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The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release

Remarks by APHSCT Lisa O. Monaco at the U.S. Attorney’s Office National Security Conference in Cambridge, MA

Remarks by Lisa O. Monaco

U.S. Attorney’s Office National Security Conference

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Cambridge, Massachusetts

As Prepared for Delivery

Wednesday, September 28, 2016


Thank you, Carmen, for that introduction and to you and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Massachusetts for your great work in bringing terrorists to justice.  This is a bit of a professional and personal homecoming for me.  Earlier in my career, I spent six years as an AUSA in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia—so it’s great to back among AUSAs.  I’m a native of the Boston area—and went to high school in the shadow of Fenway Park, so you can guess who I’m rooting for in tonight’s Sox-Yankees game.  Like many of you, this is my community—what I still think of as home.  And I can’t think of a better place to discuss how the terrorist threat has evolved, the new phase of this fight, and how we’re working with partners—from the private sector to local communities like this one—in the battle against violent extremism. 


Of course, Boston is no stranger to this threat.  Almost three and a half years ago bombs ripped through the crowd at the marathon finish line, killing three and wounding hundreds more.  I was just a few weeks into my job as President Obama’s homeland security and counterterrorism advisor on that Monday afternoon in April.  Growing up, I would spend Patriots’ Day cheering on the marathon runners—usually at the crest of Heartbreak Hill.  So it was a deeply personal introduction to my current job.  And for many Bostonians and Americans, it was an introduction to the growing phenomenon of remotely-inspired, homegrown terrorism. 


Since then, we have witnessed similar attacks by radicalized Americans, from St. Cloud and Orlando to San Bernardino and Chattanooga.  Just 10 days ago, New York and New Jersey experienced a potentially deadly series of attacks and we saw again the vigilance of communities and the quick and skillful and dedicated work of our law enforcement and intelligence personnel. 


What this demonstrates is that the terrorist threat has evolved dramatically since those planes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon 15 years ago.  Those attacks were planned centrally and over many years by senior al Qaeda leaders, depending largely on operatives trained overseas before entering the United States.  They were designed to cause catastrophic damage and loss of life.  Of course, we still face a determined and deadly enemy in Al Qaeda and its affiliates in the Arabian Peninsula, the Islamic Maghreb, and Syria.  But thanks to the work of countless professionals, across two administrations, we have decimated al Qaeda’s senior leadership, and we continue to relentlessly pursue and disrupt the group wherever it is plotting against us. 


We can never take our eye off the threat of a complex and catastrophic attack, but today, we also face a hybrid threat—part terrorist group, part insurgency, part savvy social media campaign—that seeks to radicalize and recruit individuals, regardless of their location or background.  Its primary manifestation is ISIL.  We now confront a growing wave of violent extremists acting largely on their own—often “inspired” rather than “directed” by terrorist groups.  These attacks are often unsophisticated and impulsive, but still deadly—a knife attack at a mall, a shooting massacre in a nightclub, a truck used to mow down pedestrians celebrating Bastille Day. 


And because there may be no trained operatives to monitor, no money trail to follow, no detectable direct communication—because people can become radicalized quickly and with little warning—these actors bypass many of the “trip wires” set up post-9/11.  So the threat we face now is more diverse, unpredictable, and opportunistic than ever.  In addition to the dedicated terrorists, at the forefront of this threat are people—perhaps rootless and disaffected, feeling alienated and between worlds—who may derive some sense of belonging from ISIL’s message.  


Given the spate of attacks we’ve seen, I get asked a lot if this is our “new normal.”  In other words, people want to know if this is the best we can hope for—if Americans and people around the world must simply resign themselves to the persistence and prevalence of these attacks.  Now, the sense of unease is understandable.  But the phrase “new normal” confuses resilience with resignation.  There is nothing “normal” about beheadings and targeting innocents.  We should never accept the kind of carnage and depravity we saw in Nice, Orlando, or San Bernardino—the indifference to life we saw here in Boston more than three years ago.  We must reject this mindset.  If we don’t, then we will have lost our way as Americans. 


Rather than resigning ourselves, we instead must continue to recalibrate our efforts.  After 9/11, we reformed our counterterrorism approach, building up our intelligence capabilities, breaking down barriers between law enforcement and the intelligence community, and expanding our partnerships with foreign governments.  We went on offense and continue to do so -- taking the fight to terrorists plotting in ungoverned spaces.  And, we adopted what we call an “all-tools approach,” using the military, intelligence, law enforcement, and diplomacy to disrupt threats.  While no system can prevent every attack, ours has been quite effective at detecting and disrupting the complex, hierarchical plots it was designed to address. 


