Countering the Spread of ISIL and Other Threats

I’d like to thank CSIS very much for the invitation to speak here today. CSIS and other non-governmental organizations provide a crucial venue for sharing ideas on national security issues, and we hope to keep this conversation going with a variety of think tanks and other stakeholders. I’m particularly grateful for the opportunity to focus on our civilian counterterrorism efforts to counter ISIL, though I do want to emphasize that we have not taken our eye off other important threats, including those posed by the remnants of al-Qa’ida and by Iran affiliates and proxies including Hizballah. We can certainly discuss that, as well, if people have an interest.

But today our conversation will mostly hinge on ISIL and its manifestations in the Iraq and Syria theaters, as well as globally. Over the last two years, the international terrorist threat picture has been transformed by ISIL’s territorial expansion, the promulgation of its so-called caliphate, and its campaign aimed at the West. Weak or failed governance has allowed ISIL to take territory in Syria and Iraq and continues to provide an enabling environment for ISIL and its affiliates, notably in the Sinai, Libya, and Yemen. ISIL’s seizure of territory in Iraq and Syria; its continued access to significant numbers of foreign terrorist fighters; its increased number of global branches; its unprecedented use of social media to spread its message, radicalize and recruit individuals to violence; and its external plotting through directed and inspired attacks has elevated it to our most pressing counterterrorism priority at this moment.

Through its propaganda and its adherents on the ground in the Iraq and Syria battlespace, ISIL has also been able to inspire or direct attacks by individuals or small groups of individuals in several cities around the world, as we saw in Paris, San Bernardino, and in Jakarta most recently.

ISIL-aligned groups have established branches across the Middle East, North Africa, West Africa, the Russian North Caucasus, and South Asia. The relationship between these affiliates and “core ISIL” in Iraq and Syria, beyond ideological affinity and inspiration, is the subject of much discussion. Most of these branches are made up of pre-existing terrorist networks, many of which have their own local goals. We are watching to see whether the extent of their interaction with “core ISIL” might lead them to broaden their goals and gain access to increased financing and weapons.

President Obama has made it clear that defeating ISIL is a priority, and as he indicated in his State of the Union remarks on January 12, “Priority number one is protecting the American people and going after terrorist networks. Both al-Qa’ida and now ISIL pose a direct threat to our people, because in today’s world, even a handful of terrorists who place no value on human life, including their own, can do a lot of damage.”

We are addressing this challenge head-on, and thankfully, we are not doing this alone. For more than a year, America has led a coalition of 66 partners – welcoming our newest Coalition partner Afghanistan just this week – dedicated to degrading and defeating ISIL, including by cutting off ISIL’s financing, disrupting their plots, and stopping the flow of foreign terrorist fighters. With nearly 10,000 air strikes, we are methodically taking their leadership off the battlefield, as well as going after their heavy weapons, oil tankers, training camps, bulk cash storage, and their infrastructure.

Working with local forces on the ground, we have taken back 20-25 percent of the populated territory ISIL once held in Iraq and Syria, and in Iraq alone ISIL has lost 40 percent of what it held at its peak in August 2014.

And since the attacks in Paris, our closest allies – including France, Germany, and the United Kingdom – have ramped up their contributions to our military campaign, which is helping us accelerate our effort to defeat ISIL. Similarly, the Iraqi military has displayed tremendous perseverance and courage in fighting to dislodge ISIL and return the capital of Anbar province back to the Iraqi people; Kurdish forces in Iraq have driven ISIL from Sinjar; and Syrian Arab and Kurdish forces have pushed ISIL from key parts of northeastern Syria. These Coalition advances will make it harder for ISIL forces to find safe haven, regroup, and plan external attacks.

Efforts will continue in the military realm with vigor and a continued amount of focus and attention, but I think it’s clear we cannot address counterterrorism solely through military means. We need to keep denying them the supply of foreign terrorist fighters, cut off their access to financing, disrupt and expose their messaging, and stabilize the vulnerable communities that have been liberated from ISIL control.

