|Many Governments worried about cyber terrorism: UN counter-terror chief
30 March 2012
Mike Smith assumed the position of Executive Director of the UN Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED) in November 2007. Since then, he has been at the helm of the United Nation's counter-terrorism efforts at a time when terrorist violence has proliferated in conflict-zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan, and posed enormous challenges to 'frontline' states like Pakistan. During the same time, the very nature of terrorism has evolved with trends such as self-radicalisation, the emergence of the 'lone-wolf' terrorist, and the use of Internet for financing, planning and propaganda.
Mr Smith agreed to speak with the Observer Research Foundation on the sidelines of the 5th Regional Workshop for Police Officers, Prosecutors and Judges in South Asia on effectively countering terrorism. The biannual workshop was organised by the UN in collaboration with the Government of India, the Center for Global Counterterrorism Cooperation, and ORF. The interview was conducted by Kaustav Dhar Chakrabarti, Junior Fellow at ORF on March 22, 2011.
It has been 10 years since the conception of the UN Counter Terrorism Centre (CTC). How has the UN's role evolved during this period?
Mike Smith: I think that the UN's role is critical and continues to be critical in building and reinforcing a norm that terrorism is unacceptable behavior and anyone who uses terrorism as a tactic is to be outlawed. That does not mean that it does not happen, it does not mean that certain States will not use it, but what it means is that they pay a price for it in diplomatic terms. I am happy to say that the UN has contributed a lot there. On top of that, the UN has helped to bring people together, organisations together to discuss what collective action needs to be done to deal with this phenomenon. One of important changes after 9/11 was a realisation that terrorism is not a phenomenon that is restricted to particular countries or regions or sub-regions, but it is something that can be global in scope, global in ambition and therefore can only be defeated by collective action. So, the UN has been facilitating such collaborations and I think it has continued to do that.
What in your opinion are the relative failures of the UN during this period?
Mike Smith: The big success has been that there has been collective action. There has been agreement on a global strategy which is to say a strategy where all countries stand up to have said that they will implement. I guess that in terms of, I would not say a failure, but commitment is that the UN does not have enormous resources to put into this area and still rely very much on bilateral resources and relations between individual countries to carry out this sort of capacity building that is needed in many places for them to build up common defences against terrorism.
Has Al Qaeda's relative weakening influenced the current UN counterterrorism thinking?
Mike Smith: The weakening of Al Qaeda which of course is a positive is also relative in the sense that in some parts of the world the terrorist threat remains. We know that Al Qaeda's franchise has been spreading in different parts of the globe. We also know that we have the phenomenon of individual self-radicalisation taking place in different countries based on Al Qaeda's model or Al Qaeda's ideology. Therefore, even though Al Qaeda seems to have weakened, there is still enormous capacity out there and enormous risk in places like the Sahel where Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb continues to pose a big threat. Al-Shabaab in Somalia and East Africa is a significant threat and so is Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. And then again we continue to see these examples of individuals, like the person in France who attacked and murdered some people in early March this year appear to be potentially radicalised by Al Qaeda.
Tell us more about your experiences as the Executive Director of CTED?
Mike Smith: I would say that over the time that I have been there, we have evolved in the way in which we do promote counter-terrorism. I think the CTC and CTED were very focused on raising alarms and pushing countries to put in place counter-terrorism measures. I think that we have now moved to a point where most countries recognise the importance of this and actually have taken steps to put in place these defences. The real issue is capacity and many countries simply don't have the capacity to be nearly as effective as they would want to be. So, in a sense we were starting to focus more on facilitating capacity building in a wide range of areas from things like border control, law enforcement, criminal justice systems, through measures to prevent finance falling into the hands of terrorists and then moving into the much more ephemeral area of counter-radicalisation or rather seeking to prevent people from being recruited into terrorist threats.
What has been your experience of promoting counter-radicalisation programmes in the Muslim world where public opinion and domestic politics, especially in the context of Iraq and Afghanistan, has made such cooperation complicated for local actors?
Mike Smith: Actually we have found a very good reception all over the world, including in the Middle East and Muslim majority countries because the reality is that terrorism is affecting them as much or more than many other countries. So, they want to be able to deal with this problem. It is a threat to their citizens; it is a threat to their institutions. So, frankly we have never had any real problem in engaging with these governments and even in the encouraging cooperation regionally across borders on that.
One particular disjunction between western counter terrorism principles and narratives in regions where terrorism actually exists is the question of whether terrorism is a criminal activity or whether it is a political problem with certain criminal components. What are your views?
