The Global Counterterrorism Forum: Reflections on Eight Years of Strengthening the Civilian Counterterrorism Architecture

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Meeting room at the Global Counterterrorism Forum GCTF)
The 10th Global Counterterrorism Forum Ministerial was held on September 25, 2019.

The Global Counterterrorism Forum: Reflections on Eight Years of Strengthening the Civilian Counterterrorism Architecture

The United States is focused on combatting a wide range of terrorist threats confronting the United States and our allies, including ISIS, al-Qa’ida, Hizballah, and other terrorist groups as well as state sponsors of terrorism, such as Iran. Our multilateral diplomacy with organizations such as the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF) is central to achieving this priority. One of the GCTF’s greatest strengths, which was on full display this week at the UN General Assembly, has been to be an innovative vanguard of countering emerging and evolving terrorist threats. The GCTF has helped our allies and partners bolster their domestic and international capabilities to address the terrorist threats and challenges they face. To further advance the work of the GCTF, Deputy Secretary John J. Sullivan led the U.S. delegation to the 10th GCTF Ministerial on September 25, participating in sessions that endorsed two GCTF Framework Documents on unmanned aerial systems (UAS) and terrorist travel. 

At the GCTF Ministerial, co-chaired by Morocco and the Netherlands, the GCTF’s 30 members adopted a series of framework documents. These documents provide the international community new tools to support countries’ counterterrorism efforts in critical areas, including enhancing aviation and border security, combatting terrorist radicalization and recruitment online, and developing capacity to investigate and prosecute terrorists. 

  • Second, the United States and Morocco led the development of the New York Memorandum on Good Practices for Interdicting Terrorist Travel that will assist countries in implementing their obligations under UNSCR 2396, which calls for combatting the travel of foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) and other known and suspected terrorists (KSTs). This set of good practices will help countries understand how to build effective terrorist screening systems and watchlists, including by using and sharing Advanced Passenger Information, Passenger Name Records, and biometric data – all required by UNSCR 2396, a Chapter VII resolution. 

The GCTF’s existing body of Framework documents informs what the GCTF and its members introduce as new initiatives. Building on the New York Memorandum on Good Practices for Interdicting Terrorist Travel, the Deputy Secretary announced two new year-long GCTF initiatives to promote countries’ implementation of their UNSCR 2396 obligations. 

  • The first is the development of a “Watchlisting Guidance Manual.” This initiative will develop a “toolkit” document to help countries create and maintain watchlists of KSTs, and to do so while observing all appropriate legal safeguards.
  • The second is the “Initiative on Maritime Security and Terrorist Travel.” So far, most of our efforts to interdict terrorist travel and secure our borders have focused on air and land ports of entry. In certain regions and countries, however, the maritime sector serves as the primary mode of travel and transportation for terrorists. This new GCTF initiative will focus on current or potential terrorist exploitation of the maritime sector for travel and develop good practices for countries to address these threats.

As co-chairs of the GCTF’s FTF Working Group, the United States and Jordan have prioritized addressing the challenges of returning FTFs and their families. The repatriation, prosecution, rehabilitation, and reintegration of ISIS-affiliated individuals currently in custody in northeast Syria and Iraq is one of the most important challenges we now face in our efforts to counter terrorism. On September 24, the FTF Working Group co-chairs, along with Kazakhstan, Morocco, North Macedonia, and Russia, held an event on FTF repatriation. The event provided a platform to share experiences and lessons learned. It also highlighted the incredibly important international contributions of GCTF members and partners to create good practices that countries can adopt to help address the dire humanitarian and security situation, while navigating the growing complexities of the next stage in the fight against ISIS, al-Qai’da, and their affiliates. Countries with relevant experience on rehabilitation and reintegration must share their knowledge with others facing similar challenges. This is the first of many workshops the GCTF FTF Working Group will plan to hold over the next year on addressing the challenge of returning FTFs and families.

The United States is proud of the work accomplished over the past year and excited about the new GCTF initiatives that will develop needed tools and push relevant and timely resources to front line practitioners, officials, and partners across the world. We look forward to contributing to GCTF’s work as Morocco and Canada lead the GCTF in strengthening the international architecture to address terrorism threats. The enemy continues to innovate to present tactical, operational, and strategic challenges to our security, institutions, and publics. We will stand firm, however, and engage collaboratively to advance collective security and ensure the lasting defeat of ISIS, al-Qa’ida, Iran-backed terrorists, and other terrorist organizations.

About the Author: John Godfrey is the Deputy Coordinator for Regional & Multilateral Affairs in the State Department’s Counterterrorism Bureau.

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John Godfrey

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John Godfrey is the Deputy Coordinator for Regional & Multilateral Affairs in the State Department’s Counterterrorism Bureau.