THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.
MODERATOR: Great, okay. So good afternoon, everyone. My name is Doris Robinson and we’d like to welcome you to the Washington Foreign Press Center’s video conference briefing on the Rewards for Justice program and the fight against ISIS. This briefing today is on the record. Just a few technical details: You may record the briefing by clicking on the record button on the menu at the bottom of the Zoom screen. If you have any technical problems at all during the briefing, you can use the chat feature and one of my FPC colleagues will try to assist you. If the Zoom session fails or disconnects, please click on the link again to rejoin.
And with that, I would like to introduce our briefers. First we have Todd Brown. He is a special agent with the Bureau of Diplomatic Security and currently serves as the principal deputy assistant secretary and director of the Diplomatic Security Service. Mr. Brown is a career member of the Senior Foreign Service with the rank of minister-counselor. In 1987, he began his career in security and law enforcement with the U.S. Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service. Over the course of his career, he has served in a variety of domestic and overseas assignments. Mr. Brown’s domestic assignments include deputy assistant secretary of the Countermeasures Directorate, director of the Overseas Security Advisory Council, special agent in charge of the Washington, D.C. field office, and as assistant director of international programs. Mr. Brown’s overseas assignments include assistant regional security officer in Islamabad, Pakistan; as the regional security officer in Amman, Jordan; Cairo, Egypt; and Rabat, Morocco. He also serves as the senior site security manager in Baghdad, Iraq. In his most recent overseas assignment, Mr. Brown served as the director of the NATO Office of Security in Brussels, Belgium.
Our second briefer is Nathan Sales, who was sworn in on August 10th, 2017 – excuse me – as the coordinator for counterterrorism with the rank and status of ambassador at large. Ambassador Sales leads the State Department’s Counterterrorism Bureau and serves as the principal advisor to the Secretary of State on international counterterrorism matters. Ambassador Sales was additionally delegated the authorities of under secretary of state for civilian security, democracy, and human rights. In this capacity, he overseas nine bureaus and offices responsible for preventing and countering threats to civilian security, including terrorism, mass atrocities, and violations of human rights and the rule of law.
We will start with Mr. Brown and he will start with some opening remarks.
PDAS BROWN: Okay. Thank you, Doris, and good afternoon, everyone. Today Secretary of State Pompeo announced that the U.S. Department of State’s Rewards for Justice program is increasing its reward offer for information leading to the identification or location in any country of ISIS new leader Amir Muhammad Sa’id Abdal-Rahman al-Mawla. The new reward offer, up to $10 million, is double the previous reward offer of up to 5 million announced in August of 2019. Al-Mawla, also known as Hajji Abdallah and Abu-’Umar al-Turkmani succeeded Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the leader of ISIS following Baghdadi’s death during a U.S. military operation in October 2019. Al-Mawla helped drive and justify the abduction, slaughter, and trafficking of Yezidi religious minorities in northwest Iraq and he overseas the group’s global operations. Born in Mosul, Iraq in 1976, al-Mawla was a religious scholar in ISIS’s predecessor organization, al-Qaida in Iraq, and steadily rose through the ranks of ISIS to become the deputy emir under al-Baghdadi.
Today’s announcement demonstrates the United States resolve to use all of its available tools to counter terrorism and to hold ISIS and its leaders accountable for their actions. As we work to ensure an enduring defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, we are determined to identify and find the group’s leaders so that the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and our partners on the ground in Iraq and Syria can continue to target ISIS remnants and thwart its global ambitions.
We urge anyone with information on the whereabouts of al-Mawla to contact the Rewards for Justice Program via the RFJ website at www.rewardsforjustice.net or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Individuals outside the United States may also contact the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate. All information submitted to us will be kept strictly confidential.
The Rewards for Justice program has been an effective tool in our fight against international terrorism. Since its inception in 1984, the program has paid in excess of $150 million to more than 100 individuals who provided credible information that prevented international terrorist attacks or helped to bring terrorists to justice. I am hopeful that the reward offer we are announcing today will play a similar role in bringing al-Mawla to justice.
Thank you very much. Now Ambassador Nathan Sales will talk about the broader ISIS threat and the efforts to defeat global terrorism.
