UNODC in the Middle East: Partners against terrorism

Khaled Al-Ghamry, Thursday 15 Jul 2021

Former Egyptian judge and regional representative of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime for the Gulf region Hatem Aly tells Al-Ahram Weekly about his office’s role in combating crime and terrorism

Partners against terrorism

What is the role of UNODC in combating terrorism in the Middle East and the Gulf?

As the custodian of international norms and standards on crime prevention, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) works on a wide range of issues to help member states at large and particularly those in areas like the Middle East and the Gulf to improve their legal, regulatory, and institutional frameworks to prevent crime.

Terrorism prevention is also high on the priority list of the UNODC. We start by helping member states to develop and enhance existing legal and regulatory frameworks to comply with resolutions coming out of the UN Security Council in addition to the relevant treaties and conventions covering terrorism and its financing.

Thus, we work with countries to ensure that their domestic legal system recognise the major offences of terrorism and embed all the needed legal instruments to detect, prevent, and stop terrorism at the national, regional, and international levels. The second level we work on is helping countries to establish an appropriate, and to enhance the existing, institutional framework in their main law-enforcement and criminal justice bodies such as the police, the security services, the prosecution service, and the judiciary to ensure the active and effective detection, investigation, interrogation, and prosecution of terrorism cases in their jurisdictions.

The third level is building countries’ capacities to prevent the violent extremism and fundamentalism that leads to terrorist acts. In addition, we help countries put together methods to enhance public awareness with regards to terrorism.

Helping member states to build the needed national, regional, and international partnerships to help them face the threats of terrorism is particularly important. For example, on the national level, we support the establishment of national commissions and committees including all stakeholders, starting with the government and civil society such as NGOs, because terrorism prevention is a very complex exercise that needs the collaboration of the whole of society.

This is the reason why we also work with all national committees on countering terrorism in most member states, of course the Middle East and the Gulf included.


In light of the expansion of the use of social media and communication platforms, how does UNODC help in limiting the use of cyberspace and communication technology in terrorist operations?

A lot of efforts are being put in by UN member states, UNODC, as well as other UN entities, to prevent the use of the Internet for terrorism and crime.

In doing so, there are three different categories of prevention. First, we try to help member states in building the capacities of law enforcement to be able to detect and intercept the use of the Internet in committing crime at large and terrorist acts in particular, and of course we are also lean on partnerships with our agencies and international entities such as Interpol and Europol. As the regional representative of UNODC for the Gulf, I work very closely with GCCPOL, which is the entity that deals with criminal justice and law enforcement in the GCC countries.

The second category is the prevention of the use of Internet for recruitment by terrorist groups. With the technological revolution that we have seen in the whole world, and of course also in the Arab world and the GCC, terrorist groups have started targeting young people in particular and the users of social media platforms to try to inject their poisonous narratives and recruit more members to such groups.

We have seen hundreds of cases in many countries, Europe included, where youth in particular have been introduced to and recruited by terrorist groups over the Internet. As a result, they have in some cases travelled to join them in areas where such groups exist like Syria, Iraq, and Libya.

An important aspect of our task is working with religious institutions and establishments such as Al-Azhar in Egypt, the Bin Naif Society in Saudi Arabia, and Hedayah in the United Arab Emirates, to get the help of their scholars to counter the violent extremist narratives of the terrorist groups.


Do you have any agreements with communication service providers, usually foreign companies, to help in countering terrorism?

One of the main challenges that countries and the UN faces is the fact that most of the social media platforms are privately owned by global enterprises. However, when these have been approached, they have shown a full commitment and have engaged with us and UN member states to make sure that there are very strict measures that prevent the use of these social media platforms for the interest of the terrorist groups.

I would like to say that when such partnerships with the private sector came into force and the coordination actually started between member states and the service-providers, this helped very much in the war against terrorism worldwide.


Egypt has strategic relations and strong ties with the Gulf states. How have these been translated into joint efforts to combat terrorism and extremism?

Of course, it is not only the culture and traditions and the geographic space that link the Gulf countries with Egypt, but also the aspects and perspectives of national security and the common challenge of terrorism. Most of the coordination and cooperation we are doing with the Gulf countries is with the full participation of Egypt in the areas of countering terrorism, countering violent extremism, and more importantly in countering the financing of terrorism, because the financing of terrorism is actually the root cause for the existence of these groups.

There is a lot of cooperation between the Gulf countries and Egypt to share information, intelligence, and practices and experience in the area of countering terrorism and countering the financing of terrorism that is a challenge that is threatening the entire region.

