Threat analysis and multilateral counterterrorism

Editor’s Note: Barak Mendelsohn examines the quality of the counterterrorism threat analysis work done by the U.N.’s 1267 Committee, also known as the al-Qaida Sanctions Committee.This article originally appeared on Lawfare.

Since 9/11 there has been considerable international action to confront jihadi terrorism. While much has been written about how states collaborate, the role of the U.N. Security Council in generating collective action, and the building of a vast counterterrorism apparatus, less attention has been given to the question of multilateral threat analysis.

On its face, one would think that collective action must be preceded by collective analysis of the threat, either by coordinating the analyses of U.N. member states or through a U.N. body responsible for presenting a comprehensive analysis on behalf of the international community. The need for such a function is clearly underscored by the dynamic nature of the threat and the expansive international activity produced in response to jihadi terrorism—including, among other things, the construction of a regime to deny non-state actors access to weapons of mass destruction, and an elaborate framework to track and prevent terrorism financing—and the need to reconcile member states’ diverging views of it.

The good news is that we do have a body responsible for such threat analysis: the 1267 Committee, also known as the al-Qaida Sanctions Committee. Formed after the U.S. embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in August 1998, the Committee was augmented and retooled as the main international instrument for imposing sanctions on al-Qaida and associated terrorist groups, as well as designated terrorists from these jihadi groups. Although its primary focus was on sanctions, in service of this function, the committee was also given a mandate to identify and analyze the terrorism threat. The bad news is that the committee and its subsidiary team of experts designated as responsible for submitting threat assessments to the Security Council (known as the Monitoring Team) have not been doing a very good job of analyzing the threat. It avoids important questions about the nature of the threat, pays insufficient attention to the aspirations and strategies jihadis employ, and many times ignores internal dynamics and schisms within the jihadi movement.

I examined documents produced by the 1267 Committee and the Monitoring Team in the period between the Committee’s establishment in 1998 and 2012, as well as transcripts of Security Council periodic meetings in which the council received and discussed reports from its counterterrorism bodies, in order to assess how threat analysis was performed. Notwithstanding the obvious difficulty of threat identification, the multiple legitimate views about the state of such a complex threat, and the unfair advantage of judgment in hindsight, such an examination is warranted, though it must be conducted with care. Rather than expecting the committee (and the Monitoring Team) to get everything right, I was looking to see if (and when) it was able to identify some clear observable trends relating to al-Qaida and its associate groups, such as the shift of al-Qaida’s focus to nationally-based terrorism by franchising the al-Qaida brand. I was also expecting it to engage the central debates regarding al-Qaida and its associates, such as the nature of the group, its ideology, and its objectives and strategy.

Instead, what I found was that the 1267 Committee and its Monitoring Team often settled for reporting trivial information that was already widely known, but often failed—or consciously avoided—presenting a thorough assessment. It is hard to blame it for this failure. The Security Council was never truly committed to this task. Analyzing the evolution of the threat is only one of many roles stated in the mandate of the committee’s team of experts, and it ranks quite low on the list. The team was never properly staffed to perform this function. Its temporary status – its mandate was renewed every few years – undermines its ability to produce comprehensive analysis, and signals that the council does not recognize the team and the roles it fulfills as sufficiently important to warrant its existence for the sanctions’ full duration.

The 1267 Committee and its Monitoring Team often settled for reporting trivial information that was already widely known, but often failed – or consciously avoided – presenting a thorough assessment.

Moreover, most of the time, the team struggled to persuade states to take the sanctions and the Consolidated List of sanctioned entities and individuals more seriously. The committee has repeatedly urged states to submit names for designation and report on the implementation of the sanctions. It is no wonder, then, that while the Monitoring Team faced substantial obstacles to carrying out its main tasks, conducting threat assessment was low on its priorities. In fact, Peter Romaniuk, an avid observer of the 1267 Committee’s work, told me in an interview that he sees its reports (the main tool through which the Monitoring Team presents its threat assessment) as primarily a “messaging tool,” raising doubts about whether these reports were ever intended to do more than remind states that the terrorism threat still exists.

