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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Launch of the Global Counterterrorism Forum

Daniel Benjamin
Coordinator, Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism

New York, NY
September 22, 2011

2:00 P.M., EDT


MODERATOR: All right. Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for joining us at the New York Foreign Press Center. Today, we will have Ambassador Daniel Benjamin, the State Department Coordinator for Counterterrorism, discuss the launch of the Global Counterterrorism Forum earlier today, and more broadly our policies and priorities in the field of counterterrorism.


AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: Well, thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be here. We had a very positive event this morning, a very productive launch of the Global Counterterrorism Forum. Quite a number of important foreign ministers and other senior leaders from the founding – 30 founding members attended and made very strong statements of support for the new organization as well as reaffirming their opposition to terrorism and all of its manifestations. I think that it’s probably most useful for you if I give a little background on what this organization is and how we got to this point.

The Obama Administration came into office with a clear idea that we needed to innovate in our counterterrorism strategy, that we of course continue to need to do the kinds of improvements in intelligence operations, military activities that comprise, shall we say, tactical counterterrorism. And we’ve seen rather remarkable successes in those areas, culminating with the milestone of the death of bin Ladin.

But we also have to do a lot more, and that involves dealing with some of the longer-term strategic issues in counterterrorism. Specifically at the top of the list would be, one, having more capable partners around the world who are better suited to dealing with the threats within their borders and within their regions. And we also need to do a better job at undermining the narrative of terrorists at counter-ideological work, at countering – as we say in the buzz phrase of the time, countering violent extremism.

And so with these ideas at the forefront, we set about thinking, what could we do to advance those goals? And clearly, these goals are well suited for elaboration in the multilateral fora. And there has been a recognition that there needs to be more capacity building and more work against the terrorist ideologies in the international community for some time, but previous efforts have not worked very effectively. Most – perhaps most prominently, the G-8 had the Counterterrorism Action Group, but it didn’t really get off the ground very well and never really fulfilled the ambitions of its founders.

So under Secretary Clinton’s leadership, we set about establishing the Global Counterterrorism Forum. I think that there was an understanding that one of the reasons that previous efforts had not succeeded was that the membership was incorrect, and that an important element of doing this right would be to have both the Western donor countries that were involved in the Counterterrorism Action Group as well as a lot of the Muslim nations that are on the front lines in the struggle against terrorism, and the global powers, the big emerging powers – India, China, Russia – at the table.

And so with that in mind, we set about creating this with what has grown to be a membership of 30 countries. I think you have all the lists of the members, but – key donors from Western Europe, Australia, Japan, New Zealand; key Muslim majority countries stretching from Algeria and Morocco in the west of North Africa all the way to the Gulf and then on to Indonesia in the east.

So, a large – it’s a pretty large group. We didn’t want to let it get too big because we wanted it to remain nimble and be able to really make this an action-oriented organization. And that really has been the motto since the beginning and the goal since the beginning – very much focused on collaborative efforts to build capacity in critical areas and in key regions, but without having to always go through the same old rather sterile debates of what constitutes terrorism. This is an effort to really get away from that and to identify concrete needs, urgent needs on the international landscape; to mobilize experts so that they can identify solutions, suggest ways to deal with these problems, and to then summon the resources to implement solutions. And that’s why we have organized the GCTF the way we have.

Working with our co-chairs, the – our Turkish partners, we have established a structure in which there is a coordinating committee with diplomats, people in jobs like mine, but the real work is meant to go on in the working groups. And there are five of them – two functional, three regional. The functional ones are Criminal Justice/Rule of Law and Countering Violent Extremism, and the regional ones are in the Sahel, the Horn of Africa, and Southeast Asia. This is where we’re starting; this is by no means where we’re ending. And of course, there’s the possibility that other working groups will be created as time passes and needs are identified.

The idea is that – if I can elaborate on where I was before – that there – we have really lacked, in the international community, a place where the world’s best experts, the most experienced countries could come together and share insights on these issues. And we feel that the structure here is appropriate for that goal and that, in fact, we’ve seen a remarkable response and a real sense that this is an idea whose time had come. I think we saw that both from the statements of the participants but also the level of the participants today – the fact that the Chinese foreign minister was there, the Russian foreign minister was there, the Japanese and the German foreign ministers were there, the Saudi foreign minister. I think this bespeaks an acceptance or even a welcome of this initiative that we think is very, very encouraging for the future.

We view this as a way of advancing the strategic goals of counterterrorism, and we think we’re off to a good start. Let me just mention two deliverables that were announced today. We thought it was very important from the beginning to underscore that this group is about getting things done, and we were quite delighted that we could unveil, first of all, a Criminal Justice/Rule Of Law initiative that will provide upwards of 75 million – Eric, am I correct on that number – $75 million in programming.

