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Jean-Paul Laborde, Former Assistant Secretary-General and Executive Director of the UN CT Committee

Updated: May 18, 2018

We discuss about the most important UN steps against terrorism and how to combat terrorism financing with the current tools and how to improve them.

​Europe and the West in general are suffering from the evolution of terrorism that has become more resilient, operative and global. One of the pillars to fight terrorism is data sharing and cooperation. However, exchange of information about suspects at the European Union level is still lacking. Despite the establishment of the European Counter Terrorism Center at Europol, the European police agency and other EU bodies, the cooperation between intelligence services is not efficient enough. What would be the next effective step in the medium-long term? Is it going to involve a change of the EU nature itself?

In general, the sharing of classified information is a challenge. It can be difficult for law enforcement representatives or the intelligence community to share any type of data with the private sector. But also at the international level, there are challenges to the sharing of data to and from Financial Intelligence Units (FIUs), for example.

For the European Union more specifically, these decisions can only be made by the Member States and by the institutions of the EU themselves.

Despite these difficulties, we should underline that ISIL (Da’esh) is a terrorist group that represents a complex threat and acts in a fluid and flexible manner. The United Nations and its Member States must be as rapid, fluid, and flexible to meet this threat. The international community needs to make better use of existing Security Council resolutions. Adopted under Chapter VII of the UN Charter and therefore binding on all Member States, resolution 1373 from 2001 provides an excellent framework for these efforts.

How and who can defeat ISIS in Syria? Is it crucial, as many have insisted, to have Sunni Arabs leading this fight?

Over the last year and a half [since the adoption of Security Council resolution 2178 (2014)], Member States and a range of other actors have established a number of forceful measures to counter ISIL (Da’esh): States have already reinforced border controls and prevented suspected foreign terrorist fighters from travelling. Some have confiscated passports, introduced transit visa requirements, and made better use of INTERPOL screenings for potential foreign terrorist fighters.

Also private companies are going to great lengths in helping to stem the propaganda and recruitment of foreign fighters; YouTube, for example, have removed 14 million videos over the last two years, and Facebook receive and follow up on one million notifications of user violations per week.

Most States have also developed some capacity to monitor Internet sites and social media to combat online incitement to commit terrorist acts. Some States have adopted laws that request service providers to retain data so that perpetrators can be identified.

But despite all of these measures, Member States and the international community are lagging behind the terrorists. It is still relatively easy for anybody wishing to join a terrorist organization or to travel to a conflict zone to make direct, anonymous contact with a terrorist recruiter.

Therefore, a number of actions have to be undertaken: For example, there is an urgent need to strengthen the sharing of information by airlines and Governments through the use of so-called advance passenger information – or API – systems that enable States to detect the arrival or departure of potential foreign terrorist fighters. Still today, only some 50 Member States have put in place an API system, and less than half actually use it.

The Council has requested Member States to cut off the various sources of funding for ISIL, and this must continue.

With over 30,000 foreign terrorist fighters coming from over 100 countries, terrorism is a global threat, which requires a global response. Attempts to resolve these issues effectively through a purely domestic approach will not work.

What are the main gaps regarding capability that the United States or other partners would need to change in order to reach an effective counteroffensive?

According to our assessment of UN Member States, most recently captured in this year’s Global Implementation Survey (GIS) of Security Council resolution 1373 (2001) (S/2016/49), these gaps vary from one subregion to another. In terms of themes, gaps can relate to counter-terrorism legislation, the financing of terrorism, law enforcement, border control, international cooperation, and human rights, for example.

Generally speaking, in terms of national counter-terrorism strategies developed by Member States, most have tended to focus too narrowly on law enforcement measures. Also on a general level, more needs to be done when it comes to suppressing recruitment. Many States continue to experience difficulties in bringing terrorist to justice because of the increasing complexity of terrorism-related cases and of the specific skills and expertise needed. More Member States should ensure that their laws allow for the admissibility of evidence collected from the Internet and build information and communications technologies (ICT) and forensic capacities and expertise within national law enforcement agencies.

With the threat of Al Qaeda, the United Nations has strengthened over the years its arsenal of measures in order to fight terrorism. What is your assessment of the situation, especially in terms of countering terrorism financing?

Terrorists require money to operate. Without funding, they cannot purchase weapons, equipment, supplies, or services. The source of terrorist funds may be licit or illicit, and funding often takes the form of multiple small donations, rather than one large sum of money. Terrorist groups may be directly or indirectly linked to organized criminal groups and may engage in criminal activities, including drugs or arms trafficking, extortion, and kidnapping for ransom. Terrorism financing is a global phenomenon that not only threatens Member States’ security, but can also undermine economic development and financial market stability. It is therefore of paramount importance to stem the flow of funds to terrorists.

In this area, there is good news, and there is bad news: The bad news is that still today, despite the international community’s actions to address the issue, an estimated 500 million USD of ISIL’s (Da’esh) revenue stems from the sale of oil, with additional revenue streams coming from trafficking in persons, kidnapping for ransom (KFR), and drugs. Despite it, the good news is that the overall revenue reaching ISIL (Da’esh) has been reduced, including that coming from the sale of artefacts.

A crucial role in these efforts is played by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which is the key policy-making body that develops international standards on safeguarding the international financial system from money laundering and terrorist abuse, in close coordination with the United Nations.

Could you share with us the main conclusions of the global implementation survey of Security Council resolution 1373 (2001) the Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED) issued? What are the gaps you have identified?

