MR ICE: Thank you, Operator, and good morning, everyone, and thank you for joining us. I’ll go ahead and mention here at the top that we are on the record today but that the contents of this briefing are embargoed until the end of the call. We will first hear some remarks from our briefer, and then, as already been mentioned, we’ll be able to take a few of your questions.
Just about 45 minutes ago we had a statement from Secretary Blinken announcing the release by the State Department of its annual Country Reports on Terrorism, which describe the global counterterrorism environment in 2020, fulfilling an important congressional mandate. Our annual Country Reports on Terrorism, or CRT, 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 informed judgements and plans about our policies, priorities, and where to place resources.
All right. At this point, I think we’re ready for our opening remarks from our briefer, so I’d like to go ahead and introduce Acting Coordinator for Counterterrorism John Godfrey. Mr. Godfrey has been leading the Bureau of Counterterrorism since February of this year, and I’ll note that John is also the acting coordinator – excuse me. While he’s also the acting coordinator, he serves as the acting special envoy to the Coalition to Defeat ISIS. So we very much appreciate the time he is taking to be with us here today.
And with that, I’ll go ahead and turn it over to Mr. Godfrey. Sir.
MR GODFREY: Good morning, everybody, and thanks, J.T, for that kind introduction. As J.T. mentioned, the 2020 Country Reports of Terrorism details how the United States and its partners made significant strides against terrorist organizations. However, it also shows that the terrorism threat we face is becoming more geographically diffuse.
The Annex of Statistical Information accompanying the report, which was prepared by our contract partners, the Development Services Group, shows that both the number of terrorist attacks and the overall number of fatalities each increased by more than 10 percent in 2020 as compared to 2019.
The report highlights, as J.T. noted, some of the challenges we’re facing. I’ll just enumerate a couple of those.
While ISIS’s so-called physical caliphate has been – has crumbled, it remains a determined and dangerous enemy, and we’re working to build on our gains by sustaining pressure on ISIS remnants in Iraq and Syria, and to deny its global network and branches the ability to effectively operate.
And a particular concern is ISIS’s increased focus on branches and networks outside of Iraq and Syria. As an example of that, ISIS branches and networks outside Iraq and Syria caused more fatalities during 2020 than in any previous year. Deaths due to ISIS-affiliated attacks in West Africa alone almost doubled from around 2,700 in 2017 to nearly 5,000 in 2020.
Al-Qaida’s affiliates also continue to exploit under-governed spaces, conflict zones, and security gaps in Africa and the Middle East. Al-Qaida further bolstered its presence abroad, particularly in the Middle East and Africa, where its affiliates AQAP in Yemen, al-Shabaab in the Horn of Africa, and Jama-at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslim, or JNIM in the Sahel, remain among the most active and dangerous terrorist groups in the world. And of course, in January of 2020, at the beginning of the period encompassed by this CRT report, al-Shabaab attacked a security military base shared by U.S. and Kenyan military forces in Manda Bay, Kenya, killing one U.S. service member and two U.S. contractors, which was the most deadly terrorist attack against the U.S. military forces in Africa since 2017.
Iran also continued to support acts of terrorism in the region and further afield in 2020, supporting proxies and partner groups in Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen, including Hizballah and Hamas. And senior al-Qaida leaders continued to reside in Iran.
The Racially or Ethnically Motivated Violent Extremism threat also continued to grow, including transnational links between REMVE actors around the world. The UN Security Council’s Counterterrorism Committee noted a 320 percent increase in what it termed extreme right-wing terrorism globally in the five years prior to 2020.
In this dynamic threat landscape, the United States played a critical role in marshaling international efforts to counter global terrorism, and let me just highlight a few quick examples before we turn to questions.
First, the State Department designated as Specially Designated Global Terrorists, or SDGTs, the Russian Imperial Movement and three of its leaders in April 2020, marking the first time that any counterterrorism sanctions authority has been used against a white REMVE group, white supremacist REMVE group.
The United States continued its leadership role within the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, including encouraging the expansion of the coalition’s mission to address new regions of concern, particularly in Africa.
And in October, the United States – that’s October of 2020 – the United States supported the United Kingdom in the transfer of Amon Kotey and El Shafee Elsheik, two of the four ISIS fighters known as “the Beatles,” to the United States for prosecution.
We also continued high-level diplomatic engagements to counter Hizballah across Central America, South America, and Europe, resulting in nine countries in the Western Hemisphere and Europe taking significant steps in 2020 to designate, ban, or otherwise restrict Hizballah.
