Greater Cooperation Needed to Tackle Danger Posed by Returning Foreign Fighters, Head of Counter‑Terrorism Office Tells Security Council
United States Urges Greater Focus on Border Controls, Aviation Security, as Russian Federation Cites ‘Comprehensive Prosecution’ Effort
With violent extremists having suffered defeats in Syria and Iraq, the international community must step up cooperation to address the complex problem of foreign terrorist fighters returning home or travelling to other regions, the senior‑most United Nations official on that issue told the Security Council today.
“This is a truly global challenge that demands an urgent and concerted multilateral response,” emphasized Vladimir Voronkov, Under‑Secretary‑General and Head of the Office of Counter‑Terrorism. Joining Mr. Voronkov in briefing members were Michele Coninsx, Executive Director of the Counter‑Terrorism Executive Directorate (CTED) and Kairat Umarov (Kazakhstan) in his capacity as Chair of the Security Council 1267/1989 Sanctions Committee on Al‑Qaida and Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) and associated groups.
Mr. Voronkov said that, at one stage more than 40,000 foreign terrorist fighters from 110 countries might have travelled to join the conflicts in Syria and Iraq. The flow to that region had decreased significantly, but terrorists had tried to relocate to such countries as Libya, Yemen and Afghanistan, fuelling existing conflicts and further destabilizing the region. The affected countries needed international support to address the threat, he stressed.
Of at least 5,600 fighters from 33 States who had returned home, many were trained and equipped to carry out attacks in their own countries, he said. Others hoped to recruit new followers and yet others had rejected terrorist ideologies and posed no threat. There was a need to enhance cooperation, improve the exchange of information, and ensure effective border controls and stronger criminal justice systems, in accordance with the rule of law and human rights standards.
Ms. Coninsx outlined many of the challenges confronting States in building capacity to address the problems posed by travelling terrorist fighters. One example was that fewer than 60 States had so far introduced measures requiring airlines to provide advance passenger information.
Mr. Umarov said that, in addressing the movement of terrorists, his Committee was working to ensure that its sanctions list was updated and as accurate as possible. He encouraged Member States to be active in proposing individuals and entities, including foreign terrorist fighters, for listing under the sanctions regime.
Delegates then took the floor, expressing concern over the threat of foreign terrorist fighters and describing their national initiatives to implement relevant Council resolutions. They affirmed the need for more effective international cooperation on the issue, particularly in sharing information and working with INTERPOL and other relevant actors.
Some delegates discussed the scope of the problem in relation to their own citizens. For example, France’s representative reported that 688 French nationals were currently in Syria and Iraq, with 244 adults and 59 minors having returned from the region since 2013. France’s combination of legislative and policy responses ranged from breaking up recruitment networks to providing support for families, while reintegrating and monitoring returnees, he added.
As various delegates emphasized the need to balance criminal responses against reintegration efforts, Egypt’s representative stressed the importance of universally criminalizing the crossing of borders to join terrorist groups, and of all individuals engaged in that activity to face accountability.
The Russian Federation’s representative said his country carried out comprehensive prosecution of those who recruited or travelled for terrorism, adding that it was pointless to consider rehabilitation programmes outside the criminal justice system.
Some delegates stressed the need for advanced passenger information and updated identification methods so as to keep pace with the changing tactics used by terrorists. Japan’s representative said his country was prioritizing the use of such biometric tools as fingerprint readers capable of identifying altered prints. Several others urged the United Nations to help build further capacity in those areas, with the representative of the United States calling for greater Security Council focus on border and aviation security.
Also speaking today were representatives of Bolivia, Uruguay, United Kingdom, Senegal, Ethiopia, Ukraine, Sweden, China and Italy.
The meeting began at 3:05 p.m. and ended at 5:15 p.m.
VLADIMIR VORONKOV, Under‑Secretary‑General, United Nations Office of Counter‑Terrorism, expressing solidarity with the people and Governments of countries that had recently suffered terrorist attacks, said that at one stage, more than 40,000 foreign terrorist fighters from 110 countries might have travelled to join the conflict in Syria and Iraq. As Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) had suffered defeats and Member States had implemented better measures to prevent travel, the flow of fighters to the region had significantly decreased, but terrorists had tried to relocate to countries such as Libya, Yemen and Afghanistan, fuelling existing conflicts and further destabilizing the region. Countries affected needed international support to address the threat.
