U.S. customs officials spotted something suspicious during a routine review in 2014 of flight reservation data. A Yemeni citizen was scheduled to travel from Saudi Arabia to Washington, and his phone number and email were linked to a suspected terrorist. They dug deeper, and confirmed the connection.
Later, the State Department revoked the traveler’s visa, and the airline barred him from flying. Data like this is crucial in the worldwide effort to stop terrorists from crossing borders.
“We all need to stop these threats before they reach our shores,” Ambassador Nathan Sales, the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism, said earlier this year.
The United States led the negotiation of a U.N. Security Council resolution that requires all 193 U.N. members to collect more data, including fingerprints, and that encourages countries to share the information to prevent terrorists from boarding planes, crossing borders or using convoluted travel routes to escape detection. This coordinated approach provides countries with “a new set of tools to address the evolving terrorist threat,” Sales said. The resolution is known as UNSCR 2396.
Specifically, all U.N. members are required to:
- Collect “biometric” data, such as fingerprints, to identify terrorists.
- Develop watchlists or databases of known and suspected terrorists.
- Use airline reservation data, including names, phone numbers and travel itinerary, to identify previously unknown terrorists.
The U.S. has been using these tools for years. For example, they enabled the U.S. in 2017 to identify 134 known or suspected terrorists who were traveling to other countries by sharing fingerprints with countries.
To make sure the cutting-edge systems work globally, international coordination is key, Sales said.
A prime example of this was illustrated in 2014 when a U.S. ally sent the U.S. a fingerprint identification request for a Sri Lankan national who was applying for asylum. The U.S. found that the prints matched those of a known or suspected terrorist. As a result, the person was refused asylum.
“Battle-hardened terrorists are heading home from the war zone or wreaking havoc in third countries,” Sales said earlier this year. Soldiers collect biometric data on the battlefield — fingerprints from ISIS safe houses, unexploded IEDs and captured foreign fighters. The data can help block known or suspected terrorists from traveling.
Sales urged countries to “tear down the walls that keep authorities from exchanging counterterrorism data with each other.” He said the United States is ready to help partners who lack the resources or capability to implement the U.N. resolution.
“Our adversaries are constantly evolving, and the United States and our partners must evolve just as quickly,” he said.