An indictment and arrest warrant were unsealed today in the federal court of the District of Columbia charging Lirim Sylejmani, a Kosovo-born naturalized U.S. citizen, with conspiring to provide, providing, and attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), a designated foreign terrorist organization, and receiving training from ISIS, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 2339B and 2339D.
Sylejmani was detained overseas by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and recently transferred into FBI custody. Sylejmani made his initial appearance before U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.
“The United States is committed to holding accountable those who have left this country in order to join ISIS,” said Assistant Attorney General John C. Demers. “I want to thank the agents, analysts and prosecutors involved for their effort to hold the defendant responsible for his actions.”
“The defendant is a U.S. citizen who abandoned the country that welcomed him to join ISIS in Syria” stated Acting U.S. Attorney Sherwin. “He will now be held accountable for his actions in an American courtroom. Our national security prosecutors and law enforcement partners will continue to ensure that those who threaten our country are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
“Combating terrorism remains the FBI’s top priority, and we will continue working with both our U.S. and foreign partners around the world in furtherance of that mission,” said Jill Sanborn, Assistant Director of the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division. “Today’s announcement should serve as a warning to those who have traveled, or attempted to travel, to join ISIS that the FBI remains steadfast in ensuring they face justice.”
“Today’s announcement underscores the FBI’s commitment to combatting terrorism worldwide. Sylejmani allegedly traveled to Syria with the intent to join, train with, and fight on behalf of ISIS, said Matthew R. Alcoke, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI Washington Field Office Counterterrorism Division. “The FBI Washington Field Office Joint Terrorism Task Force will continue to relentlessly pursue all individuals who choose to support terrorist organizations, no matter where they are located.”
According to the allegations in the indictment, from November 2015 through February 2019, Sylejmani conspired to provide and provided material support and resources, including personnel and services, to ISIS in Syria and received military training from the terrorist organization. The defendant was captured by the SDF in 2019 and has spoken to a number of media outlets about his time with ISIS.
The charges in the indictment are merely allegations, and the defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.
This case is the result of an investigation conducted by the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force. Assistant U.S Attorneys Jessi Camille Brooks and Brenda J. Johnson of the National Security Section, and Trial Attorney David Smith of the National Security Division’s Counterterrorism Section are litigating the case, with assistance from Paralegal Specialist Jorge Casillas.
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- Central and Southwest Asian Countries: Trends in U.S. Assistance and Key Economic, Governance, and Demographic CharacteristicsBy Sam NewsAugust 24, 2021Following the terrorist attacks of September 2001, prosecuting the global war on terrorism became the United States' primary foreign policy priority. The United States focused its initial efforts on Afghanistan in Operation Enduring Freedom because the country harbored elements of Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. As a result, countries in the region--Pakistan and the five Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan--became frontline states in the war on terrorism, raising the profile of U.S. relations with these countries.Since the attacks of September 2001, the United States has broadened its priorities and increased its assistance and presence in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the five Central Asian republics--countries with significant political and economic challenges that may affect the United States' priorities and programs in the region. While not specific to all countries in the region, the United States continues to focus on priorities that were in place prior to September 2001: political and economic reform, nonproliferation, energy development, counternarcotics, and trafficking. However, since that time, the United States has emphasized enhanced security and counterterrorism relationships accompanied by increased military and economic assistance and U.S. military presence. For example, in fiscal year 2001 the United States provided about $342 million in assistance to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the five Central Asian republics. In fiscal year 2002, the United States planned to provide about $1.9 billion in assistance for these countries, primarily for Afghanistan and Pakistan.1 Further, since September 2001, the United States has deployed forces to a number of military facilities in the region to support U.S. operations in Afghanistan. These expanded activities and investments occur in an environment generally marked by authoritarian regimes, poor economic outlooks, and large youth populations vulnerable to the appeal of radical movements.[Read More…]