And the United States continued to play a major role in the repatriation, rehabilitation, reintegration, and prosecution of ISIS foreign terrorist fighters, or FTFs, and associated family members. And in that regards, we continued to lead by example, bringing back our own citizens and prosecuting them where appropriate. And just as a bellwether, as of December 2021, the United States has – had repatriated 30 U.S. citizens from Syria and Iraq – that’s 13 adults and 17 children – and the Department of Justice had charged 10 of the adults with a variety of terrorism-related crimes.
And finally, in 2020, the United States led the UN Security Council’s 1267 Sanctions Committee efforts to designate ISIS networks and branches in West Africa, the Greater Sahara, Libya, Yemen, and Indonesia, and the designations of Muhammad Sa’id Abdal-Rahman al-Mawla, the new ISIS leader, and Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan leader Noor Wali Mehsud.
So just to wrap up, I would say that the evolving terrorist landscape requires flexibility and a continued commitment to working together to effectively prevent radicalization and terrorist violence. While the lessons we’ve learned over the previous years will certainly play an important role moving forward, it’s vital that we adapt quickly if we are to successfully meet the threats of tomorrow.
Thanks very much for joining us today, and happy to take a few questions.
MR ICE: All right, Operator, would you please repeat the instructions for getting into the question queue?
OPERATOR: Certainly, Mr. Spokesperson. Ladies and gentlemen, if you have a question and haven’t already done so, please press 1-0 at this time.
MR ICE: Okay. And let’s go to the line of Shaun Tandon.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Your line is open, Mr. Tandon. Go ahead, sir.
QUESTION: Thank you. Thanks for doing the call. Could I ask a question about Cuba? In Chapter 2, State Sponsors of Terrorism, I know it says very clearly that this report doesn’t constitute an announcement, but there’s no information on Cuba on actions that could make it a state sponsor of terrorism. Could you say whether the administration still thinks that Cuba should be designated a state sponsor of terrorism and where any review on that designation is? Thanks.
MR GODFREY: Sorry, having trouble with my mute button there. What I can say about that is that the Cuba policy and the designation you referenced are under review.
MR ICE: Let’s go to the line of Pearl Matibe.
QUESTION: Yes. Thank you so much for your availability and what you’ve shared on this report. Do you have or have you seen any new trends in northern Mozambique, Tanzania, Central Africa Republic, that region? I know, obviously, this year there’s been some intervention by SADC, but last year were there any new trends or anything that you can share, particularly about northern Mozambique? I’d appreciate that. Thanks.
MR GODFREY: Thanks very much, Pearl. In terms of the specific region you referenced, I think in Mozambique we all saw – have seen, rather – a pretty sharp escalation of attacks in northern Mozambique, in the Cabo Delgado region by the ISIS affiliate there, and that included some cross-border attacks into Tanzania, which you mentioned as well. I think that there has been concern about the possibility for that threat to bleed out over into Tanzania, and obviously a lot of concern about the ability of ISIS-Mozambique to move further south in the country beyond the Cabo Delgado region.
So there have been a number of efforts underway, U.S. bilateral efforts but also the multilateral efforts by European and other partners – you mentioned SADC; that’s one of them – to try to build the capacity of Government of Mozambique counterparts to address that threat. I think there has been some traction recently that has been positive, and that’s a good thing because the threat is quite concerning.
You mentioned DRC, and I think one of the things that I would flag there is that we have designated the ISIS branch there and are quite concerned about the role that that particular ISIS branch plays with respect to facilitation – that is, movement of funds and other logistical support – for some of the other branches of ISIS elsewhere in the African continent. And obviously, as shown in the statistical annex of the report, the number of attacks and fatalities that’s incurred by those that were attributed to ISIS-DRC was quite eye-grabbing as well.
Hope that helps with the rest of your question.
MR ICE: And let’s go to the line of Jiha Ham.
OPERATOR: Apologies for the delay. Jiha, your line is open.
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you for taking my question. North Korea is one of the four countries within the list of State Sponsor of Terrorism. One of the reasons that they were redesignated was because of their actions in – around 2017. And then lately, North Korea has not been involved in international terrorist acts, but they’ve been actively testing their weapons. So what should North Korea do if they want to be excluded or removed from the list of State Sponsor of Terrorism? Just not involved in any kind of terrorist act, or do they need to show some progress on the denuclearization side? Thank you.
