Staying Ahead of the Bad Guys

Battling terror takes more than assassination squads and drone strikes. The UN's first Israeli legal expert on counterterrorism talks about judicial efforts being made to halt Al-Qaida and its ilk

Last month, shortly before a wave of alerts went out warning of possible terror attacks in Europe, the UN Security Council invited Israel to take part in the establishment of a regional center for the war on terrorism. The center, which is to operate in a West African country, will employ professional experts, including Israelis, who will help Africans learn various anti-terror tactics. The U.S. and Canada are also likely to take part in the project.

Aftermath of the terror bombing in Abuja, Nigeria, Oct. 1 AFP

Dr. Howard Stoffer, deputy head of the Security Council's Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate, and Dr. David Scharia, an Israeli who serves as legal counsel to the Counter-Terror Committee, were in Israel recently to pitch the project to the Foreign Ministry. The committee's mandate is to verify that states apply UN Resolution 1373, which was adopted in 2001 after the September 11 attacks in the United States. The resolution defines a number of steps, particularly pre-emptive ones, to be taken in battling terror.

The group has worked at implementing projects targeting border control and airport security in Africa and South America, and has in the past enjoyed Israel's support.

According to Scharia, it is weak West African states that need the most work. In some of these states, terror organizations are easily able to wrest control of various power structures, bending them to their own purposes. The states are also havens for money laundering and illicit arms trade, to which elements from South America and Europe are also connected.

Scharia, 42, is the first Israeli to serve as a legal adviser to the UN Security Council. As part of his job, he and colleagues visit various countries and report findings to the committee.

Scharia law

Among other things, Scharia's team examines ways that these states deal with terror financing, border security, and restricting the movement of terrorists. After the team's meeting with a country's anti-terror officials, the committee then puts together an assistance package for the country.

Bosnia, for instance, deals with Islamic extremists who penetrated the country from Afghanistan during the Balkan wars. Today, they serve as the infrastructure of Al-Qaida. According to Scharia, Bosnia's legal apparatus is not equipped for dealing with terror organizations.

The committee's assistance to Bosnia thus features the training of prosecutors, the establishment of a state witness-protection system, and the honing of cooperation with states over extradition of terrorists.

"The idea is for states to implement the Security Council's decisions regarding the war on terror," Scharia said. "We aid states that need assistance."

Scharia believes that each region faces a unique set of challenges in the fight against terror. Europe, for instance, must deal with money for terror operations passing through its borders and homegrown terrorists.

"In Africa, the problems relate more to preventing the movement of terrorists, and to their prosecution," he said.

In Southeast Asia, according to Scharia, money can be moved from Singapore to the Philippines via cell phones in ways that make it difficult for officials to identity the transfer's purposes. These are technologically advanced countries, but they lack the means to monitor cell phone data.

In Latin America, there is a clear link between drug cartels and terror organizations. "It is known that Hezbollah finances a share of its activities via drug deals in Latin America," he said.

While the committee works under the assumption that most countries understand that terrorists who operate on their soil undermine their stability, and are liable to rise up against them, it also recognizes that not all countries are eager to join the war on terror.

One foreign minister in an African state, explained Scharia, asked the committee why his country should invest in fighting terror when it has to deal with hundreds of thousands of AIDS sufferers. In some underdeveloped countries, terror is seen as a problem of Western colonialism, and not a local issue.

At the same time, he added, "I have learned that there are Muslim states in which terror is seen as a threat. They also understand that the right way to combat it is to forge cooperation between all local residents who understand that terror threatens them, their families and friends."

Toward a definition of 'terror'

The UN has yet to formulate a strict definition of what constitutes terror. Controversial topics such as whether states themselves can be considered terrorist entities have made it difficult to agree on an accepted definition. Nonetheless, a series of Security Council resolutions do define specific activities as acts of terror, and there appears to be an evolving consensus about the validity of labeling a wide array of actions "terrorism."

Scharia has been with the UN for five years; before that, he worked with Israel's State Prosecutor's Office. Among other things, he represented the state in a petition against the Islamic Movement, and terrorists, including a member of the Jewish Bat Ayin underground.

He was a member of an intra-department committee that reviewed relations between the prosecutor's office, the police and the Shin Bet security service; and he was involved in the drafting of legislation banning the financing of terror.

In Israel, he said, there is awareness of threats that could come from Latin America and Africa. One concern is the transfer of drug money to Hezbollah; another is terror strikes against overseas Jewish or Israeli targets, as occurred in Argentina and Kenya. Last June, Israeli officials took part in a project dealing with border control in Kenya as part of a continuing effort to help African states fight terror threats.

In recent years, Scharia said, "the Foreign Ministry has become aware that cooperation with the UN must be strengthened. This applies to the war on terror, but it also holds true with regard to agriculture, water and infrastructure development issues. This commitment to cooperate materialized before the Goldstone report, and perhaps that report sharpened the understanding that it's impossible to ignore processes that are of import to Israel, and that Israel, despite all the criticism it has regarding UN resolutions, must make an effort to cooperate."

Scharia says despite all the efforts being made to prevent terror, "you can't promise" to be able to stop another 9/11.

"What can be said is that dealing with the issue had an important impact over the past decade, but you also have to keep in mind that the abilities of terror organizations have also improved," he said. "There's always the possibility that they'll get one step ahead of us."