MODERATOR: Hey, everybody. Obviously, we have our —
QUESTION: We’re waiting for big breaking news.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You’re going to be waiting a while longer. (Laughter.)
MODERATOR: [Senior Administration Official]. This will be on background, attribution to a senior administration official.
Please, let’s just jump right into it.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: All right, great. Afternoon, everybody. Thanks for being here. No breaking news, I just wanted to give you kind of a rundown of the greatest hits in counterterrorism for 2019. Through a sustained campaign of diplomatic engagement, we achieved a number of important successes against groups like al-Qaida, ISIS, and Iran-backed terrorist organizations, and I just wanted to highlight three or four top lines from 2019.
First of all, the Secretary’s designation of the IRGC, including its Qods Force, in April as a foreign terrorist organization was a major step in our campaign to pressure Iranian-backed terrorist proxies. This was the first time the United States had ever designated part of a foreign government as an FTO, and it reinforces our longstanding view that Iran is unique among the world – the world’s nations in its use of terrorism as a basic tool of statecraft.
The second major accomplishment of the year was the President’s revised Executive Order 13224. This was the most significant update to our terrorism sanctions authorities since the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The changes that that executive order made are substantially improving our ability to go after terrorist groups, their facilitators and their financiers.
Two significant changes there. First of all, it allows us – it gives us more flexibility to target those who participate in training for terrorism, and it also gives us more flexibility to go after leadership. It’s no longer necessary to specifically tie a designations target to specific acts of terrorism. Their role as a leader of a group or their role in training is now enough, and people who do this for a living at Treasury will tell you that this has made a major change in their ability to do their jobs.
Third accomplishment that I wanted to highlight was through our sustained engagement with foreign partners, we’ve seen some important progress on repatriation and reintegration of foreign terrorist fighters. There’s currently about 2,000 foreign fighters in custody, in SDF custody in Syria, another 70,000 or so women and children who are ISIS-affiliated family members. The U.S. has been leading by example and taking back our own people. We’ve brought back eight adults; six of them are being prosecuted. We brought back 15 children as well. And other countries around the world are following suit. Kazakhstan in particular has been a real leader in repatriating hundreds of its own citizens. And just yesterday you’ll have seen tweets from the President and the Secretary – just yesterday Bosnia and Herzegovina repatriated another 25 of its citizens. That includes fighters as well as ISIS-affiliated family members.
I’d also point out that was the first U.S.-supported repatriation operation since the Turkish incursion into northern Syria in October, and we hope that this is now the proof of concept that establishes our ability to continue to do those repatriations going forward to assist other countries.
Finally, I wanted to highlight a growing international consensus about Hizballah’s status as a terrorist organization. The United States has for decades recognized the reality that there’s no such thing as a Hizballah political wing; it’s all a terrorist organization, and our sanctions authorities reflect that. This year, as a result of persistent diplomatic engagement, a number of other countries around the world have recognized that reality as well, designating the group in its entirety. The UK did it, Argentina did it, Paraguay did it, Kosovo did it, and then just yesterday, literally yesterday – yesterday was a good day for counterterrorism news – the German Bundestag adopted a resolution calling on the government to likewise designate the entirety of Hizballah as a terrorist organization.
So all in all, I think it was an important year in the counterterrorism space where we racked up a number of important goals, racked up a number of important wins in moving the ball forward.
And with that, I’m happy to take any questions you’ve got.
QUESTION: I’m just curious why you didn’t mention the Baghdadi – well, that wasn’t a headline?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Because the State Department didn’t do it.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Okay. (Laughter.)
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’m happy to spike the football for DOD’s accomplishments, but I thought you would be more interested in hearing about what the State Department has been doing. Yeah.
QUESTION: Well, true, I’m just – well, anyway, that was my (inaudible).
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, that’s – it’s a fair point. And look, crushing the ISIS caliphate in Syria and Iraq is another major accomplishment. There’s a lot, but I’m just highlighting stuff that we did here at the State Department primarily.
