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Homeland Security

Counterterrorism Coordinator Ambassador Nathan Sales On the Release of the Country Reports on Terrorism 2018

Nathan A. Sales, Acting Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights
Press Briefing Room
Washington D.C.
November 1, 2019


MS ORTAGUS: Happy Friday. Good afternoon. Okay. 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 to take stock of how effective U.S. 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 resources.

And now, I'd like to introduce my friend, Ambassador Nathan Sales, who was sworn in as Coordinator of Counterterrorism in August 2017. Before joining the State Department, Ambassador Sales was a law professor at Syracuse University College of Law. He was also the deputy assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Homeland Security. He led DHS efforts to draft and implement legislation that strengthened the security features of and expanded the Visa Waiver Program.

Ambassador Sales also served at the Office of Legal Policy and at the Department of Justice, where he worked on counterterrorism policy and judicial confirmations. At DOJ, he received the Attorney General's Award for Exceptional Service, the Justice Department's highest honor.

Go ahead. We'll take questions afterwards.

AMBASSADOR SALES: Thanks, Morgan, for the introduction and thanks to all of you for being here today.

The Country Reports on Terrorism offers the most detailed look that the Federal Government offers on the global terrorist landscape. Today, I'm going to highlight three key trends that we saw in the 2018 report.

First, in 2018, the United States and our coalition partners nearly completed the destruction of the so-called ISIS caliphate while increasing pressure on the terror group's global networks. Second, the Islamic Republic of Iran remained the world's worst state sponsor of terrorism, and the administration continued to subject the regime to unrelenting diplomatic and economic pressure. Third, the world saw a rise in racially or ethnically motivated terrorism – a disturbing trend that the administration highlighted in our 2018 National Counterterrorism Strategy.

In addition to these three broad trends, I will also highlight some important steps the United States and our partners took in 2018 to counter terrorist threats.

Before getting into the report itself, however, I'd like to give you some overall numbers. In 2018, most terrorist incidents around the world were concentrated in three regions: the Middle East, South Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa. These three regions experienced about 85 percent of all terrorist incidents. The 10 countries with the greatest number of terrorist incidents in 2018 contributed 75 percent of the overall number.

And as for those three broad trends, first, the United States and our partners made major strides to defeat and degrade ISIS. In 2017 and 2018, we liberated 110,000 square kilometers of territory in Syria and Iraq, and freed roughly 7.7 million men, women, and children from ISIS's brutal rule. Those successes laid the groundwork for continued action in 2019, including the total destruction of the physical caliphate and last week's raid that resulted in the death of Abu Bakr al-Bahgdadi.

As the false caliphate collapsed, we saw ISIS's toxic ideology continue to spread around the globe in 2018. ISIS recognized new regional affiliates in Somalia and in East Asia. Foreign terrorist fighters headed home or traveled to third countries to join ISIS branches there, and homegrown terrorists – people who have never set foot in Syria or Iraq – also carried out attacks. We saw ISIS-directed or inspired attacks outside the core in places like Paris, Quetta, and Berlin, among others. Many of these attacks targeted soft targets and public spaces, like hotels, tourist resorts, and cultural sites.

Having destroyed the so-called caliphate, we are now taking the fight to ISIS branches around the world. In 2018, the State Department sanctioned eight ISIS affiliates, including in Southeast Asia, West Africa, and North Africa.

Second, in 2018, the Islamic Republic of Iran retained its standing as the world's worst state sponsor of terrorism, as it has every year since 1984. The regime, often through its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, has spent nearly a billion dollars a year to support terrorist groups that serve as its proxies and promote its malign influence around the region – groups like Hizballah and Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

But the Iranian threat is not confined to the Middle East; it's truly global. In 2018, that threat reached Europe in a big way. In January, Germany investigated 10 suspected IRGC Quds Force operatives. In the summer, authorities in Belgium, France, and Germany thwarted an Iranian plot to bomb a political rally near Paris. In October, an Iranian operative was arrested for planning an assassination in Denmark. And in December, Albania expelled two Iranian officials for plotting terrorist attacks there.

Countering Iran-backed terrorism is and has been a top priority for this administration. That's why in December of 2018 we hosted the first ever Western Hemisphere Counterterrorism Ministerial to focus on threats close to home, particularly the threats posed by Hizballah, Iran's terrorist proxy.

