Throwing Light on the UN’s Counterterrorism World, Funded Mainly By the Saudis and Qataris

The UN Counter-Terrorism Centre’s work is generally opaque beyond the counterterrorism circles in the UN and outside it, causing concern for human-rights advocates.

by Stéphanie Fillion. Read more on PassBlue.

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Jehangir Khan, who heads the UN Counter-Terrorism Centre, rear left, and his team at the Saudi mission to the UN, with Ambassador Abdallah Yahya al-Mouallimi next to Khan.

For years, Saudi Arabia has been playing a heavy-handed role in the work of United Nations counterterrorism through its financial contributions, even as the country’s own history of funding of terrorism is problematic. Some officials who work or have worked in the UN’s counterterrorism operations denounce their lack of transparency and shudder at how the influence of the main donor has damaged the usefulness of UN efforts. Moreover, a Saudi rival and another big donor, Qatar, has only complicated the counterterrorism agenda at the UN.

Another concern about the counterterrorism work, multiple sources told PassBlue, has been discomfort surrounding Jehangir Khan, an international civil servant who is the director of the UN Counter-Terrorism Centre and the Office of Counter-Terrorism at the UN, which absorbed the Centre in 2017, when the OCT was established. For the manager who hired him to run the Centre, Khan, a Pakistani, is a well-connected analyst who could provide key information about and engagement with Saudi Arabia, with whom he has long ties.

Yet for others working in the UN or outside entities on counterterrorism, Khan is perceived as divisive and a protector of Saudi interests at the UN, which can run counter to its goals and values. Some call him the “Saudi whisperer.”

Overall, the counterterrorism activities at the UN remain cloaked in secrecy, and people who work in the offices have concerns about what goes on — or doesn’t — but are reluctant to say so publicly.

Two big donors: Saudis and Qataris

The Counter-Terrorism Centre ( UNCCT) was founded in 2011 to provide leadership, coordination, prevention and other roles outlined by the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy. Adopted by the General Assembly in 2006, the strategy was a hallmark of Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s tenure at the time. Saudi Arabia made an initial donation of $10 million earmarked for the Centre in 2011, which was increased by a $100 million gift in 2014.

“It’s a lot of money, but for the Saudis not that much money,” a Western diplomat told PassBlue. “For them, it’s Sunday brunch, not even Sunday dinner.”

The Centre was first based in the UN Department of Political Affairs (now called the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs), until Secretary-General António Guterres gave counterterrorism a more independent status in 2017, and the Office of Counter-Terrorism ( UNOCT), led by an under secretary-general and a Russian, Vladimir Voronkov, was born. The Centre is considered the workhorse of Voronkov’s office.

In 2018, Qatar jumped in and gave $75 million to the UN Trust Fund for Counter-Terrorism ($15 million a year over five years), to help pay for the general operations of the two UN counterterrorism entities. The fund is heavily reliant on donors, deriving only 4 percent of its allocations from the general UN budget in 2019, a decrease from 6 percent the year before. As of 2019, some 30 donor countries, the European Union and others have contributed a total of $226 million to the fund, which was established in 2009.

These donations have represented a huge increase in cash and “contribution agreements” since 2016, when only four such agreements existed for the fund, worth only $125 million. India and Russia were new donors in 2018, and Finland contributed for the first time in 2019.

Despite recent funding-diversification attempts, 47 percent of the money for the fund comes Saudi Arabia. With Qatar, the two countries account for 80 percent of the UN counterterrorism budget, a situation that other countries find problematic, despite their giving much smaller contributions to the trust fund.

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Melissa Lefas is a co-author of an upcoming report by the Global Center on Cooperative Security on UN counterterrorism, the fifth one produced by the nonprofit organization. Lefas told PassBlue, referring to the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism (and the Centre): “The office is perceived to be based on a ‘pay-to-play’ nature of only a select number of donors supporting UN counterterrorism projects, and through them influencing policy priorities, rather than allocating funds based on a clearly defined plan that strives for a balanced implementation of the strategy.”

