Michèle Coninsx was appointed Assistant Secretary-General and Executive Director of the Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED) by United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres on August 11, 2017. Ms. Coninsx took up her functions on November 2, 2017. Prior to her position at the United Nations, Ms. Coninsx was President of Eurojust—the European Union agency tasked with dealing with judicial cooperation in criminal matters—2012-2017, after having served as its vice president for five years. In addition, Ms. Coninsx was National Member for Belgium at Eurojust and Chair of Eurojust’s Counter-Terrorism Team. Before joining Eurojust, Ms. Coninsx was a Federal Prosecutor (Magistrat Fédéral) in Belgium dealing with terrorism and organized crime. She served for nine years as an expert in aviation security for the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).
CTC: What role does the United Nations’ Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED) play in counterterrorism efforts?
Coninsx: CTED carries out the policy decisions of the Counter Terrorism Committee (CTC), which comprises all 15 members of the United Nations Security Council. CTED’s main tasks are to assess the counterterrorism measures in the 193 U.N. member countries; to analyze the CT trends, developments, and gaps in these countries; and where needed, render expertise to the member states.
We do it through visits to countries. We have carried out 140 visits in 100 countries in the past few years, with 26 visits planned this year. The number of counterterrorism measures agreed [to] by the international community—[for] which we are mandated to provide expertise—has expanded significantly. As we know, over the last four years, there was an avalanche of Security Council resolutions because the nature of the terrorist threat was evolving very quickly.
To mention some of them: 2354, counter-narratives; 2309, aviation security; 2341, on protection of critical infrastructure. The main resolutions for us are 2395—our Bible for the future—and 2396 on relocating and returning foreign terrorist fighters.
When we go on a comprehensive country visit, we go there with a team of experts, which covers all of these issues, from legal aspects, counterterrorism strategies, the border security aspect, to civil society engagement. Everything’s covered, including cross-cutting issues such as empowerment of women and human rights-related issues. Although we go there with our own experts, part of the exercise is to get other players involved from the U.N. family. One example is the U.N. Office of Counter-Terrorism (OCT), which is responsible for capacity-building and technical assistance. Since taking over as executive director and as mandated by Resolution 2395, we’ve deepened the cooperation between CTED and OCT. We work more and more, hand in hand. The two leaders meet every week. Other examples are the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) for their expertise in aviation security; Interpol for their law enforcement and border control expertise; U.N. Women; the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO).
That means that we have very targeted questions and use the same methodology for every single visit, so that we ensure total objectivity and a really good diagnosis of the CT gaps. In the next step, we come up with recommendations and then submit them to the Security Council, and on the basis of that report—once it is accepted by the visited country and the Security Council—work can start on addressing the gaps and delivering the right targeted approach. The actual implementation is not conducted by ourselves but by other entities, coordinated by OCT.
We are the barometer. We make recommendations, but other U.N. entities take over and deliver technical assistance and capacity building. It’s a new approach, which ensures follow-up and allows us to see how we’re having impact. Assessment, assessment, assessment really is our core business and, coupled to that also, analysis of trends and provision of expertise.
We have a team dedicated to verifying the latest trends, developments, and biggest concerns. And this analysis is based not only [on] our assessments, but also our liaison with outside experts, including those who are part of our Global Research Network.
It’s all about impact, and really making a difference as clearly set out in resolution 2395—identifying the lessons learned in one country and what we see as a best practice, which has already been implemented in one country. We then try to verify whether it’s really something that could be applied in other countries, and then spread the good practices and lessons learned. This is an integral part of our set of tasks.
CTC: How does the Global Research Network operate?
Coninsx: The Global Research Network (GRN) is probably best described as a living, virtual network of academic institutions and researchers.1 Terrorism and counterterrorism responses are increasingly affecting such a wide range of countries. Although the GRN comes together physically in meetings and briefings and workshops, the idea is that we can proactively reach out to trusted researchers around the world who are producing evidence-based research. Our growing Rolodex allows us to be aware of the research being done and who we need to engage with, and that allows us to connect research work with policymakers here at the United Nations.
