Adapting and upgrading our counterterrorism tools

Adapting and upgrading our counterterrorism tools
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In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush signed a powerful executive order to deprive terrorists of the money they need to attack our country and our interests. 

Since that moment, the U.S. government has aggressively wielded this vital tool, using it to target more than 1,500 terrorists, terrorist groups and their financial supporters and facilitators. 

These sanctions have denied terrorists resources, and forced them to devote additional time and energy to seek out new financial channels. It also deterred would-be donors and facilitators. 


In an effort to avoid our financial tradecraft, the terror groups have continuously adapted so we need to evolve our capabilities as well. That’s why earlier this week, President TrumpDonald John TrumpFox News president, top anchors advised to quarantine after coronavirus exposure: report Six notable moments from Trump and Biden's '60 Minutes' interviews Biden on attacks on mental fitness: Trump thought '9/11 attack was 7/11 attack' MORE issued a revised and expanded executive order that is the most significant update of our terrorist designation authorities since the aftermath of 9/11.

We have seen the power of counterterrorism sanctions. Combined with battlefield victories, the U.S. government accelerated the territorial defeat of the so-called ISIS caliphate in Iraq and Syria by sanctioning key leaders and facilitation networks supporting the group. 

We have kept up the pressure on al Qaeda with 24 designations since 2017. Through re-imposing sanctions on Iran — a large state sponsor of terrorism — we have forced cash-strapped Iranian proxies to publicly appeal for funds. 

Since the beginning of the Trump administration, we have imposed sanctions on more than 50 Hezbollah individuals and entities, and just recently we once again used these sanctions authorities to target HAMAS.

Our sanctions have clearly degraded terror support networks. Yet terrorists, their state sponsors and other enablers constantly seek new ways to evade our counterterrorism pressure. For instance, terrorists acquire weaponized drones through clandestine procurement networks, leverage social media to radicalize and recruit new followers and seek to exploit vulnerabilities in the international financial system to covertly transfer funds. 


The executive order signed by President Trump this week modernizes U.S. counterterrorism sanctions authorities to enable us to respond more rapidly to an ever-evolving threat. These authorities strengthen our hand in targeting the full life cycle of terrorist plotting: leaders, perpetrators and trainers, facilitators and enabling financial institutions and recruiters as well as those they radicalize. 

The order enables us to expediently sanction the leaders of terrorist organizations, and to target individuals who participate in terrorist training overseas or online on the dark web. This will allow us to act to counter incipient terrorists before they return to their home countries or carry out internet-inspired lone wolf attacks. 

These changes also expand the U.S. government’s authorities to impose secondary sanctions on foreign financial institutions that knowingly conduct significant transactions on behalf of terrorists. 

Foreign banks previously unwilling to cut off terrorist funds flowing through their customers’ accounts will have to choose: They can maintain their access to the U.S. financial system or continue to do business with terrorists.

Armed with these new authorities, the Administration has already announced some of the widest-ranging designations of terrorists and their supporters in the past 15 years. Through combined actions taken by the Departments of State and the Treasury, the U.S. targeted 28 individuals and entities spanning 11 different terrorist groups. 

We are sending a clear message that we are unrelenting in our commitment to defend our financial institutions globally from the full spectrum of terrorist actors, and equally determined to disrupt the complete ecosystem in which terrorists raise money.

However, the United States needs partners to make our sanctions as effective as possible, and we are looking to our allies and partners around the world to adapt and strengthen their own sanctions authorities to protect their own nations, and the integrity of the international financial system. 

More than 18 after the 9/11 attacks, U.S. tactics to target terrorists and their enablers continue to evolve to stay ahead of the evolving threats we face. We strive to ensure there are no safe havens for terrorists and their supporters, and in so doing we make the world a safer place for generations to come. 

Ambassador Nathan A. Sales is coordinator for counterterrorism at the U.S. Department of State. Marshall Billingslea is assistant secretary for Terrorist Financing at the U.S. Department of the Treasury.