Javier Rupérez, Spanish diplomat and former executive director of the UNSC Counter-Terrorism Committee

Eugènia Riera
International Catalan Institute for Peace

Javier Rupérez

Javier Rupérez has been living in the United States for eleven years. He has lived in Washington, New York and Chicago: first as Spanish ambassador (2000-2004), then as Executive Director of the United Nations Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee (2004-2007) and most recently as Consul General of Spain in Chicago (2007-2011). It has been an accelerated decade, in which he has witnessed the effects of 9/11 on American society and the changes in the international fight against terrorism.

You were ambassador to the United States in 2001. What are your memories of 9/11? Were you in Washington?
No, in fact I was in Madrid, where we had a meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It was one of those days when you remember perfectly where you were. It was three o'clock, there was a lunch and then Piqué - who was the minister at that time - said: 'there is some unusual news from New York, find out what's happening.' Then we saw the attack by the second plane live. I was unable to return to Washington for several days.

You are still living in the United States ten years later, although now in Chicago. Has American society changed a great deal since 9/11?
It is still a hard-working, disciplined, imaginative society ... but it has certainly changed in some ways because of the attacks. It is no longer the trusting society that it used to be. There is a vague perception, but one you see every day, that the country is not as invulnerable as they used to think it was, and there is some degree of discomfort about Islamic demonstrations. In addition, everything involved in the adoption of security measures and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, has affected the US budget. The Defense budget has more than doubled in ten years.

9/11 enabled the Bush Administration to introduce the concept to Axis of Evil and declare a unilateral war on Iraq. Did they do the right thing?
We should remember that everything began in Afghanistan, which at that time was practically ruled by Osama bin Laden, and there was an immediate US military response there, which had international support. 9/11 had a major effect on American foreign policy. It was necessary to restore security and there is no doubt that there would have been no invasion of Iraq without 9/11 ... There are a number of consequences that have affected the response against terrorism. The way things turned out, the intervention in Afghanistan was inevitable and I wouldn't say it was inevitable, but practically certain, that the US would take measures to prevent the presence of systems that I would call 'Arab-Islamic', which were a constant source of instability.

Do you think preventive wars are justified?
That's a complicated issue. From the standpoint strictly of international law, a preventive war is difficult to justify, but we have to consider the situation in each case, and whether a certain threshold has been passed which makes preventive war inevitable.

The war against terror also led to arbitrary arrest, dubious monitoring of communications, human rights violations in Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo ... Is everything admissible in the name of security?
No, no, of course not. You cannot allow any violation of human rights in the name of security, but at the same time it is obvious that there is no freedom without security, as the Basques know only too well. They are difficult questions, and of course, the Americans have accepted limitations on their freedom of movement in the name of security. We should also remember that terrorism itself destabilises societies. It's a complicated world, where we must be very careful.

From Bush to Obama ... Has the counterterrorism struggle over the last ten years been effective?
In the US it has, obviously, because they have not had an attack similar to 9/11 for ten years, and that's not because terrorists haven't tried.

Has counterterrorism improved, then? The intelligence services failed to detect 9/11 and failed with the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq...
Obviously yes, it has improved. 9/11 showed that there was no communication between the FBI and the CIA. There was a kind of wall between them and that made it easier for terrorists to operate. We have made some improvements there, and a great deal of progress has been made on everything related to terrorists' financing. We know more about its roots, its modus operandi, connections...

Is the world safer now?
Yes, I think so. While making all possible provisos, we are generally better off now than we were before the attacks. There is more international collaboration, more awareness of the danger and more technical capacity. But it must also be said in Europe we have had the Madrid and London bombings, Beslan ... and they all had the same origin of Islamist terrorism. Not a day goes by without attacks in Afghanistan, Iraq, India ... in which thousands of people die. We should be relatively content, but also aware that there is still great deal to be done to reduce terrorism significantly everywhere, not just in the West. We cannot afford to let a single act of terrorism happen.

How would you assess your time as executive director of the CTC of the United Nations?
It was very interesting, but also very frustrating because the United Nations depends on the goodwill of many countries that do not always agree with each other... it is a world of national sovereignties. In the Committee we had to implement resolution 1373, which is kind of the Magna Carta in the fight against international terrorism. We worked for all the measures to be put into practice in all Member States. It took us three years and it is still in place today. For me it was a source of great personal and political satisfaction, but the work isn't all done. It is necessary to stress international cooperation and the need for each country to adopt the international laws.

Where would you say the biggest danger from terrorism is now?
Pakistan is certainly a black hole. And there are very dangerous identifiable branches in Yemen, Somalia, northern Mali, in the Sahara, in southern Algeria...

What does the future hold for Afghanistan? Will the withdrawal of U.S. forces help to stabilise the country?
Anything can happen. There has been relatively important progress in security and political stabilisation in Afghanistan, but even in 2014, when the last withdrawal takes place, I think some Western power should stay, to prevent the country becoming a nest of criminals as occurred after the Soviet withdrawal. And we might also need to rethink our military objectives, thinking in terms of more specific missions like the one with Bin Laden.

What does the death of Bin Laden mean? Is it a success for Obama?
It is a success for the United States, it is a national satisfaction from a symbolic point of view. But as regards the fight against terrorism, as we can see in the Middle East, the terrorists are still attacking because the seeds he planted have unfortunately spread too far.

Why it was necessary to kill him rather than arrest him?
It was an extreme situation. You have to put yourself in the position of the troops that were there and who had to make decisions on the ground. His demise is good news, full stop.