Dossier: Fragile Borders

UNOCT’s Fusion Cells Programme – a model for inter-agency cooperation in counter-terrorism

15 June 2023
By Nigel Lazarus, Programme Manager and Law Enforcement Advisor, United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT)

The United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT) established a Fusion Cells Programme in January 2020 to support United Nations Member States in developing national mechanisms for the exchange and analysis of counter-terrorism related information and the development of strategic and operational intelligence products, such as threat assessments. The Programme has rolled out a delivery model based on international good practice and processes that have proven to be successful in improving national inter-agency coordination.

The need for inter-agency coordination to counter terrorism

The evolving nature of terrorism and organized crime has reinforced the need to gather, analyse and transform information into intelligence. Today, we all live in a world that is information rich, but countries have yet to develop an effective system for processing and using the vast amount of information that is available to them, which can sometimes hinder vital and strategic decision-making.

There is no doubt that countries have successfully thwarted terrorist attacks, and have substantially improved their air, land, sea, and border security capabilities. Yet these countries are not immune to attacks.

A common finding following terrorist attacks is that pieces of information from different parts of the government could have prevented or frustrated the attack, had they been connected in a timely manner.

Defeating terrorism and organized crime requires an inter-agency coordination mechanism that is adaptable and that can operate actively within all countries to make use of the information and data created daily, including by Customs administrations, which are one of the largest sources of big data for national security.

The Global Fusion Cells Programme

In January 2020, supported by the United Nations Peace and Development Trust Fund (UNPDF) and the Executive Office of the Secretary-General, UNOCT established the Fusion Cells Programme to strengthen “National Interagency Coordination Mechanisms”.

The Programme promotes a “Fusion Centre approach”, whereby national partners come together in a collaborative effort to share resources, expertise and information to maximize their ability to detect, prevent and respond to terrorist and criminal activity. The Programme acknowledges and promotes the role of analysts that are the critical node in such mechanisms.

The United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism collaborates with the Executive Directorate of the Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTED), which plays an important role in the design and development of the Global Fusion Cells Programme. Its expert assessments and recommendations inform the design of the Programme’s technical assistance and capacity-building efforts.

The Programme responds to Pillar II (preventing and countering terrorism) of the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Strategy and supports Member States in the implementation of Security Council resolutions 1373, 2178, 2322, 2341, 2395, 2396, 2462 and 2482, as well as the 2015 Madrid Guiding Principles on Foreign Terrorist Fighters and its 2018 addendum, among other relevant international instruments and standards.

The Programme promotes the protection of human rights and ensures compliance with the UN Human Rights Due Diligence Policy (HRDDP) by engaging all relevant entities (The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, UN Resident Coordinator Offices, and in-country human rights entities), before conducting desk research, collating, and analysing all available data to create a Risk and Impact Assessment for each beneficiary Member State.

Leveraging the Fusion Cell model for Customs agencies and border management

As countries have different needs, capacities and constraints, the Fusion Centre Model is tailored to the beneficiary’s context and based on international good practice related to the creation and operationalization of such facilities. The Programme focuses on sharing international experiences, processes and training that can be applied wherever there is a need for an inter-agency coordination mechanism, data analysis and decision-making. In fact, the approach can apply to various security issues, such as crisis or emergency response, natural disasters, or to the mitigation of organized crime, amongst others. As Customs agencies produce vast volumes of data, they are likely to benefit from this approach at local, regional or national levels.

Programme modules

The Programme is aimed at supporting Member States which have the most need in accessing international good practice and training. Programme beneficiaries are encouraged to become acquainted with the “Compendium of Good Practice and Related Guidelines on establishing and operating a national Fusion Centre”, which was developed by the Programme team and experts from existing national Fusion Centres. With inputs from over 20 countries, the Compendium provides guidance on legislation, mandates, stakeholders, policy, roles and responsibilities, as well as communications approaches.

In programmatic terms, the process starts with national capacity-building consultations or scoping visits, conducted with implementing partners, the United Nations Police Division (UNPOL) and CTED. Programme experts meet national security entities, including Customs administrations, to better understand the challenges they face relating to national-level inter-agency cooperation and coordination, intelligence analysis, and information sharing.

Following these consultations, the Programme develops an evidence-based Action Plan, or “Roadmap”, which ensures that the provided capacity-building support responds to the country’s or entity’s needs.

The Programme also organizes study visits that are delivered by experts of leading fusion or counter-terrorism centres around the world. Experts share with the Programme’s beneficiaries their experiences in developing and operationalizing their respective centres, including the challenges they faced and how they were overcome. In 2021, the Programme sought guidance and expertise from some of the world’s best national fusion and counter-terrorism centres, including CITCO (Spain), CUTA (Belgium), NCTC (Norway), C13T (Colombia), NAC (Russian Federation), and EUROPOL’s regional intelligence hub, amongst many others.