CTC: You have spoken about the work your directorate does. Looking at the big picture, how important have U.N. efforts been as a whole in confronting terrorism and protecting against this threat in the years since 9/11?
Coninsx: It’s been clear for many years that the transnational character of terrorism requires a transnational response. Significant progress has been made in this regard. On the 13th of June 2001, I convened the first meeting of Pro-Eurojust (provisional Eurojust) with seven European Union member states involved in investigations into an al-Qa`ida network. It was at that moment quite difficult to have this coordination set up because no one wanted to share anything with anybody. What we didn’t know at that moment is that we were really hammering on an existing network, which was connected to the 9/11 attacks.
At the time, Eurojust didn’t yet exist, and Europol was not working at the same pace as it’s working [at] right now. There was no regional coordination mechanism at the E.U. level. That was the first hint that having good local and national measures was not good enough. We needed regional structures in order to tackle terrorist activity.
Now more than ever, local, national, and regional measures are essential but not sufficient. We need that extra layer, and that’s exactly what the United Nations is offering: uniting the efforts, uniting the nations, uniting the countries, exchanging information, exchanging data, exchanging also the good practices but also ensuring that if the capacity, if the equipment, if the legislation, if the instruments are not good enough, to help improve them when needed. And that’s in essence what the United Nations is doing. So, I’m a strong believer because I have worked at all the other three levels—local, national, and regional—and know how important joined-up international efforts are.
ASG Michèle Coninsx briefs the U.N. Security Council on August 7, 2018, on the Secretary-General’s Seventh report on the threat posed by the Islamic State to international peace and security. (U.N. Photo/Loey Felipe)
CTC: Before taking on your U.N. role, you worked as a counterterrorism prosecutor in Belgium. How much progress has there been in creating capability at the national level to prosecute terrorist groups?
Coninsx: There has been a great deal of progress. Let me provide you with an example to illustrate how far we have come. After bombings by the GIA terrorist group in France, which saw the group targeting the Paris metro system, I prosecuted a support cell active in Belgium involving 13 suspects brought to trial in 1995.2 It was the first ever trial of Islamist terrorists in Belgium, and we were faced with very significant challenges because we didn’t have CT legislation nor any formal cooperation structure with the intelligence and security service [Surete de L’etat]. The prosecution file was based on information from the intelligence and security service.
It was a real ordeal because we had no legislation, so it was very difficult to prove the link between that support and activity in the RER [Paris metro system] attacks. We had no legal provisions allowing us to prosecute terrorism specifically as a crime nor could we charge people with membership of terrorist organizations. We had to depend on association de malfaiteurs [criminal conspiracy charges], which didn’t cover the extent, the gravity of that case. We had very good lawyers who were defending their defendants. So it was a very shocking first encounter with the reality of a counterterrorism trial, where you didn’t have the legal ammunition nor anything which could prove very easily what you could feel with your guts. Evidence is crucial. What I also learned is the importance of the press—how isolated you are when you’re overwhelmed by press articles but you can’t respond because you have to be very secretive because of security issues.
My work as a prosecutor in Belgium also made me aware of how important coordination mechanisms are between domestic agencies and their counterparts in other countries. I saw this myself when I was involved in the coordination between Belgian authorities and their French counterparts in the lead up to the Euro 2000 football championship, which was co-hosted by Belgium and the Netherlands. There was concern the GSPC terrorist group might plot an attack against the teams taking part, but this was avoided.
CTC: Foreign fighters traveled from many parts of the world to join the Islamic State and other jihadi groups in Syria and Iraq. How important has that made international cooperation to identify them and circulate information on them?
