11:00 A.M. EST
Today, as everyone recognizes, a transnational threat such as terrorism demands that partner nations work more closely than ever to prevent attacks and disrupt terrorist operations. And the truth is the cooperation around the globe over the last nine years has been remarkable. This is one of the truly unsung success stories of our time. In the critical areas of intelligence and law enforcement, governments have joined together time and again and prevented real attacks.
Of course, looking at the headlines, Yemen is probably at the top of the list right now, given the recent events involving packages that were containing explosives. As many of you know, we’re working hard with a range of Yemeni security forces to increase their ability to confront al-Qaida in the Arabian peninsula, which has shown itself to be the first al-Qaida affiliate with the capacity and the intention to strike as far away as the United States. It’s important to underscore, however, that we have a two-pronged policy when it comes to dealing with Yemen, and we’re also working to help strengthen civilian institutions and address Yemen’s fundamental economic and governance problems. Our development assistance, it’s worth noting, has roughly quadrupled since 2008, and we hope it will rise to more than $106 million next year.
The United States, of course, is not doing this alone. The international community has been very active in helping Yemen address its shortcomings, and our efforts in this country are part of a global partnership to enhance security and improve governance. Through the Friends of Yemen process, the United States is engaged with international partners, including regional states, in working with the Government of Yemen to help address the multitude of problems and to better coordinate foreign assistance.
In Pakistan, we’re helping a frontline partner against terrorists who threaten Americans, Pakistan’s Government and people, and security in the region and the world. Through the Kerry-Lugar-Burman legislation, Congress has reaffirmed the U.S.’s long-term commitment to Pakistan through the authorization of $1.5 billion a year in civilian assistance to build Pakistani infrastructure, provide vocational training, and from my perspective, very importantly, improve rule of law and good governance, and tackle the issues most important to the Pakistani people: energy and water.
At the recent U.S.-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue, Secretary Clinton said the United States has no stronger partner than Pakistan when it comes to countering terrorism against the extremists who threaten us both. Within the Strategic Dialogue, I am the co-chair of a working group on law enforcement and counterterrorism efforts that’s working on issues ranging from prosecutorial training to border security. The U.S. is also providing training for Pakistani police forces in assisting that country with programs to address terrorist finance issues.
You’ve probably all seen the three part investigative series in this week’s Washington Post about Lashkar-e Taiba, so let me say a couple words about that. Very few things worry me as much as the strength and the ambition of LET, which is a truly malign presence in South Asia. As the two-year anniversary of Mumbai approaches, we continue to work very closely with our interagency partners and international allies to reduce the threat from this very dangerous group, and I am pleased to say that there is growing cooperation in the region to thwart LET, especially between such critical partners as India and Bangladesh.
Let me move on to Africa now. In the Trans-Sahara region, al-Qaida and the Islamic Maghreb have shown resilience and an ability to raise substantial resources by kidnapping for ransom. And we now have – the United States has an extensive multinational capacity-building program, the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, on which we spend up to $150 million a year. Let me add that AQIM’s reliance on kidnapping for ransom for its survival highlights the urgency of cutting off this lifeline. Clearly, something must be done to help countries such as Mali, Mauritania, and others in the region. And winning broad acceptance for a no concessions policy by the governments of wealthy nations would be a very good place to start. Currently, the UK, Algeria, Colombia, and the U.S. are among the few governments that refuse to pay ransom for kidnapped citizens. This policy comes with real costs. Terrorists may kill some hostages. But over time, they will learn that countries will not pay, and the frequency of their nationals being abducted will decline.
Before I open the floor to questions, I’d like to just say a few words about Europe. Al-Qaida and its followers have clearly demonstrated that they have both the U.S. and Europe squarely in their sights, and close cooperation between us is essential to successfully counter the common threat we face. Two critically important tools in this effort that have proven instrumental in protecting the security of both Americans and Europeans are the U.S. Treasury’s Terrorist Financial Tracking Program, otherwise known as TFTP, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Passenger Name Records Program. We should be clear. Dangerous conspiracies aimed at the U.S. and Europe have been disrupted because of this information sharing.