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- Foreign Assistance: USAID Needs to Improve Its Strategic Planning to Address Current and Future Workforce NeedsBy Sam NewsAugust 25, 2021The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) oversees U.S. foreign assistance programs in more than 100 countries. In 2003, GAO recommended that USAID develop a comprehensive workforce planning system to better identify its staffing needs and requirements. Key principles for effective strategic workforce planning are important to an agency's ability to carry out its mission. GAO examined (1) changes in USAID's workforce and program funding since 2004, (2) the extent to which it has developed a strategic workforce plan, (3) the efforts it has taken to implement two key human capital initiatives, and (4) the challenges and constraints that affect its workforce planning and management. To conduct the work, GAO analyzed staffing and program funding data; reviewed documentation related to the agency's workforce planning; and interviewed officials in Washington, D.C., and at six overseas missions selected to obtain an appropriate mix of geographic coverage, programs, and workforce size and composition.USAID's workforce declined 2.7 percent from 2004 to 2009. While the decline is primarily due to decreases in the number of U.S. and foreign national personal services contractors, these staff continue to comprise the majority of USAID's workforce. Over the same period USAID's program funding increased 92 percent to $17.9 billion. USAID also faces some workforce gaps and vacancies at the six missions visited by GAO. Mission officials cited recruiting difficulties and the need for staff in priority countries, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, as factors contributing to these vacancies. According to mission officials, it is not uncommon for positions to remain vacant for a lengthy period. During this time staff may assume multiple responsibilities and accept additional workload, which present some challenges in the agency's ability to manage and oversee its activities. For example, workforce gaps and heavy workload may limit mission staff's ability to travel to the field to monitor and evaluate the implementation of projects. USAID's 5-year workforce plan for fiscal years 2009 through 2013 discusses the agency's challenges and the steps it has taken and plans to take to strengthen its workforce. However, the plan lacks several key elements that GAO has identified as critical to strategic workforce planning. For example, the plan generally does not include a major portion of USAID's workforce--U.S. and foreign national personal services contractors. In particular, it is not comprehensive in its analysis of workforce and competency gaps and the staffing levels that the agency requires to meet its program needs and goals. USAID has taken actions to implement two key initiatives specified in its workforce plan--a workforce planning model and expansion of its Foreign Service--but it generally lacks documented plans to help ensure they are implemented successfully. For example, USAID implemented the workforce planning model to project its workforce and budgetary needs, but it has not developed plans for providing all missions comprehensive information about the model and its projections to inform missions of how it will affect their workforce planning. In addition, USAID has not fully met its Foreign Service hiring targets nor developed plans for how it will meet its hiring goals, and it has not planned the required overseas training assignments for all new hires to help ensure that missions have the necessary resources and mentors. USAID faces several challenges in its workforce planning and management. First, USAID lacks a sufficiently reliable and comprehensive system to record the number, location, and occupation of its staff. Second, according to mission officials, operating in an uncertain environment with shifting program priorities and funding can make it difficult to ensure that missions have the staff available with the necessary skills when needed. Third, the processes USAID must use to plan for the placement of its overseas staff require coordination with State; however, USAID has not consistently developed and shared its plans for the numbers and specific locations for these assignments. GAO recommends that USAID take several actions to develop more comprehensive workforce plans and improve its workforce data. USAID concurred with GAO's findings and recommendations.[Read More…]
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- Science & Tech Spotlight: Vaccine SafetyBy Sam NewsFebruary 24, 2021Why this Matters Safe vaccines are critical to fighting diseases, from polio to COVID-19. Research shows that the protection provided by U.S. licensed vaccines outweighs their potential risks. However, misinformation and unjustified safety concerns can cause people to delay or refuse vaccination, which may increase preventable deaths and prolong negative social and economic impacts. The Science What is it? A vaccine is generally considered safe when the benefits of protecting an individual from disease outweigh the risks from potential side effects (fig. 1). The most common side effects stem from the body's immune reaction and include swelling at the injection site, fever, and aches. Figure 1. Symptoms of polio and side effects of the polio vaccine. A vaccine is generally considered safe if its benefits (preventing disease) outweigh its risks (side effects). In rare cases, some vaccines may cause more severe side effects. For example, the vaccine for rotavirus—a childhood illness that can cause severe diarrhea, dehydration, and even death—can cause intestinal blockage in one in 100,000 recipients. However, the vaccine is still administered because this very rare side effect is outweighed by the vaccine's benefits: it saves lives and prevents an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 childhood hospitalizations in the U.S. each year. The two messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines authorized for COVID-19—a disease that contributed to more than 415,000 American deaths between January 2020 and January 2021—can cause severe allergic reactions. However, early safety reporting found that these reactions have been extremely rare, with only about five cases per 1 million recipients, according to data from January 2021 reports by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In general, side effects