How Obama Decided To Make Terrorist Recruitment His U.N. Priority

President Barack Obama chairs a meeting of the United Nations Security Council in 2009 CREDIT: AP PHOTO/CHARLES DHARAPAK
President Barack Obama chairs a meeting of the United Nations Security Council in 2009 CREDIT: AP PHOTO/CHARLES DHARAPAK

Behind the flag-adorned gates that line First Avenue in New York’s Midtown, inside the sprawling set of buildings that house the United Nations’ main headquarters, there is a room. Somehow managing to be both opulent and utilitarian, the Security Council chamber — with its ornate mural depicting the world symbolically reborn after World War Two and its iconic horseshoe-shaped table — has for nearly seventy years been the site of discussions that have changed the world.

Barack Obama first strolled into the chamber as a president twice-over. Nine months into his first term in office, the United States found itself in the Security Council’s rotating presidency during the week of high-level meetings that the U.N. hosts every fall, presenting the U.S. with the opportunity to make history. His hair a solid black, his face mostly unlined, Obama sat at the head of the table, behind the placard reading “United States,” as the first American chief executive to run a meeting of the Council.

Five years later, the president’s hair is mostly grey. His time in office is mostly behind him. But now, as first reported by ThinkProgress, he’s returning to the Security Council as the United States is attempting to rally support for another war in the Middle East, one that nobody expected or wanted. His first time around, surrounded by his fellow world leaders, Obama hailed the passage of a resolution calling for the eventual end to the world’s nuclear arsenals. This time, rather than a resolution full of hope and idealism, the United States of 2014 is ready to pass a document that will frame international law for years to come and serving as a piece in the broader strategy in defeating extremists the world over. It’s a remarkable shift for a country that just 12 years ago could barely hide its contempt for the United Nations and one that the administration is embracing wholeheartedly to show that the world has America’s back when it comes to tackling a threat that some experts believe will spawn the next al-Qaeda.

The Idea

It’s not necessarily something that will result in terrorist attacks tomorrow but over the next, ten, fifteen, twenty years, it probably will.”

It began with a calendar. Every year, the United Nations’ 193 members cast their votes to decide who will take up vacant seats on the world’s most powerful deliberative body. Five of the ten elected positions on the Council come open every fall, with the winners taking their positions on the first of the next year. As one of the permanent members of the Security Council, along with its ability to veto any draft before the body, the U.S. has more opportunities than most to become President of the Security Council, a title that rotates alphabetically and allows the country holding it to set the month’s agenda.


It was in looking at the upcoming 2014 schedule that U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power first realized that a prime opportunity was presenting itself, allowing President Obama to again be seen in a leadership role among other heads of state. That chance doesn’t present itself often and around the time the U.S. Mission to the U.N. (USUN) was realizing what they had before them, President Obama was preparing to deliver a speech framing his administration’s counter-terrorism strategy for the rest of the term. Power summoned her staff after Obama’s speech at West Point in May and asked them to determine how best to use the chance the Security Council presidency offered to them, prompting them to come up with an appropriate topic for discussion. Power’s advisers quickly got to work and realized that there was a glaring hole in the counter-terrorism structure that the U.N. has been operating under since 2001.

Back then, in the months after the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the U.S. led the Security Council in passing what would become resolution 1373. Security Council resolutions are binding on members of the United Nations and are themselves considered international law once they pass. Piling international sanctions on al-Qaeda and its affiliates, building out a new role for the U.N. in the fight against terrorism, and obliging all the U.N.’s member states to join the effort to thwart terrorism, 1373 has been the foundation of international law on state’s responsibilities versus terrorism for over a decade. But the U.S. had now noticed a missing piece in the puzzle: foreign fighters.

The threat of foreign fighters is nothing new, a senior administration official told ThinkProgress in an interview about the genesis of this week’s meeting in New York. But the Syrian civil war had been going on for nearly three full years in May, and it had proved itself to be a magnet for people from around the world wanting to join groups fighting against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. That includes those who wanted to ally themselves with al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the number of people flying in from across the Middle East and North Africa was worrying to the diplomats at USUN enough to suggest focusing on foreign terrorist fighters in September.

The concern over foreign fighters among states isn’t just because of the possibility that they return home to plot attacks, academic Peter Neumann with King’s College’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalization told ThinkProgress in an interview. Among other reasons, Neumann — who has been serving for the last several weeks as an adviser to the U.S. on the topic — said that foreign fighters have a negative impact on conflicts just through their very presence. “Often it is the foreign fighters who are the most brutal, the most sectarian, the most excessive in their use of violence, and that’s an important point to help them substantiate,” he said. That led the diplomats based in the Turtle Bay neighborhood that’s home to both the U.N. and the U.S. Mission to believe they had a winner on their hands.

Then came ISIS.