Many Western countries are looking forward to working closely with such partnerships between the Gulf countries and Egypt, in order to benefit from the ability of the Gulf countries and Egypt and other Arab countries to use Muslim scholars to offer a moderate religious discourse to counter the narrative extremist groups may use to recruit new members.

Moreover, there are a lot of linkages and financial ties between the Gulf, Egypt, and Europe and the US, and that is why they seek to benefit from such solid partnership between the Gulf countries and Egypt in countering the financing of terrorism and working on the detection, interception, and prevention of money laundering and the illicit financial flows that are feeding terrorism not only in the region but also beyond.

One of the main manifestations of such partnership is the cooperation among the Gulf countries, Egypt, Morocco, Iraq, and Jordan to implement UN Security Council resolutions related to terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and the Islamic State group to detect and intercept the financing of such entities and individuals. The Gulf countries work very closely with Egypt and a number of Arab countries to ensure that they have a very advanced, progressive, yet harmonised, listing system that detects and dismantles such terrorist groups and dries out the financial means of financing them.

This has been very rewarding not only for the region, but also at the global and international levels as well, because it has revealed the involvement of certain entities and individuals in terrorist acts and in supporting terrorist groups, and it has helped in intercepting and drying up their financing sources.


In the light of the current tensions in the region, to what extent are you given powers to limit and investigate crimes related to terrorism, the Internet, and social media?

UNODC does not interfere directly with any ongoing investigations or interrogations, but rather puts countries in the best position to conduct the most effective investigations, detection, information, and evidence-gathering leading to interrogation and prosecutions. This takes place through helping them to develop and build capacities for law enforcement and to provide them with the best evidence-gathering techniques, like, for example, techniques to deal with cyber-crime, especially in relation to organised crime and terrorism.

We also help in building regional and international platforms for the coordination of criminal cases on organised crime and terrorism. For example, in the Gulf and through our work with the GCC Secretariat, we have been able to support the establishment of the GCCPOL, which is a platform that gathers law-enforcement and security agencies from all six Gulf countries to work on harmonising criminal intelligence. It also cooperates with its peers from international and regional platforms such as Interpol and Europol to make sure that global efforts on investigating, interrogating, and prosecuting such cases are done in coordination to achieve such objectives.

We are also working equally actively with global counter-terrorism and counter-organised crime programnes led by our headquarters in Vienna, while maintaining a fully collaborative partnership with our regional programme for the Arab states led by our regional office in Cairo.

Of the main challenges, one of the first is the nature of organised crime and terrorism. First, these have a changing nature, as they differ from one country to another depending on the goals of the criminals or terrorist groups. So, this crime is transnational, as it crosses the borders of the countries concerned and benefits from its existence in several countries to facilitate and implement criminal acts in other targeted countries.

That is why during intelligence-gathering and the detection and investigation of such crimes, the law-enforcement or the security agency of one country never has the full picture and the full information, because the information is scattered between several countries and several territories. Gathering this information requires a lot of coordination between law-enforcement and criminal-justice entities in other countries, and that is exactly the role of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in enhancing and triggering international cooperation in investigating and prosecuting organised crime and terrorism.


There are many facets of terrorism. Is the role of the United Nations limited to combating religious terrorism?

Terrorism is an act of terror that is committed for religious, political, or criminal reasons by a group of any origin that is seeking to terrify people or governments in order to achieve a certain objective. It does not have to be for religious reasons, as some people might think.

For example, we see in some parts of Latin America and the Caribbean drug cartels and drug lords using terrorist acts against the government and peoples of the nations concerned in order to be able to pursue the illegal cultivation, production, and illicit trade in drugs. We have seen also that in other parts of the world certain extremists belonging to religious sects target people of different ethnicities to ‘cleanse’ the society, as they claim.

It is unfortunate that in the last few decades there have been a lot of terrorist acts committed by terrorist groups hailing from a certain religious group, as it is more rewarding for them to hide under the cloak of religion. But, of course, we do understand that terrorism is much wider than any particular religion or belief, and that it includes, for example, the hate speech that might trigger a terrorist act.


Does the United Nations work to combat the ideology that leads to terrorism and human trafficking, or is it satisfied with military and financial solutions only?

Most of our work does not only aim at combating terrorism or preventing it but is primarily concerned with enhancing the ability of member states to counter violent extremism and the violent thoughts that lead to terrorist acts in the long run. We work on preventing terrorism by helping governments and presenting members of society, particularly the youth, with a well-balanced religious discourse that will attract them back to society and to a healthy mental state that denounces violent extremism.

