Hello and good afternoon, everyone. Thank you, Boaz, for that kind introduction, and to the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) for convening us in this important moment. I’m particularly grateful to ICT for scheduling this event in the weeks after the United States’ airstrike on Aymen al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qa’ida, which marked an important counterterrorism success for this administration. And thank you all for coming. The United States is eager to participate in person for this year’s event after the two-years interruption due to COVID.
The State Department’s CT Coordinator has been a regular participant in these annual ICT gatherings. My predecessor Nathan Sales spoke at the last- in person conference ICT convened, in September of 2019. The focus of his speech was to “Keep the Pressure on al-Qa’ida.” Well, I am happy to be here to say that we are continuing to pressure that terrorist network.
The strike that eliminated Aymen al-Zawahiri and dealt a blow to al-Qa’ida serves as a reminder to our terrorist adversaries that if they harm the United States and its allies, they will find no safe haven. As counterterrorism practitioners, we learn to adapt to the opportunities and constraints of our operating environment. A military withdrawal from Afghanistan was long overdue and supported by the majority of the American people, but that does not mean we are walking away from our commitment to confront terrorist threats in that part of the world.
Our strike to take out Zawahiri made clear that the U.S. will not stand for the sheltering of al-Qa’ida leadership or a reversion to the status quo from before the September 11 attacks. The Counterterrorism Bureau, along with our partners throughout the U.S. Government and the entire counterterrorism architecture developed in the past two decades, is clear-eyed about the threats we face and working to keep us all safe.
Let me tell you a little more today about what we see as the terrorism threat and what we are doing to address it.
To do that, I’d like to borrow the “eye of the storm” metaphor that the organizers of this conference chose as a frame for the week’s discussions. I think it is an apt way to describe our present situation with regards to terrorism threats, and I will use it to frame my remarks.
First, I want to emphasize that we remain vigilant even though the terrorism threat might seem more diffuse today than in comparison to previous periods. Looking around the corner of our present moment, we see much to remain concerned about regarding terrorist threats in Israel’s neighborhood and beyond.
Then, I will discuss what this administration has learned in countering terrorism and how that has informed its approach to the threats we face. Just as someone in the eye of the storm must survey past damage done to prepare for the next onslaught, so too must we take stock of what we have experienced in years past to be smarter about how we face terrorist threats in the future.
We understand that being in the “eye” of the storm means that the present conditions of calm are temporary, requiring us to acknowledge the future threats we expect to return in force. In the Middle East, for example, we are extremely concerned that all the structural conditions that precipitated the emergence of conflict and terrorism in the past decade have either remained in place or worsened.
Consider how countries in Israel’s immediate neighborhood continue to struggle with weak governance, social fragmentation, and economic grievances among the population, leaving a vacuum that terrorist organizations continue to exploit.
The region is also grappling with questions of how terrorists and insurgents could exploit emerging technologies – like blockchain-based crypto currencies, encrypted communications, digital deepfakes, and drone swarms – for nefarious purposes.
Add to this a major shift in geopolitics. With Russia and China, there is increasing competition, uncertainty, and instability around the world. We are concerned with the growing possibility of more conflict similar to Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. And we know – to paraphrase an axiom that
counterterrorism practitioners can appreciate – wars anywhere provide an opportunity for terrorists everywhere.
Finally, we must consider Iran, which destabilizes the Middle East region by providing its terrorist proxies and partners with the means to wage war and which has been deeply involved in the Syrian regime’s war against its own people. Iran seeks to duplicate its time-tested playbook of supporting non-state armed groups in places such as Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and other countries in the region, with training and advanced weapons that are used to inflict violence on civilians across the region in the service of Iran’s political interests. Iran engages in these destabilizing actions to extort and coerce countries in the Middle East while extending its influence across the Arabian Peninsula and beyond.
We are under no illusions about the threat an intransigent Iran poses worldwide, including to the United States. Iran, and the groups it supports, are not a distant theoretical threat to the United States. As you undoubtedly all saw, in late August, we launched precision strikes against a facility in Syria used by militia groups affiliated with the IRGC in response to armed attacks against U.S. forces in the region. Also, the U.S. Justice Department recently indicted an IRGC operative for plotting to assassinate the former U.S. National Security Advisor. And DOJ and the FBI have successfully prosecuted three Hizballah operatives over the past several years for conducting surveillance and other terrorist-related activities on U.S. soil. We have seen up close and first-hand the dangers that Iran-linked terrorism poses.
We in the CT Bureau are urging governments around the world to designate, ban, or otherwise restrict Hizballah from operating in their territories. These actions are critical to restricting Hizballah’s ability to fundraise to support its operations, crippling the group’s efforts to take advantage of Lebanon’s financial crisis to deepen their control over a country approximately 200 kilometers (130 miles) from here. Aside from Hizballah, we have designated, where possible, and are pursuing all avenues otherwise, to undermine Iranian-aligned militia groups where they emerge. Iran’s reliance for decades on terroristic violence to advance its political agenda is unacceptable. Rest assured we will continue to confront Iran’s use of and support for terrorism regardless of the outcome of the nuclear negotiations.