For nearly a year, the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), as the group once known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq is calling itself these days, has been trying to prove that it is capable of toppling the government in Iraq. Though it had controlled the city of Fallujah since early January, it wasn’t until its fighters conquered the northern city of Mosul that the world finally began to panic. Bolstered by the Syrian civil war’s opportunities for training its recruits in combat, the money it made from the oil fields it had captured, and its ranks swelling from fighters defecting from other rebel groups and specifically coming from abroad to join them, ISIS was clearly a force to be reckoned with.

The Plan

Compared to the sluggish pace Washington can sometimes move at, ISIS became the main threat in the region in the White House’s eyes almost overnight and the U.S. Mission’s idea to plug that hole in the 2001 counter-terrorism resolution went from just being a way to shore up international law to a crucial part of combating the militants overrunning Iraq. “It’s the truly universal forum where every country in the world comes together,” another official said of the decision to use the United Nations as part of the strategy to counter ISIS. The Security Council’s place in the international structure, with many heavyweights sitting on the Council and regional representation, was also appealing for an administration trying to grant legitimacy to its anti-ISIS policies.

I don’t want to say we were concerned, but there were a lot of divisions out there.”

With any initiative where the president is directly involved, the White House can be found, helping pull the strings of power to make sure that initiative is a success. In the case of the foreign fighters threat, no fewer than three senior directors at the National Security Council were tasked with coordinating between the U.S. Mission’s work in New York to put together a new resolution on the issue and the efforts happening across the entire federal government. There was a lot to consider.


It was a different process than the usual one in New York, a third senior administration official told ThinkProgress, where a lot of parts of government that don’t normally interact with USUN played a role. “What’s [the Department of Homeland Security] doing, what’s the [Federal Aviation Administration] doing on aviation?” the official asked, describing the process of preparing for the high-level summit. “We had aviation provisions in the resolution under the international cooperation section, so we had to ask ‘what does the FAA need and what are we looking for from our partners in terms of sharing info, in terms of elevating the level of international cooperation?’ So we really cast a broad net and got a lot of kind of the wish lists from our lawyers, from our counterterrorism experts, from DHS, from those doing [work on countering violent extremism], from our U.N. experts, from all these different parts of the U.S. government.”

In the end, the U.S. decided on a four-point strategy that it wanted included in a resolution to be passed during the meeting: First, it aimed to create new binding legal obligations on countries to expand on the original 2001 resolution, 1373, calling on them to prevent foreign fighters from crossing their borders and asking them to rewrite their domestic laws to make traveling to join a terrorist group — or funding or sponsoring people with that goal — illegal; Second, it would lay out a new an information-sharing program to allow countries to share best practices on how to counter the threat of foreign fighters; Third, it would build out the mandates of several U.N. bodies to allow them to get involved in tracking how well the resolution was being implemented; Finally, the draft would compel states to institute their own countering violent-extremism (CVE) programs, working with communities to prevent people from wanting to join ISIS and other groups and rehabilitating them should they become radicalized.

With a plan in hand, the U.S. in July began reaching out to other countries at the United Nations, starting to gather feedback. There was no guarantee that the plan to discuss a topic like “foreign fighters” would go over well with the rest of the Council. Among the five permanent members, the split between France, Britain, and the U.S. on one side and China and Russia on the other over the situation in Syria had become almost intractable. Whether Moscow and Beijing would raise hell over yet another resolution that touched on Syria was a question mark that hung over the whole process.

“We approached international partners not really knowing how this one was going to fall and whether some of the other divisive issues that we deal with would be injected into this resolution,” the third official said. “I don’t want to say we were concerned, but there were a lot of divisions out there.”

But to everyone’s surprise and relief, the other permanent members of the Council enthusiastically embraced the topic. China and Russia reportedly were both extremely constructive in fine-tuning the draft. Outside of the Permanent Five, the U.S. also quietly reached out to several other countries that it knew shared its interest the threat of foreign fighters. Australia in particular was keen to work on the issue, officials said, as the matter had become a domestic concern in recent weeks. Syria’s neighbor Jordan was also particularly interested in the U.S.’ proposed topic, they said, given its proximity to the fight in Syria and reports that ISIS has the country in its sights.

“We shared our draft, we really thought ‘okay, let’s hope this works’ and I’m quite pleased to report that over the course of our negotiations, our initial response, our original vision has survived intact,” the third official said. “The obligations in particular that we’re going to impose survived intact. Sometimes CVE is viewed as something on the margins of what the Security Council has been doing, but Council members have supported that approach. […] And I think our assessment of that is that all the divisions going on, with all the issues that divide us, this is an issue where there really is strong political consensus.”


That consensus was strong enough that the text of the resolution was completed by last Friday, far ahead of the schedule that the U.S. Mission had been working on. Indeed, as one Western diplomat put it to ThinkProgress, echoing the prevailing view among Council members, the draft is “a very important step forward to compliment what we already had in terms of counterterrorism legislation at the international level.” In the final version, the U.N. will for the first time have a definition of what a “foreign terrorist fighter” is under international law, defining it as “namely individuals who travel to a state other than their states of residence or nationality for the purpose of the perpetration, planning, or preparation of, or participation in, terrorist acts or the providing or receiving of terrorist training, including in connection with armed conflict.”

