UN Security Council Resolution 2396 - A Vital New Tool to Defeat Terrorism

Nathan A. Sales
Ambassador-at-Large and Coordinator for Counterterrorism 
Council on Foreign Relations
New York, United States
February 5, 2018

As Prepared

I’d like to thank the Council on Foreign Relations for inviting me to speak tonight. Given the topic – UN Security Council Resolution 2396 – it’s only fitting that we explore this issue here in New York.

Since 9/11, the United States has been the world’s counterterrorism leader. After the attacks, we pioneered a number of cutting edge CT tools to secure our borders and keep our people safe. Data analysis. Biometrics. Information sharing. In December, the U.N. Security Council adopted a new resolution that pushes the rest of the world to live up to the same standards.

Let me be more specific. In the run-up to 9/11, al-Qa’ida was able to exploit weaknesses in our border screening to send 19 operatives into our country undetected. The result was the deadliest attack on U.S. soil in decades. More Americans died on September 11 than at Pearl Harbor.

We responded by consolidating our watchlists of known and suspected terrorists to block terrorist travel. We started analyzing airline reservation data – known as Passenger Name Records, or PNR – to flag people who should get a little extra scrutiny when they board a plane or come through a customs checkpoint. We started collecting fingerprints from visitors to our country to spot terrorists trying to cross our borders.

With all of this, we made America safer while keeping faith with American values.

Thanks to that new Security Council Resolution, the policies I mentioned are now global standards, not just American ones. UNSCR 2396, which was adopted unanimously and with 66 co-sponsors, requires all UN member states to develop and deploy the same capabilities.

Tonight, I’d like to tell you how the United States has used these vital counterterrorism tools and the promise they hold for the rest of the world.


Let’s start with watchlists.

Effective border security includes multiple layers of screening. The first, most basic layer is to look for previously identified risks. In practice, that means looking at passports or airline manifests and comparing passengers’ names, dates of birth, and similar information against databases of known threats.

Watchlists are an indispensable tool for screening people who are entering our country.

The United States learned all of this the hard way on September 11. In January 2000, a group of senior al-Qa’ida members held a summit in Kuala Lumpur. We knew about the meeting in advance, and Malaysian authorities surveilled the people who attended. But partly because we didn’t have effective watchlists, two of them were able to enter the U.S. after the summit using their actual names—Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar. They went on to help hijack American Airlines Flight 77 and crash it into the Pentagon.

Today, we have a robust and effective watchlist system. Every day more than a million people enter the United States by land, sea, and air, and another 2.1 million people take a domestic flight. We screen these travelers’ names and other data against our lists of known and suspected terrorists to identify potential threats.

Notably, the United States hasn’t been doing this alone. Over the years we’ve entered dozens of bilateral arrangements to share information on known and suspected terrorists pursuant to Homeland Security Presidential Directive 6. In 2017, we signed HSPD-6 agreements with 10 additional countries, bringing the total number to 69. Under HSPD-6, our partners have provided us with the names of over 70,000 known or suspected terrorists.

Under Resolution 2396, all UN member states will now be required to maintain these kinds of watchlists. They’re also encouraged to share their lists with other countries. By making watchlists mandatory, the Security Council has raised the global baseline for border security.


A second, more sophisticated layer of border screening involves passenger name records, or PNR. PNR is the information you give an airline when you book a ticket – a phone number, an email address, and so on. The United States started using PNR back in the 1990s to hunt for suspicious cargo, like narcotics and counterfeit goods. Since 9/11, we’ve used it to spot terrorist threats – with great success.

PNR can help analysts identify suspicious travel patterns, flagging threats who might have escaped notice. It can also illuminate hidden connections between known terrorists and their unknown associates. This is called “link analysis” or “contact chaining.”

Collecting and sharing PNR can also help spot so-called “broken travel,” a tactic of using convoluted travel routes to evade detection. Do you remember Mehdi Nemmouche? He’s the gunman who’s been charged with murdering four people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels in 2014. Nemmouche reportedly used broken travel to reach Europe undetected, traveling from Syria by way of Asia.