We were pleased that we could reach agreement with the EU to continue TFTP, and we look forward to working with the EU again on PNR. We know that there have been concerns about these programs, but I want to reassure you. Europe and the United States have a longstanding partnership to protect both the security of our citizens and their personal data. We know our two approaches to protecting privacy have more in common than they have – that is different or that divides them, and we both share a strong commitment to protecting civil liberties. Our institutional arrangements for protecting privacy are different than Europe’s, but they are comprehensive, provide ample means of redress, and there is an outstanding record of data protection. Continuing this cooperation is vital for all of our security.
And with that, I’ll stop talking, and let me take your questions.
MODERATOR: Okay, as we move to the q-and-a portion of the event, please state your name and publication and wait for the microphone, which could be coming from either side. We’ll start here.
QUESTION: Ambassador, Aziz Hanifa with India Abroad and Relief.com. It’s good to see you again.
AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: It’s good to see you.
QUESTION: Yeah. I remember the Wilson Center when we met earlier this year. You spoke about the fact that Lashkar-e Taiba, which you mentioned again, was much more malign than even the al-Qaida, and you said that it was becoming a force not just to be reckoned with but such a dangerous force. And considering the solid reports of ProPublica and The Washington Post and the Headley –the charges against Headley et cetera, and the fact that President Obama also spoke about the fact that Pakistan’s offering of terrorist havens is unacceptable, and the joint statement did mention Lashkar-e Taiba also, how do you deal with this force which has Jamaat ud-Dawa, which is sort of in – one of sort of the branches of it, which is as strong as Hamas as an analogy, which has a charitable arm, which has a huge presence in Muridke et cetera, where the Pakistan army as well as the ISI, where there have been allegations of sort of connections et cetera, but also have a tough time in going after the LET in terms of totally eliminating the LET?
AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: Well, thank you for your question. Let me – you made a number of statements, not all of which I agree with. I don’t think I ever said LET was more dangerous than al-Qaida, but it is certainly a very, very dangerous group. And I won’t get into parsing all the other things you said, but I do want to make sure that we’re clear on that.
Obviously, LET is a profoundly dangerous group, and its support that it derives from doing social services is like Hamas, is like Hezbollah, and is, of course, of great concern. And that is why the work that we are doing with Pakistan, aside from the law enforcement cooperation – and we have been very supportive of Pakistan’s efforts to bring the Mumbai perpetrators to justice – but beyond that, it is critically important that Pakistan continue to develop its institutions and develop the ability to provide the services to its people so that other organizations with a radical agenda are not in there subverting the state. And that is really one of the reasons why a program such as Kelly – I’m sorry – Kerry-Lugar-Burman is so important, as well as the important support for Pakistan that other countries around the world are providing. And of course, in the aftermath of those devastating floods, it’s all the more important that we be able to ensure that the Pakistani people have the basic resources they need to get on with their lives, and that it’s not being delivered to them with an extremist message.
So there’s been an enormous amount of money pledged, I believe something along the lines of $14 billion. It’s being dispersed. I think this is a good news story in the face of enormous suffering. But as your question suggests, over the long term, the key is a strong state that can provide the needs for its people.
QUESTION: But as a quick follow-up, Ambassador, this is a very futuristic outlook, where you have to build up institutions in Pakistan et cetera so that you can reach the people so that they are not influenced by the Jamaat ud-Dawa, LET, et cetera. But an organization which has the ability and which went ahead and did the Mumbai terror attach, and such a terror attack could really plunge the whole region into a conflict, how do you deal with it when there is an immediate problem here? And the futuristic outlook of building up institutions et cetera may be too much into the future, where you’ve got to deal with this threat right away.
AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: Right. I didn’t mean to suggest that we were shortchanging any of the important intelligence and law enforcement cooperation that we’re carrying on with partners around the world. We’re delighted that many in the region are very concerned about the LET threat and are cooperating much more effectively. I mentioned Bangladesh and India, which have had a real breakthrough in this area in terms of their coordination. We are working closely with all the partners. Obviously, a lot of this kind of cooperation is sensitive, so I’m not going to give details, but rest assured that we are working hard to ensure that there won’t be future attacks. Obviously, we know how difficult this business is and how hard it is to achieve perfect success. But as my earlier comments also indicated, this is very much on our screen right now and very much a matter of concern, and we don’t want to see LET filling that hole in sort of the global extremism as al-Qaida itself is diminished.
