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US Dept of State - Daniel Benjamin - Confronting 21st Century Terrorism: Challenges for US Policy

Daniel Benjamin
Coordinator, Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism
National Leadership Conference of the Anti-Defamation League
Washington, DC
May 3, 2010

Thank you for inviting me to participate in the Anti Defamation League’s (ADL) annual Leadership Conference. It’s great to see so many familiar faces. It’s a particular pleasure because of the long association I’ve had with ADL. I played the Matt Levitt role in speaking to this group just a few years ago; I’ve participated in ADL’s seminars for law enforcement; and had the great pleasure of conducting a conference with Israel’s top security think tank and my own at the time CSIS with ADL support.

I thought I’d start by providing an overview of what remains the foremost terrorist threat to the United States--al Qa’ida--and then turn my remarks to state sponsors of terrorism Iran and Syria.

Al-Qa’ida, as everyone in this room knows, has proven to be an adaptable and resilient terrorist group whose desire to attack the United States and U.S. interests abroad remains as strong as ever.

That said, al-Qa’ida has suffered a number of important setbacks.
As you’ve heard from the leaders of our intelligence community recently, the group remained under pressure in Pakistan due to Pakistani military operations aimed at eliminating militant strongholds in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and as a result, it’s had a number of leadership losses and is finding it more difficult to raise money, train recruits, and plan attacks outside of the region. That said, it remains our number one security threat.

Al-Qa’ida has also suffered from popular Muslim disaffection due to recent and past indiscriminate targeting of Muslims by its operatives and allies in Algeria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Indonesia, and elsewhere. Consequently, the number of conservative clerics and former militants speaking out against the organization increased and that’s a good news story.

Despite these setbacks, the al-Qa’ida threat has morphed, which partially offset the losses suffered by al-Qa’ida’s core in Pakistan. We learned this the hard way with the attempted December 25th bombing of a U.S. commercial airliner, which demonstrated that at least one al-Qa’ida affiliate has not just the will but also the capability to launch a strike against the United States.

Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula had already shown itself to be a formidable threat to Yemen’s internal security, with attacks on the Yemeni security forces, as well as a threat to Saudi Arabia, with an August 2009 attempted assassination against the head of counterterrorism in Saudi Arabia, Prince Mohammed bin Nayif. The administration recognized the threat in Yemen as from day one, and has been focused on Yemen since then.

The U.S. strategy in Yemen recognizes that Yemen has not always had the political will or focused attention to address its problems. We are encouraged that President Saleh and his government have shown more resolve than ever before to confront AQAP and to engage with the international community on domestic non-security issues. The United States commends Yemen on its December counterterrorism operations and we are committed to continuing support for security initiatives and economic-development initiatives.

Other than al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula, some of al-Qai’da’s other most active affiliates are in Africa. In Somalia, al-Qa’ida’s allies in al-Shabaab controlled significant tracts of territory and several al-Shabaab leaders have pledged their allegiance to al-Qa’ida. In the sparsely populated Sahel, the once Algeria-focused, now Maghreb and Sahel-based Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), supports the use of violence to establish an Islamic state in Algeria and the region. In addition to conducting low-level attacks in northeastern and southern Algeria, AQIM elements have repeatedly targeted Westerners for kidnapping-for-ransom in the Sahel, and have killed a number of local military personnel, an American NGO worker and a British hostage. Although AQIM has historically not targeted Americans, the new, stated willingness on its part to target Westerners gives us another good reason to redouble our counterterrorism efforts in the region.

Another assumption was dispelled in 2009: that Americans are immune to al-Qa’ida’s ideology. While domestic incidents of radicalization are significantly lower than in many Western nations, several high profile cases demonstrate that we must remain vigilant. You all know about the five Americans from Virginia who were arrested in Pakistan on suspicion of terrorist ties. Some Americans have traveled to Somalia for one reason or another and ultimately joined al-Shabaab. Najibullah Zazi, a U.S. lawful permanent resident and airport shuttle driver, trained in Pakistan and recently pleaded guilty to charges that he was planning to set off several bombs in the United States. An American citizen, David Headley, has pleaded guilty in a U.S. court to crimes relating to his role in the November 2008 Lashkar e-Tayyiba attacks in Mumbai, which killed more than 160 people, including 6 Americans. The significance of these cases should not be ignored.

