U.S. Department Of State
For Immediate Release June 24, 2020
June 24, 2020
The Brussels Hub
Moderator: Greetings to everyone from the U.S. State Department’s Brussels Media Hub. I’d like to welcome all participants for joining today’s discussion of the State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism for 2019. Today, we are very pleased to be joined from Washington, D.C. by Ambassador-at-Large Nathan Sales, the State Department’s Coordinator for Counterterrorism.
We’ll begin with opening remarks from Ambassador Sales, and then we will turn to your questions. We will do our best to get to as many as possible in the time that we have today, which is approximately 30 minutes.
As a reminder, today’s call is on the record. And with that, I will turn it over to Ambassador Sales.
Ambassador Sales: Well, thanks very much, Justin, and thanks to everybody on the line for taking the time to participate in this briefing. Today, the State Department released the annual Country Reports on Terrorism, which provides a detailed look at significant developments in 2019 in America’s continuing fight against terrorist threats. In short, the United States and our partners took major strides last year to defeat and degrade international terrorist organizations.
We took strong action in 2019. In Iraq and Syria, we destroyed ISIS’s so-called caliphate and eliminated its leader, a significant milestone in the fight against ISIS. Now, we’re taking the fight to ISIS affiliates around the world while intensifying our efforts against al-Qaida’s global network. We’re particularly focused on Africa. ISIS-affiliated groups were active across the continent, including in the Sahel, the Lake Chad region, and East Africa.
As for al-Qa’ida, its African affiliates are among the world’s most active and dangerous terrorist groups, including al-Shabaab in the Horn and JNIM in the Sahel. The United States is working closely with our partners, particularly France, to address these evolving threats. And we also expect the Global Defeat-ISIS Coalition to apply its hardwon expertise in this continuing fight.
It won’t come as a surprise that Iran remained the world’s worst state sponsor of terrorism in 2019. Through the malevolent actions of the IRGC and terrorist proxies like Hizballah in Lebanon and Kata’ib Hizballah in Iraq, Iran continued to use terrorism as a basic tool of statecraft in the Middle East and around the world. We continue to lead the world in the fight against Iranian terrorism. In April, the United States designated the IRGC, including its Qods Force, as a foreign terrorist organization. It was the first time we’ve ever applied such a designation to part of another government.
Throughout the year, nations in Western Europe and South America joined us in designating all of Hizballah as a terrorist group, including Argentina, Paraguay, and the United Kingdom. That work continues. Germany just banned Hizballah in its entirety a few months ago. And the Austrian parliament recently enacted legislation calling for tougher action against the group.
In our own backyard, the former Maduro regime is turning Venezuela into a safe space for terrorists, with the ELN, FARC dissidents, and Hizballah supporters all enjoying safe harbor. We also saw increasing ELN attacks in Colombia. And Cuba continued to harbor terrorists and fugitives from U.S. justice.
Let me briefly highlight a few more significant accomplishments from 2019. In September, President Trump issued an order enabling the State Department and Treasury Department to more effectively sanction the leaders of terrorist organizations and those who train for terrorism. It was the most significant expansion of our terrorism sanctions authorities since 9/11.
Another major effort was the repatriation, prosecution, and rehabilitation of ISIS fighters and family members to make sure they can never again return to the battlefield. The United States has led by example of bringing back our citizens and prosecuting them for any crimes they’ve committed. As of December 2019, the United States had repatriated a total of 23 Americans from Syria and Iraq – eight adults and 15 children, with six of those adults facing criminal charges.
The United States also played a major role in building our partners’ capacity to detect, disrupt, and dismantle terrorist networks. We provide capabilities that no other government can match, and we want to be the security partner of choice. Our ultimate goal is to enable governments on the front lines to address the threats they face without needing to rely on the United States for continued assistance.
Early in this administration, we identified key priorities and efforts to synchronize, strengthen, and expand the actions needed to counter terrorism using all tools of national power, both civilian and military. The resulting successes are clearly reflected in this year’s country reports on terrorism. And with that, I’m happy to take some questions.
Moderator: Thank you very much, Ambassador, for those remarks. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call.
Our first question goes to Secunder Kermani with BBC News. Please go ahead.
Question: Thank you, Ambassador. I wanted to ask, a recent UN Security Council report stated that al-Qa’ida and the Taliban in Afghanistan enjoy a close relationship and that the Taliban regularly consulted with al-Qa’ida during the negotiations with the U.S., offering guarantees that the Taliban would honor their historical ties with al-Qa’ida.
Given that the Taliban breaking links with al-Qa’ida is one of the components of the U.S.-Taliban deal signed in February, have you seen any evidence of the Taliban renouncing their relationship with al-Qa’ida? And do you agree with the UN Security Council assessment of the relationship between al-Qa’ida and the Taliban in Afghanistan?
Ambassador Sales: Well, thanks for the question. I can’t comment on any intelligence matters on this call, but I can tell you that our position on this matter has been perfectly clear. We’ve been clear with the American people. We’ve also been clear with the Taliban. We expect the Taliban to honor the commitments that they made in the agreement that was announced some months ago in which the Taliban promised to end all connections with terrorist organizations in Afghanistan that threaten the United States, that threaten our people, that threaten our interests abroad. We expect them to live up to those obligations, and we intend to continue monitoring the situation very closely to ensure that actions are matching words.
Moderator: Great. Thank you very much for that, Ambassador. Our second question was submitted to us in advance by Galia Shmyirbaeva with Eksklusiv in Kazakhstan. Her question is, “Is there a tendency towards growth of a terrorist – of terrorist organizations in Kazakhstan? What contributes to their appearance in a particular country?”
Ambassador Sales: Well, I think Kazakhstan is really one of the world’s leaders in addressing one particular terrorist problem, and that is the repatriation, prosecution, and reintegration of ISIS fighters from Syria and Iraq. Kazakhstan is really leading the world by example as it has repatriated a number of its citizens, ensured that they face justice for any crimes they’ve committed, and also in the case of family members put them into sophisticated and effective rehabilitation and reintegration programs.
I was in Nur-Sultan several months ago and had the opportunity to travel to one of these rehabilitation centers where I could see firsthand the good work that Kazakhstan is doing in partnership with the United States. We hope – we expect that other countries, not just in the Central Asian region but around the world, will do a better job on this issue and follow Kazakhstan’s example.