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Counter-Terrorism After 9/11, Episode 5: Counter-Terrorism and International Diplomacy with Amb. Janet Alberda

03 Nov 2021

Counter-Terrorism After 9/11 is a podcast series exploring how counter-terrorism has changed in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001.

In our fifth episode, we speak to Ambassador Janet Alberda, who is currently serving as Ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

This interview discusses the effects of counter-terrorism policies on international diplomacy, Amb. Alberda's experiences working in the Middle East after 9/11, and what obstacles the global community faces moving forwards. Interviewing her is Teun van Dongen, a Senior Research Fellow and Programme Lead, Current and Emerging Threats at ICCT.

You can listen to Counter-Terrorism After 9/11 using the audio player below or through your favourite podcast player (Spotify, Apple, Google, Breaker, Pocket Casts, RadioPublic). Below is a transcript of the interview, which has been shortened and adapted for publication.

Warning: This transcript/podcast contains material that some viewers may find distressing.

Disclaimer: The views and experiences that Ms Alberda is going to share with us are hers and do not necessarily reflect those of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.


Ambassador Janet Alberda

TEUN VAN DONGEN: Madam Ambassador, thank you so much for making time for us. We are very excited to have you on the podcast. And we are sure that given your experience, you can give an interesting take on the meaning of 9/11, and the impact that those events have had. The first question is maybe not a terribly original one, but is one that many people have asked each other this year around the 9/11 anniversary: where were you when you heard what was happening in the US on 9/11?

ALBERDA: Thank you very much, first of all, for inviting me - it is really a pleasure to be here. Of course, I remember very well where I was because I was in Yemen at the time. I actually just arrived as a diplomat, as a first secretary for political affairs together with my husband and my firstborn son, who was a year old at that time. We arrived in Yemen a month before the events of 9/11. I was with a fairly new team working at the embassy in Sana'a. We organised a team building session in Mahweet, which is three hours away and a little bit east from the capital Sana'a. We were all just having finished our coffee, with a beautiful view on the mountains, in Yemen. Then a colleague of mine saw everyone [was] watching [the television] in shock and awe. He saw the first plane actually had just entered the building and then he called everyone. So we all went down, and we all watched the telly and we saw the second plane going in. I remember that moment very well. I mean, being in such a beautiful location, being in a country that has a history when it comes to terrorist attacks. Of course in 2000, we had the attack on the USS Cole, but also previously there had been incidents. We looked at each other, and my Ambassador told me at the time, ‘Janet, you are a security officer, what is your advice?'. And then together with some colleagues, we made all quite quickly the decision to return back to Sana'a. Because at that time, you know when something so radical, horrific is happening, you want to be back at your office, you want to be in touch with the colleagues in The Hague and colleagues in the region, and you want to really follow the news very, very closely. A lot of our work and activities was following the news and talking with Yemenis about it and being in touch with colleagues. And of course, also, you know, talking with family because it was the first posting I did with my family outside at that time. And we did stay there in the end for four years. But of course, it had an impact. VAN

DONGEN: You just mentioned that you were in charge of security. Does that mean that you had to drop everything and deal with the fallout of 9/11?

ALBERDA: Yes, because being a first secretary for political affairs also dealing with security issues, I was also the one dealing with human rights issues, and I was the one sitting in the Security Committee of the embassy. So talking with the Ambassador and the Deputy Ambassador and the operational management on, what is happening, what are people doing, what are the risks, what are the threats. We were there on the team building session, trying to figure out what are we going to do for the coming four years. And then suddenly, you find yourself in a situation where you have to drop a few things. And you cannot really talk at that time what you want to do in your water programme for three or four years because colleagues, they have questions and a lot of things after 9/11 happened, also in terms of travelling. . And I think my first priority was also to really make sure that we had our act together and that we had our network up and running. And of course, like I said, it was my second month, then I was there. So I still had to meet a lot of people. And then you meet, at that time, you give priority to your colleagues that really know what is happening and you need to then also identify what your priority Yemeni stakeholders are when it comes to the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. What do they do to protect the diplomatic community? How do they see the actions and the steps that are taken by the US government or the international world at that time? So you have a little bit of a different job.

VAN DONGEN: I was wondering whether around that time of 9/11, were you ever afraid for your own staff? Was there a heightened threat to the people that you were supposed to protect?