In addition, to give a sneak preview of one of the highlights we'll see in next year's report, in April of this year, the State Department designated Iran's IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization. This was the first time we've ever so designated a state actor.

Third, in 2018, we saw an alarming rise in racially or ethnically motivated terrorism, including here in the United States with the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. Similar to Islamist terrorism, this breed of terrorism is inspired by a hateful, supremacist, and intolerant ideology. Make no mistake; we will confront all forms of terrorism no matter what ideology inspires it.

In 2018, the administration's National Counterterrorism Strategy specifically highlighted racially and ethnically motivated terrorism as a top national security priority. This was the first such strategy to ever address this threat.

In addition, here at the State Department, we are combatting this threat with our Countering Violent Extremism, or CVE, authorities. We're using the Strong Cities Network to address radicalization and recruitments. In addition, we're working with tech companies to counter racially or ethnically motivated extremism by developing positive narratives and building resilience to hateful messages.

Let me move on to describe some of the key lines of effort we've pursued to protect our homeland and to protect our interest from these threats.

We made major strides to defeat and degrade terrorist groups in 2018, and I'd like to draw your attention to three particular lines of effort: securing our borders and defeating terrorist travel; second, using sanctions to cut off money; and third, the disposition of captured foreign terrorist fighters, or FTFs.

Restricting terrorist travel remained a top priority last year. We continue to pursue arrangements to share terrorist watch lists with other countries pursuant to Homeland Security Presidential Directive 6, or HSPD 6. We signed a number of new arrangements in 2018 and now have over 70 on the books. In addition, our border security platform, known as PISCES – that stands for Personal Identification Secure Comparison and Evaluation System – grew to include 227 ports of entry in 23 countries. Our partners use it every day to screen more than 300,000 travelers.

Second, the United States continued to use our sanctions and designations authorities to deny terrorists the resources they need to commit attacks. In all, the State Department completed 51 terrorism designations in 2018, and the Treasury Department likewise completed 157 terrorism designations. Significant State Department designations in 2018 include ISIS-West Africa, al-Qaida affiliates in Syria such as the al-Nusrah Front, and JNIM, which is al-Qaida's affiliate in Mali. We also designated Jawad Nasrallah, the son of Hizballah's leader, who recruited individuals to carry out terrorist attacks against Israel.

Third, as the President has made clear, all countries have an obligation to repatriate and prosecute their FTFs for any crimes they've committed. The United States has led by example by repatriating our own citizens. To date, we've brought back and prosecuted six adult fighters or ISIS supporters, and we've also returned 14 children who are now being rehabilitated and reintegrated. In addition, the United States has facilitated the returns of hundreds of FTFs and family members to their countries of origin while also sharing evidence that our soldiers captured on the battlefield to enable effective prosecutions. Again, we urge other countries to follow our lead and take their citizens back.

That about wraps up the key points in the reports, and I'd be now happy to answer any questions you may have.

MS ORTAGUS: AP, do you have anything?

QUESTION: Actually, Ambassador Sales, on the question that you addressed most recently about repatriation, can you update us on the situation with the Beatles and where that effort is to bring them to the United States?

AMBASSADOR SALES: Yeah, we don't have anything to add to what we've said in recent weeks. The Beatles have been taken into U.S. custody and moved to a secure location, but beyond that we're not prepared to offer anything else.

QUESTION: Thank you, Ambassador. What do you know – does the U.S. know and what can you tell us about ISIS new chief and your efforts to hunt him, capture him, kill him, as you did with Baghdadi?

AMBASSADOR SALES: Well, ISIS remains a top national security priority. We're aware of the fact that it has selected a new leader. We will continue to subject that organization to unrelenting counterterrorism pressure using all the tools of national power, to include military, intelligence, law enforcement, border security, and financial. We will dismantle the group regardless of who its leadership cadre is.

MS ORTAGUS: Go ahead. Oh, just a follow-up.

QUESTION: Just what do you know about him himself, the man who was designated as the new chief?

AMBASSADOR SALES: We know that he is going to be facing a sustained and systematic amount of pressure from us and our partners.

MS ORTAGUS: Okay, Humeyra.

QUESTION: Thank you very much for doing this. Trump – President Trump wants to bring all troops home, and you – you're saying in your report that ISIS has evolved. With less troops on the ground means less visibility on the ground and less – fewer eyes on the ground. How are you going to keep this extreme pressure on the group?

