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Ambassador Cofer Black: Counterterrorism Indicators "All Very Positive"

BG0322E | Date: 2003-09-16

The global war against terrorism is not over, and its duration is uncertain, according to Cofer Black, the State Department's coordinator for counterterrorism. Black, who was sworn in as counterterrorism coordinator in December 2002, said the current "indices of counterterrorism are all very positive," and credited that to law enforcement, diplomatic and security service personnel around the world.

He told Washington File Staff Writer David Denny in a recent interview that several factors support his positive assessment. For instance, he said the downward trend in the number of terrorist attacks that first appeared in 2002 has continued so far this year. The 2002 edition of the U.S. publication "Patterns of Global Terrorism," released earlier this year, stated that there were 199 terrorist attacks worldwide, down significantly from the previous year. Also, of those 199 attacks, 77 occurred in the United States.

Following is the transcript of Black's interview:

Q: By conventional standards, the global war on terrorism is going well. Al-Qaeda leaders have been captured or killed, homeland security has been strengthened and no major attacks have occurred on U.S. soil in the two years since the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Where then, do we stand and what has been accomplished?

A: The United States, under the leadership of President Bush, since 9/11 has developed a highly effective, focused counterterrorist program that's predicated upon close contact and collaboration with our international partners. We have very strong relationships with law enforcement and security services and all organs of statecraft that contribute to the global war on terrorism. This partnership has been highly effective on an international basis, to put a tremendous pressure on the terrorists, and as a result, their ability to plan and execute attacks has been seriously diminished. I think it is a true accomplishment of the counterterrorist forces of the world, from an American perspective.

There have been no attacks since 9/11 by al-Qaeda in the continental United States, but we as Americans view this as a worldwide problem. We cooperate with our partners to protect all the citizens of the world. And in this process, more than two-thirds of the al-Qaeda leadership of the 9/11 period have been either arrested or detained or no longer represent a threat to innocent men, women and children, and more than 3,000 al-Qaeda [members] and their supporters have been arrested and detained.

The indices of counterterrorism are all very positive, and it is a credit to those personnel of various law enforcement and security services, and diplomatic services around the world, that have been communicating and have been cooperating with each other that have created this result. We need only to think back to 9/11 to see the effect of such a catastrophic attack, and at times the very real prospect of further attacks [was] imminent, and from the hard work of everyone around the globe, this has not happened, for which, as an American official, I am very grateful.

Q: Is the al-Qaeda threat still very real, or is it not?

A: It is very real. Al-Qaeda represents a real and ongoing threat to the United States and to her interests, as well as to other freedom-loving peoples of the world. Al-Qaeda has killed -- [and] they are currently planning operations intended to kill -- innocent men, women and children. And we are all pulling together to identify their operatives, to identify the threats that they are trying to bring to fruition. I think that it is a real commentary that this ideological hatred that al-Qaeda seems to possess has been defeated by good hard work and cooperation among the various countries of the world.

It is not over, as the President of the United States has indicated. This war is likely to be of uncertain duration. We have made tremendous progress. Al-Qaeda, while a real threat, is on the run, is spending increasing amounts of time being defensive, defending itself as opposed to having the luxury of a safe haven [in order] to launch attacks. So I think that they do represent a threat. The threat has been effectively managed so far, by such things as the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security and the key role that that department is playing in the defense of the homeland. So I think that the indices are positive; the results speak for themselves. And as the President has stated, we will hunt down these people whose sole object is to hurt innocent men, women and children.

Q: Is al-Qaeda proving to be a highly adaptive organization?

A: The al-Qaeda organization of 9/ll, as a direct result of the intense counterterrorist pressure placed on it by the countries of the world, has been forced to change its behavior and its modus operandi, because continuation of the old ways would have assured their comprehensive defeat. They are a learning organization; they attempt to incorporate lessons learned in their losses. Yet, they are struggling mightily -- those of the 9/ll era that have survived so far -- to come up with new and innovative ways to operate and to launch attacks, in view of the international onslaught of the world's counterterrorism forces.

The edge and initiative rests with those that are after al-Qaeda and hunting them. The reason for that is that al-Qaeda increasingly need to be defensive to protect their own security, as individuals and in cells. While they're doing that, they don't have as much time to plan operations, and the targets of the operations that they would like to [conduct] are becoming harder and more secure, as a result of the efforts of the governments of the countries around the world to defend themselves against the scourge.

Q: Is the reach of al-Qaeda greater than anyone thought?

Al-Qaeda's focus has grown from the Saudi Arabian peninsula to include other areas of operation. They consider the United States to be a key ally of the conservative regimes in the Middle East, and therefore it is placed under attack. Al-Qaeda, as an international organization, seeks to attack American interests at their weakest point, and views attacks launched in the United States as having more value to them. Therefore, I would submit that it is an organization that, in directing their assets, is seen as becoming more international. I think in the last few years, their efforts to establish contacts among local indigenous groups have increased dramatically, and represent a threat that has been clearly identified, and recently has been, is now, and will continue to be actively addressed and countered.

Q: Is al-Qaeda, a Sunni-oriented group, now cooperating with Hizballah, a Shi'a group?