In so doing, we take full advantage of the many entities and bodies in the Gulf countries, but also in the rest of the Arab region and Egypt, that work in this vein. For example, in the Emirates we have the Hedayah International Centre that works with the rest of the world on developing a counter-narrative to the fundamentalism and extremism that leads to terrorism. We work in Saudi Arabia with the Prince Mohamed bin Naif Centre that works on the rehabilitation of prisoners and terrorists. Al-Azhar in Egypt is playing a prominent role in developing the counter-narrative of what is called ‘moderate Islam’ that explains to the Arab nations and the West that Islam is a religion that calls for peace and the security of all members of society and the rest of the world.


What are the types of crimes that are classified as human trafficking? What are the difficulties you face in eliminating these forms of crimes?

Human trafficking or trafficking in persons is one of the main types of organised crime, and the extent to which it can be harmful not only to countries but also to society and its members has many manifestations. The most famous, which some people may mistakenly believe is the only side of human trafficking, is the exploitation of prostitution in different countries. However, human trafficking also involves the exploitation of human beings in any sort of work that is aimed at bringing a financial return or a financial benefit to an organised crime group.

For example, we have forced labour, and exploitation at work, particularly in construction or farming, as we can see in some Western countries and in the Arab region, as well as trafficking in human organs. I believe trafficking in organs is one of the most shocking manifestations of human trafficking, and it shows the extent to which pressing socioeconomic factors, in addition to the disturbances and conflicts that are happening in a lot of countries, can push members of society who face poverty and have no source of income to sacrifice their organs to survive. Organised crime groups seek to take advantage of such tragic circumstances to traffic organs from whoever will financially reward them.

We also see emerging manifestations of human trafficking in the Arab region, such as arranged marriages where family members seek to traffic their underage daughters as ‘temporary brides’ to whoever will pay the family. We have also seen that the political unrest and the armed conflict in many countries in the Arab world have caused the displacement of families from their homes, leaving them in poverty with no source of income and making them more vulnerable to human trafficking, which has resulted in the emergence of a new trend of trafficking in persons that is exploited by terrorist groups in what is referred to as ‘jihad marriages’. This refers to terrorist groups seeking to traffic females from different countries of the world and sexually exploit them to encourage foreign terrorist fighters to fight in battles. 

The UNODC, being the custodian of the relevant protocols of the UN Convention Against Transnational Organised Crime, is exerting all possible efforts to help member states in countering such challenges and working together not only on detecting, investigating, and prosecuting cases of human-trafficking, but also and more importantly providing the victims with care and support. It provides the victims of human trafficking with all the social, health, and legal protections they need to recover from such atrocities.

In the Gulf countries, for example, we are working with national committees on combating human trafficking, as is also the case in Egypt. We are also working with the Arab League, which is the regional body that gathers the Arab countries to support the development of Arab responses against human trafficking and provides the needed victim care and support. The Arab network on combating human trafficking brings together all relevant entities from the Arab region to work harmoniously to fight human trafficking and provide its victims with all the needed care and support.


The UN plays an active role in many contentious issues. What funding sources enable it to play this role?

The UN depends on the contributions of its member states in supporting its activities worldwide. There are various sources of funding: the regular contribution for membership, or a country’s contribution to support a certain cause or certain activities, like, for example, for the UNODC Office for the Gulf Region to which the Gulf countries contribute 100 per cent of the needed funds for the Gulf region, in addition to contributing to our global activities aimed at helping other countries.

There are many countries in the world that support the fight against terrorism, the fight against drugs, and the fight against human trafficking and contribute specific funds to support those activities.


How has your background as an Egyptian judge affected your work and helped you to reach this high-ranking position in one of the most important and sensitive United Nations bodies?

I have been blessed with the knowledge and experience I gained from working for more than 18 years in Egyptian law enforcement and the judiciary. I started in the prosecution service and made my way up to the judiciary to become a judge, and this gave me a wide spectrum of experience on crime prevention and criminal justice, and it helped me very much in understanding crime and investigative techniques related to criminal justice and law enforcement.

It also gave me also a good understanding of the patterns of organised crime and terrorism, money laundering, and the financing of terrorism. My work as a judge provided me with knowledge and experience on how to analyse cases, how to weigh evidence, and how to issue balanced sentencing. Together with my academic education in the area of international criminal law, I was also lucky to study with one of the prominent figures who established this subject in Egypt, the late Mahmoud Sherif Bassiouni, who was also the head of a fact-finding mission in the former Yugoslavia.

By the time I joined the UNODC, I had a great deal of experience in the Egyptian judiciary, in addition to the academic knowledge that enabled me to take lead positions in Afghanistan and in the UNODC headquarters in Vienna, and now most recently as the regional representative of the Organisation for the Gulf Countries.


 *A version of this article appears in print in the 15 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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