AMBASSADOR SALES: Right. So the President has made clear that he intends to leave a residual U.S. force presence in Syria in order to deny ISIS access to the resources that in the past it has used to fund and fuel terrorism around the world. We continue to work with our partners in the region and around the world to bring pressure to bear on ISIS, not just military pressure in Syria and Iraq but financial and law enforcement and other forms of pressure around the world, and we're going to keep that up.

MS ORTAGUS: Go ahead.

QUESTION: Hello, hi. Sir, on April 8th 2019, as you said, State Department designated IRGC as an FTO. Can you give us any update on how much progress you achieved in that regard, especially with what's happening in Iraq and Lebanon with the IRGC's activities there?

AMBASSADOR SALES: Well, we know that Iran's terrorist apparatus has suffered major financial setbacks as a result of the sanctions that we have brought to bear, the historic sanctions that this administration has brought to bear on Iran and its terrorist proxies. And you don't have to take my word for it. Look no further than Nasrallah, the head of Hizballah, who has publicly appealed for donations.

We don't have any particular updates to share on the financial health of the IRGC or Hizballah or any other Iranian terrorist element, but it's not good for them.

MS ORTAGUS: Humeyra. I mean, I'm sorry, Nadia. (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MS ORTAGUS: (Off-mike.)

AMBASSADOR SALES: I should use that excuse. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: It's all right. One of the points that you just mentioned is the destruction of the caliphate, which is depriving ISIS from the geographical location, and also the killing of Baghdadi. So where do you see the next threat coming from ISIS? Is it individuals who might – are able to attack, or is it them rejoining groups like al-Qaida or Tahrir al-Sham in Syria in particular since we know that they offered Baghdadi some kind of protection?

AMBASSADOR SALES: Well, I think we have to be mindful of and work to counter all of the different threats whether we're talking about ISIS fighters who remain in Syria and Iraq, formally recognized ISIS affiliates around the world – I mentioned one in Somalia; I mentioned one in East Asia that were recognized in 2018 – and we also have to be mindful of individual lone wolves who decide to commit an attack in the name of ISIS without any formal tasking or direction.

As the nature of the threat metastasizes and evolves to encompass all of these different elements, we have to deploy the full spectrum of national tools. We have to combat their finances. We have to combat their ability to cross borders. We have to use our law enforcement capabilities to prosecute them for crimes they've committed. We have to bolster crisis response capabilities so the teams can intervene in real-time to suppress attacks that might be happenings. So I think we're going to be looking at a full spectrum of tools to combat this very diverse and dynamic threat.


QUESTION: Thank you. In the section under Israel, West Bank, and Gaza, you list all the incidents committed by Palestinians, but there is no mention whatsoever of literally hundreds of attacks by settlers, including torturing, using – and small arms fire, ramming with cars, killing people, old people and so on, and hundreds of acres that were torched and destroyed and (inaudible) and so on. Why is that?

AMBASSADOR SALES: I'm going to have to quibble with your premise, because the report does mention settler violence committed by Israeli –

QUESTION: Not – not in so many details as you have –

AMBASSADOR SALES: Excuse me, I'll finish the answer to the question you asked.


AMBASSADOR SALES: The report does include references to acts of violence committed by Israeli settlers. We have been clear in this administration that the Government of Israel, the people of Israel are entitled to live a life of security and stability. Israel is surrounded on all fronts by terrorist groups that reject its right to exist, and we will continue to call out those organizations for the acts of violence that they commit and threaten to commit against innocent Israeli civilians – while at the same time, as the report does, calling out acts of violence by Israelis against Palestinian civilians.


QUESTION: Hi, yeah, thank you. I'm interested in your conclusions about the rise in ethnically or racially motivated terrorism. I'm wondering if this is a new focus for the State Department, if you're looking at domestic groups as well, and if any neo-Nazi or white nationalist groups have been identified as terror organizations on your report.

AMBASSADOR SALES: So our authority at the State Department begins at the water's edge. So when it comes to combatting domestic terrorist threats, we'll defer to the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security which have the lead on confronting those threats here at home.

