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Remarks by Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Charles Johnson at the United Nations Interior Ministerial Security Council Briefing on Countering Foreign Terrorist Fighters – As Delivered

Release Date: 
May 29, 2015

New York
United Nations

(As delivered)

Good morning. It is an honor to address this distinguished group of leaders. This is an unprecedented event – a Session of the United Nations Security Council convening key Interior Ministries.

I express my appreciation to Lithuania for its leadership in convening this event as the President of the Security Council and its efforts as chairman of the Council’s Counter-Terrorism Committee. This is an important and timely gathering to review our progress against foreign terrorist fighters. Our ministries are responsible for domestic action to address the foreign terrorist fighter issue. And we know the importance of working together across our governments and across borders.

It’s been eight months since the adoption of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2178. This Resolution creates a new legal and policy framework for international action against an emerging threat to the security of our homelands. In making the case for Resolution 2178, our President - President Obama said, “We must come together – as nations and an international community – to confront the real and growing threat of foreign terrorist fighters.”

Our task today is to assess how we are coming together and building the capacity to confront this phenomenon, and to make sure, when we reach the one-year mark, we have achieved substantial progress on the actions called for in 2178.

Recent events in Libya, Denmark, Tunisia, Yemen, France, Belgium, and elsewhere reveal the way in which this global terrorist threat has evolved. Terrorists today have considerable resources and use sophisticated communications technologies. They are increasingly mobile, adaptable, and brutal. Terrorist organizations include foreign terrorist fighters traveling to participate in other people’s conflicts. And, the threat increasingly includes people committing attacks where they live after returning home.

Much more work needs to be done. We must fulfill the provisions of Resolution 2178 in five general respects: One – criminalize FTF travel, attempted travel, and certain forms of support. Two -- adopt effective border controls and issue secure travel documents (and the corollary need to exchange operational information concerning terrorists). Three – expand criminal investigations and prosecutions. Four –counter violent extremism. Five – encourage a greater role for the United Nations and UN counterterrorism bodies such as the Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate and the Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force.

In recent years, however, we’ve witnessed an unprecedented flow of foreign terrorist fighters to conflict zones, including Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa, Yemen, Libya, Syria and Iraq.

This new challenge requires a new response – and our response must include stemming the flow of foreign terrorist fighters and their facilitators, and identifying and helping those who are disillusioned before they succumb to violent extremist ideologies.

More than 22,000 foreign terrorist fighters from more than 100 nations have traveled to Syria since the beginning of the conflict there, including at least 4,000 from the West. More than 180 Americans have traveled or attempted to travel to Syria.

Governments all over the world are mobilizing to deal with this new threat, and the U.S. is eager to work closely with all our partners in doing so. President Obama has directed all elements of the American government focus on this problem. We are therefore focused on improving border and aviation security, bolstering legal and prosecutorial capacity, improving information sharing, and addressing the underlying conditions conducive to terrorism and preventing the problem by countering violent extremism.

It is encouraging to see that many countries have taken steps to respond to threats from foreign terrorist fighters. The threat is truly global, and involves the crossing of borders. At the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, we are expanding the security of our Visa Waiver Program to bolster screening of citizens from even our closest partners and friends, and supporting the expansion of “preclearance” processes that screen travelers en route to the U.S. This will protect travelers of all nations on flights to the United States. Other countries have taken their own national measures.

Our safety and security is inextricably tied-up with yours. Therefore, my government regularly consults with other partners concerning foreign terrorist fighters – in an ongoing effort to prioritize the threat, assess vulnerabilities, and adapt measures to prevent and interdict.

We're also encouraging greater law enforcement cooperation through INTERPOL’s notice advisory system and foreign terrorist fighter database. INTERPOL, as the world’s largest international police organization, has a vital role to play in foreign terrorist fighter interdiction.

Through INTERPOL, U.S. authorities are sharing information in real time. During the past year, the United States has shared dramatically more terrorism identities via mechanisms offered by INTERPOL. Two U.S. personnel will soon be assigned to the INTERPOL foreign terrorist fighter Fusion Cell in Lyon, France, as part of a program funded by our State Department. I urge all of our partners to consider actively exchanging information with the Foreign Terrorist Fighter Fusion Cell, and also to provide financial or in-kind contributions to this Cell.

The U.S. Government has also established over 80 bilateral arrangements with 45 partner countries to share information on known and suspected foreign terrorist fighters for use by law enforcement, border authorities and security services. This includes important information on those we believe to be radicalized to violence by terrorist groups operating in Syria and Iraq. We also continue to share information on a case by case basis with partners with whom we have had long-standing relationships.