Of at least 5,600 fighters from 33 countries who had returned home, many were equipped to carry out attacks in their own countries, he said, while others hoped to recruit new followers and still others had rejected terrorist ideologies and posed no threat. “This is a truly global challenge that demands an urgent and concerted multilateral response”, he said. Enhanced cooperation, information exchange, effective border controls and stronger criminal justice systems, in accordance with the rule of law and human rights standards, was needed.
The Counter-Terrorism Office, responding to recommendations of the Security Council, had developed a comprehensive plan to build capacity for confronting the threat of foreign fighters, coordinating the efforts of 38 United Nations entities. The plan addressed the full life cycle of fighters, including projects related to prosecution, rehabilitation and reintegration, to support Member States in their efforts to address returnees. The latest version describes 50 projects with a total $107 million budget over five years.
His Office, he said, was collaborating with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to ensure respect for rights, the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) for information sharing, and a number of agencies to deliver a project on Advanced Passenger Information for Member States most affected by foreign fighters. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), meanwhile, supported Member States in the management of violent extremist prisoners and in preventing radicalization in prisons. One project aimed to help States develop policies for child returnees in a gender‑sensitive approach. Thus far, his Office and Member States had contributed only 41 per cent of the resources needed, he said, signalling a need for more funding to build State capacities to counter the threats.
There was no easy response to the enormous challenge of returning foreign fighters, he said. They could neither all be thrown in prison nor all kept from coming back without violating human rights standards. Rehabilitation and reintegration programmes must therefore be developed alongside prosecution efforts that accompanied the various stages of the criminal justice process. Ultimately, the underlying conditions conducive to young men and women being lured into violent extremism must be addressed. He welcomed the growing emphasis to address that problem at regional, national and local levels.
Introducing a report on understanding foreign fighters in Syria published by his Office, he said there was no single profile: Unresolved conflicts, inter‑communal violence and a desire to help those from the same religion perceived as victimized were some of the motivations. Motivations for leaving Syria included disappointment or disillusionment due to many factors. The family network, particularly mothers, exerted some of the strongest pressure to return home.
With United Nations support, Member States, meanwhile, were strengthening their legal frameworks and criminal systems, he said, and enhancing collaboration to prevent and respond to the threat from foreign terrorist fighters. Stronger cooperation was needed between Governments and security agencies, however, within respect for human rights. For that reason, the Secretary‑General would convene the first‑ever Summit of Heads of Counter‑Terrorism Agencies next year.
MICHELE CONINSX, Executive Director, United Nations Counter‑Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate, said that despite recent successes, the international community faced significant challenges in countering the global terrorist threat, especially the activities of foreign terrorist fighters. Over the past two years, the return of such fighters to their States of origin had accelerated, as a consequence of ISIL’s losses in Iraq, Syria and Libya. Over the same period, terrorist plots resulting in fatalities had increased dramatically, owing in part to the returnees, but also to the ways in which terrorists used information and communications technologies. Of particular concern were attacks carried out by lone terrorists. Investigations had shown that those loners received support, often via the Internet or social media.
She said fewer than 60 States had thus far introduced measures requiring airlines to provide advance passenger information, and many required assistance in establishing the necessary connectivity between national databases and border posts. They also faced legal challenges relating to the transfer and protection of data. Meanwhile, international cooperation had been undermined by practical and political challenges, as well as by inconsistent compliance with human rights obligations. States should do more to downgrade and share intelligence on foreign terrorist fighters and those who returned to their countries of origin or relocated to third countries, she said, adding that efforts to bring suspected foreign terrorist fighters to justice had been undermined by the difficulty of collecting sufficient evidence from conflict zones.
Member States faced challenges in implementing strategies to disrupt the financing of returnees and small cells, she said, and many would require assistance in prosecution, rehabilitation and reintegration strategies. She called on the Council to work tirelessly to build on progress achieved since the adoption of resolution 2178 (2014), an instrument which had mobilized the international community. Many States had criminalized travel by foreign terrorist fighters, as well as the organization and financing of terrorist groups, she said, and had improved domestic inter‑agency information‑sharing. International judicial and law enforcement cooperation had also been strengthened.
