Remarks at the Ministerial Meeting of the Global Coalition To Defeat ISIS

Nathan A. Sales
Ambassador-at-Large and Coordinator for Counterterrorism 
Loy Henderson Auditorium
Washington, DC
February 6, 2019

Good afternoon, everyone.

ISIS is down, but it’s not out.

Thanks to the efforts of Coalition members and partners, we’ve achieved great victories against ISIS’s false caliphate in Syria and Iraq. Together, we’ve liberated nearly 110,000 square kilometers of territory. We’ve freed approximately 7.7 million men, women, and children from ISIS’s brutal rule. Fifty percent of these gains have come since President Trump took office two years ago and intensified our campaign against this vicious enemy.

But let me be clear. Even as we defeat them on the battlefield, ISIS has shown a dangerous ability to adapt. The group’s leaders and foot soldiers see the destruction of their so-called physical caliphate as a setback, not a defeat.

ISIS has a truly global presence. It has affiliates and networks in the Middle East, in North Africa, and in South Asia. They’re present in Europe. They’re active right here in North America.

As we speak, ISIS is actively looking to exfiltrate fighters to these branches to continue the fight. Battle-hardened terrorists are heading home from the war zone or wreaking havoc in third countries. Homegrown terrorists who’ve never set foot on a battlefield are planning and executing attacks. Attacks on soft targets – hotels, restaurants, concert halls, and other public spaces – continue around the world.

In short, our fight against ISIS isn’t over. It’s just entering a new phase. And a vitally important part of this Ministerial’s work is coming to grips with how the Coalition should move forward in this new phase.

For this next stage of the campaign outside the core, we need a coordinated and effective strategy. Above all, we need to deny ISIS the ability to reconstitute itself as a fighting force with a physical safe haven. When terrorists enjoy safe haven, they’re able to plot external attacks that threaten us all. That’s what ISIS did from Raqqa. That’s what al-Qa’ida did years before from Afghanistan.

We also need to focus on the connective tissue in trans-regional space between ISIS branches and affiliates – couriers, facilitation routes, terrorism finance networks, gaps in aviation and border security, and the internet. ISIS exploits these to enable its global enterprise, attract new recruits, and spread its vile ideology.

Furthermore, as we confront ISIS outside the core, we need to look beyond military force as our sole – or even our primary – tool. We need to use a broader mix of our instruments of national power, including our civilian-sector capabilities. And we’ll be looking to our Coalition partners to play a leading role in this effort.

The key tools include law enforcement – investigating and prosecuting ISIS figures for the crimes they’ve committed.

We’ll also need to boost our border security to combat terrorist travel. We need to share our watchlists of known and suspected terrorists. We need to be analyzing airline reservation data to spot the ISIS fighters who are hiding in plain sight.

Finally, we need to cut off the flow of money to ISIS affiliates around the world. It isn’t enough just to stop the gunman or the bomber. We also need to stop those who facilitate and enable them.

So much for theory; what about practice? As we look to 2019 and beyond, what can the Coalition do to confront ISIS globally?

First, let’s focus on law enforcement. Coalition members could help build law enforcement capacity in key regions. This could include training to investigators, judges, prosecutors, and prison officials to better manage the prosecution and detention of ISIS figures. We also could help key states build secure prisons to hold ISIS fighters.

We also need to ensure that states facing the ISIS threat have the domestic legal frameworks they need to designate ISIS branches, as well as successfully prosecute the group’s fighters and facilitators.

And while we’re on the subject, let me say a few words about prosecuting foreign terrorist fighters. There are currently about 800 FTFs who’ve been captured by the SDF. The United States calls on all countries – and especially members of this Coalition – to take their citizens back, prosecute them, and prevent them from returning to the battlefield.

Second, we need to improve border security. In December 2017, the UN Security Council adopted a tough new resolution on terrorist travel – UNSCR 2396.

Coalition members should make it a priority to implement 2396 with all deliberate speed. In particular, we could bolster our terrorist watchlists, and share them, so we’re able to better monitor the movements of ISIS fighters.

We also need to make sure we’re using airline reservation data to stop terrorist travel. Last November, in Montreal, the United States urged the International Civil Aviation Organization to adopt a standard for reservation data by the end of this year. We hope we can count on our Coalition partners to support this important initiative.

Third, Coalition members could work to prevent radicalization, and “off-ramp” those who’ve already committed to the cause of ISIS or other terrorist groups.

These initiatives could include establishing national-level reintegration and rehabilitation programs to prevent captured ISIS fighters from returning to the battlefield. We also need to make sure that returning family members are reintegrated into society.

Additionally, we need to prevent ISIS from radicalizing the next generation of fighters. Coalition partners could work together to develop regionally-tailored counter-narratives to undercut the ISIS recruiting narrative.

To conclude, there’s no “one size fits all” solution for confronting the ISIS threat across the globe. Every region, every country will require unique approaches in confronting its unique challenges. What needs to be consistent is our unity of purpose. It’s imperative that this Coalition approach our efforts to defeat ISIS in the global space with the same level of urgency that has informed our efforts in Iraq and Syria.

With that, I would like to thank all of our Coalition partners for their commitment to and concerted efforts on behalf of this global effort, and I look forward to the contributions from our partners during the discussion. Thank you.