MR GODFREY: Thanks for the question. I’m afraid there’s not a whole lot I can go into in an unclassified format on that, other than to say that North Korea’s behavior in a number of areas I think remains problematic and concerning, and that’s part of the reason that they have remained on the list.
MR ICE: And let’s go the line of Daphne Psaledakis.
OPERATOR: Daphne, your line is open. Go ahead, please.
QUESTION: Hi. Thank you so much for doing this. I just wanted to follow up on Shaun’s question about the Cuba State Sponsors of Terrorism review. Could you give us an update on the timeline of that policy review?
MR GODFREY: I’m afraid that I don’t have anything that I can share in terms of sort of an end date or an anticipated end date with respect that review. It’s ongoing and President Biden has said that he remains committed to policies that will advance the democratic aspirations of the Cuban people. But beyond that, I don’t have anything in terms of timing.
MR ICE: Okay. And now let’s go to the line of Beatriz Pascual.
QUESTION: Hi. Thank you very much. So following up on Cuba, I would like to know how high is the review in the list of the priorities for the State Department. And also I would like to ask about las FARC and Venezuela. If you could talk a little bit about what is included in the report about the relation between the dissidents of las FARC, ELN, and the government of Nicolas Maduro? Thank you.
MR GODFREY: Thanks, Beatrice. Maybe to start with the second part, the United States is quite concerned about the continued presence of foreign terrorist organizations in Latin America, including the National Liberation Army, the ELN, and FARC dissidents in both Colombia and Venezuela. We’ve long considered the ELN an FTO, a Foreign Terrorist Organization, and remain concerned about its arms – possession of arms, trafficking of narcotics, kidnapping of innocent individuals, and its attacks on Colombian officials.
We have already taken a number of steps to convey our concerns about Venezuela, including the annual certification of Venezuela as not fully cooperating with U.S. antiterrorism efforts. And that’s been something that’s happened every year since 2006, so this is not a new concern. And that certification, which was most recently renewed just this past May, extends the resulting prohibition against the sale or licensing for export of defense articles or services to Venezuela.
The Country Reports on Terrorism that we’re talking about in this conversation covers foreign terrorist organizations that were designated during calendar year 2020, and so it doesn’t reflect any changes that occurred in 2021. And that would include the new FTO designations of Segunda Marquetalia and FARC-EP and the revocation of the designation of the former FARC.
MR ICE: And let’s go to the line of Conor Finnegan.
OPERATOR: Apologies. Took a moment to find Conor. Conor, you are open. Go ahead, please.
QUESTION: Thank you. Two quick questions.
First, you mentioned that senior al-Qaida leaders are based in Iran. The previous secretary of state had given a speech in January of 2020 about the ties between the two, saying that they ran even deeper than that. Does the State Department still stand by that speech? Is there anything more that you can say about the connection between Iran and al-Qaida?
And then just a sort of housekeeping question. We’re about 15 days away from 2022, so it seems pretty late to issue the 2020 report. Was there a reason that the report is coming so late this year? Thank you.
MR GODFREY: Thanks, Conor, very much. I think with respect to your first question, we remain deeply concerned about the fact that al-Qaida senior leaders continue to reside in Tehran, in and around Tehran, and that there has been facilitation of them that allows them to remain active as leaders within the al-Qaida global enterprise. No secret, I think, that Iran is a longstanding state sponsor of terrorism, and I think the fact that they have enabled that leadership cadre to safely reside in Iran is a reflection of their use of terrorism as an adjunct of their foreign policy goals. More broadly, not to sort of monopolize the bully pulpit here, but Iran does continue to support a range of designated terrorist groups with funding, training, weapons, and equipment, and I think the fact that that al-Qaida senior leadership cohort has continued to reside there is reflective of that approach.
On your housekeeping note, you’re absolutely right. Thank you for keeping us honest. It is rather late in the year for us to be putting this report out. We suffered a number of delays or factors that delayed release of this year’s report. That included an additional new reporting requirement, specifically the inclusion of a section related to white identity terrorism and racially or ethnically motivated violent extremism. We had some staffing constraints in part due to COVID that also made it a particularly challenging year in which to pull this together. And I would just add finally, and at the risk of appearing to cry poor mouth, that because of strictures regarding in-office presence and the fact that some of the underlying information that underpins the report is classified, it created some additional constraints in terms of getting the language agreed and cleared.
MR ICE: Okay. Let’s go to the line of Ali Barada.