Coninsx: It’s vital. More than 100 countries have provided us with information on foreign terrorist fighters, which is over half our membership. Every single country is responsible for the collection of data on the foreign terrorist fighters leaving to the conflict zones and returning. The relocation and return of foreign terrorist fighters is now the greater of the problems we are dealing with, and since Security Council resolution 2396 was adopted, that’s been our focus. No one has precise figures on how many people left for the conflict zones or how many were killed, have relocated or returned, or remain in the conflict zones. Addressing the potential threat posed by the relocating and returning foreign terrorist fighters starts with identifying them. It also means member states need to secure their land, air, and sea borders. As articulated in Security Council resolution 2396, tools here include Advance Passenger Information (API), Passenger Name Records (PNR), and biometrics. All this requires very serious work, from a technical, legal, institutional, and organizational point of view in investing in these instruments.
In each and every single visit to member states, we ask about their threat assessment, how they perceive the foreign terrorist fighters and the extent of their relocating and returning foreign terrorist fighters problem. Very often, we see that there are no precise figures, if we’re honest. Better data is what we should strive for. We don’t have disaggregated data on gender and age. This will be important to create tailored approaches with regards to prosecutions or rehabilitation and reintegration especially when we talk about children.
CTC: There are at least hundreds and perhaps thousands of suspected foreign terrorist fighters who are in custody in Syria and a far greater number in Iraq. How much information is coming into the U.N. on who these people are?
Coninsx: We have spent significant time in Iraq to meet with authorities there. Most recently, we visited Iraq in March 2018 where we met with decision makers, with U.N. country teams, and with the mayor of Fallujah to see what is going on. Iraq is facing a range of significant challenges, including the need for reconstruction and building a safe society.
In May 2018, we sent a scoping mission to do follow-up on this. We heard that females have been taken into pre-trial detention, that children have been separated from their mothers in shelters. When it comes to member states repatriating children, we learned there are problems in relation to recording the nationality, the country of origin of those children.
To give you a sense of the sort of issues we need to think through, a prosecutor from a European country told me they had returning children from three different fathers from three different countries. There are so many questions we face. What can be done to take care of the children of foreign terrorist fighters in the conflict zones? How do we address the human rights issues?
Our approach is going to have to involve the management of risk. No one can foresee who is going to come back with terrorist intentions versus those who come back heavily traumatized and frustrated.
When it comes to prosecutions, we have identified the challenge of getting admissible evidence from the battle zone in Syria and Iraq as a key problem. It’s the military of member states who are on the spot and have the capability. It’s important to ensure that the collection, preservation, and sharing of evidence is done in accordance with all the conditions needed in front of court and for prosecutors and judges. We are currently working together with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism in The Hague (ICCT) to gather expertise on this.
CTC: In a recent report, you highlighted the potential threat posed by foreign terrorist fighters being released from prisons in the years ahead,3 noting that a number of FTFs have been given relatively short sentences, and therefore, there has been “limited opportunity to engage them in rehabilitation and reintegration programs prior to their release,” meaning there could be significant concern about the threat they could pose when they leave prison. How are you addressing this?
Coninsx: It’s going to be a problem, and that’s why we sent out an alert on it this summer.4 We’ve seen very short sentences being handed out in the European Union in particular, sometimes because of lack of evidence or because of the membership activity in a terrorist group is sentenced at a maximum of five years, which means those who started sentences in around 2013 are now being released. In prisons, there is a problem of capacity, knowledge, and experience when it comes to dealing with potential radicalization processes. And given the short length of sentences, time is often too short to figure out whether individuals continue to be radicalized or are becoming more radicalized and what’s the next step in the rehabilitation/reintegration process. It’s a new phenomenon which we don’t yet have much experience with. To address this, we’ve been speaking to relevant authorities in various countries to research the issue, and we hope eventually to be able identify and disseminate best practices.
CTC: You spent a lot of time working on aviation security. Where is vigilance needed in the years ahead?
Coninsx: Terrorists continue to try to get IEDs onto planes, as was allegedly seen with the plot against aviation thwarted in Australia in the summer of 2017.5 And their inventiveness and creativity is potentially unlimited. One particular concern when thinking about airport security is the weaponization of drones. Then there is continued concern about potential insider threats at airports. Airports are big communities, looking like cities. Another area of concern is the dependence of the aviation sector on IT, and therefore, we need safeguards against IT-based attacks. And then there is the threat against airport terminals as we saw in the 2016 Brussels and Istanbul airport attacks.
