Ending the ‘9/11 Era’: Multilateralism and the future of effective counter-terrorism

Twenty years on from the devastating 11 September attacks, we host commentary from RUSI Senior Associate Fellows Eric Rosand (US) and Sabin Khan (UK), experts who have worked at the heart of American and British government efforts to counter terrorism and violent extremism post-9/11. This independent analysis is a contribution to our shared understanding of the challenge, and does not represent Global Coalition opinion or policy.

With the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks upon us, chaotic and violent events surrounding the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, and the Taliban takeover of the country have understandably become a lightning rod for criticism and commentary on this auspicious milestone. However, with all the attention that Afghanistan merits, those seeking to reflect on and learn lessons from two decades of counterterrorism strategy and practice should not overlook one of the underreported developments during that period: the emergence, largely from scratch, of a sprawling multilateral architecture which now features dozens of different entities – both formal and informal – to address a range of threats posed by terrorist groups and violent extremists.

New York City, NY, USA – October 10, 2017: The North Reflecting Pool illuminated at twilight with view of One World Trade Center. Lower Manhattan, 9/11 Memorial & Museum. By Francois Roux

This growth has been both a product of and catalyst for the enhanced international cooperation that has, with a few exceptions (including the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003), characterized much of the past two decades of counterterrorism policymaking and practice. Although not without their limitations, multilateral bodies and platforms have helped facilitate and deepen this cooperation. They have served to forge strategic consensus among governments, set norms and standards to guide national and local efforts, mobilized resources, and  helped countries build their counterterrorism capacities. Crucially, these forums have enabled the sharing of information and experience among officials and experts across countries.

Among the most profound counter-terrorism advances over the past 20 years has been the extent to which multilateral architecture has evolved to allow for more dynamic and practical counter-terrorism cooperation on an ever-growing set of issues (extending beyond the security domain) and involving an ever-diverse set of stakeholders (now including civil society and other non-governmental actors).  Ensuring this architecture, is both right-sized and fit for purpose as the third, post-9/11 decade unfolds should now be a priority.

At moments like this it is wise to look back as well as forward. When the planes that al-Qa’ida hijacked hit the Twin Towers, there was little to no shared counter-terrorism architecture.  Most international counter-terrorism cooperation was at the operational and tactical levels, whether military, law enforcement, or intelligence, leaving little room for traditional multilateral bodies like the United Nations to get involved.  Moreover, counter-terrorism policymakers and practitioners back then saw no reason to involve the UN, in part because it had little to offer.   

Apart from a few UN terrorism-related treaties, a largely moribund UN General Assembly committee focused on negotiating an international definition of terrorism (without ever reaching agreement), a UN Security Council sanctions regime put in place after the 1998 attacks on U.S. Embassies in East Africa, counterterrorism was not on the global body’s agenda.  In fact, the UN Secretariat had no staff dedicated to the issue. Among regional bodies, only the OAS had even the semblance of a counter-terrorism agenda, driven by terrorist attacks in Argentina and Peruvian concerns about Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path).

The day after 9/11, things began to change as the United States worked through the UN to secure global support for a response. The Council famously declared international terrorism a threat to peace and security and set the stage for the subsequent U.S. led military intervention in Afghanistan. Security Council Resolution 1373 followed two weeks later, imposing a range of legal and operational requirements on all member states, and laid the foundation for an ever-expanding counterterrorism legal and policy framework. Later that fall, the Council encouraged other multilateral bodies to elevate counterterrorism as a priority. 

Fast forward two decades and now there are dozens of such bodies that have done so, whether by developing strategic frameworks and action plans, facilitating or delivering training or capacity building, and mobilizing political will. Examples include APEC, ASEAN, the AU, the Council of Europe, ECOWAS, Inter-Parliamentary Union, IGAD, INTERPOL, NATO, and the OSCE.

The changed landscape at the UN itself is also revealing. In addition to a raft of counter-terrorism resolutions adopted by the Security Council since then, counter-terrorism is now treated as a priority not just within 15 member Council, but across the entire 193-member body. Indeed, the General Assembly’s 2006 global counter-terrorism strategy remains the only globally-agreed comprehensive counterterrorism framework, serving as a model for countries to follow. The UN Office of Counter-Terrorism, established in 2017, includes a staff of nearly 200 people led by an Under-Secretary General, with new field offices opening up around the globe. It manages a trust fund of more than $250 million, which is dedicated to supporting counterterrorism and preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE) projects around the globe.

