Coauthored with Alexandra Kerr, program coordinator in the International Institutions and Global Governance program.
On May 2, 2011, the American people celebrated the news that Osama bin Laden, mastermind behind 9/11 and international symbol of al-Qaeda, had been brought to justice. Addressing the nation that night, President Obama praised the U.S. special forces that killed the terrorist leader in Pakistan, calling bin Laden’s death “the most significant achievement to date” in the United States’ efforts to defeat al-Qaeda. Yet, he cautioned that this victory was not the end of the fight against terrorism: “We must —and we will—remain vigilant at home and abroad.”
The President was right. Although al-Qaeda has been degraded and become far more decentralized in recent years, its Salafist ideology continues to resonate among jihadis in many corners of the world. Over the past year alone, we have witnessed Islamic militants join forces with al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb to seize northern Mali, declaring the short-lived independent state of Azawad and imposing harsh sharia law; increased violence from al-Qaeda-linked jihadist groups Boko Haram and Ansaru in Nigeria; and the alignment of the al Nusra Front rebel group in Syria with al-Qaeda. Even in the United States, the “self-radicalized” Tsarnaev brothers drew inspiration from jihadist internet sites in planning April’s Boston Marathon bombing.
This litany of carnage should not obscure the considerable counterterrorism successes of the international community. The United States and its partners have indeed remained vigilant, and shown commendable stamina against this persistent threat.
This is a point we make in the Global Governance Report Card, recently released by the Council on Foreign Relations. The first effort to grade multilateral cooperation in addressing major global challenges, the Report Card gives both the international community and the United States high marks—a ‘B’ and ‘B+’, respectively—for their counterterrorism efforts.
These grades reflect several laudable achievements, including cooperation in eliminating high level al-Qaeda leaders, progress in developing counterradicalization strategies to reduce al Qaeda’s attraction, and active measures to ensure that terrorists never get their hands on weapons of mass destruction or the materials necessary to build them. But perhaps most significant has been the effective international collaboration to crack down on terrorist financing, by stemming the flow of funds to terrorists’ hands and providing legal frameworks to prosecute those providing them.
The United States stands out as the leader of counterterrorism efforts worldwide. Beyond the elimination of Osama bin Laden, the United States has denied safe-haven to al-Qaeda through its operations in Afghanistan and has thwarted at least thirty attempted al-Qaeda inspired attacks on U.S. soil since 2008, contributing to the deterioration of the network. Alongside Saudi Arabia, the United States established the influential Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF), increasing multilateral coordination in counterterrorism strategies, and has worked with Russia and other nations to secure the world’s stocks of fissile material, reducing the threat of nuclear terrorism.
That said, while a ‘B’ or a ‘B+’ is commendable, it also indicates room for improvement. The United States must work with partners to close remaining gaps in the counterterrorism regime, both at the international and domestic level. So what would it take to earn an ‘A’? Well, finally forging international consensus at the UN on a definition of “terrorism” would be an admirable start. Beyond that goal, the Report Card suggests the following tangible steps:
Uphold human rights while fighting terrorism: The most shameful aspect of global counterterrorism efforts has been failure to consistently uphold international human rights norms. Egregious violations have included depriving accused perpetrators of due process, the persistence of state sanctioned targeted killings (including by drones), military actions that have resulted in disproportionate civilian casualties, and the use of torture as an enhanced interrogation technique. The United States should work to negotiate common rules for the detention and treatment of terrorists apprehended both in and outside theaters of war, expedited extradition procedures to facilitate trials in home countries where sufficient capacity and dedication to human rights norms exist, and international norms governing targeted killings of suspected terrorists.
Establish a UN counterterrorism coordinator: In the wake of 9/11 the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1373, creating a new Counterterrorism Committee and establishing a Counterterrorism Executive Directorate which offers technical and financial assistance to nations fighting terrorism. Building on this progress, the UN should now establish a counterterrorism coordinator to provide strategic coherence for the mandates of officials who currently oversee the UN’s efforts.
Hold state sponsors of terrorism—and wavering governments—accountable: One of the enduring obstacles to thwarting terrorism has been the insufficient will—and in some cases the outright connivance—of governments in countries ranging from Pakistan to Eritrea, Iran, and North Korea. The United States and its partners should use existing international legal frameworks more effectively to hold state sponsors of terrorism accountable—and increase pressure on governments that simply look the other way. UN member states should continue to support capacity-building efforts in countries whose governments are weak but well-intentioned.
Increase coordination between bilateral and multilateral counterterrorism efforts: The United States and other UN members should work to integrate their bilateral mechanisms for counterterrorism assistance with existing multilateral frameworks, particularly when it comes to capacity-building for intelligence, policing and counterradicalization.
Integrate counterterrorism with the fight against transnational crime: Given emerging relationships between terrorist and criminal networks, international and domestic agencies that fight terrorism should integrate counterterrorism and anticrime efforts. The evolution of the Financial Action Task Force—created to combat money laundering but now enlisted in the fight against terrorist financing—provides a good example of how this can be done.
History suggests that significant bouts of terrorism—like the anarchist movement a century ago—will eventually burn themselves out. But in an age of weapons of mass destruction, waiting out al Qaeda is a luxury we cannot afford. By bolstering multilateral counterterrorism efforts, we can get closer to the day when bin Laden is only a distant memory.