Lefas said that the disproportionate amount of money given by the Saudi and Qatari governments “may distort invariably the mandate” of the counterterrorism work.

The pay-to-play system puts many Western countries in a bind. Those who want to participate in the Centre’s work both deplore Saudi Arabia’s extensive influence in it, but they are reluctant to invest their own money because of the Centre’s dubious reputation.

After 9/11, with its image blackened because many of the perpetrators of the attacks, including the mastermind Osama bin Laden, were Saudi citizens, the government wanted to be more involved in counterterrorism affairs at the UN. At the time, officials there were worried about the possible strings attached by having one country donating so much money to such a thematic operation. Yet the donation was the only way it could grow.

“They didn’t even have the money to pay for a subway ticket at the time,” a counterterrorism expert close to the file told PassBlue.

In 2011, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon took the initial $10 million from the Saudis to open the Centre. Generally, earmarked money from countries to a specific UN agency or project can provide donors influence, Thomas Weiss, Presidential Professor of Political Science at the CUNY Graduate Center, told PassBlue.

“The relationship between the tune and who is paying the piper is well known,” he said. “Politicians, parliaments and pundits clamor for credit and leverage over the priorities and programs of individual UN organizations. Otherwise, they would just contribute to the core budget rather than the voluntary one over which they exert direct influence.”

A Saudi leads the advisory board

The power that Saudi Arabia holds over the Counter-Terrorism Centre is hard to measure despite grumblings from people in the UN who know it well. Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the UN, Abdallah Yahya al-Mouallimi, has been chair of the Centre’s advisory board since 2012. At least two board meetings have taken place in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, including one in 2018, which Guterres attended.

“They flew the whole group down there,” a Western diplomat told PassBlue. “It certainly raised eyebrows, as there was no clear reason to do it there. UNCCT is still a UN body, even though it is financed by specific donors.”

Raffi Gregorian, an American and deputy to Voronkov in the Office of Counter-Terrorism since 2019, said in an interview about the Riyadh trip, “It’s something that’s done occasionally to demonstrate the full backing of the Saudi government to the trust fund and to the advisory board.”

Additionally, Voronkov and Khan traveled to Saudi Arabia in 2019, and the visit “contributed to shape the future of UNCCT to better serve the needs of member states,” according to a press release issued by the Saudi mission.

The structure of the Centre’s 22-member advisory board concerns some experts and diplomats as well.

“From the very beginning of its existence, the Centre has had only one chair — Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the UN,” said Jordan Street, an analyst at Saferworld, an international peace-building organization specializing in policy and programming to reduce violent conflict. “That doesn’t seem like a good process to me.”

Gregorian emphasized that the board is not a governing body. “We don’t report to it in the sense that they have final oversight or say of what we do; they literally are advisory,” he said, adding that the Office of Counter-Terrorism’s program-review board, composed of directors in the office, has the final say on green-lighting projects.

Nevertheless, uneasiness persists. The Argentine ambassador to the UN, Martín García Moritan, a board member of the Centre, raised concerns about the board in a meeting in Riyadh in 2018. “The current composition of the board was decided in 2012, and Argentina considers that it is time to revisit it to achieve more balance for the regions underrepresented,” the Argentine mission to the UN told PassBlue in an email. “This position expressed in Riyadh has been kept in time and repeated in more recent board meetings.”

One example of Saudi Arabia’s sway over the Centre, a counterterrorism expert told PassBlue, was when the kingdom was apparently unhappy with a 2018 UN internal audit of the Centre and ordered a new one, which is apparently due out this year.

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UN counterterrorism experts, including Khan, third from left, and Vladimir Voronkov, next to Khan, with others at the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology, Riyadh, Sept. 12, 2019.

“Maybe at a personal level, people feel that way,” Gregorian said about the Saudi request. “But there was this discussion in April, and I had expected that what the advisory board was going to agree on was an external evaluation . . . but then OIOS [UN Office of Internal Oversight Services] supported an external evaluation. So I think everyone’s happy in whatever was actually discussed in Riyadh.”