Forty-two different UN entities are members of the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Compact, a far cry from the initial period after 9/11 when UN development, humanitarian, and human rights actors were reluctant to be part of counter-terrorism debates at the UN for fear having their core work “securitized”.   Related, international development institutions such as the OECD and World Bank, historically resistant to associate with what many viewed as a Western-imposed security agenda, but now increasingly aware of how extremism and other forms of violent conflict can undermine development gains, have become engaged in P/CVE.

The past decade, in particular, has seen a steady increase in the number of new multilateral counterterrorism or P/CVE bodies, platforms, and initiatives, including those with a particular regional (such as the IGAD Centre of Excellence for Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism, and the Permanent G5 Sahel Secretariat) or thematic (such as the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism) focus. Others have targeted specific stakeholders such as cities, womenresearchers, or youth.

Among the most significant developments in the international counter-terrorism space over the past 20 years has been the emergence of action-oriented coalitions and other platforms  which provide more agile and less process-oriented and easily politicized vehicles, through which governments can coordinate and  non-governmental actors can become involved. These are forums driven primarily by member governments themselves, rather than international civil servants.

The most prominent of these are the Global Counterterrorism Forum and the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.  The former is a 30-member body, which includes both thematic and regional working groups and was launched in 2011 to fill a critical gap in the multilateral system: the lack of an international platform that would allow national counter-terrorism coordinators, prosecutors, judges, border control officers, and prison officials to meet with their counterparts from various regions to share experiences, challenges, and needs; to mobilize resources and expertise; and to build trust.  The latter was formed in 2014 to help defeat Daesh on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria. It is now an 83-member group, with four working groups and an expanding geographic focus to tackle Daesh branches in locations including West Africa.   

The extent of the architecture’s growth over the past two decades is impressive evidence of increased commitment to multilateral cooperation.  However, much of its expansion appears to have been driven as much by short-term political or security considerations – and a sense that the more counterterrorism resolutions, bodies, and initiatives the –better, as it has by a coherent strategy that takes into account how best to leverage the existing platforms and tools in both the counter-terrorism and related fields to address the particular threat or other need and the practical impact of these efforts on the ground.  This can lead to overlapping, multilateral actors and initiatives competing for attention from ministers, policymakers, and practitioners, and funding support from donors.  

Sustaining all of these efforts when counter-terrorism was a global priority was challenging enough; it will become harder to maintain the momentum given two trends: first, issues other than counter-terrorism have become a more pressing and require a share of limited resources (including COVID-19, migration, climate change, and ‘great power competition’); and second, increased recognition that the most effective and sustainable approach to addressing terrorist threats is not by adding more ‘counter-terrorism’ measures or initiatives, but by integrating those efforts within the broader strategic and programmatic approach for addressing political violence, conflict, and fragility. 

Streamlining and otherwise reforming the multilateral counter-terrorism architecture that has emerged over the past two decades to reflect these trends and other current realities to ensure it is fit for purpose for the third post-9/11 decade will thus be challenging but necessary. A more refined and nimble architecture is achievable, but it now requires a process of review and consolidation.  We should be prepared to ask ourselves difficult questions about objectives, prioritization, and ways of working and seek to determine the continued added value of each piece of the architecture and what reforms might be required to allow for a more inclusive and multi-disciplinary approach. Ensuring  more diversity of perspectives and enhanced multi-stakeholder collaboration  should be the foundation of multilateral counterterrorism and P/CVE cooperation as we enter the third decade after 9/11.  This will help ensure the “post-9/11 era” comes to an end.

Eric Rosand is a Senior Associate Fellow at RUSI, Interim Director of the Strong Cities Network  and former senior U.S. Department of State counterterrorism and countering violent extremism official.

Sabin Khan is a Senior Associate Fellow at RUSI, currently on secondment from the UK Homeland Security Group at the Home Office.

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