The Programme also offers 13-week training that includes 12 courses and a complementary study guide. The training focuses on the role of the analyst and follows a modular or “building block” approach, which aims to improve trainees’ skillsets in key work-related areas and provides trainees with a foundation upon which to become a competent analyst.

The Programme delivers the following training courses:

  1. An Introduction to Fusion Cells course that raises awareness of the Compendium of Good Practices and Related Guidelines on establishing and operating a national Fusion Centre and starts the process of operationalization.
  2. An Ethical Decision-Making course dedicated to problem-solving skills and critical and creative thinking, bias and relevant decision models.
  3. An Effective Intelligence Writing course to create clear, concise and accurate reports and recommendations.
  4. A Briefing and Debriefing course presenting briefing models applicable to specific scenarios.
  5. An Analyst course on turning information into intelligence (products), which includes the intelligence cycle, the use of analysis tools, collection disciplines, and dissemination skills. The course also covers advanced concepts such as predictive analysis, targeting and threat intelligence.
  6. A Managers course, to develop the skills, abilities and personal characteristics required to be a good manager.
  7. A threat assessment course that looks at all aspects of threat assessment creation, collection plans, information analysis, environmental scanning and SWOT analysis, as well as structuring, writing and dissemination processes.
  8. An ethical questioning and elicitation techniques course that focuses on information gathering, fact-finding and promoting international good practice on free recall and conversation management models.
  9. An open-source investigations course that trains analysts in using publicly available information such as social media, internet sites, websites, forums, public records, and reports, amongst others, to conduct intelligence-led counter-terrorism investigations.
  10. A (beginner to intermediate level) Microsoft Excel course that provides trainees with the required skills to utilize Microsoft’s analytical features.
  11. An i2 Analyst’s Notebook course to ensure trainees can operate and benefit from IBM’s i2 Analyst’s Notebook software.
  12. A three-week train-the-trainers course for trainees to acquire UNPOL training accreditation.

In 2022, the Programme delivered thirty-four training events to 1,100 participants. Participant feedback collected following each course revealed that the training had a positive impact on their knowledge and skillset in the course subject area. This feedback will contribute to improving future training to be delivered in 2023.

Lastly, the Programme provides Member States’ national Fusion Centres with up to three months of expert mentoring to support the centre in implementing standard operating procedures. The mentoring aims to support staff in applying the skills that they acquired from training.

Focus on Africa

With the increase in terrorist activity in the Sahel region, there is an urgent need to strengthen the often weak inter-agency coordination in Africa. According to the 2023 Global Terrorism Index: “The Sahel region in sub-Saharan Africa is now the epicentre of terrorism, with the Sahel accounting for more terrorism deaths in 2022 than both South Asia and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) combined. Deaths in the Sahel constituted 43 percent of the global total in 2022, compared to just one percent in 2007.” In light of this, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres voiced particular concern over the situation in Africa and called upon UNOCT to prioritize Africa in its capacity-building efforts.

In addition, a growing number of African countries have or are considering establishing national counter-terrorism or Fusion Centres to prevent and counter terrorism, making Africa a priority region for the Programme in 2023.

There are currently two established regional Fusion Centres in Africa, namely: L’Unité de Liaison de Fusion (UFL) – Sahel, which is based in Algiers, Algeria, and the East Africa Fusion and Liaison Unit (EA-FLU), which is based in Kampala, Uganda. Additionally, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) established the first African Regional Counter-Terrorism Centre in 2023, located in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania.

Since its launch in 2020, the Global Fusion Cells Programme has supported Botswana, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ghana, Mozambique, Togo, Uganda, and the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

In 2023, the Programme will partner with Morocco, Brazil, and the State of Qatar and collaborate with UNOCT’s Programme and Training Office in Rabat, Morocco, to support twenty-three new beneficiaries from across Africa. Globally, the Programme has also received requests for support from countries elsewhere, in the Balkans and South America.

Insights gained in establishing Fusion Centres

International good practice reveals that, for such inter-agency mechanisms to succeed, countries need to ensure a high level of commitment and to have a long-term funding strategy in place. Some of the key findings and lessons learned are:

  • A clear mandate, mission statement, and goals are essential to a Fusion Centre’s long-term success.
  • All levels of government, law enforcement and other public safety agencies, including Customs and border management agencies, must communicate and collaborate to maximize the collecting, developing, and disseminating of information and intelligence.
  • Data management is vital to maintain relevant records, and information should be stored in secure information systems.
  • As a result of data being shared and communicated, it is important to examine all aspects of interoperability, leverage databases, and address issues of information security.
  • Human resources and staffing should be thoroughly considered and, although it is dependent on the individual need, staff must be able to perform analytical functions and provide strategic and tactical assistance. Hence, it is important to ensure staff receive the appropriate training for their roles.
  • Human rights-compliant and privacy-protected policies should be developed for personally identifiable information and data.

The UNOCT Global Fusion Cells Programme looks forward to sharing its knowledge and training with more beneficiaries in 2023.

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