Thank you, Director Ganor, for your hospitality today, and, more importantly, for organizing one of the world’s marquis counterterrorism events.
Today’s terrorist threats are complex and fluid: We face an ever-changing landscape of terrorist groups – from ISIS, to Iran-backed Hizballah, to an array of terrorists motivated by racial, ethnic, and religious hatred.
But today I want to focus on the group whose attack on the United States 18 years ago heralded the modern age of terrorism – al-Qa’ida. The barbaric attacks of September 11, 2001, provoked a justified and effective response from the United States and our partners. We decimated the group’s leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We foiled their attacks. We denied them sanctuary. We delivered justice to Osama bin Laden.
But over time, al-Qa’ida has adapted to our counterterrorism pressure. What was once a centrally managed group based in South Asia has evolved into a more loosely defined network of affiliates around the world.
We need to adapt too. We all have a responsibility to make sure that al-Qa’ida doesn’t rise from the ashes and regain its former strength. Today, I’ll explain where we are in our battle against the group and why complacency is not an option. I’ll start by describing how al-Qa’ida has evolved and the threat its global network poses today. Then I’ll explain what we’re doing to take the fight to the terrorists – including several new measures we’re announcing today.
We must not mistake the recent dearth of al-Qa’ida attacks in the West for a lack of intent to strike us. The group’s senior leadership core has been greatly diminished, but its regional networks are increasingly dangerous.
Al-Qa’ida branches and affiliates are actively plotting and conducting attacks across Africa. They’re in the Middle East and South Asia. There’s an al-Qa’ida presence in South America. These networks are a threat to America and our partners, and they remain focused on hitting us as hard as they can.
Let me give you some details.
Africa remains an al-Qa’ida hot spot. In West Africa, an al-Qa’ida affiliate known as JNIM counts up to 2,000 fighters, and its attacks span Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. This threat is growing: JNIM continues to plot attacks against soft targets elsewhere in West Africa.
In Libya, al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb has taken advantage of political instability. It continues to maintain a presence and integrate its fighters into local communities, particularly in the south. AQIM has even conducted attacks as far away as Cote d’Ivoire.
We’re seeing a similar picture in East Africa. Al-Shabaab, the Somalia-based al-Qa’ida affiliate, continues to use safe havens throughout the country to obtain resources, recruit fighters, and commit attacks in Somalia and its neighbors. This January, al-Shabaab launched an attack in Nairobi, Kenya that killed 21 people.
The Middle East is where al-Qa’ida began, and it hasn’t given up on its ambitions there.
Al-Qa’ida in Syria – which encompasses the Nusrah Front, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, and Hurras al-Din – plots against the interests of the U.S. and others. From Idlib province, these groups are able to coordinate terrorist activities and plan attacks throughout the region and around the world. AQ-S’s ability to plot external operations from the cover of Idlib is a grave concern.
For years, al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula was perhaps the world’s most dangerous AQ affiliate. The Yemen-based group claimed credit for the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack and orchestrated the 2010 attempt to attack a cargo plane with bombs hidden in printer cartridges. It was responsible for the “underwear bomber” on a trans-Atlantic flight to the U.S. in 2009.
None of this is ancient history. While AQAP has been significantly weakened, its demonstrated proficiency with bomb making and security evasion mean we must continue to take it seriously.
Of course, we can’t talk about terrorism without mentioning Iran, the world’s worst state sponsor of terrorism.
It is a documented fact that Iran continues to provide sanctuary to al-Qa’ida operatives on its soil. The regime even allows al-Qa’ida to move money and fighters between South Asia and Syria. This is simply unacceptable.
On the face of it, a relationship between Iran and al-Qa’ida might have seem odd. Why would a militant Shia regime provide refuge to a fanatical Sunni group that’s bent on destroying Shias? The reason is both sides find this marriage of convenience useful because their stated objectives converge – they both loathe the West and especially detest Israel.
In 2016, the U.S. Treasury Department identified and sanctioned three senior al-Qa’ida operatives residing in Iran, adding to the eight Iran-based al-Qa’ida operatives previously designated. Eighteen years after 9/11 Iran still defies the world and refuses to bring these terrorists to justice.
Al-Qa’ida also remains active in South Asia. In Afghanistan, al-Qa’ida Core continues to maintain a presence, though greatly diminished by U.S. counterterrorism pressure. As the U.S. pursues a reconciliation process in Afghanistan, we remain committed to preventing that country from ever serving as a safe haven for terrorists and a base for their external operations. To repeat what Secretary Pompeo said in Kabul in July: we will always preserve our ability to keep America safe.
