Counterterrorism Diplomacy – Ten Highlights of 2017

6 minutes read time
Participants in a meeting sit in chairs around a large rectangular table, behind the head of the table are flags from the U.S. and Morocco. Additional participants sit in chairs behind those seated at the table.
The Initiative on Addressing Homegrown Terrorism, a global effort under the auspices of the Global Counterterrorism Forum, launches in Malta, November 2017.

Counterterrorism Diplomacy – Ten Highlights of 2017

Throughout 2017, the Counterterrorism Bureau (CT) led the State Department’s diplomatic efforts to defeat ISIS, al-Qa’ida, Hizballah, and other global terrorist groups. We did this by strengthening bilateral and multilateral counterterrorism partnerships, building the capacity of frontline states, improving information sharing and border security to stanch the flow of foreign terrorist fighters returning from Syria and Iraq, opposing Iranian-supported terrorism, designating more terrorists and cutting off their funding, and countering terrorist ideology and recruitment. Here are ten highlights: 

1. UNSCR 2396. On December 21, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2396, which provides member states new tools to detect and counter foreign terrorist fighters and homegrown terrorists. The United States drafted and led the negotiation of the resolution, which requires all UN members to use Passenger Name Record data to stop terrorist travel. It further directs UN members to collect biometric data and develop watchlists of known and suspected terrorists. Resolution 2396 also calls for stricter aviation security standards and urges UN members to share counterterrorism information both internally and with each other. Read my Washington Post op-ed about UNSCR 2396.

2. North Korea. On November 20, the Secretary of State designated the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) as a State Sponsor of Terrorism. The designation was based on the Secretary’s determination that DPRK repeatedly has provided support to acts of international terrorism, and further isolates Pyongyang from the international community.

3. Terrorism Designations. The State Department announced 37 other terrorism designations in 2017, including Hashem Safieddine (a Hizballah leader), ISIS leaders Ahmad Alkhald and Abu Yahya al-Iraqi, and Syed Salahuddin of the Kashmiri terrorist group Hizb-ul-Mujahideen. See our complete list of designated individuals and groups here.

4. Terrorist Travel. In 2017, the U.S. signed arrangements to share information on known and suspected terrorists with 10 additional countries, bringing the total number of countries to 69. We also used Terrorist Interdiction Program (TIP) resources to sustain, upgrade, and expand the Personal Identification Secure Comparison and Evaluation System (PISCES) at 215 ports of entry in 24 countries. TIP/PISCES programs provide partner nations with critical capabilities to block terrorist travel at airports and other entry points.

5. Rewards for Justice. On October 10, the State Department announced two rewards under the Rewards for Justice Program for two key leaders of Hizballah, the Iran-backed, Lebanon-based terrorist group. These rewards are for information leading to the location, arrest, or conviction in any country of either; they were the first Hizballah-related rewards in a decade. In particular, up to $7 million was offered for Talal Hamiyah, who leads Hizballah’s so-called External Security Organization, which is responsible for conducting terrorist attacks outside of Lebanon, targeting primarily Americans and Israelis. Another $5 million was offered for Fu’ad Shukr, who is a member of Hizballah’s highest military body, the Jihad Council, and who helped plan and launch the 1983 attack on the U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Beirut that killed 241 Marines.  

6. Countering Hizballah. In another counter-Hizballah effort, the U.S.-Europol Law Enforcement Coordination Group (LECG) – which CT was instrumental in creating in 2014 – met twice in 2017. The Treasury Department hosted the first meeting in May and focused on how the international community can more effectively counter Hizballah’s terrorist financing. The LECG reconvened in December in Europe, with more than 25 governments from the Middle East, South America, Europe, Africa, Southeast Asia, and North America, along with Europol and INTERPOL. Rewards for Justice and the LECG are both discussed in this State Department/NCTC briefing.

7. GCTF Initiatives. CT launched two important new initiatives under the auspices of the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF). In November, along with the Netherlands, we kicked off the Initiative on Addressing the Challenge of Returning Families of Foreign Terrorist Fighters, which will focus on the challenges presented by ISIS fighters and their families coming home from the war zone. In mid-November we also launched with Morocco the Initiative to Address Homegrown Terrorism. In a series of workshops over 2018, both initiatives will produce new non-binding good practices for policymakers, civil society, law enforcement, and other key stakeholders.

8. Capacity Building. CT and Diplomatic Security’s Office of Antiterrorism Assistance (ATA) continued to build the capacity of our partner nations to identify, prosecute, and convict terrorists and their supporters. Throughout 2017, the ATA program provided 365 courses, workshops, and technical consultations in the areas of counterterrorism investigations, border security, and crisis response for 6,641 participants from 41 countries. These projects will help develop our partners’ capabilities to the point where they need not rely on assistance from the United States to defend themselves.

9. Crisis Response. Our efforts to bolster partners’ crisis response capabilities have been especially fruitful. For instance, in response to an attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Mali in 2015, CT funded an Antiterrorism Assistance (ATA) program to build effective crisis response teams. When terrorists attacked the Hotel Kangaba in Bamako in June 2017, the Diplomatic Security Bureau/ATA-trained team led the counter assault, killing the attackers and freeing civilians trapped in the hotel. We’ve also seen ATA-trained units successfully respond to incidents in Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Kenya, the Philippines, and Somalia. 

10. Countering Violent Extremism. The Strong Cities Network – launched by CT and the governments of Denmark and Norway in 2015 – has grown to more than 115 members across six continents. This network is a notable example of building resilience against terrorism at the grassroots level, and it enables cities to connect with their global counterparts, share experiences, and develop effective and cost-efficient strategies. On May 17-19, the city of Aarhus, Denmark hosted approximately 500 mayors, policymakers, and practitioners from more than 50 countries for the network’s second annual global meeting. CT also facilitated a partnership through the City Pair Program between Boston and Manchester, UK, which both have experienced major terrorist attacks and actively work to engage at-risk youth. Through meetings and engagements with a diverse range of stakeholders, members of the Manchester delegation said the good practices they learned from a December trip to Boston will help them enhance their CVE efforts. This month, a delegation from Boston will travel to Manchester for the second part of this two-way exchange.

About the Author: Nathan A. Sales is Ambassador-at-Large and Coordinator for Counterterrorism at the U.S. Department of State.

Editor’s Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State’s publication on Medium.