MODERATOR: Let’s go to the gentleman in back.
QUESTION: Dan De-Luce from Agence France Press. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about kidnapping, the role that kidnapping plays in Northern Africa as a source of funding for al-Qaida. And then also, to what degree is the U.S. view on discouraging paying out ransoms taking root or being accepted or being acknowledged?
AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: If you look at the big picture with al-Qaida and the Islamic Maghreb, its historic area of operations was along the Algerian littoral. And it has been very much, I think, diminished there by the very effective work of the Algerian authorities. It’s not gone, but it is much diminished. As a result, AQIM has dispatched a number of its fighters to the Sahel region, and there have also acquired some recruits from that region. And these battalions, as they are called, have been deeply engaged in kidnapping for ransom, working either independently and grabbing hostages by themselves or working with criminal groups that will kidnap individuals and then, for a fee, pass them off.
I think it is safe to say that this is the number one source of its income. It’s what’s largely keeping the group in the field. And there have been ample number of press reports of multimillion dollar ransoms being paid. And when you consider how inexpensive an activity terrorism can be, that has to be deeply, deeply, worrisome. I think that just to cast a sidelight on the bigger terrorism finance issue, we have made real progress in drying up the resources available to terrorists around the world. But kidnapping for ransom is different from shutting down banks, financial services institutions and the like to terrorists. So this is a real problem, and there exists the prospect that groups like this will not only become more powerful, more capable, be able to support their operatives more effectively, and thereby also enhance their recruitment but will also be passing funds to other parts of the al-Qaida network. So we’re deeply concerned about that.
We – it’s no secret that the United States has been emphasizing a no concessions policy for a long time. And we recognize how difficult it is for countries to embrace this kind of policy, which involves dealing in a very – in dealing in very difficult situations with a very difficult message, namely we don’t want to feed the wild animals because they’ll keep coming back for more, and we’re sorry about your loved one. Obviously, that’s a very, very difficult position to be in. But I think that it is clear that when you pay a ransom, you may be getting back one individual but you’re also ensuring that two or three more will probably be kidnapped later on because it shows the efficacy of the tactic.
We believe that there is movement toward our view, but this is a gradual process. And we certainly hope that more will come over to our side. What I think what is really important to underscore is how deeply upset the countries in the region are about the payment of ransoms, because from their perspective, wealthy countries are materially destabilizing their environment by promoting inadvertently the growth of these groups. And that is a real problem. And I think Algeria in particular has been outspoken on this point. And I think we would all do well to heed their message.
MODERATOR: Let’s go back there.
QUESTION: Thank you. Leila Benradja from Algerian news agency APS. You visited Algeria last July. What is your evaluation about the cooperation between the United States and Algeria in the fighting against the terrorism? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: Well, I think you got a hint from my last remark that we are very supportive of the work that Algerian counterterrorist officials have done, and their forces. I had an excellent visit. We view this as an absolutely critical relationship. Algeria has great political will for fighting terrorism, great experience in fighting terrorism, that we can all look for. And we are looking to deepen this relationship so that we can confront common threats. I believe this has been a very positive engagement, and we are looking forward to deepening it in the coming year.
MODERATOR: Okay, we’ll go to back there.
QUESTION: Mina Al-Oraibi, Asharq Al-awsat, Arabic language paper. I have a couple of questions for you. The first is about Yemen. If you could just clarify a bit more regarding the support that you’re giving to Yemeni security forces, how capable you think they are in terms of actually fighting al-Qaida, what more can be done in terms of advancing that.
And my second question is regarding Iraq. How much of a problem do you find the escalating violence that’s going on there? Do you see it as purely domestic and internal or do you feel that al-Qaida is still strong there? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: We are working with a number of different Yemeni forces – Yemeni special operations force, the Ministry of the Interior, different parts of the military. So there is quite a broad base of engagement. This is being done under what we in the U.S. call Title 10, which is our training mission. We are pleased with Yemeni political will to confront AQAP. We think that President Saleh and his government made a critically important turn last year to take on this group and to recognize the real threat it poses. We have a robust program of training and equipping going on. We recognize that this is a multiyear project, but we are encouraged by the results we’ve seen thus far and look forward to working with the Yemeni Government more in the future. Obviously, Yemen has some significant challenges to face, so we’re not expecting that this will be taken care of overnight. But we very much feel that we’re on the right track and we’re positive about the results we’ve had to date.
