Dr. Raffi Gregorian brings to the United Nations over 33 years of academic, diplomatic, and military experience in counterterrorism and international peace and security. As Deputy to the Under-Secretary-General and Director of the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT), Dr. Gregorian directs the 150-person office headquartered in New York, chairing its Programme Review Board and representing the office in the Secretary-General’s Deputies Committee. Prior to his appointment by the Secretary-General in September 2019, Dr. Gregorian was Director of Multilateral Affairs in the Bureau of Counterterrorism of the U.S. Department of State as well as Acting Deputy Coordinator for Counterterrorism (2017-2018) and Director for the Office of Peace Operations, Sanctions, and Counterterrorism (2012-2015). In this latter capacity, he initiated the first new U.S. peacekeeping policy in 25 years, led a number of important peacekeeping reforms, and helped secure full funding for the U.N. peacekeeping budget. Dr. Gregorian’s field experience includes leading two multinational missions in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) as well as military service in BiH, Kosovo, and the Joint Staff in Washington, D.C. In BiH he was Supervisor of Brčko District (2006-2010), Principal Deputy High Representative (2007-2010) and for several months also Acting High Representative, having first served as Political Advisor for NATO Headquarters Sarajevo and Co-Chairman of the BiH Defense Reform Commission (2004-2006). His previous State Department service included serving as chief of staff to the Special Adviser to the President and Secretary of State for Kosovo and Dayton Implementation and Acting Director for Kosovo Implementation. Dr. Gregorian also worked on the official history of the Vietnam War for the U.S. Army. Dr. Gregorian holds a Doctorate in International Relations and Strategic Studies from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

Editors Note: This interview was conducted ahead of the adoption on June 30, 2021, by consensus of the United Nations General Assembly of Resolution 75/291 for the seventh review of the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy. This resolution is described in further detail at the bottom of the interview.

CTC: Over the course of your distinguished career, you’ve worked in key roles that have given you a front-row seat to the on-the-ground and strategic level intricacies and challenges related to peace processes, peacekeeping operations, defense reform, capacity building, and the practice of counterterrorism. Given the positions you’ve held in the Balkans, at the U.S. State Department, and in your current role as the Deputy to the Under-Secretary-General at the United Nations Office of Counterterrorism, you are uniquely positioned to provide an informed view about how the institutions you have been a part of have organizationally evolved and responded [in order] to combat and grapple with the broad mix of security challenges. From terrorism to the difficult business of building partner capacity, when you look back over the arc of your career, what are some of the key aspects that stand out to you about how the organizational effort to combat terrorism has evolved or not evolved?

Gregorian: I have a background as an historian so I try to think of things that way, and when I was working in the Counterterrorism Bureau at the State Department—when I first joined there in January 2015—I started to reflect on what is the nature of terrorism at that point and today, and how much it’s actually evolved, and therefore, as a consequence of that, what are the tools and the responses that governments have done to respond to it. It’s actually quite interesting when it comes to terrorism: Terrorism is fundamentally a technique. It’s a tactic. But, in 2015, we were confronted with the eruption of ISIL and the conquest [the previous year] of Mosul, and one of the first questions I asked when I got there was, “well, is this an insurgency, or are we fighting a terrorist group?” I look backward, and you see the evolution of … let’s call it modern terrorism, post-World War II terrorism. I did work for the U.S. Army on the Center for Military History. I worked on the official history of the Vietnam War. The Viet Cong used terror tactics in South Vietnam. Were they a terrorist group? Well, maybe today we might call them that, but back then, we didn’t. It was an insurgency. Same thing with the communist terrorists in Malaya. That was an insurgency; they used terror.

The conventional view of terrorism in the ‘60s and ‘70s was associated with the sorts of small radical groups; they might have been tied to national liberation movements or they were fringe elements that would carry out acts that were meant to attract attention and advance a political goal to raise their profile. This is pre-social media and everything else. So how do you get the world’s attention if you’re a group of 10 crazy people? You do something spectacular: you take hostages, you set off a bomb in a plane, you hijack something. Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, that was the milieu that terrorism operated [in], and the international responses to those typically were international conventions or treaties designed to address those problems. So you have the first couple international conventions under U.N. auspices that are about prevention of hijacking of aircraft or conventions against use of explosives against aircraft and that sort of thing. Then you get a horrible event like the Munich Olympics massacre, and that takes it to a new level, at least in terms of public consciousness. In the United States, it led to the creation of the Office of the Special Coordinator for Counterterrorism in the State Department, what was known for the longest time as S/CT because the counterterrorism coordinator reported directly to the Secretary of State, and it was meant to help work with foreign governments around the world on these kinds of groups, like those at the Munich Olympics or the Baader-Meinhof ganga or November 17b and these, again, relatively small groups.

Of course, that all really starts to change in the early ‘90s, with the expansion and evolution of al-Qa`ida, and then probably most significantly with the Africa embassy bombings. And you can see that things are starting to change on the U.S. side. S/CT gets bigger. At the U.N., we still have these conventions and so on, but when you get to the point of, it was the Africa bombings, in fact, that led to the creation of UNSCR [United Nations Security Council Resolution] 1267, which is sanctions against al-Qa`ida, that’s pre-9/11. So you see the beginning of a more operational configuration by Member States at the international level and also the national level. There’s greater cooperation among states to track down what are now clearly transnational groups. That’s one of the other defining features of what happened over the ‘80s and into the ‘90s. And then of course 9/11 comes, and that’s clearly a watershed moment. It’s a watershed moment for everybody, but here in the U.N., there was a Security Council resolution, 1373—[which] obliges all Member States to criminalize terrorist activity, including preparation and financing of it, prevention of safe havens, and so on—but it didn’t create an apparatus in the U.N. Secretariat for dealing with that, although it established a committee in the Security Council and then an executive directorate that was initially intended to go around and assess how countries were doing in terms of comporting themselves with these [UNSCR] obligations under Chapter VII of the U.N. [Charter].c

And then on the U.S. side, over the course of the decade, there are again changes—creation of Department of Homeland Security and in the State Department, the one I’m most familiar with, S/CT, became a full-fledged bureau within the State Department with its own programming office and specialized offices and so on, including the Office of Multilateral Affairs, which is what I was brought over to develop there—in lockstep, of course, with the emergence of ISIL, which takes it again to another level. Now you have a territory-holding group that uses extreme terror tactics. The institutional responses to that track with them. They don’t get ahead of them; they track with them. So Security Council Resolution 2178 of September 2014 is in response to [the Islamic State seizure of] Mosul and the huge increase in the foreign terrorist fighter phenomenon that was associated with that.

