Ambassador Michele J. Sison
U.S. Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations
U.S. Mission to the United Nations
New York City
December 21, 2017
Mr. President, three years ago, this Council – in an extraordinary meeting of our heads of government – tackled the problem of foreign terrorist fighters. In 2014, ISIS was ascendant. Terrorists had just captured large swathes of territory. And ISIS’s ideology was inspiring thousands to travel and join its ranks.
Today the tables are turned. ISIS is now on the run. The United States, alongside the Defeat-ISIS Coalition and its multiple partners, have nearly liberated nearly all of ISIS’s territory on the battlefield. Its ideology is discredited. But the threat of foreign terrorist fighters remains.
Indeed, today ISIS is going underground and on the move. As its territory shrinks, some ISIS supporters are returning home, while others are moving on to other countries. We have seen hardened terrorists travel around the world to carry out deadly attacks in ISIS’s name. And ISIS is calling on supporters – even those who never set foot in a conflict zone – to launch attacks from Jakarta to Manchester to the streets of New York City.
In recent years, we have learned more about the phenomenon of foreign terrorist fighter travel. For example, today we see the return not just of fighters, but sometimes even their family members – some of whom have committed crimes and others who were victims of ISIS themselves.
We also have learned lessons about the essential role of international cooperation in preventing, tracking, and detaining traveling terrorists.
Given this evolving challenge, the United States applauds the Security Council for taking decisive action today. The resolution just adopted will give countries around the world new tools – and new obligations – to protect all our citizens at home and the international traveling public abroad. I would highlight four of its most impactful measures.
First, the world has taken unprecedented steps in this resolution to better detect and disrupt terrorist travel across borders. All countries, not just a few, will now develop the capability to collect and use airline passenger information—specifically Advance Passenger Information and Passenger Name Record – API/PNR – data and biometrics to identify known and previously unknown terrorists any time they may try to board an airplane.
My government has used API, PNR, and biometrics data to bring terrorists and criminals to justice, and to prevent them from carrying out their despicable acts in the first place. We have used this data in ways that respect the privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties of all Americans and those who travel here. Many other countries, including European Union members, are in advanced stages of installing their own PNR systems. A number of countries in the Middle East and elsewhere have pioneered the use of biometric technologies to ensure even terrorists with false passports can be identified and prosecuted.
The time has come for airline passenger information and biometrics to protect not just those in America, Europe, or the Middle East, but to protect the international traveling public and to send a message to terrorists that they are about to lose any hope of being able to get on an airplane. We who have had the benefit of these technologies since 9/11 now look forward to working with countries to make sure they have the assistance and means to fulfill these critical obligations.
Second, today’s resolution – drawing upon the lessons of recent years – recognizes the need to counter this threat in a tailored, nuanced way. This is particularly key with respect to the prosecution, rehabilitation, and reintegration of foreign terrorist fighters and accompanying families. To do this right, we need the involvement of civil society, including faith leaders and youth – indeed we need a true “whole-of-society” approach. We can’t just rely on military and security sector means to fight terrorism, since terrorists’ false narratives can live on, no matter how many terrorists we put in jail or kill on the battlefield.
We instead also need to mobilize whole societies to counter violent extremism and fight terrorism while respecting and promoting human rights, including freedom of expression. Indeed, the resolution reaffirms that Member States must ensure that any measures taken to counter terrorism comply with all their obligations under international law, and underscores that respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law are complementary and mutually reinforcing with effective counterterrorism measures. We must work together and holistically to address and counter the drivers of violent extremism as well.
Third, this resolution puts a renewed emphasis on the need for countries to share a range of information, including lessons learned and threat analysis. The foreign terrorist fighter threat is transnational – so we ourselves must learn to work across borders and improve international cooperation. This includes sharing information and working with a broad range of partners, including the private sector.
Fourth, and finally, this resolution will boost the UN’s own work addressing the foreign terrorist fighter threat. We know that different UN bodies have a vital role to play and all must contribute. This resolution will pave the way for tighter internal UN coordination, including on capacity building and technical assistance. We hope this resolution will help the UN counterterrorism bodies continue to harmonize their efforts, each focusing on its comparative advantage.
I would like to conclude by thanking all members of the Security Council for your collaboration on this technical resolution. This strong outcome shows that the Security Council remains firmly, unquestionably united in the face of the terrorist threat. We look forward to working with countries, UN bodies, civil society, and the private sector to implement this groundbreaking resolution.
Thank you, Mr. President.