Acting Coordinator for Counterterrorism
Press Briefing Room
June 2, 2016
MR TONER: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to the State Department. Today we’re joined by Acting Coordinator for Counterterrorism Justin Siberell, who will provide an overview of key aspects of the 2015 Country Reports on Terrorism and then take some questions from you all. And then after, of course, Acting Coordinator’s – Siberell’s briefing, I’ll be on hand to answer any other questions you might have.
MR SIBERELL: Thank you. Good afternoon. Thank you very much for coming. Today the State Department is issuing the Country Reports on Terrorism, which describes the counterterrorism landscape during the last calendar year and fulfills an important congressional mandate. The report allows us to regularly assess our effectiveness and make informed assessments about policies and priorities and where to place resources.
In 2015, the United States faced a dynamic and evolving terrorist threat environment. The international community made important progress in degrading terrorist safe havens – in particular, a sizeable reduction in the amount of territory held by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, in Iraq and Syria, as well as the finances and foreign terrorist fighters available to it. At the same time, however, instability in key regions of the world, along with weak or nonexistent governance, sectarian conflict, and porous borders continue to provide terrorist groups like ISIL the opportunity to extend their reach, terrorize civilians, and attract and mobilize new recruits.
According to the statistical annex prepared by the University of Maryland and appended to the report, the total number of terrorist attacks in 2015 decreased by 13 percent when compared to 2014. Total fatalities due to terrorist attacks decreased by 14 percent, principally as a result of fewer attacks and deaths in Iraq, Pakistan, and Nigeria. This represents the first decline in total terrorist attacks and resulting fatalities worldwide since 2012. At the same time, there were several countries, including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Syria, and Turkey, where terrorist attacks and total deaths increased in 2015.
Although terrorist attacks took place in 92 countries in 2015, they were heavily concentrated geographically, as they have been for the last – past several years. More than 55 percent of all attacks took place in five countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Nigeria. And 74 percent of all deaths due to terrorist attacks took place in five countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Syria, and Pakistan.
While I cite these statistics, which are compiled by the University of Maryland and are not a U.S. Government product, I must emphasize that the numbers alone do not provide the full context. This is a point we consistently make whether the numbers rise or fall on a year-to-year basis. The United States and our partners around the world face a significant challenge as we seek to contend with the return of foreign terrorist fighters from Iraq and Syria, the risk of terrorist groups exploiting migratory movements, and new technology and communications platforms that enable terrorist groups to more easily recruit adherents and inspire attacks.
ISIL remain the greatest terrorism threat globally. Despite the losses it sustained last year, ISIL continued to occupy large areas of Iraq and Syria. ISIL’s territorial control in Iraq and Syria reached a high point in spring 2015 and began to diminish thereafter. It is worth noting that ISIL did not have a significant battlefield victory in Iraq after May of last year, and by the end of 2015, 40 percent of the territory ISIL once controlled in Iraq had been liberated. This number has continued to increase in 2016.
ISIL-aligned groups have established branches in parts of the Middle East, North Africa, West Africa, the Russian North Caucuses, and South Asia. Most of these branches are made up of pre-existing terrorist networks, many of which have their own local goals. The al-Qaida core, which has been degraded severely since 2001 but still poses a threat, and al-Qaida affiliates – notably al-Shabaab, al-Nusrah Front, and al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb – as well as ISIL and its branches were responsible for a number of high-profile, mass-casualty attacks in 2015. These included attacks in Paris, the January attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, and the multiple attacks in November at a music concert, on restaurant terraces, and outside a sporting event.
Other such attacks occurred in Beirut, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Tunisia, and the bombing of a Russian passenger plane in Egypt. There were also a number of attacks here in the United States carried out by lone offenders and, in some cases, inspired by ISIL, including in San Bernardino, California; Chattanooga, Tennessee; and Garland, Texas. Although ISIL did not claim responsibility, we believe that it is responsible for several sulfur mustard attacks in Iraq and Syria, including a sulfur mustard attack in Marea, Syria on August 21st of last year.
