The Four Pillars of Counter-Terrorism

By military means alone terrorism cannot be defeated. This rule, from which few exemptions exist on the national level, is fully evident in view of today’s prominent transnational terrorism spread by Islamist extremists. Therefore, counter-terrorism must pursue a comprehensive strategy that also includes psychological means in response to the mechanisms of fear triggered by indiscriminate bombings and murderous attacks. It is all about winning the hearts and minds of the people, and thus making counter-terrorism a joint endeavor of the international society. The Global Counter-terrorism Strategy proclaimed by the United Nations deserves support for pursuing a holistic approach built on four pillars. This approach appeals not only to governments but to civil society and to corporate business, alike.

In September 2006, the UN member states agreed for the first time on a common Global Strategy and operational framework to counter terrorism. This was no small achievement given the notorious lack of a general definition of terrorism, despite 16 conventions do date directed towards combating specific terrorist acts in areas such as aviation. The Strategy details an action plan that, in four pillars, stresses the importance of preventive measures to counter the problem of terrorism. It aims to address the conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism, to prevent and combat terrorism, to take measures to build state capacity to fight terrorism and to strengthen the role of the United Nations in combating terrorism, and to ensure the respect of human rights while countering terrorism.

On September 8, 2010, the General Assembly held the second biennial review of the Strategy and the member states united in unequivocally condemning terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, “by whomever, wherever, and of whatever purposes”. In the years since the foundation of the Strategy a remarkable institutionalization of cooperative efforts bundled in the so-called Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force (CTITF), chaired by Jean-Paul Laborde, has been accomplished. An independent assessment conducted by the Center on Global Counterterrorism Cooperation points out various areas for improvement and reform, but the overall evaluation is positive. It underlines that the United Nations have a comparative advantage in convening stakeholders, sharing knowledge, developing norms, and assisting states with their implementation.

Certainly, the UN Global Strategy is not yet publicly well-known, but this might change with the recent launch of the of The Beam, a new e-publication issued by the CTITF. The first volume (September-December 2010) reports about the first regional initiative for supporting the Central Asian countries Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in their counter-terrorism effort. It is indeed essential in the future that the UN Strategy is implemented within regional operations involving not only governments but also private actors in the field.

Given the geopolitics of Central Asia in the neighborhood of Afghanistan and Pakistan, focusing on that vulnerable region is a well chosen priority. The states of Central Asia are also economically important, even vital for energy supply and generally attractive for foreign direct investments. International business, keen on controlling the political risks of commercial engagements might therefore also seek to connect and contribute to the regionally and locally based counterterrorism activities. This is even more appropriate if one regards the link between terrorism and organized crime, the latter of which also poses a substantial threat to business. Partnerships between the private sector and the United Nations missions will not only refer to exchanging intelligence and risk management insights but will also share the common aim of improving the regulative and socio-economic environment in such a way that extremist ideas and criminal motivations do not fall on fertile ground.

Prevention is the most effective counter-terrorism measure and it needs to target potential supporters and stop them from becoming recruits for terrorist networks. Al-Qaida is not an organization as such – it is a brand, which drives franchise terrorist cells in many countries around the world. And the militants of the terrorist network are not insane madmen, but quite sophisticated when it comes to making use of modern technology. The success of al-Qaida would not have been possible without the internet and therefore it was high time for the United Nations CTITF to create an effective Working Group on Countering the Use of the Internet for Terrorist Purposes. Islamist extremists must be facing an internationally coherent counter-narrative on the internet that make their own propaganda less appealing. In order to isolate the extremist terrorist core from its popular basis and dry up its support, it is absolutely essential to delegitimize their aims and means and separate the moderates from the extremists. It is quite amazing, for instance, that al-Qaida is allowed to claim acting in self-defense in a ‘Holy War’ allegedly started by the ‘Western Crusaders’, whereas the majority of their victims are Muslims.

Letting the victims speak by giving the survivors a voice is therefore a highly important facet of psychological counter-terrorism. Too often, the victims are hit twice. First, physically by the attack, second, in their dignity as human beings when the murderers get all the attention and the victims and surviving families are forgotten and left alone. This must end, and the new Global Survivors Network can help to unmask the ugly face of al-Qaida.

This is only a rough sketch of the Counter-terrorism Strategy as adopted by the General Assembly. It will gain more influence if it is widely seen as a balance to the more coercive measures overseen by the UN Security Council. America under President Obama, according to a statement of UN-Ambassador Susan Rice, seems to support the more comprehensive approach of the Strategy, after all. In fact, the work of the Counter-Terrorism Committee based on the notorious Security Council resolution 1373 (2001) passed after the 9/11-attacks in America and, the later established Committee’s Executive Directorate are under review, too.

While few would question that resolution 1373, which really was an unprecedented as well as unlimited legislative act to force the UN member states to combat terrorism, seemed an appropriate and effective measure then, issues concerning its legality and legitimacy have become more prominent. Here is not the place to enter a legal discussion, but it is obvious that complaints about violations of international law and human rights which have been raised with regard to various Security Councils resolutions are counter-productive to counter-terrorism. This is also the reason why the notion of the ‘War on Terror’, proclaimed by former US President Bush, with all its excesses, turned out to be a bad idea, which led to breading more terrorism. Counter-terrorism measures must also not serve autocratic regimes as a pretext to crush opposition groups.

Again psychologically, to win the race for credibility and legitimacy, human rights must be strictly protected by the Security Council and all UN member states when combating terrorism. This also concerns another resolution 1267 (1999), which once established a sanctions regime against al-Qaida and the Taliban, and today still serves to maintain a permanent list of individuals and entities regarded as terrorists. Apart from the fact that the procedure lacks due process, the matter really gets somewhat intricate if governments want to start peace negotiations with people who are included in the list.

It is quite clear that in the course of 2011, leading up to the 10th anniversary of 9/11, continued corrections and modifications of the United Nations counter-terrorism regime are due. The Global Strategy, with its preventive, psychologically aware, regions-based and more inclusive approach in accordance with the rule of law has a high potential to change the situation on the ground. This does not make hard security measures redundant, but in order to complement the UN Global Counter-terrorism Strategy the Security Council will have to think about a resolution that the international audience finds more legitimate, in order to win the hearts and minds of the people.