Mike Smith: I think that very clearly we would say terrorism is fundamentally a crime, it is a particular heinous crime, but it is a crime. As you probably know, the UN has been unable to define terrorism. The UN member states have not formally agreed on a definition. But individual countries across the world have defined terrorist acts in order to be able to criminalize them under their criminal laws. In addition, 16 international instruments dealing with terrorism have defined different sorts of terrorist acts also. So, we say, look, let us side step the issue of politics, let us side step the issue of definition and instead look at what actually is done. So basically when you are talking about bombs being set off, when you are talking about people being murdered, when you are talking about people being threatened, people being kidnapped and so on, these are criminal acts under the regular criminal law and, if you like, the terrorism aspect simply adds a bit more to it.
In essence you are engaging terrorism at the operational level, while for the time being, keeping aside the political aspects?
Mike Smith: Yes, because, the political side of it is handled by the organs of the United Nations that are member States. So, in the General Assembly, in the Security Council and so on, there would be debates on this issue of what is terrorism and what is not terrorism. We are technicians. What we say is, we will offer our expert suggestions on the definition of terrorism, we will say if we think that you are defining it in our view a bit too broader or too narrowly. But fundamentally, our task is building the common defence system of all countries to this phenomenon which is a threat to everyone.
Can you elaborate further on today's trends and challenges in terrorism, and how they differ from the past?
Mike Smith: Terrorism today has not changed much from recent past. It is certainly different from 10, 15, 20 years ago but over the last ten years we have seen this phenomenon of self-radicalisation partly on some instances, and the fact that terrorist groups are extremely skilled at using the Internet as a communicating device, as a way of recruitment, as a way of communicating across borders, as a way of planning of particular attacks using various search engines to search their targets and so on. The Internet is a very powerful tool for them and a part of that has been their capacity to use it to recruit people and to radicalise people. But there are other ways in which people are radicalised too. Prison is one example and again the speculation is that the person in France today may have been radicalised in a prison. Prison is a very controlled environment but it is a very specific sort of environment and there is opportunity there for people to be radicalised. They are under a particular stress and very often they develop survival techniques, some of which may be to accept the ideology which is being pushed into them. That is a phenomenon we have seen in a number of places and currently we are looking at it and a lot of other experts are looking at programmes to deal with this problem of radicalisation in prisons.
I guess, beyond that, as I mentioned earlier, this phenomenon of Al Qaeda in effect building its brand around the world in different places is one that has evolved over the last 10 years and is worrying because the capacity of these groups to move into regions of the world that one way or another are in conflict or where there are societal conditions that are challenging to the governments. A relatively recent example of this is of course the rise of Boko Haram in Nigeria and countries around that.
How serious is the issue of cyber terrorism in the context of threats from militant groups?
Mike Smith: There are a lot of governments that are worried about the issue of cyber terrorism. Just to get the definition of what we are talking about, cyber terrorism is using or threatening cyber systems which all countries now use, high technology to do everything from controlling aircrafts to mass communications and so on. The fear is that attacking or upsetting the computer systems that are managing these complex parts of society's management, or threatening to do so, could create mass concern, mass fear etc. So, that is cyber terrorism.
What it is not is the Internet. The Internet is a different issue but actually on cyber terrorism there is a lot of concern and governments are working very assiduously on this. The UN has not done a lot on that, to be honest, because the technology is really held by States and by private companies but it is an area which I see us moving into more in the future.
Do you think this threat emanates primarily from States against rival States, or is this capability available with non-State terrorist groups as well?
Mike Smith: I have to keep perhaps emphasising the UN at the end of the day is the member States of the UN, it is not the Secretariat. One of the reasons why the UN has not engaged in this area as deeply as in other areas of counterterrorism is precisely because the cyber threat if you like tends to be seen as originating from States to that extent that governments have not always been comfortable about handing it over to the UN.
Another issue which grabs a lot of media attention is nuclear terrorism. Do you think this problem is academic or is it for real?
Mike Smith: I think it is for real. I think it is a fairly remote possibility but because of the absolutely catastrophic consequences, it is one that everyone needs to be aware of and be concerned about. There is another committee in the United Nations, not my committee, which specifically deals with the issue of the transfer of WMD [Weapons of Mass Destruction] technology to non-state actors and that, is an enormous concern and they put a lot of effort into helping countries to put up defences to prevent that from happening.
What are your views on radicalisation in different religious communities across the world, and not any particular region; and how does it dovetails into terrorism and terrorist violence?
Mike Smith: I think that radicalisation can occur in all sorts of ways, and in all sorts of religions or not even in religious context. It can be political, it can be sociological, ethnic, whatever, all that means is that people slowly become convinced, for reasons that they believe are fundamental or enormously important to conduct violence. That process is one that a lot of people spend a lot of time looking at because when you think about it, it is an unusual and unnatural thing because we all grew up in societies where we are all taught at school, by our parents and so on that there are certain rules we abide, we live by, the law of the land in general. We are not taught to kill people, to threaten people, which is not only unlawful but it is immoral and these people somehow have to be convinced to turn that around and say not only it is a perfectly moral but it is actually a duty to do it. So, it is an unnatural thing. There is a lot of research that is going on into how does it happen, why does that happen, is there a way in which we can step in, see it as happening and perhaps even intercept it and prevent the individuals who are heading down that path from becoming radicalised.
