I’d like to thank AEI for giving me this opportunity to speak with you about the Administration’s counterterrorism efforts. And thanks to Katie Zimmerman and Bruce Hoffman for joining us.
Before I start, I’d be remiss if I didn’t address what happened in Washington last week. Let me repeat for you what I told my team at the State Department.
The assault on the Capitol wasn’t just an assault on the Capitol. It was an assault on democracy, with a violent mob attempting to interfere with the results of the election. Nothing is more sacred to our constitutional democracy than the peaceful transfer of power.
As our nation’s ambassador for counterterrorism, my job is to help our partners around the world build the capacity to fight terrorism through the rule of law. It is with great satisfaction, and more than a little righteous anger, that I watch my colleagues at the Justice Department and FBI enforce the rule of law here against those who desecrated the Capitol and the principles for which it stands.
Today, I’m going to talk about some of the Administration’s most important achievements in the fight against international terrorism. But to appreciate the state of play today, we need to recall where things stood four years ago.
In 2017, we faced a stark threat environment. ISIS controlled vast swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria. It had spread its tentacles to Africa and Asia, while also striking in the U.S. and Europe. Al Qa’ida was wounded by the killing of Bin Laden but was quietly rebuilding. Iran was taking advantage of the JCPOA’s sanctions relief to increase funding to its proxies, and to further its global campaign of terrorism and assassinations.
Make no mistake: In 2021, we still face an array of determined and capable adversaries. But over the past four years, we’ve made significant progress in degrading the world’s most dangerous terrorist groups. Today, I’d like to highlight some of these achievements, focusing on four key areas:
- Taking terrorists off the battlefield;
- Cutting off the flow of money to terrorists;
- Hardening borders to prevent terrorist travel; and
- Promoting law enforcement “finishes” to terrorist threats.
I’ll also look ahead to what needs to be done in the future to preserve and build on these successes.
Taking Terrorists off the Battlefield
The battlefield is where our strategy begins. Consistent with domestic and international law, the United States conducts military operations against terrorists who pose the greatest threat to our people and interests.
This administration built on the successes of our predecessors, but we also took a new approach. We empowered our commanders on the front lines by devolving certain authorities, allowing them to take the fight to our enemies.
At the same time, we remain committed to protecting civilians. Not only is this the right thing to do and consistent with international law. We also knew that any other approach could feed terrorist narratives and stoke recruitment. And it could undermine the trust with foreign partners that’s needed to enable successful and sustainable counterterrorism pressure.
These policy changes have had a major impact, significantly degrading the threats we face.
Let’s start with ISIS. The United States, in close cooperation with Iraqi and Coalition partners, eradicated the so-called territorial caliphate, an area of 42,000 square miles. That’s the size of Pennsylvania, by the way. We liberated nearly 8 million men, women, and children from ISIS’s reign of terror. Four million displaced Iraqis have returned home. And we eliminated the former ISIS Amir, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in 2019.
Our victory was also enabled by key contributions from the Global Coalition – perhaps the most successful multilateral CT platform in history. Over the last four years, the U.S.-led Coalition has grown to 83 members, with Mauritania becoming the most recent to join last November. I was proud to have been tapped by Secretary Pompeo as Special Presidential Envoy to the Coalition in November.
At the same time we’ve remained focused on al Qa’ida. We’ve eliminated numerous AQ leaders, weakening the organization and its affiliates. That includes Hamza bin Laden, Osama’s son and potential successor, as well as AQ commander Jamal al-Badawi, who was behind the USS Cole bombing.
And as Secretary Pompeo confirmed earlier this week, another senior AQ leader was killed last year – Abu Muhammed al-Masri, AQ’s worldwide #2, who was living in Iran. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that one of al-Qa’ida’s top leaders was in Iran. According to newly declassified information, since 2015 Iran has been AQ’s de facto headquarters.
While our military has won some extraordinary victories, counterterrorism is a whole-of-government effort. Civilian tools are just as important as the military ones. So let me drill down a bit more on what we at the State Department have brought to the fight these past four years.
Designations are one of our most effective CT tools. Money is the oxygen that fuels the fire of terrorist plotting, and our sanctions help deprive terrorist groups of the funds they need to conduct attacks.
In September 2019 the President signed an Executive Order that greatly expanded our ability to sanction terrorists and their financial backers. It was the most significant upgrade to our terrorism sanctions authorities since 9/11.
This administration has used our sanctions tools more aggressively than any before.
Since 2017, State has completed more than 100 CT designation actions. That includes 43 related to ISIS; 30 aimed at AQ; and 25 for Iran and its proxies, including 12 for Hizballah. Treasury has also completed nearly 200 CT designation actions, including: 58 ISIS, 10 AQ, 9 Hamas, and 100 related to Hizballah.