AMBASSADOR SALES: Thanks, Todd. And thank you, Doris, for hosting the briefing today. I’d like to say a few words about how today’s announcement fits into our broader campaign. Today’s announcement is part of a larger comprehensive effort to defeat ISIS that has made significant progress. Along with the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, we completely destroyed the so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria. And last year, we eliminated ISIS’s then-leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Now we’re taking the fight to ISIS branches and networks around the world using all tools of national power, both military and civilian. We’re destroying ISIS in its safe havens. We’re prosecuting its members and those who have been inspired by ISIS for any crimes they’ve committed. We’re stifling the group’s financial resources and we’re countering the propaganda it uses to radicalize and recruit.
One of the most important weapons in our arsenal is financial sanctions. They help cut off the flow of money to terrorist groups, starving them of the resources they need to plan attacks, and we’re using these tools aggressively against ISIS’s new leader.
In March, the State Department designated al-Mawla as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist or SDGT. As a result, U.S. persons are genuinely prohibited from engaging in any transactions with him and his property and interest in property subject to U.S. jurisdiction are blocked. We followed that at the United Nations which added al-Mawla to its ISIS sanctions list in May. That action subjects him to an asset freeze, travel ban, and an arms embargo.
In the coming months, we expect to release more information about al-Mawla, who is also known as Abu-’Umar al-Turkmani. The U.S. Government is working to verify and declassify more information about his history. I don’t have anything to announce today, but please stay tuned.
The United States remains committed to the enduring defeat of ISIS no matter who leads that depraved organization. As al-Mawla’s predecessors have all learned the hard way, the United States and our partners will not hesitate to do what’s necessary to protect our homelands, our people, and our interests.
Thank you, and we look forward to your questions.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador, and thank you, Mr. Brown. We will now turn it open for questions. In order to ask your question, please click on the raised-hand button at the bottom of the screen and I will call on you. And it looks like our first question is from Jahanzaib Ali from ARY News, Pakistan. Jahanzaib, go ahead with your question, please.
QUESTION: Thank you, Doris. Thank you so much. My question is for both of the gentlemen. Sir, after Iraq and Syria, the Daesh – ISIS – trying to establish themselves in Afghanistan, and recently United States signed an agreement with the Taliban and ready to pull out all its military forces. So do you really think that it’s possible to prevent the extension of Daesh in Afghanistan when there is no U.S. military force there? And can you trust Taliban that they’re going to fulfill their promises to not use their – use of their land against U.S. and its allies? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR SALES: Well, thanks very much for the question. The ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan, ISIS-Khorasan Province, is really one of the most deadly and depraved of the ISIS affiliates around the world. We saw that just within recent months when they orchestrated and carried out an attack on a maternity hospital in Kabul, which I think will go down in history as one of the most depraved terrorist atrocities the world has ever seen.
The United States position with respect to the Taliban is perfectly clear. We’ve been clear with the American people and we’ve been just as clear with the Taliban. The agreement calls upon, and the Taliban made commitments to, sever all ties with terrorist organizations that threaten the United States, our interests, and our allies. We’re going to be watching very closely to verify that the Taliban is in fact complying with the obligations that it undertook in that agreement. The United States is prepared to meet our obligations under that agreement and we ask nothing less than that the Taliban do likewise. We’ll be watching very closely to assure that that is the case.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador Sales. And just a reminder to everyone, to ask a question, please hit the raised-hand button at the bottom of the screen and we will call on you. Let’s see if we have a question from – I will call on a couple of people. It looks like we have Ben Marks from NHK. Did you have a question?
QUESTION: A quick question for Ambassador Sales: During the U.S. and coalition fight to defeat ISIS’s caliphate, you were able to use metrics such as land held, but now that the physical caliphate is destroyed, what metric are you using in assessing progress towards defeating ISIS, and from those metrics, how is the – what is the current situation?
AMBASSADOR SALES: Well, thanks for the question. As ISIS evolves and adapts, we need to evolve and adapt as well. And so as we confront ISIS’s global network of branches and affiliates, we’re going to need to use tools that are different from the ones we used to pummel the so-called caliphate into destruction in Syria and Iraq. So we’ll use things like law enforcement to investigate and prosecute crimes. We’ll use border security tools to keep ISIS fighters from entering our countries. We’ll use counterterrorism finance tools to freeze the flow of money.
And so the metrics we can use to measure progress along each of those axes are: How many investigations of ISIS fighters have taken place? How many of those investigations resulted in prosecutions? How many defendants were convicted? What kinds of sentences were imposed? Or if you’re talking about border security, how many countries have adopted border security tools like the United States system?