And the idea here is that there are – as Secretary Clinton said this morning, there are countries across North Africa and other parts of the world that are moving from emergency law to genuine democratic rule of law institutions and that they need – they should be supported as they do this because criminal law approaches using legitimate institutions is far preferable in counterterrorism to repressive means that have been used before. The kinds of repressive means that we’ve seen in the past have often been effective, but only to a limited extent, and they’ve certainly contributed to the radicalization problem.

So we believe that this is a very important gesture, a very important initiative for helping these countries adapt their systems to a more effective approach, and one that is really consistent with universal human rights, which has been a central value, a central goal of the GCTF from the beginning.

The other initiative is the establishment of a global center of excellence for combating violent extremism. And this is an institution that will be engaged deeply in training government officials from around the world, from interested countries, in the principles and policies and practices that work best to prevent radicalization, and that allow – give policymakers, give – whether its educators or people working in police forces, community organizers, you name it – it’s going to give them an understanding of the processes of radicalization and the kinds of interventions that may work to stop it. It will help them develop community resilience so that communities are better at guarding against radicalism, extremism taking root within their communities.

The United Arab Emirates announced its intention to create this center and to host it in Abu Dhabi, and we think that this is really a major step forward in the struggle against terror, and that it will bear real fruit. We expect that it will open its doors in about a year’s time and will expand over a couple of years – three years roughly – until it’s a fully fledged institution. If you heard the speech that was delivered on behalf of Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed, I think you got a strong sense of their commitment to this effort and their strong feeling, which was also expressed in a recent essay by His Highness on the issue of radicalization.

So these are the first two deliverables. We hope there will be others coming soon. But we really do believe that these are essential and that they will serve our goals of strengthening civilian institutions, and that is really what the GCTF is about first and foremost, which is strengthening the civilian institutions that every society needs if it’s going to combat terror.

There’s probably a lot more to talk about, but why don’t I open up the floor now?

MODERATOR: All right. Could you please identify yourself and your outlet, in terms of your questions? Do you have a question?

QUESTION: You mentioned that –

MODERATOR: Could you please identify yourself?

QUESTION: Sorry, Ezzat Youssef from Al Ahram newspaper, Egypt. When you mentioned that – about the identifying problems when – the counterterrorism in the Middle – and globally and – but now I think it’s more about the Middle East now. So how do you identify such problems after 9/11 – after – sorry, after the Arab Spring and what happened in Egypt and in the – such concern on – about the security in Sinai and --

AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: Well, I mean, there’s no question that there’s a great deal of interest in the Middle East. But I would disagree with your premise that it’s all about the Middle East. In fact, one of the sort of founding principles of the GCTF is that it’s about combating terrorism in all of its forms. And when Secretary Clinton spoke, she pointed out, for example, the need to combat the PKK in Turkey, the need to combat, for example, Lashkar e-Tayyiba in South Asia. So this is really about a variety of different kinds of terrorism. It’s not about any one region, any one religion, any one specific cultural context. And I think that was something that all the founding members felt very strongly about.

It is certainly true that we’ve seen a lot of problems in the Sinai, there’s no question about that. But the Egyptian authorities have been very clear about taking steps to deal with that, both on the security side but also on the development side. And we’re very supportive of their efforts. We’ve offered assistance and we strongly support Egypt in its transition. And I was particularly delighted that Foreign Minister Amr was there today, and I should point out as well that the rule of law working group is being co-chaired by the United States and Egypt, and I mentioned before that this is where we’ll bring our experts together. It’s not the State Department that’s co-chairing it; it’s actually our Department of Justice. So I expect that some work will go on in the particular areas that you discussed, and it’s certainly a good opportunity to bring together a lot of different insights and to mobilize resources to deal with some of the problems that you expressed.

Obviously, it’s going to be up to national governments to decide what specific kind of assistance they want from the GCTF, but now the GCTF is there to – at least to be activated. I should also add, because I may not have been clear from the beginning, that the GCTF is not just about serving the needs of the members. It’s very much about serving the international community’s needs. And so when I say that there will be regional working groups in the Sahel and in the Horn of Africa and in Southeast Asia, our expectation is that there will be numerous members of those working groups who are not members of the GCTF, but have – but are part of the region and will want to work with the GCTF to meet critical needs.

So there are also plenty of countries in the Middle East, and we hope that they will participate as well.

MODERATOR: Yes, sir.

QUESTION: My name is Keichi Shirato, newspaper with Japan. Thank you very much for briefing me.