You asked about Iraq. Well, clearly, a significant part of the phenomenon that we’re seeing has to do with one extremist group again trying to destabilize things in a way that prevents the coalescence of a new government and a broad-based political effort in that country. But that said, we should never let our guard down. We have to recognize that al-Qaida in Iraq may at some point decide that it, too, wants to follow the example of some of the other affiliates and try to start carrying out attacks abroad. At the moment, that doesn’t seem to be their orientation, but we live in a globalized world where ideas, techniques, various kinds of goods travel with some ease. And so it’s always a cause for vigilance, and we continue to watch it very closely.
MODERATOR: Okay, come down here.
QUESTION: Thanks. Andrei Sitov from Tass from Russia. I have a parochial question and a general question. The general question is about the new initiatives that I understand the U.S. is pursuing of creating a new global counterterrorism forum. My question is how will it exist, coexist, and complement itself with the existing structures in the UN and others? And what are the criteria for membership in that forum? Because I understand it will not be universal in membership. Specifically, like for instance, will countries of the former Soviet Union be invited?
And my parochial question is like other people are asking. Please give us an update on how you cooperate with the Russian counterterrorism services. And please be as specific as you can. Thanks.
AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: Be as specific as you can. (Laughter.) I don’t know if you know, but I was once a journalist and asked that question, too, so, I – (laughter).
QUESTION: Well, you (inaudible) understand.
AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: Yes, and then you’ll understand, too. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: I understand.
AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: Well (in Russian). We’re all under – we all understand.
On the issue of multilateral engagement, we have said from Day One that one of our principal goals in this Administration is to elaborate the international architecture for dealing with 21st century threats. And the President himself has been quite articulate about that, and the language in the national security strategy, I think, is very much to the point.
I’m not going to get into any specific initiatives right now, except to say that the United States is engaging much more actively at the UN than it did before on counterterrorism matters. I was delighted to be, I think, the first counterterrorism coordinator to address a Security Council meeting, earlier in the year. We are deeply engaged with the work going on in the secretariat, in the Counterterrorism Executive Directorate, in the 1267 Committee, with UNODC’s terrorism prevention branch, with regional operations – regional organizations around the world – APEC, SICTA, you name it. We recognize that this is an invaluable force multiplier for dealing with critical issues – above all, capacity-building, which is vitally important to our overall global success in counterterrorism, and also in countering violent extremism because this is a new area in which we have anything but perfect knowledge, and we need to share best practices and new understanding.
So let me just be very clear. We are absolutely committed to doing everything we can to enable the global architecture to be more productive, to be – to provide a forum, to provide a place where countries can come together and talk about the real issues in counterterrorism, which is what do you do to improve prosecutorial capability? What do you do to improve high-end police capabilities? What do you do to deal with border security? How do you counter violent extremism?
The international community, I think, has been too wrapped up for too long in international organizations on questions such as who is a terrorist. This is a sterile debate. We need to be doing practical work on the ground with our partners to make our people safer, and that’s what our engagement is about. And we’ll be able to talk more about specific initiatives at a later date.
As for Russian counterterrorism cooperation, we do cooperate very closely. I think this is one of the pillars of the relationship over the last decade. The bilateral relationship has had its ups and downs. The counterterrorism part of it did not. I’m delighted to say I have an excellent relationship with my counterpart, Anatoly Safonov. So I’m very recently at a meeting in Europe, and we are working our way through our agenda in our bilateral working group. There are a number of different agreements that we hope will see the light of day very soon as our bureaucracies finish their work on them. We’ve also had discussions about joint efforts we could do on countering violent extremism in different parts of the world, and we look forward to carrying those out. The exchanges in terms of information and – but also best practices and the like are robust, and I think it’s a model for lots of different other parts of the U.S.-Russian relationship. And I’m very, very pleased with the way it’s going.