We use a system that looks at passenger name record data, airline reservation data, to make sure that the people who are entering our country are coming here for legitimate business or tourism or other purposes, and not to abuse our hospitality to commit attacks. So we can measure how many other countries around the world have adopted a similar system. Or when it comes to counterterrorism finance, we can look at how many countries have adopted domestic designations regimes akin to what the United States has.
Another metric is: How many of those countries have actually used those mechanisms to impose sanctions on ISIS affiliates or ISIS individuals? How many ISIS entities and individuals are designated by the United Nations?
So as the fight shifts into this new, predominantly civilian space, we’re going to have to adopt different measures of success, and by those measures, I think we’re making great progress.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador. We have a few new people that have joined us. So just a reminder, to ask a question, please hit on the raised-hand icon at the bottom of the screen.
And next I will call on Rahim Rashidi.
MODERATOR: Rahim, go ahead with your question?
MODERATOR: Okay, it looks like he has some technical difficulties there. Next we will go to Alex Raufoglu with Turan News Agency.
MODERATOR: Alex, did you have a question?
MODERATOR: Okay. It looks like we’re having some technical difficulties there. So I don’t see any other raised hands. I will give one more call. I see we do have a raised hand. Mr. Torsten Teichmann from ARD Germany, go ahead with your question, please.
QUESTION: Yeah, thanks so much for doing this. I don’t have a raised hand on Zoom, so I had to do it manually.
Question goes to the ambassador: We heard from the White House over the last couple of weeks again and again that ISIS is defeated, and now you have to raise the award for Mr. al-Hashimi. Can you bridge this?
AMBASSADOR SALES: I’m sorry. I think there was a garble there. Could you please repeat the last part of your question about ISIS?
QUESTION: Yeah, sure. Yeah. So we heard from the White House again and again that ISIS is defeated and it was such a success, the military operation, so soldiers can come back, ISIS defeated. But now you have to raise the reward for Mr. al-Hashimi. Can you bridge this gap for us?
AMBASSADOR SALES: Oh, I don’t – well, thank you for the question. I don’t see any gap at all. The White House and the State Department and the Defense Department have been very clear that what we defeated was ISIS’s physical caliphate. But we’ve also leveled with the American people that while the caliphate – so-called caliphate has been destroyed, our fight against dispersed ISIS networks around the world is going to continue.
And that’s why today’s announcement is so important because it demonstrates that we have not taken our eye off the ball. It demonstrates that we remain committed to using all tools of national power to defeat the remnants of the ISIS network around the world. Whether we’re talking about law enforcement tools or border security tools or financial tools, we’re still very much in this fight, and we expect to bring the same amount of resolve and focus to this stage of the campaign that brought us success against the so-called caliphate in the desert.
QUESTION: Can I do a follow-up?
MODERATOR: Yes, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you very much again to the ambassador. You’re mentioning all the different measures you have to put this fight into the next level. What I haven’t heard about is the investment you do with USAID, for example, in the regions that ISIS have left. Can you tell us any numbers there? Are you increasing the number that you spend there too? Is there any projects you can tell us? Because one reason for ISIS being successful was poverty.
AMBASSADOR SALES: Well, thanks for the question. I can’t – I don’t have humanitarian assistance numbers at my fingertips right now, but what I can tell you is that the State Department has been investing a substantial amount of money in building the capacity of the capabilities of states on the front lines. For instance, in West Africa, where we see increasing activity not only by the local ISIS affiliates but also by al-Qaida affiliates, we have invested a substantial amount of resources in boosting the ability of countries in that region to do crisis response, to respond to terrorist attacks in real time, to put down those attacks. We’ve done the same in Afghanistan. We’re doing the same in other strategic regions of the world.
We want to be the security partner of choice, and the United States and our partners have capabilities that we can share with our partner states on the front lines that are unmatched by any other would-be donor country. And our goal, ultimate goal, is for these frontline states to be able to stand up on their own and have the capabilities they need to defend themselves against ISIS threats or al-Qaida threats without needing to turn to the United States again and again for assistance.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador. Alex, can you go ahead with your question, please?
QUESTION: Yes. Thank you very much for doing this and my apologies for technical difficulties. I have two questions here: Is there any concern, Ambassador, on your end that the pandemic might be putting pressure on nations to pledge to our common goal of defeating ISIS? I think it’s also – it has to do with the timing of this initiative.
And my second question, since we have you here – I know this is not the subject, but the Country Reports on Terrorism just came out this morning, and I was reviewing Azerbaijan section. I represent Azerbaijan’s Turan News Agency. And is there any concern that the governments such as Azerbaijan and many others might be using terrorism as an excuse to purge their critics and opposition? In fact, this was somewhat alluded in the report but not clearly. I just want to give you a chance to elaborate on that. Thank you very much.