A: I think the -- this is a very interesting question. I think the word that is important here is the word "cooperate." I think these groups classically have had contacts and interaction, some productive, some not so productive. I think their instinct at the local, operational level, is to be -- has some element of mutual support, in direct response to the growing efforts of counterterrorist forces to identify them and to assure that they don't hurt innocent people.

Q: Are we beginning to see some type of convergence among terrorist groups that is being led by al-Qaeda?

A: I don't know if I'd use the word "convergence." One sees increasing efforts to internationalize their mission, where al-Qaeda seeks to establish effective and productive relationships, whereby they can use local indigenous terrorist groups for their own purposes.

Q: Is this a fairly new phenomenon -- say, within the past two years?

A: I think in the past two years that it has certainly been intensified.

Q: When the 2002 Patterns of Global Terrorism report was released earlier this year, the number of terrorist incidents had fallen dramatically. What combination of things helped the dramatic turnaround in incidents, and does it appear to you now that trend is continuing?

A: I'd say the trend is clearly continuing. If you look at the year 2002, the number of international terrorist attacks was carried as 199. For the period of this year, January through June, we've had 105 attacks. Likewise in the year 2002, the number of anti-U.S. attacks was 77, and the period in the year 2003, January through June, it was 38. This is a direct result of concerted, ‘round-the-clock, relentless, counterterrorist efforts on the part of the world's nations. The seriousness of this threat is certainly recognized, it is appreciated, and the response by the governments of the world has been to turn this concern into action. To quote the president of the United States, the community of nations is "on the hunt" for al-Qaeda operatives, with the objective of protecting innocent people.

Q: We are reading about a rise in activity in the Triborder region of Latin America in the press. The fear is that the terrorist world is trying to tap into the wealth being generated by the drug world as a reliable source of new funding for terrorist activities, and that is well hidden from view. Is this a rising concern among the counterterrorism community, and is the United States taking a serious look into that region?

A: The United States has been, remains, and will continue to be interested in the Triborder region. The first trip that I made, after being confirmed as the coordinator for counterterrorism, was to the Triborder region, where I met counterparts and colleagues from Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, and the idea was to specifically focus on the Triborder region, which we did do, we have intensified, we continue to do.

Primarily, we identified the relationship between the Triborder and funding for terrorism. We seek to cut those links. We also seek to have a counterterrorist presence in place, to respond to any future movement of terrorists into the region. Were they to come, we -- the countries of the region and the United States -- will be waiting for them.

Q: Is it a rising concern, and is the United States taking a serious look?

A: Yes. I just addressed the Triborder region; you're [asking] about our concern with the Triborder and its relationship to the funding of international terrorism. This is one of the highest priorities that the Bush administration has. We have active relationships with the economic elements of foreign countries; we provide training programs; we provide assistance in reviewing and making recommendations to changing rules, laws and legislation, to facilitate the cutting of the terrorists' access to finances. So far, over $136 million of new monies have been frozen that were intended for terrorists. The effort is ongoing and will continue, and we seek to, as one expert put it, to "drain the swamp" so that terrorists will not have access to funding.

Q: This number, $136 million, is very close to the total number that was announced a few months after 9/11. In other words, we did all we could in the banking system fairly quickly, and since then, they've gone to non-banking system ways, and you never hear how much we're progressing on the cutting off of funds. They've learned, they've been burned, they've lost their assets that were in banking systems. Is there any way to give an unclassified answer on what successes we've had in the other ways that they're trying to move money and that sort of thing? Is there anybody keeping score?

A: As I said before, more than 172 countries have issued orders to freeze over $136 million in terrorist-related assets. More than 280 entities or terrorist groups have been designated under Executive Order 13324, which freezes their assets; 685 terrorist-related accounts have been blocked around the world, including 106 in the United States. Over 180 countries have introduced new, terrorist-related legislation, and 84 have established financial intelligence units.

It's much harder for terrorists today to raise and move money. The terrorists must now look over their shoulders, wondering whether it's safe to move, raise funds, plan and conduct operations.

Q: Is the United States continuing to work with regional and global international organizations to develop common approaches in the global campaign against terrorism? If so, what are some of those approaches?

A: We act, of course, bilaterally, multilaterally, and regionally to grow our global efforts to fight terrorism as the cornerstone. As an example, most recently at the G-8 Summit in Evian of 2003, the leaders there established a counterterrorism action group, or CTAG, of donor countries to expand and coordinate training and assistance for countries with the will, but not the skill, to combat terrorism, focusing on critical areas such as terrorist financing, customs, and immigration controls, illegal arms trafficking, and police and law enforcement. Also, the Department of State's Foreign Military Financing, or FMF program, which focuses on military professionalism and the equipping of often-beleaguered armed forces throughout the world, is providing a direct infusion of badly needed resources to combat terrorism.

Q: That includes training along with equipment?

A: Yes.

Q: Finally, the United States has begun offering additional training and consultations with other nations seeking to develop or improve counterterrorism policies. Could you give me some examples of how that is working?

A: I think I did that. I would say that as an example, on September 11th, there were only 2 nations that adhered to all 12 international antiterrorism conventions and protocols. Now, over 30 nations belong to all 12, and many more have become parties to most of these conventions and protocols, and have passed implementing legislation to put them into effect.