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Assistant Attorney General John P. Carlin Delivers Remarks at the International Institute for Justice and the Rule of Law’s Event on More Effective Responses to the Foreign Terrorist Fighter Threat


New York, NY
United States

Thank you, Maqsoud [Kruse], for that kind introduction.

It is an honor to be back here in New York at this event, hosted by the International Institute for Justice and the Rule of Law (IIJ) and the Hedayah Center.  IIJ’s efforts to uphold and promote the rule of law provide a clear vision not only of what we are up against, but what we stand for.  As President Obama said, “The essential ingredient to real and lasting stability and progress is not less democracy; it’s more democracy.  It’s institutions that uphold the rule of law and apply justice equally.”  We are honored to join you in carrying out this mission.

Likewise, we stand with the Hedayah Center, the first-ever International Center of Excellence for Countering Violent Extremism (CVE).  Less than three years since its inauguration, Hedayah is already bringing together expertise and experience from around the globe to prevent individuals from ever starting down the path toward radicalization to violence.  Hedayah’s work is essential to our collective success. 

To both the IIJ and the Hedayah Center, your partnership reflects an integrated counterterrorism approach, critical to keeping people safe.  Thank you.

Global Changes

At the U.S. Department of Justice, we fight against ISIL to protect the American public, here and abroad.  But we also understand that our work contributes to global efforts to eliminate the threat ISIL poses to innocents around the world.  We recognize our collective responsibility to prevent our citizens from going overseas or funding others to join ISIL in a campaign that uses rape, sexual slavery and the murder of civilians, including children, as tactics for success.

Last year, the United States joined the international community in a historic step, with the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 2178.  Through Resolution 2178, the global community committed to address the foreign terrorist fighter threat through law enforcement, border security, information sharing and countering violent extremism.

And the international community has made great strides to honor that commitment. 

Many nations have implemented the best practices endorsed at the Global Counterterrorism Forum.  In the United States, we have in place law enforcement investigative tools and techniques that are both effective and protective of individual rights and the rule of law.  We use sophisticated undercover operations to disrupt those who plan to travel to engage in terrorism, allowing us to identify the threats early – before potential fighters travel, train or return.  We criminalize providing a broad range of material support for terrorist activity.  These are tools we have used for many years and ones that are now globally recognized as invaluable in our fight against terrorism.

Since the adoption of Resolution 2178, we have visited more than 20 countries to consult on legislative reform and investigative and prosecutorial strategies, and to learn from their experiences.  We assisted nations pursuing their first foreign terrorist fighter prosecutions and exchanged best practices.  We will continue these efforts in the coming year.

Since the adoption of Resolution 2178, over 20 countries have enacted or strengthened their laws and nearly three dozen nations have taken law enforcement actions to disrupt foreign fighters and aspirants.

Since last year’s meeting, foreign terrorist fighter cases in the United States have increased from about a dozen to more than 50.  In total, since 2013, we have publicly charged more than 70 individuals, in over 25 districts, for foreign terrorist fighter or homegrown violent extremist-related conduct.  And the FBI has open investigations of suspected supporters of ISIL in all 50 states.

It is hard to believe that it has been only one year since we all gathered in New York for last September’s historic events.  While we have made tremendous progress in our collective global efforts to combat the threat of foreign terrorist fighters, we must redouble our efforts.  This will be a multi-year struggle. 

Threat Evolution

We must continue to grow and evolve, because the threat will. 

At about this time last year, foreign terrorist fighters in Syria and Iraq numbered about 15,000.  Recent estimates show that today that number has nearly doubled – to an estimated 28,000 – a number that dwarfs the foreign fighter numbers at the height of the Afghan conflict in the 1980s and 90s. 

These figures are not precise because they come from a variety of sources that vary in quality.  And it may be that our efforts have made us better at identifying and counting these individuals.  But the trend line is nonetheless disturbing.  Twenty-eight thousand people, from 100 countries worldwide, who threaten not only the regions to which they travel but also the countries to which they return. 

These figures highlight the need for nations to continue and in fact increase efforts to collectively fight ISIL.  There is still much to do, including to find ways to disrupt ISIL’s ability to recruit and radicalize followers through social media.

In an interconnected world, it takes just the push of a button for ISIL to reach an exponentially greater number of people.  ISIL has turned to social media – the language of youth and a global marketing tool designed to reach households around the world.  According to FBI Director [James] Comey, ISIL now has about 21,000 English-language followers on Twitter alone.

ISIL exploits social media to recruit, to disseminate messaging and to plan attacks.  We have seen each of these borne out in the United States. 

A young Mississippi couple – just 20- and 22-years-old – recently attempted to travel to Syria to join ISIL.  They used social media to communicate with an individual they believed was an ISIL recruiter and researched their trip online.

A 17-year-old resident of Virginia used Twitter to provide instructions on how to use Bitcoin, a virtual currency, to mask providing funds to ISIL.  He also facilitated travel for an 18-year-old who traveled to Syria to join ISIL.

We know that ISIL used Twitter to terrorize Mosul before their attack.  ISIL also uses social media to make public calls for lone offender attacks in the West.

Millions of social media users simply reject ISIL’s propaganda.  Although only a tiny percentage of susceptible, and often young, people have been influenced by ISIL online, that number is still too large.  Even one is too many.  Social media creates for this segment a sort of “radicalization echo chamber,” where social media followers reinforce for each other ISIL’s propaganda.