Our FBI continues to aggressively pursue in counterterrorism investigations in the United States. Our Departments of Treasury and State are working closely with foreign partners to disrupt foreign terrorist fighters and their support networks’ access to the U.S. and international financial systems to finance travel. U.S. designations trigger asset freezes against those providing support to terrorist networks. The international community must continue to develop and update countermeasures to deprive our enemies of resources.

We are eager to assist our international partners in their own efforts. Alongside our State Department, Justice personnel are providing technical assistance and expertise to our partners in reviewing their investigative tools and their law enforcement and prosecution legislation for compliance with Resolution 2178. More than 30 countries have updated their laws since the passage of Resolution 2178. Others are reviewing them. More needs to be done to strengthen legal systems where needed – in particular to criminalize the intent to travel as an Foreign Terrorist Fighters to commit terrorist acts, as well as to counter acts like training and facilitating terrorism activities – and do so as expeditiously as possible.

Terrorists are always looking for ways to circumvent border security and security at airports. At the Department of Homeland Security, we are continuously evaluating, modifying and enhancing our security measures to stop them, working in cooperation with our foreign partners. Last summer, for example, DHS required enhanced screening at certain overseas airports with direct flights to the United States. The United Kingdom and other countries followed suit to further enhance the security of global aviation.

It is essential for countries to cooperate more in this area. As outlined in 2178, the collection and analysis of travel data is an important instrument for border control and aviation security. It provides the basis for countries to work together to counter the movement of foreign terrorist fighters or their supporters and their financiers. And yet, according to the report of the U.N. Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate, only 51 States employ this vital tool. I encourage additional countries to use travel information like API and PNR data to identify both known and previously unknown foreign terrorist fighters.

We recognize use of this information may be new to some of our partners, and some may be looking for ways to facilitate adoption of these interdiction mechanisms.

My Department is committed to helping our partners better use traveler screening information. Within the next twelve months, DHS, through our Customs and Border Protection component, will be developing a new passenger data screening and analysis system. This Global Travel Assessment System, or GTAS, will be made available at no cost to the international community – for both commercial and government organizations, to use, maintain, customize, and enhance as needed.

In order to maximize GTAS’s adoption and accessibility, it will be developed on free and open source platform technology and optimized to operate on low cost community hardware or Cloud infrastructure.

Once the initial software is released to the international open source software community, Member States will be able to make software enhancements and contribute software code to this project.

More broadly, all Member States need to work more closely to take steps that will increase security, particularly with respect to border controls. The development of the GTAS system is one such step, but we encourage other governments and the U.N. to take action.

For instance, it is important that the U.N. system and donors move expeditiously to provide capacity building and technical assistance to the most affected states, to fill critical gaps in countering the flow of foreign terrorist fighters. Close work between CTED and the Counterterrorism Implementation Task Force Office can contribute to this effort. July’s High-Level Special Meeting of the Counter-Terrorism Committee to be hosted by Spain, as well as CTED’s technical sessions leading up to it, provide another opportunity. Ministries of the Interior and security services need to lead efforts to address this evolving and unprecedented threat.

I encourage all of us to continue to invest in addressing the conditions that lead to violent extremism. DHS is building partnerships with state and local law enforcement, community leaders, and private institutions that are in a position to deter those who may turn to violence. As part of this effort, I have personally met with community leaders in Boston, Chicago, Columbus, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and here in New York.

Last February my government hosted a Countering Violent Extremism Summit at the White House. Many of your countries attended.

Groups like Da’esh use the Internet to radicalize people to violence, but the Internet does not belong to them. The Internet is a tool we can use to help parents, friends, and religious leaders save people from turning to terrorism and violence. We need to engage and challenge extremist ideas online and in our communities to counter the ability of terrorists to recruit foreign terrorist fighters.

It is imperative that we, as Ministers of the Interior, regularly and systematically track our efforts to fulfill our obligations under Resolution 2178. I urge you to participate in the UN Counter-Terrorism Committee Special Meeting in Spain in late July. This event will bring together experts on border management, countering recruitment of foreign terrorist fighters, prevention, criminalization, and prosecution from all around the world.

Challenging the threat of foreign terrorist fighters remains a daunting task. Progress has been made, but we still have much to learn from each other.

I remain optimistic and encouraged by the cooperation of UN Member States to detect and defeat today’s enemies of peace, security and decency. Since 2178’s adoption, we have increasingly shared our vision for countering this threat and the tools to do so – the time to take action is now.

I look forward to hearing from you at this table on your efforts in this shared task.

Thank you very much.

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Last Published Date: May 29, 2015
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