Threat Analysis and Multilateral Counterterrorism
Since 9/11 there has been considerable international action to confront jihadi terrorism. While much has been written about how states collaborate, the role of the U.N. Security Council in generating collective action, and the building of a vast counterterrorism apparatus, less attention has been given to the question of multilateral threat analysis.
On its face, one would think that collective action must be preceded by collective analysis of the threat, either by coordinating the analyses of U.N. member states or through a U.N. body responsible for presenting a comprehensive analysis on behalf of the international community. The need for such a function is clearly underscored by the dynamic nature of the threat and the expansive international activity produced in response to jihadi terrorism—including, among other things, the construction of a regime to deny non-stateaccess to weapons of mass destruction, and an elaborate framework to prevent terrorism financing—and the need to reconcile member states’ diverging views of it.
The good news is that we do have a body responsible for such threat analysis: the 1267 Committee, also known as the al-Qaida Sanctions Committee. Formed after the U.S. embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in August 1998, the Committee was augmented and retooled as the main international instrument for imposing sanctions on al-Qaida and associated terrorist groups, as well as designated terrorists from these jihadi groups. Although its primary focus was on sanctions, in service of this function, the committee was also given a mandate to identify and analyze the terrorism threat. The bad news is that the committee and its subsidiary team of experts designated as responsible for submitting threat assessments to the Security Council (known as the Monitoring Team) have not been doing a very good job of analyzing the threat. It avoids important questions about the nature of the threat, pays insufficient attention to the aspirations and strategies jihadis employ, and many times ignores internal dynamics within the jihadi movement.
I examined documents produced by the 1267 Committee and the Monitoring Team in the period between the Committee’s establishment in 1998 and 2012, as well as transcripts of Security Council periodic meetings in which the council received and discussed reports from its counterterrorism bodies, in order to assess how threat analysis was performed. Notwithstanding the obvious difficulty of threat identification, the multiple legitimate views about the state of such a complex threat, and the unfair advantage of judgment in hindsight, such an examination is warranted, though it must be conducted with care. Rather than expecting the committee (and the Monitoring Team) to get everything right, I was looking to see if (and when) it was able to identify some clear observable trends relating to al-Qaida and its associate groups, such as the shift of al-Qaida’s focus to nationally-based terrorism by franchising the al-Qaida brand. I was also expecting it to engage the central debates regarding al-Qaida and its associates, such as the nature of the group, its ideology, and its objectives and strategy.
Instead, what I found was that the 1267 Committee and its Monitoring Team often settled for reporting trivial information that was already widely known, but often failed—or consciously avoided—presenting a thorough assessment. It is hard to blame it for this failure. The Security Council was never truly committed to this task. Analyzing the evolution of the threat is only one of many roles stated in the mandate of the committee’s team of experts, and it ranks quite low on the list. The team was never properly staffed to perform this function. Its temporary status – its mandate was renewed every few years – undermines its ability to produce comprehensive analysis, and signals that the council does not recognize the team and the roles it fulfills as sufficiently important to warrant its existence for the sanctions’ full duration.