Nathan A. Sales
Ambassador-at-Large and Coordinator for Counterterrorism
September 19, 2018
MR PALLADINO: Thank you. Hello, everyone. This is Robert Palladino. Thank you so much for joining us for today’s call. Today’s call is on the record. And I also want to note that both the call and the report are embargoed until the end of the call
Today the State Department is releasing its annual Country Reports on Terrorism, which describes the global counterterrorism landscape in 2017 and fulfills a congressional mandate. The report allows us to highlight significant terrorist trends and takes stock of how effective United States and international efforts were in countering these threats. It also helps us make more informed judgments and plans about our policies, priorities, and where to place our resources.
At this point I’d like to turn it over to Ambassador Nathan A. Sales, who was sworn in as the coordinator of counterterrorism in August 2017. Nathan, thank you very much for being here today.
AMBASSADOR SALES: Thanks, Robert, very much for the introduction. And thanks to everyone on the line who called in for today’s call. Country Reports on Terrorism is an important document laying out the United States Government’s assessment of recent counterterrorism trends and highlighting some of the efforts that we and our partners have taken to combat groups like ISIS, al-Qaida, Iran-backed threats, and other terrorist groups of global reach.
Let me start with some numbers. The report includes a statistical annex that was prepared by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism just down the street at the University of Maryland. The annex notes that the total number of terrorist attacks worldwide in 2017 decreased by 23 percent. Similarly, the total deaths due to terrorist attacks decreased by 27 percent. Both of those are compared to the numbers for 2016.
While numerous countries saw a decline in terrorist violence between 2016 and 2017, this overall trend was largely due to dramatically fewer attacks and deaths in Iraq. Although terrorist attacks took place in 100 countries in 2017, they were concentrated geographically. Fifty-nine percent of all attacks took place in five countries. Those are Afghanistan, India, Iraq, Pakistan, and the Philippines. Similarly, 70 percent of all deaths due to terrorist attacks took place in five countries, and those are Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Somalia, and Syria.
The report notes a number of major strides that the United States and our international partners made to defeat and degrade terrorist organizations in 2017. We worked with allies and partners around the world to expand information sharing, improve aviation security, enhance law enforcement and rule of law capacities, and to counter terrorist radicalization with a focus on preventing recruitment and recidivism.
In December 2017, the U.S. drafted UN Security Council Resolution 2396, was adopted unanimously with 66 co-sponsors. UNSCR 2396 requires member-states to collect and use biometrics and traveler data, including passenger name record data, to identify and disrupt terrorist travel and to develop watch lists or databases of known and suspected terrorists.
We continue to engage foreign partners to conclude bilateral arrangements for the exchange of identity information on known and suspected terrorists. This is pursuant to Homeland Security Presidential Directive 6, or HSPD-6.
Since 2007, the CT Bureau and the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center have signed 71 of these arrangements with foreign partners, and they’re helping to identify, track, and deter the travel of known and suspected terrorists.
2017 saw the United States and a global coalition accomplish major efforts against ISIS. Ninety-nine percent of the territory ISIS once held in Iraq and Syria has now been liberated. Approximately 50 percent of those gains were achieved since January of 2017. Similarly, more than 7.7 million people have been liberated from ISIS’ brutal role – approximately 4.5 million in Iraq and 3.2 million in Syria. Of those 7.7 million people, an estimated 5 million have been liberated since 2017.
We increased pressure on al-Qaida to prevent its resurgence. We’re working closely with our allies to counter al-Qaida’s ability to recruit, raise money, travel, and plot. In May of this year, the State Department expanded the terrorist designation of an al-Qaida affiliate in Syria. We also designated al-Qaida’s Mali branch earlier this month, on September 5th, and we have led efforts at the UN Security Council to designate numerous organizations and individuals affiliated with al-Qaida.
Despite these many successes, the terrorist landscape grew more complex in 2017. ISIS, al-Qaida, and their affiliates have proven to be resilient, determined, and adaptable. They have adjusted to heightened counterterrorism pressure in Iraq, Syria, Somalia, and elsewhere. Foreign terrorist fighters are heading home from the war zone in Iraq and Syria or traveling to third countries to join ISIS branches there. We also are experiencing an increase in attacks by homegrown terrorists – that is, people who have been inspired by ISIS but have never set foot in Syria or Iraq. We’ve seen ISIS-directed or ISIS-inspired attacks outside the war zone on soft targets and in public spaces like hotels, tourist resorts, and cultural sites. We’ve seen this trend in places as far afield as Bamako, Barcelona, Berlin, London, Marawi, New York City, Ouagadougou, and many others.
Iran remains the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism and is responsible for intensifying multiple conflicts and undermining U.S. interests in Syria, in Yemen, in Iraq, in Bahrain, in Afghanistan, and in Lebanon, using a number of proxies and other instruments such as Lebanese Hizballah and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp’s Quds Force. The threats posed by Iran’s support for terrorism are not confined to the Middle East; they are truly global.
Since 2012 alone, Hizballah has conducted a successful attack in Bulgaria that killed six, it has undertaken two separate plots in Cyprus, and it has developed large caches of military equipment and explosives in Kuwait, Nigeria, and Bolivia while sending terrorist operatives to Peru and Thailand.
On June 30th of this year, German authorities arrested an Iranian official for his role in a terrorist plot to bomb a political rally in Paris. Authorities in Belgium and France also made arrests in connection with this Iranian-supported terrorist plot.
So that about wraps up some of the key points that we made in the report. I thank you for taking the time to join this call, and I anxiously await your questions. Thank you.