We must be just as comprehensive and creative in disrupting the growing threat of inspired attacks here at home.  We continue working to ensure that we’re evolving the tools we apply to best address what’s unique to this challenge.  We’re expanding information-sharing, building new partnerships, and increasing our focus on preventing the radicalization that leads to these attacks.  We’ve enhanced collaboration within the counterterrorism community—“widening the aperture.”  If our post-9/11 reforms were all about international partnerships and breaking down silos between domestic law enforcement and the intelligence community, this next phase of the fight demands that we collaborate even more broadly and creatively—with the private sector and with local communities across the nation.  There is a role for everyone to play in preventing and disrupting the threat we face today.


First, our approach starts with taking the fight to ISIL’s core in Syria, Iraq and beyond.  We are having a real impact.  We have built a coalition of 67 members—from the Arab League and Nigeria to Germany and Malaysia.  Our coalition has conducted over 15,000 strikes in Iraq and Syria and trained and supported 25,000 local forces.  We have taken dozens of ISIL’s leaders off the battlefield.  ISIL has not had a major battlefield victory in over a year.  And with our help, local partners continue to roll back the territory ISIL once controlled—including about 50 percent of ISIL’s territory in Iraq and about 25 percent in Syria.  Thanks to the aggressive efforts of our coalition, the rate of foreign terrorist fighters into Syria has slowed and ISIL’s finances are being squeezed.  Because of the work of the United States and our coalition partners, ISIL is under the greatest pressure it has ever felt.  And we won’t relent until the group is destroyed. 


Second, as we continue to attack ISIL’s heart in Iraq and Syria, we know that it will continue to try to project power outwards—against us, our allies and partners.  So, even as ISIL presents new challenges, we’re using all elements of our national power to address the increase in directed and inspired attacks through action at home and overseas. 


Take the case of Ardit Ferezi, a Malaysian-based hacker from Kosovo.  Last week, Ferezi was sentenced to 20 years for stealing the personal information of more than 1,000 U.S. service members and federal employees and passing them to ISIL terrorist Junaid Hussain, who was focused on inspiring attacks abroad.  As Assistant Attorney General John Carlin noted, this case was the “first of its kind”—showing ISIL’s ability to use cyber to advance its vision of violence and its ability to inspire followers to attack where they are.  But this case also demonstrated that even with ISIL’s digital and physical reach, the United States and our partners are equipped to disrupt this threat.  FBI field offices led the investigation, working closely with DOJ and the private company that was hacked.  The Malaysian authorities lent significant support, including locating and arresting Ferezi.  In parallel, the United States successfully targeted Hussain in an airstrike, removing him from the battlefield and preventing him from radicalizing and recruiting others to violence.  This kind of coordination—between the private sector, law enforcement, intelligence and the military, domestically and internationally—will continue to be essential.  This threat that merges the physical and the digital may be unprecedented but we have an equally unprecedented ability to confront it—and we will.


Third, we are innovating our way out of this challenge—we know we can’t kill or delete our way out of it.  As we’re all aware, ISIL is trying to occupy digital as well as physical territory.  It’s using online platforms designed to encourage openness and progress and twisting them to recruit, plot, and peddle propaganda.  So, we’re pushing back on ISIL’s message of hate, emphasizing that we know ISIL does not speak for Islam, and that terrorists like ISIL and al Qaeda are in fact killing many innocent Muslims. The Global Engagement Center at the State Department is supporting international efforts to counter terrorist content and amplify credible voices.  And here at home, our new CVE Task Force is centralizing domestic efforts to prevent terrorist recruitment and radicalization.  This semester, several Massachusetts universities are participating in the Peer to Peer program, a public-private partnership that challenges college students to develop campaigns countering violent extremist narratives. 


We know this can’t be done without the private sector.  Over the past few years, I’ve met with some of our brightest and most innovative minds, from Silicon Valley to right here in Boston.  I know there’s been a lot of emphasis on the encryption debate, and that’s a conversation we’ll continue to have.  But we’re working productively with tech companies to figure out how they can lend their expertise in branding and messaging to efforts to counter ISIL’s poisonous message online.  We’ve seen some encouraging progress.  Twitter has shut down 360,000 ISIL-linked accounts.  Facebook and YouTube are taking down ISIL propaganda.  And more needs to be done. Google is using the same innovative techniques that have made their platforms an engine for progress to counter ISIL’s brutality, pioneering technology that redirects people searching for ISIL propaganda and serves them up videos of moderate clerics and testimonials from former extremists instead.  Civil society has an important role to play—like the British think tank, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, which is partnering with Google to empower former extremists to share their stories and dissuade aspiring terrorists.  Using speech to counter speech is in the best traditions of our free and innovative society.  And as we continue to offer an alternative to ISIL’s message of violence, online and offline, we’re encouraged that these private sector and civil society efforts are having an impact—and we know there’s still more we can do. 