Laurence Gérard, a spokesperson for the Centre, declined to provide details on which company was hired to do the new review, saying: “We do not provide information on internal review processes. Once completed, any results will be provided to the appropriate official bodies for consideration of its recommendations.” According to documents sent by Gérard, the new report is being financed by Secretary-General Guterres’s office for $100,000.

The 2018 internal UN report recommended, among other things, that the Centre should “develop plans to review the role, membership, working methods and information requirement of the UNCCT Advisory Board” as well as the diversification of the Centre’s funding.

More than a dozen people associated or closely familiar with the Centre who were interviewed for this article present not only a murky picture of its operations but also of Khan himself.

Khan answers to Ambassador Voronkov. The Russian diplomat had previously been the permanent representative of his country to the International Organizations office in Vienna.

Ali Shihabi, a Middle East expert and an insider in the ruling Saudi elite, says that the Saudi circle doesn’t think it gets much from the UN Centre for its money: “The problem with gifting money, is that once you’ve written the check, you’ve lost your influence,” he said to PassBlue. Shihabi’s father, Samir Shihabi, was the permanent representative of Saudi Arabia to the UN from 1983–1991 and president of the General Assembly in 1991. Khan served as his chef de cabinet then.

The incentives for Saudi Arabia to give basically one lump sum to the Counter-Terrorism Centre include the kingdom wanting to rehabilitate its image after 9/11 as well as extracting favors from the UN, when needed, some experts said. Although there is no clear evidence of the Saudis demanding a favor, in June this year, Guterres removed the Saudi-led military coalition fighting in the Yemen war from the UN’s blacklist of countries committing serious violations involving children. His decision was backed by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Guterres had written in a report to the Security Council that the coalition had killed or injured 222 children in Yemen in 2019, including in 171 airstrikes, but that these incidents were decreasing. The reduction, Guterres said, justified his removing the Saudi coalition from the name-and-shame list of major offenders and initiating a year of monitoring instead.

The military coalition was officially on the blacklist for the last three years because of its bombing role in Yemen and the child casualties. It had been briefly added to the list in 2016 but removed by former Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, pending a review. Ban had accused Saudi Arabia of exerting “unacceptable” pressure after it was reported that the Saudis threatened to cut some UN funding. (Guterres, who succeeded Ban, created a new list of government forces and armed groups that had seemingly taken steps to improve the protection of children in 2017 in conflicts; the Saudis were added to the list and remained there until this year.)

“I still remember it,” Louis Charbonneau, a top UN expert at Human Rights Watch, told PassBlue. “They threatened to cut off funding for UNCT programs and used it to blackmail the UNSG into removing them,” he said, referring to Ban. “But to his credit, he went public about it and said he pretty much had a gun to his head.”

The Saudi ambassador to the UN, Mouallimi, said at the time, “It is not in our style, it is not in our genes, it is not in our culture to use threats and intimidation.”

Giving huge sums of money is also a way for the Saudis to try to control the agenda of UN counterterrorism work — which can include screening, prosecution, rehabilitation and reintegration projects — especially in the Middle East.

When the Centre wants to launch a project, it needs countries’ approval to use their own funding for it, Gregorian said, noting that “member states will indicate in an informal way that they are interested in it, and then, when we’re developing a project, we’ll touch base with them informally and say we’re putting together a project on this. . . . Then there are those occasions where member states may come to us and say, for example, Hey, we have some money left over at the end of this fiscal year, and we’d like to support the office and the work is doing.”

Human-rights advocates denounce the Centre’s opaqueness and low engagement with civil society groups. It has maintained that its sensitive work precludes divulging information on what it does. But the Saudi record on sponsoring terrorism remains a black mark.

Governments have repeatedly accused Saudi Arabia of funding Sunni terrorist groups worldwide, and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said so in a leaked email in 2009. The European Union also blacklisted Saudi Arabia in 2019 for its inability to control terrorism financing.