ISIL’s loss of territory in Iraq and Syria also had the effect of diminishing the funds available to it. ISIL relies heavily on extortion in the levying of taxes on local populations under its control, as well as oil smuggling, kidnapping for ransom, looting, antiquities theft and smuggling, foreign donations, and human trafficking. Coalition airstrikes targeted ISIL’s energy infrastructure, modular refineries, petroleum storage tanks, and crude oil collection points, as well as bulk cache storage sites. These airstrikes degraded ISIL’s ability to generate revenue.
The United States continues to work to disrupt Iran’s support for terrorism. Iran remains the leading state sponsor of terrorism globally. As explained in the report, Iran continues to provide support to Hizballah, Palestinian terrorist groups in Gaza, and various groups in Iraq and throughout the Middle East. Confronting Iran’s destabilizing activities and its support for terrorism was a key element of our expanded dialogue with the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, following the leaders summit at Camp David in May of last year. We’ve also expanded our cooperation with partners in Europe, South America, and West Africa to develop and implement strategies to counter the activities of Iranian-allied and sponsored groups, such as Hizballah.
A key trend through 2015 was the increased level of international cooperation and coordination to address terrorist threats. The United States led a global coalition to counter ISIL, the Multinational Joint Task Force established by the Lake Chad Basin countries to confront Boko Haram, and the efforts of the Horn of Africa nations to coordinate efforts against al-Shabaab in Somalia are examples of this ongoing cooperation and evidence both of an increased appreciation for the importance of a coordinated effort and of the political will to bring it about.
We’ve seen countries across the international community mobilize to put in place fundamental reforms to address the supply and transit of foreign terrorist fighters attempting to reach the conflict in Syria and Iraq. United Nations Security Council Resolution 2178, adopted at a UN Security Council session in September 2014 chaired by President Obama, provided the framework for this effort. In line with that resolution, 45 countries have passed or updated existing laws to more effectively identify and prosecute foreign terrorist fighters. The United States has concluded information-sharing arrangements with 55 international partners to identify and track the travel of suspected terrorists. And the number of countries contributing foreign terrorist fighter profiles to INTERPOL has increased 400 percent over a two-year period.
As countries have taken these steps, it has become more challenging for foreign terrorist fighters to travel unimpeded to Iraq and Syria. We are beginning to see the flow of foreign terrorist fighters to this conflict zone decrease. This decrease, we assess, reflects the combined effects of sustained battlefield losses, recruiting shortfalls, and increased border security efforts by source and transit countries. These challenges were acknowledged in reported remarks by ISIL spokesperson Abu Mohammad al-Adnani just last month.
Another trend to note in 2015 was the increased global realization of the need for an expanded response to the challenge of international terrorism. In February 2015, President Obama convened the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, which brought together government, private sector, and civil society leaders from around the world to raise awareness of the importance of an expanded effort to counter violent extremism and radicalization to violence. Leaders and community-based representatives from the United States and countries around the world came together at the summit and in a series of follow-on meetings in Algiers, Astana, Nairobi, Nouakchott, Oslo, Singapore, Sydney, and Tirana in acknowledgement that our combined efforts, however successful in many respects, are not sufficient and must also include a more deliberate focus on the drivers of radicalization and recruitment to terrorist groups.
Building on this work, last week we released the first-ever Joint State Department-USAID Strategy to Counter Violent Extremism. And I invite you to take a look at it, if you haven’t already. It’s available on the State Department website. A key element of that strategy is to empower and amplify locally credible voices that can challenge the terrorist narrative and thereby weaken terrorists’ ability to radicalize and recruit new members. This will be the focus of a newly established – of the newly established Global Engagement Center under the leadership of Michael Lumpkin.
Looking forward, our policies and programs will continue to be aligned to counter the evolving threats described in the report. We will continue to devote resources toward improving counterterrorism capabilities of key partners – countries, including by leveraging funding provided by the Congress through the Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund as well as focusing long-term efforts in addressing the underlying causes that contribute to violent extremism.