Al-Qa’ida has also established a presence in the Western Hemisphere. In August, the FBI added a Brazil-based al-Qa’ida facilitator to a list of wanted terrorists. The FBI seeks to question him about his suspected involvement in attack planning against the United States, and this week the Treasury Department sanctioned him as a designated terrorist.
What We’re Doing About It
Here’s what we’re doing to counter these threats around the world.
The Trump Administration is committed to ensuring that al-Qa’ida can never again conduct another 9/11 style attack on our homeland. At the same time, we’re working hard to degrade the group’s ability to threaten our overseas interests or those of our allies. Our goal is to destroy al-Qa’ida’s global networks – just as we have decimated its core leadership in South Asia.
Our strategy uses all instruments of national power – both military and civilian – and we’re pursuing five key lines of effort:
- First, our military continues to use kinetic action to find and destroy al-Qa’ida – targeting both its leadership and its operational capabilities.
- Second, we’re taking al-Qa’ida figures off the battlefield by prosecuting them for the crimes they’ve committed.
- Third, we’re aggressively using sanctions to deny al-Qa’ida the money that fuels its atrocities.
- Fourth, we’re spearheading global efforts to harden borders against terrorist travel.
- Fifth, we’re denying al-Qa’ida the ability to radicalize and recruit the next generation of fighters by targeting the group’s toxic ideology.
I’ll say a few words about each.
First, our military is taking the fight to al-Qa’ida.
Less than two weeks ago our forces struck an al-Qa’ida facility in Idlib, Syria, targeting those responsible for threats against U.S. citizens, our partners, and innocent civilians. This comes on the heels of another U.S. strike against AQ-S leadership near Aleppo in June. This operation targeted AQ-S operatives responsible for plotting attacks outside Syria.
Make no mistake: The United States will not hesitate to take this kind of action to deny al-Qa’ida safe havens from which to plot and carry out attacks.
In Somalia, U.S. forces operate in support of Somali and African Union partners as they take the fight to al-Shabaab. This year alone, U.S. forces have conducted about 40 strikes against al-Shabaab targets to degrade the group’s ability to commit attacks in Somalia and beyond.
In Libya, our forces continue to target al-Qa’ida elements. In coordination with the Libyan Government of National Accord, we’ve conducted a series of strikes, including a November 2018 precision airstrike near Al Uwaynat that killed eleven AQIM terrorists.
We’re also working to strengthen civilian responses to terrorism. Law enforcement is a critical counterterrorism tool – both disrupting attacks in real time and prosecuting terrorists for their crimes.
For example, this July, in Afghanistan, a police unit called CRU-222 that we’ve trained and equipped, responded to a Taliban attack against an Afghan military facility. They successfully neutralized five attackers and evacuated 210 civilians, including children. CRU-222 has responded to numerous attacks and carried out high-profile arrests. This unit’s outstanding work is key to Afghanistan’s efforts to establish and maintain a society free from terrorism.
In sub-Saharan Africa, we’re assisting crisis response teams by building their capacity to disrupt terrorist attacks. In Mali and Kenya, U.S.-trained teams responded ably to attacks on the Hotel Kangaba and 14 Riverside Drive.
We’re also seeing results in courtrooms. In Somalia, we’ve provided equipment, training, and mentoring for Somali Police Force teams. These teams have responded to and investigated more than 400 terrorist incidents, and referred more than 50 terrorism cases to prosecutors. This has led to more than 100 convictions, including those responsible for the October 14, 2017, bombings in downtown Mogadishu that killed nearly 600 people.
Designations – Cutting off the Flow of Money
Next, money is al-Qa’ida’s lifeblood, funding its recruitment, travel, and operations. The aggressive use of sanctions is one of the most important weapons in our arsenal.
Since 2017, the Trump Administration has designated 26 al-Qa’ida targets, including affiliates, senior leaders, operatives, facilitators, recruiters, and businesses.
Earlier this week, the President announced the most significant update of our terrorism designation authorities since the aftermath of 9/11. Under this historic Executive Order, we’re now able to more effectively sanction the leaders of terrorist groups, as well as those who participate in training to commit acts of terrorism.