AMBASSADOR SALES: Thanks for the question, Alex. I’ll take the first one first. We are facing, the world is facing a really historically unprecedented challenge in the COVID pandemic, and it’s putting enormous strain on civilian populations around the world. As we focus on this, it’s important that we also keep our eye on the ball when it comes to terrorism, and that is exactly what the United States is doing. We can’t allow our terrorist adversaries to think that just because the world is grappling with a public health crisis that they now have a safe space to operate. They don’t have a safe space to operate. We’re going to continue to bring pressure to bear on them notwithstanding COVID-19. Whether it’s military pressure or law enforcement pressure, or countermessaging, we’re still very much in the business of counterterrorism in this environment.
The second question is another good one. In the United States, we pursue an approach to counterterrorism that is fully respectful of human rights and the rule of law. Unfortunately, there are too many countries around the world that use counterterrorism concerns as a pretext to suppress peaceful political protest, to marginalize or isolate religious or ethnic minority groups. And perhaps the most shameful example of this is what the Chinese Communist Party is doing right now in Xinjiang, where it has rounded up at least a million Muslims – Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities – rounded them up and thrown them into internment camps. That’s not counterterrorism. That’s just repression, plain and simple.
And so the United States has been clear that counterterrorism tools should be used against actual terrorist threats, but should never be abused to justify religious suppression.
QUESTION: Thanks so much.
AMBASSADOR SALES: Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador. And it looks like we have a follow-up question from Jahanzaib Ali from ARY News.
QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you, Doris. Once again, Jahanzaib Ali from ARY News TV Pakistan. So I was just wondering that – at one side we are spending million of dollars to defeat the ISIS, Daesh, but on this – at the same time that we are giving them open space on the social media, if for – I mean, their literatures are available online everywhere, their brochures are available online. They can still recruit people. They can still brainwash people using the online tools. So why there is no action to close down their websites, to close down their literature available online? I mean, this is a big problem. Don’t you see this – it just – it’s a big problem right now. Their literature is available everywhere on social media and social websites.
AMBASSADOR SALES: No, I agree that it’s important to fight ISIS in cyber space as we fight them in real space. The ISIS phenomenon was fueled in large part by a really unprecedented use of social media to radicalize, to spread false propaganda, and corrupt the minds of vulnerable populations. And so it’s essential that any part of our counter-ISIS campaign develop counternarratives that can inoculate vulnerable populations so they’re not seduced by the ISIS narrative.
And another part of that is to make sure that ISIS content that’s online that violates the law or that is inconsistent with social media companies’ terms of service is taken down in an expeditious way. We at the State Department have worked closely with Silicon Valley to alert them to the presence of content on their platforms that has been posted by designated terrorist organizations and designated terrorist individuals on the theory that they would want to come into compliance with U.S. sanctions laws.
And more broadly, I think we need to see more from Silicon Valley, but at the same time they have an understanding of the need to ensure that their platforms are not safe spaces for terrorists or for terrorist propagandists. They’re working on it; we need to see more action from them. But the United States Government is committed to taking the fight to ISIS online as we do in the real world too.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador. And we will do one final call for questions. In order to ask a final question, please hit the raised-hand button at the bottom of the screen. And it looks like Ben Marks has a follow-up question. So Ben Marks, go ahead with your question.
QUESTION: Yeah, hi. Thank you. I would like to ask PDAS Brown a question, just about why the increase in the reward from 5 to 10 million. Do you believe that the increase in the reward will have any effect on getting more information? Are you doing this because of any kind of information you’re getting?
PDAS BROWN: Well, Ben, I think it’s – it mostly has to do with the fact that his position went from deputy to the emir, and just the status that he now – that he has within the organization, and certainly all acts are attributed back to the emir. So I think the raising just sort of shows our resolve to bring him to justice and recognize that he now is the leader of one of the most despicable terrorist groups in the world. I think it’s as simple as that.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Director Brown. And it looks like we don’t have any additional
questions in the queue, so I will take this opportunity to thank our briefers today, Ambassador Sales and PDAS Todd Brown. We’d like to thank you for taking the time to brief the media today. We hope to have a transcript of this session later today, and if you have any additional questions, please send them to email@example.com and we will forward those questions to the briefers. Once again, I’d like to thank Ambassador Sales and PDAS Todd Brown. And with that, this session is concluded.