In fact some countries like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan do run such de-radicalisation programmes. There have been successes and failures. Does the UN play a role in such programmes?
Mike Smith: There is de-radicalisation and counter-radicalisation. Counter-radicalisation is actually preventing people who might be tempted to getting radicalised. De-radicalisation is like rehabilitation. It is when you have, for example, captured and sentenced a terrorist, you have a prisoner in detention; and you have a programme that rehabilitates them and hopes to help them to understand that what they were doing is absolutely wrong and even if they continue to be radical in their views, that to try to promote those views by violence is absolutely wrong. There has been some success in those sorts of programmes.
Counter-radicalisation in many ways is a much more complicated issue. First of all because it is hard to spot who are the most vulnerable. Young people are most vulnerable, and for each individual there seems to a unique pathway to this. There are some common features but there are also always another factors involved and therefore a whole range of strategies can be deployed, everything from mass media appeals and messages. This can be done by governments, but the governments normally don't have a lot of leverage in this area. Very often others in the community have more leverage or perhaps are closer to the people who are most at risk. We are increasingly working on ways of developing, first of all finding out what different countries are doing in this area and then spreading that knowledge to other countries so that they can look at it and say that maybe this will work in my country. Very often these approaches are culturally specific, a programme that will work in Saudi Arabia wont necessarily work in Australia for example.
Can you mention some countries that are doing well in counter-radicalisation?
Mike Smith: I think Indonesia is doing pretty well in that. They have a sophisticated range of activities and I think that polling is showing that as a result of this, plus as a result of people's general revulsion of the attacks that have happened in Indonesia over the years, the theoretical support in the community for the sort of ideology supported by Jemaah Islamiyah has dropped very considerably. So, that suggests that the programme is a success. That is a good example.
An unintended consequence of military dominated counter-terrorism programmes has been the networking among criminal, insurgent and terror groups. Do you agree with this, and do you think that the way around is to balance military operations with other aspects that you have mentioned earlier?
Mike Smith: Without mentioning any particular country, all over the world it is true that terrorist recruiters and terrorist groups are very good at weaving whatever is happening in the country into their narrative and to explain that in terms of the sorts of grievances that they are inspiring people with. Military attacks can be part of that and that can be used by the terrorist groups. On the other hand, military attacks can be very effective in actually reducing the capability of terrorist groups. So, a government's use of political and military measures depends on the nature of the threat.
You mentioned the decentralisation of terrorist organisations. This must be related to the growing phenomenon of small groups coordinating among themselves horizontally.
Mike Smith: I think it is a natural feature of terrorist groups; they tend to be small groups operating and networked in one place or another mostly by cyber links. Traditionally virtually all of the terrorist attacks have been carried out by small cells or small groups. Cell structure of terrorist groups is a very common feature. So, I don't think that is a new phenomenon. I think a newer phenomenon might be the lone wolf, the individual who just goes out and does this thing without any support. That could be something that we are seeing more recently.
Terrorist groups are able to avoid seizure of funds by changing their names repeatedly so that banning of their assets become difficult. They also tend to network with respectable social services groups and use them as fronts to avoid such measures. How does the UN view this problem?
Mike Smith: We are conducting a programme at the moment specifically on the latter issue, which is to together experience from around the world on how governments are dealing with managing the threat of exploitation of legitimate non-profit organizations by terrorist groups for terrorist financing purposes. We had a series of workshops in different regions, most recently in East Africa, but before that in the Pacific and in South East Asia and South Asia. We have also had a big meeting in London with a lot of the civil society regulators, the Charity Commission of England and Wales is actually central to this but there are regulators from other jurisdictions. So, the issue is how you regulate this sector. There are issues of spotting when a particular charity might be vulnerable to this, and it is an issue of teaching the organizations themselves to assess the risk. Such measures are helping them to avoid the risk or weed out the sorts of activities that could contribute to this. It is a very difficult area because non-profit organizations are enormously important to the economies of many countries. In some parts of the world they are more important than government revenues and therefore it is a fragile sector in the sense that it determines confidence of people who will give money to charities. If particular charities are identified to have links with terrorists then of course the money is going to dry up very quickly and that may or may not be fair because there may be a very legitimate charity that has been exploited primarily by someone. So, we have to work and we are trying to gather the way in which different countries have managed this problem and at the end of the day we will produce some sort of a compendium which governments can use to look at.