My question is regarding extremism, radicalism, sir. The way we think about radicalism is – I always imagine that, typical radical extremism, the ideology of al-Qaida – okay, the ideology of al-Qaida is a typical radical extremist. However, there are variety kinds of extremism all over the world. For example, some terrorist attack happened in Norway almost – nearly two months ago, so my question is what – in this GCTF program, what types of extremism do you think – what kind of ideology is a target inside this GCTF?

AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: Well, I think that the starting point is who’s committing terrorist acts and violence against innocents, and you work your way backward from that. So it could be the FARC in Latin America, another group that has been discussed a great deal. It could be the PKK in Turkey, very different kinds of ideologies there. Al-Qaida and its affiliates, very different kind of ideologies there. The key issue is the deed of terrorism and then working back so that you can find ways to undermine the ideologies, undermine these movements. And that’s really where it will go.

And it will depend on the community of interest that develops. So I think al-Qaida and its affiliates obviously are very much a matter of concern in the Sahel and in the Horn of Africa, but there’s by no means any exclusivity there. And heaven forbid we should see more radical activity on the far right, such as we saw in Norway. No one would rule out working on that as well.

And quite frankly, the Center of Excellence, I think it’s a very good guess, will be doing some of its training, some of its convening, which it will also do, dialogue and research on these different kinds of extremism. They may be looking at Irish extremism. They may look at Basque extremism. I mean, there’s all kinds. Unfortunately, we have no shortage of these different movements.

QUESTION: So you include everything, not only – not focusing on only the ideology of al-Qaida, though? Any kinds of variety, any kinds of ideology?

AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: Right. I mean, I can’t guarantee to you today that any particular one will absolutely be a subject of research or training or what-have-you in the Center of Excellence or in a particular working group or what-have-you. But as long as it’s causing terrorism, as long as there’s a crime at the end of the ideology, the ideological development, then it’s certainly eligible; it certainly ought to be considered.

QUESTION: Joe Geni, Yomiuri Daily News, Japanese daily. I was wondering about the criminal justice and rule of law initiative that you mentioned, the $75 million. I was wondering – you sort of suggested that would be for countries who are lifting their state of emergencies. That sort of implies, at least in the short term, Arab Spring members. Is there any sense of who this money is going to be going to yet? Will it only be – will only GCTF members be eligible?

And also, if there’s any sort of timetable for getting the money out there, and I guess maybe some details on some of the things it might be spent on in terms of implementing post-state of emergency laws.

AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: It will certainly not be limited to GCTF members – I want to be clear about that – although GCTF members will be included in or be eligible for this programmatic work.

The timeline is a variable one. Different countries will have sort of different number of years over which they expect to program that money. This is an issue that every government faces.

Those were two of the questions. The --

QUESTION: (Inaudible) that one could expect the Arab Spring countries --

AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: Arab Spring countries will – are certainly the ones that are most prominently in this group, but of course, a number of countries have been changing their laws without having had full-blown revolutions, so there are quite a number of different countries that are looking for this kind of support, this kind of technical assistance.

And the actual activities, there’s a wide range of potential ones – training in community policing and improving police forces’ ability to do their job without employing measures that will stoke radicalization. It could be writing legislation, better legislation so that courts have a real basis for dealing with terrorism cases; training of prosecutors; training of judges.

There is work going on in these areas in the international community now. There’s bilateral work. There is work that’s going on through the UN, through, in particular, CTED, the Counterterrorism Executive Directorate. But these – this work needs to be boosted. There needs to be more of it. This is a vital capacity for countries because we know that terrorism is not going to be solved overnight and they need to be able to deal with these challenges.

So I hope that covers it for you.

QUESTION: Vasili Shusko, Voice of Russia Radio. Hillary Clinton mentioned that the forum will not limit the number of participants, and it is open not only to countries but regional organizations as well. That being said, can we see participation from the CSTO or NATO? Will they participate?

AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: The organization is having its first official coordinating committee tomorrow, and these are the kinds of questions that we will be taking up. And there are no preconceived notions of the organizations that may be affiliated with the working groups. I don’t think we’re going to see any near-term enlargement of the group itself, although over the long term we expect there will be. But there certainly will be engagement with non-GCTF members and regional organizations through the working groups.

I would say when it comes, for example, to an organization like NATO, the emphasis in the GCTF is on civilian institutions, so I don’t know if NATO will find it an appropriate organization/institution/forum to engage with. But I think that the fundamental imperative here is to be pragmatic and to find expertise wherever you can. So if we find that there is a good connection, we will put them together.

MODERATOR: We have time for one more question if you have got any follow-ups (inaudible).

All right. Ambassador, thank you very much.


MODERATOR: Thanks, everyone.

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