A Russian point of view on the issues of the modern international relations.
Director of the Department for New Challenges and Threats Ilya Rogachev’s interview with Kommersant newspaper, September 21, 2017 (source):
Question: Will Russia propose any new counter-terrorism initiatives at the 72nd session of the UN General Assembly?
Ilya Rogachev: Advancing initiatives is not a goal in and of itself. Back in the Soviet era, we did receive orders to formulate resonant initiatives in some areas, but not any longer. However, we regularly propose initiatives, though they may go unnoticed by the general public.
Regarding the UN, a Security Council meeting has been planned for September 28 at our initiative to discuss the interim results of the implementation of the fundamental counter-terrorism document, Resolution 1373, which was adopted back in 2001 following the September tragedy [in the United States]. We want to draw our colleagues’ attention to certain drawbacks in the implementation of this resolution. The process is far from smooth and balanced; some elements can be strengthened and others improved.
Question: A new agency on counter-terrorism has been recently established at the UN and is chaired by a Russian diplomat. Does this mean that international efforts against terrorism will become more effective?
Ilya Rogachev: This new agency is the Office of Counter-Terrorism (OCT). It is chaired by Vladimir Voronkov, who has been appointed as Under-Secretary-General of the Office. We see this as recognition of Russia’s balanced and active position in the international fight against terrorism. I have known Vladimir Voronkov for a long time as an experienced and highly professional diplomat. He has assumed this position at a challenging period in the agency’s initial development in the structure of the UN Secretariat. I am confident that he will create an effective agency that will do much good. Considering the profusion of Western representatives at UN agencies, we hope that work at the UN counter-terrorism agency will be more balanced in terms of respect for the positions of the concerned states.
Question: Can international cooperation be effective in this area, considering that there is no uniform definition of terrorism, not to mention a common list of terrorist organisations?
Ilya Rogachev: The absence of a definition does not help but is not yet an insurmountable obstacle.
To begin with, the UN Security Council still compiles common, agreed-upon anti-ISIS, anti-al-Qaeda and anti-Taliban sanctions lists. They include both individual terrorists (over 250 in all) and terrorist groups affiliated with ISIS, al-Qaeda and the Taliban (about 80 organisations).
Secondly, various international documents contain some elements giving an interpretation of terrorism, which is necessary for joint work. For example, the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1999 lists criminal deeds the funding of which is qualified as financing terrorism. So in theory you could take a definition of terrorist activities in this document.
Nonetheless, international terrorism is a complicated phenomenon that cannot be viewed as a uniform system. So, indeed, there is no universal UN definition of it in international law although work on it has been ongoing for many years.
Question: Are such gaps in terminology seriously obstructing efficient international cooperation?
Ilya Rogachev: Such gaps are more a consequence than a cause of disagreements. There is an obvious divergence of political and even geopolitical interests of states, some of which are trying to preserve their global domination whereas others are trying to challenge this unfair world order. It is because of these global contradictions that many initiatives that could produce practical advantages are being blocked. Quite often sound ideas become a bargaining chip or are obstructed just to harm a political opponent. In international relations theory this is called a zero sum game. It is clear that this is the game being played in many cases, and that is certainly true of anti-terrorism activities.
Question: How does it manifest itself?
Ilya Rogachev: For example, the sanctions lists we just discussed. Adding new names to these lists involves painstaking and time-consuming diplomatic work (that is based on the current data of secret services, of course). Regrettably, solutions that are acceptable to all are not always found and the terrorists alone benefit from this lack of agreement among friends.
Question: Recently, more and more experts have been saying that ISIS is nearing its end as a territorial, political and symbolic force. Do you share this opinion? If so, how long does ISIS have left?
Ilya Rogachev: Obviously, the efforts of the Russian Aerospace Forces and the Syrian army, which is being revived with our help, are why ISIS is sustaining one military defeat after another. You are right in saying that the threat of ISIS lies not only in its numerical strength and material and technical resources. The propaganda and recruitment campaign of ISIS militants and their supporters is posing a very serious menace.
Terrorist attacks, including suicide attacks, are carried out with everything from a knife to a lorry as a weapon. Terrorists commit these atrocities in the name of ISIS thousands of miles away from armed clashes in Syria or Iraq. This occurs in countries bordering on Syria and in once tranquil and prosperous Europe, practically all over Asia and even in remote Australia. ISIS militants have yet to emerge in Latin America but have already introduced the specific problems they present.
