Interview with Mike Smith, Executive Director of the UN Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate

Counter-terrorism official Mike Smith. Photo: UN/M. Garten

28 June 2012 – Member States today began a review of the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, which was adopted by the General Assembly in 2006.

The Strategy focuses on realizing four key areas of action which consist of tackling the conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism, preventing and combating terrorism, building States’ capacity to counter terrorism, and ensuring respect for human rights against the backdrop of the fight against terrorism.

On the eve the review, the Executive Director of the UN Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED), Mike Smith, spoke with the UN News Centre about the review, and what challenges remain to fully implement the Strategy.

UN News Centre: What is the purpose of the review of the Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy?

Mike Smith: It is a review of the implementation of the Strategy, which was adopted by the General Assembly by consensus in 2006, and it offers a way to conduct counter-terrorism activities and set up counter-terrorism defences that is balanced in the sense that it is not just about kinetic things, it is not just about law enforcement even, but it involves also issues such as addressing what I call the conditions conducive to terrorism. The Strategy talks about the importance of incorporating appropriate respect for human rights and the rule of law when… conducting your counter-terrorism strategies, operations and activities with an appropriate regard for human rights, treating people with dignity, and operating always within the rule of law, is actually a powerful enhancer of what you are doing. conducting whatever you are doing in the counter-terrorism field.

In a sense, through this document, the UN has managed to promote an approach to counter-terrorism that is balanced. The meeting this week is to review how countries have gone in implementing that strategy. We have these reviews about every two or three years and it is not actually reviewing the strategy, which is set, but it is reviewing how we are doing in implementing it.

UN News Centre: What is the expected outcome from this review?

Mike Smith: To look at where we need to put more emphasis and find out what areas countries are having greater problems in implementing. There are a few areas I would expect to see in the outcome document and through the statements that Members States will be making where we will see changes of emphasis.

Many countries continue to face terrorism threats. Photo: UNODC

One area that I think we are going to see a lot of countries talk about is the importance of dialogue and countering the appeal of terrorism. This is a very, very tricky part of counter-terrorism work anywhere because it is very difficult to know how to do this. A lot of countries are trying a lot of different programmes, so that is one area where I would expect there to be some significant outcomes. Another area would be in recognizing the importance of addressing the concerns of victims. There are several reasons for that, partly because it is the right thing to do and because victims have tended to be overlooked in all of this but it is also because victims’ voices are a powerful antidote to the narratives that terrorists use to recruit people.

UN News Centre: For some, Al Qaida continues to be the face of terrorism. Has a corner been turned with the strikes against its senior leadership?

Mike Smith: I think that it is certainly true that Al Qaida, core Al Qaida if you like, is probably weaker now than at any time since 9/11. At the same time, some of the associated groups are getting stronger. A very good example of that would be Aqim, which is Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. We have seen in recent months that they have had considerable success in the north of Mali where – allied with other forces there – they seem to have actually taken control of some territory. That is a very worrying development.

A view of the destruction of the World Trade Center site in 2001. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which is based in Yemen, is another example of a franchise of Al Qaida which is very dangerous. And then of course we see organizations that are loosely associated such as Al-Shabaab in Somalia and Boko Haram in Nigeria, which are, certainly in the case of Boko Haram, posing an increasing problem.

UN News Centre: The fight against terrorism is sometimes perceived as a trade-off, in which respect for human rights and effective security operations are mutually exclusive, but the Strategy indicates the opposite. Has it helped to bridge that divide in practice?

Mike Smith: They are not mutually exclusive. They are in fact compatible. We would say that conducting your counter-terrorism strategies, operations and activities with an appropriate regard for human rights, treating people with dignity, and operating always within the rule of law, is actually a powerful enhancer of what you are doing. For one thing, if you do not do that, what you risk is that the communities from which some of these people are coming are going to be alienated further and, potentially, the task of the terrorist recruiters is going to be enhanced.

”Non-Violence,“ a sculpture by Karl Fredrik Reutersward, sits permanently outside UN Headquarters in New York. UN Photo/Michos Tzovaras

UN News Centre: How effective have UN efforts been in countering terrorism?

Mike Smith: I think that the great success is the breadth of the Strategy, and I would not say this is a failure, but I think we still have not completed the task of helping countries to implement counter-terrorism in an integrated fashion.

They way in which we are trying to promote that, or one of the ways, is by helping countries to develop comprehensive national strategies for counter-terrorism, and the advantage of that is that you can build other elements into it so that people within the country – be they policemen, judges, or social scientists – can see where their part fits into the strategy and why their activities may actually be contributing positively towards the goal of preventing terrorist attacks and eliminating terrorism in their country. So that is an area where we still have to do a lot more, but I think we are heading in the right track.



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