For its part, the Executive Directorate was working to strengthen State efforts to counter violent extremism, she said, noting that it had conducted 45 assessment visits and drafted three analytical reports identifying gaps in States’ legal frameworks, accompanied by recommendations. The Counter‑Terrorism Committee had approved a set of guiding principles — the “Madrid Principles” — offering a holistic approach to implementing flexible prosecution strategies. The Executive Directorate had updated the Technical Guide to the implementation of Council resolution 1373 (2001), and assisted in both a regional programme with UNODC for the Maghreb countries and a global programme on gathering digital evidence.
In addition, she said, the Executive Directorate had strengthened its cooperation with INTERPOL, including on the use of biometric data and in the implementation of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Traveller Identification Programme Strategy. The effective development and use of biometrics, advance passenger identification systems and passenger name records systems was vital to the detection of foreign terrorist fighters and returnees. “It takes networks to beat networks,” she said.
KAIRAT UMAROV (Kazakhstan), speaking in his capacity as Chair of the Security Council Committee pursuant to resolutions 1267 (1999), 1989 (2011) and 2253 (2015), outlined that body’s activities since its last briefing on 11 May 2017. Noting that the threat from ISIL/Da’esh, Al‑Qaida and affiliates had evolved since that time — including by delegating decision‑making to local commanders and switching to encrypted communication — he said ISIL also continued to use external attacks by its members and sympathizers as part of its response. “Increasingly, ISIL is transforming from a territorially grounded organization into a terror network of cells around the globe,” he said, adding that it sent funds to its affiliates worldwide.
While ISIL/Da’esh was being physically weakened, he said its presence in the virtual world was entrenched, posing a serious threat to international peace and security. It used Internet propaganda both for radicalization and the recruitment of fighters, employing sophisticated manipulation and brainwashing techniques. Noting that the flow of foreign terrorist fighters into Iraq and Syria had slowed due to military pressure and improved border control, he said those fighters returning home or relocating presented another threat to global security, as they had the potential to re‑energize existing terrorist networks or spur the growth of new ones.
Noting that the European Union had significantly increased its exchange of information on foreign terrorist fighters, he said efforts by ISIL to carry out attacks inside the bloc nevertheless demonstrated the group’s potential to recruit and motivate its followers. There was also concern that foreign terrorist fighters hailing from Central Asia would return from conflict zones and bring terror to that region, and that Southeast Asia was increasingly attracting such fighters. Foreign terrorist fighters also continued to pose threats in Libya, Tunisia, Afghanistan and on the Arab peninsula, particularly in Yemen.
As Chair of the Committee, he said he was working to address those challenges by visiting countries including Singapore, Malaysia, Afghanistan, the Russian Federation and Uzbekistan, where he had attended a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization on fighting terrorism across borders. The Committee was working to ensure that its sanctions list was updated and as accurate as possible, he said, noting that it currently included 256 individuals and 80 entities. Pledging to hold regular open meetings with Member States, he encouraged them to propose individuals and entities for listing on the sanctions regime, including foreign terrorist fighters.
MICHELE J. SISON (United States) said extraordinary progress had been made against ISIL/Da’esh, noting that resolution 2178 (2014) had facilitated international cooperation to identify, stop and prosecute foreign fighters. It also had spurred efforts to address the underlying factors of extremism. However, the threat posed by foreign fighters persisted, including by returning fighters who could carry out terrorist attacks in the name of ISIL/Da’esh. The terrorist ideology would not simply fade away with the defeat of ISIL/Da’esh in Iraq and Syria, she said, pressing the Council to address the evolving challenge and adopt a new resolution. Council action should stress the need for border and aviation security, by developing standards and advanced passenger information. Efforts must be strengthened to improve prosecution and reintegration of foreign fighters. There was also a need for the United Nations to be more coordinated in confronting the threat, notably for the Counter‑Terrorism Committee to harmonize its efforts with the sanctions committees to confront a decentralized enemy.