ALBERDA: Not specifically after 9/11. If you [went] to Yemen at that time, it really was a choice. So, we had quite a big embassy at the time, like the embassy I have right here in Riyadh, approximately 25 personnel but at that time we had a lot of people working on development programmes. I have been in Yemen before,  I'm an Arabist, I speak Arabic, I spent a lot of my time in the Middle East and my first job ever, when I was working for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was to do an evaluation of a project that we financed through the [UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation]. So I had already spent three weeks in Yemen and I had been travelling around the whole country so I knew what kind of country it was like. You also know that there is an historical kidnapping threat and, there are a lot of issues pertaining to Yemen. We did not really have a large Dutch community, but what you do is to provide advice to your fellow Dutch compatriots. So, we had eight contact persons scattered around Yemen. They would be in constant touch with me on satellite phones on what is happening in that area, so checkpoints closing, and the same responsibility you have for Dutch citizens, you also have that responsibility for staff. And I remember that at the time, if you had to leave Sana'a, and you wanted to go to another area, for example, where we had a team building session, you had to ask for special permission. And after 9/11 the Yemeni authorities installed more checkpoints. So that means that it became a little bit more bureaucratic to get out of the city. So you have responsibility for everyone there.

VAN DONGEN: What was the response like in Yemen? What did you see happening around you?

ALBERDA: I think that people in Yemen were as shocked as we were, in the same level, in the same way. There was a feeling of apprehension, because rather quickly there were people identified that had a link to Yemen. And of course, very quickly, the US government also started to talk about rogue states and the name of Yemen was rapidly included in that. I also remember, in my talks with Yemeni authorities, a number of them were in shock. They did a lot of outreach towards the international community. There was more contact, particularly also with the Ministry of Interior to understand or to explain to us how the security sector was working and what they were doing themselves. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs was at that time very active and outreaching to the international community to explain what the official position was of the Yemeni government. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs was really a key partner for us to explain how they dealt with these things. Also the President himself, Ali Abdullah Saleh at the time, he really did a lot of outreach to the international community. I was focusing much more on the justice sector and the human rights rule of law. At the time, 80 percent of all the legal cases were done in a traditional way, there was not really a formal structure. So, we spent more time on these kind of rule of law issues, also in contact with religious leaders. Being an Arabist, speaking Arabic as a political officer, I was invited a lot to these sessions. So you sit with people, men. Of course, I'm a woman, but I could sit in all these sessions. There were a lot of talks about 9/11 and the effects, and also what the Americans did wrong. And these things were very, very important, to attend these sessions and get to know what people on the ground feel about what is happening in the world.

VAN DONGEN: That is an interesting observation that plays into another question that I had. Recently there has been criticism of the War on Terror and more generally, the way the Western countries have been operating militarily in the Arab and Islamic world. But would you say that there is also a brighter side to it? Is there something that changed for the better as a result of 9/11, or the War on Terror?

ALBERDA: Yes, I think so. I think we work much more globally together. The fight against terrorism is really a shared phenomenon, it is a global phenomenon; it does not only take place in countries in the Middle East. And that is, of course, also a discussion I am having currently sometimes with religious scholars here in Saudi Arabia. They always keep explaining to me that it is nothing to do with Islam, it is just a global phenomenon. And I definitely agree with that. What I think also really changed is that we work much more with actors and countries that we probably would not have worked with before. For example, with Saudi Arabia, which is a key ally for us in the anti-ISIS coalition, which is still a very active coalition. And recently, my minister, at that time Minister Kaag, also met with a Saudi counterpart, and they talk about the situation in Iraq and Syria, and what we should do collectively about this. I think there is also more cooperation among agencies and so we work from a much more comprehensive programming. I don't think that we would have had that dialogue with Saudi Arabia twenty years ago, as we are having it today. And the European Union also has a special coordinator, Gilles de Kerchove, He has been in that position for fourteen years. I met him recently here in Riyadh and he was here with a big team, sharing with us EU ambassadors what his experiences have been. And he really sees there is an opening in the dialogue, also with religious scholars. The fact that we have that dialogue is really very important.

VAN DONGEN: So far most of the impact that we have been talking about is in the field of foreign affairs, foreign relations, diplomacy perhaps, but you know the regions where the War on Terror took place very well. Could you say something about what changed in the life of an ordinary person on the ground as a result of the War on Terror?

ALBERDA: Muslims in general, they felt really discriminated, or neglected, not well understood. We had a lot of contacts also with civil society activists telling [us] that they had a lot of concern about very strict regulations that were being enrolled by some of the countries.

VAN DONGEN: Is the problem perhaps that we have been approaching counter-terrorism too much purely as a security issue?