In the U.S., we have identified new trends in our investigations and prosecutions, seemingly driven in part by the influence of social media.  Here, the threat is not confined geographically or ethnically.

First, youth.  ISIL continues to target the young, including children, in its recruiting efforts, and its message is getting through.  In the United States, over 55 percent of defendants in foreign terrorist fighter cases are under 25-years-old.  Over a third are 21 or younger.  Last October, three juvenile girls from Colorado attempted to travel to Syria to join ISIL.  They were diverted in Frankfurt and returned to the United States, thanks to the efforts of our German partners, but they were not the first nor will they be the last.

Second, and perhaps most alarming, we are witnessing a surge in what we call homegrown violent extremists (HVEs) – individuals inspired by this extremist ideology to conduct attacks inside the United States.  ISIL and its supporters have repeatedly called for attacks right where potential attackers live.  Terrorism with the reach of mass, global marketing.  No passport or travel required. 

To prevent tragedy, we must prevent people from answering that call, both in the United States and across the globe.  In April of this year, a man inspired by ISIL attempted to detonate what he believed was a fully functional bomb just outside a military installation in Kansas.  He intended to kill as many military personnel as he could.

And, just this month, a man inspired by ISIL was arrested for distributing information on how to construct a WMD (weapon of mass destruction).  He hoped that the accurate information he provided would be used to conduct an attack against a Sept. 11th memorial ceremony in Missouri.  The list, unfortunately, goes on.  Law enforcement techniques and strategies are needed.

The Need for a Comprehensive Approach

So what do we do together to counter ISIL and address these alarming trends? 

Law enforcement is a powerful tool, but it cannot be our only tool.  In addition to a strong and enforceable counterterrorism legal regime, we must also develop ways to reach individuals early on their path toward radicalization.  Before they respond to ISIL’s siren song. 

This group and our many partners dedicated to countering violent extremism are critical to doing just that. 

Much of what we do on this front echoes the practices set out in the GCTF’s (Global Counterterrorism Forum’s) Hague-Marrakech Memorandum.

First, we must do more to empower those who are best-placed to affect change – especially parents and those who know their communities best.  Our efforts are most successful when we partner with all communities to uphold the law.

Local communities, including faith communities, form the fabric of our nations and community members are often best-positioned to identify and relate to individuals who have begun on a path to violent extremism.

Recognizing the key role of communities in combating violent extremism and the need for more than a top-down approach to CVE, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch will open tomorrow’s Strong Cities Network meeting.  The Strong Cities Network is the first ever global network of municipal leaders involved in building community resilience.  It is a powerful example of our integrated strategy in this area – ensuring well informed and equipped families, community leaders and institutions.

Because community members see things that law enforcement agencies do not.  Here in the United States, one study found that in more than 80 percent of cases involving homegrown violent extremists, third-party bystanders observed activities or behaviors suggesting radicalization or violent intent.  However, more than half of the witnesses discounted or downplayed their observations.  So community members are not only best positioned to intervene with those on a path towards violent extremism, they also may be the first to see potential steps towards radicalization.

Recognizing the importance of community engagement in early intervention, the Department of Justice has developed three community-based pilot programs – in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota; the greater Boston area; and Los Angeles.  Government, academic and community leaders are working together to develop counter narratives, youth programming and constructive dialogue on disengagement.  Strong outreach programs for communities and training for law enforcement have led to a relationship of trust and increased cooperation on everything from civil rights to radicalization-to-violence.

The Department of Justice is also exploring options to intervene with would-be violent extremists before violence occurs, and to address disengagement and rehabilitation, including “off ramps” to prosecution.

CVE will require community engagement, but it will also require, as recognized in the Hague-Marrakech Memorandum, countering ISIL’s use of online tools and social media.

First, although ISIL uses social media and open platforms for recruitment, they also conduct their operational planning through communications, sometimes encrypted, using mainstream technology.  Those providing the services must take responsibility for how their services can be abused.  Responsible providers need to understand what the threats are and to take action to prevent terrorist groups from abusing their services to induce recruits to commit terrorist acts.

Beyond that, we need to use social media to reveal ISIL for what it is – a group that beheads and kills Muslims and non-Muslims with the same impunity; rapes and sells women into sexual slavery; and pillages and destroys historical artifacts.  We must strip away the slick propaganda and the glossy images and lay bare the truth.

We also must harness social media’s power to provide a positive vision for young people.  We commend the efforts of the Sawab Center and others who partner with us to do just that.  Social media is a powerful platform for amplifying the stories of ISIL defectors, broadcasting the misery of life under ISIL and displaying the damage they are doing to Muslim communities and to the causes they claim to defend.

And importantly, social media allows us to amplify the stories of young people who are overcoming difficult circumstances – channeling their talent and energy to produce positive change in their societies.

To succeed, we must work together.  We must take the lessons learned in each of our countries and put them to use globally.  We must confront the violent extremist threat on all fronts.

Law enforcement will remain a strong tool in this battle.  But it alone is not enough.  Our first goal ought to be to dissuade would-be foreign fighters from joining ISIL in the first place.  That requires us to engage with our communities and support efforts to identify possible interventions at every step of the foreign terrorist fighter development cycle, from recruitment and radicalization, to mobilization and return.  We must work together to disrupt and detain those who have already gone, while simultaneously deterring those who seek to follow that path.

We look forward to hearing how our international partners address prevention, rehabilitation and reentry in the panels to come.  Thank you.

Updated November 8, 2016