The UN’s War on Terrorism

For four years, the UN has developed its own counterterrorism capabilities; the question is how far it wants to go.

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In October the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1636, demanding that Syria stop stonewalling a UN investigation into the car-bomb assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri—in which several Syrian officials are prime suspects. Since the Security Council had no protocol for responding to acts of terrorism, the resolution came only after days of heavy political bargaining. It was one of many signs that, despite its inefficiencies, the UN has made a continued effort to piece together new counterterrorism policies since September 11, 2001, as concerns and crises arise.

Only a week before the resolution against Syria, the UN celebrated its 60th summit in New York, where Secretary General Kofi Annan counseled that the UN must address the new security demands posed by terrorism to ensure that the organization will “remain relevant to the world” in the 21st century. Member states unanimously agreed for the first time to condemn terrorism “in all its forms and manifestations, committed by whomever, wherever, and for whatever purposes”—a distinct political victory that cannot be overemphasized. They failed, however, to agree on a definition of terrorism, due to disagreements over whether “freedom fighters” should be included or “state terrorism” excluded. But despite the bickering, common in an organization often mocked for its recurrent deadlocks, the United Nations is making progress in agreeing to take action on difficult security issues.

Since 9/11, the UN has developed an array of counterterrorism capabilities and is now on the verge of developing a comprehensive strategy to deal with terrorism. But the organization is still deciding whether to push forward and emerge as the primary center for coordinating international counterterrorism efforts, or fall back on its traditional mission, limiting its concerns to the “soft issues” of fighting poverty and alleviating the “root causes” of violence, leaving only half-equipped institutions in place to fight terrorism.

The 9/11 attacks forced UN member states to realize that they must cooperate over security issues that were once considered the exclusive domain of individual nation-states—since a breach of security in one state poses an increased risk to all. In the years after the Cold War, the US had filled the security vacuum as the guarantor of world security, but al-Qaeda represents a new threat, which, as Moisés Naím, editor of Foreign Policy, argues in his new book, Illicit, takes advantage of the advances in technology, communications, and liberalization during the 1990s, a development that requires more than one strong arm to protect many weak states. These transnational threats often call for cooperation between states that may lack a history of bilateral negotiations and have seemingly dissimilar foreign interests. In this respect, the UN is well-suited to filling in the gaps.

Shortly after the attacks, with uncharacteristic alacrity, the Security Council unanimously passed several counterterrorism resolutions, and a record number of member states signed on to three existing counterterrorism treaties which had previously been held up. The most sweeping resolution passed was Security Council Resolution 1373, which, among other things, required states to undergo periodic assessments of their national security programs and their vulnerability to terrorist attacks, and to submit a list of needed improvements. The resolution also established the UN’s Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTC), which is charged with monitoring the ability of member states to evaluate their counterterrorism capacities; the committee also assists states in implementing UNCR 1373, and recommends sanctions or other enforcement measures needed to combat terrorism.

Member states submitted the first round of reports unanimously, leading the first CTC chairman, British Ambassador Jeremy Greenstock, to remark, “Counter-terrorism has now gone global, with the UN at the center.” The CTC, though not without its inefficiencies—it overlaps with other UN agencies—has become a clearinghouse for international security expertise, where donor states and NGOs can be linked up with developing nations that lack the resources to close the gaps in their domestic defenses. And the CTC is continuing to expand: after adding an Executive-Directorate, it undertook fact-finding missions in Morocco and Kenya this year, and plans for more.

Even after the flurry of post-9/11 responses to terrorism, the UN has continued to pass resolutions aimed at inducing states to bolster their domestic security and cooperate on matters of prosecuting and terrorism-related activities. New UN policies regulate the freezing of financial assets of terrorist suspects, tighten border controls, and oversee the transport of arms. In addition, UN bodies that sit beyond the control of the Security Council, including the UN aviation, maritime, drug and crime prevention offices, are also reevaluating their strategies, with a new focus on terrorist-related activities.

Among the most important recent resolutions is UNSCR 1540, passed in April 2004, which requires states to forbid non-state actors from acquiring weapons and related materials of mass destruction. Significant in several respects, 1540 combines separate bans on chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons into one blanket prohibition on WMDs, streamlining existing law. It also overcomes gaps in earlier nonproliferation regimes by covering all UN member states. Unlike existing multilateral arms agreements, UNSCR 1540 is an edict, passed only by the Security Council but mandatory for all. Finally, according to the British think tank Chatham House, 1540 is only the second legislative resolution passed by the Security Council since 1945. In ordering states to develop domestic monitoring tools for the production, movement, and sale of WMDs within their borders, the UNSC has charged states with criminalizing security violations by international standards, maintaining domestic agencies to monitor illegal activities, and effectively enforcing those laws.