We’ve particularly focused on squeezing the Iranian regime. Iran remains the world’s worst state sponsor of terrorism, but its ability to shed blood has been vastly curtailed. That’s because the State Department has taken unprecedented steps to starve it and its proxies of resources.
In April 2019 we designated the IRGC, including its Quds Force, as a Foreign Terrorist Organization – the first time we’ve ever applied these sanctions to part of a government.
We’ve also mobilized governments around the world to take action against Hizballah. As a result of our diplomacy, countries are seeing Hizballah for what it is – a terrorist organization, full stop. More than a dozen countries across the Americas and in Europe have banned or designated Hizballah in its entirety, rejecting the false distinction between a “military wing” and a so-called “political wing.”
Hizballah is feeling the pinch. Its secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, has admitted as much, issuing rare public pleas for donations.
We’ve also ratcheted up the pressure on ISIS. In March 2020, the State Department designated Muhammad Sa’id Abdal-Rahman al-Mawla, the group’s new leader. We’re also working to multilateralize our sanctions. We were proud to lead the UN’s designation of six ISIS branches in 2019 and 2020 – the first time the UN had ever sanctioned ISIS affiliates.
And while I’ve talked about Islamist terrorists, it’s important to note that we’ve used our sanctions tools against all terrorist threats, regardless of ideology.
Last April, we designated the Russian Imperial Movement, or RIM, along with three of its leaders. RIM is a white supremacist group based in St. Petersburg that has trained people to commit acts of terrorism. It also has its eye on the United States. Here’s a fact that’s out there in the public domain but deserves to be better known: According to press accounts, RIM contacted organizers of the 2017 Charlottesville rally to invite them to its training camp.
We’ve also worked to limit RIM’s ability to use social media to promote its bloody agenda. A RIM leader told an American journalist that one of the most devastating impacts of the designation was that Facebook shut down its page, resulting in the loss of years’ worth of information and hampering the group’s reach.
The RIM designation was the first time the United States ever sanctioned white supremacist terrorists. It illustrates how seriously the State Department takes racially or ethnically motivated terrorism, or REMT.
The RIM designation came on the heels of the Administration’s National Strategy for Counterterrorism, released in October 2018. It was the first such strategy ever to recognize this threat, calling out – and I’m quoting now – “terrorists who are not motivated by a radical Islamist ideology but … by … racially motivated extremism.”
Countering terrorist travel is another top priority. By keeping terrorists from crossing borders, by limiting their global mobility, we protect not only our own homeland but our partners as well. A rising tide of border security lifts all boats.
In December 2017, the State Department led the drafting and adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 2396, a landmark resolution that required all UN members to use border security tools that the U.S. pioneered and has been using for years. Things like establishing watchlists and analyzing airline reservation data.
2396 internationalizes the American approach to border security. It’s the most important resolution on terrorist travel the UN has ever adopted.
Since then, we’ve been working hard to make sure 2396 is implemented fully and expeditiously. Thanks to American leadership, the International Civil Aviation Organization last year adopted new standards for airline data known as Passenger Name Records, or PNR. PNR helps border officials identify potentially risky travelers. These new standards provide a roadmap for countries to deploy this critical tool.
We’re also working bilaterally to boost our partners’ ability to combat terrorist travel.
Over the past four years, the State Department has expanded information sharing with foreign partners on known or suspected terrorists. We’ve now signed a total of 70 arrangements to share watchlists under Homeland Security Presidential Directive 6, or HSPD-6. These relationships allow us to cast a global net for terrorists, and detect their movements far from American shores.
We’ve also given foreign partners a key software tool that DHS uses to protect our own borders. It’s called ATS-G, and it analyzes PNR and other data to flag travelers who deserve a little extra scrutiny when they try to cross the border. Since 2017, we’ve provided or planned ATS-G assistance in over 15 countries in Africa, Europe, and South America.
Finally, one of our most effective weapons against terrorist travel is the PISCES program. That stands for Personal Identification Secure Comparison and Evaluation System. That’s a mouthful, but it’s a complete border management system, modeled on U.S. systems, that we offer to partner countries facing a high risk of terrorist travel.
Every day, more than 300,000 travelers worldwide are processed through PISCES-equipped border control sites in 24 countries. This program yields concrete results. For example, in February 2020, the Afghanistan Border Police arrested a senior Taliban member when he triggered a match in the PISCES system as he attempted to depart for Pakistan.
Law Enforcement Finishes
The criminal justice system is a critical counterterrorism tool. Holding terrorists accountable for their crimes in courts of law is one of the most effective ways we know of to take threats off the street. That’s why the State Department has worked to build our partners’ capabilities to investigate, prosecute, and adjudicate terrorism crimes.