All these things existed in one form or another before that, but accelerated with social media, to help with recruiting, alienation brought on by the 2007 financial crisis, a whole bunch of post-Cold War trends are kind of converging at that point, and then you have just a qualitatively and quantitatively different problem. There were foreign terrorist fighters that went to go fight in Afghanistan against Soviet troops, but if my memory serves me, the numbers were like 10,000 people over the course of 10 years. Well, it was like 40,000-50,000 people going to ISIS in the space of 18 months. It’s just so much [of a] bigger problem. And from over 100 different countries. So it was really a global problem, and that is actually what led to the creation of the U.N. Office of Counterterrorism.

I was a driving force behind its creation because you could see a greater need for coordination and cooperation, not on operations, which the [Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS] was able to do at least with respect to ISIS in the core, but facilitation of international cooperation—setting of norms, standards, certain kinds of capacity building, which really the U.N. is perhaps better suited for in some instances. And Member States were clamoring for that; they needed help. So it didn’t take much of a push to get Member States to say, “Yes, absolutely, we should have an office of counterterrorism at the level of an under-secretary-general,” and the U.S. was a big supporter of that. But you were pushing on an open door. Everyone saw the obviousness of it, to elevate the very small counterterrorism apparatus that we had in the U.N. before that time—which it started back in about 2010, 2011, the U.N. Counter-Terrorism Centre, which was buried deep in the bowels of the Department of Political Affairs—and lifting that up and bringing it into the U.N. Office of Counter-Terrorism as the capacity-building engine of this organization. And then we went from there. That’s just in the last four years; UNOCT was created in the middle of 2017. The evolution of terrorism is matched by these organizational changes and conventions and eventually Security Council resolutions.

CTC: You have spoken about why UNOCT was created. Can you elaborate a bit more on the role it plays within the U.N. system and its core focus areas?

Gregorian: It’s supposed to, first of all, bring policy coherence to what the U.N. system does in the counterterrorism space. And [the way] it does that, and the mechanism by which it does that, other than being a focal point for policy, is to help coordinate U.N. entities that play some part in counterterrorism in its broadest sense. And it turned out to be massive. Under the [current] Secretary-General’s leadership, we set up the Global Counterterrorism Coordination Compact,d which replaced something that had been there before called the Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force, but it was somewhat lackluster for a number of reasons. No one did anything wrong; it didn’t have the [necessary gravity] to move itself forward at the time. [But in 2017] all the stars were aligning. Plus a little bit of money helps, right? It encourages people if you have some money. And we did. We had a little bit of seed money to help grow this global coordination compact, which now has 43 U.N. entities in it and eight working groups. It’s a much more well-regulated and structured and organized enterprise.

We have here in UNOCT a Global Compact Secretariat that makes it all run. We have funds for the working groups to provide seed money for studies and projects. We have an online platform that we launched last year, just as the pandemic was happening, locking us all down. So we had a vehicle for continuing to coordinate and cooperate online. To my surprise, it’s actually been very successful, because coordination is hard. Nobody likes to be coordinated at the U.N., as they say; everyone wants to be the coordinator. It’s actually an unhappy role to have, but we’re actually mandated by the General Assembly to do that. And in concrete ways, it shows up as something that I like and support a lot, which are these joint programs. This is where we’ll have multiple U.N. entities working together on one joined-up program: counterterrorism travel is one of them, for example.

Each entity brings its own expertise and mandate to a particular problem set, and we pull it all together and manage that and get—I know it sounds trite—a synergistic effect in a way that wasn’t possible before the global compact [was] agreed. So it does that, and I would say the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Member States really gravitate towards this office. We’re getting very high interest in it. We have good access to senior leaders. They want to come see us when they’re here in town. They easily agree to meetings when we travel overseas. They come to our briefings. We’re extremely active in that regard. We’re one of the most active U.N. entities reaching out to Member States and engaging with them, especially the missions here in New York. They really appreciate that.

So we are the face of counterterrorism at the U.N. We’re not operational, though. We’re not involved in running the military aspects of anything. We typically focus our efforts on capacity building of [the] civilian side of things, whether it be law enforcement, prosecutors, policymakers, and so on. And that’s the other big part of what we do, is capacity building. We have been, in the 18-20 months or so I’ve been here, moving towards much more comprehensive, consolidated programs [that] have applicability around the world, but we implement them locally on whatever the problem might be, but it’s part of a larger, global program. Counterterrorism travel is probably the best example of that, but we have them also on victims of terrorism and countering the financing of terrorism, a whole range of things. Strategic communications for countering violent extremism and the like.

So that’s a rough description of what we do. We are plugged into the U.N. system. We’re headed by an under-secretary-general, which is like mainline management here. He takes part in the Executive Committee of the Secretary-General, which is very much like the [White House’s] National Security Council Principals Committee, except this one is always chaired by the Secretary-General. And then there’s a Deputies Committee, which I take part in [at] the assistant secretary-general level, and these work on the whole variety of issues confronting the U.N., not just counterterrorism; it’s everything from climate change to food insecurity to technology, development, counterterrorism, peace operations, whatever. It all gets deliberated in these bodies and then decided at the Executive Committee level, and we’re all part of that.

We’ve managed to accomplish a lot actually in the few years we’ve been here. We’ve grown from about 60, 70 people to now about 150. We have a few program offices that we’ve established overseas at the request of member states, And that brings us closer now to the beneficiaries that are asking for our help, because everything we do is on the basis of request. We can’t force ourselves on anybody.