Finally, we’re also widening that aperture by engaging more closely with communities who can help prevent radicalization, detect a threat of violence, and help us bounce back after attacks.  Last year, President Obama hosted government and civil society leaders for the White House CVE Summit, and this past summer, the Department of Homeland Security created the first national grant program to fund innovative CVE initiatives—and received nearly 200 applications from 42 states and territories.


Now, I know some are concerned that the government’s efforts are focused on only one set of communities—Muslim communities—and that we’re “securitizing” this relationship—that our outreach is only about law enforcement or for intelligence gathering.  So I want to be clear, these relationships are NOT to generate intelligence but to build trusted relationships.  Our prevention strategy is based on enabling communities from the ground up, to help them adopt their own approaches to denying violent extremists fertile ground for recruitment. 


Simply put, local communities are the most powerful asset there is in the struggle against violent extremism.  Law enforcement faces a daunting challenge in identifying potential killers before they act.  Government is not always able to identify those who are going down a dark path—but people who know and care about these individuals may be able to pull them back from the brink.  So this new phase of our fight asks a great deal of law enforcement, but also of public health professionals, educators, families, and faith leaders.  In the fight against violent extremism, the actor with the biggest impact could be a sibling or a soccer coach. 


According to one study, in over 80 percent of terrorist-related incidents, someone—a family member, a friend—noticed warning signs.  Perhaps he or she had become more violent or drawn to terrorist propaganda.  In too many cases, people downplayed what they saw, or they didn’t know what to do.  That’s why we’re committed to improving our understanding of how and why people are drawn to violent extremism and raising awareness of the most effective ways to support someone who is in trouble.  And we’ve made it a priority to uphold the qualities from which we draw strength—our openness, our diversity, and our respect for the equal rights of people, of all faiths. 


Increasingly, we’re seeing communities take on this critical role in rejecting violent extremist ideologies.  Earlier today, for example, I met with mental health professionals who are working to build awareness of violent extremism among service providers so they can identify signs of radicalization and help thwart it.  And in many instances, we’ve seen how collaboration between law enforcement and the community can yield positive results.  Like the father in Denver who called the FBI when his teenage daughter stole a passport and tried to join ISIL. 


But we know that even with alert and concerned family and friends, we won’t stop every act of violence, every mass shooting, every attempt to carry out an attack.  And after each incident, when the smoke clears and the wounds are being bound up, we need to look critically at whether there’s more we could have or should have done.  Are there different tools we could give law enforcement?  Are there signs we should have seen? 


So equally critical to our approach is bolstering the strength and resilience of communities—ensuring that they are empowered to take action before and after attacks.  Some may consider “If you see something, say something” to be a punchline, but in truth it has often been a lifeline—the kind of vigilance that has averted catastrophes.  Think of the t-shirt vendors in Times Square in 2010, who noticed a smoking SUV and alerted the police. The Bostonians who sent photos streaming in to the help line and the Watertown man who saw the marathon bomber hiding in a boat.  Or the many citizens in New York and New Jersey, notified by an electronic alert from law enforcement—including the two men in Elizabeth who realized a backpack held pipe bombs or the bar owner who spotted the suspect sleeping in his doorway—whose quick actions probably saved lives.  Since the Chelsea bombing, the NYPD has received about 800 calls to 9-1-1 reporting suspicious packages. 


The next challenge is to understand what drives Dahir Adan—a high school honor student—to stab 10 people in a mall in St. Cloud; what made Omar Mateen open fire at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando; what caused Dylann Roof to turn a sanctuary into a slaughter.  What ties these killers together?  Is it a twisted ideology?  Is it frustration and alienation?  All of the above?  We must work together to ensure that young people in our communities can pursue opportunity and purpose instead of violence and terror.  But for those who remain wedded to violence, we need to stop them from accomplishing their aims, like the young man arrested and recently sentenced for trying to travel to join ISIL.  He told the judge, in open court, that he had been “reckless and stupid” and that “the FBI—they really saved my life, Your Honor.” 


And when attacks tragically do occur, we’ll look to our communities to continue responding with resilience and resolve.  Employees returning to work in San Bernardino.  Runners lacing up their shoes to charge up Heartbreak Hill once again.  New Yorkers calmly going about their routines the day after the bomb.  The truth is, the only thing “normal” about these attacks is how the American people have responded—with quintessentially American courage, grace, and an unbending determination to continue to live our lives undaunted by terror.  As President Obama said this year on 9/11, our strength comes from “every American who gets up each day, lives our lives and carries on, because as Americans we do not give in to fear.”


So, together, we will continue to adapt—to be vigilant in our defense and swift in our response.  Each of us has a vital role to play.  As Justice Brandeis once said, “the most important office, and the one which all of us can and should fill, is that of private citizen.”  And if we all do our part—as citizens, as communities—we will meet and defeat this threat as we have so many before.