CTC: In the context of the continued threat from jihadi terrorism, how can the international community empower communities around the world to confront the message of extremists?
Coninsx: I think that we should empower the whole community, the whole of civil society. Religious leaders are important. At the same level, families, mothers, schools, sports clubs are also important. It’s important not to focus too much on one group, but on the whole of society. Different municipalities in Belgium had similar communities and challenges, but only one city had nearly no problem with foreign terrorist fighters, and that was Mechelen, whose mayor had recently been named the best mayor in the world.6 When I talked with him, he said over the last 30 years, he included everybody in his community and gave them the same opportunity for jobs in the police service, in schools, and in sports clubs, and I think that was key.
Exclusion drives radicalization, and inclusion protects against it. I was recently in Nigeria, Niger, and Burkina Faso where a huge majority of the population are youngsters between 15 and 30 years old. It was eye opening to me how exclusion in developing countries from education, jobs, and economic opportunities can create openings for terrorist recruiters.
CTC: The recent U.N. Secretary-General report7 noted that 66 states have introduced measures requiring airlines to provide advance passenger information, but few member states have the resources or capacity to effectively implement such systems. There seems to be a very uneven approach to some of these systems and technologies, including advance passenger information and biometrics. How are you working to address that?
Coninsx: It’s a key priority for us. A critical dimension of counterterrorism is for governments is to know who is in transit, who is entering a country. Hence, since 2014, the importance of advance passenger information (API), biometrics, passenger name records (PNR), and watch-lists.
When it comes to biometrics, you’re talking about DNA, facial recognition, eye recognition, and fingerprints. These are very technical issues, so that means that countries need equipment, capacity, know-how, and appropriate legal frameworks because there are, of course, privacy issues and human rights issues. There is a need for training. This is especially the case for developing countries because there’s a big difference between their capabilities and those of developed countries. Some countries don’t yet have birth registrations, so when you talk to them about PNR and API, you’re asking them too much.
The international community has an obligation to help them because we cannot have a chain made up of very strong elements but then also weak elements. The United Nations has to identify where there are gaps, and work together with ICAO on circulating recommended practices. You have to map the different situations of different countries. And that is exactly what we are doing in all of our country visits.
This past June, we published a compendium of recommended practices for member states on the use and sharing of biometrics in counterterrorism.8 It was a collaborative effort with the Biometrics Institute, and it was done with a lot of respect for human rights, for the technical aspect, for the respectful use of biometrics, not trying to go, “This is the obligation, and now it’s your turn.”
CTC: Where is the world going to be in 20 years with the roll out of biometrics and other state-of-the-art border security technologies and systems?
Coninsx: The objective is to have everybody at the same level and to have one chain, one strong chain—193 countries having the same possibilities, the same opportunities. That is the objective. And I think that we will get there by having this collaborative, multi-layer, multi-sectorial approach. I am a strong believer in it because I can see the steps that have been taken in the last 10 months, and progress in countries [that] were absolutely not at the right level. There is a lot of eagerness to be onboard.
We’re striving to have interoperability, to have good checks with the national and the regional databases. We’re not there yet. Hence, the importance of collaborating with ICAO, for instance, which has its own expertise in the field with recommended practices, as well as law enforcement and border control experts. It’s also the reason why we work together with Interpol with their stolen and lost passport database. It’s a collaborative effort. Everybody has a piece of expertise, and my aim is to bridge these different areas of expertise.