Raffi Gregorian

CTC: I think that’s a helpful segue to one core aspect of the UNOCT mission, which you mentioned, which is capacity building. The terrorism studies community has spent a considerable amount of emphasis and energy on studying the actions of groups and organizations on the threat side, which is understandable. Much less attention has been given to the practice of counterterrorism and looking at dynamics like capacity building or the work of partners and counterterrorism campaigns. And this is a big focus area for UNOCT. What are some of the challenges that your office faces when it comes to capacity building? How do you ensure accountability? What are some of the metrics that UNOCT has found helpful to think through that might be helpful to the broader community about how we measure outcomes and performance of counterterrorism entities?

Gregorian: I think this is one of those areas where my previous experience has proven to be very, very useful, because I did a lot of capacity building work in the Balkans—not specifically on counterterrorism, but on a whole range of things, including integration of the three former warring factions into one state armed force. That was really a multifaceted undertaking, and it makes you think about, what is the effect you’re trying to have? What is the outcome you want, the impact you’re trying to have? In my experience in the State Department looking at State Department programs, but also U.N. and other programs, NATO and so on, how do you know something is actually working? It’s very difficult, of course, to prove a negative. If you give people training on border security and they never find any terrorists coming into the country, is that because the terrorists aren’t trying to come in, or because [the border guards are] so good—who knows?

So we need to be able to have some sense of [how] what we’re doing is having an impact. One of the things that we’ve pushed really hard for here in my time is to move away from two different things: one was a New York-centric model where people were based here in New York and would fly overseas, conduct some training, and fly back. And who knew what happened after that. Then people started saying, “Well, we need to track that in some way, so we’ll do surveys of people before and after the training to see if they actually found it useful.” But you don’t really know how sustainable that is, which is one of the reasons why we want to have these program offices in other parts of the world, to be closer to and have a more sustained engagement for less money and so on.

But what I’ve been really pushing for here is a sense of what I call graduation from capacity building. We should be able to impart training to people on whatever it is we’re trying to do to the point where they can carry it on themselves afterwards. And that implies that a country adopts its own national systems for doing that. They have to have the personnel systems in place. They have to have the development of staff and training in place for long-term replication of something or {a} train-the-trainers program. There will be many countries that are resource-strapped and may not be able to do that at a national level, to have a very specialized course on counterterrorism law enforcement investigations, for example. But that’s why we’re setting up a training center in Rabat,e to help countries in West Africa that just don’t have the resources or the population density to have that level of specialization. We’re building up [the Rabat] regional center to do that, where we either bring them to train the trainers or they can have both introductory and then advanced level training later on as people progress in their careers. So I really want to push to get a sense that people are graduating; they’re moving up and taking over for themselves. They can do it on their own or in conjunction with other countries.

The thing, of course, is to find better ways of measuring whether or not what we’ve taught them is actually having any impact. I prefer programs like the Countering Terrorist Travel Programme because as countries come online with those systems, you can actually generate data—like how many people did you screen, and out of those, how many were on a terrorist watchlist or an INTERPOL alert? We’ll be able to see that, and then we’ll be able to calibrate. So that kind of stuff is very useful, and I push hard to configure programs along those lines. And then, we work in parts of the world where countries are tempted to behave in ways that are not actually very helpful in terms of effective counterterrorism. Or they’re desperate, and they’re just lashing out, they don’t know what to do. [I’m referring to] these large sweep operations [in which] they round up all the civilians, they harass them, maybe they kill a few of them, and now you’ve just made the problem worse. So we also focus quite heavily on the human rights aspect, and by human rights, I mean real basic stuff, like observe due process and don’t conduct extrajudicial killings. That’s why we build in safeguards to our programs. If we have to, we will stop engagements if we are unable to keep things moving in the right direction or stop bad things from happening.

Increasingly, we also focus on the gender aspects of all the programming, which is very easy for, at least people of my generation, to kind of sneer at, like “oh, gender.” But it’s actually really interesting when you start delving into it. You look at the way ISIL has used women as recruiters and financiers. I can remember reading Frantz Fanon’s book about Algeria1 and how the Algerians, during the Algerian War for independence, were using women in specific ways in order to take advantage of gender blinders. ISIL has been doing the same thing. Even now, when we’re looking at neo-Nazi and other groups that are tipping towards more violence and possibly internationally coordinating their activities, the role that women play in those groups is noteworthy.f These groups are aware of the role they can play, and they’re taking advantage of it.

I’ll give you an example of where [focusing on gender aspects] can be really interesting. As part of the CT Travel Program, we have helped countries set up what are called passenger information units—basically the analytical unit that is looking at all the advanced passenger information, passenger name record data—but they’re also developing the algorithms that tell the data systems what to look for, like people between age 20 and 25 traveling from Mogadishu to Nairobi and then on to Frankfurt, if that happens to be a travel pattern of interest. But when you add women into that mix, you start to get a different perspective and you can pick up different things that you may have been missing all along. So it’s to everyone’s advantage to focus on that. I think the term gender turns some practitioners off. They’re not thinking about what that means, and that’s the failure of us—us collectively, not just the U.N.—of explaining it in a way that gives you that ‘aha’ moment, with someone pointing [out], like “oh, that’s why it matters. Yeah, I really want to know that. That’s really interesting information.”

So we’re taking this very broad approach to stuff to make it relevant, keeping up with what’s actually going on, trying to have maximum impact, and trying to make it sustainable. We don’t actually have that much money that we get here from donor countries to effect these programs. We typically spend about $35 million a year in capacity building. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to just the [U.S. State Department] Counterterrorism Bureau that I came from. So we have to be very, very judicious about where we apply our resources to have the maximum impact. I think we really are getting much, much better at that and have been thinking about that for a while. And we’ve had some really great cooperation and assistance from the European Union [which] is doing a lot of work in monitoring and evaluation work. We’ve had a number of workshops with them to really hone our skills and share good practices on that. It’s a lot of additional paperwork, the programming log frames and stuff that go with that are massive, time consuming, but I think we’re working towards much better outcomes as a result.