The State Department is already putting this new tool to good use. This week, we designated Hurras al-Din and its leader, Faruq al-Suri. Hurras al-Din is an al-Qa’ida-affiliated group that emerged in Syria in early 2018 after several factions broke away from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. I’ll come back to al-Suri in a minute. No matter how these groups attempt to rebrand themselves, we will subject them to unrelenting financial pressure.
The United States is also spearheading global efforts to harden our collective borders against terrorist travel. Al-Qa’ida has consistently sought to exploit gaps in border security. We need to close those gaps.
One of the best ways to secure borders is to exchange information about threats. That’s why the United States is signing agreements with partners to share information about known and suspected terrorists to stop them from traveling. We now have more than 70 of these arrangements on the books.
We’re also helping frontline states secure their borders through a variety of familiar tools, such as surveillance, patrols, physical barriers, and threat-based screening.
For example, we’re working with the Somali Police Force to pioneer the use of the BITMAP system – deployable, cutting-edge biometrics devices to collect and share information about terrorists and other threats.
Across the border in Kenya, we’re providing the Border Police with the training and tools they need to respond to terrorism and build relationships with the communities they’re sworn to protect. This effort has greatly improved intelligence gathering on potential terrorist operations and increased public support for their counterterrorism mission.
Countering al-Qa’ida Narratives and Ideology
Finally, we’re denying al-Qa’ida the ability to radicalize and recruit the next generation of fighters through a messaging strategy that counters its toxic ideology. We’re creating a global architecture to combat terrorist recruitment with the help of civil society, private partners, and the tech industry.
Together with the UAE, the U.S. supports the Abu Dhabi based Sawab Center, which provides an online counter to al-Qa’ida propaganda. An effective Sawab campaign has highlighted the teachings of the Koran on mercy, tolerance, and coexistence. It serves as an antidote to al-Qa’ida’s ideology of violence and intolerance.
I said a moment ago that the United States will continue to subject al-Qa’ida networks to relentless pressure. That brings me to today’s announcement.
One of the State Department’s key counterterrorism tools is our Rewards for Justice program. RFJ has paid out over $150 million dollars to more than 100 people who’ve provided the U.S. government with credible information that has helped bring terrorists to justice. In 2018, we offered a $5 million award for Khalid al-Batarfi, a senior member of AQAP. That same year we doubled the RFJ bounty – to $10 million – on senior al-Qa’ida leader Sayf al-Adl.
Today, I’m announcing that the United States is offering a reward of up to $5 million each for information leading to the identification or location of three senior Hurras al-Din leaders: Faruq al-Suri, Abu ‘Abd al-Karim al-Masri, and Sami al-Uraydi.
Faruq al-Suri is the leader of Hurras al-Din and a former Nusrah Front military commander in Syria. Abu ‘Abd al-Karim al-Masri is an al-Qa’ida veteran who has served as a mediator between al-Qa’ida in Syria and the Nusrah Front. Sami al-Uraydi is a senior sharia official for al-Qa’ida in Syria. He previously was involved in terrorist plots against the United States and Israel.
We urge anyone with information on these individuals to contact the Rewards for Justice program via our website at “Rewards for Justice dot net”. All information submitted will be kept strictly confidential. There are information cards at each of the exits about these rewards.
Destroying al-Qa’ida’s global networks is a top priority for the Trump Administration and must be for our allies as well. None of us, not even the United States, can defeat this dangerous enemy alone. We will only succeed if we work together and work quickly to address this threat. Al-Qa’ida is a global menace that requires a global response.
So today, as we commemorate the 18th anniversary of 9/11, the United States calls on our partners to prioritize the fight against al-Qa’ida, and use every tool at their disposal to deny the group and its leaders sanctuary anywhere in the world.
We’re always grateful to see our partners step up, and I’d particularly like to commend our close ally Poland. Early next year, under the auspices of the Warsaw Process, the United States and Poland will convene a group of 70 nations to address the evolving al-Qa’ida threat. This will be the first global conference outside the United Nations since 9/11 to focus on al-Qa’ida.
As the smoke cleared at Ground Zero, and we prepared to respond, we knew that the coming fight against terror would be a generational struggle. There are young men and women joining the U.S. military today who were born the same year the Twin Towers fell. They know what this fight is about. If democratic values are to survive, we must prevail. No one knows that better than our friends in Israel. You’ve been defending your nation against existential threats since the day it was founded. By staying committed to the fight, by joining together with nations that cherish basic human rights, we will be victorious.