That said, ISIS is far from being the only Islamic terrorist group. There are several other groups pursuing similar goals. They have distorted the principles of Islam and are disseminating false interpretations of the Quran to advance their own interests.
Al-Qaeda has not disappeared, either. Surprisingly, however, rebranding has had a strong impact on some of our partners. They may oppose ISIS or at least criticise it verbally but do not want to fight Jabhat al-Nusra, which is essentially the same as al-Qaeda. Needless to say, it is better to achieve unseemly goals by proxy rather than using one’s own armed forces.
Question: According to Russian officials’ information, is ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi dead or alive?
Ilya Rogachev: I would not speculate on this question. I recommend you to address it to the competent authorities. If he was indeed neutralised, it is a major success for the Russian Aerospace Forces and Russia in its fight against terrorism.
On the other hand, eliminating the ringleader of ISIS does not mean total victory. We remember that in 2011, Americans triumphantly announced to the entire world that Osama bin Laden was dead (who, by the way, was ‘brought up’ by the same Americans). That was, of course, a murky story. The footage and articles disseminated by western media resembled a Hollywood blockbuster. But did Al-Qaeda cease to exist afterwards? Not at all! It is still active not only in Afghanistan and Pakistan but it quickly crawled out in North Africa, the Middle East, including, again, Syria, and in many other countries.
Question: What should the world expect after ISIS is destroyed? What could be the threat from splinter groups and does the world know how to neutralise them? Isn’t the trend of low-budget attacks by lone terrorists rendering international cooperation against terrorism useless?
Ilya Rogachev: We are only starting to see the first consequences of the new terrorist tactic and their transition to individual, as you said, low-budget terror, and the emergence of sleeper cells in Europe. It is still difficult to evaluate the scale of the terror threat accurately. It is only clear that this threat is growing rather than diminishing. I can sense it from the behaviour and attitude of my European colleagues as well.
In these circumstances, the need for efficient international cooperation is only growing. Even the so-called home-grown lone terrorists do not adopt radical views and swear allegiance to ISIS on their own. They either have direct contact (increasingly via social media) with recruiters and emissaries of terrorist organisations or get involved in extremist ideology online.
Tracking and disrupting the movements of foreign terrorist fighters, strict monitoring of content in the media space based on common stringent standards, prompt exchange of information between security services – these are the measures necessary to eliminate the terrorist threat. All this requires honest cooperation between states, without any hidden agendas or those notorious double standards.
Civil society institutions such as business communities, educational institutions, religious communities, NGOs and the media, can and must play a significant role in preventing terrorism. Their efforts must be overseen and coordinated by competent authorities that are primarily responsible for ensuring national security and the security of society and each and every person.
On the other hand, excessive media hype plays into the terrorists’ hands and may have an adverse effect on psychologically unstable people. Journalists and newsmakers bear great responsibility for the content and slant of their messages and publicly stated views. They must realise that their words can both save and kill. Development and implementation of the 2003 Counter-Terrorism Convention by the Russian media community was an important indication of this understanding, as well as the concept of “voluntary counter-terrorist restrictions” which was promoted based on the convention. In brief, it comes down to a principle that is easy to understand for anybody – you must take responsibility for your words. By the way, we are aware of the work that recently started in the journalist community to update the convention and we fully support it.
One of the examples of what not to do, which demonstrates that such measures are necessary in media coverage, was the assassination of Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrey Karlov. The horrifying footage of the shooting was on all news channels 24 hours a day for several days. This is exactly the publicity terrorists crave as their goal is to intimidate people. In that case journalists basically played along. I would assume that the highly professional media community is capable of developing modern smart and ethical working standards that would take this sensitive issue into account.
Question: Several thousand people from post-Soviet countries fought in the ranks of ISIS. Do regional states understand how to combat the threat posed by militants in the event of their return home?
Ilya Rogachev: You are right, according to some estimates, from 20,000 to 40,000 foreign militants fought in Syria, including almost 10,000 from CIS countries. Russian citizens accounted for about 50 per cent of their total number. About 5,000 came from Central Asian countries. Their return poses a real threat to Russia and post-Soviet states. They are experienced saboteurs and have broad connections among terrorists. They can seriously destabilise the domestic situation and radicalise public opinion. The tragic April 2017 terrorist attack in the St Petersburg metro is an example of the danger posed by militants’ infiltration.
