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International Counterterrorism Efforts - Module 5 of 5

Module 5: International Counter-terrorism Efforts 

Combatting terrorism isn’t a solo endeavor for the United States as it relies on assistance from other nations and international organizations to achieve its international security goals. In our fifth and final module, we’ll discuss international counter-terrorism efforts. We will learn about the role played by the United Nations as well as the legal bases for cooperation, and the policies and strategies that guide international counter-terrorism activities. We’ll wrap up with an analysis on how the international community uses operational tools, including military force, economic sanctions, legal cooperation, and civil society development, to deter and defeat terrorism. 

International Treaties

Terrorism plagues nations across the globe and threatens international peace, security, and human rights.[1] Since 1963, the international community has adopted nineteen major multilateral treaties to address acts of international terrorism, including aircraft hijacking, hostage taking, bombings, maritime terrorism, attacks on diplomats, and the financing of terrorism. These treaties require states to pass laws criminalizing the terrorist acts addressed and to prosecute or extradite terrorist suspects.[2]  

These treaties have some drawbacks. First, many do not address every aspect of terrorism, nor are all nations parties to them. Second, not all countries comply with the treaties, particularly with regard to prosecuting or extraditing terrorists and financiers. Third, despite twenty years of negotiations, no comprehensive counter-terrorism treaty exists because political disagreements over the distinction between terrorists and “freedom fighters” prevent agreement on a legally-binding and universally-accepted definition of terrorism.[3] This makes it harder for countries working through the United Nations, international organizations and other arrangements to develop policies, strategies, and tools to deter and defeat terrorism. 

The United Nations and Counter-terrorism 

To understand how the United Nations combats terrorism, we should look at how different U.N. organs address this issue. Let’s begin with the General Assembly, the chief deliberative, policymaking and representative organ comprising of all 192 member-states.[4]

The General Assembly adopted Resolution 60/288, the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy in 2006, to guide methods to combat terrorism. This resolution calls upon members to define terrorism and work together to prevent, combat, and eliminate it. Resolution 60/288 urges countries to a cooperative counter-terrorism “plan of action” with four primary pillars:

(1) denying financial and operational safe havens to terrorists;

(2) improving border and customs security;

(3) drafting and implementing international counter-terrorism treaties; and

(4) promoting prosperity, respect for the rule-of-law, and human rights.[5] 

A Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force provides technical and policy support to help implementation, and, in 2017, General Assembly Resolution 71/291 created the Office of Counter-Terrorism to build the capacity of UN member-states to implement this and other counter-terrorism resolutions.[6]

Although a General Assembly resolution isn’t legally binding,[7] most countries are committed to the view that depriving terrorists of money, preventing terrorists from crossing borders and eliminating poverty, corruption, and abusive governments form international counter-terrorism strategy’s base. 

Let’s now look at the Security Council, the U.N.’s principal crisis-management body, consisting of five permanent and ten elected members.[8] A Security Council resolution differs from a General Assembly resolution in that it requires the approval of all five permanent members of the Security Council and in that it is binding on all member-states of the General Assembly, which are bound to “carry out the decisions of the Security Council.”[9]

Over the last two decades, the Security Council has become increasingly active in counter-terrorism. On October 15, 1999, the Security Council adopted Resolution 1267 “deploring the fact that the Taliban continues to provide safe haven to Usama bin Laden and to allow him…to use Afghanistan as a base from which to sponsor international terrorist operations.” [10] It called on countries to isolate the Taliban physically and financially. In December 2000 the Security Council passed Resolution 1333, which required countries to freeze the assets of bin Laden and his associates who were designated by a committee created by Resolution 1267.[11] 

One day after the September 11th attacks, the Security Council passed Resolution 1368 calling on “all States to work together urgently to bring to justice the perpetrators, organizers, and sponsors of these terrorist attacks” and to cooperate in counter-terrorism.[12]  About two weeks later, the Security Council adopted Resolution 1373 directing all states to criminalize the financing of terrorism, freeze terrorists’ assets, suppress recruitment by terrorist groups, eliminate the supply of weapons to terrorists, tighten border controls, and cooperate in exchanges of intelligence about, and investigation and prosecution of, terrorists.[13] 

