Interview With NBC's Richard Engel

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Brussels, Belgium
March 25, 2016

QUESTION: What is your assessment about what happened here in Brussels?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, my assessment is obviously that, without leaping ahead of the investigation, that Daesh, which is taking credit for it – I think the indicators are that this smacks of a Daesh attack and that it came about as a result, to some degree, of the pressure that is being put on Daesh in Iraq and Syria. And there’s serious pressure being put on them, and I think you – that’s going to raise the potential that some of the people who have been sent out of Syria over the course of the last five years may try to act out in other places.

QUESTION: So as the U.S. and others are striking them in their homeland, they’re coming back to Europe and other places?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, they’re back. They’re back already. We know for a fact that foreign fighters – this is one of the parts of the war that we’re fighting. We have an entire focus on foreign fighters. In fact, a month ago, right here in Belgium, we had a foreign fighter surge team here working with the Belgians in order to try to make sure that they were dealing appropriately with this potential and any time in the future. But these guys were already here; they’ve been here. There is evidence early on that this is part of the network that was involved in the Paris attacks. So these are people who have returned from fighting in Syria, which is one of the reasons why President Obama has been so focused on upping what we’re doing in Syria in order to terminate Daesh as fast as possible in its home base.

QUESTION: The U.S. has already seen some ISIS-inspired violence. Do you think we’ll see more?

SECRETARY KERRY: I’m not going to speculate, Richard. I hope and pray we won’t, but we all know that we’re living in a world where it is very easy for somebody who wants to kill themselves to go out and hurt other people when they do it. And it’s very, very difficult for law enforcement anywhere. They have to get it correct 24 hours a day, every day of the week, 365 days of the year. Somebody who wants to go blow themselves up has to get it right for 10 minutes. So it’s a very unfair sort of – the balance in that sense, and I think that we’ve done extraordinarily well internationally to be able to keep the terrorists on as much of a defensive as they are.

QUESTION: Critics have said that it wasn’t a good look for President Obama to attend a ballgame and then later to be seen dancing the tango as Europe was in the midst of a terrorist crisis. Were the optics bad?

SECRETARY KERRY: I think that the President of the United States is on 24 hours a day, doing what he does in order to advance the interests of our country, and diplomacy, for a trip particularly that had been scheduled as long as this had and with the importance that it had, has to be carried out. The President was in touch. The President talked directly from Cuba with the prime minister of Belgium, and he talked with our people, and we talked about our response to this. And so I think that that’s just, frankly, given this situation – if it had been at home in the United States, then I – obviously, I think the President would have been on a plane and gone home and then the criticism might be appropriate. But for this, in this case, no, I don’t think it is.

QUESTION: But Americans were hurt and killed in this attack.

SECRETARY KERRY: But nobody knew at that point in time what the situation was, and the President, as I said, was in immediate contact with people and at that point there was no rationale in cutting that trip short. None whatsoever.

QUESTION: We have been told by an expert briefed on this case that the taxi driver who brought the militants to the airport heard one of them saying anti-American things, was on an anti-American tirade in the cab on the way to carry out the attack. It suggests that Americans were at least part of the target. Is that the working theory that you have?

SECRETARY KERRY: I don’t have a working theory, Richard, and when you say “we’ve heard,” as an old trial lawyer, that’s hearsay of an order that I can’t even begin to wrap my hands around because I don’t know who said it or whether they said it or whether it’s true, and I’m not going to speculate. There’s no question but that these guys set out to kill people, and obviously if they planted their bombs near Delta and American and so forth, we weren’t far from their minds, I would assume. That’s my own assumption, and it’s an assumption. But I can’t speak to what they said or didn’t say in a taxi.

QUESTION: The – do you think Europe has a handle on the level of the ISIS infiltration or ISIS problem here on the continent?

SECRETARY KERRY: I think Europe can do – Europe’s done a lot, and particularly the Government of Belgium has done a lot. I mean, before this event took place, they had already had our foreign fighter surge team here a month ago. They are the ones who apprehended Salah Abdeslam. That may or may not have initiated this attack.

QUESTION: What is a foreign fighter surge team?

SECRETARY KERRY: A foreign fighter surge team is a team that comes over to work with a country to help them focus on how they can better prevent foreign fighters from coming home from Syria and entering into their communities. And what this has been – it’s a team that we put together to help provide expertise to other people. The Belgians wanted that and they engaged in that prior to this event taking place. There are also at least five or six different events that are going to take place in the next month – two or three in April and beyond – that the Belgians had previously scheduled to deal with passport security, to deal with police behavioral analysis and other kinds of things.

So there’s a lot that’s been happening here. But what does need to happen in Europe definitively is the information sharing has to take place with respect to passengers on airplanes and with respect to the prior screening of people. If that were to happen, that would be a better leap forward for Europe, we believe. It’s on the table; it’s on the agenda. I believe the European parliament may take it up in the next week or so. But that is something that we believe could help.

QUESTION: Secretary Kerry, thank you very much.