First of all, the terrorist environment has changed considerably since the previous survey. Whereas the risk of terrorism has diminished in certain regions, such as parts of Southeast Asia, the scale of the threat in parts of the Middle East and Africa has escalated and diversified, and now affects more Member States. Having sparked the world’s biggest humanitarian emergency crisis and caused the deaths of at least one quarter of a million people, the Syrian crisis has become a serious threat to international peace and security.

Second, this year’s GIS identifies four key issues, trends, and developments that have emerged since 2011: (a) the emergence of large numbers of foreign terrorist fighters; (b) the role of women in terrorism and the prevention of terrorism; (c) the particular problems associated with children and adolescents in the terrorist environment; and (d) issues and trends associated with terrorists’ increasing use of ICT, including the Internet and social media, for their purposes.

In terms of overall conclusions pertaining to the situation in Member States, recommendations vary from one subregion to another.

Are the tools developed after 9/11 still appropriate to fight groups such as ISIS and Boko Haram?

When the Security Council adopted resolution 1373, it was the first time in the history of the United Nations that a resolution targeted a criminal phenomenon per se; not a region, not a country, not even in the form of sanctions, but countering the phenomenon of terrorism as a whole. As a result, the United Nations began to address the critical issues of the financing of terrorism, of bringing terrorists to justice, and of cooperation among Member States in this area, among others. Given that 1373 encompasses all the required measures to counter terrorism, it is still the most relevant resolution in this field.

Since 9/11, counter-terrorism has become a central issue on the Security Council’s agenda. Because ISIS/ISIL (Da’esh) is not only a terrorist organization but also a criminal group which depends on financial resources, the Security Council works on stemming the financing of Da’esh and other terrorist organizations. Resolution 2178 (2014) has a specific goal: to curtail the flow of foreign terrorist fighters, whereas in resolution 2195 (2015) the Council recognized the links between organized crime and terrorism.

There are also 19 international legal instruments against terrorism, which constitute a solid body of international law.

A Security Council resolution, albeit a binding instrument, is neither a convention nor a protocol. The primary responsibility for implementing this and other resolutions lies with Member States, and they need the support of bodies and agencies to that end. Any piece of legislation or policy is only as good as its implementation, and more work is needed to ensure the effective implementation of all of these resolutions.

In the case of Boko Haram, border management issues must also be addressed. Boko Haram is taking advantage of the porous borders in the region to regroup and recruit in neighbouring countries. Addressing this threat requires sub-regional cooperation. Recently, Chad, Niger, Nigeria, and Cameroon have stepped up their cooperation under the umbrella of the African Union to reverse this trend. The Counter-Terrorism Committee has undertaken a visit to the region to stress the United Nations’ willingness to cooperate in these efforts. Military actions are essential and will be undertaken when necessary, but at the same time the Security Council has insisted that this work be done in conjunction with strengthening the rule of law and countering terrorism.

How far are Member States in terms of the implementation of UN Security Council resolutions 2249 and 2253 (2015) related to ISIS?

It is clear, inter alia from the Secretary-General’s report S/2016/92, that Member States still need to take steps to monitor and address the threat and to share information on an ongoing basis with the relevant international assessment bodies, including CTED and the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team, for example, to assist in the formulation of effective global and regional responses. Member States also need to strengthen their relationships with the private sector in countering the financing of terrorism by ISIL (Da’esh), including financial institutions, the antiquities sector, and Internet service providers, as well as to prioritize the active sharing of financial information domestically, regionally, and internationally.

How can the United Nations assist Member States to counter violent extremism, in particular with the global use of social media?

One of the important gaps in Member States’ counter-terrorism efforts that we have identified pertains to countering violent extremism; it is also an issue of importance to the UN System more broadly. The UN and Member States have not been very good at countering extremist narratives. ISIL/Da’esh’s promise of adventure is obviously a mirage, but at the end of the day it is attractive. We have to provide effective counter narratives, be quicker to stop the use of Internet by terrorists, and work in a broad manner with various faith-based leaders. We also need to focus more on women and the counter narrative that they can bring.

The distinction between content, on the one hand, and platforms for delivery on the other, that has existed until now is likely to become more blurry.

Finally, could you share with us your overview on the security in the West and in the Middle East? How do you evaluate the future of terrorism? And what would be, in your opinion, the next big change of the threat to become even more lethal and adaptable?

Resolution 1373 and the subsequent resolutions are excellent resolutions. The Security Council has undertaken a vast range of activities in terms of setting the norms, but the response of the international community has been too slow in view of the fast evolution of organized crime and terrorist groups. This slow response is in part due to difficulties among Member States to cooperate at the international level. States need to understand that there are advantages of working at the multilateral level including through intensive and extensive exchange of information. This is necessary when trying to freeze the assets of those who would like to support groups like Boko Haram and ISIL (Da’esh). It is now high time for Member States to start building trust in the multilateral level in confronting the threat of terrorist and criminal organizations.

Predicting the future is always risky. Based on experience, I believe that future terrorist groups will seek to establish a base in failed, failing, or recently-out-of-conflict States. In terms of revenue, terrorists will continue to expand and diversify their sources. We will see both competition and cooperation between various terrorist organizations, competition and cooperation predominantly related to attention and resources – two elements that tend to reinforce each other.

Going forward, one of several avenues available to the United Nations is to counter violent extremism leading to terrorism. The fact that terrorist organizations have taken territories means that we have not succeeded. Prevention is key. It is very challenging, however, as it encompasses education, inter-religious, and intercultural dialogue. We must step up our efforts across the board, including with civil society. From a geographical perspective, we should concentrate on the regions which are most affected by terrorist groups like Da’esh and Boko Haram, mobilizing our forces to diminish these threats. As impunity is not an option, we must ensure that terrorists and members of organized criminal groups are brought to justice.


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