Thank you. And I’d be happy to take your questions.
MR TONER: Okay. Go ahead, Matt.
QUESTION: I’ve got a – just a – kind of a brief one on Iran. In both the section on the state sponsors and the Near East section, Iran is mentioned as supporting militants in Bahrain. But it doesn’t say anything about the concern about their support for the Houthis in Yemen. And I’m just wondering, do those concerns not exist anymore? Or does that not fit into this report because you don’t – or do – consider the Houthis to be terrorists? I mean, I’m just trying to figure out why there’s no mention of it. There’s mention of Iran’s destabilizing activity elsewhere, just not there.
MR SIBERELL: Yeah. Well, we’re concerned about a wide range of Iranian activities to destabilize the region and that includes, certainly, their support for some of these allied groups, proxy groups that operate in Iraq and in Bahrain and in various parts of the Gulf region. And so those are issues that we took up in our conversation with the Gulf Cooperation countries after the Camp David summit and developed an entire agenda to focus on those destabilizing activities.
QUESTION: Yeah, but – I mean, that’s great, but that doesn’t answer my question about Yemen.
MR SIBERELL: Right.
QUESTION: Is there no concern that Iran is —
MR SIBERELL: There’s a serious concern about Iran’s activities in Yemen, yes.
QUESTION: Or is that not germane to this report because you don’t consider the Houthis to be terrorists? I don’t know. I’m just wondering.
MR SIBERELL: Well, the Houthis are not a designated terrorist group —
QUESTION: I understand that.
MR SIBERELL: — and they’re part of the – they are party to the conflict and part of the negotiations that are underway to resolve that conflict.
QUESTION: Okay. So Iranian —
MR SIBERELL: Iran’s support for groups, including the Houthis, is a concern to us in terms of continuing to support sectarian activities —
QUESTION: Okay. But not of terrorism —
MR SIBERELL: They’re not a terrorist group.
QUESTION: Okay. That’s all I wanted to know.
MR TONER: Said.
QUESTION: Yeah. Could I very quickly – you mentioned five countries that have seen sizeable rise in terrorism, which is Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, but you didn’t mention Syria as one of those five countries, did you?
MR SIBERELL: I think I mentioned Syria as a country that experienced more attacks in 2015, yes.
QUESTION: Except more deaths, but you did not mention Syria as one of the five countries that experience terrorism.
MR SIBERELL: No, that’s – well —
QUESTION: Is that —
MR SIBERELL: No, I think I was referring to countries that had an increase in deaths for —
QUESTION: In terrorist —
MR SIBERELL: — and those are – those are from statistics reported by the University of Maryland, right?
QUESTION: But no, that – two different thing. You said there were five countries that have seen sizeable rise in terrorism, and then you – those who suffered more deaths. I’m just curious —
MR SIBERELL: So I’m – what I’m doing is I’m quoting from the University of Maryland’s statistical annex, which you can find as attached to the report. And in 2015, they report 382 total attacks in Syria. That’s up from 232 in 2014 —
QUESTION: Just want to —
MR SIBERELL: — total deaths, 2,748 up from the 1,698.
MR SIBERELL: Now, I think they acknowledge in their report the difficulty in getting credible reporting on attacks in Syria in particular. But those statistics are all included in the University of Maryland report, and that’s what I was referring to in those remarks.
QUESTION: And just a quick one on the Palestinian part of this. For Hamas, the organization that you designate as a terrorist organization, what does it need to do to get off that list?
MR SIBERELL: Well, Hamas needs to —
QUESTION: What does Hamas need to do to get off that list?
MR SIBERELL: Yeah. Hamas has been designated as a foreign terrorist organization —
MR SIBERELL: — and they continue to sponsor attacks – terrorist attacks against Israeli citizens. And it’s quite well understood what they would need to do to get off a terrorist list, but that’s a significant – they’d have to completely change the orientation effectively of the group.