MODERATOR: We’re going to break away and take a question from New York. Please go ahead, New York.
QUESTION: All right, Ambassador. My name is Renzo Cianfanelli and I represent the Italian media Corriere della Sera and Il Secolo. The question is about safety in air transportation. How effective is the introduction of body scans? I don’t know if you have any facts and figures. And do you have any plans to introduce these measures also to other means of transportation which are potential targets. such as public mass transportation in cities, trains and so on, and finally, to introduce some technologies such as in iris recognition, for example, which has been tested rather successfully in the U.K. and in other countries? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: Well, I’ll be very frank and say that I am not the right guy for the very technical questions on the utility of body scanners. I confess a lot of what I read about body scanners I see on the Drudge Report, which seems to be obsessed with the issue.
You do, however – I mean, I know the technology is out there. I’m hoping that it is useful. Obviously, biometric upgrades in all kinds of facilities that deal with travel are vitally important. We push them in many different contexts. We will continue to support their use. Obviously, they add a layer of security which is very, very important.
In talking about transportation, air transportation in particular, obviously in the wake of the experience with the packages that were being shipped from Yemen, we have taken this issue very seriously. We know that al-Qaida and its affiliates continue to be focused on air transportation. DHS last week announced a number of increased security measures. We have the ban on air cargo from Yemen and it has been extended to all air cargo from Somalia. No high-risk cargo is being allowed on passenger aircraft. There are – there is a lot more work being done to upgrade screening, and this is going to be, I think, one of the key areas of innovation in the coming year because, obviously, this is a vulnerability that we need to address. We are working very closely with authorities in the Gulf, with the UAE, with the Yemenis, with the British. And of course, one of the packages showed up there.
This is a further extension of the kinds of innovation we undertook after the December 25th effort to bring down a Northwest Airlines flight headed for Detroit. We are always in a technological race. That’s the fact of the matter. In an era of globalization, the means of destruction become more available over time, and we are doing our very best to ensure that we have the means of detection to prevent those devices from being used or from dangerous materials getting into the wrong hands.
So on the very specifics of issues like body scanners, I’m going to have to refer you to my colleagues at DHS – Department of Homeland Security and TSA. But I think at the broadest level, yes, we are working on all kinds of biometric upgrades and we are urging international aviation authorities and our partners around the world to adapt these – adopt these upgrades as well. So, sorry I can’t give you more on the technical specifics.
MODERATOR: Okay. Down front here.
QUESTION: Thank you, Ambassador. Ali Imram from Associated Press of Pakistan. You yourself have described Pakistan as a key ally, and Pakistan is situated in a tough neighborhood. It has been paying a heavy price in terms of loss of lives and also in terms of economic losses. But yet we see sometimes in the – even in the Administration reports, criticism is leveled against Pakistan. And in making frequent calls to do more, the sacrifices and the economic cost it is paying are ignored. Your comment on that?
Number two, former Secretary of State and former commander of U.S. forces Colin Powell, Mr. Colin Powell, he has asked Obama Administration to provide Pakistan with more counterterrorism assistance, especially in terms of aerial mobility and intelligence-gathering to – so that it can prosecute the fight against terrorism more effectively. What is your response? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: Well, I’m not the press statement police, so I can’t comment, especially abstractly, on what some others may say. I can tell you that as the coordinator for counterterrorism, I’ve been quite precise and consistent in saying that Pakistan is a frontline state. Pakistan has helped the United States put out of business, in one way or another, more al-Qaida operatives than any other country on earth by a large margin. Pakistan has suffered grievously from militancy and I believe that Pakistan’s leadership understands very well the nature of the threat and the imperative to combat it. And I can assure you that my view on this is the view of the President and the Secretary of State and everyone else who’s involved. We are all acutely aware of the losses Pakistan has suffered in bombings, in firearms attacks and the like, on police, on all kinds of different security facilities.