The modern world is built in such a way that it is impossible to stop migration completely. However, we must regulate it, and this meets the interests of everyone. This is why we and our foreign partners aspire to optimal cooperation in this area, and that’s why we are advancing a number of initiatives on the international stage.
We are working to strengthen cooperation inside specialised organisations, including the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, the SCO’s Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure, the CIS Anti-Terrorist Centre and BRICS. At the same time, we are streamlining relevant cooperation with those countries via whose territories foreign terrorist fighters travel. We are focusing on Turkey in this respect.
We would very much like that not a single terrorist could return to Russia in the event that ISIS collapses. And if anyone does come back, well-deserved punishment will be awaiting them here.
Question: Many experts list counter-terrorism among those areas where Russia and the United States have common interests, and where our two countries could therefore cooperate. Is that fair to say?
Ilya Rogachev: Technically speaking, Russia and the United States have examples of useful counter-terrorism cooperation, especially between our armed forces. Despite a multitude of disagreements on Syria, we have gained positive cooperation experience. Agreements to establish “de-escalation zones” there are a fresh example of this.
However, US President Donald Trump’s declarations regarding the possibility of cooperation with Russia that we heard during his election campaign and the initial stage of his presidency have, as we understand, gradually subsided under pressure from Washington’s political establishment. At the same time, the mechanism of sanctions, launched by the Obama administration, is now operating to full capacity.
Question: But Russia and the United States have announced the fight against terrorism in Syria to be their goal. Don’t our interests coincide completely in this respect?
Ilya Rogachev: An important clarification needs to be made: If the United States is fighting terrorists, it is only ISIS. It appears that the United States does not notice any other terrorists, including those in Syria. In most cases, it does not consider them to be terrorists, and it lists real cutthroats among the “moderate opposition.” The United States is doing nothing to fight Jabhat al-Nusra. This is a graphic example of double standards with which we disagree.
Washington’s efforts to veto UN Security Council statements denouncing regular mortar attacks against the Russian Embassy in Syria or terrorist attacks against Syrian civilians on the country’s government-controlled territory are an even more graphic illustration of this style of US diplomacy. In other similar cases, these “standard” UN Security Council statements are passed almost automatically. But, when it comes down to the Russian Embassy or Syrians loyal to the Damascus regime, Western “partners” find reasons not to denounce these terrorist attacks.
US-initiated anti-Russian attacks aiming to destabilise the Russian domestic situation still continue. This also concerns counter-terrorism operations. For example, Russia’s counter-terrorism legislation is being severely criticised. They say that the well-known “Yarovaya package” is a tool for persecuting the political opposition, for the government to intimidate the free media, for trampling on the rights of religious minorities, and so on.
Question: Well, many people in Russia also think so.
Ilya Rogachev: This is what I will tell you: We in the Foreign Ministry know well what different states do in countering terrorism. We are monitoring their legislation and law enforcement practice. If we criticise our partners, we do so with restraint, without politicising anything, although there are sufficient grounds for this. Sometimes I am tempted to say to someone directly: “Do you remember how 10 or 12 years ago you were lecturing me that terrorism is impossible in a ‘true’ democracy because the main thing is to observe human rights… As for Russia, these are not terrorists at all but fighters against a repressive regime.”
Now the trend of clamping down on human rights can be seen everywhere, first and foremost in the Western countries that accuse Russia of being undemocratic. This primarily applies to countering terrorist propaganda on the internet, first of all, the blocking or removal of objectionable content. Characteristically, sometimes government agencies decide such matters informally with businesses, even without citing the law. For the most part, businesses meet secret services halfway. At least 80% of relevant requests are granted in West European countries. One can only envy such consensus among different segments of society on what is useful or harmful to society.
So I have to say that counter-terrorism as a unifying agenda is a potential and, probably, desirable factor in Russia’s relations with the United States and other Western countries but it does not exist for the time being.
Question: I’d like to clarify one point. Recently the US publication Buzzfeed published Russian proposals on resetting relations with the United States, which Moscow gave to Washington last March. One of these proposals concerned boosting anti-terrorism cooperation. Am I right in saying that there have been no real improvements in this area since then?
Ilya Rogachev: I will not comment on leaks in the media.
However, traditionally we have said – and the Americans also often say this – that struggle against terrorism is one of those areas that seem promising for restoring and enhancing bilateral cooperation. But, as I said, for the time being this is merely potential.