QUESTION: Okay. So they would have to, let’s say, state certain things that would —
MR SIBERELL: We see no indication of an interest by Hamas —
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.
MR SIBERELL: — to do that.
MR TONER: Quick, Pam.
QUESTION: A broader question. Actually, two broader questions. First of all, overall, how does the State Department hope these findings are used? And then secondly, do reports such as this one, in your opinion, change the situation on the ground, change the facts on the ground, in terms of the fight against extremism, and if so, how?
MR SIBERELL: The first question – how do we use the report – the – I provided you a summary broadly of some of the trends, but the report really consists of individual reports country by country. And in those country reports, we do seek to tie the report to categories of activity. For instance, efforts governments have undertaken to prevent the flow of finance to terrorist groups; efforts governments have taken to expand their own CVE efforts, understanding the roots of radicalization, taking actions against those; efforts that governments have undertaken to build more competent and capable security forces, including increased border security, et cetera. So the reports really on the country level are where we find changes on an annual basis, and they do provide us some guide as to our own efforts to build capacity and interact with those governments.
On your second question with regard to how do we see – how does this affect the broader landscape – was that what it —
MR SIBERELL: Yeah. I mean, I think that the overall trends – we seek to capture those in what we call our strategic assessment at the front of the report. I noted a couple of the major conclusions we took away from 2015. 2015 I think can be marked in particular by this increased understanding among nations of the importance of coordinated action against terrorist groups. That, of course, is evidenced in particular in the global coalition against ISIL, which has had a really significant impact over the course of 2015. But also, as I noted, in the Lake Chad Basin countries, the Horn of Africa, elsewhere, it’s a demonstration of the importance of diplomacy and coordinated action.
The second would be the countering violent extremism agenda, which played out in 2015, beginning with the President’s Summit on Countering Violent Extremism in February. That led to a whole series of activities globally to draw greater attention to the importance of addressing the drivers and roots of radicalization, culminating ultimately in the report –in a report by the UN secretary-general that is to be debated actually later this month at the UN that would be appended to the UN Counter-Terrorism Strategy, which also gives countries guidelines effectively to broaden their approach to counterterrorism.
QUESTION: Has ISIS expanded its reach in the last year?
MR SIBERELL: They have in some places, yes. They have in a couple of different ways – one, by inserting operatives into other theaters, notably into Libya, where you’ve seen leaders come out of Iraq and Syria and seek to associate with preexisting radicalized groups in Libya. But they’ve also associated themselves with existing organizations – we saw that with Boko Haram, of course – and thereby expanding their reach.
But in most of those cases, those groups themselves have come under some pressure locally and with greater or lesser degrees of success. But it is true that while their control of territory in Iraq and Syria has shrunk, they have expanded in some parts around the world, and that’s where we address the issue of the branches of ISIL.
QUESTION: And just to follow up, you mentioned that ISIS did not have any specific battlefield victory since May of 2015, but what would you call the attacks in Paris and Brussels? Those —
MR SIBERELL: I said in Iraq. I specified in Iraq. So that was linked specifically to Iraq. It’s different even in Syria, where the picture – they’ve lost a lot of territory as well in Syria, but they’ve had some – they’ve had some expansion in some areas but greater losses as well in Syria. But absolutely that’s the case. Those external attacks that I alluded to, including in Paris and then in this year, of course, in Brussels, are evidence of a commitment as well to commit attacks outside of that central battlefield.
QUESTION: Are you concerned that the ISIS threat is expanding around the world?
MR SIBERELL: I think we have to remain vigilant, certainly. I mean, this is a group that does espouse a philosophy and an ideology that is global in its intent, and so countries have attuned to that danger and I think we’ve seen it in evidence. So clearly, it’s a global concern and we require a global response to address it.
QUESTION: Does the report shed any light about any relationship between the Assad regime and ISIL/Daesh?