MODERATOR: To Courtney.
QUESTION: Thanks. You talked about key accomplishments in 2019. What are you looking for in 2020? Are there specific —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: More cowbell, basically. We want to —
QUESTION: That’s going to be on the transcript. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: That’s on the record.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sorry. Was that a little too flip?
STAFF: (Inaudible) it, though. It doesn’t work if you don’t (inaudible). (Laughter.)
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We’re on the right trajectory here, and we want to continue to make progress on all those different dimensions. We want more countries to designate Hizballah. Some in South America are currently looking at doing so following Argentina’s lead and Paraguay’s lead. We’d like to get those across the finish line. We’re working with other countries that have expressed an interest in repatriating some of their fighters and family members. We want to get those across the finish line in 2020. And we want to continue to bring pressure to bear on terrorist groups’ finances by cutting off their sources of money. So more of the same.
QUESTION: Can you identify any of those countries that have expressed interest in FTF repatriations, or regions, even?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I can’t, I can’t. It’s a global problem, so we’re engaging with countries all around the world.
QUESTION: Just before you came in, we were talking about that weird case in London where the bartender went after the criminal who’d been released with a narwhal tusk.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah.
QUESTION: And, I mean, as you recall, he had himself been a prisoner, and he got out, and went at it again. Have you made any progress in the last year in turning former foreign fighters, former terrorists around, and not just repatriating them but reintegrating them into societies?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, it’s a great question. The mission doesn’t end once the terrorists and the family members get back home. You just shift into a different phase of the mission. And at that point, you’re taking the people who committed crimes and putting them through the criminal justice system, which is a relatively straightforward task. The much more complex task is what do you with the family members who’ve been traumatized, in the case of young children, exposed to radical ideology, and maybe in the case of the teenagers or the wives, been committed to the ISIS mission?
The – what I would hold up as an example of how to do this the right is Kazakhstan. I was in Nur-Sultan a couple of months ago and had the opportunity to visit one of the regional rehabilitation and reintegration centers where they’re processing literally hundreds of children and women who they’ve brought back. They’ve been doing this, by the way, with extensive support from the United States. We’ve sent out a number of academic experts to provide guidance on how to deal with childhood trauma, how to deal with exposure to violence, and religious authorities that the local government officials are bringing to bear to explain to the returnees the theological errors on which the ISIS caliphate was built.
This work is not something that will be done in the span of weeks, or months, or even years. It’s something that takes a substantial amount of time, and it takes a substantial amount of attention from local governments. The Kazakhs have been leaders on this, and I think we’re going to be learning some really important lessons about how to do this the right way that we can port to other countries that are facing the same challenges.
QUESTION: Thanks. Are you getting any traction – speaking again of foreign fighters – with those countries, especially European countries, who have said we don’t want these people back? Are you changing any hearts and minds? Do you feel like you’re making any progress there? Or is it still an ongoing, uphill climb for —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think we’re making some progress, but we’d like to make more. I’d just highlight again the Bosnia repatriation that took place yesterday. Bosnia’s in Europe.
So Ireland and potentially some other countries may be more sympathetic to the plight of women and children. I think there’s an increasing awareness that it is not an effective or humane solution to leave vulnerable children at risk in the desert.
So I think that may be an area where we can make some progress with European and other partners, but our position on this overall is clear and hasn’t changed. You’ve got to take responsibility for your citizens, and that means all of your citizens, not just the sympathetic ones, but the really hard cases of people who are committed to the ideology, who have committed crimes for ISIS, and if released will do so again. Those people got to come home and face criminal justice.