I’d like to drill down a bit in the area of foreign terrorist fighters. We continue to face an unprecedented flow of foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) to Syria and Iraq, which has necessitated an integrated, comprehensive, and global response. Using the framework of UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2178, a landmark resolution passed in September 2014 under U.S. leadership, we are working with partners to put in place the fundamental reforms that will stem the long-term flow of foreign terrorist fighters. Implementation of this UNSCR involves wide-ranging efforts to increase information sharing among countries; implement counterterrorism legislation; strengthen border security; and increase efforts on counter-messaging and countering violent extremism (CVE).

While there is still a great deal of work to do, we are beginning to see tangible progress. The United States now has information-sharing arrangements with over 49 international partners to assist efforts to identify, track, and deter the travel of suspected terrorists. Approximately 45 countries have passed or updated existing laws to more effectively identify and prosecute foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs). Thirty-five countries have reported arresting FTFs, and 12 have successfully prosecuted at least one foreign terrorist fighter. Turkey – a critical geographic chokepoint in the flow of FTFs – has increased detentions, arrests, and prosecution of suspected FTFs, has increased its information sharing with international partners, and is taking steps to improve the security of its border.

We are working with the entire array of our partners, including notably in Europe, to further increase security at their borders and eliminate existing security vulnerabilities, enabling them to better identify, restrict, and report travel of suspected foreign terrorist fighters. That means, in particular, sharing passenger name records provided by the airlines and so-called advanced passenger information. It also means taking greater advantage of INTERPOL’s resources and screening passengers against its Foreign Terrorist Fighters database and its Stolen and Lost Travel Documents system. As a result, we’ve already seen a significant increase in coordination among partners adding suspects to terrorist watchlists and sharing that information more broadly.

In the aftermath of the recent attacks in Europe and elsewhere, we have further accelerated efforts to address the FTF threat. As the White House announced on November 30, the United States is prepared to deploy teams of technical experts in order to help work with countries to counter terrorist travel. These “Foreign Terrorist Fighter Surge Teams” can offer specific technical assistance to enhance partner capacity in the following areas: information sharing; risk-based, enhanced traveler screening; border and security management; utilizing financial intelligence, and law enforcement investigations.

We are also working hard to counter the ISIL narrative. There is no question we need to do more to counter ISIL’s propaganda and online radicalization and recruitment efforts. We recognize that the most effective messengers are our partners in majority Muslim countries, and we also understand frankly that governments are not usually the best agents for delivering this kind of content or pushing back on the kind of messaging ISIL utilizes. We know that groups and individuals are inspired by a range of personal, religious, political, or other ideological beliefs to promote and use violence. But as the terrorist threat posed by ISIL continues to grow, partnerships and support for Muslim community elements at home and abroad are becoming more critical than ever, which is why the State Department last month announced the launch of a Global Engagement Center to integrate and synchronize our communications against violent extremist groups, including ISIL and al-Qa’ida. This new center will shift our focus on countering violent extremist messaging away from direct messaging and toward a growing emphasis on empowering and enabling partners, both governmental and non-governmental, across the globe.

The Global Engagement Center is one piece of the larger CVE architecture the State Department is developing to enhance our overseas CVE efforts and partnerships. We continue to pursue a range of efforts to build resilient communities, enhance community-security sector relationships, and build a “whole of society” global approach to address the drivers of violent extremism, both in the context of addressing ISIL and other existing terrorist threats and preventing new ones from emerging.

The UN must also play a critical role in CVE efforts. UN Security Council Resolution 2178, which I mentioned earlier, calls upon member states to enhance efforts to counter violent extremism, and identifies preventing radicalization, recruitment, and mobilization of individuals into terrorist groups and becoming foreign terrorist fighters as essential elements of addressing the threat they pose to international peace and security. As a sign of the importance the UN places on CVE, the Secretary General unveiled earlier this month the “Plan of Action for Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE).” The Plan calls on member states to develop national plans of action to prevent and counter violent extremism – we look forward to actively supporting this plan, together with a variety of key international stakeholders.