ALBERDA: I know that there have been departments and units that deal only with the fight against terrorism. I'm a diplomat. I would say that the room for diplomacy has become larger. I find it more important to look into countries, into partners and networks in a more comprehensive way, and my lesson would be that we need to have more diplomacy, we need to have more eyes and ears on the ground. And it is for us very important to understand what is happening in one country, and also understand where the area should be for intervention. And I would say that you cannot oppress an ideology by military force, which is a famous saying, and I would agree with that.

VAN DONGEN: A lot of work to be done by people such as yourself, really, to keep making connections and build relations.

ALBERDA:  I am very happy that I am based in a country like Saudi Arabia, which is also in a transformative mode. I travel quite a lot. I am the eyes and the ears on the ground. I speak with a lot of people that also have their own opinion on what is happening in Saudi Arabia. And I get to feel a little bit what the mood is. If I don't understand what the mood is, I find it difficult to bring in advice to the ministry in The Hague. For obvious reasons we don't have eyes on the ground right now in Syria. I think that there is a concern, because do we really know what is happening? I think we do, because I see good reports by colleagues. But still, it is never the same if you are there physically on the ground.

VAN DONGEN: Absolutely. So what are you hearing in Saudi Arabia? Does that make you optimistic about where things are going?

ALBERDA: When it comes to the modernisation of the country, I am optimistic. I see a lot of reforms. Of course, everyone is talking about reforms that give more space and more room for women to really be an active player in the social [sphere] and the workforce. I see that the country is also heading towards a more modern course, towards a moderate form of Islam. There is also even openness to reform when it comes to curriculum, also when it comes to codification of legislation.  It is interesting to be here right now. And I hear a lot of things. What I can say is that it is a fascinating time now to be here as a diplomat. Also when it comes to the War on Terror, for example, what happens in Afghanistan. Of course, Saudi has taken now a completely different position than it did ten years ago when they still were one of the two countries, I think, that recognised the Taliban. And it is interesting to listen to Saudis on how they see developments in Afghanistan and how they want to work with us to find a solution. You have to really give out messages, you need to form an inclusive government.  So then they want to convey that message to the Organisation of Islamic conference that consists of many Islamic countries, of course. I find it it's fascinating to be here.

VAN DONGEN: I can only imagine. But does that mean that at least Saudi Arabia, and perhaps the Middle East in general, is becoming a more difficult region for extremist organisations to gain support?

ALBERDA: I think where there is a lack of governance, there is always room for radical organisations to float. There are still, of course, a lot of countries in the region that have limited governance structures in place, such as Syria, for example. At the moment that you still have that lack of governance, and you have informal war economies like we have right now, in Yemen. Then it is easy for groups to take shape. But the positive thing is that we also have governments in which we are cooperating hard with in the anti-ISIS coalition. There is a lot of eagerness and cooperation and willingness from these governments in the region to work with us, because they see it as a global phenomenon.

VAN DONGEN: What do we, as the international community, need in order to fulfil the potential that you are describing? What would have to happen?

ALBERDA: Having more diplomats. I think that is really very important. I think we have also learned that we need to emphasise much more on education. It's important for dialogue, also with people that we might not consider legitimate. Think a little bit out of the box. And like I said earlier, don't oppress an ideology by military force; let's take it as a comprehensive approach. So in that sense, we have learned a lot. I think we are doing it, but we just need to continue it. If you only come with a security agenda, then you will find a lot of partners here in the region that are really not that confident to help you.

VAN DONGEN: Well, I think that gives us a very interesting perspective, especially because we at ICCT are used to looking at terrorism as a security issue. I think I speak for ICCT, as well as for many people who are listening now, when I say that your perspective is very valuable because it shows us that security issues cannot be dealt with through security measures alone.

ALBERDA: It is also advice to the ICCT or your networks: always visit an embassy if you are making, for example, country profiles. I have had security organisations and think tanks knocking on my door and passing on papers, saying, ‘do you agree with this profile?’ So I really encourage you to get in close touch with the embassy and the political departments there because we need to have a common analysis and a common understanding, a common strategy. We can learn so much from each other.

VAN DONGEN: We will take that suggestion to heart and the next time we find ourselves in a position to do that we will definitely follow your advice. Because I think that we at ICCT also are part of that whole constellation of actors that is working together and that also means that we perhaps also sometimes need to get a perception of the problem that is a little broader than what we are used to traditionally. But on that note, Madam Ambassador, thank you so much for your time and your insights. I enjoyed listening to you, I think I speak on behalf of our audience if I say that this gives us a very different perspective on the whole matter of 9/11 and its impact. Thank you again very much.

ALBERDA: You're most welcome.