THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C. (Virtual)
MODERATOR: Good afternoon and welcome. My name is Doris Robinson, and I am the moderator of today’s FPC briefing on new initiatives to fight against ISIS-K. As a reminder, this briefing is on the record, and we ask that you keep your microphones muted until called on to ask a question.
Our briefers today are Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Diplomatic Security Gentry Smith and Christopher Landberg, Acting Principal Deputy Coordinator for Counterterrorism. Both speakers will make opening remarks. We will then open for questions.
And with that, Assistant Secretary Smith.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SMITH: Thank you. Good afternoon. Today I’m here to announce that the U.S. Department of State’s Rewards for Justice Program, which is administered by the Diplomatic Security Service, is offering two rewards of up to $10 million each for information on terrorists operating in Afghanistan.
The first reward offer is for information leading to the identification or location of ISIS-K leader Sanaullah Ghafari. In June of 2020, Ghafari, who is also known as Shahab al-Muhajir, was appointed by Core ISIS leaders to lead the ISIS-K in Afghanistan. In that role, Ghafari is responsible for approving all ISIS-K operations throughout Afghanistan and arranging funding to conduct operations.
The second reward offer is for information leading to the arrest or conviction in any country of those responsible for the August 26, 2021 terrorist attack at Kabul’s international airport. On August 26th, 2021, terrorists launched a suicide bombing against the airport as the United States and other governments conducted a large-scale evacuation of their citizens and vulnerable Afghans from the country. The attack killed at least 185 people, including 13 U.S. service members who were supporting evacuation operations. More than 150 people, including 18 U.S. service members, were wounded. ISIS-K claimed responsibility for that attack.
We have more information about these reward offers on the Rewards for Justice Twitter channel and website. We encourage anyone with information on Sanaullah Ghafari or those responsible for the attack on the Kabul International Airport to text Rewards for Justice via Signal, Telegram, or WhatsApp at 1-202-702-7843. Individuals may also contact the Rewards for Justice office via our Tor-based tips-reporting channel. That contact information is available on our Twitter channels and website. All information submitted to Rewards for Justice will be kept strictly confidential.
Since its inception in 1984, the program has paid more than $200 million to more than 100 people across the globe who have provided actionable information that helped prevent terrorism, bring terrorist leaders to justice, and resolve threats to the U.S. national security. These rewards are being offered at an important moment in our fight against ISIS. As you know, just a few days ago, the overall leader of ISIS Core was killed in a U.S. counterterrorism operation. That operation and these new reward offers are a clear demonstration of our determination to identify and find and defeat ISIS leaders in Syria, Afghanistan, and anywhere else in the world where they may be found.
I am hopeful that these reward offers will develop information that will assist us and our international partners in degrading and destroying ISIS networks and in thwarting their global ambitions. As the President said last week about these terrorists, we will come after you and find you. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you. And now we will turn to Acting Principal Deputy Coordinator Christopher Landberg.
MR LANDBERG: Thank you, Assistant Secretary Smith, and good afternoon, everyone. It’s a pleasure to speak to everyone today. The United States is committed to countering ISIS-Khorasan and ensuring that Afghanistan never again becomes a platform for international terrorism. ISIS-K remains a resilient enemy despite taking significant losses from U.S. and NATO forces in previous years. It is largely concentrated in eastern Afghanistan and has demonstrated a capability to conduct lethal attacks throughout the country, including in major population centers. We are committed to addressing this continued threat using every counterterrorism avenue available.
As President Biden has made clear, in Afghanistan the United States will remain [retain] robust counterterrorism capabilities in the region to neutralize any threats, and we won’t hesitate to use those capabilities if we have to do so. In addition to the Rewards for Justice offers announced by Assistant Secretary Smith today, the United States Government has used terrorist designations to target and disrupt the activities of ISIS-K leaders.
On November 22nd, the State Department designated ISIS-K leader Sanaullah Ghafari. As Assistant Secretary Smith noted, he’s also known as Shahab al-Muhajir and the subject of today’s Reward for Justice offer. We designated him as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist, or SDGT, and we also designated as SDGTs his fellow ISIS-K leaders Sultan Aziz Azam and Maulawi Rajab. That same day, the Department of Treasury designated Ismatullah Khalozai for providing financial support to ISIS-K.
We first took action to designate ISIS-K as an SDGT in 2015 and as a Foreign Terrorist Organization in 2016. As a result of these designation actions, all property and interest in property of these individuals subject to U.S. jurisdiction are blocked, and U.S. persons are generally prohibited from engaging in any transactions with them or to their benefit. Providing material support to a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization is also a crime under U.S. law.
History has taught us the value and need for a counterterrorism approach that is rooted in diplomacy, prevention, law enforcement, and multilateral relationships. Rewards for Justice and terrorist designations are key pieces of this strategy as are halting fighter flows across borders, stopping terrorist finance, exposing and countering terrorist propaganda, and working bilaterally and multilaterally through organizations such as the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.
The terrorist landscape in Afghanistan and beyond requires flexibility and a continued commitment to work together to effectively prevent radicalization to terrorist violence. As Secretary Blinken has noted, all of us have to remain vigilant and monitor threats, especially any re-emergence of externally directed plotting and address them swiftly when they arise.
The lessons we have learned over the previous decades will play a key role moving forward. As the Secretary stated, we must remain vigilant and adapt quickly to successfully meet the threats of tomorrow. Rewards for Justice is one of the key tools that will help us do so. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you. And with that we will turn to question and answer. In order to ask a question, please hit on the raised hand icon at the bottom of the screen, and we will call on journalists in turn. So we’ll take our first question from Muath Almari.