QUESTION: Is there one specific issue, one specific sticking point – I mean, I know it’s a complicated issue – that you – that’s really keeping the impasse? Is there a place where you’re seeing more movement? Like you said, more women and children, people might be willing to move on that. Is there any other place where you think they might be willing to take them back in certain circumstances, or is it just too nebulous?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think it’s hard to say. A couple of Western European countries have faced lawsuits in which relatives have sought to compel the government to return family members. So I mean, we saw that in the Netherlands, we saw it in Belgium, we may have seen it in Germany, although don’t quote me on that. You can’t quote me on any of this. But that one I’m not as confident —
QUESTION: Why not, by the way?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Why not?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Why not quote me?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It’s a backgrounder.
QUESTION: I know, but why – just – those of us who have to explain that this person spoke on condition of background, because —
QUESTION: Which we all have to do.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Yeah, I know. Is there a reason?
MODERATOR: Because that’s just the way we’re doing it.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: That’s the way we’re doing it.
MODERATOR: That’s what we’re setting up.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Ipse dixit.
MODERATOR: It makes it easier for us, right, but —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: But you guys want candor, so —
MODERATOR: Cool. All right. Michael.
QUESTION: What do you think have been – what have been the practical consequences of designating the IRGC? In other words, how has that – if it has – advanced your mission against them? I ask because a week ago today, Secretary Pompeo put out a statement warning Iran not to attack American service personnel in Iraq through its proxies, and there have been more than half a dozen missile firings there that have been of concern. So what’s the practical effect of this? I understand the principle that you’re upholding, but what’s the practical effect of this, and do you think it’s deterred the IRGC in any way?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So two – I would point to two effects. One is a messaging effect, and one is a practical effect. We shouldn’t discount the importance of the messaging. For years, Iran has been a state sponsor of terrorism, and they’ve been able to, through a campaign of plausible deniability, hide behind their proxies. “Well, that’s not us; it’s Hizballah,” or, “That’s not us; it’s the militias in Bahrain that are blowing up oil pipelines.”
We’ve stripped away the veneer of deniability with our designation and made clear that it’s not just Iran supporting terrorism, it’s Iran engaging in terrorism itself. I think that messaging is important.
Also important are the practical consequences of the designation. I think the most important of those is the material support statute. So when the Secretary of State designates a group as a foreign terrorist organization, that unleashes a federal criminal prohibition on providing material support or resources to that group. That prohibition was not in place when we had previously sanctioned the IRGC under different sanctions authorities.
Now that that FTO criminal liability regime is in place, that substantially increases the legal risk that second parties and third parties face when they engage with the IRGC. So I think that’s one of the significant practical upsides of the designation.
MODERATOR: Okay. Michele.
QUESTION: I have kind of a Europe question, but not about ISIS, it’s about whether you’re tracking at all far-right groups in the U.S. going to Europe, or dark money from Europe coming to far-right groups in the U.S.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah. We’re really concerned about white supremacist terrorism and, more broadly, racially and ethnically-motivated terrorism. We’ve been working with our European partners in particular to coordinate against this threat more effectively. I’ve personally led two U.S. delegations to Europe in the past four months, five months to raise this issue and do more collective action together.
We’re also working unilaterally on this to use the tools available to us to counter racially and ethnically-motivated terrorism. We’ve used Strong Cities Network, we’ve used City Pair Program, we’ve used a number of CVE authorities, and we work with tech companies, for instance, to highlight violent content posted by white supremacist terrorists, individuals, and organizations that’s violating the terms of service of some of these tech companies’ platforms.
So we’re using a number of different tools to include diplomatic engagement, and I think it’s a challenge that regrettably keeps rearing its ugly head here at home with the attack on the Pittsburgh synagogue, with the attack on the mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand last year. It’s a significant problem and we’re taking it very seriously.
QUESTION: I mean, sanctions and that sort of stuff? Are you using sanctions authorities?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So you know our stock answer every time we get asked a question about are you going to designate Group X, we respond, “We don’t talk about our internal deliberations over sanctions.”