from vaccines are less acceptable to the public than side effects from treatments given to people who already have a disease. What is known? Vaccine developers assess safety from early research, through laboratory and animal testing, and even after the vaccine is in use (fig. 2). Researchers may rely on previous studies to inform future vaccine trials. For example, safety information from preclinical trials of mRNA flu vaccine candidates in 2017 allowed for the acceleration of mRNA COVID-19 vaccine development. Vaccine candidates shown to be safe in these preclinical trials can proceed to clinical trials in humans. In the U.S., clinical trials generally proceed through three phases of testing involving increasing numbers of volunteers: dozens in phase 1 to thousands in phase 3. Although data may be collected over years, most common side effects are identified in the first 2 months after vaccination in clinical trials. After reviewing safety and other data from vaccine studies, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may license a vaccine to be marketed in the U.S. There are also programs to expedite—but not bypass—development and review processes, such as a priority review designation, which shortens FDA’s goal review time from 10 to 6 months. Safety monitoring continues after licensing. For example, health officials are required to report certain adverse events—such as heart problems—following vaccination, in order to help identify potential long-term or rare side effects that were not seen in clinical trials and may or may not be associated with the vaccine. Figure 2. Vaccine safety is assessed at every stage: development through post-licensure. Following a declared emergency, FDA can also issue emergency use authorizations (EUA) to allow temporary use of unlicensed vaccines if there is evidence that known and potential benefits of the vaccine outweigh known and potential risks, among other criteria. As of January 2021, two COVID-19 vaccines had received EUAs, after their efficacy and short-term safety were assessed through large clinical trials. However, developers must continue safety monitoring and meet other requirements if they intend to apply for FDA licensure to continue distribution of these vaccines after the emergency period has ended. What are the knowledge gaps? One knowledge gap that can remain after clinical trials is whether side effects or other adverse events may occur in certain groups. For example, because clinical trials usually exclude certain populations, such as people who are pregnant or have existing medical conditions, data on potential adverse events related to specific populations may not be understood until vaccines are widely administered. In addition, it can be difficult to determine the safety of new vaccines if outbreaks end suddenly. For example, vaccine safety studies were hindered during the 2014-2015 Ebola epidemic when a large increase in the number of cases was followed by a sharp decrease. This disrupted the clinical trials of Ebola vaccine candidates, because the trials require many infected and non-infected people. Furthermore, a lack of understanding and/or misinformation about the steps taken to ensure the safety of vaccines hinders accurate public knowledge about safety concerns, which may cause people to delay or refuse vaccination. This resulting hesitancy may, in turn, increase deaths, social harm, and economic damage. Opportunities Continuing and, where necessary, improving existing vaccine safety practices offers the following opportunities to society: Herd immunity. Widespread immunity in a population, acquired in large part through safe and effective vaccines, can slow the spread of infection and protect those most vulnerable. Health care improvements. Vaccinations can reduce the burden on the health care system by reducing severe symptoms that require individuals to seek treatment. Eradication. Safe vaccination programs, such as those combatting smallpox, may eliminate diseases to the point where transmission no longer occurs. Challenges There are a number of challenges to ensuring safe vaccines: Public confidence. Vaccine hesitancy, in part due to misinformation or historic unethical human experimentation, decreases participation in clinical trials, impeding identification of side effects across individuals with different racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Mutating viruses. Some viruses, such as those that cause the flu or COVID-19, may mutate rapidly and thus may require new or updated vaccines, for which ongoing safety monitoring is important. Long-term and rare effects. Exceedingly rare or long-term effects may not be identified until after vaccines have been widely administered. Further study is needed to detect any such effects and confirm they are truly associated with the vaccine. Policy Context & Questions What steps can policymakers take to improve public trust and understanding of the process of assessing vaccine safety? How can policymakers convey the social importance of vaccines to protect the general public and those who are most vulnerable? How can policymakers leverage available resources to support ongoing vaccine development and post-licensure safety monitoring? For more information, contact Karen Howard at (202) 512-6888 or HowardK@gao.gov.[Read More…]
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- Software Development: DOD Faces Risks and Challenges in Implementing Modern Approaches and Addressing Cybersecurity PracticesBy Sam NewsJune 24, 2021What GAO Found According to the Department of Defense's (DOD) fiscal year (FY) 2021 budget request, DOD spent $2.8 billion on the 29 selected major business information technology (IT) programs in FY 2019. The department also reported that it planned to invest over $9.7 billion on these programs between FY 2020 and FY 2022. In addition, 20 of the 29 programs reported experiencing cost or schedule changes since January 2019. Program officials attributed cost and schedule changes to a variety of reasons, including modernization changes and requirements changes or delays. Seventeen of the 29 programs also reported experiencing challenges associated with the early impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, including the slowdown of contractors' software development efforts. DOD and GAO's assessments of program risk identified a range of program risk levels and indicated that some programs could be underreporting risks. Specifically, of the 22 programs that were actively using a register to manage program risks, DOD rated nine programs as low risk, 12 as medium risk, and one as high risk. In contrast, GAO rated seven as low risk, 12 as medium risk, and three as high risk. In total, GAO found 10 programs for which its numerical assessments of program risk reflected greater risk than reported by DOD, while DOD had three programs with greater reported risk than GAO. DOD officials noted that differences in risk levels might be associated with a variety of factors, including different risk assessment approaches. However, the differences in risk level GAO identified highlight the need for DOD to ensure that it is accurately reporting program risks. Until the department does so, oversight of some programs could be limited by overly optimistic risk perspectives. As of December 2020, program officials for the 22 major DOD business IT programs that were actively developing software reported using approaches that may help to limit cost and schedule risks. (See table.) Selected Software Development and Cybersecurity Approaches That May Limit Risks and Number of Major DOD Business IT Programs That Reported Using the Approach Software development and cybersecurity approaches that may limit risk Number of programs that reported using the approach Using off-the-shelf software 19 of 22 Implementing continuous iterative software development 18 of 22 Delivering software at least every 6 monthsa 16 of 22 Developing or planning to develop a cybersecurity strategy 21 of 22 Conducting developmental cybersecurity testing 16 of 22 Conducting operational cybersecurity testing 15 of 22 Source: GAO analysis of Department of Defense questionnaire responses. | GAO-21-351aThe Defense Innovation Board encourages more frequent delivery of working software to users for Agile and DevOps practices. Program officials also reported facing a variety of software development challenges while implementing these approaches. These included difficulties finding and hiring staff, transitioning from waterfall to Agile software development, and managing technical environments. DOD's continued efforts to address these challenges will be critical to the department's implementation of modern software development approaches. DOD has also made organizational and policy changes intended to improve the management of its IT acquisitions, such as taking steps to implement Agile software development and improve data transparency. In addition, to address statutory requirements, DOD has taken steps to remove the department's chief management officer (CMO) position. However, the department had not yet sufficiently implemented these changes. Officials from many of the 18 programs GAO assessed that reported using Agile development reported that DOD had implemented activities associated with Agile transition best practices to only some or little to no extent, indicating that the department had not sufficiently implemented best practices. For example, 12 of the 18 programs reported that DOD's life-cycle activities only supported Agile methods to some or little to no extent. Program officials also reported challenges associated with implementing Agile software development. The department has a variety of efforts underway to help with its implementation of Agile software development. DOD officials stated that the department's transition to Agile will take years and will require sustained engagement throughout DOD. In addition, DOD has taken steps aimed at improving the sharing and transparency of data it uses to monitor its acquisitions. According to a November 2020 proposal from the Office of the Under Secretary for Acquisition and Sustainment, DOD officials are to develop data strategies and metrics to assess performance for the department's acquisition pathways. However, as of February 2021, DOD did not have data strategies and had not finalized metrics for the two pathways associated with the programs discussed in this report. Officials said they were working with DOD programs and components to finalize initial pathway metrics. They stated that they plan to implement them in fiscal year 2021 and continue to refine and adjust them over the coming years. Without important data from acquistion pathways and systems, DOD risks not having timely quantitative insight into program performance, including its acquisition reform efforts. Finally, DOD's CMO position was eliminated by a statute enacted in January 2021. This position was responsible for key efforts associated with the department's business systems modernization, which has been on GAO's High Risk List since 1995. DOD plans to take steps to address the uncertainty associated with the recent elimination of the position. Why GAO Did This Study For fiscal year 2021, DOD requested approximately $37.7 billion for IT investments. These investments included major business IT programs, which are intended to help the department carry out key business functions, such as financial management and health care. The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 included a provision for GAO to assess selected IT programs annually through March 2023. GAO's objectives for this review were to (1) summarize DOD's reported performance of its portfolio of IT acquisition programs and the reasons for this performance; (2) evaluate DOD's assessments of program risks; (3) summarize DOD's approaches to software development and cybersecurity and identify associated challenges; and (4) evaluate how