Sectarian violence is tearing apart much of the Middle East. One of the major antagonists, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is also becoming a serious domestic security challenge for more than 80 countries around the world grappling with concerns about foreign terrorist fighters who have left their homes to go fight abroad. Nearly 15,000 young men and women from North Africa, North America, Europe, Oceania and beyond have traveled to fight in Syria and Iraq. Even if just a handful of them were to return home with the intent to do harm, it would be a serious security problem.
A 29-year-old French citizen attacked a Jewish museum in Belgium earlier this year, killing four people after returning to Europe from fighting in Syria. Experts fear that a lot more of these cases will emerge in the near future with radicalized foreign fighters returning home motivated by hateful ideology and willing to take the lives of many more innocent people.
The international community is trying to work together to stem the tide of foreign terrorist fighters. A growing coalition of the willing is engaged in the fight to push back ISIL. At the United Nations Security Council this autumn President Obama chaired a session in which he highlighted the need to address the threat of foreign terrorist fighters. The Security Council later passed a resolution calling on all U.N. member states to ensure that borders are better controlled to monitor or arrest foreign terrorist fighters traveling to or returning from theaters of conflict. The resolution also focuses on the need for states to counter violent extremism by taking preventive measures such as engaging with communities at the local level to stop the spread of extremist ideologies.
In the battle for hearts and minds ISIL is adeptly using Twitter and other social media platforms to recruit more foreign terrorist fighters to join its ranks. At the same time, some countries are developing quite sophisticated counternarrative programs to challenge ISIL's misleading hate-filled messages in cyberspace. However, the international community has not developed a coordinated communication strategy as force-multiplier against ISIL.
Mindful of this dynamic, there are now demands for the United Nations to enhance its ability to deal with the threat more effectively and provide leadership and strategic direction on countering violent extremism. A number of U.N. members are urging the U.N. secretary general to appoint a special representative on the issue. Australia (which is currently an elected member and president of the council) is set to preside Wednesday over a high-level meeting on countering terrorism and violent extremism this month at which members will consider this proposal. This new position would bring much needed coherence to international efforts to counter violent extremism by providing a long overdue international strategic communications effort, helping countries develop their own credible counternarratives that challenge and debunk ISIL twisted messages. The new special representative would also help states with relevant initiatives, such as the rehabilitation and reintegration of returning foreign terrorist fighters, by mobilizing the resources of the U.N. and facilitating the sharing of experiences between national governments and civil society groups.
Since the 9/11 attacks, a variety of bodies have been established by the United Nations to address different elements of the terrorist threat. This effort has yielded some quite positive results. An increasing number of countries around the world, for instance, now have anti-terrorism legislation in place as a result of practical advice and capacity building support from the U.N. The U.N. is also working with its member states to take a more holistic and strategic approach to countering terrorism and by helping coordinate its own efforts on matters related to preventing and combating terrorism. Although a concerted effort is now clearly visible in this direction, the United Nations has yet to sufficiently leverage the expertise of many of its own departments and agencies with relevant and valuable experience on core elements of countering violent extremism, including development, education and strategic communications. A special representative would be essential for getting this job done, optimizing the resources and focusing the attention of the vast U.N. bureaucracy on a threat that is likely to shape many of the key conflicts of our time.
Alistair Millar is executive director of the Global Center on Cooperative Security, an independent research organization with offices in Washington, New York and London. His email is AMillar@globalcenter.org.