Speeches: Al-Qaida, the Islamic State, and the Future of the Global Jihadi Movement

Thank you very much for inviting me to participate on this panel today. I’d like to thank Brookings for inviting me to speak and also congratulate Dan (Byman) and Will (McCants) on their recent book releases. We all benefit from the scholarship and analysis that Brookings provides to the community. The release of your books provides an opportune moment to discuss both the nature of the terrorist threat, which continues to change and evolve over time, as well as the Administration’s overall approach in responding to that threat. The President has discussed this in a variety of public statements, but I hope today to further flesh out the nature of our effort and its implications.

The global threat environment is considerably different than it was in past, and equally remarkable – if somewhat disturbing – is the pace and dynamism of the changes we have seen. On the positive side of the ledger, the prominence of the threat once posed by al-Qa’ida with its centralized, hierarchical terrorist command structure has now diminished, largely as a result of leadership losses suffered by the AQ core.

However, on the other side of the balance sheet, the past several years have seen the emergence of a more aggressive set of AQ affiliates and like-minded groups, as well as the growth of ISIL, about which I’ll speak more in a moment. The emergence of these more radical and violent groups is, in most cases, associated with a loss of effective government control, as in Yemen, Syria, Libya, Iraq, Nigeria’s northeast, and Somalia. Groups that have become active in these areas are mainly localized, but some pose a threat to Western interests in Europe and in the United States, and we take these security concerns very seriously. Given the subject of today’s talk, I will not focus in this presentation on the terrorist threat posed by Iran and the Iranian-affiliated terrorist groups, including Lebanese Hizballah, but suffice it to say that we remain vigilant and active with regard to those activities, as well.

The very complexity of addressing this evolving set of terrorist threats, and the need to undertake efforts that span the entire range from security to rule of law to efficacy of governance, as well as pushing back on terrorist messaging in order to effectively combat the growth of these emerging violent extremist groups, requires an expanded approach to our counterterrorism engagement. There is ample discussion and debate – and understandably so – over the use of active U.S. kinetic measures to address terrorism, but the President has emphasized repeatedly that more than ever before, we need to diversify our approach by bringing strong, capable, and diverse partners to the forefront and enlisting their help in the mutually important endeavor of global counterterrorism.

A successful approach to counterterrorism must therefore revolve around partnerships. The vital role that our partners play has become even clearer in over the last year with the emergence of ISIL as a hugely destructive force in Iraq and Syria. ISIL’s unprecedented seizure of territory in Iraq and Syria, its continued access to foreign terrorist fighters, its growing number of global affiliates, its use of social media to spread its message and radicalize and recruit, and external plotting through directed and inspired attacks has now elevated it to one of our most pressing counterterrorism priorities.

In the last year, eight terrorist groups have announced their alliance to ISIL across the Middle East, North Africa, West Africa, Russia’s Northern Caucasus, and South Asia. Most of these affiliates are in places where terrorist groups were already operating, and some have their own local objectives. We are watching to see whether the extent of their interaction with core ISIL in Iraq and Syria might lead them to broaden their goals and gain access to increased financing and weapons.

Because these branches were formed mostly in places where terrorist groups were already operating, we and our partners already had regionally-based strategies in place to counter them. We have been continuously working with a range of partners – bilaterally with governments and militaries; multilaterally with the UN, the Global Counterterrorism Forum, and regional organizations; and with elements of civil society, including NGOs, religious leaders, the private sector and others – to counter the terrorist groups that confront us. We continue to assess whether our approach should adapt even further given the new global circumstances I described. We have been undergoing just such a fundamental review recently now that some of these local groups have joined or at least nominally affiliated themselves with ISIL as opposed to AQ.

There is a lot of discussion underway about the meaning and the impact of what some have termed “global ISIL.” The core effort to degrade and defeat ISIL, which will be a multi-year and multi-dimensional campaign, must of course focus on Iraq and Syria. Under the leadership of Special Presidential Envoy General John Allen, we have assembled a Global Coalition of more than 60 nations and international organizations. While it may be the Coalition’s kinetic actions that will understandably receive the most attention, it is the aggregate effect of the Coalition’s activities across multiple lines of effort beyond just the military dimension that will ultimately diminish ISIL as a relevant force. This includes disrupting the flow of foreign terrorist fighters; disrupting access to financial and economic resources; providing humanitarian relief and stabilization support; and countering ISIL’s messaging.

I would also note that 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 we are seeing in different regions outside Iraq and Syria are largely rooted in specific political, economic, and social dynamics unique to those regions. The situation in North Africa is significantly different from Southeast 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. And our counterterrorism efforts cannot be divorced from broader efforts in these regions to mitigate conflict, promote stability, and strengthen good governance.

If there is a single aspect of the dynamic terrorist threat that most concerns many of our foreign partners, and has serious implications for us, as well, it is the new phenomenon of foreign terrorist fighters traveling to conflict zones, most prominently Iraq and Syria, and the potential – or not so potential, given some of the “lone offender” attacks we have experienced in recent months – impact of these foreign fighters as an adverse element upon return to their home countries or in the recruitment and radicalization of those susceptible to extremism. Since the conflict in Syria and Iraq began, more than 25,000 foreign terrorist fighters from more than 100 countries have traveled to that region. There are reportedly over 250 Americans who have traveled or attempted to travel to Iraq and Syria to fight with ISIL and al-Qa’ida since 2012.

