The hearings of the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks focused national attention on the need to repair and strengthen our internal defenses against al Qaeda and terrorism. They underscored the importance of information sharing among government agencies. They even suggested that such information sharing might have thwarted the attackers. This same theme now needs to be examined on an international level.
We have been spared from new attacks at home since Sept. 11, 2001, but as Americans we remain vulnerable here and across the world. We can never be safe, so long as al Qaeda cells can recruit, plan or move freely. During my work as one of five international monitors overseeing the implementation of the U.N. Security Council measures against al Qaeda, I was dismayed by the absence of any systematic information sharing between countries facing the threat of al Qaeda. I heard numerous complaints from government officials and investigators that I spoke with in several countries that they were simply unable to obtain information they needed from other governments. The information they did receive was often so censored as to be unusable. It seemed to go beyond the understandable reluctance countries have to providing operationally sensitive information. The United States and European Union countries were often cited as the culprits. This lacuna has made it more difficult to trace and stop al Qaeda attacks. It may also result in several key investigations, including those underway against known al Qaeda financiers such as Youssef Nada and Ahmed Idris Nasreddin, being shelved.
Our monitoring group presented these concerns in several of our reports to the Security Council. We emphasized that enhanced cooperative efforts and information sharing were critical to identifying and stopping al Qaeda, and cutting off its funding and access to arms and explosives. Current international cooperation against terrorism is founded on a series of international obligations, regional agreements and bilateral arrangements. U.N. Security Council Resolutions 1373 (2001) and 1526 (2004) provide important pillars for this effort. The former directs that all countries afford one another the "greatest measure of assistance" in tracing terrorists and investigating terrorist acts. It also calls on all countries to "find ways of intensifying and accelerating the exchange of operational information." The resolution also established a special counterterrorism committee charged with enhancing international cooperative efforts to deal with terrorism. But it has not yet provided an effective platform for such cooperation.
Resolution 1526 (2004) also calls on all countries to identify al Qaeda members and associated organizations and to provide appropriate information concerning their names and activities to the Security Council's al Qaeda and Taliban sanctions committee so that they might be included in the committee's list of al Qaeda members and associates. This list now includes only 166 al Qaeda members and 105 associated entities, a small segment of the al Qaeda network. This list is critical, for listing is required before the Resolution 1526 obligations to freeze assets, curtail movement or prevent access to explosives even come into play. So what about most al Qaeda members, who are not included on this U.N. list? Many of them, although known in some countries, remain anonymous in others and relatively free to roam and support al Qaeda activities.
When the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 1526 on Jan. 30 it sought to enhance international efforts against al Qaeda and to strengthen the role of its al Qaeda and Taliban sanctions committee. The committee was empowered to oversee the actions all countries are taking to deal with al Qaeda. The Security Council also acted to reinvigorate the activities of its counterterrorism committee.
A recruitment effort is underway at the United Nations to put together a new international staff to assist member countries in strengthening their counterterrorism programs and to facilitate international cooperation. The 15 members of the Security Council must set the example by demonstrating their own participation in such new cooperative arrangements. This means a willingness to share information, to offer investigative support, and to provide technical and financial assistance to countries willing to play their role but lacking the resources to do so.
After the Madrid bombings, the European Union took an important, if limited, first step to upgrade cooperation between its member countries in dealing with al Qaeda and terrorism. It appointed a new counterterrorism chief, Gijs de Vries, to oversee internal EU commission coordination as well as intelligence sharing between security services and police forces of the various EU member countries. Other regional groups in the Pacific and Southeast Asia have pledged similar internal cooperation. But none of these schemes is bold or broad enough to deal effectively with the international scope of al Qaeda operations.
While the United Nations must continue to provide the broad international authority on which steps are taken internationally to close down al Qaeda, U.N. committees are not suited to coordinating these operational aspects in the war on terrorism. The establishment of a new, more formal international arrangement for coordinating information collection and exchange is needed. Such a group would be empowered to maintain an international database on identified al Qaeda members and those providing it with material financial or logistical support. It could also usefully record and maintain information related to suspicious financial transactions, hawala and other informal transfer arrangements, suspicious shell companies, and the bona fides of international charities. Membership in the arrangement should be based on a clear commitment to carry out international obligations in the war on terrorism.
The writer, a former member of the U.N. al Qaeda monitoring group, is an attorney and consultant on terrorism financing.