Similarly, a variety of obstacles undermined the utility of the Consolidated List of sanctioned individuals and terrorist entities as a tool for accurately reflecting the threat. As the only “U.N. terrorist list,” states have been particularly tempted to seek the inclusion of domestic political enemies with marginal links to al-Qaida as part of an effort to brand them as “international terrorists.” At the same time, political considerations and the bargaining power of some states resulted in the exclusion of players with much stronger ties to al-Qaida. Consequently, in an attempt to please Russia, the Committee added to the list Chechen groups with local agendas, whereas high-ranking Saudi members of al-Qaida were kept off the list, likely due to the kingdom’s fear for its reputation. In other cases, the time lag between developments on the ground and designations appears excessive. For example, al-Qaida’s branch in Yemen was not designated until January 2010, and al-Qaida leader Abu Yahya al-Libi (who died in June 2012) was only added to the list in September 2011.

Multilateral threat analysis also falls victim to the absence of any constituency to advocate for it. Whereas human rights considerations were pushed into the agendas of the U.N.’s counterterrorism committees by mid-level powers and vocal advocacy groups, there was nobody to speak for threat assessment at the U.N. level. The United States, the main driver behind constructing a multilateral counterterrorism infrastructure, had no interest in promoting such a function, especially after the first incarnation of the monitoring subsidiary inserted itself into the debate surrounding the 2003 Iraq war by arguing that it could not find any evidence for links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida, which, naturally, enraged the Bush administration and prompted it to bring about the team’s dissolution.

A more rigorous study of the threat posed by jihadi terrorists may be deemed by the United States as undesirable for another reason. Since the Sanctions Committee was established to face the threat posed by al-Qaida and its associates, there is a risk that any threat analysis that suggested the threat was lower than commonly believed would undermine the rationale for the U.N. effort and bring about the unraveling of the sanctions regime. Similar to U.S. reliance on al-Qaida-focused congressional authorization to fight the Islamic State, which ignores the rivalry between the two groups, it is convenient for Washington to base the continued multilateral fight against the various jihadi groups on tweaked Security Council resolutions, originally designed to confront the al-Qaida threat.

A thorough analysis of the threat posed by al-Qaida might raise doubts regarding fundamental assumptions about al-Qaida and, consequently, weaken U.S. ability to use the Security Council for American counterterrorism objectives. While the Monitoring Team adopted a broad view that allows seeing all jihadi actors as part of an “al-Qaida movement” with an alleged shared ideology, the U.S. has no interest in taking the risk of having a strong body, immune to its pressures, responsible for threat analysis. And why would it? After all, the United States has no intention of basing its policies on threat analysis produced by anyone but its own intelligence agencies. Therefore, the United States and other prominent members of the council who wish to maintain the sanctions regime are unlikely to support strengthening a function that might lead the 1267 Committee to conclusions that are incompatible with their national interest. They are more likely to prefer a constrained body that would maintain the sanctions.

The United States has no intention of basing its policies on threat analysis produced by anyone but its own intelligence agencies.

Seen in this light, one can understand why change in the nature of the threat over the years did not lead to change in the Security Council’s view of the necessity of threat analysis. In all likelihood, only the reasons not to bolster this function of the committee shifted. This puts the ability of the international community to identify and effectively address a dynamic threat in doubt. Although in the past couple of years the Monitoring Team has produced much more thorough reports regarding the nature of the threat, it seems to feel much more comfortable discussing thematic aspects of the threat (such as how terrorists use the Internet, or how they fund their operations), than trying to answer the bigger and more charged questions of what jihadis really want.

It is important to acknowledge the genuine need for meaningful threat analysis to guide the international efforts to fight terrorism. Its absence inevitably leads to less effective collective action as the international community cannot design a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy. Additionally, without a nuanced understanding of the jihadi movement, it is missing opportunities to amplify cleavages dividing groups supporting global jihad from those with a much narrower agenda. A comprehensive and rigorous threat analysis is also necessary if we want to guarantee that the sanctions regime does not become a fixture that can never be terminated. Finally, with the threat of the Islamic State looming so large, the international community will be better off tailoring solutions that would address this threat specifically, rather than taking the convenient step of piggybacking anti-Islamic State efforts onto sanctions that were designed to target a very different threat.