The Security Council established a Counter-Terrorism Committee, a Center for Counter-Terrorism, and many other UN entities to determine how best to support international counter-terrorism efforts.[14] 

Unfortunately, the Security Council’s effectiveness is only as good as the political will of its member-states.[15] Although the Security Council has partially filled the gap left by the absence of a comprehensive counter-terrorism treaty and has given legal force to the General Assembly’s counter-terrorism strategy, it does not have the power to enforce its resolutions. Rather, it must rely on member-states to starve terrorists of money and recruits, prevent them from crossing borders, and eliminate the poverty, corruption, and abusive governments that cause terrorism.  

Other Intergovernmental Organizations

Several other international organizations help implement counter-terrorism strategy. These include the Arab League, which uses “comprehensive and coordinated tactics” at national and regional levels to implement the United Nations resolutions,[16] and the Council of Europe’s Committee of Experts on Terrorism, which identifies priorities and develops best practices for counter-terrorism on behalf of the European Union.[17] The 57-member Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe develops policies to eliminate the social and cultural conditions that spread terrorism by feeding terrorist ideologies.[18] The African Union develops policies to prevent and counter the ideas that convince young people to become terrorists.[19] Finally, the Organization of American States Inter-American Committee Against Terrorism spots and strategizes how to manage emerging threats.[20] 

Tools of International Counter-terrorism Efforts 

There are several tools international organizations can use to combat terrorism, but the two most frequently-used are military force and economic sanctions. 

Let’s first look at military force. Under the international law of armed conflict, terrorists are not expressly subject to targeting and killing with military force.  Article 2(4) of the UN Charter prohibits a country from using force “against the territorial integrity or political independence” of another country.[21]  Moreover, Article 51 permits the use of force in individual and collective self-defense only “if an armed attack occurs.”[22] Prior to September 11, 2001, it was assumed that only an armed attack by a country justified an armed incursion into that country. 

The September 11th attacks changed everything. The Security Council issued Resolution 1368 recognizing that the terrorist attack threatened international peace and security and triggered the individual right of self-defense by the United States against the perpetrators of the attack, as well as the collective right and responsibility of other nations to assist the U.S.[23] Resolution 1377 labeled terrorists an enemy of all humankind and called on all states to engage in efforts against terrorists and those who finance, plan, prepare, and support terrorists.[24]  The United Nations recognized that terrorists could, by attacking a state, become the lawful object of military force in self-defense, and authorized all member-states to use military force against the perpetrators of the September 11th attacks.

On the same day the U.N. issued Resolution 1368, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization declared the recent terrorist attack to be an armed attack within the meaning of the NATO Charter, which provides that an attack on any NATO member is an attack on all NATO members.  Thus, NATO recognized the right of the United States to use military force in self-defense against the perpetrators, while arguably obligating all its members to do the same.[25]

Diplomatic efforts and financial assistance induced 136 nations to join the battle against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan after September 11th.[26] However, many military contributions by participating countries were very small, did not include combat troops or consisted solely of intelligence sharing or offers of use of military bases.   

International organizations have also assisted in an international counter-terrorism effort against ISIS. Known as the Global Coalition, it has attracted 75 countries.[27] The United States has organized and leads its military effort with contributions from NATO and other European allies, plus other countries such as Australia, Turkey, Jordan and Morocco. The Global Coalition eliminated thirty thousand ISIS fighters and liberated 90% of the territory ISIS once held. 

The second tool in the international counter-terrorism strategy arsenal is the power to enforce economic sanctions to disrupt trade and financial transactions and carry out asset seizures. Although coordinated and supported internationally, most economic sanctions are implemented by nations through their own laws. 

UN Resolutions 1267 and 1333 required states and regional organizations to create a “1267 List” of known terrorists and other entities associated with Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda and the Taliban — a list that, by 2011, numbered nearly 500.[28]  Arms embargoes and travel prohibitions are included in the 1267 and 1333 sanctions, and other terrorist organizations, including ISIS, are similarly sanctioned.[29]  Terrorists and entities can, however, challenge their listings.

