Two Countries With Questionable Views on Terrorism Take Leading Roles in New Counterterror Initiatives

By Patrick Goodenough | September 21, 2011 | 5:57 AM EDT

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hosts a symposium on international counterterrorism cooperation in New York, joined by U.N. General Assembly president Abdulaziz Al-Nasser of Qatar (left), Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal and U.S. Attorney-General Eric Holder. (U.N. Photo by Evan Schneider)

( – The United States and the United Nations this week will launch two separate counter-terrorism initiatives, each partnering with a country that does not accept that Palestinian violence against Israelis, or jihadist attacks against Indians in Kashmir, constitute terrorism.

The U.N. announced on Monday that it is partnering with Saudi Arabia in setting up a U.N. counterterrorism center, an initiative first proposed by Saudi King Abdullah while hosting a conference on counterterrorism six years ago.

That 2005 conference in Riyadh was marked by disputes over the question of defining terrorism, after Saudi and other Arab representatives insisted that the fight against occupation should be explicitly exempted.

In a parallel but not directly related initiative in New York City this week, the Obama administration will join Turkey’s government on Thursday to launch a new global counterterrorism forum (GCTF), a body co-chaired by the U.S. and Turkey, and with a membership of 27 other countries plus the European Union.

Like Saudi Arabia, Turkey is a key member of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a bloc whose 1998 convention on combating international terrorism states that “peoples’ struggle including armed struggle against foreign occupation … shall not be considered a terrorist crime.”

OIC members account for one-third of the GCTF’s founding group.

Turkey’s main focus is to counter Kurdish terrorism, such as Tuesday’s suspected car bomb in Ankara and an attack on a police college in southeast Turkey.

Saudi Arabia’s attention, meanwhile, has been fixed on what it characterizes as “deviants” – members and supporters of al-Qaeda and related violent groups.

In keeping with the OIC’s “occupation” exception, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government rejects the U.S. and Israeli contention that Hamas is a terrorist group. The U.S. has designated it a “foreign terrorist organization” since 1997.

Saudi Arabia has had a long, though checkered, relationship with Hamas, and in January 2010, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal hosted Hamas’ Damascus-based political bureau chief, Khaled Mashaal, in Riyadh.

This week, Saud joined U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, Attorney-General Eric Holder and others during a U.N. symposium on international counterterrorism cooperation in New York.

At the event Saud and Ban announced the formation of the U.N. Center for Counter Terrorism (UNCCT), a move Ban hailed as “the start of a new era in counterterrorism cooperation.”

The New York-based institution will receive $10 million of Saudi funding over the next three years, with the aim of strengthening countries’ capacity-building efforts in fighting terrorism.

Saud said the center was the first international organization to specialize in combating terrorism, and that Saudi Arabia would spare no effort to support it.

The kingdom’s official Saudi Press Agency reported on Tuesday that the UNCCT idea was first proposed by King Abdullah during the 2005 counterterrorism conference in Riyadh.

As reported at the time, the high-profile conference was dogged by disputes over defining terrorism.

An official summary of the event provided by the organizing government recounted that Sudan’s delegate “underlined the necessity of differentiating between terrorism as a crime, and the people’s right in armed struggle to liberate their land.”

Syrian and Egyptian representatives took a similar position, as did the host government, with Saudi Islamic Affairs Minister Saleh al-Sheikh quoted as saying that while his ministry condemned suicide bombings as acts of terror, those fighting occupation were not terrorists.

In the end, it was left to organizers to suggest that the event focus on ways to fight terrorism rather than debate the thorny question of how to define it.

“The solution is in trying to [put forward] detailed proposals to counter terrorism, while dismissing things that might stir controversies and which are related to the definition of terrorism,” Saud, the foreign minister, said at the time.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow