As Matt indicates, the threats are real and potentially catastrophic should AQ or its affiliates get a hold of weapons of mass destruction. The issue for me is less the high priority being placed on countering the threat than the manner in which we are countering it:
1) too much emphasis on and too prominent a role for the military; 2) the tendency to try to impose counterterrorism as a priority in countries (particularly in Africa) where the governments and people are faced with much more pressing threats from HIV/AIDS, poverty, corruption, organized and other forms of crime, and lack of development; 3) the tendency to want to put a “counterterrorism” label on policy initiatives (e.g., related to education, development, the training of law enforcement officials) in countries where doing so may lead to resistance on the ground and thus be counterproductive to actually countering terrorism; 4) the continuing pattern of exaggerating the extent of the al Qaida connections with what may be local insurgencies, for example in Indonesia and The Philippines, and where labeling such insurgencies as al Qaeda-related may magnify the profile of smaller unrelated groups or stifle attempts to address the local grievances that are motivating the insurgencies (See, e.g., Amitav Acharya and Arabinda Acharya, “The Myth of the Second Front: Localizing the “War on Terror” in Southeast Asia,” Washington Quarterly, Autumn 2007); and 5) the failure to build the alliances and strengthen international cooperation with traditional and non-traditional partners around the world.

Thus, what is needed is not a de-emphasis in terrorism relative to other national priorities but a more nuanced and less blunt notion of what we mean by “counter” terrorism, taking into account the five concerns/limitations I have outlined. I am sure I have left out many others that need to be taken into account as well and look forward to others adding to this list!

Thanks, Matt, for following this thread.

On the definition issue, at risk of stating the obvious, the distinction between “terrorists” and “freedom fighters” is given weight it doesn’t deserve because of the inherently political nature of any discussion of who is and who isn’t a terrorist. The fact that the US only recently took Nelson Mandela off of its terrorist list is a reminder of this.

I don’t think it’s realistic to expect one to divorce the politics from the law here, particularly in the context of efforts to reach agreement among the diversity of countries within the UN. It’s worth noting that many sitting governments in sub-saharan Africa (and elsewhere) saw themselves as “freedom fighters” (and were often labeled by Western governments as “terrorists”) when they fought to “overthrow” the colonial regimes that had been in place.

Thus, to the extent there is any hope to finally reach agreement on a global definition of terrorism, the task can’t be left to the lawyers (I was one of them!) to try to resolve the differences in the draft UN comprehensive convention on international terrorism that has been in play for some years now. Instead, high-level political engagement is needed. This needs to come from the UN Secretary-General, the US President, and leaders from key Islamic and African countries. Finding a way to get President Abbas to come to the UN General Assembly and condemn all indiscriminate attacks against civilians carried out for political purposes, even if committed by Palestinian “freedom fighters”, for example, would be an important first step.

On Matt’s 1267 Committee point, the issue is a bit more complicated. For example, it’s worth recalling that the US was one of the loudest critics of the Monitoring Group that was disbanded in 2004. In fact, the US lead the charge in the UNSC to not renew the mandate. Much of the criticism had to do with the occasional failure of the group to stay within it its mandate and back up its often pointed assertions in its reports with the necessary factual support.

As for whether the UNSC should establish an independent panel, this is something that I hope to address in a broader discussion of the UN’s role in CT, which I hope will be prompted.

Since one of the questions in the prompt asked whether “our laws – or international law” [emphasis added] are capable of addressing the threat, I thought I would weigh in the international law side of the question.
The UN and its specialized agencies have helped develop a global counterterrorism legal framework consisting of 16 international treaties that criminalize nearly every imaginable terrorist offense and facilitate international legal cooperation in this area. With these instruments, which have laid important normative foundations in a number of counterterrorism-related fields, the UN system has created a broad framework of international criminal law directly applicable to counterterrorism. It limits the freedom of movement of terrorists who are subject either to being prosecuted or extradited by states parties that find them on their territory. They provide essential tools for extradition and mutual legal assistance (MLA) for national authorities to assist requesting state parties by conducting investigations on their behalf and passing the information, evidence, and possibly even the accused over to that country and help ensure that there are no safe havens from prosecution and extradition. In addition to these treaties, the Security Council has adopted resolutions since 9/11 that impose counterterrorism obligations on all states to adopt laws, strengthen borders, deny safe haven, and improve cross-border information sharing and other forms of cooperation.

The above suggests that there is a wide-ranging international counter-terrorism legal framework in place. However, there are two significant gaps that need to be addressed.

The first concerns implementation. Despite the dramatic increase in the past few in the number of countries that have joined the international conventions, not one of them has universal participation and less than ½ have become parties to the ones that were in force as of 2002. Not surprisingly, regions where the terrorist threat is perhaps the greatest (Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Africa) have the lowest level of participation. All too often countries that have signed on to the conventions are failing to implement them. The same remains true of supposedly legally binding Security Council resolutions. Yet, there remains no global mechanism which can effectively monitor implementation and identify willful non-compliance.

The second concerns the lack of a common definition of terrorism, with negotiations on a UN comprehensive convention on international terrorism still deadlocked after more than 35 years. Although some say the above 16 treaties cover almost any imaginable form of terrorist attack, it is not broad enough. One practical implication of this failing is that not all countries define terrorist offenses under their respective national laws in the same way, which often creates significant roadblocks to effective international legal cooperation in the prosecution or extradition of suspected terrorists. For example, not all national definitions satisfy the principle of legality for them to conform with international human rights law. In addition, the lack of a global definition of terrorism and the resulting discrepancies in domestic law can complicate efforts to satisfy the principle of “dual criminality,” which is a pre-requisite for international cooperation, especially extradition.

Although important legal standards have been seen by the UN, without a more serious effort to ensure implementation of them and agree on a common definition, the much needed international law framework will continue to fall short of its potential.

I am not aware of any empirical data that shows a causal link between poverty and terrorism. If there was such a link then we would see poor people and communities more involved in committing/planning terrorist attacks than the current data shows. Poverty by itself simply does not have the direct radicalizing effect on individuals.

In fact, the majority of empirical studies on terrorism provides little indication of correlations between socioeconomic factors such as poverty, inequality, and unemployment and the incidence of terrorism. For example, the data in Alan Kruger and David Latin’s global study of the origins and targets of terrorism lend little support to the notion that poverty leads to terrorism, instead suggesting that limited political rights and civil liberties tend to be the most influential in inciting people to terrorism and country-level economic factors such as poverty and high unemployment, tend to be most relevant in determining the targets of terrorism [see here (pdf)]
As analysis of the home-grown terrorist problem in Europe reveal, the reasons that may push certain second and third generation Muslim youth toward violence are generally not specific enough and include traits shared by a larger population that deals with similar situations in very different ways. In fact, as Matthew alludes to, the process of radicalization is a complex interaction of factors, external (such as poverty, perceived humiliation, radical ideology, and American foreign policy), social (e.g., social identification mechanisms or social network dynamics) and individual (e.g., psychological characteristics or personal experiences), which do not necessarily lead to violence and not every radical becomes a terrorist.

The challenge for the US and other government and non-government stakeholders is to better understand the mix of factors that are relevant to the particular country/region and develop policies and work with the right mix of government and non-government actors to try to address these factors. Given the heightened sensitivities surrounding any program aimed at countering the radicalization process that has the “Made in America” label on it, however, it is important for the US to work with (or under the cover of) partners, such as the UN, whenever possible (and certainly more than it currently does) in developing and implementing programs in the wide range of necessary fields (e.g., social/economic/political).

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