Foreign Press Center Briefing with Nathan A. Sales, Ambassador-at-Large and coordinator for counterterrorism
Thursday, September 21, 2017,
1:45 P.M. EDT
New York Foreign Press Center,
799 United Nations Plaza, 10th Floor
MODERATOR: So good afternoon, everyone. We’re very pleased to welcome Ambassador-at-Large for Counterterrorism Nathan Sales to the New York Foreign Press Center. Ambassador Sales was sworn in as the coordinator for counterterrorism with the rank of ambassador-at-large for the Department of State on August 10th. Before joining the State Department, Ambassador Sales was a law professor at Syracuse University’s College of Law, where he taught and wrote in fields of counterterrorism law, national security law, constitutional law, and administrative law. Prior to Syracuse University, Ambassador Sales served as deputy assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Homeland Security.
I have a few housekeeping rules before we begin. Please silence your cell phones. At the conclusion of his remarks, we’ll open the floor for questions. Limit your questions, if possible, to counterterrorism matters. When you receive the microphone, if you can please state your name and media affiliation. Today’s briefing is on the record.
And with that, please let me introduce Ambassador Sales.
AMBASSADOR SALES: Thank you very much for the kind introduction, and thank you all for joining us here today. I know there are a lot of events this week, so I appreciate you all taking the time to have this conversation.
The State Department plays a leading role in the United States effort to defeat ISIS, al-Qaida, and other terrorist groups around the world. Our country’s fundamental objective is to degrade the terrorist threat to a level where it’s capable of being countered by civilian authorities. That’s why we’re partnering with civilian authorities from justice and interior ministers to border and aviation security officers to police departments around the world to develop whole-of-government responses to terrorism.
Much of this work is being done through the Global Counterterrorism Forum, the GCTF, and I’ll highlight some of its important work in a moment. But first, it’s important for us to understand the nature of the terrorist threat we face and how it’s evolving and adapting.
In the past few years, terrorists increasingly have begun to attack soft targets – restaurants, cultural sites, and stadiums where people gather to shop and dine and transact business. These places are designed to be open and inviting. That makes them attractive to visitors, but it also makes them vulnerable to terrorists. We’ve seen this deadly trend in places like Barcelona, Berlin, Jakarta, Ouagadougou, London, Manchester, and Nice. We’ve also seen it here at home in the United States, in places like Orlando and San Bernadino.
To address this problem, the GCTF launched an initiative in 2016, the Protection of Soft Targets in a Counterterrorism Context, which the United States co-chaired with Turkey. Our efforts led to the so-called Antalya Memorandum, which was endorsed yesterday at the GCTF ministerial. This document offers guidance to governments and private industry alike as they develop policies, practices, and programs to protect citizens and potential soft targets from terrorist attacks.
For instance, we’re calling on governments and private sector entities to develop better protocols for the sharing of information relevant to the protection of soft targets. We’re also calling on governments to conduct a continuous process of risk assessment to prioritize the targets that are most likely to face problems. The United States will build these and other good practices into our foreign capacity-building and training programs. I’ve urged our partners to do the same.
Let me briefly highlight a few other GCTF initiatives that were announced at yesterday’s ministerial. One is the families initiative, which focuses on the families of foreign terrorist fighters who come home from the war zone in Syria and Iraq. Some of these family members may have fought on the battlefield themselves. Others may have been radicalized in the war zone. All of them will have witnessed unspeakable violence and brutality.
The families initiative, which is being led by the Netherlands and the United States, has a number of basic goals: We want to be able to effectively assess the motivations and sympathies of returning family members; we want to tailor existing tools so we can mitigate the threat of radicalized returnees; and we want to develop a set of nonbinding good practices that will serve as the basis for international engagement, assistance, and training.
We’re also launching a new initiative to address homegrown terrorists. Today it’s increasingly common for people who have never traveled to a conflict zone, for people who’ve never even joined a terrorist group, to commit deadly attacks. Inspired by public calls to violence, these self-directed terrorists turn everyday objects like kitchen knives and rental cars into lethal weapons.
Along with our co-chair, Morocco, the United States will take the lead in exploring the factors that drive people to become homegrown terrorists and how to identify them before they can strike. We’ll also look at how the radicalization process for homegrown terrorists may differ from that of foreign terrorist fighters, and we’ll develop a new set of good practices that governments and the private sector can use to address this threat effectively. Again, the enemy we face is an adaptive one. Terrorists are constantly learning from their failures and probing for new vulnerabilities, so it’s incumbent upon us to learn and adapt as well. Along with our allies and partners, the United States is leading the way in confronting this threat wherever we find it across the globe.
Thank you for your time. I look forward to your questions.
MODERATOR: So please state your name and a media affiliation if you have a question.
QUESTION: Thank you, Ambassador, for your briefing. Just a question about – about the – as you know, the counterterrorism institution in Middle East, so can you update?
AMBASSADOR SALES: Yes, we have experienced extraordinarily successful gains on the battlefield in Syria and Iraq as we’ve squeezed ISIS militarily. ISIS’s false caliphate is crumbling. They’ve lost large amounts of territory in Syria. They’ve lost even more territory in Iraq. And now that we’ve pressed them so successfully on the battlefield, it is now incumbent upon us to use civilian tools as well to continue the fight against ISIS supporters and ISIS affiliates wherever we find them across the globe.
MODERATOR: Are there other questions? Well, I know that Ambassador Sales will be here for just a few minutes longer if you have questions just after the briefing. But I think with that we can – we’ll conclude today’s briefing.
AMBASSADOR SALES: Thank you all for coming.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much for your time.
AMBASSADOR SALES: Appreciate it. Bye-bye.
QUESTION: I’ve got one more question.
AMBASSADOR SALES: Oh, we can go back. We have another question.
QUESTION: Thank you. Just – we all noticed China is not a member of the GCTF, as you say, so can you just – you give me – just a guess as – maybe the – foresee just in the future maybe the cooperation between U.S. and China about the counterterrorism?
AMBASSADOR SALES: Well, thank you for the question. The United States looks for opportunities to partner with the Chinese Government wherever possible. There are circumstances where we’ve worked together very closely in the past, and there are circumstances and issues on which there are opportunities for future cooperation and future coordination. So we in Washington look forward to working with our colleagues in Beijing in circumstances where we have an alignment of interests and an alignment of values. Thank you for the question.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MODERATOR: Okay. And with that, we will conclude our briefing today. Thank you so much, Ambassador Sales, for coming to speak with us today, and we look forward to having you back again soon. Thank you.
AMBASSADOR SALES: It’s a pleasure. Thank you all.