Barack Obama photo

Remarks by Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John O. Brennan at the Institute of Institutional and European Affairs in Dublin, Ireland

October 26, 2012

"U.S. and Europe: Security Cooperation and Shared Challenges"

[As Prepared for Delivery]

Director General O'Ceallaigh, thank you for your very kind introduction. To you, Minister Owen, Jill Donoghue and everyone at the Institute of International and European Affairs, thank you for the invitation to be with you today. For any policymaker visiting Dublin, the IIEA is a required stop—along with the Guinness Storehouse. And you will be relieved to know that in the interest of a serious and sober presentation, I have come to you first.

Along with your analysis of European and global challenges, the IIEA is a forum for dialogue between government, the private sector, civil society and academia. I am especially pleased to see so many distinguished leaders with us today, including from the Prime Minister's department; the departments of justice, defense and foreign affairs; the defence forces; and the diplomatic corps. That includes America's representative to the Republic of Ireland, Ambassador Daniel Rooney, who has done much over his lifetime, and especially over the past three and a half years, to strengthen the bonds of friendship and cooperation between the United States and the Emerald Isle. Thank you all for being here, and I very much look forward to a good dialogue with you today.

It is wonderful to be in Ireland, on a very personal level. I am one of the tens of millions of Americans who proudly trace our heritage to this island and its people. My 92-year-old father, Owen, was born and raised in County Roscommon—in Kilteevan and Lecarrow. He worked as a blacksmith on the McCalmont estate in Kilkenny now known as the Mount Juliet Golf Club. And although he left for America and settled in New Jersey, where I was raised, we still have family in County Roscommon, and I look forward to visiting them again tomorrow.

Of course, I am just one of the many Irish Americans who are privileged to serve President Obama. For instance, his national security team includes Vice President Biden; the President's National Security Advisor, Tom Donilon; the Principal Deputy National Security Advisor, Denis McDonough; as well as our senior director for human rights—raised in Dublin and schooled by the nuns of Mount Anville—Samantha Power. All proud Irish Americans. As Vice President Biden has joked, "the President is surrounded by us."

Like so many Americans, we were moved by President Obama's visit here last year and the incredible welcome and hospitality that he and the First Lady received. His meeting with President McAleese and her husband, and the exuberant crowd at College Green, reflected the friendship and affection—the shared history, the common hopes—that bind our countries like no other. His meeting with Taoiseach Kenny at Farmleigh House, and the hospitality of Mrs. Kenny, was a chance to reaffirm our cooperation on many fronts. And the President's visit to his ancestral home of Moneygall was a chance, as he said, to look for "the Moneygall Obamas."

That visit, like all the President's meetings with Taoiseach Kenny, underscored the depth of cooperation between our countries, especially when it comes to the focus of my work—our shared security. In this work we are profoundly grateful for our partnership with Ireland and the leadership that this nation displays around the world.

We see Ireland's leadership on this island, in its support for the Agreement that has inspired other nations to take their own risks for peace. We see Ireland's leadership across Europe, when Irish men and women in uniform help keep the peace in the Balkans. And we look forward to working closely with our Irish friends as Ireland assumes the EU presidency next year.

We see Ireland's leadership the world over, including in the international mission in Afghanistan. Irish support and hospitality have greeted countless American troops as they have passed through Shannon in support of operations in Afghanistan. Irish service members—ordnance disposal experts—are helping to train our Afghan partners. Irish financial support is helping to sustain Afghan security forces and police, improve governance and advance the rights and opportunities of Afghan women and girls.

We see Ireland's leadership across the Middle East and North Africa—in the peacekeepers in the Sinai, Golan Heights and Lebanon, some of whom have given their lives; in the unarmed observers who went to Syria in the hopes of helping to end the violence against the Syrian people; and in the humanitarian support that Ireland has provided during this Arab Spring, especially to the people of Tunisia, Libya and Syria.

We see Ireland's leadership elsewhere in the world—whether peacekeeping missions from the western Sahara to the Congo; building the capacity of Somali security forces; supporting anti-piracy efforts off the Horn of Africa; or being recognized as a global leader in the fight for food security and nutrition.

As President Obama's homeland security and counterterrorism advisor, I would add that we are especially grateful for Ireland's partnership in meeting the terrorist threat to our nations. Over the past four years we have strengthened aviation screening and security for flights bound for the United States—thanks to partners like Ireland, which hosts our Customs and Border Protection personnel at the airports in Dublin and Shannon.