MR PALLADINO: Thank you, Ambassador Sales. Let’s open it up for questions. I’d like to ask that everyone please identify your outlet and name, and to limit your question to one question. Thank you.
OPERATOR: As a reminder, we’ve reached the Q&A phase of our conference call. Please to press *1 at this time.
Our first question will come from the line of Carol Morello of The Washington Post. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about what you call in the report the “near-global reach of Iran and its proxies.” And you mentioned a little at the end. It seems like whenever it’s mentioned, it’s a incident here and there, in some cases maybe inspired by as opposed to actually conducted by Iran. Do you think you may be overstating the, quote, “near-global reach of Iran and its proxies” in terrorism?
AMBASSADOR SALES: Not at all. Iran is the world’s preeminent state sponsor of terrorism, and it brings to its terrorist activities the resources of a state. We have seen Iran’s and its proxies’ terrorist-related activities across the globe. There are active fundraising networks in places as far afield as Africa, in South America. We’ve seen weapons caches planted around the world. We’ve seen operational activity not just in Lebanon by Hizballah, but by Iran-backed terrorists in the heart of Europe. Iran uses terrorism as a tool of its statecraft. It has no reservations about using that tool on any continent.
MR PALLADINO: Next question, please.
OPERATOR: We have a question from the line of Susan George, Associated Press. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hey there. Thanks for doing this call. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about al-Qaida. You describe the group expanding its membership. Could you give us a bit more detail exactly what you mean by that?
AMBASSADOR SALES: Hey, Susan. Thanks for the question. Al-Qaida is a determined and patient adversary. They have largely remained out of the headlines in recent years as they’ve been content to let ISIS bear the brunt of the international response, but we shouldn’t confuse that period of relative quiet with an – with al-Qaida’s abandonment of its capabilities or intentions to strike us and our allies. That is why we are continuing to keep the pressure on al-Qaida, its affiliates, and its individuals. The report details a number of efforts that we’ve taken to designate – and I mentioned in my opening remarks – efforts that we have taken to designate al-Qaida affiliates in Syria, in Mali, as well as individuals who are associated with the group.
So although ISIS has gotten the headlines, we remain focused and determined to confront al-Qaida wherever we find it.
MR PALLADINO: Next question, please.
OPERATOR: Cristobal Vasquez, Caracol Radio. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Yes, hi. Thank you. I would like to ask about the FARC. A recent report from The New York Times said that around 40 percent of the FARC militants did not actually sign up into the peace agreement or – and they are still free and they’re still doing illicit activities. Can you dig into – a little bit more into these – those militants that are not in the peace agreement of – that the FARC signed with the Colombian Government?
AMBASSADOR SALES: Well, thanks for the question, Cris. I can tell you it’s a situation that we at the State Department and throughout the U.S. Government are watching very closely. We have consistently maintained our support for Colombia’s efforts to secure a just and lasting peace. The Colombian people deserve no less than that. We’re committed to cooperating with Colombia to undermine those terrorist groups and their remnants – groups like the ELN, dissidents from the FARC.
MR PALLADINO: Next question, please.
OPERATOR: J.J. Green, WTOP. Please, go ahead. Mr. Green, your line is open.
OPERATOR: We have a question from the line of Maria Molina of W Radio Colombia. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hey, thank you for doing this. I want to go back to FARC because we already have FARC members in our congress in Colombia. They signed a peace agreement, as my colleague said, but you still include them in the list of foreign terrorist organizations. Is the State Department considering at any point, and why haven’t they been taken out of this list if they are already not anymore a terrorist organization? Or they’re not supposed to be, at least.
AMBASSADOR SALES: Thanks for the question. I’m not going to be in a position to comment on any internal deliberations that may or may not be taking place. What I can tell you is that the statutory standards for getting on the FTO list or getting off the FTO list are very clear, and it – we apply the standards that Congress has given us consistent with the evidence in front of us, and we do that regardless of the organization or country.
MR PALLADINO: Thank you. Next question, please.
OPERATOR: Kim Dozier of Daily Beast. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi there. Thanks for doing the call. I would like to understand where you see the terrorist groups in competition in terms of attacks directed at the continental United States. Between al-Qaida, ISIS, other groups, and geographically, where do you see the greatest threat to the continental U.S.? It used to be AQAP, but that seems to have shifted.
AMBASSADOR SALES: Well, I think all three of the major terrorist adversaries that I’ve highlighted have both the capability and intent to strike the United States and our allies. Al-Qaida’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has repeatedly called for AQ members and followers to commit attacks here in the U.S. ISIS-inspired attacks have occurred here in the United States, including in New York City last October. And as far as Iran-backed terrorist organizations are concerned, we’ve arrested a number of operatives who allegedly were casing targets in support of Iran-backed terrorist organizations and they’re now facing charges in federal court.
So I think all three of them have both the capability and intent, and so the key question then becomes: What are we doing about it? And I think there’s a suite of tools that are useful against all three of those diverse threat streams. You’ve got to stop the flow of money to these organizations. That’s why we designate individuals and facilitators and financiers. You’ve got to be able to stop terrorist travel. That’s why we’re doing things like collecting biometrics at the border, sharing information about known and suspected terrorists, analyzing airline reservation data to identify previously unknown threats. And another thing you’ve got to do is use law enforcement tools to prosecute and investigate and, when convicted, to incarcerate suspected terrorists.
MR PALLADINO: At this point, I would like to thank Ambassador Sales, the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism, for his – for making – providing this opportunity today. This call is now ended. This call has been on the record. And the embargo is now lifted for both the call, its contents, and the reports themselves. Thank you all for joining us today. Bye-bye.