Another ongoing process that you have been advocating is an effective criminal justice systems and its role in countering terrorism. What are your views about criminal justice system in South Asia and how can the UN help build capacity in this regard?
Mike Smith: I think that South Asia is no different from many other part of the world in the sense that criminal justice systems are under a lot of pressure. Very often they don't have the resources, the police don't have the resources to carry out investigations and gather evidence as well as they might. Prosecutors again are insufficient in number, they don't have the resources, they don't have the tools to be able to manage complex terrorist cases. The court systems themselves very often are not as capable as they might be. Very often the legislation is not as helpful as it could be. All of these factors apply and then in particular there are range of issues that arise in terrorist cases that don't arise in other cases, and which pose particular problems and part of motivation behind this workshop is to raise with police and prosecutors across the region awareness of these sorts of issues. I will just give you two examples. One, very often, particularly when a terrorist plot has been uncovered and you are trying to bring to justice the people who were planning this terrorist attack, the information and evidence that is gathered has been gathered using informers or using police persons that have been put into the organization by the people and the intelligence agencies to gather this information. It is sometimes very difficult to present that evidence in a court of law partly because you might not want to expose the agent who did that. Another problem is that internationally, as you mentioned at the start, very often terrorist attacks are planned in many different countries, the material could be obtained in different countries and in those circumstances you have got to get evidence from different places. That is sometimes very difficult to gather and present and then there is the issue of witness intimidation in some parts of the world. It is very difficult to get people to give evidence in a terrorist trial because they fear for their lives. They are easily threatened by terrorist groups. There are a whole range of other issues like case management; sometimes a lot of the evidence is in the form of computer programmes, how do you present that to a jury in a way in which they can understand it? There is lot of things like that and South Asia is no different from any other parts of the world where these issues do pose a significant problem to the criminal justice system.
How can the UN facilitate better counter-terrorism cooperation among neighbours who share belligerent relationships, especially in the context of South Asia?
Mike Smith: I actually think that regional cooperation and regional mechanisms provide a very good way to encourage greater transparency and greater cooperation between countries. This is true even for countries that historically have had a difficult relationship in different parts of the world. So, that is one of the reasons why we in our work very often engage on a regional basis and we always work with regional organizations wherever we can, simply because they are in the region, we go back to New York. They understand the region, they got their people there, their offices there, they can effectively facilitate cooperation. I am not saying it is easy but that is the way in which we try to do it. We work through collective programmes, we always bring in people together and we would hope that slowly those habits of cooperation will work out.
Can you share your experiences on having such cooperative measures with SAARC and ASEAN?
Mike Smith: SAARC is an observer to our activities here. ASEAN, we have been more closely involved with though they have fairly recently adopted an ASEAN Counter Terrorism Convention and we were involved to help them in the drafting of that. Of course, SAARC actually was one of the first, probably the first regional organization that had its own treaty on terrorism. It goes back to about 1987 or 1988. We did not exist at that time, so, we have not contributed in that. But we stand ready in whatever we can to help in SAARC's own counter-terrorism cooperative activities and they do a number of things.
Do you think that in some way SAARC could learn from ASEAN?
Mike Smith: I think that all the regional organisations can learn from each other. They are all different because of course they reflect differences of different regions. But they can very effectively cooperate with each other. So, I agree, yes, they could. They could talk to each other and learn from each other. We have seen that happen between the OIS in Latin America and the Council of Europe in Europe and they do a number of activities together including on subjects like Cyber Terrorism where they have been doing separate work and then they compare notes. The different sub-regional groups in Africa and the African Union Counter Terrorism Centre is another example. They have a centre for the study of terrorism, which could encourage other regions to engage for mutual benefit.
What, in your opinion, will be the effect of a decade long conflict in Afghanistan, seen as an occupation by many, on extremism and terrorism around the world?
Mike Smith: I think it is very difficult to say. At the end of the day I think we just have to wait and see. There are lot of factors that can be used by terrorist groups as I said to motivate their followers all over the place and I dare say Afghanistan, the fact that there has been a conflict there, could be used in that way. But at the same time that conflict has helped to deal with a very dangerous situation that existed before the specific conflict started in which Al Qaeda had set up bases, training camps etc. This has been changed. Again, I think you have to look at a net benefit analysis before you could say that the impact is more negative than positive.
In your opinion, in the longer run, will the benefits of an effective global counter-terrorism programme outweigh the costs?
Mike Smith: At this stage, I would say that, I don't need to make a judgement on that. I think that history will tell us about that but I do think that weakening of Al Qaeda and the fact that Al Qaeda has been so confined is a direct effect of the conflict in Afghanistan to that extent of course that is an enormous positive because Al Qaeda was looking like an extremely dangerous organisation and phenomenon. Of course, al-Qaeda has spread into other parts as we discussed through its ideology. So, we have to deal with each of those in their own way.