So what does PNR use look like? Here are a few success stories.

In December 2014, a Yemeni citizen was scheduled to travel from Saudi Arabia to Washington, DC. During a routine review of inbound flight data, CBP officers matched an email and phone number in his reservation with a second person who was a suspected terrorist. They dug a little deeper and found additional ties between the two. Thanks to PNR, the State Department was able to immediately revoke the traveler’s visa, and the airline denied him boarding.

In another example, a young American was prevented from leaving the country and potentially continuing down a path towards terrorism. The citizen’s PNR matched a route known to be used by people heading overseas to fight with ISIS. He was sent to secondary inspection at the airport; when questioned, he couldn’t explain where he planned to travel. The airline denied him boarding, and denied him again when he tried to travel a second time.

PNR can also be useful in criminal investigations. In December 2009, U.S. citizen Faisal Shahzad received explosives training in Pakistan from people affiliated with Tehrik-e Taliban – the Pakistani Taliban. In February 2010, Shahzad arrived at JFK on a one-way ticket from Islamabad and was referred to secondary because he matched a PNR targeting rule. CBP interviewed and released him, documenting the encounter.

Fast forward three months. On May 1, 2010, a car bomb failed to detonate in Times Square. Investigators tied Shahzad to the car, a Nissan Pathfinder that he bought through Craigslist. CBP then placed an alert for Shahzad in its system. When he booked a flight to flee the country, the system flagged it, and he was arrested at JFK as he attempted to travel to Dubai. He’s now serving a life sentence.

The PNR system that the United States pioneered has now become an international norm. In 2016, after years of ambivalence and even hostility, the EU directed its member states to develop PNR systems of their own. And Resolution 2396 requires all UN members to do the same.


Biometrics provide a third layer of screening. They’re a critical tool for verifying that travelers really are who they say they are. Terrorists try to mask their true identities in a number of ways – aliases, fake passports, and so on. It’s a lot harder to fake their fingerprints.

That’s why the United States collects biometrics from non-Americans who visit this country. We collect their fingerprints and facial scans and use the data to validate their identities and travel documents. We also check their biometrics against watchlists.

These tools become even more powerful as our soldiers collect biometrics on the battlefield—latent fingerprints in ISIS safe houses, prints on unexploded IEDs, prints from captured foreign fighters, and so on.

Let me give you a few examples of biometrics in action.

First, the big picture. Last year, through automated sharing of biometrics with partners, the United States was able to identify 134 known or suspected terrorists who were traveling to foreign countries. The numbers for this year are even more impressive. In fiscal year 2018, this program has already flagged 44 people.

Here’s an example. Earlier this year, a would-be migrant applied for asylum in the United States. The person’s fingerprints were taken, and we shared them with another country. Our partner reported back that this was a known or suspected terrorist. Thanks to biometrics, we were able to stop the traveler from coming to the United States, and we referred the matter to the foreign country’s national police.

In another case in 2014, New Zealand sent us a fingerprint identification request for a Sri Lankan national who was applying for asylum. We found that the prints matched those of a known or suspected terrorist. As a result, New Zealand was able to refuse asylum.

Resolution 2396 takes this American initiative and turns it into a global norm. The resolution requires all UN members to collect biometric data to spot terrorists if they attempt to board planes or cross borders. And because we all need to stop these threats before they reach our shores, 2396 calls for member states to share this information with each other.


In conclusion, the United States pioneered the border security tools at the heart of Resolution 2396. But we also recognize that not everyone has the same resources or expertise. We know that implementing this new resolution will be a heavy lift for some countries.

That’s why we stand ready to assist our partners that have the political will to meet their obligations. We’re also working with other countries to help cushion the financial burden of these new mandates. In particular, we’re willing to share our PNR system with countries that want it.

We’re all in this together. The more states that are able to spot terrorists and stop them from traveling, the safer we’ll all be. Full implementation of UNSCR 2396 will help ensure that the world has the tools it needs to stay one step ahead of our adversaries. The United States will continue to share our expertise – we’ll continue to lead – in the global campaign to identity threats and deny terrorist travel.