Summary

  • WHAT: New York Foreign Press Center On-the-Record Briefing
  • WHEN: Wednesday, September 25, 3:00 p.m.
  • WHERE: New York Foreign Press Center 799 UN Plaza, 10th Floor (SW corner of East 45th Street and 1st Avenue)
  • BACKGROUND: Acting Under Secretary Sales will provide a briefing on current topics related to countering terrorism around the world, including foreign terrorist fighters; terrorist use of the Internet; and countering terrorist groups in West Africa.
  • Ambassador Sales oversees seven State Department bureaus and offices responsible for preventing and countering threats to civilian security, including terrorism, mass atrocities, and violations of human rights and the rule of law. He was sworn in on August 10, 2017 as the Coordinator for Counterterrorism with the rank and status of Ambassador-at-Large. Ambassador Sales leads the State Department’s Counterterrorism Bureau and serves as the principal adviser to the Secretary of State on international counterterrorism matters.
  • Before joining the State Department, Ambassador Sales was a tenured law professor, teaching and writing in the fields of counterterrorism law, national security law, constitutional law, and administrative law. His scholarship has been cited by the U.S. Supreme Court multiple times.

NEW YORK FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, 799 UNITED NATIONS PLAZA, 10TH FLOOR

MODERATOR:  Hello, good afternoon.  I’m the director at the Foreign Press Center.  I welcome you today.  Today we have Ambassador Nathan Sales, who’s the Coordinator for Counterterrorism and the Acting Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights at the Department of State.  He’s here to discuss U.S. priorities for counterterrorism.

This will be a short briefing.  We have limited time.  It is on the record.  It will be livestreamed, and we are connected digitally to our sister center in Washington, so we may receive questions from there.  The transcript will be posted at fpc.state.gov.  If you ask a question, we’ll pass you the microphone, and please start off by giving us your name and your outlet before asking your questions, and just please silence your cell phones before we get started.

And with that, over to you.

MR SALES:  Thanks very much.  I’d like to thank you all for being here today.  My name is Ambassador Nathan Sales and I’m the Counterterrorism Coordinator at the State Department.  The United States is pursuing a robust counterterrorism agenda here in New York at the UN General Assembly this week, and we’ve made some important progress on a number of fronts with our partners.  I’m going to provide a brief overview today on the issues we’ve been focusing on.  I’d be happy to take some questions afterwards.

First, foreign terrorist fighters, or FTFs, in northeastern Syria are among the most critical needs that need to be addressed quickly and resolutely.  There’s currently more than 2,000 FTFs held in detention facilities; another 70,000 associated family members are living in displaced persons camps in the region.  From the possibility of fighters breaking out to rejoin the battle, to ongoing efforts by ISIS to radicalize women and children in camps, this has the potential to be a disaster in the making.  The United States has been clear that the best solution is for governments to take their citizens back.  Repatriation to countries of origin, followed by effective prosecution, rehabilitation, reintegration, is the best way to ensure that these dangerous individuals cannot return to the battlefield.

The United States is leading by example and is bringing our own citizens home.  We’ve charged six adults with a variety of crimes, and we’ve also repatriated a number of children.  While some of our partners, including Kazakhstan, Morocco, and North Macedonia, have stepped up to repatriate their nationals, many have not.  In particular, we call on the nations of Western Europe, which have well-developed legal and social systems in place to address these challenges, to repatriate and prosecute their citizens.

Second, much of the work we’ve been doing this week focuses on combating terrorist travel.  The Global Counterterrorism Forum, or GCTF, this week endorsed good practices that the United States developed along with Morocco to help countries build effective screening systems, including the use of biometrics and airline reservation data to detect terrorists attempting to cross borders.  The document builds on UN Security Council Resolution 2396, the most important resolution on terrorist travel that the UN has ever adopted, and provides countries with a roadmap on how to more effectively use these critical counterterrorism tools.

Third, the United States stands with the international community in condemning and countering terrorist use of the internet.  The horrific terrorist attacks against mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, as well as recent attacks here in the United States, speak to the power, influence, and lethality of terrorism no matter what corrupt ideology is claimed by the perpetrators.  The United States is committed to the freedom of speech and expression, and we know that the most effective way to counter bad speech is with good speech – speech that promotes tolerance and understanding.  Thus, we emphasize the importance of promoting credible alternative narratives as the primary means by which we can undermine terrorist messaging.

In closing, I would note that as the United States and our partners continue to exert tremendous pressure on our terrorist enemies, our enemies are adapting, and that means we need to adapt too.  The Trump administration took an important step forward in that effort earlier this month when the President signed a landmark new executive order that significantly updates our counterterrorism sanctions authorities.  Designations are one of the most important tools we have to cut off the flow of money to our enemies and to respond to an ever-evolving threat.  We’ve already begun to use this new tool aggressively.  The State Department and Treasury Department have jointly designated 28 individuals and entities associated with groups like ISIS, al-Qaida, and Hizballah.

Thank you for being here.  I’d be happy take your questions.  Yeah.

MODERATOR:  Hold on, let me give you a mike.

QUESTION:  Thank you for doing this.  My name is Alexey Bogdanovsky.  I’m with RIA Novosti, the Russian news agency.  Do you have a rough breakdown of how many persons have been repatriated by the other countries?  And being from Russia, I’m interested in whether you have discussions with Russian authorities on repatriations of Russian citizens.  Thank you.

AMBASSADOR SALES:  Thank you very much.  Well, the answer is not enough.  A number of countries have shown admirable leadership in repatriating fighters from Syria and the family members.  I would particularly single out Kazakhstan as a true leader in this field.  But far too many countries are sitting on the sidelines.  We think that nations that have established rule-of-law traditions, nations that have deep pockets and the financial resources to address this problem are the ones that should be leading the world by example.  And so we’re calling on our allies and partners to take their citizens back.

As far as Russia’s involvement in this issue in particular, I would just note that yesterday the United States co-hosted an event under the auspices of the Global Counterterrorism Forum on this very issue, and it was co-hosted by a number of countries including Russia, so we believe that Moscow is focusing on this issue as well.

QUESTION:  Thank you, Ambassador.  I’m Gakushi Fujiwara with Asahi Shimbun, Japanese newspaper.  As you know, this morning the UN Security Council discussed on counterterrorism and there seems to be huge gap among countries.  And what the difference by the U.S. counterterrorism and Chinese counterterrorism?  Thank you.

AMBASSADOR SALES:  Well, I think the most important difference is that the United States fights terrorism by using a rule-of-law approach that respects fundamental rights and liberties, including the right to religious freedom, which is fundamental to who we are as a people in the United States and is also a foundational part of the international legal system ratified in a number of international conventions and UN documents.

The United States has been very clear about our concerns about the Chinese Communist Party’s decision to intern more than a million Muslims, ethnic Uighurs, Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, and other citizens of China who have been put into camps for no reason other than their religion.  We don’t think that this is effective counterterrorism.  We think this is nothing more than religious repression.  It’s not going to be an effective way of defeating groups like ISIS and al-Qaida and Hizballah.

MODERATOR:  Any other questions?  Okay, thank you so much for your time.  As I said, the transcript will be posted at fpc.state.gov, and thanks for coming.

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U.S. Department of State

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