We want their police officers to be able to respond to attacks, stop the perpetrators, and protect the innocent. And we want their investigators, prosecutors, and judges to be able to try suspected terrorists before courts of law and hold the guilty accountable for their crimes.
Let me highlight a few real-world examples.
In Kenya, a U.S.-funded unit responded to al-Shabaab’s 2019 attack on the DusitD2 Hotel in Nairobi. This unit was able to greatly improve Kenya’s response time and attack mitigation compared to similar attacks on Westgate Mall in 2014 and Garissa University in 2015.
In Nigeria, U.S.-trained police were key partners in the October 31, 2020 raid by U.S. Special Forces that rescued an American hostage. They led the investigation and provided security to the hostage and his family following the rescue.
And in Afghanistan, we’ve trained and equipped a police unit that’s making a major difference on the front lines. You may recall the ghastly ISIS attack on a maternity hospital in Kabul last May. This unit responded to the attack, neutralized the attackers, and evacuated over 100 patients, including infants and mothers.
We’ve also worked with partner countries to boost their ability to prosecute terrorists for their crimes – and to do so in a way that fully respects human rights and the rule of law.
In the Balkans, for instance, our assistance to prosecutors and judges has helped secure over 246 terrorist convictions since 2015.
In Niger, we supported a “mobile court” of investigative judges, prosecutors, and security personnel to two high-security prisons to interview terrorism suspects. This team closed over 140 dossiers, with over 120 suspects now set to stand trial for terrorist crimes.
In Mali, we funded and trained investigative judges who put together the legal case against the perpetrators of the 2015 attack on the Radisson Blu hotel and La Terasse restaurant in Bamako.
Another top priority has been the repatriation of foreign terrorist fighters from Syria to their home countries, where they can face justice for their crimes. Repatriation and prosecution is the best way to make sure these fighters can never return to the battlefield.
The United States has been leading by example. To date, we’ve brought back 12 adult American citizens and 16 U.S. minors from Syria and Iraq. Ten of the adults were charged with federal crimes. Three have pled or been found guilty; the other cases are still pending.
We’ve also helped over a dozen countries repatriate roughly 800 of their own citizens. And we’ve supported them by building the capabilities they need to rehabilitate and reintegrate returning family members.
Kazakhstan has been a world leader in bringing back its citizens – it’s repatriated more than 500 family members of ISIS fighters from Syria. With our help, Kazakhstan has been offering them medical care, psychosocial support, educational opportunities, and other assistance. We’re providing similar help to a handful of other countries. Note that these measures are not a purely humanitarian gesture; they’re also designed to prevent the children of ISIS terrorists from becoming the next generation of fighters.
So, what does the future hold? We’ve built a strong base for fighting terrorism over the last four years. But there’s no room for complacency.
First, we need to focus on Africa. As ISIS has lost its territory and power in Iraq and Syria, it has worked to strengthen its global branches, including in places like the Sahel and Mozambique. AQ’s affiliates likewise remain resilient, including al-Shabaab in Somalia and JNIM in the Sahel. These groups are exploiting under-governed spaces, conflict zones, and security gaps and we need to be vigilant to stop them from plotting external operations.
The D-ISIS Coalition needs to play a leadership role here – albeit in civilian capacity rather than a military one. Last November, the Coalition met to discuss the situation in West Africa, and we’ll be mobilizing our collective expertise and resources to help our partners on the front lines. We’ll need to continue that momentum.
Second, we need to keep up the pressure on Iran and its terrorist proxies, like Hizballah. The time has come to abandon the useful fiction that Hizballah has a peaceful “political wing” we can do business with. It doesn’t, and we can’t.
Thanks to our diplomacy, more than a dozen countries have joined us in designating Hizballah in its entirety. We’d like to see more join the club, particularly in Europe, particularly the European Union.
Third, we need to make sure that CT remains an urgent priority. We’ve entered an era of Great Power Competition in which China and other state rivals will consume the lion’s share of policymakers’ attention. But counterterrorism and Great Power Competition are not mutually exclusive.
CT is a comparative advantage for our country. We want to be the security partner of choice, and we provide capabilities that no rival can match. In part, that means equipment that actually works. But more fundamentally, the American approach to counterterrorism involves boosting our friends until they can stand up on their own. We don’t want vassal states. We want sovereign, independent partners that are capable of defeating the threats they face.
This kind of security cooperation can forge durable relationships that blunt our rivals’ ambitions.
Finally, in this volatile terrorist environment, we need to remain alert to new threats as the emerge and evolve. There are no JV terrorists. There are no geographical limits to terrorism. Eternal vigilance isn’t just the price of freedom, it’s also the price of security.