For example, pursuant to Resolution 1267, the U.S. and European Union recommended that Yassin Kadi, a Saudi citizen who founded the Muwafaq Foundation, an organization associated with bin Laden, be listed and thus subjected to sanctions. Kadi challenged his listing claiming that his inability to view the evidence underlying his listing violated his rights.  In 2012, while Kadi’s case was on appeal, the U.N. Sanctions Committee removed Kadi from the List, reasoning that Kadi was entitled to opportunity to know and contest the reasons for his listing in an impartial hearing.[30]

Another agreement that uses economic sanctions against terrorism was the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism.[31] It defines terrorist financing as a crime and requires signatory states to: 

·         criminalize specific acts of terrorist finance;

·         identify potential terrorist financing;

·         freeze and seize the assets of terrorists and their supporters; and

·         prosecute or extradite terrorists. 

In 1989, the G-7 nations, seven of the largest and most advanced economies in the world, formed the Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering.[32] After September 11th, the task force expanded its operations to include international standards for terrorist finance[33] to combat “money laundering and the financing of terrorism.”[34] In consultation with the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, all of which gather, analyze, and exchange information, the Task Force developed recommendations which detail best practices to actively seek out, freeze, and seize assets used to finance terrorism.[35]  

Despite the advent of international economic sanctions to fight terrorism, they can be limited in effectively curbing terrorist activities. Those who financially support terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and ISIS don’t rely solely on financial institutions to send money to them. Instead, terrorist finance relies on drug and human trafficking, kidnapping for ransom, extortion, robbery and other criminal activity, with funds collected and distributed through informal channels outside the reach of sanctions regimes.[36]  Supporters of terrorists also provide funding through false-front charitable organizations, wealthy donors, remittances from people working abroad and conversion of assets into gold.[37] 

International Cooperation in Law Enforcement to Combat Terrorism

International cooperation in law enforcement is critical to global counter-terrorism efforts because terrorism cuts across international borders. International law enforcement cooperation occurs in three fields: intelligence, border security, and criminal investigation.

We’ll begin with intelligence cooperation. Since terrorists routinely operate in isolation or small cells, countries must cooperate to gather and share information on the location and activities of terrorists to prevent them from reaching safe havens and conducting attacks.  Because many countries lack these capabilities, the UN Counter-Terrorism Committee, acting under Resolution 1373,[38] assists them in developing and using law enforcement intelligence in counter-terrorism. There are several regional organizations critical in the production, sharing, and analysis of counter-terrorism law enforcement intelligence as well.  The International Criminal Police Organization develops and shares law enforcement intelligence on terrorist activity on behalf of 190-plus member countries and provides alerts and investigative support through its Fusion Task Force.[39]  The European Union’s law enforcement organization, EUROPOL, exchanges information with the FBI and other entities to analyze and disseminate intelligence regarding terrorist threats.[40] 

Moving to enforcement of border security, the ease with which terrorists can cross borders means countries can’t protect themselves simply by enacting and enforcing domestic legislation.[41] So, countries have formed regional organizations to provide technical assistance and resources to strengthen borders. In Europe, for instance, the Salzburg Forum, consisting of nine Central and Eastern European countries and the Southeast European Law Enforcement Center with eleven Balkan nations, collaborate with one another to manage borders, enforce travel security standards and documents and exchange terrorist DNA data.[42] In December 2001, the United States and Canada entered into a “smart border” agreement to increase security and facilitate lawful cross-border movement of people and goods.[43] In this agreement, both countries agreed to share passenger manifests and passenger name records using an automated data-sharing program that also assess risks of the passengers.[44]

Finally, we come to criminal investigation of terrorism, which includes crime-scene management, forensic analysis and evidence collection and analysis. Not all countries can investigate acts of terrorism in a manner that permits successful prosecution because criminal investigation is a highly specialized and technical field.  As a result, United States agencies that do specialize in this field, such as the CIA and FBI, provide investigation support, training, technical assistance and liaisons with prosecutors in countries lacking in investigation capabilities.[45] 