I had the privilege of being in Pakistan in July. I visited a police training academy, and I have to say I was very moved by the experience because I was talking to a lot of young men who were – undergo – they were taking on real risks but they were doing it for a very powerful reason, and I have to say I applauded them and I was moved by the experience. So I don’t think there’s any question that Pakistan is a key partner. I think Secretary Clinton underscored this very recently when the Pakistani leadership was here for the Strategic Dialogue, and that will continue to be our emphasis, our contention.
I am unfamiliar, I am sorry to say, with Secretary Powell’s remarks, but I will say that the United States is constantly in the process of working to provide Pakistani authorities with the equipment they need to deal with this very real threat that they face. We know, for example, that helicopters are a very big deal. You talked about mobility, and we are always working to try to help Pakistan in that area. And I believe quite a number of aircraft have been delivered over the last few years.
On specific items that are requested or needed, I’d have to look at our analyses, but in general, we are dedicated to making sure that Pakistan has the wherewithal to deal with the threats it faces in its neighborhood by itself. That’s really the essence of a sound counterterrorism policy, in my view.
MODERATOR: Okay. Down front here?
QUESTION: Good morning, Ambassador. My name is Pedro Rodriguez from Diario ABC of Spain. Two questions: One, the Government of Spain has paid a great deal of money to – ransom money to terrorists in the Maghreb and to pirates in the Horn of Africa. Are you concerned about this? How is your gentle persuasion – how are you dealing with this?
And my second question is about Western Sahara. Last week, we have an escalation of violence. I would like to know if you see repercussions in terms of terrorists in that particular area. Thank you.
AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: Let me take your last question first. In the West – I mean, my view is that most of the violence we’ve seen in the Western Sahara remains the traditional political violence that we’ve seen for some time. We are obviously always concerned that al-Qaida in the Maghreb could expand its operations, but frankly, I wouldn’t quite get it if they were expanding into that region. I’m not quite sure I would see what the up side for them would be. And in any case, we haven’t seen the proof that it is – that that is really what’s going on.
Let me just say on the issue of Spain, Spain is an absolutely vital counterterrorism partner. We have really close relations with the Spanish authorities. I had the pleasure of seeing the ambassador here recently. It was falsely reported that I delivered a rebuke. That was absolutely not true. So let me just say that Spain is an essential partner, and we believe that a no concessions policy is the way to go.
MODERATOR: Okay. We’ve got time for a few more questions. Going back there.
QUESTION: Maria Tabak, Novosti news agency. Do you think that there is a possibility that Viktor Bout can face charges related to terrorism?
AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: That’s really a question you’ll have to put to the FBI and the Department of Justice. I just don’t have anything on that. And clearly the extradition of Viktor Bout to the United States was a – largely a – in pursuit of a law enforcement goal, so why don’t I defer that to my colleagues.
MODERATOR: Okay, right here.
QUESTION: Thank you. Yang with the Radio Free Korean service. On North Korea, do you have – do you think the United States need to put back North Korea on the list of state sponsors of terrorism? And second question is: Do you have any concern that the North Korean nuclear material could be used by a terrorist group?
Thank you very much.
AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: Well, we’ve – I think we’ve been pretty clear on this point for some time. As a matter of law, in order to be designated as a state sponsor of terrorism, the Secretary of State needs to determine that the government of a particular country has repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism. And these designations are made after a very, very careful, painstaking review of all the available evidence.
North Korea right now does not meet the statutory criteria to be designated as a state sponsor of terrorism. The information we have does not show the DPRK repeatedly providing support for international terror since the designation was rescinded in October of 2008. Having said that, we are absolutely committed to following the facts wherever the leave – wherever the lead – excuse me. And so we are always looking at the information available to see if there’s been any change. At this point, we are still confident we’re in the right place on this issue. But if anything changes, we will take immediate action.
As for the question of nuclear material, the United States is concerned about all fissile material everywhere around the world. We had a major summit earlier in the year to deal with this issue. Our diplomacy has been extraordinarily active on the issue of locking up dangerous nuclear material. Obviously, we would like any material in North Korean possession to be locked up and not fall into the hands of the wrong people.
MODERATOR: Okay, one final question there.
QUESTION: Kim Dozier from the AP. I wanted to ask, after AQAP, what would you consider the most dangerous al-Qaida affiliate? And how much communication, trade, sharing of resources and staff is there among the various AQAP, Shabaab, AQIM?
AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: We could talk for a while about that. I think it’s – first of all, let me go back and say that – repeat what I’ve said on a number of other occasions. AQAP is a very serious threat. I do not believe it is a more serious threat than al-Qaida senior leadership in the Pakistani-Afghan border region. So let’s stipulate for the record that those two are in a class by themselves, and I still believe a AQSL, as we call it, is the most formidable foe we face.
I think that when you move away from those two, there’s significant a change in the threat level. But that said, obviously, because of its activities, al-Qaida and the Islamic Maghreb is a group that we’re very concerned about. As I mentioned before, Lashkar-e Taiba is a group we’re very concerned about, although it is not an AQ affiliate. Al- Shabaab, a designated foreign terrorist organization which carried out its first attack outside of Somalia with the bombing in Kampala, is a group that we are very concerned about.
Now, Al-Shabaab is an interesting case because we would not term that currently an al-Qaida affiliate, even though some of the leadership of Al-Shabaab is indeed close to al-Qaida, supports al-Qaida’s goals, and really is almost intertwined with East Africa al-Qaida. So Al-Shabaab is not a monolith. It’s a heterogeneous group. And we are always looking to see if it is becoming more al-Qaida oriented. But it is a dangerous group in its own right, right now. So I think that those are the ones that are really at the top of our list there.
I’m only talking right now about those, however, that are involved in sort of the global extremist movement, of which al-Qaida is really at the core. We haven’t spoken about the capabilities of Hezbollah, which are a match for virtually any group around the world, but which right now is focusing its violence on – just in the Middle East. But that is an extraordinarily dangerous group. Similarly, Hamas is a very dangerous group. So we have different categories. I think that the bottom line remains the same. AQ senior leadership remains the most formidable foe, and we’re very concerned by the rising challenge posed by AQAP.
You asked about communications and the like. This is a difficult area to get into too much depth on, for obvious reasons. There are communications, we know, between different parts of the network. There are also, shall we say – AQSL would like to often impose its will on the operations of everyone else. Some of these groups are quite independent-minded in their own right. So it is a loose network in some ways. Sometimes they agree on tactics and strategies; sometimes they don’t. But there are certainly communications.
QUESTION: Sharing resources and staff?
AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: It’s a murky picture; why don’t we put it that way. We have seen historically that – I mean, they don’t share staff in the sense that a someone from the headquarters of multinational in New York will fly off and deal with the European headquarters. Terrorist travel is a dangerous business, and groups tend to worry about the possibility of being caught.
There have been cases, for example, of people in AQAP having earlier been in the Fatah. So that much is clear. There are – there have been cases of fighters returning to their home countries after having experience in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. But sort of a global consulting core of traveling terrorists, we have not seen. They tend to do that kind of work more by communications.
MODERATOR: One final follow-up, I guess.
QUESTION: Thank you, sir, again. In Afghanistan, in the week of President Karzai’s suggestions that some of the counterterrorism operations should be scaled down, are you maintaining the same counterterrorism policy in Afghanistan?
AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: Well, you would have heard if we changed our policy. At the Kabul conference earlier this year, President Karzai and the international community jointly endorsed a plan, a plan for a transition, that would have Afghan forces taking the lead in security by the end of 2014, and we continue to support this goal. At the Lisbon summit, they will have an intense conversation, and will discuss the mission, and reaffirm everyone’s commitment to Afghanistan’s security and stability.
Now, it’s worth nothing that the way we go forward will be based on conditions. The President has said this time and again. So has General Petraeus, the Secretary of State, and so on. And that will continue to be the case. I should also note that some of the concerns that President Karzai has voiced are very much our concerns. I think General Petraeus and any number of other military leaders have said over and over again civilian casualties undermine our efforts, and we are working as hard as we can to prevent them.
So I think that we ought to recognize the many elements of this effort that are common, in which we all agree on what direction we’re headed in and what we need to achieve, and come together as leaders to hammer out those areas where we have disagreements. And I can assure you the U.S. wants to make sure that when the conditions are right, the Afghans will absolutely handle this by themselves.
So thank you very much.
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