“The counterterrorism effort since 9/11 has been mostly focused on the word ‘counter,’ which is a narrow, security-focused approach,” said Jehangir Khan, Director of the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force. “What we’re looking at is a broader strategy on preventing violent extremism that cuts across all four pillars of the work of the United Nations in regard to peace and security, sustainable development, human rights, and the humanitarian action agenda.”
“The idea is to go further and engage civil society, because ultimately violent extremism is eating out the roots of societies on the ground, and they have to be part of the overall solution. This is a much more positive, more proactive, more multidimensional approach,” he said.
The UN is developing a global communication strategy centered on the prevention of violent extremism, Mr. Khan said, noting that much of the narrative used by extremist groups is aimed at radicalizing the youth. The challenge, therefore, is to figure out how to use social media and other forms of communication to create a more proactive, positive approach to countering extremist narratives.
Ultimately, however, the fight against terrorism has to be local and regional, he said, and the UN is now increasingly engaging with regional and sub-regional organizations. “The UN has to play a role more assiduously to support those local efforts.”
This interview was conducted by Nadia Mughal, Digital Content Producer for the International Commission on Multilateralism, as part of a series of interviews conducted on the margins of the third retreat of the ICM, which focused on terrorism and was held on April 10-11.
Listen to the interview:
What are the UN’s key strategies to counter terrorism and address its linkages to organized crime?
The main strategy is the United Nations’ global counterterrorism strategy that was adopted in 2004. It was adopted in the United Nations General Assembly by consensus by all the member states. Despite the fact that there’s no definition of terrorism, or agreed definition of terrorism, the UN General Assembly adopted this landmark resolution which has four pillars.
One measure is to look at conditions conducive to terrorism—all the root causes that are fueling terrorism. The second measure is to combat terrorism. Third, to support member states in shoring up their defenses and capacities to deal with terrorism, and fourthly, mainstreaming human rights into the counterterrorism effort, because that is such a core part of the overall efforts. So that is the main resolution, but in addition to that, there are a number of very important Security Council resolutions that are part of the mandates of different UN bodies that constitute the Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force that I lead.
Earlier today you said the international community should create a new narrative on terrorism beyond the general label of the “war on terror.” How can this be achieved?
The counterterrorism effort since 9/11 has been mostly focused on the word “counter,” which is a narrow, security-focused approach. Its aim is mostly to deal with the security challenges that terrorists increasingly pose, and while there is still a place—very much a place—for military measures and the reactive counter-approach, the new approach which we are now developing, that the Secretary General of the United Nations would like us to look at, is to look more broadly at the preventive approach than the narrow response to terrorism in terms of security, to the root causes, the drivers of extremism which in turn is fueling terrorism.
What we’re now looking at is a broader strategy on preventing violent extremism that cuts across all four pillars of the work of the United Nations in regard to peace and security, sustainable development, human rights, and the humanitarian action agenda. So this is a much more comprehensive approach, not only in terms of that it should be an intergovernmental response as it has been so far, but the idea is to also go further and engage civil society—an all of society approach, because ultimately violent extremism is eating out the roots of societies on the ground, and they have to be part of the overall solution. This is a much more positive, more proactive, more multidimensional approach than the narrow counter-security responses that we have seen since 9/11.
Many extremist groups today effectively use narratives to justify their actions and draw new recruits. How can the UN counter these narratives?
This requires a much more concerted, global communication strategy where we take a more positive, proactive approach starting with the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, because that is the fundamental core on which all member states and all governments and all people have agreed as being fundamental international values—United Nations values.
One of the efforts that we are now undertaking at the United Nations is to develop a global communications strategy centered on the prevention of violent extremism, because a lot of the messaging and the narrative that are coming out of the extremist and terrorists groups is aimed at radicalization of youth, at creating and recruiting more extremists, so the international community and the United Nations have a challenge before them—to see how we can mobilize through social media and other forms of communication a much more proactive, positive approach. One that doesn’t necessarily get into sort of a Twitter war with extremists, but one which promotes more positively the values around which the whole international community agrees, which is basically those enshrined in the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
How does the United Nations work with regional and sub-regional organizations to combat terrorism?
The UN is now increasingly engaging with regional and sub-regional organizations. In fact, I was just in Africa last week, we organized with the Southern African Development Corporation a workshop with 15 countries of that region to develop a regional counterterrorism strategy for those 15 countries. Then I visited the African Union in Addis Ababa, where we are now developing a strategic engagement with the African Union to see how the UN can support it to develop its capabilities in addressing the challenges of terrorism and violent extremism. So indeed, the partnership and collaboration with the regional and sub-regional organizations is extremely important, not least because those organizations are closer to the ground, they come from those regions, and we must acknowledge that ultimately the fight against terrorism has to be local, it has to be regional, and the UN has to play a role more assiduously to support those local efforts.