Since the Saudis and the Qataris do not get along, it means that their money cannot be used on the same projects in the Centre. “The Saudi money is used for hard security issues, such as border security and information sharing, and the Qatari money is used for the rest,” a counterterrorism expert who has worked with the UN system told PassBlue.

For Ali Shihabi, the struggle for dominance in the Centre reflects regional tensions: “It’s part of a family fight between Saudi Arabia, UAE [United Arab Emirates] Bahrain and Qatar,” he said. “Qatar is being irresponsible by allowing the subversion of the security of their countries, and that’s why it’s a dispute. They don’t have diplomatic relations, so it doesn’t come as a surprise.”

Qatari funds have been used for things like helping to establish the office for the Global Counterterrorism Coordination Platform and projects related to sports and preventing violent extremism, according to Gregorian.

“Saudi Arabia and Qatar have made it clear they don’t want the fund diversified,” Jordan Street of SaferWorld said. “Their preference is to control the direction of counterterrorism. This raises two issues: first, it is dangerous for the UN’s counterterror work to depend so much on states with abysmal human rights records; second, counterterrorism should not be getting all the funding when the answers lie in peace, rights and development work.”

In a July 20, 2020 article in the Brookings Institution, titled “Counterterrorism and the UN: The rise and hapless fall of American leadership,” Eric Rosand, a specialist, wrote: “When the center was launched in 2011, the Obama administration worked behind the scenes — often with its democratic allies on the advisory board — to minimize the center’s influence within the U.N. counterterrorism system.

“It was fully aware of the damage that could be caused by having a country, often seen as a champion of repressive, human-rights-violating counterterrorism methods and the chief exporter of violent extremism, could do to the U.N. counterterrorism brand if left unchecked. Since 2017, however, catalyzed in part by the Trump administration’s embrace of Saudi Arabia, the center’s public profile has increased.”

One human-rights expert said that the money from Qatar and Saudi Arabia “serves the interest [of] autocratic security-minded states [who] see this as win-win for them domestically.”

The person added: “I wouldn’t necessarily take the view that the interests of the two states are opposed in this way. Of course, there’s one read that says, it’s about bringing balance in what it does, but it also increases the overall flow of funds to counterterrorism.”

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The basic structure of UN counterterrorism offices: USG UNOCT: Vladimir Voronkov; deputy to the USG: Raffi Gregorian; Jehangir Khan: UN Counter-Terrorism Centre.

“Given this pay-to-play system,” Letta Tayler, a senior researcher in the Crisis and Conflict Division at Human Rights Watch, said, “It’s distressing but hardly surprising that the UN consistently shortchanges its official commitment to human rights as an essential component of effective counterterrorism strategy.”

Another way that Saudi Arabia and Qatar influence the Centre — and Western countries want to change — is their refusal to address the fourth pillar of the UN counterterrorism agenda: protecting human rights. According to a recent report produced by the UN secretary-general, only 7 percent of UN projects on terrorism focus on human rights. The so-called fourth pillar is also the weakest in the Centre, with only 14 percent of its projects concentrating on human rights in 2019.

The ‘Saudi whisperer’

Jehangir Khan’s name comes up often in discussions about UN counterterrorism work, as he leads the Centre and directs the Office of Counter-Terrorism. Khan is a career UN official with a Ph.D. from Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a graduate of Harvard Law School. He started his professional life at the Saudi Arabia mission to the UN, before spending more than 20 years in UN political work.

Eric Rosand, the counterterrorism expert, is a former US State Department official who now directs the Prevention Project, a nongovernmental organization focused on violent extremism. He said Khan had played a main role in establishing the Centre and “was instrumental in getting the UN plan of action drafted, agreed to by different UN entities, and blessed by the then Secretary-General Ban.”

“Many things made him very effective in navigating the complex UN bureaucracy and political differences among member states,” Rosand added.