CTC: The COVID-19 pandemic has renewed concern about bioterror. In the August 2020 issue of CTC Sentinel, West Point scientists assessed that advances in synthetic biology and widening access to the technologies involved is “leading to a revolution in science affecting the threat landscape that can be rivaled only by the development of the atomic bomb.”2 Synthetic biology is obviously a great force for good, but as the 2018 U.S. National Strategy for Countering WMD Terrorism noted, “advances in biotechnology could theoretically allow even a single individual working in a laboratory to engineer pathogens that could have catastrophic effects.”3 The U.N. states that UNCCT (the U.N. Counter-Terrorism Centre, one of the five organizational units of UNOCT) and other parts of the United Nations “are working together to understand the risks posed by new technologies for misuse in chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear terrorism as well as the scientific and technological solutions that Member States could use to address these threats.”4 And the UNOCT website contains a video that warns of “viruses that, in the wrong hands, could be manipulated to unleash the next global pandemic. Only this time, it would be worse than anything we’ve ever seen before.”5 What is your office doing to create a global effort to prevent, but also to mitigate a potential future engineered pandemic?

Gregorian: It’s potentially very scary. Potentially. But it’s been almost 20 years since U.S. and allied forces went into Afghanistan and found al-Qa`ida laboratories where they were experimenting with ricin. And we’ve seen [other] people dabbling with ricin. I mean, ricin is kind of low tech and could be potentially very serious. And there have been foiled plots of people [trying] to do that. So it doesn’t take a big leap of imagination to think that they’re going to keep trying to do that. What you described is pretty close to where we assess the situation to be. I personally wouldn’t assign a probability to it happening, but it’s so high-risk if it does, we have to be prepared to deal with it.

Synthetic biology, DNA splicers, and stuff like that, is it realistic or is it a higher threat that a terrorist group will develop its own capability to exploit that? Or is it more likely that an insider threat in a laboratory will be the more likely vector for terrorists to gain access to that? Could be both. I’m not as conversant with the development in the technology to really weigh in on that, but on the flip side of all this, all this technology—artificial intelligence and so on—also can help the good guys in terms of detecting people. Blockchain technologyg sounds like it’s impenetrable, but in fact, it has many advantages in terms of audit trails and stuff like that can be used for good as well, depending on how the regulatory landscape plays out over the next few years. So it’s a mixed bag like everything else, but the stakes are so much higher, of course, if someone gets ahold of [and can produce and weaponize highly lethal biological material]. On the other hand, you look at fears that we had about nuclear terrorism going back to the breakup of the Soviet Union. And that’s what, 30 years now? There were all the red mercury scares6 and stuff like that. But in terms of real, honest-to-goodness, like a warhead being stolen or something like that, I’m not aware of anything like that, which suggests a lot of the measures we’ve put in place as an international community, as Member States have actually worked. Now, we should absolutely not be complacent about that because the bad guys are always going to be looking for vulnerabilities to exploit. This is a long way of saying, yes, it’s a problem; we’re not really sure exactly how much of a problem, but we may have some time here to shore up the defenses in terms of infrastructure protection, detection of terrorists, and also the control of some of these technologies as they become more widespread.

CTC: One of the pilot studies run by UNCCT’s Programme on Preventing and Responding to WMD/CBRN was a project slated to run from March 2019 to October 2020, which focused on “enhancing knowledge about advances in science and technology to combat WMD terrorism” and analyzing how “advances in science and technology could augment or enhance terrorist capabilities to acquire and/or deploy WMD.”7 To the degree you are able to publicly discuss it, what were the key takeaways?

Gregorian: The report that you mentioned is just in the final stages of validation and internal checks. There’s no surprises in it, in the sense that it says advances in technology [are] putting certain kinds of technology in the reach of a lot more people that in the past, they wouldn’t have had, including terrorists, and the threshold of knowledge and education and wherewithal to be able to abuse that is therefore consequently dropping, too, which would suggest that the threat of someone using it for terrorist purposes may go up in all kinds of areas—everything from use of drones and attaching devices to them; we’ve already seen that in Iraq and Syria where ISIL had tried to put on some chemical weapons, small stuff attached to a drone, but even so, it’s going to continue to evolve along those lines.

The pilot study is being done together with UNICRI [United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute]. Now, we do have a related program that does capacity building on protection of critical infrastructure. So there’s an overlap between that program that protects vulnerable targets, like soft targets, as well as critical infrastructure. And this study will help inform that work going forward, so that if there are obvious observations or recommendations [that] come out, we’ll adjust the programming to take that into consideration.

CTC: There’s been a variety of reporting about the U.N. Trust Fund for Counter-Terrorism and the U.N.’s efforts to diversify funding for the trust fund. According to UNOCT’s published materials, donations provided by Saudi Arabia, including $100,000,000 in support offered in 2014, accounted for 78 percent of contributions provided to the U.N. Trust Fund for Counter-Terrorism since it was created.8 What is UNOCT doing to encourage and incentivize other nations to make contributions as generous as the support Saudi Arabia has provided?

Gregorian: We are encouraging and incentivizing other states to donate. The numbers are all trending in the right way, and first of all, I want to say the Saudis are big supporters of diversification, too. They don’t want to be the only contributor to the U.N. Counter-Terrorism Centre, which was the original beneficiary of their considerable contribution. It’s clear that the creation of UNOCT has helped attract donations from a much wider donor base. So even the figure you cited of 78 percent, it’s now down to I think 71 percent because we continue to get more donations, and that’s also a vote of confidence in the quality of the programming we have. Success breeds success, and if people see that this stuff is actually having an effect, they want to get on board, they want to fund a winner, and so we’re attracting more donors. We’re developing a resource mobilization strategy that will be much more focused and should increase the percentage provided by other donors by quite a lot. Yeah, there has been some stuff written in the press, and I, frankly, having worked here now for 18-20 months, people suppose a lot of stuff about this funding, but they haven’t asked me, because I can tell them what goes on here. You know, there was someone who wrote an article, and they clearly had a particular angle they were pursuing, and I offered myself up for an interview. I gave them all the hard data, and they chose not to print any of it.