Developing Civil Society to Combat Terrorism

Finally, we must approach the issue of civil society development and how effective it can be to curb terrorist threats. The purpose of developing a nation’s civil society is to address corruption and lawlessness in developing countries and reduce the likelihood that its citizenry will turn to violence and terrorism to vent anger and disillusionment.[46] Further, civil society development presumes that a rule-of-law country with the technical capacity and political will to counter terrorist ideologies and battle terrorism can better keep from becoming a safe haven for terrorists and may become an effective counter-terrorist partner.[47] 

The United Nations’ Global Counter-terrorism Strategy acknowledges the importance of civil society development. Donor governments and non-governmental organizations contribute money and personnel to recipient countries to build the capacities of their militaries, police, judges, legislators and other counter-terrorist institutions. Working with community groups and citizens’ organizations at the grass-roots level with the help of specialized agencies and regional organizations, recipient governments can create a rule-of-law society that achieves stable and non-corrupt governance, creates economic opportunities, counters terrorist narratives and drives terrorists away.[48] 

International organizations and non-governmental organizations, including Doctors Without Borders, Amnesty International, the Ford Foundation and others participate in civil society development as a counter-terrorism tool.  The U.N. Interregional Crime and Justice Institute Center on Policies to Counter the Appeal of Terrorism assists countries with citizens who are considering engaging in terrorism in establishing effective disengagement and rehabilitation programs and alternatives.[49] 

Iraq is a prominent example where the international community has focused on civil society development as a counter-terrorism tool. In 2018, for instance, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s Terrorism Prevention Branch announced plans that it would multiply its efforts in providing “legal, capacity building and technical assistance to the Government.”[50] During this two year-program, U.N. advisors would assist the Iraqi government in drafting new counter-terrorism laws. Additionally, it would help train hundreds of competent law enforcement officers and criminal justice officers so that they could address proliferation of terrorist groups instead of relying on foreign military to do so.


Thank you for watching our video-course on counter-terrorism. This course should give you a comprehensive understanding of the most important legal issues surrounding American and international approaches to counter-terrorism today.

[4] Functions and Powers of the General Assembly, United Nations General Assembly

[14] The United Nations Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee, SecurityCouncil Counter-Terrorism Committee, https://www.un.org/sc/ctc/ ; Working Group Established Pursuant to Resolution 1566 (2004), United Nations Security Council, Subsidiary Organs, https://www.un.org/sc/suborg/en/subsidiary/1566 

[19] 2018 International Youth Conference on Prevention and Countering Violent Extremism and Terrorism, African Centre for the Study and Research on Terrorism (June 6, 2018), http://caert.org.dz/?p=2550.

[30] Office of the Ombudsperson to the ISIL (Da’esh) and Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee, Office of the Ombudsperson of the Security Council 1267 Committee, https://www.un.org/sc/suborg/en/ombudsperson (last visited June 19, 2018); Agnieszka Grossman, A Critical Assessment of the 1267 Sanctions Committee, E-International Relations Students (March 3, 2012), http://www.e-ir.info/2012/03/03/a-critical-assessment-of-the-1267-sanctions-committee/.

[31] International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism, United Nations Treaty Collection, (June 20, 2018), https://treaties.un.org/Pages/ViewDetails.aspx?src=IND&mtdsg_no=XVIII-11&chapter=18&lang=en.

[32] Who We Are, Financial Action Task Force, http://www.fatf-gafi.org/about/ 

[35] Terrorist Financing, Financial Action Task Force (Feb. 29, 2008), http://www.fatf-gafi.org/media/fatf/documents/reports/FATF%20Terrorist%20Financing%20Typologies%20Report.pdf.

[40] About Europol, EUROPOL, https://www.europol.europa.eu/about-europol 

[42] Salzburg Forum, http://www.salzburgforum.org/; About SELEC, Southeast European Law Enforcement Center,  http://www.selec.org/m106/About+SELEC; Economic Community of West African States, http://www.ecowas.int/; G8 Statement on Counter-Terrorism, G7 Information Centre (July 8, 2005), http://www.g8.utoronto.ca/summit/2005gleneagles/counterterrorism.pdf.

[47] Eric Rosand et al., Civil Society and the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, Opportunities and Challenges, Center on Global Counterterrorism Cooperation (September 2008)