MR SIBERELL: The report – of course, Syria is a state sponsor of terrorism, as identified in the report, and the Assad regime is responsible for the – in its refusal to engage in any kind of meaningful negotiation has driven the conflict. And that conflict itself has served as the enabling environment in which ISIL and other organizations have arisen. And frankly, the conflict itself is the threat, and that’s why it is so important – these efforts underway – to bring an end to it and to find a negotiating solution to that – to that conflict in Syria.
MR TONER: Goyal, in the back.
QUESTION: Thank you, Mark. Sir, you mentioned Pakistan among the five countries and also this report comes after five years of killings of Usama bin Ladin and also Omar Mullah both were killed in Pakistan. Anything have changed? And also, before this report came out have anybody spoken with the Pakistani authorities and any change are taking place there or they’re cooperating with the U.S. or the global community on counterterrorism? And do you think that as far as ISIL, al-Qaida, Taliban, ISIS, all these new names are coming – do you think this is what you call old wine in a new bottle?
MR SIBERELL: My reference to Pakistan at the beginning of the – in my remarks related to the comparison of attacks in 2014 to 2015, and there was a decrease in attacks in Pakistan in 2015 over – compared to 2014. 2014 was a particularly violent year in Pakistan, I think as we know from attacks in the schools and et cetera. And the Pakistani Government undertook a robust response against a number of the militant groups and throughout that end of 2014 into 2015.
Pakistan is a key counterterrorism partner and we have an ongoing conversation with the Pakistani Government of the need to address militant activities in Pakistan and will remain a key partner in confronting terrorism in the South Asia region.
QUESTION: And sir, finally, where do we stand as far as the U.S. and India are concerned and when the Prime Minister Modi is coming next week on this counterterrorism?
MR SIBERELL: Well, the U.S.-India partnership is a very strong one and robust across a number of sectors to include security issues, and those will absolutely feature centrally in the discussions during the prime minister’s visit.
QUESTION: Thank you, sir.
MR TONER: David, last question.
QUESTION: You mentioned on the first page of the Strategic Summary that one of the factors generating an environment in which terrorism develops is where states use, through either the corrupt courts or corrupt politicians or security forces abuse – security force abuses have shut off legitimate means of political expression. Is that a growing problem or has that been a constant? And I’m thinking, obviously, in particular of Turkey, Egypt, Bahrain, where there have been some pretty significant clampdowns on civil society and there have also been terrorist issues.
MR SIBERELL: As we have looked at what is driving some of the radicalization, there is quite well understood linkage in some cases between repressive policies of governments, including in its security practices, as a contributing factor in some cases to radicalization. So we do understand that there is that linkage and we have articulated this in the – as you noted, in the summary of the report, the importance that governments approach their counterterrorism efforts in a manner which protects civil rights and inherent human rights. And that’s an important approach and one we – in which we see no conflict. There is no reason that governments can’t prosecute an effective counterterrorism policy and at the same time protect civil rights of its populace.
So that’s a point we emphasize in our conversations with many governments around the world and one that we will continue to do. And I think as we broaden out our effort to addressing countering violent extremism and this work, we will seek to identify more directly some of these linkages and emphasize those in our conversations with governments.
QUESTION: Excuse me. There is a mention, a brief mention, in the Latin American section, the America section, about Iran – this one again goes to Iran. Have you seen or did you see between 2014 and 2015 an uptick in Iranian activity in Latin and South America?
MR SIBERELL: I think Iran’s presence in the Western Hemisphere and its support for groups that might be engaged in facilitation or operational planning is a continued concern. And —
QUESTION: Right. But has it gone up, gone down, or it’s the same?
MR SIBERELL: I don’t think we’ve seen an increase in 2015 in Iran’s activity in the Western Hemisphere, but it remains a high priority for us.
MR TONER: Justin, I apologize. One more question.
MR TONER: Oh. (Inaudible) time, but it looks like we have two more questions.
QUESTION: Yes. Without using the wine analogy, I’m trying to figure out if you consider ISIL is another version of Qaida or generally because it’s – as a part of discourse, political discourse over there in the region and here, in the political scene, they are using the word “radical Islam.” Do you think that there is a link between these things, or is just like people with guns that they are shooting other people? This is my first question.