The fact of the matter is the funds from the Saudis went into a trust fund, which has other donors to it, and those funds are used to pay for these global programs, which have benefited people from over 175 countries. At no point have the Saudis ever told us which programs, in which countries, or which people. They’re not involved in the design of the programs. They don’t ask to be involved. I chair something called the Programme Review Board that reviews all the programs for everything from human rights compliance to “is it in accordance with our strategy, and are we going to get a useful output or outcome from this?” At no point are they involved in any of that. The Saudi Ambassador [serves as the] Chair [of] an advisory board to UNOCT’s UNCCT that is made up of 21 countries, including the permanent five members of the Security Council. And it’s just that: it’s advisory, at really the strategic level. I think the first time they ever got briefed on a specific program was the last meeting we had, late last year, which was my suggestion. Like “let’s brief them on one of these programs so they can see what we’re doing with the money.” So it’s a hands-off contribution. It’s not earmarked, and we’ve been able to use it for the purposes of the United Nations. It’s controlled by us and decided by our under-secretary-general. I’m surprised the Saudis—or any country, frankly—would give a contribution like that with so little in the way of earmarks. But they have.

UNOCT’s other major contributor is the State of Qatar, generously giving us about $15 million a year over five years. And that’s really interesting because, again, they specified certain areas in which to fund it, but they’re very general, like for coordination of U.N. activities and supporting victims of terrorism, and that’s kind of the extent of it. By the way, they also give additional funds for specific programs, as do many other donors.

But the irony is—and what we’re struggling with right now in the General Assembly—there’s a proposal in this year’s resolution that Member States endorse giving us a share of the regular budget of the United Nations, by which is meant the budget that comes from the assessed dues of all Member States. So think about the numbers I mentioned to you: 175 countries have benefited from the work we do, but there are two countries that pay for most of UNOCT’s staff—Qatar and Saudi Arabia—and Qatar’s contribution to the trust fund is used for these coordination purposes and for staff and stuff like that, but it’s going to run out in about two and a half years. Then what? Why is it fair that all these countries get to benefit from UNOCT and Qatar is carrying the burden for that? That is why it’s been proposed that we put staff working on the core functions of UNOCT on the regular budget instead of being dependent on the benevolence of two states. That’s just not sustainable. It’s not responsible either, and it’s not fair. So I think it would help spread the burden and make everyone’s programming dollars go further if we have the core functions put on the regular budget. The programming activity, the capacity building will continue to be done by donors who want to contribute to a particular type of program. But even there, we don’t get told how to do something. If someone wants to fund an activity in Burkina Faso and they’re willing to give you funds, we’ll say, “well, we have a program for that. You can contribute to it.”

CTC: Turning to human rights, there’s long been concern about the potential of counterterrorism to infringe human rights, concerns that human rights violations complicate counterterrorism capacity building in certain parts of the world. What have been the challenges for the U.N. in this area, and how important do you see it to hardwire human rights protections into capacity building?

Gregorian: First of all, I like to go back to basics here at the U.N. The U.N. Charter [is] pretty explicit about human rights, and then there’s the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and so on, which most of the countries we deal with are signatories to. But it’s amazing how forgetful they are about [what] they signed on to. Things like gender equality, it’s built right into [the U.N. Charter], you can’t miss it. It’s like missing “We the people” in the [U.S.] Constitution. It says men and women are equal. Same thing on human rights. Even so, there is a problem with a trend around the world of illiberal democracies and increasing authoritarianism, even before the pandemic but especially since the pandemic. We’ve seen a number of countries either expand the remit of their counterterrorism legislation or exploit it in a way that is used to repress political dissent. That is troubling.

There has been, I think, a specious and somewhat tendentious argument made that somehow the creation of the U.N. Office of Counter-Terrorism has contributed to all this. I’m not sure what the data is, if any, upon which people make such claims, because these trends were in place before this office was created, and we are obliged as a United Nations entity to uphold and preserve human rights and promote them. All of our programming has to have a human rights component to it and a risk matrix and stuff associated with it. We follow the dictum of ‘first, do no harm.’ We’re not going to want to operate in a place where we think we’re somehow contributing to a problem. And we have fail-safes; we will stop programs if we see abuses going on that we can’t stop. On the other hand, we are a Member State organization. We have 193 shareholders called the Member States, but if we’re not in a place [to help] with human rights in a country, then who is? There are not many countries that can do what we do.

Our biggest challenge to mainstreaming human rights into our programming has been funding, because we’re not on the regular budget. I don’t have funding for staff positions for human rights officers. So I’ve had to scrape money off of other things in order to fund two temporary positions. And yet, we have a number of Member States who are very vocal about human rights and the need to mainstream human rights, but then we get no funding for it. So I hope if nothing else that the biennial counterterrorism resolution currently being negotiated by the General Assembly will at least fund a couple of human rights positions, which will allow us to then develop a more robust program. But in the first instance, we need to be able to make sure we are fully implementing the U.N.’s human rights and due diligence policy, which is sort of like some of the legislation the U.S. has in terms of the Leahy Amendmenth and so on. These are common sense provisions, that you’re not going to contribute to the abuse of human rights or the violation of human rights, and [it] governs who we can work with and how. But it’s a challenge when you don’t have adequate resources to do it. It’s super important to us, and so we try to find creative ways to address it.

We have very good relations with the Special Rapporteur for countering terrorism while maintaining human rights, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin.i We need to maintain a focus on this and not let people avoid the spotlight. But we do get put into some uncomfortable positions. And then one last thing to note, we see victims of terrorism as a critical human rights issue, and we have a very robust program on that. We’re a leader on that in the world, at the international level, and promoting the human rights of victims of terrorism at all stages. That’s a big component of some of the human rights work we do.

