August 21st marks the second annual International Day of Remembrance of and Tribute to the Victims of Terrorism by the United Nations.
Promoting sensitivity to the needs of victims of terrorism is not just a moral imperative; it is also an important part of any comprehensive counterterrorism effort. Thousands of terrorist attacks take place each year leaving behind thousands of victims and survivors. In 2017, a total of 8,584 terrorist attacks in 100 countries occurred worldwide, resulting in more than 18,700 deaths and more than 19,400 people injured according to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). Nearly three-quarters of all deaths from terrorist attacks in 2017 occurred in just five countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Somalia, and Syria. However, no country is immune from terrorism. Terrorists killed 2,977 innocent civilians and first responders and injured more than 6,000 others on September 11, 2001, while other rescuers have since fallen ill or died from exposure to hazardous materials at the attack sites. More recent attacks in El Paso, New York City, Orlando, and San Bernardino remind us that terrorism knows no single ideology, and poses a continuing threat right here at home. This year, the world has experienced horrific and deadly attacks in many other countries including Sri Lanka, New Zealand, Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso.
The United States continues to make every effort to ensure terrorists are held accountable for their attacks and brought to justice. Just last month, Secretary Pompeo announced a reward offer of up to $7 million for information leading to the identification or location of Salman Raouf Salman, a key Hizballah operative who served as the on-the-ground coordinator for Hizballah’s July 18, 1994, attack on the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people.
The United States has robust laws and policies that provide victims of terrorism and other crimes with various support services and rights during the justice process. Multiple federal and state agencies assist victims of crimes and terrorism throughout the investigative and justice process and help them access services. In addition, federal and state programs allow victims of domestic attacks and American victims of international terrorism to obtain reimbursement of certain crime-related expenses, such as the costs of treatment for physical or psychological injuries and funerals.
The United States continues to share its lessons learned with other countries, including on the provision of legal, medical, psycho-social, and financial support to victims of terrorism. We encourage other countries to develop sustainable, comprehensive victims’ assistance plans to institutionalize assistance efforts. This is why we worked with the UN Office on Drugs and Crime to develop a handbook entitled, “The Criminal Justice Response to Support Victims of Terrorism.” Published in 2009, the handbook gives policymakers and criminal justice officials practical insights into challenges faced, and good practices developed, by their counterparts at the national and regional level.
The United States also works closely with expert bodies such as the Global Counterterrorism Forum, to develop and promote internationally recognized, non-binding sets of measures that states can take to assist victims. These measures include, for example, coordinating services in the aftermath of an attack, employing trained victim-assistance professionals, and helping victims and their families to follow and participate in legal proceedings against terrorism suspects. Read more here.
The Department of State is committed to working with these and other international partners to assist victims of terrorism. At the UN in June, the United States joined the Group of Friends of the Victims of Terrorism, which is co-chaired by Afghanistan and Spain. We also co-sponsored a ground-breaking UN General Assembly resolution to raise awareness globally of the lives impacted by terrorism. The resolution stressed the importance of effective, fair, humane, transparent, and accountable criminal justice systems in supporting victims of terrorism. It also emphasized the valuable roles of civil society and the private sector in providing support and assistance to victims of terrorism and their families and called on Member States to consider victims of terrorism when developing and maintaining strategies for prosecution, rehabilitation, and reintegration of terrorists.
Victims and survivors of terrorism can play critical roles outside of the criminal justice system. By encouraging victims to share their experiences and make sure their voices are heard, they can help counter the terrorist narrative and misguided appeal of terrorism and help prevent potential perpetrators from becoming radicalized to conduct attacks. This is just as true for countering ISIS’s depraved ideology as it is for the ideologies of racially or ethnically motivated terrorists.
The United States encourages technology companies to enforce their terms of service and community standards that forbid the use of their platforms for terrorist purposes. We continue to be proactive in our efforts to counter terrorist content online, while also continuing to respect freedom of expression and freedom of the press. Further, we maintain that the best tool to defeat terrorist speech is productive speech, and thus we emphasize the importance of promoting credible, alternative narratives as the primary means by which we can defeat terrorist messaging.
The United States will continue to support the important work that the United Nations is doing to support Member States to implement the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, including by standing in solidarity with and providing support to victims; establishing networks of, and offering support to, civil society organizations, particularly victims of terrorism associations; and, encouraging Member States to promote, protect, and respect victims. During the latest review of the UN Global Counter-Terrorism strategy in June 2018, the United States supported the importance of building resilience of victims and their families including through the provision of proper support and assistance immediately after an attack.
As a way of drawing attention to victims’ responses to terror, this year the United States and the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism are co-sponsoring a photographic exhibition entitled “Surviving Terrorism: The Power of Resilience” to mark the second annual International Day of Remembrance of and Tribute to the Victims of Terrorism. The month-long exhibition at the UN in New York City will showcase international solidarity with victims, positive stories of victims’ resilience, and illustrate what has been done for and by victims over the last few decades. An American survivor of the Boston Marathon Bombing will be included in this exhibit. Amy C. O’Neill, who was already trained as a mental health counselor before the April 15, 2013 attack, now dedicates her career to being a resilience expert and motivational speaker. She and other victims of terrorism play a significant role in helping individuals and professional responders to cope in the aftermath of trauma and violence and to even become stronger as a result.
As we look towards June 2020 when the UN plans to host its first Victims of Terrorism Congress, the United States will continue to work with partner governments and civil society to raise awareness of victims’ needs and seek to amplify their voices as part of our comprehensive counterterrorism strategy.
About the Author: Darcy Anderson serves as Senior Advisor, Multilateral Affairs, in the State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism.