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Moderator: Good afternoon everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Asia Pacific Media Hub in Manila. I’m Zia Syed, the Hub Director, and I would like to welcome our participants dialing in from across the continent and the United States.
Today, we are pleased to be joined by Ambassador Nathan Sales, Ambassador-at-Large and Coordinator for Counterterrorism at the Department of State. Ambassador Sales is speaking to us today from the Philippines.
We’ll begin today’s call with opening remarks from the Ambassador, and then we’ll turn to your questions. We’ll try to get to as many questions as we can during the time that we have.
Finally, as a reminder, today’s call is on the record. And with that, I’ll turn it over to Ambassador Sales.
Ambassador Sales: Well, thanks very much, and thanks to everyone who joined the call. We apologize for starting a bit late as we navigated our way through Manila traffic. I’ll just say a few words by way of opening, and then I’m eager to get into Q and A.
I’m here in Manila to have conversations with Philippine counterparts about our shared efforts against ISIS, al-Qaida, and other terrorist groups that threaten our shared values and our shared interests. The Philippines is, and has been, a close security partner of the United States for many years, for many decades, so it’s only natural that we would work together today to confront the terrorist threat that is one of our top security priorities.
The fight against terrorism is evolving because the nature of the threat is evolving. Increasingly, we are seeing terrorist groups such as ISIS, and such as al-Qaida, come to rely on regional networks and affiliates around the globe. After the United States-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS destroyed the so-called caliphate in Syria and Iraq, we have seen an increased focus on ISIS’s part, in particular, in cultivating networks around the world in places like South Asia, in places like West Africa, and we hope to address the challenges that ISIS sympathizers and ISIS affiliates pose in Southeast Asia as well.
What does that fight look like? Well, it’s going to increasingly rely on a whole-of-government approach using things like border security tools, law enforcement tools, efforts to counter the financing of terrorism, and also counter messaging to de-legitimize the false and violent interpretations of scripture that ISIS, al-Qaida, and other terrorist supporters propagate.
As I said, our counterparts in the Government of the Philippines are on the front lines of this fight with us in the United States. We have a shared interest in defeating our terrorist adversaries, and we have decades of history of working together to confront other challenges that equip us well to take on this fight. So with that, I’ll pause and look forward to any questions.
Moderator: Thank you, Ambassador. We’ll now begin the question-and-answer portion of today’s call. Our first question will go to JC Gotinga from Rappler. Please, go ahead, JC.
Question: Hi Zia. Thank you, Ambassador. My name’s JC from Rappler based here in Manila. Could you please give us, as much as is possible, a detailed description of what current efforts the U.S. Government is doing with their Philippine counterparts in terms of stemming terrorism in (inaudible) where we’ve had over the past year our first cases of suicide bombers, and I’m sure that’s a huge concern. What measures is the U.S. doing to help the Philippines counter – counteract that?
Ambassador Sales: Well, thanks for the question. That is a major concern of ours in the United States, and I know that it’s a concern of counterparts in the Philippine Government as well. We’re concerned about the export from the Middle East of terrorist tactics, techniques, and procedures. Suicide bombing is not something that we’ve seen in the region here in Southeast Asia until very, very recently, and we are concerned about groups like ISIS and sympathizers of ISIS emulating what they see in places like Syria and places like Afghanistan.
What are we doing to address these threats? Well, as I mentioned in my opening remarks, we’re pursuing a whole-of-government approach. What we’re doing is, in part, boosting the capability of crisis response teams, not only here but in the region, to respond to any terrorist incidents in real time, working with law enforcement and prosecutors to be able to mobilize criminal responses to terrorism – prosecuting adversaries for the crimes they’ve committed and ensuring that they face accountability for any terrorist activity.
We’re also working to boost border security. We have to stop terrorists from being able to travel, move their fighters, move their money, move their weapons.
And finally, cutting down on the financing of terrorism primarily by using our designations and sanctions tools. When we put terrorist organizations on our sanctions list, that cuts off the flow of money that these groups, that these individuals can use.
We’re using all of those techniques here in partnership with our Philippine Government allies, and we hope – we hope to continue to have strong successes.
Moderator: Thank you, Ambassador. Next we have Seth Robson from Tokyo, who’s with Stars and Stripes. Seth, please go ahead.
Question: Oh, hi there. Can you hear me?
Moderator: Hi, Seth.
Question: Sorry about that, I had you on speaker. So I have a question about how you are – how the U.S. military over here in the Pacific might be assisting with this mission in the Philippines. I know that – that there were some Green Berets that were involved in the Marawi battle. But I’m just wondering how’s that – how’s that continuing, if proceeding, what units are involved, where are they, where are they coming from? And also, if you can talk a little bit about the new counterterrorism center that’s being established in the Philippines.
Ambassador Sales: Yeah, thanks for the question. Our approach to terrorism in the Philippines, and indeed, in the broader Southeast Asian region, is to use a whole-of-government approach. Sometimes that means that terrorist threats need to be dealt with using kinetic options, and we saw an example of that with the successful efforts by the Philippine Government to liberate Marawi City, which was held by ISIS sympathizers two years ago, as you well know.
In the wake of that victory, we’re pivoting to more of a law enforcement and border security and terrorism finance focus. I think as we work to stand up a regional training center – well, the first thing I would say is it’s important to foster connectivity among all the nations of the region that have a shared interest in confronting our terrorist adversaries. So we see this center, which will be based here in the Philippines, as a way to encourage cooperation not only between the United States and Manila, but between all regional players who have an interest in this as well. And again, I think what we’re going to be seeing coming out of that training center is training on tactical responses, being able to respond to terrorist attacks in real time, and prevent them from causing damage to lives, property, as well as prosecutorial responses so that people face accountability when they commit terrorism-related crimes.
Moderator: Thank you, Ambassador. Next, we’ll go to Amy Chew from the South China Morning Post in Kuala Lumpur. Amy, please go ahead.
Question: Your Excellency, my question is that since the fall of the caliphate in March in Syria, are there any indications that ISIS is making any plans to move to, say, Mindanao in southern Philippines? Is that one of the destinations where they are heading to?
Ambassador Sales: Well, thanks for the question. We know that ISIS core, the remnants of ISIS in Syria, have been encouraging their fighters to leave and fight again, to take the fight to other regions. So far, we have seen a few indications of an interest in traveling to Southeast Asia, but truth be told, it’s not one of the regions that ISIS fighters seem to be heading to in droves. Now, that means it’s incumbent upon us to make sure that they’re not able to should they ever wish to, and that’s why I’ve been talking to — and why the United States Government has been talking to — counterparts here in Manila about bolstering our cooperation on border security efforts to prevent people from hopping on a plane and flying to the region or exploiting the maritime environment to gain access to countries in the region. So far we haven’t seen a huge problem, but we have to make sure we keep it that way.
Moderator: Thank you, Ambassador. We’ll next go to Dong Hyun Kim, Voice of America Korean Service [in Washington DC]. Please go ahead.
Question: Thank you, Your Excellency. This is Dong Hyun Kim from Voice of America Korean Service. Although North Korea has been rescinded from the State Sponsors of Terrorism in 2008, it has once again been re-designated ever since 2017. What precondition does the U.S. see as justifiable for DPRK to be rescinded again? Does the U.S. consider progress in denuclearization and stopping of ballistic missile tests a prerequisite? And if so, in what level of degree?
Ambassador Sales: Well, thanks for the question. As you pointed out, the North Korean regime was designated as a State Sponsor of Terrorism in 2017. That designation, which the Secretary of State announced, was informed by a review of publicly available information about the DPRK’s activities as well as other sensitive information about the DPRK’s activities. As a consequence of that designation, it imposes various sanctions that added to the economic and diplomatic pressure campaign that the Trump administration had been pursuing.
As far as what the future holds, I’m not really in a position to speak publicly about any internal deliberations about future designations or future de-listings, but our policy with respect to North Korea is clear. As the President has made clear, the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has made clear, we are pursuing complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization. That is our objective and that’s what we intend to achieve.
Moderator: Thank you, Ambassador. I’m afraid we’re going to be running out of time here, but we’ll try to sneak in one or two more. Next, if we can go to [Carmelo] Acuna, who is here in Manila [with Asia Pacific Daily]. Melo, please go ahead.
Question: Yes, good afternoon, Mr. Ambassador, Your Excellency. Welcome to Manila. Have you identified the fund sources of violent extremists in Southeast Asia, and what support can the U.S. extend to stop the flow of these funds? Thank you.
Ambassador Sales: I’m sorry, I want to make sure I understand the question. Are you asking about terror financing or are you asking about the ideology that inspires terrorism?
Question: Well, I asked about the funds, sources of violent extremists in Southeast Asia, and what support can the U.S. extend to stop the flow of these funds?
Ambassador Sales: Okay, thank you. There was a bit of a garble on the line, so I’m glad I asked for clarification. Thank you.
So one of our most important counterterrorism tools is sanctions. When we designate terrorist groups, when we put them on our financial black lists, we can cut off the flow of money to them. That has a secondary effect as well. It excludes terrorists and their facilitators from the legitimate international banking system, because banks take care to ensure that they are themselves not subject to secondary sanctions in the U.S. or from other authorities that have matched our sanctions.
We also have to be mindful of the nexus between transnational organized crime and terrorist organizations. Terrorists seek to raise money through a number of different means: narcotics trafficking, human smuggling, as well as seemingly licit enterprises – front companies for terrorism.
So when we talk about sanctions, it’s important to understand that we’re not just sanctioning al-Qaida, we’re also sanctioning the facilitators who operate in the shadows for al-Qaida as well as front companies or charities that abuse the goodwill of their customers or donors to channel money to bad groups.
Moderator: Thank you, Ambassador. We probably only have time for just one more; if we can go to Andreo Calonzo from Bloomberg News. Andreo, please go ahead. Last chance for Andreo. Okay. If we’re not able to get Andreo, could we go ahead and go to Mikhail Flores from AFP in Manila?
Question: Hi. I’m here. Can you hear me?
Moderator: Yes, this is Mikhail, right?
Question: Yes, thank you Zia. Ambassador, I was wondering if – I’d like to follow up on an earlier question. I was wondering if you could elaborate on the movement of ISIS from the Middle East to other new frontiers that you’re seeing. You mentioned that they’re not – you’re not seeing them in Mindanao, an area they’re not heading to in droves. I wonder where are they concentrating and what areas need more attention in terms of displaced ISIS extremists in the Middle East and where are they or where are they headed?
Ambassador Sales: Right. So it’s not always possible to say with certainty that terrorist X moved from this theater of operations to that theater of operations. So let me address the issue in a little bit broader manner.
We are concerned about the rise of ISIS-linked organizations as well as al-Qaida-linked organizations in a couple of different regions in the world. West Africa and the Sahel, in particular, are areas of concern where we see groups like ISIS-West Africa and ISIS-Greater Sahara as well as JNIM, which is an al-Qaida affiliate, plotting attacks and destabilizing the region. Countries like Mali and Burkina Faso and Niger face serious and growing threats from these organizations.
We’re also concerned about ISIS-Khorasan Province in Afghanistan. We’ve seen an uptick in violence from that group, which threatens to destabilize not just Afghanistan but neighboring countries as well. And in East Africa, the local al-Qaida affiliate in Somalia, al-Shabaab, has long been one of the most serious regional threats, and we’re starting to see the growth of an al-Qaida affiliate in Somalia as well.
So we have to be working closely with regional partners who share our concern about these threats, to bring to bear all the tools of national power – again, border security, law enforcement, crisis response and so on – to make sure that these budding al-Qaida and ISIS affiliates are kept from metastasizing further.
Moderator: All right. Thank you, Ambassador. We’ll try – we’ll try one more time for Andreo. It says you’re still in the queue. [No response]. In that case, let’s go ahead and go back to JC Gotinga from Rappler.
Question: Yeah, hi. Thank you, Zia. Ambassador, in the Philippines there is talk of tightening laws against terrorists and [inaudible] our government, or at least some voices in our government, want to be able to detain suspects longer and perhaps even with less corroborating evidence, more liberal surveillance or wiretapping regulations. Would you say that those are appropriate?
And as a sort of a related follow-up, could you give – because you’ve been working with our authorities on this – would you – what would be your suggestions to the Philippine law enforcement agencies in terms of improving on or making their counterterrorism efforts more effective, if that is at all needed?
Ambassador Sales: Well, thanks. So I haven’t reviewed in any detail the legislative proposals that you’ve described. So I don’t want to give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to particular things with which I’m not personally familiar. But let me say more broadly that law enforcement is an incredibly important and powerful counterterrorism tool.
We often think of counterterrorism as an enterprise for soldiers rappelling down ropes from black helicopters to take out the bad guys, and sometimes counterterrorism looks like that in war zones. But in major cities like Manila or New York, we rely much more heavily on our civilian counterterrorism capabilities. So what does that look like?
Well, it means in part enabling law enforcement officers to collect the information they need to stop terrorist attacks from happening. It also means enabling them to bring meaningful criminal charges with adequate sentences so that when people who commit terrorism crimes are found guilty, they can be held accountable and sent to jail for an appropriate length of time.
It also means ensuring that facilities are protected: that prisons are not subject to jailbreaks from terrorists on the outside; judges are able to protect witnesses in their courtrooms during proceedings; and so on. So those are the sorts of tool that we have been using in the United States to boost our own law enforcement capabilities, and I imagine we’re not the only ones back in America who are looking at using those tools aggressively to counter terrorist threats.
Moderator: Thank you, Ambassador.
Ambassador Sales: Thanks. We’re out of time, but I wanted to thank you all for joining this call. I enjoyed our conversation and I appreciate your questions. Again, let me just close by reiterating how much the United States values our partnership with the Philippines. We have decades of history of working together on a range of threats, including organized crime, and counterterrorism is just the most recent area in which we enjoy sustained and extensive cooperation.
We’re grateful to our Philippine friends for their work with us, and we look forward to continuing that.
Moderator: Thank you. That concludes today’s call. I want to thank Ambassador Nathan Sales, and I also thank all of our callers for participating. Please stay on the line for information regarding access to an audio recording of this call. Also, please be aware that a transcript of the call will be posted to our social media platforms and sent out to you all within a day.
If you have any questions about today’s call, you may contact the Asia Pacific Media Hub at AsiaPacMedia@state.gov. Thank you very much.