism.”
Tunisia, the birthplace of the “Arab Spring”, is one of the countries from which citizens are traveling to Syria and Iraq. The Tunisian Interior Ministry said last June that an estimated 2,400 Tunisians are fighting in Syria.
“Youth who took to the streets in December 2010 to January 2011 in the social movement that was the spark of the Arab Spring have both political and socio-economic expectations that are still not being fully met,” said UN Resident Coordinator Mounir Tabet, who was among 40 participants from the UN taking part in a brainstorming session in Geneva in late 2014 on cross-regional trends in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The forum, which focused on youth, was organized by DPA’s Middle East and West Asia Division and the Conflict Prevention and Peace Forum (CPPF). In an e-mail from Tunis last week, Mr. Tabet explained that one of the slogans of the Tunisian revolution focused on the word “dignity”. Youth subscribed to a social contract with the Government where in exchange for attending school and maintaining peace, they were promised basic health, education and jobs.
“Rightly, or wrongly, the youth feel that that contract no longer works for them and are now in search of an alternative,” he said. Echoing the call for a preventive approach to countering extremism, Mr. Tabet said the UN could focus on providing support for resilient and equitable development in the country, which would strengthen young men and women’s dignities as they struggle to make and shape their future.
“The fundamental problem is the feeling of alienation, of not belonging and of not benefiting from the actual social order, either economically, socially, politically or even culturally,” Mr. Tabet added.