Thank you, Ambassador Etienne, for inviting me here, and good morning, everyone. I’m Timothy Betts, the Acting Coordinator for Counterterrorism at the U.S. Department of State.
It is an honor to join today’s speakers on this important topic. I am grateful to the Embassy of France for giving me the opportunity to reflect on the victims of terrorism. The French Republic and the United States are committed counterterrorism partners, drawn unfortunately from many shared tragedies over the years. To open today’s symposium, I’d like to say a few words about how we remember terrorism as both a personal and a political event.
I’d like to start by recalling August 21, 2015, when a man exited the lavatory of coach #12 on Thalys (TA-leez) passenger train 9364 with two loaded guns, 280 rounds of ammunition and several knives. Instead of another horrific terrorist attack, French, American, and British citizens worked together to subdue the would-be attacker. Their actions likely saved many lives. I chose to start this morning with this uplifting story not just because it is an example of the immense bravery of our citizens working together. I chose the example as well because, time and time again, we observe how terrorist attacks that seek to divide us in fact unite us under the cause of peace and security for all humanity, regardless of their nationality.
How do we memorialize terrorism without giving the terrorist act the publicity that modern terrorism craves? We do so by focusing on the victims of the attacks, the shared humanity demonstrated in the empathy of our citizens and those around the world who show solidarity with those who have been harmed by terrorism; and by focusing on the bravery of those who chose to act, and the response of our governments to the higher cause of bringing terrorists to justice. Like that attacker, who was brought to justice in the Palais de Justice in Paris, I remember observing the trial of Abdullah Öcalan in the summer of 1999 while I was serving in Turkey. I remember thinking how that experience serves as an important reminder that, to avoid the horrors of terrorism, we must commit to the rule of law and ensure that our allies and partners do the same.
But today is also a somber day to reflect on those we have lost due to terrorism and to recommit ourselves to our efforts to keep our citizens safe. We remember the victims of over 90 nations who died on 9/11. We remember the victims who were enjoying a night out in Paris or Orlando; of those showing civic pride in Nice. Of those working for Charlie Hebdo or at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. We think about the ripple effects of these acts – of the families who grieve, and those who continue to suffer from lifelong injuries – seen and unseen. We also remember the thousands of French and American heroes who laid down their lives to keep the rest of us safe.
We memorialize today as well by focusing on our response to terrorism. It is vital that, when these attacks do occur, that we not only grieve and mourn the victims, but also determine what we could be doing better on the counterterrorism front. The United States’ counterterrorism efforts today have evolved largely because of our recognition – after major attacks – that there was more we could do.
The Munich Olympic Games in September 1972 were a seminal event in terrorism history. It was pivotal because then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger established the Office for Combatting Terrorism within the Department of State to manage the U.S. Government’s counterterrorism policy. That office, now the Bureau of Counterterrorism, has over 200 staff from across the counterterrorism community.
The Munich attack was also a seminal event in modern terrorism because “terrorism went live.” It was broadcast into our living rooms, increasing the psychological impact of terrorism. In fact, up to that point, it was the most viewed event in American television history. If we think of terrorism as the use of violence to coerce a group of people to take a particular action or adopt a set of beliefs they might not have otherwise, Munich showed the value of “shock media” messaging from that 23-hour event, a phenomenon that continues to this day.
Almost a decade later, after the 1982 attack on the French embassy in Beirut and the attacks on the U.S. embassy and the Marine barracksthere a year later, the U.S. government began devoting more focus and resources to combatting terrorism. While maintaining the Department of State’s Office of Combatting Terrorism, the White House established a CT directorate in the National Security Council to devise and coordinate CT policy.
But we later learned that this was not enough to combat the threat. The 1998 Al-Qa’ida attacks on our embassies in Tanzania and Kenya provided a foreshadowing of what was to come on September 11, 2001. After 9/11, we rebuilt our national security architecture, rewrote our laws, restructured our institutions, and refocused our country on keeping Americans safe from terrorism.
Unfortunately, the threat is far from behind us. Tens of thousands every year die or are wounded in terrorist incidents. For every person harmed, it is critical to remember that they are fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters. Families were devastated as a result of these attacks. This is why we do what we do in the counterterrorism field: to prevent terrorist groups from destroying more families, communities, and societies.
Today, we face a complex and evolving threat that is vastly different from the challenges we faced in the decade prior. ISIS’s global presence is growing, despite the United States, France, and others liberating the territory it once controlled in Iraq and Syria. Al-Qa’ida and its affiliates continue to constitute a threat, despite suffering significant leadership losses. Iran remains the leading state sponsor of terrorism globally, providing funding and direction to a range of terrorist partners and proxies. Effectively countering terrorism in the future, including against racially or ethnically motivated violent extremism or what some call “far-right extremism,” will require that we adapt our approach to also allow sufficient focus on other key priorities. We will use the full range of counterterrorism tools at our disposal, including diplomacy, building partner capacity, and prevention efforts. These will be tailored to the threats we face and the local contexts in which they arise.
No government can succeed in combatting the terrorism of today without strong partnerships. In that regard, we are grateful to have France as a trusted ally and partner in our current counterterrorism efforts, including but not limited to its membership in the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. In October 2021, President Biden and President Macron jointly announced our intent to work even more closely together – bilaterally and with other allies and partners around the world – to counter enduring and new threats.
We memorialize the victims of terrorism by redoubling our efforts to protect our citizens and to ensure victims do not suffer in vain. As Assistant to the President for Homeland Security, Dr. Liz Sherwood-Randall emphasized in her remarks last year at the Atlantic Council, three principles will guide us in the counterterrorism mission. First is a commitment to keep up with the terrorist threat to keep our citizens safe. Second is a recognition that we need counterterrorism to be effective while also integrating it with the widening and diversifying range of national security challenges. Third is an increased emphasis on partnerships. France and the United States are stronger when we stand together.
I’d like to end with something that President Biden said in his remarks memorializing September 11, 2001: “We find light in the darkness” he said, “We find purpose to repair, renew, and rebuild.” I think President Biden’s message of repair and renewal is an important one to consider today.
Thank you again, Ambassador Etienne, for inviting me and for convening all of us to this solemn and important occasion. I am honored to recommit our efforts to the humbling task of keeping our citizens safe together with you today. We look forward to coordinating with your government to counter terrorist groups worldwide and to support the victims of terrorism.