Our role is mobilizing international partners to confront the international dimensions of this threat. We know that white supremacists and other racially motivated terrorist organizations or networks communicate across international borders. We know that they are in a sense learning from their jihadist predecessors in terms of their ability to raise money and move money, in terms of their ability to radicalize and recruit, and so the State Department has been trying to mobilize international partners who see this threat the same way we do to take decisive action against these networks.

MS ORTAGUS: Jennifer.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for doing this. Have you seen any indication that ISIS is planning any retaliatory attacks in response to Baghdadi's death? And can you update us on the status of the escaped ISIS fighters?

AMBASSADOR SALES: Well, I'm not going to comment on intelligence matters, but we're aware of the reports that ISIS seeks vengeance for the death of Baghdadi. We have to be prepared for any eventuality. We're constantly on the lookout for ISIS plots to hit us or to hit our interests abroad. Certainly that will remain a top priority for us.

As far as the foreign terrorist fighters are concerned, as you will have heard from public statements by other U.S. Government officials, we're aware of about 100 fighters who escaped in the wake of the Turkish incursion into northeastern Syria. In addition, as General Mazloum has said to President Trump, the majority of those people have been taken into custody again after having escaped. We expect Turkey to abide by the commitments that it made to us to ensure that any ISIS fighters that it encounters are kept in a secure manner and not allowed to return to the battlefield.

QUESTION: Are you able to give a number on how many are still on the run?

AMBASSADOR SALES: Well, as General Mazloum said, who's there on the front lines, the majority of them have been recaptured.


QUESTION: Thanks, Morgan. Mr. Ambassador, you have some notable dates upcoming in the next week or so. It's the 40th anniversary of the beginning of the Iran hostage crisis, a year since the restoration of JCPOA sanctions, and these quarterly increased violations of the JCPOA from Iran. Do you guys see any more potential for increased Iran-sponsored activity over that timeframe, the next week or so?

AMBASSADOR SALES: We are always on the lookout for Iran-backed terrorism. We know that Iran uses terrorism as a basic tool of tradecraft. It's their go-to capability that they use to spend their – spread their malign influence around the world.

I'm not going to comment on intelligence matters, but we are always aware of the threat that Iran poses to us and our interests, and that's why we're taking decisive action to counter it.


QUESTION: Mr. Ambassador, two questions. One is on the family members you mentioned, the family members of ISIS – I think you said about 14 children. Could you talk a little bit more about who they – they have been brought into the United States. Can you just give a little more detail about who they are? And then the second is on Turkey. Do you feel that they have been a sufficiently reliable partner in controlling that border? In the past, there have been a lot of concerns that ISIS fighters were allowed essentially to move freely across the Turkish border. Has that changed? Have you found them to be a more committed partner in that fight?

AMBASSADOR SALES: So I'm not going to get into the details of these kids. I mean, we're talking about minors, and for privacy reasons, I just don't want to parade their stories in front of the cameras. As far as Turkey is concerned, Turkey is a key member of the Defeat ISIS coalition. We have worked very closely with them to ensure that the border between Syria and Turkey is as secure as it can be. We don't want other fighters flooding into Syria to provide a shot in the arm to an ISIS that's seeking to reconstitute itself, and we also want to make sure that ISIS fighters who may remain at large in Syria are not able to get out and menace other parts of the world, particularly Europe.


QUESTION: One follow-up on Turkey, and then another question. Ambassador Jeffrey last week testified that some of the Turkish-sponsored organizations or opposition groups in Syria are extremist organizations, that they're dangerous. Do you have any concern about that? Because it's not really mentioned in the section on Turkey, their support for these groups.

AMBASSADOR SALES: Yeah, we are concerned about some of those groups that don't have the same force discipline that the Turkish military does. I don't have anything beyond what Ambassador Jeffrey said last week other than to reaffirm our call on Turkey to ensure that it complies and that its organizations with which it's working complies with all the assurances made in the agreements with the United States.

QUESTION: This is the second question, then: Sudan is still on the State Sponsor of Terrorism lists, but the section on Sudan makes mention only of individuals' actions, and actually offers some praise for the state and its efforts to counter extremism. Why is Sudan still on the list? In particular because this new Sudanese Government is pushing you guys to have them removed.

AMBASSADOR SALES: Well, Sudan's been on the list for many years, many decades. The reason is because in the past the Government of Sudan has consistently provided acts of support for international terrorism. Sudan, or any government that is on the list, will remain on the list until that government meets the statutory conditions for removal. Congress has been very clear about what criteria must be met in order to make progress, and we apply those standards across the board regardless of which country we're dealing with.