While we need to counter the aspects of ISIL’s network that are truly global, we cannot lose sight of the fact that the manifestations of ISIL support that we’re seeing in different regions outside Iraq and Syria are driven by specific political, economic, and social dynamics unique to those regions. The situation in North Africa is significantly different from South Asia, to state the obvious. Our approach and our CT partnerships must therefore be tailored to the specific region, country and even community in which we are operating.

As I indicated at the very outset of this discussion, it’s also important to note that while AQ central leadership has been significantly weakened, the organization remains a threat and continues to serve as a focal point of “inspiration” for a network of affiliated groups, including al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula; al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb; al-Nusrah Front; and al-Shabaab. Notably, AQAP – which has made several attempts to attack the United States since 2009 and maintains the capability to try again – remains a significant threat to Yemen, the region, and the United States.

We are also seeing al-Qa’ida and ISIL competing with each other. In what could well have been an attempt to upstage ISIL’s role in the Paris attacks, al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb attacked a hotel in Bamako, Mali that same month. Last week, over two dozen civilians were killed in an attack in a hotel in Burkina Faso. This should remind us that terrorists are adaptable by nature, and that our counterterrorism efforts must match their adaptability.

ISIL and AQ are not the only serious threats that confront the United States and its allies. We remain vigilant to Iran’s support for terrorist proxies, including Hizballah, which has its own impact on the fueling of ISIL and Sunni-inspired terrorist groups. Over the past several years, we have been working closely with our colleagues at the Department of Justice to raise awareness about Hizballah’s activities and to increase international cooperation – particularly on the law enforcement front – in these areas. We have launched with Europol a U.S.-Europol Law Enforcement Coordination Group focusing on Hizballah’s terrorist and other illicit activities, and we have held or are holding regional sessions to coordinate efforts to counter Hizballah’s activities in locales around the globe, including Eastern Europe, South America, West Africa and Southeast Asia – all areas where we believe Hizballah has a significant presence. We are also strengthening our coordination with our partners in the Persian Gulf on Hizballah-related issues.

Addressing this evolving set of terrorist threats requires an expanded approach to our counterterrorism engagement. President Obama has emphasized repeatedly that we need to bring strong, capable, and diverse partners to the forefront and enlist their help in the mutually important endeavor of global counterterrorism.

The attacks in Paris, Beirut, Mali, and elsewhere have heightened political attention around the world and raised both the urgency and political will to act against the evolving threat posed by ISIL, AQ, and the lure of violent extremism. We believe that the United States has a unique window of opportunity to press for cooperation and reforms overseas that strengthen our collective counterterrorism efforts, while preventing further ISIL expansion.

This is a moment that requires diplomatic leadership – a challenge we in the State Department are committed to taking on. While we have definitely seen political will increasing around the world to take on ISIL, its branches, and followers in the wake of the recent deadly attacks, there are many steps that our partners still need to take to address these threats. And it’s important to note that in addition to our diplomatic role, the State Department has significant funding that we can dedicate to improving our partners’ technical capabilities. The CT Bureau currently manages about $230 million in Fiscal Year 2015 foreign assistance to assist partners in building sustainable capacity to combat terrorism and address violent extremism in a rule of law framework. In addition, in this fiscal year’s appropriation, Congress has agreed to provide the Bureau with another $175 million under the Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund to expand our capacity building efforts. We will focus those efforts on addressing the threat of Foreign Terrorist Fighters, countering violence extremism, preventing and countering terrorist safe havens, and countering Iran-sponsored and -linked terrorist groups.

As we have reviewed today, the terrorism challenges we face continue to evolve at a rapid pace. We can best protect America’s interests and people over the long run by engaging in robust diplomacy, expanding our partnerships, building bilateral and regional capabilities, and promoting holistic and rule of law-based approaches to counter terrorism and violent extremism.

I invite your questions.

Source: U.S. Department of State