PEDRO LUIS INCHAUSTE JORDÁN (Bolivia) said the emergence of foreign terrorist fighters demonstrated that terrorism was not associated with one religious or ethnic group. The international response should use all means set out in the Charter of the United Nations. Foreign terrorist fighters did not arise overnight, he said, but were the result of radicalization, a situation made possible by weak States, the absence of border controls and intervention from other States. There was a need for more effective information sharing, and for coordination among the Council’s various committees and bodies. States of origin of combatants should implement development policies and all efforts of regional and international organizations should be based on inclusion and stability. Those responsible for terrorist acts, finally, should be brought to justice.
ELBIO ROSSELLI (Uruguay) said it was difficult to understand how, despite all efforts, terrorists continued to carry out their destructive actions. The Executive Directorate and other bodies had identified good practices, while the sanctions committees had contributed to raising awareness. Border control and advanced passenger information were important tools, he said, but security measures were not enough. Many terrorists did not have criminal records and were citizens of the countries in which they executed their attacks. It was therefore necessary to prevent radicalization. “The bulwarks of peace need to be built in the minds of men”, he said. States had the primary responsibility to prevent the spread of violent extremism, and religious leaders had an important role to play in that regard. Strengthening institutions and the rule of law, respect for human rights, and religious tolerance all helped to diminish intolerance and extremism, he said.
MATTHEW RYCROFT (United Kingdom), noting the collapse of Da’esh in recent weeks, said it was possible, by working collectively, to defeat the global terrorist plague. As the terrorist threat evolved, returning foreign terrorist fighters posed a particular risk as many members wanted to export their fight or were still committed to Da’esh. There was a need to tackle home‑grown violent extremism and its spread online by being proactive. While resolution 2178 (2014) had established binding measures to prevent foreign fighters from traveling, a new resolution on returning foreign fighters was necessary. For its part, the United Kingdom was sharing information, creating watch lists and working with partners to ensure de‑radicalization programmes for returning fighters. It would keep up efforts to combat use of the Internet by terrorists. Eradication of the threat in the long term required tackling root causes, such as instability. A globally unified rejection of extremism and respect for human rights were indispensable in that regard, he said, stressing that prevention should be at the heart of all efforts.
GORGUI CISS (Senegal), expressing deep concern over the large flow of foreign terrorist fighters, welcomed the reporting efforts of the Executive Directorate. Addressing the complex problem would require full implementation of the related Council resolutions. An international, holistic approach was required to address root causes and counter the spread of extremist ideology. Strengthening the family was important as well. Senegal’s programmes in that regard prioritized education and engaged religious leaders, he said, stressing that regional cooperation was needed in sharing information, border control, passenger registration and other areas. For that reason, Senegal had centralized its intelligence services and updated its information systems. Yet, regional capacities in the Sahel needed much improvement. In addressing the return of fighters, it was critical to understand their original motivations and he called on the United Nations counter‑terrorism structures to coordinate efforts and help build Member States’ capacity.
FRANCOIS DELATTRE (France), noting that 688 French nationals were currently in Syria and Iraq, with 244 adults and 59 minors having returned from that region since 2013, said that French legislation had been adapted in response, with due respect for human rights. Dismantling recruitment networks, providing support for families and boosting international cooperation were part of the response, as was creating mechanisms for reintegration and monitoring of returnees, particularly minors. The United Nations had a primary role in coordinating global efforts to confront travelling fighters; cooperation strategies must be updated in information‑sharing, better border control, prosecution of foreign fighters and their reintegration. As close coordination between all counter‑terrorism committees was essential, he welcomed the appearance together of the heads of three bodies.
MAHLET HAILU GUADEY (Ethiopia), surveying the efforts being made to address the threat of foreign terrorist fighters and the scope of the problem itself, said that the assistance being provided by the United Nations to build capacity and formulate national strategies was critical. A purely domestic approach would not be sufficient, however, and a truly international effort was needed, as was much better cooperation. Not much would be achieved unless cooperation exceeded that within terrorist networks, she stated.