CTC: Human rights protections are an absolutely vital end in and of themselves, but they also mean that you can improve CT because you can bolster the ability of different countries to cooperate more comfortably in the counterterrorism sphere if those human rights protections are becoming more widespread, right?

Gregorian: You put your finger on something that I’m struggling with: how to do that. We’ve looked at a couple different proposals to have a human rights program, as opposed to just including human rights in our programming. And I think it’s super important, so I don’t accept ideas that just say, “Oh, we need to have a series of workshops around the world or seminars to train people on human rights or make them aware of it.” These are obligations [the Member States] have. I think part of the dialogue about human rights has gotten off track in the sense that some people here, in the same way I mentioned about gender, they hear the word gender, and they’re instantly in a different place, and they’re not listening. Same thing on human rights. “Human rights, you just want to tie our hands in terms of how we do stuff.” How about if I explained to you which human rights I’m talking to you about and why if you don’t observe them, you’re going to make the situation worse and you’re going to get your troops and law enforcement officers killed as a result of that? Now that’s a different discussion.

It’s the same thing with how we refer to certain bodies of international law. There’s a very interesting dialogue I’ve just had with our Office of Legal Affairs here. My question to them was, is international humanitarian law the same thing as the law of armed conflict? Short answer—my answer, not their answer—is “Yeah, they’re pretty much the same thing.” There’s an overlap with issues about neutrality at the international level, which is [a] separate body of law, but essentially the law of armed conflict is international humanitarian law. So depending on who you’re talking to, if you talk to them about the law of armed conflict, they get that “Oh yeah, you’re not supposed to shell mosques or churches, right? Unless they’re being used for military purposes.” “Yeah, that’s what we’re talking about.” Then it’s a different discussion, and so I think we need to meet the practitioners at their level of understanding and use their vocabulary so we get past the stereotypes or false assumptions people have about terms like human rights and international humanitarian law. That makes for a much more interesting dialogue, and then people get it. Pertinent here is a study the UNDP [United Nations Development Programme] did on the journey to extremism in Africa. According to their dataset, 70 percent of people who took the final step to violence from being radicalized or disaffected cited the behavior or the actions of government security forces as the thing that tipped them over. They saw what they did either to themselves or to a family member, a friend, and they decided, “that’s enough.”j If you present that kind of information to practitioners, they’re like, “Oh, maybe we shouldn’t do that.” So I’m kind of busting at the seams to try to figure out how to make that conversation universal and to get people to have a common vocabulary on these things, and then we’re in different territory and we can do a lot more on that subject. Incredibly important stuff.

CTC: It certainly seems like you are on to something in framing it in terms that are more familiar to the practitioner community, to the operational community in ways that overlap with their equities, in ways that they think about issues that really matter to them. Things like close air support or precision strike activity packaged around the limiting of civilian casualties also are about avoiding handing terrorist groups recruitment opportunities.

Gregorian: I was part of this discussion in the State Department as acting deputy coordinator that first year of the Trump administration when they revised the guidelines for strikes, and it was very much along those kinds of issues: what is the most effective balance between being able to carry out a strike and not creating consequences that make the problem worse? And finding that balance is hard, but I think it was done. Now, that’s on paper; execution is a different matter. But that’s the kind of thing that if we can bring that level of explanation, understanding, description to operators and policymakers, then we can have a useful conversation about it. We can demonstrate with data why it’s better to do it this way rather than that way.

CTC: The type of terrorism the international community has focused on most in the last 20 years has obviously been jihadi terrorism, the Islamic State and al-Qa`ida and their sympathizers. But there is now concern that not only is the threat from far-right terrorism growing in some countries, but it is also becoming increasingly internationally interconnected. Under current U.N. resolutions, to what degree is the U.N. able to engage in this area? And in your view, what sort of thinking needs to be done within the United Nations so that it is best positioned to counter and prevent far-right terrorism if international concern continues to grow in this area?

Gregorian: Great question. It’s super topical. It’s being debated right now in terms of the resolution for the Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy review. We’ve been sensitive to and tracking this issue for a couple of years here. In fact, when I when I first arrived in September of 2019, it was the week before high-level week was starting and I remember predicting to Mr. [Vladimir] Voronkov [UNOCT Under-Secretary-General], “You’re going to see a lot of talk about so-called right-wing terrorism”—because you know there’s a big issue about the nomenclature—because we just had the El Paso shooting, the Dayton shooting, and so on. It turned out to be the dog that didn’t bark; no one mentioned it. I was blown away. Not even the U.S., which in the 2018 U.S. national counterterrorism strategy, had emphasized for the first time [in such a strategy document] this kind of terrorism.k The only person who raised it with us was the Mexican foreign minister who came in to see Mr. Voronkov and said, “An act of terror was committed against our citizens in Texas.” But we had to make clear to the foreign minister that there were limits in what we could do. This gets to your issue about the mandate. The U.N. Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy and the majority of the Security Council resolutions that deal with counterterrorism as a single subject always refer to terrorism in all its forms and manifestations. So in a purely legal, technical sense, we can do work in this area. The challenge is that in the absence of a clear demand signal from a preponderance or the majority of Member States, what exactly we can do in that area is limited, and in the case of UNOCT specifically, we’re reliant on extra budgetary funds from donors to be able to do projects. So far, no one has come to us to say, “We want to give you some money to work on this issue.” But I’ve been working in multilateral affairs long enough to know that there’s a coalescing process that goes on, and a lot of that starts with debating, talking, scoping the problem, understanding the problem, and then it gets to the point where there’s enough of a consensus or center of gravity on something that then stuff can start happening at the U.N. level.

But we’ve been leaning forward in the saddle on all this stuff. We’ve done some work within the U.N. and the Global CT Compact Working Group on PCVE [preventing and countering violent extremism conducive to terrorism], for example; we’ve done some studies on the nature of the problem, what’s feeding it, what are its characteristics, in anticipation of being asked to do something on this. [The] Secretary-General feels pretty strongly about it. He mentioned it in a speech earlier this year,9 where he referred to neo-Nazis, white supremacist, and other hate groups that use terrorism.

