How the UN Is Set to Combat Foreign Terrorist Fighters

A rare show of unity by the Security Council reflects not only their horror at the atrocities committed by Islamic State, but also growing awareness of the grave risks posed by those who travel to, and return from, foreign conflict zones.

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An Islamic State jihadist in Syria.
An Islamic State jihadist in Syria.Credit: AFP TV

The United Nations Security Council adopted a landmark resolution Wednesday that will require all member states to take strong measures against foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs). The new resolution is remarkable because, unusually, it was adopted at a Security Council meeting held at the level of heads of state, under U.S. chairmanship. Its adoption is all the more remarkable in view of the currently complex relationships among Council members.

The resolution was adopted under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, which authorizes the Council to use force to maintain or restore international peace and security, and makes the resolution’s implementation mandatory for all UN member states.

This rare show of unity reflects not only Council members’ horror at the atrocities committed by the Islamic State terrorist group, but also their growing awareness of the grave risks posed by those who travel to, and return from, foreign conflict zones.

As one official at a Western intelligence agency noted during the discussions leading to the resolution’s adoption, “FTFs are our first, second and third priority.”

This view, shared by many states around the world, was also expressed clearly by ministers attending a meeting of the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF) held in New York ahead of the resolution’s adoption.

Ministers expressed deep concern that FTFs generally returned to their home countries deeply traumatized, more violent, more radical, and certainly better trained. Aided by increasingly sophisticated global communications tools, they were able to exploit alliances developed in foreign conflict zones to plan, finance and commit terrorist attacks.

The new Council resolution is founded on four pillars: (i) The creation of new international requirements in criminal law; (ii) The use of law enforcement to prevent potential FTFs from travelling abroad; (iii) International cooperation; and (iv) Countering violent extremism (CVE).

The international community currently sees countering violent extremism and stemming the flow of FTFs as critical to the global counterterrorism struggle.

The resolution requires all states to criminalize and bring to justice those who travel to foreign states from or through their territory.

From a legal perspective, the new resolution is unique because it defines FTFs for the first time in UN history. FTFs are defined as individuals who travel to a state, other than their states of residence or nationality, for the purpose of perpetrating, planning, preparing or participating in terrorist acts, or providing or receiving terrorist training. This definition deliberately excludes other situations in which individuals join foreign conflicts. In particular, it does not address situations in which individuals travel abroad to enlist in a foreign military service or to act as mercenaries.

The rationale underlying the council approach is that, since the Council is authorized under Chapter VII to decide on the use of force, it is also authorized to decide on less violent means to maintain or restore international peace and security.

The resolution’s definition of FTFs is not synonymous with the term “unlawful combatants.” For the purposes of the resolution, FTFs are civilians (i.e., criminals, but “civilian criminals”). “Fighters” may not be regarded as “combatants” under international humanitarian law. The broader question of whether an individual fighter may become a combatant under international law is dealt with – and will continue to be dealt with – by international humanitarian law, not by this resolution.

It is also important to stress that, even though the resolution is to be adopted under the same chapter that authorizes the use of force, nothing in its provisions should be interpreted to authorize military intervention – either against FTFs in general or against IS in particular. The military actions currently being taken by the United States and its allies in Iraq and Syria must be, and are, based on other sources of international law authorizing the use of force.

Another important aspect of the resolution is the importance it attaches to respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms and its underlying assumption that countering terrorism and respect for human rights and the rule of law are complementary and mutually reinforcing with effective counter-terrorism measures,
The last part of the resolution is dedicated to the important role that countering violent extremism (CVE) measures play in countering the violent extremism promoted by terrorist organizations. The resolution calls upon member states to respect human rights engage relevant local communities and nongovernmental actors in the development of strategies to counter the violent extremist narrative. It also calls upon states to counter extremist ideologies by empowering youth, families, women, religious, cultural and education leaders, and all other concerned civil society groups.

The focus on CVE is based on the understanding of all Council members that the FTF phenomenon is neither local nor temporary, and will likely be a key factor in defining the global terrorist threat in coming decades.

The resolution assumes that the only way to mitigate the risk of FTFs is by preventing them reaching conflict zones, first by social mechanisms aimed at reducing the appeal of FTF ideology and building community resistance; second, by introducing criminal offences and decisive enforcement mechanisms in case those social mechanisms fail.

The final part of the resolution is dedicated to the role of the United Nations and, in particular, the Security Council’s two principal counterterrorism bodies:

The Al-Qaida Committee and its monitoring team are tasked with assessing the threat posed by FTFs and making recommendations for Council action;

The Counter Terrorism Committee and its executive directorate (CTED) are tasked with supporting the Council to assess states’ capacities, and help them develop laws and measures to deal with FTFs, as well as to promote international cooperation and support CVE programs. The important role these bodies play, together with other UN bodies and international players, in particular the GCTF, will dictate very much the level of terrorism threat stemming from FTFs in the next decade.

David Scharia is the Coordinator of the Legal and Criminal Justice Group in CTED.

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