selected organizational and policy changes could affect IT acquisitions. To address these objectives, GAO selected 29 major business IT programs that DOD reported to the federal IT Dashboard (a public website that includes information on the performance of major IT investments) as of September 2020. GAO reviewed planned expenditures for these programs, from fiscal years 2019 through 2022, as reported in the department's FY 2021 budget request. It also aggregated program office responses to a GAO questionnaire that requested information about cost and schedule changes that occurred since January 2019 and the early impacts of COVID-19. GAO also analyzed the risks of the 22 programs that were actively using central repositories known as risk registers to manage program risks. GAO used these registers to create program risk ratings, and then compared its ratings to those of the DOD chief information officer (CIO). In addition, GAO aggregated DOD program office responses to the questionnaire that requested information about the software and cybersecurity practices used by 22 of the 29 IT programs that were actively developing software. GAO compared the responses to relevant guidance and leading practices. GAO reviewed selected IT-related organizational and policy changes and reviewed reports and documentation related to the effects of these changes on IT acquisitions. GAO also aggregated program office responses to the questionnaire that requested information about DOD's implementation of these changes. This included information on DOD's implementation of best practices as part of its efforts to implement Agile software development. GAO met with relevant DOD officials to discuss each of the topics addressed in this report.[Read More…]
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- Federal Real Property: Additional Documentation of Decision Making Could Improve Transparency of New Disposal ProcessBy Sam NewsJanuary 29, 2021In 2016, the Federal Assets Sale and Transfer Act (FASTA) created the independent Public Buildings Reform Board (the Board) to support a new, three-round process for disposing of unneeded federal real property. The first of these rounds required the Board to identify and recommend at least five high-value disposal candidates with a total market value between $500 and $750 million. To identify these properties, the General Services Administration (GSA) collected and evaluated agency recommendations; a GSA-hired contractor analyzed real property data; and the Board held public hearings, visited properties, and met with federal officials. This process resulted in identifying 44 properties. The Board then took various steps to evaluate the 44 properties and recommended 12 final disposal candidates that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) approved in January 2020. (See figure.) However, the Board did not fully document the process used to evaluate these candidates. For example, the Board's rationales for why individual candidates were or were not recommended were vague or incomplete. Full documentation on the decision-making process would better position stakeholders, including members of Congress, to understand the Board's rationales, especially for decisions with financial implications. Process Used by Stakeholders for Identifying and Recommending High-Value Federal Real Property for Potential Disposal Candidates According to Board and selected federal agency officials, FASTA made it easier for agencies to pursue high-value property disposals due, in part, to exemptions from some requirements, such as having to first offer properties to federal, state, or local agencies. However, FASTA's effect on other long-standing challenges, including funding to prepare properties for disposal, is unclear. For example, FASTA created a dedicated funding source to implement Board recommendations including those related to covering disposal costs, such as relocating agency staff. However, officials expressed concern that access to these funds is not automatic and must go through the annual appropriations process, which rarely coincides with the timing of these projects. The administration proposed legislative language to make proceeds from the sale of assets in fiscal year 2021 available without additional actions by Congress. However, as of January 2021, legislation containing the proposed language had not been enacted. This report discusses elements Congress may wish to evaluate when determining whether to grant such budget-related flexibility. GAO designated federal real property management, including the disposal of properties, as a high-risk area in 2003. FASTA included a provision for GAO to review the recommendations and selection processes such as those used in the first round of identifying and recommending high-value properties as candidates for disposal. This report examines: (1) how stakeholders implemented FASTA to identify and evaluate high-value properties as potential disposal candidates and (2) stakeholder views on the extent to which FASTA helped agencies with the disposal of unneeded high-value properties and addressed long-standing challenges in disposing of federal properties. GAO reviewed FASTA and analyzed documents from the Board, OMB, GSA, and selected 14 federal agencies to examine the processes they used and the challenges they encountered under the FASTA process. Agencies were selected based on their recommendations of high-value properties and inclusion on the Board's final list, among other things. GAO also interviewed officials from the Board, OMB, GSA, and selected federal agencies. GAO is recommending that the Board fully document its process for recommending FASTA disposal candidates, including the rationales behind disposal decisions. The Board noted plans to develop more documentation of its future disposal decisions. For more information, contact David Trimble at (202) 512-2834 or email@example.com.[Read More…]
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