Prime Minister Zaev, Ambassador Suomalainen, Coordinator Petrevski, distinguished guests, international experts, and participants –
It’s an honor to speak with you today. I would like to start off by thanking all those who have worked so hard to make this great event possible: Richard Prosen from the Partnership for Peace Consortium and his colleagues; Borche Petrevski, the National CT/CVE Coordinator; and Eric Manton and his colleagues at the OSCE Mission to Skopje. There is a lot of preparation that goes into organizing this type of event, and I have no doubt this will be a fruitful exercise thanks to their hard work.
I would also like to extend a special welcome to members of the new National Committee for Countering Violent Extremism and Counterterrorism. You are just starting your important work to draft a new National CVE Strategy and Action Plan. This tabletop exercise will hopefully provide you with some ideas and concrete information as you begin to develop the new strategy and implement it across the government.
Macedonia is a strategic partner of the United States. For 25 years, we have worked together in support of a Macedonia that is a stable, prosperous, and inclusive democracy.
Throughout that time, Macedonia has been – and continues to be – a strong, reliable partner in the fight against terrorism and the spread of violent extremism. We will continue to work together, to share information and expertise, in order to fight and halt terrorists and their ideology.
Stopping terrorists and the spread of violent extremism needs a whole-of-government approach. In fact, it needs a whole-of-society approach. It can’t just be the Ministry of Interior chasing bad guys; there needs to be institutional cooperation among ministries and by civil society actors, including NGOs, religious groups, media, and community leaders.
This summer, Vice President Pence said, “This is a threat we must face together. Our enemies seek to divide us so that they might defeat us. I say with confidence and with faith we will drive the cancer of terrorism from the face of the Earth, and we will do so together.”
This is why we have invited participants from the government and private sector, and from neighboring countries, to participate in this tabletop exercise. I encourage you to actively participate in the discussions and build relationships around this table that you can call on in the future.
One of the great advantages here in Macedonia is that your country is relatively small. You know each other and what is going on in your communities. If there is a stranger in your neighborhood or if something is not quite right – you’re aware. The fight against terror is so often a fight against the unknown. In Macedonia, however, it is easier to discover what’s going on around you and in your neighborhoods and easier to identify the right partners to help address issues quickly when they arise.
But in order to mobilize these resources, we have to overcome the reluctance to talk about radicalization. We need to be forthright.
The conversation about why over 150 citizens of Macedonia joined ISIS in Syria and Iraq needs to be normalized, as does open discussion and debate about what to do with those who return to Macedonia. There will be no solutions until all can talk about the problem in an honest, unbiased, and straightforward way. At its core, that’s what this tabletop exercise is all about — an open dialogue, based on trust and respect, to identify how we can work together better to find real solutions to this problem.
While the flow of terrorist fighters from the Western Balkans to Syria and Iraq has decreased significantly over the last two years, the problem, however, has not gone away – it’s just changing.
And we need to change our approach too. The Balkans remains highly vulnerable to the evolving challenges of violent radicalization at home and foreign terrorist fighters and their families returning from the battlefield.
I want to emphasize that the U.S. government is your partner in these efforts. At the U.S. Embassy in Skopje, we have approached the problem in different ways. We have strong partners in the law enforcement and intelligence communities of Macedonia and its neighbors.
Together, we have shared critical information and collaborated regionally to successfully stop terrorist plots from developing into attacks here in the Balkans. I especially applaud the excellent regional cooperation between Macedonia, Kosovo, and Albania that broke up an attempted terrorist attack in Shkoder last November. We have also trained judges and prosecutors on how to try and sentence terrorist cases.
To support local approaches to combatting violent extremism, we supported Women Without Borders to teach mothers how to identify indicators of radicalization in young people.
You’ll hear more about that program from Edit Schlaffer, the founder of Women Without Borders, tomorrow. We sponsored workshops for bloggers and media experts on how to counter the message of violent extremism. We have worked with local leaders through the Strong Cities Network to connect the best practices on what municipalities can do to address the problem of violent extremism. We have sent government officials, teachers, activists, and religious leaders from Macedonia to the United States to learn about how we deal with radicalization.
While terrorism has become a global issue, experience teaches us that it needs to be dealt with on a local scale. It is your insights and ideas, and your understanding of the local context and culture that will lead to the best approaches to prevent the spread of violent extremism in Macedonia. Practical actions, at the community level, are the best way forward.
I hope that this exercise is a tremendous success — so much so that Mr. Petrevski decides to organize another one next year. I hope that we all leave here with a list of action items to help us identify current gaps and strengthen our current efforts, so that we can work together more effectively.
In this way, we can adapt to the changing nature of terrorism and rise to the challenge to confront it. This is what will make families and communities in Macedonia safer and more resilient.