So, if we agree with our conference organizers that we are in the eye of the storm as far as terrorism threats are concerned, what can we do to both counter terrorism and prepare properly? I would argue that there are two major lessons
that we have learned and can marshal to be smarter in how we face the next terrorism threats.
First, we have learned that counterterrorism requires a careful and more comprehensive approach. Eliminating senior terrorist leaders like Zawahiri and other terrorist operatives is critical, but over the long term we cannot defeat our terrorist adversaries with the force of our military might alone.
Careful and more comprehensive counterterrorism approaches require the effective integration of the full spectrum of counterterrorism capabilities most appropriate to the threat. We have strong hammers, but not every terrorist problem is a nail. Considering – and even using – the full counterterrorism toolkit, including intelligence and information, is a start. But more than that, we need to focus our efforts on using the right counterterrorism tools at the right time to solve the problem at hand.
For example, now that we have territorially defeated ISIS’s so-called “caliphate,” we are seeing civilian tools come to the fore. These civilian tools include capacity building assistance for countries to facilitate repatriation of their nationals from northeast Syria and stabilization programming in territories liberated from ISIS. Both of these efforts necessary to ensure the long-term defeat of ISIS in the Iraq/Syria region.
Civilian counterterrorism tools are an essential part of our counterterrorism toolkit. They help us prevent terrorists from capturing wide swaths of territory or attracting large numbers of adherents. They inspire confidence in local authorities to provide legitimate security through outreach and engagement, a reliance on the rule of law, and good security sector governance. They deprive terrorists’ sources of recruitment and support with credible efforts to prevent, investigate, prosecute, incarcerate, and rehabilitate the terrorist threat. They build partnerships and partner capacity so that, while we are in the eye of the storm, we can invest in the necessary tools to emerge better prepared for the threats we will face.
Some of the principles my bureau follows in the pursuit of these tools include:
An emphasis on partnerships. Or, as our organizers might say: “it takes a network to fight a network.” To achieve lasting counterterrorism successes means building alliances. We have done that with the 85-member D-ISIS Coalition, which is not only focused on Iraq and Syria but is now looking to other ISIS hotspots, particularly in Africa and Central Asia.
An emphasis on civilian-driven efforts to defeat terrorist adversaries by finding ways to get them off the battlefield, keep them off, and, ideally, prevent them from joining the battle to begin with. Military action alone risks one terrorist simply being replaced by another. So civilian approaches, such as countering violent extremism, strengthening border security, and providing rehabilitation and reintegration pathways for those seeking to renounce violence, are also crucial. This is a tall order, but even a small margin of success increases confidence, provides added protection for our civilians, and reduces the cost of a military engagement with our terrorist adversaries should the situation call for one.
An emphasis on partner-led approaches. Our adversaries know that U.S. troops cannot and will not remain deployed forever. Nor should they be. We need willing and committed partners with skin in the game who we can work with, who we can train, and who can stay in the fight when we are no longer there to advise and assist.
In summary, our methods emphasize an approach that is civilian-driven, partner-led, U.S.-enabled, and rooted in multilateral diplomacy because we know that to inflict a lasting defeat on an agile adversary that only needs to survive to win requires a considered and collaborative approach.
Second, U.S. national security priorities are shifting to account for strategic competition. The importance of this shift is clear, but it is forcing us to acknowledge something we ought to have learned in our many years: counterterrorism is not an island; it is linked to other factors in a comprehensive and successful national security strategy.
In this regard, as Homeland Security Advisor Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall explained in a speech last year commemorating the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, our approach will be focused on: “integrating our counterterrorism strategy into regional strategies, nesting our CT efforts within a broader suite of initiatives, and investing in an Indicators-and-Warning architecture that will enable us to understand the evolving threat environment.”
Countering terrorism as a part of a wider array of national security priorities requires us to remain focused on the terrorist threat with a smarter deployment of resources. Our counterterrorism capabilities have evolved significantly in the two decades since 2001. The United States has invested unprecedented sums to construct a flexible counterterrorism architecture that combines threat
detection and kinetic response with risk analysis, information sharing, watch listing, public-private partnerships, and building the capacities of our allies and partners. We are now able to pay attention to the terrorist threat while also addressing emerging issues of great national security concern. Using this counterterrorism infrastructure, we can protect our citizens and interests while simultaneously pursuing other strategic priorities.
Our precision strike against a high-value terrorist target like Zawahiri is proof of this evolution. It shows that we can make our counterterrorism architecture work to fight terrorists who threaten us. However, our new national security priorities demand that architecture no longer be supported to create new enemies by engaging with adversaries we may not have otherwise needed to fight because they do not threaten us directly.
In conclusion, our methods must adapt to meet the new threat environment. But I want to be clear that we will keep our eye on the ball and work harder and smarter, drawing on lessons we have learned by weathering many storms together, to address the new threats we face.
I want to thank the organizers again for convening these discussions. I am eager to learn more from the discussions, especially how CT can remain meaningfully engaged on addressing the threats we are all working hard together to mitigate.