Interview With Lester Holt of NBC

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Chief of Mission's Residence
Paris, France
November 17, 2015

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, we learned from Russia today that it was in fact a bomb that took down the Metrojet over Egypt a couple of weeks ago. ISIS claimed responsibility; ISIS apparently behind the Paris bombings. These are capabilities that no one apparently knew they had. How could the U.S. and the West’s expectations of ISIS be so wrong?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I disagree that people didn’t know they had this capacity. We certainly have known and we have learned --

QUESTION: That they could blow up a plane?

SECRETARY KERRY: Sure. I mean, they have gained great expertise over a period of time, and they have some people in ISIS who have been fighting in the terror network for a period of time. So they have access to C4; they have access to explosives. Everybody knows that. They’re making IEDs every single day.

QUESTION: So you weren’t surprised by what we saw in Paris?

SECRETARY KERRY: I was shocked by it, not surprised. I find that we all know, because we are following the threat streams, that any individual who wants to strap a suicide vest around them can walk into any public event in most places in the world and blow him or herself up and destroy people with them. So that’s the nature of terror. That’s why terrorists are called terrorists – they spread terror; they’re trying to sow fear and intimidate people. And yes, we have known this. We’re on the lookout every single day for these plots, and we’ve intercepted one of them. We had a bomb that didn’t go off in Times Square, if you’ll recall, a couple of years ago. This is within the total capacity, and nobody should express shock that terrorists have the ability to kill people somewhere.

QUESTION: Well, some are arguing that they’re winning the propaganda war. Only yesterday, ISIS video came out suggesting that Washington – threatening Washington would be a target.

SECRETARY KERRY: Yeah, but this is not – threatening us that Washington is a target doesn’t tell us or make Washington a target. We’ve known. Of course Washington is a target.

QUESTION: But does it raise your --

SECRETARY KERRY: New York is a target, and other cities.

QUESTION: But does it raise your fear that they could actually strike given what we’ve seen in the last – just the last couple of weeks?

SECRETARY KERRY: We’ve known for months that they have foreign fighters, people who have come from America, gone to Syria. We’ve been talking about that. This is why we have made going after the foreign fighter stream one of the critical components of our strategy. We’ve been focused on foreign fighters since we put the coalition together last year. That has been one of the primary reasons we put the coalition together. Because everybody knows there are more than 100 people who have gone from the United States of America to fight in Syria with Daesh. Several hundred – 500 or more – have gone from France. Several hundred have gone from Australia, from other countries. And you all and others have covered the stories of the British girls who left Great Britain and went through Turkey and went into Syria. This is not new, folks.

QUESTION: Let me ask you about Belgium.

SECRETARY KERRY: So what’s critical here is to understand our strategy is clear: we are going after Daesh; we are now going after them with a heightened ability, with more people flying out of Incirlik, with now Special Forces people on the ground, with additional efforts from Syrian Arabs, from Iraqis, from Peshmerga – Kurds, all pressing in. And we’ve taken back territory. Daesh is now operating out of 25 percent less territory on the ground in Syria. We have liberated – we, jointly with – working with the Syrian Arabs and the Kurds and others – have liberated communities, cut off Mosul from al-Raqqa, which is their supply route.

QUESTION: But let me ask you what’s happening --

SECRETARY KERRY: And we’re putting pressure on them.

QUESTION: Let me ask you what’s happened in Europe.


QUESTION: Is – has Belgium become a breeding ground for terrorism? And is Europe going to have to seriously consider closing its borders?

SECRETARY KERRY: That’s up to Europeans. They’ve got to make their own decisions on that. Europe is a – has extraordinarily capable governance, people who watch these things very closely.

QUESTION: But uniquely vulnerable because of its open borders.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, uniquely vulnerable – of course uniquely vulnerable, which is why – one of the reasons why President Obama licensed me to make a special effort with respect to the political track we’re on now, to bring the countries together, including Iran and including Russia. I mean, a month ago we had no political process that was viable. Now we have Russia and Iran at the table, and they have agreed on a set of principles about what Syria should look like. They have agreed to come together with the opposition and Assad and negotiate a transition. And they have agreed to have a ceasefire the minute we get that viable political process moving.

So there’s a – there are a lot of different moving parts here. And sure, we all are impatient and we think we’d like to see this happen faster. But putting – it’s – we need people on the ground who live there, who are prepared to take back their communities, and working with us, who will kick ISIL out and secure their communities when they’re out. That’s what’s happening right now on a steady basis in various communities, and the fight is going on right now as you and I sit here for Ramadi in Iraq, and the fight is going on for the highway 47, to cut it off from Mosul to al-Raqqa.

QUESTION: Our time is almost out so I want to follow up with a question about what’s happening in the United States. A growing number of governors are saying, “We don’t want Syrian refugees. We’re afraid they’re not properly vetted, they’re a threat.” First of all, your reaction to that, and can they do that?

SECRETARY KERRY: We have – since 9/11, we have allowed 785,000 refugees to come to the United States of America, all vetted, all screened. Out of the 785,000, 12 people were found to perhaps be problematic with respect to potential terror, and they were arrested or deported. So we have a very capable ability which we now have to probably heighten and increase even more, and it will probably go slower and cost more money. But the United States of America shouldn’t turn away a mother and a child who have been driven out of their homes and perhaps had another child killed in the process, and made their way over land or sea to seek refuge.

QUESTION: The U.S. shouldn’t, but do --

SECRETARY KERRY: The United States shouldn’t. We should --

QUESTION: -- do these states even have the power to make that declaration?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, that’s – they have to be part – they have to be a willing part of the process, certainly. But I think people shouldn’t be rushing to judgment here. We have the ability to be able to keep faith with our values of providing refuge for legitimate refugees and to determine through an appropriate vetting process using the FBI, Homeland Security, counterterrorism capacity, other people in other countries, to be able to determine whether some woman 70 years old with her grandchildren is a threat to the United States, or whether some whole family of kids and a mother who have escaped violence ought to be appropriately given refuge. I just think people shouldn’t be hysterical here. Do we need a process which is careful and deliberate and competent and guarantees that we know what we’re doing? Of course, and that’s exactly what we have been growing ever since 9/11. So we’re careful about it.

Only 2 percent of the people who have come into the United States as refugees since 9/11 are males – men of a fighting age within the framework of terrorism. So I think we’ve got to not run off halfcocked here in an early stage. I think it’s appropriate for a governor to stand up and say, “I want to make certain; I want to protect my people.” But we shouldn’t automatically say under no circumstances, never are we going to keep faith with America’s values as a country that sets an example as a melting pot and as a place. Not every Syrian – believe me, I’ve met with many of these refugees – educated, capable, competent people; one I met with in Berlin whose leg was completely shattered by a barrel bomb dropped by Assad, who’s a writer and reporter, who was trying to report on what was happening there. Would we say no to that person? Not a terrorist.

So I think we have to be thoughtful about this, Lester, and I hope people will step back and think hard about how we can do this in a way that keeps faith with America’s values as a nation that has always – we are a nation of immigrants, and people who are under siege in the way that these folks have been under siege deserve more than a big, closed door shut in their face.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, thank you so much for your time.


QUESTION: It’s always a pleasure.

SECRETARY KERRY: I appreciate it. Thanks.