Remarks at a UN Security Council Briefing on Threats to International Peace and Security from Terrorist Acts: Foreign Terrorist Fighters

Ambassador Michele J. Sison
U.S. Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations
U.S. Mission to the United Nations
New York City
November 28, 2017


Thank you. I’d like to thank Under-Secretary-General Voronkov, Executive Director of CTED Coninsx, and the Chair of the 1267 ISIL and Al-Qa’ida Sanctions committee, Ambassador Umarov, for their briefings today on foreign terrorist fighters.

We’ve come a long way since 2014 when foreign fighters were travelling en masse to join ISIS. At that time ISIS was spreading like a pandemic across the region. That fall, this Council took urgent action to stem the flow of these fighters. Meeting at the heads of state level, the Council adopted resolution 2178 to establish a new legal and policy framework to counter the threat posed by these fighters.

Since then, international partners and the Defeat-ISIS coalition have made extraordinary progress rolling back ISIS’ gains. ISIS has now lost approximately 95 percent of the territory it once controlled in Iraq and Syria. ISIS’s self-proclaimed “capital” of Raqqa has fallen to Coalition forces. Men, women, and children who have suffered for years under ISIS’s brutality have been liberated.

As part of this campaign, Resolution 2178 has facilitated unprecedented international cooperation to identify, stop, and prosecute foreign terrorist fighters. That resolution obligated countries to take concrete and tangible steps to stem the flow of foreign terrorist fighters to conflict zones. It also spurred new efforts to address the underlying factors that are conducive for terrorism and violent extremism to take root in our societies in the first place.

Regrettably, many Member States have yet to fully implement 2178, including passing the necessary domestic laws to provide the ability to criminalize the travel, financing, and recruitment of foreign terrorist fighters. This gap leaves us all vulnerable – and we must therefore re-commit ourselves to the full and complete implementation of this critical resolution.

Yet three years later, despite progress against ISIS, the threat posed by foreign terrorist fighters persists and has evolved to now include addressing the challenge of returning foreign terrorist fighters. As ISIS’s territory shrinks, some of its supporters are on the move – some returning home, others going to other countries. We will see more battle-hardened terrorists travel around the world to carry out deadly attacks in ISIS’s name.

Additionally, ISIS has even called on its supporters who may have never been to the conflict zone to launch attacks wherever they are present; one such supporter carried out an attack in New York City just last month. We shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that, as we defeat ISIS on the battlefield, the terrorist ideology and narratives that underpin the group will just fade away.

This is why this Council and the international community must address this evolving challenge now. We must shatter the ISIS narrative of invincibility. We must help demonstrate to the world – especially to individuals who are vulnerable to radicalization to violence and terrorism – that there is more to live for than supporting ISIS.

The United States therefore proposes that this Council adopt a new resolution to confront this evolving threat. We must now grapple with an increasingly decentralized ISIS threat, with new flows of fighters and their accompanying families.

We propose that Council action stress three priorities. First, we need to continue to improve border and aviation security. To do so, we must do more to create and implement standards to develop and share biographic data and biometric data, Advanced Passenger Information, and Passenger Name Records, PNR – three essential tools to detect foreign terrorist fighter travel. It’s essential that all countries collect and use PNR data to spot potential terrorists crossing their borders. The Security Council should recognize PNR as a foundation of our efforts to secure our borders and aviation.

Second, we need to strengthen efforts to address and improve the prosecution, rehabilitation and reintegration of foreign terrorist fighters. Since Resolution 2178, we applaud countries efforts to implement legislation allowing authorities to prosecute various conduct of foreign terrorist fighters. But because of the way some laws are written – and because it’s hard to collect evidence in a conflict zone – it sometimes can be difficult to obtain convictions. We must do a better job of bringing these fighters to justice, including by sharing the evidence necessary to do so when we can.

But we can’t ignore that family members of foreign terrorist fighters are also returning home, some of whom have committed crimes and others who were victims of ISIS themselves. The Security Council should therefore recognize the need to approach prosecution, rehabilitation, and reintegration in a tailored, nuanced way. This will also require the involvement of civil society, including faith leaders and youth – a true “whole of society” approach.

We shouldn’t rely too much on fighting terrorism just through security measures – indeed history shows that the false narratives and justification of terrorism can live on no matter how many terrorists we put in jail or kill on the battlefield. That’s why we also need to commit ourselves to the prevention of terrorism.

And, third and finally, we need the UN to be more coordinated in its efforts to address the foreign terrorist fighter threat. Different UN bodies have a vital role to play. We look to the Office of Counterterrorism to support capacity building, and look to CTED to monitor gaps in the implementation of Security Council resolutions. The Security Council’s Counterterrorism Committee and 1267 Al-Qa’ida/ISIS Sanctions Committees also must contribute. These bodies will need to harmonize efforts, each focusing on their comparative advantage.

If there is one thing that we all take away from this meeting, it is the need to do more than simply remain vigilant against an ever-adaptive ISIS and an al-Qa’ida on the rebound. We must also take the necessary steps to update our toolkit to confront an increasingly decentralized enemy.

We look forward to working with Security Council members on an upcoming resolution to adapt to these new challenges.

Thank you, Mr. President.