QUESTION: Well, wait. How can you – the designation would be an FTO. If they’re not foreign, how can they meet the definition?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, right. So on background, we can’t designate U.S.-based groups. We can’t designate groups or individuals that have a substantial nexus to the United States. Our authorities allow us to designate foreign terrorist organizations under the statute or under Executive Order 13224, foreign entities. So if we were to designate anybody or any group, it would have to comply with the legal thresholds.
QUESTION: In other words, you couldn’t do it for – I mean, that might be something the Justice Department would do, but you couldn’t.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: If there – well, if there are foreign groups that are engaged in white supremacist terrorism, they would be eligible for – potentially eligible —
QUESTION: Oh, I thought her question – I missed a part of it, but I thought it was about U.S. groups going to Europe or whatever. No? (Inaudible.)
QUESTION: Yeah, and money coming here, too, from – yeah.
MODERATOR: Okay, time for two more. Robbie and Humeyra.
QUESTION: One area you didn’t mention was the Sahel —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah.
QUESTION: — where deadly attacks, I think, have increased, have doubled every year since 2015 even despite U.S.-French international efforts to roll back those groups. It seems like we’re losing and those extremist organizations are winning. So how do you respond to that characterization that some experts have put out there, and then what is your bureau doing specifically on that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah. The world needs to do more in the Sahel. Terrorist groups are increasingly active. We don’t like the trend lines we’re seeing. The United States has been active in supporting French military efforts as well as nonkinetic efforts in the region. And into the new year, we want to mobilize the Defeat ISIS coalition, the members of the Defeat ISIS coalition to focus on this problem as well.
We think that the coalition is a very valuable platform for international cooperation on counterterrorism, and having destroyed the so-called “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq, the time is now ripe for the coalition to think about what other forms of assistance it can provide to front-line states, in particular in the Sahel. So that’s something that’s on our radar screen and that we’re going to be looking at amplifying coalition efforts in the new year.
When I say that, I should be clear, I’m not talking about a military response of the sort that we saw in Syria and Iraq; I’m talking primarily about leveraging coalition members’ capabilities in the civilian space – law enforcement, border security, designations, crisis response, full spectrum civilian sector capabilities – bringing those to bear to get at this problem in countries like Mali and Niger.
MODERATOR: Humeyra —
QUESTION: Are there any specific concrete actions or steps you’re planning to take in the near future?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, stay tuned.
QUESTION: It’s just a follow-up to Michele’s question. With the 2020, is this – the domestic terrorism threat is going to be a focus for you? With the election, are you going to deploy more tools? How will you – how are you going to address if the threats would be on the rise? And it will be on the rise probably.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, so on the domestic piece, I’m going to have to defer to FBI and DHS since they’re responsible for that part of the threat. Our authorities sort of begin and end at the water’s edge.
QUESTION: Well, like, with the foreign groups who would raise their threat with the 2020 election coming, I mean, you would have a play to – you would have a role to play there, no?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, let me make sure I understand the question. When you say “foreign groups,” what do you mean by that?
QUESTION: Other groups who are sort of, like, looking to refocus their efforts and carry out, maybe support the white supremacist groups here. Because you said this in your counterterrorism report, didn’t you? You said that racial and ethnic terrorism is on the rise, and you said that some of the groups here are actually being inspired by groups elsewhere. So there seems to be, like, an – like a transitional or like an inspirational relation between the two. So is there anything that you would be doing specifically with regards to the 2020 election? Would you see the threat rising?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, the threat from racially motivated terrorism in general, and white supremacist terrorism in particular, is on the rise. I think that’s true regardless of where we happen to be in an election cycle, and we take it seriously regardless of the fact – regardless of where we might be in an election cycle. So the things that we’ve been doing with foreign partners to address this threat and the things we’ve been doing unilaterally to address this threat, we’re going to keep that up. And the fact that American voters are going to go to the polls in November neither makes it more urgent nor less urgent for us to address this problem.
MODERATOR: All right, thanks.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: All right. Thank you all. Appreciate your time.
QUESTION: Thank you. Happy holidays.
QUESTION: Merry Christmas.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Happy holidays.