Our security cooperation with Ireland, of course, reflects a larger truth of American foreign policy—our relationship with our European allies and partners is the cornerstone of our engagement with the world. One of President Obama's top foreign policy priorities has been to strengthen our alliances, including with our European allies and partners. Today—whether through the EU, NATO or the OSCE—we partner closely with Europe on every issue of global importance, including counterterrorism, law enforcement, aviation security, cyber security, defense and deterrence and promoting development, democracy and prosperity.

In particular, since President Obama took office we have concluded several landmark agreements with the European Union to enhance our shared security. The Passenger Name Record—or PNR— agreement has improved the sharing of passenger data on trans-Atlantic flights and proved vital to the investigation of the Times Square terrorist plot and to uncovering the plot against the New York City subway system. Agreements with the EU on air cargo, port security and tracking terrorist financing have improved our ability to deter future plots, and we're exploring new ways to strengthen our cyber defenses.

This cooperation, along with our shared efforts in Afghanistan, is one of the reasons that al-Qa'ida has suffered such heavy losses, why we have disrupted so many plots, and why the core al-Qa'ida leadership in the tribal regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan now face the prospect of strategic defeat. As President Obama has said, "neither Europe nor the United States can confront the challenges of our time without each other."

This brings me to the security challenges that I would like to focus on today—and there are four. First, the shared threat we face from one of the world's most dangerous terrorist organizations—Lebanese Hizballah. Unfortunately, there is little consensus within the international community on how to deal with this group. To be sure, Hizballah provides extensive social services in Lebanon. As a major political force in the country, its representatives sit in parliament and it has extensive influence in the current Lebanese government.

But its social and political activities must not obscure Hizballah's true nature or prevent us from seeing it for what it is—an international terrorist organization actively supported by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps - Quds Force. And there is no denying Hizballah's long history of terrorism, including: the bombing of the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks in Lebanon and the U.S. and French Embassies in Kuwait in the early 1980s; airline hijackings and the kidnapping of European, American and other Western hostages in the 1980s and 1990s; supporting the Khobar Towers attack in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 Americans in 1996; and, in recent years, facilitating attacks that took the lives of coalition forces in Iraq.

Moreover, the terrorist threat from Iran and Hizballah is only growing. We have seen the recent plots or attacks in Georgia, Azerbaijan, Israel, Kenya, India, Thailand, Cyrpus and the plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington, DC. We have seen the terrorist attack in Bulgaria that killed five Israeli tourists and a Bulgarian bus driver and which—while still under investigation—bore the hallmarks of a Hizballah attack. We have seen Hizballah training militants in Yemen and Syria, where it continues to provide material support to the regime of Bashar al-Asad, in part to preserve its weapon supply lines.

In short, Hizballah continues to pose a real and growing terrorist threat to Europe, to the United States and to the world. As such, the United States will continue to use the full range of our foreign policy tools to prevent it from endangering our national security. We have designated Hizballah as a terrorist organization, and we have singled out for travel bans and financial designation those leaders that we know are involved in the group's terrorist agenda. We have cracked down on Hizballah's illegal financing schemes, including one that spanned Europe, South America, West Africa, the United States and Asia. We have also designated Hizballah for its support to the Asad regime's barbaric crackdown, and we've identified Hizballah's leader, Hasan Nasrallah, as the key architect behind the group's strategy in Syria.

We welcome the actions taken by some of our European partners. The United Kingdom has designated Hizballah's military wing for what it is: a terrorist entity. And we applaud the statements made by both the United Kingdom and the Netherlands against Hizballah's destabilizing activities and calls for greater action against the group. Many countries also recognize that Hizballah engages in criminal behavior and have taken steps to derail the group's illicit fundraising.

The truth, however, is that this is simply not enough. Without international recognition of, and action against, Hizballah's terrorism, the group will continue to operate with impunity and it will be able to raise funds that enable its terrorist activity. To prevent this, the international community must assume a more proactive posture against Hizballah and our countries must work together to uncover its infrastructure and disrupt its networks because Hizballah is not designated as a terrorist group.

Even in Europe, many countries, including Ireland, have not yet designated Hizballah as a terrorist organization. Nor has the European Union. Let me be clear: failure to designate Hizballah as a terrorist organization makes it harder to defend our countries and protect our citizens. As a result, for example, countries that have arrested Hizballah suspects for plotting in Europe have been unable to prosecute them on terrorism charges.

Even as we continue to hold Iran accountable for failing to fulfill its nuclear obligations, we call upon our European allies and partners—including the EU—to join us, not only in recognizing Hizballah's terrorist and criminal activities, but in condemning and disrupting those activities. Moreover, we must hold accountable those like Iran and Syria who sponsor Hizballah's terrorist acts. European nations are our most sophisticated and important counterterrorism partners, and together we must make it clear that we will not tolerate Hizballah's criminal and terrorist activities.

This brings me to a second challenge—a technique employed by criminal and terrorist groups around the world, from Southeast Asia to the Americas: kidnapping for ransom. Obviously, this is a deeply emotional issue. When innocents are taken hostage, our instincts are, of course, to do everything in our power to bring them home safely. At the same time, history shows that paying ransom to groups that kidnap our citizens becomes a vicious cycle—fueling the very criminality, violence and terrorism that we seek to stop.

In partnership with Europe and the international community, we have put extraordinary pressure on al-Qa'ida's ability to raise, move, and use funds. Perhaps as a result, we have seen al-Qa'ida affiliates increasingly turn to kidnapping operations and efforts to extract large ransoms from governments, private companies and other non-governmental organizations.

  • In Pakistan, Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, the TTP, and its allies have generated large ransoms. In Afghanistan, ransom payments have been used to fund Taliban-sponsored attacks against coalition forces, and to recruit and train new operatives.
  • Al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula, AQAP, has benefited from ransom payments in November 2011 for the release of three NGO workers held in Yemen, as well as a likely ransom for two other hostages in May 2010. These ransom funds support AQAP operations against the Yemeni government, as well as planning for attacks against the United States and other Western countries.
  • The problem is perhaps most acute in the Sahel region of North and West Africa. Al-Qa'ida in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb, AQIM, has collected many millions of dollars in ransoms since 2008, probably more than any other al-Qa'ida-affiliated group. These ransom payments have helped AQIM create a safe haven in Mali, as well as attract and train new recruits, buy weapons and communications, and pay the families of deceased combatants.

All told, since 2004, terrorists groups linked to al-Qa'ida have reaped at least $120 million in ransom payments—payments used to take more hostages, plot more attacks and destabilize more regions. In short, ransom payments, many of which come from Europe, are not part of the solution, they are part of the problem.

In the United States, our position is clear. In accordance with longstanding policy, we will not pay ransoms or give concessions to kidnappers or hostage-takers. Moreover, we will actively deny hostage takers the benefits of ransom, prisoner releases, policy changes, or other acts of concession. We will use all elements of our national power to pursue, capture, and prosecute leaders, financiers, negotiators, and others involved in kidnapping, as well as strip them of their assets.

In addition, we are working with allies and partners to galvanize the closer international cooperation we need to meet this threat. This includes increasing intelligence sharing, building military capacity, and deepening law enforcement and judicial cooperation to prevent kidnappings and punish perpetrators, and strengthening economic sanctions. We look forward to these principles and tools being adopted by the Global Counterterrorism Forum this December.

Most importantly, from President Obama on down, we continue to urge our allies and partners to resist the temptation to pay ransoms in the first place. This scourge can only persist if we enable it. The power to stop it rests in the hands of governments who make it clear that we will not reward criminals and terrorists who kidnap our citizens.

Closely related to this is a third challenge—modern day piracy. We see it around the world, from the Straits of Singapore and Malacca to the Gulf of Guinea. But it is off the Horn of Africa, in the Gulf of Aden, where we have seen piracy at its worst. What started as raids by disorganized bands of criminals morphed into a multi-million dollar international enterprise reaching out 1,200 nautical miles into the Indian Ocean. Since 2008, Somali pirates have attacked more than 400 vessels, hijacked about 175, kidnapped more than 3,000 crewmembers from more than 40 countries, and received vast ransom payments—including $140 million in ransom payments in 2011 alone.

This was the epidemic we set out to confront with a multi-dimensional approach, in partnership with Europe and nations around the world. Through the International Maritime Bureau, we have supported new best management practices to help shipping companies and merchant ships minimize their risk and better protect themselves—for example by sharing threat information so vessels can travel less dangerous routes.

We have come together in an international naval effort of more than 25 nations—including the European Naval Force Somalia, with support from Ireland; NATO's Operation Ocean Shield; as well as Russia and China. We have deterred attacks, rescued hostages and sent an unmistakable message to would-be pirates that their crimes will have consequences. In addition, increased security on commercial vessels—including barbed wire, fortified bridges and armed security teams—provide a stronger final line of defense. Indeed, no ship with such a team has been successfully hijacked.