Khan’s close ties to such key countries as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have made him deeply useful to a wide range of UN people. Khan’s first job in New York City was as political coordinator at the Saudi mission to the UN, working for Ambassador Samir Shihabi. Shihabi’s posting before New York was in Pakistan as a diplomat.

Khan’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, has “been nurtured for many years,” a person close to the UN file told PassBlue.

Khan, who declined to be interviewed by PassBlue, nevertheless responded to numerous questions about his career, his work at the UN and even his New York residences. Khan told PassBlue in an email: “I was hired by the Saudi Permanent Mission as a locally recruited Contract employee — in the same manner as foreign nationals work with many Permanent Missions to the United Nations in this capacity — so there is nothing unusual in my working as a Pakistani national with the Saudi Mission. It is common practice in the Permanent Missions to the UN to hire third country nationals.”

In 1991, when Shihabi was elected president of the General Assembly, Khan went with him to the UN. The next year, Khan was hired inside the UN system, a not-uncommon move for an official in the Assembly office.

Shihabi, a Palestinian-born diplomat who died in 2010, was instrumental in fighting the Soviet forces in Afghanistan and launching a military cooperation deal between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Saudi Arabia has influence in Pakistan, where it has spread Wahabi Muslim teachings and built several mosques.

Khan was working his way up the UN system when Angela Kane, a German, was his colleague and manager between 1999 and 2008 in the Department of Political Affairs. She said in an interview that Khan was hardworking and, like many other UN officials, “showed interest in being promoted.”

Jeffrey Feltman was the under secretary-general for political affairs at the UN from 2012 to 2018 and the chief foreign policy adviser to Secretaries-General Ban and Guterres. He was also chair of the UN Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force and executive director of the Counter-Terrorism Centre, from 2012 to 2016. As such he was Khan’s supervisor.

In an interview with PassBlue, Feltman, who is a former US diplomat, said he had considered Khan’s relationship with Saudi Arabia to be an “asset,” as “these were the last years of King Abdullah, and it was hard to analyze what happened in Saudi Arabia, as it’s not the most transparent place. To me, [Khan] was an asset in my team, able to give me his perspective affecting peace and security.”

Sources who spoke to PassBlue about UN counterterrorism work cited persistent rumors about how Khan, an international civil servant, could afford to buy an apartment in the Trump World Tower in UN Plaza, where he lives. Khan has a history of buying and selling residential properties in New York City, based on information obtained from public records, and he says he bought the property in Trump World Tower as an investment.

According to New York City property records, Khan and his late wife, Maha Khan, acquired two adjacent condominium units in Trump World Tower in February 2005 from Tea Capital Limited, a shell company based in the Cayman Islands. The deed says the value of both properties — two units combined — was $3,050,000.

Khan clarified the purchase of the units. “I originally purchased this apartment as an investment in 2005 with my late wife ‎who also earned an income from sources completely unrelated to the United Nations — and I subsequently rented the apartment out to a tenant — while living in smaller rented apartments in the same building over the past 15 years,” Khan said in an email. “My Apartment is currently still rented out to a tenant who pays full market rent — and I’m still living in a smaller rented apartment for a much lesser price in the same building. The rent earned on my Apartment pays for the mortgage on it — so again there is nothing wrong or inconsistent here.”

Despite Khan’s statement that he rents out the apartment, sources told PassBlue that Khan often hosts UN officials and others at receptions in the units he owns. “It’s rare for a UN employee to have room for 25–30 people over at the same time,” Kane told PassBlue. “That’s for sure not an apartment that a UN salary can pay for.” Khan explained to PassBlue that he uses the condo units to host receptions when they are not rented.

Certain high-level UN staff members are required to file a financial disclosure form or declaration of interest statement annually, but it’s up to them to make it public. Khan has kept his private. “As a senior UN official I provide annual Financial disclosures every year, and these have been fully and satisfactorily reviewed by an external Audit company contracted by the United Nations,” Khan wrote in an email.