The Threat

By late August the goal was becoming less about getting a resolution that could pass and more about seeing just how much support it could run up. On Thursday, another U.S. sponsored resolution, this one on the ongoing Ebola crisis, garnered the most co-sponsors in history. Now, the U.S. may be trying to replicate that. Officials estimate that at least eighty countries have some sort of connection to the foreign fighter threat, a sizable chunk of the U.N.’s membership. And last Tuesday, Ambassador Power briefed the thirty members of the Global Counterterrorism Forum on the contents of the resolution, seeking co-sponsors outside of the Council.

Peter Neumann briefing the Security Council on the threat of foreign fighters

CREDIT: Peter Neumann

Four weeks ago, the Mission approached Neumann for input on the draft. Neumann, who as a German citizen working in London doesn’t come with the baggage that an American would in this instance, was also asked to brief the full Security Council on the threat of foreign fighters. In his view, a view that the Council received positively, the threat of foreign fighters isn’t necessarily that they could return to their home country and launch attacks. Along with their brutality, he argued, there’s the fact that the situation in Syria and Iraq closely resembles that of Afghanistan in the 1980s, at least as far as the surge in foreign fighters is concerned.

It was in Afghanistan’s mountains, as mujahideen fighting against the Soviets, that Saudis, Chechens, and Yemenis flooded Central Asia and gained experience that they would carry with them for the rest of their lives. It was on those battlefields that Osama bin Laden formed the connections that would later become al-Qaeda, and it’s that sort of network building that Neumman says is the biggest threat from the foreigners aligned with ISIS.

“Even if America with the support of other countries destroys ISIS tomorrow, and even if they dislodge them from their territory tomorrow, you still have 12–15,000 people that have been there, that have made contacts there, that go somewhere,” Neumann said. “Possibly to the next crisis spot, possibly back to their home countries, [these are people] that have been radicalized and may be active in terrorist networks in the future. So it’s a long-term problem, it’s not necessarily something that will result in terrorist attacks tomorrow but over the next, ten, fifteen, twenty years, it probably will.”

The Future

As the high-level summit — only the sixth in the U.N.’s history — approached, it became clear that actually passing the resolution wouldn’t be the hard part, as it was cruising to a likely unanimous vote. Instead, it would be the follow-through. Already the U.S. is planning on how to carry out that long-term task, while at the same time conducting its short-term war against ISIS. “The administration officials said they would reinforce the message of the draft by offering to hold a summit on best practices to countering extremism in the fall,” the Daily Beast reported on Monday. “One of the other efforts being considered as part of the administration’s larger strategy is to ask social media companies like Twitter to remove video from groups like the ISIS, one of the officials said.”

Even before the speeches that mark the General Assembly’s high-level week began, the U.S. was working with France to sanction some of the foreign fighters the resolution is meant to confront. Specifically, the two petitioned the al-Qaeda sanctions committee established in 2001 under the Security Council to “blacklist more than a dozen foreign extremist fighters, fundraisers and recruiters linked to Islamist militant groups in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Tunisia and Yemen,” Reuters reported. In total, Paris and Washington put before the committee the names of 15 people from France, Saudi Arabia, Norway, Senegal and Kuwait to add to the global travel ban, asset freeze and arms embargo against terrorists on the list; the committee accepted 14 of them and two groups.

Nobody is making the case that the U.S.’ latest push in Turtle Bay will be the silver bullet that ends ISIS’ threat once and for all, but it’s clear that the U.N. resolution is just one part of the overarching strategy. As Nigerian diplomat Martin S. Adamu pointed out, “It won’t do enough; Security Council resolutions never do enough.” Instead, he said, it is best considered “a step in the right direction.”

The Security Council chamber has seen wars begin and end, countries rise and fall, leaders of remarkable skill and deplorable inhumanity alike walk its floors over the past seventy years. Wednesday will be just another day in its existence, another moment where the world attempts to rein in its worst tendencies and appeal to the better angels of our nature. But in the five years since Obama’s first time leading a meeting within its walls, there are still nuclear weapons, despite the pledges made there. And after this meeting ends, there will still be foreign fighters at large in the world.

So as the gavel falls and President Obama returns to the Security Council, bombs and missiles will continue to rain down on ISIS positions in Iraq and Syria. Aid packages will attempt to comfort the millions of people who have had to flee the fighting in both countries. But at least there will a new agreement in place, one that will hopefully save lives in the future. Adamu said to ThinkProgress, the Security Council will “set the tempo for further action, whatever action comes from it. The other alternative is to do nothing, and we can’t have that.”

Photo: President Obama chairs the U.N. Security Council in 2009