While the numbers are deeply troubling, the good news is that the global community recognizes the dangers posed by this shared threat and has mobilized to address it more effectively. When the State Department appointed its first Senior Advisor for Partner Engagement on Syria Foreign Fighters back in February 2014, a position we have expanded and empowered, much of the work focused on highlighting the nature of this threat and encouraging our partners to take it on seriously. We have moved beyond that kind of consciousness-raising and are now engaged in a sustained effort to give countries the expertise and capacity they need to tackle the challenge.

The State Department, and the Bureau of Counterterrorism in particular, is responsible for much of the origination, funding, and coordination of civilian programs to promote our partners’ CT capacity in law enforcement, border security, information sharing and CVE, or countering violent extremism. In this, we work extremely closely with the full array of USG agencies, including the intelligence community, the NSC, DOD, DOJ, DHS and FBI, among many others, to determine the nature of the threat, prioritize the allocation of resources, and ultimately devise a strategic level response.

Given the growing need to guard against the movement of terrorists across borders, or even within countries, as well as who may be planning attacks, we place a particularly high value on information sharing. The U.S. now has information-sharing agreements with over 40 international partners to identify and track the travel of suspected terrorists, and we are working on others. We also are encouraging our partners to further increase security at their borders to better identify, restrict, and report travel of suspected foreign terrorist fighters. That means sharing passenger name records and 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 seen a significant increase in coordination among partners to add suspects to terrorist watchlists and to share that that information more broadly.

We have supplemented the bilateral capacity building – and I can provide much more for those of you who are interested in the particulars of our assistance to given countries and regions, whether in the form of tailored law enforcement skills, CT legal frameworks and the development of prosecutorial expertise, counter-terrorist financing capability, and a variety of other tools and instruments – with multilateral approaches that engage our partners and empower them to bring their own ideas and initiatives to the table. We have used the Global Counterterrorism Forum, a focused group of 29 countries and the EU, to very good effect in this regard; through the GCTF, we last year launched a Foreign Terrorist Fighter (FTF) Working Group, which subsequently drafted a set of best practices known collectively as the “Hague-Marrakesh memorandum” that countries can undertake to protect against the threat of FTF travel. The Hague-Marrakesh memorandum gave practical effect to UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2178, adopted in September 2014 during a high-level UNSC Meeting chaired by President Obama. This Chapter 7 resolution requires that countries take certain steps to address the foreign terrorist fighter threat, such as preventing suspected foreign terrorist fighters from entering or transiting their territories and implementing legislation to prosecute foreign terrorist fighters.

Ultimately, however, we need to do more than identify and stop foreign terrorist fighters from arriving at their destination – we have to prevent them from getting into these pipelines in the first place. To address this, we’re working with partners both inside and outside of the government to increase outreach efforts to youth, women, and victims, in order to address the spread of violent extremist recruitment and the conditions that make communities susceptible to violent extremism, and thus discourage radicalization to violence.

Effectively preventing and countering the growth and spread of violent extremism requires a comprehensive approach that involves international organizations, national and local governments, civil society, religious leaders, the private sector, and affected communities. Earlier this year, the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism brought together over 60 governments and a range of civil society and private sector actors to launch an action agenda for countering radicalization to violence. This has sparked a wide range of activity, which will culminate at the UN General Assembly later this month.

ISIL’s particularly effective use of the internet and social media to radicalize, recruit, fundraise, and propagandize poses unique and specific challenges for our efforts. Countries around the world differ on the most effective ways to deal with terrorist use of the Internet, ranging from heavy regulation to promoting alternative messaging from independent, moderate voices. In general, we believe alternative viewpoints are a more effective response to objectionable speech than suppression of that speech. In the United States, the interagency Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC), housed in the Department of State, engages online using counter-arguments to challenge and disrupt the terrorist narrative.

I think we need to be honest, however: given the scope and complexity of the CT challenge we face, modest programs undertaken in disparate locations – and government resources alone – will not mitigate current trends of violent extremism. This is a long-term fight, one that involves a multitude of actors and requires a continuous mustering of political will. The good news is that the imperative to take these steps has truly impressed itself on our foreign partners, and I see this every day in our interaction with them. It has become easier to illustrate to them – regardless of continuing concerns on the part of some governments over data privacy, frequent suspicion of non-governmental actors, and so on – that this is a vital set of actions that requires their full participation and engagement. We need to use that window of opportunity to press for further action and to think strategically about what will generate the most impact as we take on this collective challenge.

To build the necessary CT partnerships globally, the Administration has requested additional resources for what we have termed the “Counterterrorism Partnership Fund” or CTPF. We remain hopeful that Congress will provide funding for both DOD and State as part of the fiscal year 2016 appropriations bill. As DOD expands its train-and-equip efforts for foreign militaries, it is critical that State has adequate resources to build complementary criminal justice sector capacity to enable the effective arrest, prosecutions, and incarceration of terrorists. It is also critical that we build civilian capacity and resilience to counter violent extremism as a vital complement to our security efforts. The CTPF – if fully funded – could give us the resources we need to pursue this kind of comprehensive and integrated approach.

To conclude, the terrorism challenges that we face continue to evolve at a rapid pace, and we cannot predict what the landscape will look like one decade or, frankly, even a year from now. However, we believe 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. We plan on pursuing just this plan of action as we go into the UNGA and the GCTF ministerial next week.