Second, if you don’t mind, I mean, it’s – we are mentioning about strategic partnership with countries and military solutions. Meantime all the efforts are done with the propaganda, which is use social media. Are you using social media or do you consider social media a weapon of terrorism or using a weapon of anti-terrorism?
MR SIBERELL: Well, on the first issue there is absolutely a linkage between ISIL and al-Qaida insofar as ISIL grew out of the remains of what was al-Qaida in Iraq. So they share a common heritage. And obviously, the groups divided at a certain point between al-Nusrah and what became ISIL in Syria. So they have a – share a common origin and so therefore share many of the same objectives, goals. ISIL itself has been particularly brutal and has taken on a little bit of a different philosophy in tactics, in the way it would approach its own – its objectives. But so there’s absolutely a linkage there. I don’t think this is an entirely new phenomenon, no.
Secondly, on social media, I mean, what ISIL been quite skillful in doing is making use of the internet as a platform for propaganda purposes and, more alarmingly, recruitment. And this is where it does differ from al-Qaida. Al-Qaida was an organization, is an organization, built around essentially clandestine cells that have very strict sort of membership requirements, and ISIL is a group that is seeking to recruit from a number of different sources openly over – including over the internet.
But what we’ve understood is that while there may be – ISIL’s efforts on – at recruitment begin in the social media sphere through broad messaging, they are quite skillful in following that up through direct contact. There usually is some follow-up by a targeted ISIL approach to individuals. And so that’s where the danger lies. We are quite concerned, and this is one of the motivations, obviously, for the reorganization we’ve done internally and the establishment of the Global Engagement Center, which is to more effectively counter the narrative that ISIL has developed.
QUESTION: Just to follow-up this – I mean the first part of the question. So do you prefer not to the use the word “radical Islam” or “Islamic extremism?”
MR SIBERELL: When we talk about terrorism – and this report is about country reports on terrorism – there is no association with any particular religion when we look at the issue of terrorism broadly. And so that’s what this report seeks to do to capture terrorism in all its forms.
MR TONER: Last question.
QUESTION: I might have missed this somewhere else in the report, but in the 2014 report you state specifically that the rate of foreign fighter terrorist travel to Syria was more than 16,000 from 90 countries. In this year’s report you write that thousands of foreign terrorist fighters came from more than 100 countries. Is there a specific number for foreign terrorist fighter travel to Syria or –
MR SIBERELL: Yeah. Well, the numbers that we have available to us come from analysis out of our intelligence community. And I think the most recent figures they’ve provided – and these are not calendar year 2015; this will be the most recent – but I’ve seen in excess of 40,000 total foreign fighters have gone to the conflict and from over 100 countries. But it’s been difficult, of course, to associate the numbers with a particular date and time, and that’s because of the way that the numbers come in and the reporting. So it’s been difficult to correlate.
What we have seen, however, is a decrease in the ability or the – a greater difficulty in the – for aspiring recruits and travelers to access the conflict. And that’s a result of a number of different steps that have been undertaken by governments in source and transit countries, in addition to the deteriorating conditions that have been experienced by ISIL in Iraq and Syria. And those – I mean, those challenges were, as I noted, identified specifically by their spokesperson’s comments at the end of May, where he said that they have made it harder for you to access the caliphate. So there is direct acknowledgment by the group of a trend that we believe we’ve been seeing in the data.
QUESTION: So do you think, given that, that in 2014 the numbers were not quite accurate and – since you’re saying there was a decrease in 2015? If it’s 40,000 versus 16,000, was there a – you saw a decrease in 2015?
MR SIBERELL: No, I think the numbers continued – I mean, it’s hard for me to identify a moment when the numbers would have tripped or changed. What I’m saying is that now we have seen a decrease in the numbers. But in 2015 you still had flows into the country, yeah.
MR TONER: All right. Thank you so much, Justin.
MR SIBERELL: Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR SIBERELL: Thank you.