QUESTION: Thank you, Miss Doris, for organizing this briefing, and thank —
MODERATOR: Muath, did we lose you?
QUESTION: Yes, I’m so sorry. So thank you, Miss Doris, for organizing this event, and thanks to Mr. Smith and Chris. I would like you please to elaborate more about the ISIS leader and – in Afghanistan and what’s the capability that ISIS in Afghanistan has in terms of how many people do they have, what type of equipment do they have. And also, are you going to cooperate with Taliban to fight ISIS there? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SMITH: Well, I would refer that question over to counterterrorism. Chris can provide more information on these individuals and how they operate.
MR LANDBERG: Sure, thank you. I’ll start us off on that. And so we estimate ISIS-Khorasan, the number of fighters that they have to be in the 3- to 5,000 range. It’s obviously a rough estimate and it’s hard to estimate that more accurately.
We – as we said in our opening statements, they have capability to conduct attacks throughout the country, including in population centers. Taliban themselves are enemies of ISIS-K and have been very motivated to go after ISIS-K, as they have been doing and they did certainly in previous years. The – there have been a number of ISIS-K attacks against the Taliban, and of course the terrible attack at the airport in August, which we’re all very aware of.
So the current leader was nominated by ISIS Core in 2020. And there’s a lot of – I would refer you to a lot of public information about him, but he oversees all of their attacks, so certainly involved in the August 2021 attack. And we are in communication with the Taliban and we have been since the Doha agreement and certainly negotiations leading up to that, and we’ve been very clear that we expect the Taliban to make sure that Afghanistan is never again used as a base for external operations against the United States or our allies.
So the Taliban understand exactly what commitment they have undertaken. They have been working to counter ISIS-Khorasan, and we have had a number of interactions with them, but I don’t want to speak on behalf of our Special Representative for Afghanistan Tom West. He has had a number of meetings and has issued press statements after those meetings last fall and earlier this year. I’d refer you to those press statements for the content of those conversations. But there have been conversations about ISIS-K and the Taliban’s ability to counter them. Over.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question goes to Anson Mersereau with the Asahi Shimbun.
QUESTION: Hi, thank you so much for doing this. I had a quick follow-up on the question regarding the Taliban. Is the U.S. prepared to possibly pay a reward to members of the Taliban that might provide information against ISIS-K members? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SMITH: I would say that we encourage anyone with any information about the two situations that were stated – the location for identifying Ghafari or any information regarding the August 26th attacks – to contact Rewards for Justice and provide that information. All cases are done on a case-by-case basis, and we encourage anyone with any information to provide us the information regarding those attacks and those situations.
MODERATOR: Thank you. I will now take a question that was submitted earlier by Francesco Semprini with La Stampa. And his question is: “Does Daesh now have the capabilities to hit Europe?”
MR LANDBERG: I think that’s probably directed at me. Today we’re talking mostly about ISIS-Khorasan, and we have been worried about their intent to do external plotting. And I think there’s the question of whether a terrorist group might have intent and whether it has the capability, and as of the moment, we – in great part due to the work of the United States and our NATO partners over the years to degrade their capabilities – that their capability to attack regionally in – is there and in Europe and the United States is low. However, the – we have made public statements that we’re worried about within the next year or two that they would build that capability to do so. But that’s absent any efforts by all of us to continue degrading their capabilities, which is what we will do so as the President has been clear on.
If you’re talking about ISIS more globally, ISIS Core is still attempting to reconstitute. We delivered them a pretty severe blow in removing their leader last week, and we will continue to take every opportunity to degrade their capabilities and prevent them from being able to do external plotting. Many of the other ISIS networks and affiliates, including in sub-Saharan Africa, are much more regionally and – well, locally and regionally focused. So at this point we’re concerned about their interest in attacking Europe and the United States and our other allies, but we’re continuing to work to degrade their capability to do so.
MODERATOR: Thank you so much. And let me do one additional reminder: To ask a question, please hit the raise hand icon and you can also submit your question in the chat feature at the bottom of the screen. And while we check and see if there’s any other raised hands – yes, we have Kiyoshi Ouchi. Go ahead and unmute yourself.
QUESTION: Yes, hello. Can you hear me?
MODERATOR: Yes, thank you.
QUESTION: I just wanted to ask you about the means of ISIS-K – means of fundraising ISIS-K has right now. How are they collecting money for their activities and how big is the size of the funds they have?
MR LANDBERG: I think that’s for me as well. So any terrorist group is going to have various means of fundraising funds, through extortion and kidnapping to basic criminal activity. In the case of ISIS, there’s also in – they continue to have significant reserves – ISIS Core in Syria and Iraq – and they can distribute those reserves as needed. And so I think ISIS-K is pursuing all those attempts to raise funding.
What we’re doing – most unilaterally but more so really with our partners, and especially through the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS – we’re working to leverage all of our capabilities to counter their ability to raise funds. So that’s something that the Global Coalition has been very focused on and has stated publicly.
MODERATOR: Thank you. And are there any last questions? Okay, it doesn’t look like we have any other questions, so we will end today’s session.
I would like to thank our briefers for taking the time to brief with us. And we will- this afternoon we will send out the transcript along with posters of those that are most wanted. And with that, I would like to thank everyone again for attending. And with that, this briefing is concluded.