Office of the Spokesperson
Press Correspondents’ Room
November 7, 2019
MODERATOR: Hey, everybody. Thanks for being here. Today we have the great pleasure of having a couple of our senior leaders with us to talk about a Rewards for Justice announcement that we’re going to cover a little bit more at the end.
Just in terms of the ground rules, there —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: And a designations announcement.
QUESTION: Embargoed till the end?
MODERATOR: Say again?
QUESTION: Embargo till end?
MODERATOR: Yeah, let’s just embargo till the end. Let’s wait till it’s all over with and then feel free to do whatever. And again, thank you, gentlemen, for being here, [Senior State Department Official One] and [Senior State Department Official Two] is also here with us.
So, gentlemen, please take it away. Just indicate if you have a question.
Matt, you have anything?
QUESTION: No, no.
MODERATOR: Okay. Shaun?
QUESTION: Could I just pursue the question about the Sahel? And in the wake of the killing of Maychou by the French forces, with this designation, I mean, how much do you see the threat right now from the – from radical Islamist forces in the Sahel and in Mali and in the neighboring countries? I mean, do you think there’s been a dent on it because of this military action led by the French? Or do you see it as something that’s still – that’s still mushrooming?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Well, it’s a trend we’re concerned about. Al-Qaida has an active presence in West Africa. ISIS has an active presence in West Africa. And we are working very closely with countries in the region, as well as allies in Europe to counter this threat effectively.
I was just out in Senegal a week ago, two weeks ago, and this was a topic that was very high on the list of priorities for our Senegalese partners, making sure that we’re using law enforcement and border security and designations tools to prevent the violence and instability that we’re seeing in Mali from spreading into the littoral regions of West Africa. We can’t afford to have this contagion spread. So we’re working very closely with our partners to pressure these ISIS and al-Qaida affiliates.
QUESTION: How much of a role does UN Peacekeeping have to play on that? And is this building committed to funding UN Peacekeeping?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: We’re pursuing very much an all-of-the-above approach. This administration has emphasized the need for greater sharing of national security burdens, so we’re looking for partners that have the capability and the wherewithal to join us in this effort.
QUESTION: Do you view that the Rewards of Justice Program is working, and that’s why you’re putting money in this program?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah, we do. We do. We think it’s a tool that has been brought out and saw new life in it. We’ve – this administration has given it a chance to grow in a sense of more money, more people to talk about it. I think it’s a great tool that has atrophied for a while and now it’s picking up, and very well so.
QUESTION: Since we have you, I’d actually like to ask you about the new ISIS leader, if that’s okay. A week has passed. I’m wondering if you guys have new findings about where he’s coming from, who he is. And also, Turkey says that they have captured some family members. Have you seen that? Are these, according to you, genuine, authentic people?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: So I don’t have anything to update you on with respect to the new ISIS leader, beyond what we’ve said before. He is probably not going to enjoy his promotion. We intend to subject him and any other ISIS leader to unrelenting pressure, using all the tools at our disposal. That was true of previous ISIS leadership; that’s going to be true of future ISIS leadership. We’re also tracking the Turkish reports to have taken into custody al-Baghdadi’s – I believe it was his sister.
QUESTION: Sister, yeah.
QUESTION: And wife.
QUESTION: There’s one, like his son or something.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Right.
QUESTION: And then brother-in-law.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah. We’re working with the Turks on this question. We’re looking into the reports. If true, it’s another victory in our efforts to take ISIS fighters, leaders, and enablers off the battlefield and ensure that they’re held accountable for the crimes they’ve committed.
QUESTION: I think Trump tweeted about it yesterday.
QUESTION: He seems to have accepted Erdogan’s claim. You have not?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: As the President has said, per his tweet, and I have nothing to add to it.
QUESTION: But do you guys believe that they – have you confirmed it?
QUESTION: Well, does that mean that you guys have accepted it?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: We’re looking into it.
QUESTION: Well, that means no, that you haven’t.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Matt, come on. We’re looking into it.
QUESTION: Look, we expect to get, you know, straight answers from you guys. And I realize that you don’t want to say anything that contradicts what —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I also don’t want to talk about intelligence in front of reporters, which I’m sure you can appreciate, Matt.
QUESTION: Well, that’s – well, I can. But if you’re saying that you’re talking to the Turks, that means you have not yet confirmed it.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Don’t put words in my mouth, Matt.
QUESTION: Have you confirmed it or not?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: You have my answer to your questions.
MODERATOR: Moving on.
QUESTION: To stay on ISIS and sort of the path forward, are you seeing —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I guess Matt’s done?
QUESTION: No, no, no.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: All right. Okay.
QUESTION: I’ll be back. I’ll be back.
QUESTION: Are you seeing perhaps a greater decentralization in the wake of Baghdadi’s death? And are you concerned particularly about the regional affiliates?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: We have seen a longer-term trend line towards a more diffused, dispersed ISIS threat. We’ve decimated the core in Syria and Iraq and we’re also turning our attention to the branches and networks and affiliates around the world. ISIS is an increasing threat in places like Afghanistan, in places like West Africa, Southeast Asia. There’s an active presence there as well.
That was true irrespective of the pressure that we brought to bear on ISIS leadership in Syria. But now that we’ve completed the destruction of the caliphate, we will have an increasing focus on dismantling the networks and branches globally.
QUESTION: Are there particular affiliates that you’re most concerned about? Or —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah. Well, West Africa is certainly a concern, ISIS West Africa, ISIS Greater Sahara. We’re concerned about ISIS Khorasan in Afghanistan. ISIS recently declared a new province in East Asia. These are all areas that we’re concerned about, and we’re working very closely with our partners in those regions to boost their capabilities, using tools like law enforcement, like designations, like border security, and so on.
MODERATOR: Who’s next?
QUESTION: One on Iraq and Lebanon. Some reports say that ISIS or other terrorist groups will benefit from the demonstrations in Iraq and Lebanon. Are you aware of that, and do you think – is it possible that they will benefit from the demonstrations in these two countries?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I don’t really have anything to add on that, beyond what the Secretary has previously said. The United States supports peaceful right of assembly and expression. And we call on all governments around the world to be responsive to the needs of their civilians. We also have to be mindful of the risks that terrorists might try to use various geopolitical developments as pretexts to further their own malign agendas. So that’s something we’re certainly always on the lookout for, not just in the context of recent developments.
QUESTION: Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Yes.
QUESTION: Forgive me if this is an ignorant question. Is there already a reward out for the new leader, the one who replaced al-Baghdadi, of ISIS?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Not to my knowledge.
QUESTION: Why not?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Well, he’s only been in office for what, a week? Give us some time.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah.
QUESTION: He’s still a threat though, right?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah, and the organization —
QUESTION: You don’t know enough about him?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: And the organization that he leads is subject to withering financial sanctions. Those remain in place regardless of who sits atop the pyramid.
QUESTION: Can I ask a question about the DS training center?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Sure.
QUESTION: And this is a – this is the site in Virginia that’s the subject —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Blackstone, Virginia, yeah.
QUESTION: — the subject of some congressional interest. There was a fight between Virginia and Georgia?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: West Virginia, and also Georgia. So —
QUESTION: But that was obviously resolved —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Resolved, absolutely.
QUESTION: And I remember when Senator Kaine talked about it.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Correct.
QUESTION: But it’s opening next week.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Actually yes, the 14th of November there’s a ribbon-cutting ceremony. We’re actually having some of the pool here to go down and see it.
QUESTION: Yeah, yeah, we got that. I think that some people are going. But is this – do they – what do they do? Shoot, blow stuff up down there? What —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: So it’s a 1,350 acre range within Fort Pickett. It is the premier training center for counterterrorism in the nation right now. Once you see it, you’ll see why it is that. There are nine race tracks, to include to – over the dirt tracks and over basically SUV training, how to roll and get out of a rolled-over SUV. There is skidpans. There is ranges to shoot. There is a fire as a weapon house. Since Benghazi, we have literally made sure that all our Foreign Service go through what a smoke-filled room looks like in the house so you can get out alive. There is all the hard skills we can think of in trying to keep people off the X.
QUESTION: Okay, so this is not just for DS? This is going to be for —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: No, no, not – far from it, absolutely. This is a Foreign Affairs Security Training Center, FASTC. We want every Foreign Service officer to go through this. In fact, it’s going to be mandated that this is going to happen.
QUESTION: For all of them, or just those who are going to a high-threat post?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Going to a high-threat, but also going to posts normally. And so every five years, they have to re-up again to be certified to go. We want people now to go to embassies that understand the threat and how to react to it, given the training that they have.
QUESTION: Just to clarify that, so every single Foreign Service officer, like if you’re posted to Oslo, you’d still have to go through this? Or just —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, right now we’re doing through the high-threats. But we actually will, yes.
QUESTION: Cool. I hope we can make it next week.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah, no, we’d love to have you. We’re really proud of it. I mean, it’s —
QUESTION: You should charge admission, let people in, let the public in.
STAFF: You all should sign up. I understand that our RSVP list isn’t very robust.
QUESTION: Oh, no?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah, you gotta go.
STAFF: It’s an opportunity to sign up and go.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: This is worth a try.
QUESTION: How far away is it?
STAFF: It is three hours.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: It’s a day commitment.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Three hours.
STAFF: It’s three hours, but we’ll make sure you get lunch when you get down there.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: We’ll get you back in time for the D-ISIS ministerial on Tuesday – Thursday. Yes.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yes, exactly, yes.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah. The reason why it’s so far out is because we needed land to build on. And unfortunately, in West Virginia the land was not there for us.
QUESTION: Any more you can say on rewards potentially given out for Baghdadi’s death?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: That is – I can’t talk about it, but I know that they are going to review it, absolutely, given the situation —
QUESTION: Can you even say whether someone has tried to claim it?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: No, no, no.
QUESTION: Well, then I’d like to. (Laughter.)
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Exactly.
QUESTION: I have about as much proof as the President does that Baghdadi’s sister was caught by the Turks to back my claim.
MODERATOR: One of you have a question?
QUESTION: Not another one.
MODERATOR: Okay. Anybody else? Okay.
QUESTION: I have a quick question.
QUESTION: North Korea came out and said that your country terror report that you put out last week was a sign of U.S. hostile policy towards North Korea. Do you have any reaction?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Our policy to North Korea is not secret. We expect the Government of North Korea to live up to the commitments that its leaders made to the President, which is full, complete, and verifiable denuclearization.
North Korea, as you know, was designated as a state sponsor of terrorism by President Trump and then Secretary Tillerson in 2017. And we have nothing further to add to the record at this time on that question.
MODERATOR: Anybody else? Okay. Thanks so much.