The Saudi Arabia mission to the UN also owned an apartment on the 45th floor of Trump World Tower, purchased for $4.5 million, though it is not the mission’s official address. The mission did respond to an interview request.

Feltman, who is now based at the Brookings Institution, also visited Khan’s condo units but had a different impression. He, too, had heard the rumors about Khan and said he was shocked by how UN colleagues disparaged one another, showing a lack of solidarity. “I’ve heard these things about him before, and frankly it made me angry,” he told PassBlue.

“Jehangir was very good about opening up his apartment to his colleagues, having dinner or events,” Feltman said. “How stupid would it be if your apartment would be obtained through questionable means?”

Colleagues say that Khan is goal-oriented but secretive. One expert said Khan takes over projects “that will satisfy the Saudis,” which means hard-security projects, such as border safety or cybersecurity.

When asked about his relationship with the Saudis, Khan told PassBlue in an email: “All the activities of UNCCT are fully transparent and accountable. The UNCCT produces an Annual Report — and Quarterly Reports every year on all its activities and finances . . . and its work and finances are overseen by an Advisory Board composed of 20 Member States appointed by the Secretary-General.”

According to a former UN official who requested anonymity, “To overcome the shortcomings of UNCCT, people have to do work around him. . . . “

Stéphane Dujarric, the spokesperson for Secretary-General Guterres, told PassBlue: “Jehangir Khan’s professionalism is beyond reproach. Throughout his UN career he has always conducted his work in full accord with the UN Charter.”

And human rights?

Another major concern of UN officials and others about Saudi Arabia’s role in counterterrorism activities is the kingdom’s own notorious record on human rights. “Measures to ensure respect for the human rights for all and the rule of law as the fundamental basis for the fight against terrorism” is one of the four pillars of the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy.

In July, the UN hosted its second counterterrorism-review week, this time virtually, with more than 1,000 participants. The theme was “Strategic and Practical Challenges of Countering Terrorism in a Global Pandemic Environment.”

Voronkov of the UN noted the deficit on global counterterrorism’s work regarding human rights and the rule of law. “Much more is needed to translate this into practice,” he said, concluding the weeklong session, “to ensure that measures to counter terrorism do not shrink civic space or hinder humanitarian activities.”

Fionnuala Ni Aolain, the UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, shares this worry about the Saudis.

“Many are aware of the detention of female activists in Saudi Arabia, but many would be unaware that they have in fact been constrained by counterterrorism law,” Ni Aolain, an Irish academic, told PassBlue.

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Vladimir Voronkov, the head of the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism, moderated the opening of the 2020 virtual Counter-Terrorism Week on the theme “Countering Terrorism in a Global Pandemic Environment,” July 6, 2020. ESKINDER DEBEBE/UN PHOTO

Through mostly Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the counterterrorism infrastructure at the UN has grown exponentially. While six staff members’ salaries are funded by the UN’s general budget, more than 150 other personnel are paid through the counterterrorism fund.

That also makes Ni Aolain uncomfortable, saying: “I am profoundly concerned about the transparency, openness and accountability of the governance structures around counter-terrorism at the UN . . . and have said publicly that there are profound concerns that counter-terrorism is in fact eating up the UN.”

Other human-rights experts are worried about UN counterterrorism meetings occurring in countries with little democratic traditions, such as the United Arab Emirates.

“I think it’s a lot of bluewashing,” one expert said, requesting anonymity, given the sensitivity of the topic. “There are a lot of bad rats in terms of funding terrorism who use it so they can say, Look, we’re main donors!”

Gregorian noted, however: “People like to talk big about human rights, but they don’t open their purses,” referring to the lack of earmarked money going to human-rights support in counterterrorism.

“When it comes to counterterrorism, in most governments, not all, but most [funding] comes from security sources or assistance funds for security. Also, when governments want to invest in human rights, they rarely think, I’m going to give money to counterterrorism.”

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Originally published at https://www.passblue.com on August 24, 2020.

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