I wish I had something to tell you about the Times Square incident. I haven’t heard much beyond what is being reported in the media and at this time there doesn’t appear to be any reason to assume an international dimension or AQ affiliation.

Now I’d like to turn to Iran and Syria. Obviously, Iran has long been the foremost state sponsor of terrorism, supporting Hizballah, Hamas, and other rejectionist Palestinian groups. And Syria has also provided political and material support to Hizballah in Lebanon and allowed Iran to resupply it with weapons.

Iran’s support for terrorist and militant groups throughout the Middle East and Central Asia has a direct impact on international efforts to promote peace in the Middle East, threatens economic stability in the Gulf, jeopardizes the tenuous situation in southern Lebanon, and undermines the growth of democracy.

Iran has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in support to Lebanese Hizballah and has trained thousands of Hizballah fighters at camps in Iran. Since the end of the 2006 Israeli-Hizballah conflict, Iran has assisted Hizballah in rearming, in clear violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701.

In addition, Iran remains unwilling to bring to justice senior al-Qa’ida members it detains, and refused to publicly identify those senior members in its custody. Iran has repeatedly resisted numerous calls, not just from the United States, to transfer custody of its al-Qa’ida detainees to their countries of origin or third countries for trial.

On Iran, the administration has articulated a very clear strategy. We said we would engage Iran and give them an opportunity to take a path, a path that would lead to prosperity and opportunity for their people and a peaceful region, and one in which this path would allow them to become a full-fledged member of the community of nations. The alternative path was further isolation and further consequences.

We mobilized the international community around this approach, including partners like Russia that in the past might have been more hesitant to take a firmer stance on Iran’s nuclear program. But Iran’s response to our engagement was inadequate and so early this year we and our international partners agreed it was time to sharpen the choice for Iran’s leadership by moving forward and increasing the pressure.

This does not mean that we are taking engagement off the table. That door remains open if the Iranians choose to walk through it. But it does mean that in the interim we are going to move forcefully on a U.N. sanctions regime, and as you know, negotiations on that are well underway.

While the United States is working with our international partners to mitigate Iran’s destabilizing influence in the region, Syria stands out for its facilitation of many of Iran’s troubling policies. Syria’s relationship with Iran seems primarily based on perceived political interests, rather than cultural ties or complementary economies. But as with most partnerships, there are clear policy differences.

With respect to Israel, the Syrians have a clear interest in negotiating a peace agreement for the return of the Golan Heights, whereas Iran opposes any form of peace with Israel. Syria has a secular government, whereas Iran has a theocratic one. U.S. policy therefore does not operate from an assumption that these two countries are a permanent bloc. The goal of U.S. policy is to press both governments to adopt policies that advance regional stability and security. One way to do that is to demonstrate to Syria why it is clearly in Syria’s national interest – as well as ours – for Syria to have better relations with its neighbors and the West and to end its support for terrorism and other actions that undermine peace and prosperity.

Although Syria has endorsed the Arab Peace Initiative, Syria’s political support for the leaderships of Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and other Palestinian terrorist groups, undermines efforts to reach a comprehensive Middle East peace. These groups have offices in Damascus and have operated there for decades with significant latitude.

Syria is also a source and conduit for weapons flowing to Hizballah. In early April, we reiterated to the Syrians our grave concern and alarm over the reports that Syria may have provided SCUD missiles to Hizballah. Such an action could create a dangerous escalation in regional tensions. We are under no illusions as to the difficulty or seriousness of the challenges posed by Syrian policies, as well as the difficulties in dealing with the Syrian government.

Our engagement with Syria is aimed at achieving significant changes, particularly in Syria’s relationship with Hizballah and Syria’s role in helping resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. We know that the prospects for successful engagement with Syria face some serious challenges. First, Syria’s relationship with Hizballah and the Palestinian rejectionist groups is unlikely to change absent a Middle East peace agreement. Consequently, Syria has remained designated a State Sponsor of Terrorism .