It’s all about collaborative efforts. We concluded an agreement with Interpol in July 2017.9 We concluded an agreement on cooperation with ICAO in May this year.10 We signed the global compact with OCT.11 We worked on the compendium together with OCT. Our approach is to first identify, on the basis of our assessments, which countries are in the biggest need first of all. Then to conduct our own ‘deep-dive’ missions, assessing the different levels of expertise involved, how we can fill the gaps, and how we can offer them targeted, focused support. On top of this, we are also conducting awareness-raising activities with respect to the compendium, explaining what the compendium is about. Things have gone very fast because of the drive of the experts here at CTED, but there is still a long way to go.
CTC: The collection and use of biometric data could raise questions regarding human rights and particularly the right to privacy. This suggests there’s going to be a significant debate in the future about their broader use in counterterrorism.
Coninsx: I think that we need those open and frank debates to find the right balance. When it comes to security at member states’ national borders, we need to be sure that if you cross the border with a criminal or terrorist intention that you’re caught in time to safeguard another right which is, I think, the highest right is the right to live. And that’s exactly what we have to do: to make sure that the one who is passing with bad intentions, with terrorist intention doesn’t pass.
CTC: The U.N. Secretary-General recently stressed the importance of prosecuting cases of sexual violence carried out by terrorists, noting that up until at least the end of 2017, not a single member of the Islamic State or Boko Haram had yet been prosecuted for such crimes.12 What more can be done?
Coninsx: It is certainly a significant concern. The key is collecting evidence. How do you ensure statements are made, how do you get the testimony of witnesses? Women may find it difficult to make statements because they are frightened and don’t want to talk about it. As a former prosecutor, I can tell you it’s not an easy offense to prove in a national context. It’s all the more difficult to prove in a zone of conflict and areas occupied by terrorist groups. I’ve met with women in Kenya and Nigeria in recent months and learned about the sexual abuse that was inflicted on them, especially against younger girls, and the post-traumatic stress and the stigmatization they are suffering [from]. We need to do everything we can to help the victims and bring those within terrorist groups who committed sexual crimes to justice. There must be no impunity for these crimes. CTC
[a] Editor’s note: To achieve this, CTED produces regular Research Digests and Trends Reports. For example, see https://us2.campaign-archive.com/?u=8343c3b932a7be398ceb413c9&id=0eae35cfd7
[b] Editor’s note: Eurojust is an E.U. agency responsible for judicial cooperation. It was set up in 2002 in The Hague.
[c] Editor’s note: Europol is an E.U. agency responsible for law enforcement cooperation. It is based in The Hague.
[d] Editor’s note: The RER—the Paris regional train network—is a commuter service integrated into the Paris metro system.
[e] Editor’s note: The GSPC, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, was a spin-off group of the GIA. In 2007, it was rebranded al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
[f] Editor’s note: According to the United Nations, “there are assessed to be between several hundred and 2,000 foreign terrorist fighters held in detention in northern Syrian Arab Republic and a far greater number in detention in Iraq, where Member State estimates range between 9,000 and 20,000 depending upon whether family members are included.” “Letter transmitting the Twenty-Second Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team concerning ISIL, Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities,” United Nations, June 27, 2018, p. 20.
[g] Editor’s note: The Biometrics Institute is a not-for-profit organization that promotes the responsible and ethical use of biometrics.
 See the latest Global Research Network Newsletter (September 2018), https://mailchi.mp/un/grn-newsletter-april-2895053?e=8f0867b1b0
 “Concern at Potential Risks Posed by the Forthcoming Release of Imprisoned FTFs,” CTED Trends Alert, July 2018.
 This is available on the CTED’s website at https://www.un.org/sc/ctc/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Trends_Alert_July_2018.pdf.
 For more on the alleged plot, see Andrew Zammit, “New Developments in the Islamic State’s External Operations: The 2017 Sydney Plane Plot,” CTC Sentinel 10:9 (2017).
 “Seventh Report of the Secretary-General on the threat posed by ISIL to international peace and security and the range of United Nations efforts in support of Member States in countering the threat,” United Nations, August 16, 2018, p. 11.
 “Seventh Report of the Secretary-General on the threat posed by ISIL to international peace and security and the range of United Nations efforts in support of Member States in countering the threat,” p. 14.