Furthermore, it’s worth reflecting about the origins of the United Nations as a group of allies fighting Nazis; it’s like we’re kind of back in our original business, right? We ought to be doing this. We have a legal basis to do it. It would be nice to have a clear political signal to do it. I think we’ll get it. And I think we’ll get it because the countries that are most afflicted with it right now are ones that are also very interested in doing something about it: Australia, United States, Canada, U.K., Germany, Norway. These countries that have been most affected by it are the ones that are also willing to do something about it and drive the conversation at the level of the U.N. I would expect a number of Islamic countries to also support it because they expressed concern in the heyday of ISIL that terrorism can’t just seem to be about Islam—and U.N. documents are very clear about that, too; we refuse to accept terrorist claims to represent any religious community—and this kind of proves [Islamic countries’] point. Like “Hey, it’s not just us, right? You guys have a problem, too.” So I think there’s some common ground to be found there in the negotiations on this point.

If Member States can agree on the terminology for these groups and individuals, many of whose ideas are a mish-mash of far-right and far-left ideologies, then we anticipate some kind of signal from the General Assembly saying, “this is an issue we want you to look at.” And then I think donor funds will come to us because we can design programs to address it. In my view, we already have tools through these global programs that can be tweaked to address this problem—strategic communications, for example; countering the financing of terrorism; the countering terrorism travel program, the system that puts someone on a watchlist, is already in place. What would be new, I think, is an effort by whatever parts of the U.N. might be able to take it on to address the transnational aspects of these groups.

My memory of looking at the far-right terror problem set when I was in the State Department CT Bureau before coming to the U.N. was we actually back then—this is like two years ago—didn’t know a lot about it because we weren’t collecting on it. So people are saying, “Oh, we don’t have any data on it;” we don’t have data because we’re not collecting any. Now it’s all shifting. And we’re beginning to understand, and the U.N. is beginning to have a better understanding of what’s involved. For example, the role that online gaming plays in recruitment and messaging and communications by so-called far-right groups, it’s massive. It’s bigger than social media, right? Because the industry’s bigger than film and music together put together; it’s huge. So we need better understanding of that. But then we need to do something about it, and I think it’s those transnational aspects, if you’re thinking of the United Nations, that’s probably where our comparative advantage is going to be biggest. I don’t know if the Security Council will ever do something about it or if they would ever design a sanctions regime or a travel ban regime or something—it strikes me as a bit of a way off—but that could be a natural consequence of what you do once you learn more about the transnational linkages.

CTC: As you look forward, are there other areas that you’re concerned about and also that UNOCT is considering as future areas of emphasis?

Gregorian: I think we’ve kind of covered them because I’m really thinking about now to five years from now, but there are broader trends at work in society around the world. Pressures caused by climate change and irregular migration flows that come about as a consequence of that may generate modern versions of Luddites who are concerned about technology, such as we’ve seen with those who attack 5G infrastructure. Could we see popular reactions to the use of facial recognition technology? Might those with grievances created by the kind of pressures I’ve just discussed use terrorist tactics in order to achieve their political goals? Could be. The fraying of the social contract in many countries around the world and the pressures on democracy to adapt and deliver for people, I think these are long-term trends that I dare not predict what the consequences might be, and they go far beyond the issue of terrorism given their potential to generate political conflict and the violence that might flow from that, but the world is constantly changing. We may find new cheaper sources of energy that don’t pollute, and then it can lead to a new technological revolution and growth and lift people out of poverty.

As we talked before about technology, there could be new health technologies that cure all kinds of medical problems, and food production goes up, hunger goes down. There’s a lot of good things that can also happen. But the tensions along those fault lines as they happen can lead to political violence. What I still see in Africa and what concerns me is that the trajectory of groups that use terrorism there, insurgent groups that use terrorism are on the advance, and there doesn’t seem to be an effective response to them yet. We can provide certain kinds of capacity building, but the problems are strategic in Nigeria. In Mozambique, the government has to figure out how they want to tackle this problem and what kind of assistance, if any, they want in doing it. But until they do, there’s going to continue to be a problem. You couple that with climate change and irregular migration and poverty, and it’s a witch’s brew. But they have to be tackled ensemble. It can’t be dealt with in isolation. We had one meeting on the Sahel, for example, where I mentioned that there are over 23 strategies for solving the problems of the Sahel. OK, well, none of them seem to have worked so far, so how are we going to address that? How are we going to solve that problem? It can help by first stabilizing Libya, but these are long-term problems and we’re not going to solve them instantly. And terrorism is, in that case, more of a symptom than it is a cause. So I can’t really see beyond five years, but what I know for sure is terrorists will continue to adapt and evolve and exploit openings that they get. The question is whether or not we can reduce popular support for them and get them back to where they were in the ‘60s and ‘70s, usually a handful of whack jobs that are really fringe political ideologies that don’t have popular support, and then they’re much more easily dealt with. But right now, we still have these huge insurgencies that use terror techniques, and that requires a different kind of response.

CTC: Is there anything more you want to add that you haven’t had a chance to speak to so far?

Gregorian: I would just, maybe on a closing point, say as an American who worked for the U.S. government and the military, I hope that your American readers understand and view the United Nations as a great asset for the United States. I could go into great length about why, but it is a huge, massive return on investment—both in soft and hard power. I came here because I believe in that. I’ve spent the bulk of my life serving the United States, but I have always believed in the United Nations and what it can do and what it represents, and how the values of the U.N. Charter track so closely with U.S. values.     CTC

Editors Note: On June 30, 2021, the United Nations General Assembly adopted resolution 75/291 for the seventh review of the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy. According to a press release by the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism, the resolution “notably calls on Member States to take appropriate measures to address the rise in terrorist attacks on the basis of xenophobia, racism and other forms of intolerance, or in the name of religion or belief. It further stresses the need to prevent and counter terrorists’ use of information and communications technologies and other new and emerging technologies … [and] calls for increased attention and action to ensure that all counter-terrorism measures, including those using new technologies, comply with the rule of law and international law, including international human rights law, international humanitarian law and international refugee law.” The press release adds that “Recalling, the need to ensure that the Office of Counter-Terrorism is provided with adequate capacity and other resources for the implementation of its mandate, the General Assembly invited the Secretary-General to assess the financing of the Office, which receives 97 percent of its resources from Member State voluntary contributions, and to provide budgetary recommendations, if necessary, in 2022.” For further details, see “Seventh review of the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy,” press release by the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism, June 30, 2021.