In March of 2005, on the anniversary of the Madrid bombings, the UN held its Summit on Democracy, Terrorism and Security. There, Annan presented a proposal for a comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy. The plan is summed up by “5 Ds”: denouncing terrorism, defending human rights, discouraging state support for terrorists, denying terrorists access to money and arms, and developing state security capabilities. His outline was informed by the report of a High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Changes that had been commissioned to identify new security threats falling within the UN mandate. The report was designed as an explicit alternative to the the “American war on global terror,” according to the panel’s research director, Stephen Stedman, and stressed diplomatic and humanitarian approaches to terrorism.

Yet the report still recommends bold, concrete measures, including an explicit affirmation that only the United Nations can authorize and use preemptive force. Other recommendations were to create a trust fund to help states build counter-terrorism security capabilities; developing more robust global cooperation in policing and intelligence work—a politically divisive point; and establishing a standing rapid-deployment UN police force, conceived of as an essential enforcement component for the UN at its inception. Another suggestion was to create a list of automatically-imposed sanctions on states or actors that violate UN resolutions. Though Annan did not include all these ideas in his proposal, Javier Rupérez, the executive director of the CTC, says that “they still remain part of the ongoing discussion.”

But whatever comprehensive counterterrorism proposal the General Assembly eventually puts forward, it is unlikely to include a mechanism for automatically imposing sanctions on states that violate UN resolutions, due to disagreement over the humanitarian effect of sanctions and their proper use. To make sanctions more viable, the UN is currently developing “smart sanctions,” which are intended to focus on political targets while minimizing harm to civilians.

The question of enforcement remains critical for evaluating the effectiveness of UN resolutions. Both critics and supporters often point out that the UN currently has few means of backing up its decrees. UNSCR 1540, the resolution on WMDs, was created under the controversial Chapter 7 of the UN charter, which gives the organization the right to use force in order to make states comply, though doing so would require a separate—and presumably contentious—vote by the Security Council.

To the extent that the force of a UN resolution extends only so far as the interest of member states allows, then, the tenor of discussion within the organization is a telling indicator of how likely states are to implement international conventions. In the case of terrorism, UN officials and specialists note that talk of terrorism has grown within the General Assembly. As Russian ambassador, A.G. Doulian told the Kigali New Times, “the problem of terrorism came to the forefront” at the September 2005 summit. Furthermore, as was made clear in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, states don’t always need the whip of UN enforcement to agree to counterterrorist initiatives—sometimes the threat of terrorist attacks is enough.

“As far as terrorism is concerned,” says David Birenbaum, a former UN Ambassador for the United States, “there is recognition on the part of most countries that they’re potentially victims. Nobody can stand aside.” And so far even the United States, the organization’s largest contributor, has been keen on working through the UN. President Bush, often assumed to be antagonistic to international cooperation, has shown interest in further empowering the UNSC, and last year pressed for a Global Peace Operations Initiative that would create a standing rapid-deployment force for the UN, funded and trained by volunteer states, including the U.S. In 2004, a bipartisan House committee concluded in a report entitled “American Interests and UN Reform” that the United Nations, and the legitimacy it confers, was essential to U.S. interests and power.

In fact the UN has gone so far in developing a counter-terrorism strategy, however ad hoc, that many within the organization are concerned that terrorism is detracting from the UN’s traditional functions—developing global norms and condemning those actors who stray from them. The UN’s chief contribution to global security has always come from encouraging the diplomatic resolution of conflict and making unprecedented headway in shaping the normative perspective of states to include humanitarian concerns. Up until now, the UN has achieved its most notable successes by acting as a forum for tackling “soft security issues,” such as poverty, human rights abuses, and epidemic disease, and some UN representatives worry that the growing focus on counter-terrorism and other “hard issues” will divert attention from this traditional mission.

At the very least, the UN’s involvement in counterterrorism could taint the organization’s hard-earned legitimacy by creating the perception that it is aligned too closely with US interests. “Some in the UN community, in fact, seem to view counter-terrorism as more of a threat to the UN than terrorism itself,” writes Edward Luck, director of the United Nations Studies Program at Columbia, in his new book, Multilateralism under Challenge.

But even if member states eventually decide to limit the UN’s counterterrorism role to acting as a global norm-maker and debate-shaper, at this point in time no other organization is prepared to step in and implement a robust international counterterrorism security regime. At the moment, says the CTC’s executive director Javier Rupérez, “The UN is really the only forum where countries can come together, negotiate and adopt treaties and resolutions that hold everyone accountable.” Moreover, after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, many countries have been unwilling to let the United States play the part of “global policeman of last resort.”

The question, then, is whether the United Nations wants to assume that role, and how far it is willing to venture. If the UN does continue to serve as a nexus for coordinating international peace and security efforts against terrorism, it will require many reforms ahead. But it has already gone farther than any pre-9/11 observer could have possibly imagined.


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