QUESTION: Do you think this new government has made progress in that front?

AMBASSADOR SALES: We don't have anything to announce right now.

MS ORTAGUS: Jessica.

QUESTION: The report says that there's been a doubling of attacks in the Sahel in 2018. I was wondering what link you see between the rise of terrorist groups there and the collapse of the caliphate in uncontrolled spaces in Syria.

AMBASSADOR SALES: What kind of connection – well, I think terrorist fighters are always looking for the next battleground. And I think we're concerned about the possibility that jihadis who've been defeated in Syria might relocate elsewhere, whether you're talking about reinforcing ISIS Khorasan in Afghanistan, or moving into the Sahel. The trendline in the Sahel is discouraging, to say the least, which is why the State Department and other international partners, such as France, have been trying to boost the capability of countries like Mali and Burkina and Niger, helping them with their borders, helping them with their crisis response capabilities to intervene when an attack is unfolding, helping them develop a capability to prosecute terrorists for the crimes they've committed in a way that complies with the rule of law.

We're all safer as a result of these kinds of efforts, and this is another example of the administration's call for our partners to assume a greater share of the burden. We're not doing this alone. We're standing alongside European partners like France and Germany who likewise have a keen interest in bringing stability and security to that part of Africa.

MS ORTAGUS: Go ahead.

QUESTION: In the report it said that despite the Lebanese Government efforts to dissociate itself from what's going on, they – Hizballah continues its activities in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and – how this would affect your relation with any coming government in Lebanon? Are we going to see another kind of pressure? We saw yesterday, for example, a story by Reuters regarding military aid. So can you comment on that?

AMBASSADOR SALES: Well, I think we've been very clear in our dealings with the Government of Lebanon that we see Hizballah as a terrorist organization, and that is why we have worked over the years, over many years, to strengthen the institutions of the Lebanese state, such as the Lebanese Armed Forces, to ensure that there is no felt need in Lebanon to rely on any purported services that Lebanon might receive from Hizballah. That has been our policy and that remains our policy.


QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MODERATOR: No, I called on Abbie.

QUESTION: Sorry, sorry.

QUESTION: I just had one quick follow-up on some of my colleagues' questions. Is the U.S. aware of the true identity of the new ISIS leader?

AMBASSADOR SALES: We are looking into the leader, his role in the organization, where he came from. I don't have anything to announce on that, obviously, publicly. But anytime there is a leadership transition in a terrorist organization, we want to make sure that we have the latest information we have – that we need to have to confront the threat effectively.

MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Last question.

QUESTION: One follow-up on the Lebanon question. Just to be clear, are you saying that military aid is continuing to the Lebanese Government, to the Lebanese military, or –

AMBASSADOR SALES: I don't have anything to add beyond beyond the Secretary's statement and Assistant Secretary Schenker's statements about Lebanon. What I am speaking about is what our longstanding policy has been with respect to Hizballah and Lebanon, and that has not changed.


QUESTION: And then on ISIS, you mentioned a residual force is going to be in Syria to make sure ISIS doesn't come to power again, but I wonder, is the State Department going to commit any money to helping the survivors of ISIS who are coming home now? A lot of them are very traumatized, they're facing a mental health crisis, there are concerns that they might be drawn to other extremist groups. Is there going to be some help with that, with helping the survivors?

AMBASSADOR SALES: Yeah, there is. Now, are you speaking about survivors who have come back to the U.S. – yeah.

QUESTION: No, survivors within Iraq and Syria.

AMBASSADOR SALES: Yeah, so I was in Kazakhstan two weeks ago at a rehabilitation and reintegration center that addresses exactly this problem. Kazakhstan has really led the world in taking back – taking responsibility for taking back its fighters who have been prosecuted as well as wives and children who are being put into rehabilitation and reintegration programs. I think Kazakhstan's efforts here are a model for the rest of the world because they're doing things like involving theologians who can point out the errors of ISIS ideology. They're involving mental health professionals who can intervene with children who have experienced trauma, medical professionals who can treat the physical ailments these folks have suffered. And I think that's a model for what the rest of the world should be doing.

Thanks very much.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MS ORTAGUS: Thanks, guys.

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