As a result of these combined efforts, we have seen a dramatic decline in piracy in the Gulf of Aden. Compared to 2011—when we saw 151 attacks and 25 hijackings—this year we have seen that drop to 28 attacks and five hijackings. And while we are proud of our success, we are mindful that some 200 hostages are still being held at this very moment and that these pirates have proven themselves to be ruthless, flexible and adaptive.

Our challenge now is to sustain and build on our momentum. We cannot be complacent. We have to carry on with the multi-pronged approach that is working: best practices, including armed security teams, on commercial vessels; an ongoing multi-national naval presence; and—as with all kidnapping for ransom—a refusal to pay hostage takers. I would add that we also need to keep working with our Somali partners to build their own capacity to confront pirates that are based on their territory.

Finally, I want to close on a security challenge closer to home, in Europe and the United States—the threat posed by violent extremists who seek to justify the killing of innocents. Of course, Al-Qa'ida, its affiliates and adherents pose the preeminent terrorist threat in the world today. In America and across Europe, al-Qa'ida seeks to inspire our citizens to violence, and at times they have succeeded.

Sadly, the threat of violent extremism did not start—and will not end—with al-Qa'ida. On both sides of the Atlantic, we have a long, painful history of violent extremism, from violent anarchists to violent white supremacists to neo-Nazis. This summer, we saw a white supremacist in Wisconsin kill six worshippers and wound four others at a Sikh temple. Last year in Norway, we saw Anders Breivik—steeped in a racist and xenophobic ideology—murder 77 innocent men, women and children in a tragedy that truly shocked the world.

As nations, our challenge is to meet the full range of violent extremist threats in our communities, regardless of ideology. In the United States, our strategy focuses on empowering local communities because it is these communities that are being targeted by violent extremists and terrorists. We want to help these communities prevent their members—their sons, their daughters—from being radicalized in the first place. And it is these communities that know best how to reach their members and help them resist being radicalized. It is an approach based on years of experience and lessons learned in meeting a wide range of threats to public safety, both in the United States and in other countries, including in Europe.

Broadly speaking, our efforts fall into three main areas: engaging communities directly, so they better understand how they are being targeted by violent extremist groups; improving training so that our law enforcement officials are true partners with communities; and undermining extremist narratives by showing how our nation is enriched by diverse communities. Over the past year, we have also increased our collaboration with our European partners—not just governments, but civil society and community leaders—and we will continue to do so, because countering violent extremism is a challenge that requires that we learn from each other.

The bottom line—on both sides of the Atlantic—is that we have to work with communities rather than stigmatize them. That is especially true when it comes to our fellow citizens who are Muslim. In word and deed, we need to show Muslim communities that they are just as much a part of our countries as people of any other faith. This is a message of inclusion and opportunity that President Obama has conveyed on many, many occasions. As he has said, the United States is not and never will be at war against Islam; our nation is strengthened by all its citizens, including those who are Muslim. We are at war against al-Qa'ida—a band of thugs who offer nothing but death and destruction. And when it comes to preventing violent extremism and terrorism in our countries, Muslim communities are part of the solution.

In closing, I would simply say again that none of the challenges I have discussed can be met by any one nation alone. If we are going to meet the terrorist threat from Hizballah, nations must recognize Hizballah as a terrorist organization. If we are going to combat the scourge of kidnapping for ransom, and piracy, nations must come together and resist the temptation to pay ransom to hostage takers as well as protect the freedom of the seas. And if we are going to help our fellow citizens protect themselves against violent extremism, we need to engage them and treat them as the decent and patriotic partners they are.

None of these challenges lend themselves to quick or easy solutions; meeting them will take many years. But if we ever needed a reminder of the progress that is possible, we need only look at this history of this island, and the historic peace agreement that has endured. We need only look at the history of this continent, once ravaged by wars, to a European Union which—in the words of the Nobel committee—has contributed to six decades of "peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights."

At College Green last year, President Obama said that our two nations remember, in the words of Yeats, that "in dreams begin responsibility." On behalf of President Obama and those of us who serve in his Administration, we are proud to stand with Ireland and with Europe. Together, we can meet our responsibilities and advance the security that our citizens dream of and that they richly deserve. Thank you very much.

Barack Obama, Remarks by Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John O. Brennan at the Institute of Institutional and European Affairs in Dublin, Ireland Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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