KORO BESSHO (Japan) said that even as ISIL/Da’esh was losing ground in Iraq and Syria, the threat of terror was spreading globally. The relevance of passenger information and name records systems was growing, as foreign terrorist fighters returned to their countries of origin or relocated to other States. With terrorists using forged documents and undergoing surgery to evade detection, he said Japan had prioritized the use of biometric tools, such as fingerprint readers capable of identifying altered fingerprints. He closed by stressing the importance of developing measures capable of combating the changing nature of terrorism.
VOLODYMYR YELCHENKO (Ukraine) said the fight against ISIL/Da’esh was far from over, expressing concern that former fighters were ready to merge with any terrorist group and use their lethal skills acquired in Syria and Iraq. Another concern was terrorists’ abuse of asylum systems at a time of a huge migrant influx. While Ukraine had taken domestic measures, the terrorist threat in his country had been fuelled by external support, he said, emphasizing the essential need for rapid information sharing among States and ensuring broader use of advanced passenger information. Conducting proper investigations so that terrorists were apprehended and did not escape justice was also crucial. Caution was required in dealing with specific categories of returnees, notably minors, women, family members and disillusioned returnees who had committed less serious offences.
AMR ABDELLATIF ABOULATTA (Egypt) said terrorist groups had been very successful in recruiting people from different countries and backgrounds. Thus, it was necessary to counter all political and economic conditions that lured those people to terrorism. The Internet and social media were important tools to recruit foreign fighters, but it was difficult to address that matter internationally, due to different constitutions and laws. He called for greater international cooperation to prevent terrorists from using the Internet, including by companies and civil society, stressing that returning foreign terrorist fighters should be prosecuted in the countries where they were arrested or in their country of origin. Rehabilitation was not enough; any foreign fighter must undergo justice. It was also indispensable to spread information on foreign terrorist fighters, including through the INTERPOL database, he said, asking why only a limited number of countries used the Advanced Passenger Information System.
EVGENY T. ZAGAYNOV (Russian Federation) said conflict areas in the Middle East had seen an unprecedented number of radicals from many countries, “drunk on extremism”. States should rigorously counter the travels of foreign terrorist fighters, he said, noting that States did not always implement resolution 2178 (2014). Monitoring by the Counter‑Terrorism Committee banning assistance to foreign terrorist fighters also had not begun, while the systems of legal assistance and extradition had become hostage to politics. A comprehensive approach to returning foreign terrorist fighters should ensure that terrorists were held criminally liable, with rehabilitation done within the framework of criminal prosecution. It was also important to ensure that foreign terrorist fighters fell under the existing sanctions regimes. He then described national efforts to address terrorism and terrorists.
IRINA SCHOULGIN-NYONI (Sweden) said all Member States were obliged to criminalize foreign terrorist fighter travel, training and financing. Sweden had amended its criminal legislation on terrorism to address that evolving threat. Since 2015, it had tried and convicted seven individuals for terrorism‑related offences, including for crimes committed abroad, she said. As part of its strong focus on prevention, it was putting in place mechanisms aimed at safeguarding individuals, and targeting those at risk of radicalization. A new national Center for the Prevention of Violent Extremism would be launched next year, while guidelines were being issued by the National Board of Health and Welfare to deal with returnees and defectors.
WU HAITAO (China) said the United Nations should lead cooperation to counter the threat of foreign terrorist fighters, following uniform standards, upholding the principles of the United Nations Charter and rejecting the association of terrorism with any culture or religion. To counter the threat of foreign fighters, information‑sharing platforms must be improved and the United Nations should continue to help Member States build capacity. Extremists must be stopped from using the Internet to recruit and coordinate for their networks. Building a more equitable future was critical as well. China was ready to cooperate with all countries to continue to address the threat of foreign terrorist fighters.
Mr. CARDI (Italy), Council President speaking in his national capacity, reviewed Council actions to combat the threat of foreign terrorist fighters and to build State capacity in that regard. He noted in particular the lack of adequate information‑sharing, a major area in which global cooperation must improve. He also noted Italy’s cooperation in international investigations and its training of a range of staff in information collection and sharing. Indeed, international best practices must be compiled and shared. Italy would support constant updating and strengthening of international efforts to address the threat.