OPERATOR: Ali, your line’s open. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Yeah, thank you. My name is Ali Barada, from Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. And the question is about the cooperation between the United States and Saudi Arabia on counterterrorism. You mentioned that in the report and you praised Saudi Arabia. Would you please shed some light on how you are cooperating with Saudi Arabia and other countries to counter Iran’s proxies’ actions in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen? Thank you.
MR GODFREY: Thank you very much, Ali. I would start just by saying that Saudi Arabia remains a strong and active and very capable counterterrorism partner of the United States. It has been for a number of years, and we continue to partner with Saudi Arabia against terrorism in the region as well as in the context of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and the Global Counterrorism Forum. Saudi Arabia is an active member of both of those.
I think Saudi Arabia has faced a particular threat in recent years from the Houthis in Yemen, and obviously that’s a group that has enjoyed quite a bit of support from Iran, and we’ve been public about our concerns about that. And that’s something that we’ve continued to work with them on. They also continue to face a threat within the country from al-Qaida and ISIS-aligned terrorists, and they’ve been quite capable in beating back those threats as well.
I will say that the kingdom has played a positive role in efforts related to Iraq, including with respect to some of the efforts to promote economic and other stabilization efforts. And obviously, I think that there’s been quite a lot of cooperation throughout the region, including with Saudi Arabia, on trying to get a new government formed in Iraq that reflects the will of the Iraqi people.
MR ICE: I think we have time for one or two more questions. Let’s go to the line of Barak Ravid.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) for doing this. Two questions: First, I guess the – in the report (inaudible) by settlers against Palestinians, and I was wondering if you designate this kind of violence as terrorism. And second, Israel gave the U.S. information about those six NGOs that it claims were part of a – that it designated as terror organizations. And I was wondering if, after you got this information, do you agree with the Israeli designation?
MR GODFREY: Thanks very much, Barak. Sorry, I’m having a little bit of trouble on my end with the gear here. So on your question about the designation of the six Palestinian NGOs by Israel as terrorist organizations, the United States has had substantive discussions with the Government of Israel on their basis for designating those groups as affiliates of the PFLP. And as you know, the United States itself designated the PFLP as an FTO in 1997 and they remain designated today.
We take any allegations of support for terrorism very seriously. We’re in the process of closely reviewing the detailed information that we received from Israel and haven’t yet reached a determination on the veracity of that information.
MR ICE: And let’s go to the line of Elizabeth Hagedorn.
QUESTION: Hi, thank you. Secretary Blinken has described the detention of suspected ISIS fighters in northeast Syria as untenable. So I’m wondering, beyond encouraging other countries to repatriate their nationals who, of course, just represent a fraction of the total prison population, is there more the U.S. could be doing to support the SDF in maintaining these facilities? Thanks.
MR GODFREY: Elizabeth, thank you very much for the important question. The situation in northeast Syria with respect to ISIS foreign terrorist fighters is absolutely one of key concern for us and coalition partners. And in fact, there are a number of lines of effort underway in addition to urging countries of origin to repatriate, rehabilitate, reintegrate and prosecute where appropriate their FTFs and associated family members.
You’re absolutely right that the – it isn’t just an issue of European or other nationalities. The biggest cadres in northeast Syria are – in terms of both fighters and displaced persons are Iraqis and Syrians themselves. There has been a line of effort underway to repatriate some Iraqi fighters and associated family members, which I think is an important step in terms of addressing the overall scale of that problem set.
We’ve also had recently some success in transfers of primarily women and children back to some European countries, something we very much applaud. We have continued our dialogue with European countries to urge them to take what we think is the responsible approach, which is to proactively repatriate their citizens to avoid a scenario in which those individuals might for any number of reasons escape positive control in northeast Syria and constitute a security threat that is difficult to anticipate down the road, whether that’s in the region or in their countries of origin.
And then finally, there are efforts underway to strengthen the – and improve the – some of the physical facilities in which the fighters are detained, as well as some of the other capabilities that go into maintaining those facilities. And finally, the United States remains closely involved in and, frankly, heavily invested in the humanitarian assistance effort that underpinned the ability of the SDF and other local partners to responsibly house the internally displaced persons that reside in a number of camps across northeast Syria.
MR ICE: And with that, that’s all the time we have for today. I would like to take this opportunity to once again thank everyone for dialing in and joining us. It is very much appreciated. I would, of course, like to give a very special thank you to our briefer today, Acting Coordinator for Counterterrorism John Godfrey. Mr. Godfrey, thank you so much for joining us.
With that, this briefing has ended, and the embargo is lifted. Have a great rest of your day.