Substantive Notes
[a] Editor’s Note: The Baader-Meinhof Gang (also known as the Red Army Faction) carried out a campaign of terrorist violence in West Germany in the 1970s. For more, see “Who were the Baader-Meinhof gang?” BBC, February 12, 2007.

[b] Editor’s Note: November 17 was an extreme far-left Greek terrorist group that “killed the CIA Athens station chief, Richard Welch, in 1975, and over the next three decades claimed responsibility for 23 murders in attacks on US, British, Turkish and Greek targets.” In 2015, the U.S. State Department assessed that the group no longer posed an active threat. “Greek leftist group November 17 removed from US terror list,” AFP via Guardian, September 4, 2015.

[c] Editor’s Note: Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter outlines “action with respect to threats to the peace, breaches of the peace, and acts of aggression.” See “United Nations Charter, Chapter VII,” United Nations website.

[d] Editor’s Note: “The United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Coordination Compact is the largest coordination framework across the three pillars of work of the United Nations: peace and security, sustainable development, human rights and humanitarian affairs. It aims to strengthen a common UN action approach to support Member States, at their request, in the balanced implementation of the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy and other relevant United Nations resolutions and mandates.” “UN Global Counter-Terrorism Coordination Compact,” United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism website.

[e] Editor’s Note: In October 2020, UNOCT and Morocco reached an agreement on the establishment of a UNOCT program office in the Moroccan capital of Rabat to build counterterrorism capabilities in Africa. “UNOCT and the Kingdom of Morocco conclude Agreement on the establishment of a UNOCT Programme Office in Rabat to build counterterrorism capacities and cooperation in Africa,” press release by the Kingdom of Morocco and UNOCT, October 6, 2020.

[f] Editor’s Note: For more on the role of women in extreme far-right groups, see Audrey Alexander ed., How Women Advance the Internationalization of the Far Right (Washington, D.C.: Program on Extremism at George Washington University, 2019); Kristy Campion, “Women in the Extreme and Radical Right: Forms of Participation and Their Implications,” Soc. Sci. 9:9 (2020): p. 149; and Julia Santucci, Regina Waugh, and Hallie Schneir, “Gender and Right-Wing Extremism in America: Why Understanding Women’s Roles is Key to Preventing Future Acts of Domestic Terrorism,” Just Security, March 5, 2021.

[g] Editor’s Note: “Blockchain is a shared, immutable ledger that facilitates the process of recording transactions and tracking assets in a business network.” Bitcoin, for example, “uses blockchain technology as its transaction ledger.” For more, see “What is blockchain technology?” IBM website.

[h] Editor’s Note: The term Leahy Amendment (also referred to as the Leahy Law) “refers to two statutory provisions prohibiting the U.S. Government from using funds for assistance to units of foreign security forces where there is credible information implicating that unit in the commission of gross violations of human rights.” “About the Leahy Law, Fact Sheet,” U.S. State Department Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, January 20, 2021.

[i] Editor’s Note: “The Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism is an independent expert appointed by the UN Human Rights Council.” United Nations Human Rights, Office of the High Commissioner website.

[j] Editor’s Note: According to the UNDP report, “The idea of a ‘transformative trigger’ that pushes individuals decisively from the ‘at-risk’ category to actually taking the step of joining is substantiated by the Journey to Extremism dataset. Among the voluntary group respondents, 71 percent pointed to ‘government action’, including ‘killing of a family member or friend’ or ‘arrest of a family member or friend’, as the immediate incident that prompted them to join. The fact that the conduct of state security actors can serve as an accelerator of recruitment to this extent throws the urgency of the question of how CT and wider security functions of governments in at-risk environments conduct themselves with regard to human rights and due process into stark relief.” “Journey to Extremism in Africa: Drivers, Incentives and the Tipping Point for Recruitment,” United Nations Development Programme, 2017, p. 80.

[k] Editor’s Note: The 2018 U.S. National Strategy for Counterterrorism stated: “The United States has long faced a persistent security threat from domestic terrorists who are not motivated by a radical Islamist ideology but are instead motivated by other forms of violent extremism, such as racially motivated extremism, animal rights extremism, environmental extremism, sovereign citizen extremism, and militia extremism.” “National Strategy for Counterterrorism of the United States of America,” October 2018, p. 10.

[1] Editor’s Note: Frantz Fanon, A Dying Colonialism (New York: Grove Press, 1993).

[2] J. Kenneth Wickiser, Kevin J. O’Donovan, Michael Washington, Stephen Hummel, and F. John Burpo, “Engineered Pathogens and Unnatural Biological Weapons: The Future Threat of Synthetic Biology,” CTC Sentinel 13:8 (2020).

[3] “U.S. National Strategy for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism,” December 2018, p. 1.

[4] See the video “Biological Threat – Misuse of Biotechnology” on the “Chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear terrorism” page of the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism website.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Editor’s Note: For more on the “red mercury scares,” see “‘Red mercury’: Why does this strange myth persist?” BBC, September 12, 2019.

[7] “Chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear terrorism,” United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism website.

[8] Editor’s Note: “2019-2020 UNOCT Consolidated Multi-Year Appeal,” United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism, pp. 8-9.

[9] Editor’s Note: See “White supremacy a ‘transnational threat’, U.N. chief warns,” Reuters, February 22, 2021.

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