The International Conference on Mobilizing Law Enforcement Efforts To Defeat ISIS: Addressing the Next Stage of the Threat

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Ambassador Sales addresses the International Conference on Mobilizing Law Enforcement Efforts to Defeat ISIS.
Ambassador Sales addresses the International Conference on Mobilizing Law Enforcement Efforts to Defeat ISIS.

The International Conference on Mobilizing Law Enforcement Efforts To Defeat ISIS: Addressing the Next Stage of the Threat

This week (February 27-28), the State Department hosted an International Conference on Mobilizing Law Enforcement Efforts to Defeat ISIS. In coordination with INTERPOL and the International Institute for Justice and the Rule of Law, we welcomed about 90 countries and organizations to Washington to address this critical issue.

As we defeat ISIS on the battlefield, the group is adapting to our success. The fight is by no means over -- it’s simply moving to a new phase: from military solutions to law enforcement efforts. 

It goes without saying that we’ll continue our work in Iraq and Syria. But it’s critical that we supplement our military efforts to defeat ISIS with civilian initiatives to bring about the group’s enduring defeat.

I opened the conference by sharing an overview of what the United States is doing to counter ISIS in the law enforcement arena. Three of the key tools we’re using are terrorist designations and sanctions, watchlists and information sharing (with a special focus on Passenger Name Record data, or PNR), and biometrics.

First of all, I announced Secretary Tillerson’s decision to designate seven ISIS-affiliated groups and two ISIS-affiliated leaders. The groups are ISIS-West Africa, ISIS-Somalia, ISIS-Egypt, ISIS-Bangladesh, ISIS-Philippines, the Maute Group, and Jund al-Khilafah-Tunisia. The two individuals are Mahad Moalim, who is part of ISIS-Somalia, and Abu Musab al-Barnawi, a leader of ISIS-West Africa. 

These terrorists have spread ISIS’s bloody campaign to all corners of the globe. In December 2016, ISIS-Egypt bombed Cairo’s Coptic Christian cathedral, killing 28 people. ISIS-Bangladesh murdered 22 people in a July 2016 assault on the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka. The Maute Group is responsible for the siege of the Philippines city of Marawi and the September 2016 Davao market bombing, which killed 15 people and wounded 70 others. 

Yesterday’s designations join the eight ISIS-affiliated groups we’ve previously listed. (You can see a comprehensive list of all of our designated ISIS branches and individuals here.) We’ve designated these groups and individuals to highlight ISIS’s global network, and to emphasize that the campaign against ISIS is far from over. These designations will deny ISIS the resources it needs to carry out terrorist attacks. We don’t just want to stop the bomber. We also want to stop the moneyman who buys the bomb. 

Second, the conference discussed watchlists and information sharing. 

Sharing information about terrorists with our foreign partners makes us all safer. Over the years, we’ve entered dozens of bilateral arrangements with our allies and partners under Homeland Security Presidential Directive 6, or HSPD-6. These information-sharing arrangements allow us to exchange watchlist data with partner countries. They enable us to help each other spot terrorists who are moving between our countries.

It’s also crucial to share information through multilateral law enforcement platforms, such as INTERPOL. It’s no coincidence that INTERPOL co-hosted this conference. INTERPOL allows all of its member states to share information to its databases, where it can be accessed by other members. As we move into the next phase of our fight against ISIS, the capabilities they provide will be of the utmost importance.

I also want to emphasize the importance of PNR data. PNR is the information you give an airline when you book a ticket -- names, seat assignments, contact details, and so on. PNR is an incredibly powerful counterterrorism tool. It can help analysts identify suspicious travel patterns, flagging threats that otherwise might have escaped notice. It can also illuminate hidden connections between known terrorists and their unknown associates. 

Here’s an example. In December 2009, U.S. citizen Faisal Shahzad received explosives training in Pakistan from people affiliated with the Pakistani Taliban. In February 2010, Shahzad arrived at JFK Airport in New York on a one-way ticket from Islamabad. He was referred to secondary because he matched a PNR targeting rule. Customs interviewed and released him. 

Three months later, on May 1, 2010, a car bomb failed to detonate in Times Square. Investigators tied Shahzad to the car, a Nissan Pathfinder that he bought through Craigslist. Customs then placed an alert for Shahzad in its system. When he booked a flight to flee the country, the system flagged it, and he was arrested at JFK as he attempted to travel to Dubai. He was convicted and is now serving a life sentence.

The PNR system that the United States pioneered and has been using for years is now an international obligation. UN Security Council Resolution 2396 -- which was adopted last December and which the United States spearheaded -- requires all UN members to develop the same kind of system. We used this week’s discussions in Washington to urge other countries to implement this obligation as soon as possible.

Third, we discussed biometrics. Biometrics are a critical tool for verifying that travelers really are who they say they are. Terrorists try to mask their true identities in a number of ways -- aliases, fake passports, and so on. It’s a lot harder for them to fake their fingerprints. 

That’s why the United States collects biometrics from visitors to this country. We take their fingerprints and facial scans to validate their identities and travel documents. We also check their data against our watchlists of known and suspected terrorists. 

Here’s an example. Just a few weeks ago, authorities arrested a man in Oklahoma who was suspected of trying to join al-Qa’ida. They were able to identify him because his fingerprints matched those taken from a document retrieved in Afghanistan. It was an application for al-Qa’ida’s Farooq camp – where four of the 9/11 hijackers trained.

Again, thanks to UN Security Council Resolution 2396, this civilian tool is now a global norm. The resolution requires all UN members to collect biometrics to spot terrorists if they attempt to board planes or cross borders. We’re urging our partners to implement this obligation as quickly as possible.

Our discussions this week covered these and other civilian tools that we’re using along with our partners to defeat ISIS. The attendance and level of enthusiasm demonstrated American and global commitment to cementing our hard-fought military gains in Iraq and Syria. I’m looking forward to continuing to work closely with our allies and partners to give our law enforcement officers the tools they need to bring lasting defeat to ISIS. 

About the Author: Ambassador Nathan A. Sales is the Coordinator for Counterterrorism at the Department of State.

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