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Is the International Community Out of Ideas to Combat Terrorism?

After every attack, officials cry out for more intelligence sharing and hard security measures. Maybe it’s time for something else.

A vote is taken during a meeting at the United Nations July 21, 2014 in New York, to draft a UN Security Council resolution demanding that pro-Russian separatists provide "full and unfettered access" to the crash site of the downed Malaysian jet in eastern Ukraine. AFP PHOTO / Timothy A. CLARY (Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

A slew of Islamic State attacks, from Paris to Turkey to Brussels, is shaking confidence in the international community’s approach to combating terrorism and has prompted a new look at what critics call a failing strategy that relies too heavily on law enforcement, intelligence gathering, and military operations — and not enough on winning hearts and minds.

It has been nearly 18 years since the United Nations was first asked to support the budding U.S. war on terror with a Security Council resolution calling on states to cooperate in pursuing those behind the Aug. 7, 1998, attacks on two U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Following the 9/11 attacks, the U.N. built an industry of counterterrorism panels and committees that has documented the spread of militant organizations across Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. The world body has pressed countries to rewrite laws, share intelligence, and criminalize terrorism.

But extremist violence continues to bedevil the big powers, prompting a major rethink of counterterrorism priorities.

“Here we are, 18 years later, with pretty much the same problem and no really strong strategic approach for dealing with it,” Richard Barrett, a former director of global counterterrorism for the British Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6, who headed U.N. investigations into al Qaeda, told Foreign Policy. “It’s very much about bombing and arresting rather than understanding why this is happening and what can be done to try to address that.”

The problem has become so pronounced that even the U.N.’s most senior leaders are sounding the alarm.

“Over the past two decades, the international community has sought to address violent extremism primarily within the context of security-based counter-terrorism measures adopted in response to the threat posed by Al-Qaida and its affiliated groups,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon wrote in a Dec. 24 report titled “Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism.”

“However, with the emergence of a new generation of groups, there is a growing international consensus that such counter-terrorism measures have not been sufficient to prevent the spread of violent extremism,” Ban wrote.

Ryan Greer, a former advisor at the U.S. State Department’s Counterterrorism Bureau, agreed that a militarized response to terrorism has limits.

“There are too many returning foreign fighters and ISIL supporters to arrest and kill our way out of this, particularly as new recruits join each day,” Greer told Foreign Policy. “We need to better understand the root causes of support to ISIL and prevent people from radicalizing and reintegrate returning fighters who are not dangerous.”

One challenge is settling on exactly what the United States and its allies should be fighting. In February 2015, the Obama administration hosted a summit on countering violent extremism. But the phrase remains an “elusive concept,” even within the borders of Europe, where the United Kingdom, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark have different definitions of what constitutes violent extremism, according to Ben Emmerson, the U.N. special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism.

In a Feb. 22 report, Emmerson said the lack of an internationally recognized definition for violent extremism or terrorism has created what he called a “well-founded concern” that authoritarian states could use the terms to justify targeting “members of religious minorities, civil society, human rights defenders, peaceful separatist and indigenous groups and members of political opposition parties.”

“You don’t want to make life easier for dictators,” said François Heisbourg, a former French diplomat who serves as a special advisor at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. The lack of a definition, he added, “does make life easier for dictators. It enables them to define those terms.”

There is also disagreement over what social, economic, or psychological forces drive individuals into a life of terrorism.

Shortly after 9/11, then-President George W. Bush and other world leaders proclaimed at a summit on poverty in Monterrey, Mexico, that it is essential to eradicate poverty to defeat terrorism. Heisbourg, by contrast, cast doubt on that conclusion: “Were the 9/11 terrorists primarily defined by the fact that they were poor?” he said. “Most of them were not.”

Regardless of the cause of violent extremism, the national reflex for most governments struck by terrorists is to hit back.

Over the last year, and since attacks in Paris and Brussels, French and Belgian authorities have stepped up their bombing campaigns against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq while pressing for tighter European border controls, more intelligence sharing, and arrests of suspected accomplices. Following the March 22 bombings in Brussels, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel confirmed plans to resume F-16 airstrikes on Islamic State targets as a part of the U.S.-led coalition against the extremist group.

While counterterrorism experts have suggested ways Europe can more effectively share critical information, there’s a growing realization in New York that the U.N. can only do so much. European powers say the U.N. Security Council has already given member states sweeping powers to crack down on terrorism. What is missing is the resolve to exercise those powers.

“It’s hard to imagine what more can be done in terms of a resolution,” Barrett said. “I think all the tools have been unpacked, laid out, ready to use. It’s about getting on with it.”

That’s not to say there aren’t important improvements to be made in Europe, where the lack of political will to share intelligence on the movement of suspected Islamic State militants has been glaring.

In 2004, following the Madrid train bombings that killed 192 people, the EU created a counterterrorism coordinator position to foster cohesion among member states. But the coordinator’s office “doesn’t have any authority,” Eric Rosand, a former State Department official who specialized in counterterrorism, told FP last week. “He has a grand title, and he produces wonderful reports. But he has a limited mandate and no resources.”

The current coordinator, Belgian diplomat Gilles de Kerchove, issued a March 1 report warning that “further urgent improvements to information sharing and border security are necessary” — especially related to the use of a common database for DNA, fingerprints, and car license plates for suspected terrorists. The report also noted governments aren’t even using a separate database to help with ongoing prosecutions and convictions of suspected extremists.

But those are fixes that don’t involve U.N. action.

In theory, the U.N. has the power to sanction countries that fail to take steps to cooperate on intelligence sharing. But the world body virtually never does. The language of U.N. resolutions calling for such action is more “aspirational than real world,” Heisbourg said.

And in practice, states jealously guard the secrets their security agencies dig up; Heisbourg cited the prominent failures by the CIA and FBI to routinely share intelligence before 9/11. “I don’t think the U.S. intelligence community would be delighted to have to share on a systematic basis all its product” with other countries, he said. “Intelligence is not shared; it is traded.”

Recent revelations that the Islamic State showed signs of planning attacks on Europe as far back as 2014, as first reported by the New York Times, have heightened criticisms of Western intelligence agencies. The newspaper’s report, based on court proceedings, wiretaps, and interrogation transcripts, found that local authorities in Europe repeatedly shrugged off a series of uncovered plots by Islamic extremists as “isolated or random acts” and downplayed the connections to the Islamic State.

Yet the ability of intelligence services — no matter how competent they are — to never miss a threat is often overestimated, some experts said.

“The ‘this was an intelligence failure’ line is almost always a bit of a red herring,” said Greer, who is currently CEO of Vasa Strategies, which consults on countering violent extremism. “Would we like to know everything all the time? Sure. But we won’t.”

“It’s really hard to collect intelligence in a war zone where your military is not on the ground,” he added.

Photo credit: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/Getty Images

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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