Given these challenges and realities, we are employing a carefully calibrated, incremental approach. As stated above, the Syrian government has made some progress in suppressing networks of foreign fighters bound for Iraq, and we will continue to encourage the Syrian government to do more in this regard.

We have spoken out forcefully about the grave dangers of Syria's transfer of weapons to Hizballah. We condemn this in the strongest possible terms and have expressed our concerns directly to the Syrian government. Transferring weapons to Hizballah, especially longer-range missiles, would pose a serious threat to the security of Israel. It would have a profoundly destabilizing effect on the region. And if such weapons cross into Lebanon, it would absolutely violate UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which bans the unauthorized importation of any weapons into Lebanon.

We do not accept such provocative and destabilizing behavior, nor should the international community. President Assad is making decisions that could mean war or peace for the region. We know he's hearing from Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas. It is crucial that he also hear directly from us, so that the potential consequences of his actions are clear. That’s why we are sending an ambassador back to Syria. There should be no mistake, either in Damascus or anywhere else: The United States is not reengaging with Syria as a reward or a concession. Engagement is a tool that can give us added leverage and insight, and a greater ability to convey strong and unmistakably clear messages aimed at Syria’s leadership.

I’ve focused on Iran and Syria, but I’d note that Israel’s other Arab neighbors also have an obligation to make clear to the Israelis, Palestinians, Syrians, and Lebanese that we support comprehensive negotiations that produce results.

The Jordanian government, for example, has provided solid political and material support for the Palestinian Authority (PA) and for PA President Mahmoud Abbas. His Majesty King Abdullah II routinely expresses backing for the peace process, the two-state solution, and for a negotiated settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict. I’d also note that Jordan has become a real regional force multiplier. We have agreement from the Jordan International Police Training Center to train about 40 countries’ police forces there. General Dayton has already been training the Palestinian Authority’s National Security Forces at the center.

We appreciate Egypt’s commitment to preventing the flow of weapons to Hamas and other terrorist organizations through its territory. In addition to these counter-smuggling efforts, long-term success in combating smuggling depends in part on alleviating conditions in Gaza and removing economic incentives driving smuggling on both sides of the border.

The Palestinian Authority, which understands the threat that Hamas poses to the region, has itself taken important steps to limit Hamas's influence by supervising both the Palestinian banking system and the charitable sector in the West Bank and Gaza. We are working closely with the Palestinian Authority, and last month the United States designated the Islamic National Bank of Gaza for providing financial services to Hamas and Hamas-run Al-Aqsa television.

We are also supporting President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad in their efforts to build, train, and reform their security forces, and we commend their progress to date.

The global nature of the common challenge we face is clear. Citizens from dozens of countries around the world, the vast majority of them not Americans, are being victimized by terrorism and violent extremism. The President recognizes that the United States cannot address this threat alone. Rather, we have and will continue to reach out, and, on the basis of mutual interests and mutual respect, forge international coalitions. Our focus has been on building (and sometimes rebuilding) partnerships, whether they be bilateral, with multilateral organizations such as the UN, the private sector, or civil society.

We are committed to addressing the state insufficiencies that allow terrorists to operate freely, by promoting effective civilian law enforcement, good governance, and the rule of law, and the delivery of public services to the general population. A major focus of this work involves effectively building capacity and making counterterrorism training of police, prosecutors, border officials, and members of the judiciary more systematic, more innovative, and more effective..

At the center of this Administration’s counterterrorism approach is identifying the drivers of extremism and figuring out how to address them most effectively. What can we do to attack the drivers of violent extremism so al-Qa’ida and its affiliates finally have a shrinking pool of recruits? What steps can be taken to trump the narrative being offered by al-Qa’ida and its extremist allies? One of the first things I did in my position was to create a “Countering Violent Extremism” unit in my office to identify and develop programs to deal with this issue.

At this time I’d like to turn the microphone over to my colleague Matt Levitt.

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