The Islamic State extremist group is using a decentralized network of militants to spread bloodshed across the globe, a U.S. official told counter-terrorism experts from 90 countries and organizations gathered in Washington this week.
The two-day conference focused on measures to defeat IS, including biometric screening and using information that people send out to book airline tickets, Ambassador Nathan Sales, the State Department’s coordinator for counter-terrorism, told reporters.
“I think what we’re seeing is ISIS becoming increasingly decentralized,” Sales said Wednesday, referring to IS by its other acronym.
Sales answered reporters’ questions and briefed them about the meeting, a day after the State Department declared seven IS-affiliated groups, including organizations in Bangladesh and the Philippines, as Specially Designated Global Terrorists. This allows the United States to block any assets that the extremist groups may have in American jurisdictions and bars U.S. citizens from undertaking financial transactions with them.
IS was evolving and adapting, he said.
“You’re seeing groups from all corners of the world motivated by the same bloody and deadly ISIS ideology who are using the same sorts of techniques targeting innocent men, women, and children, targeting soft targets, and so we wanted to designate groups across the world to remind – well first of all, to reflect [the] reality that ISIS is a global network that spreads its propaganda and spills blood on a global basis,” Sales said in a conference call with reporters, according to a transcript from the State Department.
“We’re seeing a decentralized network fan out across the globe to continue the bloody work.”
Through the decentralized threat, IS has “metastasized” around the world, he said.
“We’re facing a really complex series of threats because in addition to those regional entities like ISIS-Bangladesh or ISIS-Philippines that have a measure of autonomy in planning operations, planning attacks, we also have to continually worry about core ISIS’s ambitions to carry out attacks outside the conflict zone,” Sales said, referring to IS’s traditional theater of operations in the Middle East.
Among questions put to him, Sales responded to a reporter from the Press Trust of India who asked him about the presence of IS in Bangladesh.
“South Asia is one of the areas of the world where ISIS has an increasingly robust presence,” Sales replied.
“Bangladesh is a good example of this,” he said, citing an IS-claimed terrorist siege of a café in Dhaka that left 29 people dead, including 20 hostages, in July 2016.
“We are working with our partners in the region to develop a shared understanding of the threat that these organizations pose to us in the United States and pose to local governments, and we’re also working with those partners to develop a set of responses,” he added. “Those things – those responses include things like information sharing, exchanging data about known and suspected terrorists, improving border security efforts to spot terrorists as they travel from conflict zone to conflict zone.”
PNR and biometrics
Sales also talked about other ways to counter the IS threat.
Passenger name records, or PNR – consisting of standard personal information given to an airline at the time of booking, including emails – have become powerful anti-terrorism tools for the United States, he said.
“PNR can help analysts identify suspicious travel patterns, flagging threats that otherwise might have escaped notice,” Sales told reporters. “It can also illuminate hidden connections between known threats and their unknown associates.”
Another tool, biometrics, is critical “for verifying that travelers really are who they say they are,” he said.
“Terrorists will try to mask their true identities using any number of subterfuges, aliases, fake passports, and so on,” the ambassador said. “It’s a lot harder for them to fake their fingerprints, and that’s why we collect biometrics from visitors to this country. We take their fingerprints, we take their facial scans, and we use that data to run against our watch list of known and suspected terrorists.”
Pioneered by the U.S., the PNR system is an “international obligation” after the U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2396 last year, he added. Many international law experts consider most U.N. resolutions to be non-binding, but Sales said this new resolution required all U.N. members to develop the same kind of system that the United States had been using for years.
Sales said the PNR system was successfully used to arrest the suspect in the May 1, 2010, car-bombing attempt in Manhattan’s Times Square. The bomb had ignited but failed to explode and was disarmed.