MR BROWN: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to the State Department, good to see you all here. Joining us today in the briefing room is our coordinator for counterterrorism, Ambassador Nathan Sales, and Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker. They’ll be announcing a significant terrorist designation related to Iranian proxies in Iraq.
Ambassador Sales will begin with some opening comments followed by Assistant Secretary Schenker, and then will take a few of your questions.
AMBASSADOR SALES: Thanks, Cale, and good afternoon, everyone.
Today, Secretary Pompeo has taken decisive action against Iran-backed militias in Iraq by designating Ahmad al-Hamidawi as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist or SDGT.
Hamidawi is the secretary-general of Kata’ib Hizballah, or KH, a group that is responsible for numerous terrorist attacks against U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq. That includes the December 2019 attack by rockets on an air base near Kirkuk that killed American Nawres Hamid.
The State Department designated KH as a Foreign Terrorist Organization and as an SDGT in 2009 for attacking American troops and our allies. Today, we are intensifying our pressure on this terrorist group. KH remains actively engaged in plotting terrorism against U.S. forces, our partners, and innocent Iraqi civilians. By committing violence at the behest of its patrons in Tehran, KH has revealed its true agenda: undermining Iraq’s sovereignty and independence.
Here are just a few recent examples. After the United States acted to defend itself against continuous rocket attacks on our military bases and diplomatic facilities, KH and other Iran-backed terrorists stormed our embassy in Baghdad before being repelled by American forces.
That wasn’t the first time KH stormed a diplomatic post. They also attacked Bahrain’s embassy in Iraq in June of last year. KH even targets the people it purports to represent, Iraqis. It actively uses violence and terror against innocent civilians to advance the Iranian regime’s goal of turning Iraq into a vassal state. In October of 2019, KH was involved in sniper attacks against peaceful protesters in Baghdad which killed more than 100 people and injured another 6,000. And when Iraqi President Barham Salih met with President Trump in Davos last month, KH took to the airwaves to demand Salih’s resignation with a veiled threat against his life.
Ahmad al-Hamidawai is the leader of this group, and today the United States is holding him accountable for these crimes. Today’s action will target sources of support for Hamidawi and KH and deny them the resources they need to plan and carry out future attacks.
I also want to emphasize that today’s designation was enabled by President Trump’s expansion of Executive Order 13224 last September, the most significant update to our terrorism sanctions authority since the aftermath of 9/11. Thanks to these changes, we are now able to directly designate the leaders of terrorist groups without having to tie them to specific acts.
The United States will continue to expose and isolate terrorists, deny them access to the U.S. and international financial systems, and do everything in our power to preserve the security of the United States.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Good afternoon. As Nathan just said, today the Secretary of State is designating Ahmad al-Hamidawi, the secretary-general of Kata’ib Hizballah. His organization also shares in the responsibility for the brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters in Iraq. They are foot soldiers in the Iranian regime’s export of terrorism, corruption, and bribery to Iraq.
The action today continues the U.S. efforts to hold accountable those who present a clear and present danger to both our people and the Iraqi people. In January, the Secretary designated Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq as a Foreign Terrorist Organization and Specially Designated Global Terrorist and Qais and Laith Khazali as SDGTs. Additionally, in December, Treasury designated the Khazali brothers and Husayn Falih al-Lami for their involvement in serious human rights abuses in Iraq. Additionally, OFAC designated Iraqi politician Khamis al-Khanjar for bribing government officials and engaging in widespread corruption at the expense of the Iraqi people.
What I want to emphasize today is how this terrorist, his organization, along with the Khazalis and other terrorists, drain the life and vitality out of Iraq. They kill and maim Iraqis and seek to brutally silence or impede any efforts Iraqis make to reform their government. According to the UN, over 600 Iraqis have been killed while protesting for better governance and a brighter future.
The Secretary has communicated to Iraq’s political leaders, some of whom I met with personally last week, that the U.S. stands with the Iraqis who are fed up with economic stagnation, endemic corruption, and mismanagement. They want better from their leaders, and they want accountability.
They’re demanding their country back.
The U.S. Government continues to support Iraq’s security, stability, and sovereignty. As the Secretary has said on many occasions, we are a force for good. In Iraq, we’re the largest donor of humanitarian, stabilization, demining, and security assistance, and we want to maintain and expand that role to include helping with economic reform to create jobs for Iraqis and Americans alike. In contrast to Hamidawi and those offering brutality and repression, we offer an unparalleled partnership for the Iraqi people.
And with that, I can take some questions.
MR BROWN: Here’s some questions. Sir —
QUESTION: Can I – one for each of you, both brief. Ambassador Sales, if, in fact, KH has been designated as an FTO since 2009, and the executive order – you had the authority under the executive order since September to take this move. Why now?
And then I have one for Assistant Secretary Schenker, but it’s off topic. It has to do with Egypt and Americans being held there and when the last time – when was the last time that you or other – that you’re aware of that other – any other American official has raised these cases? And is there any sign that there might be some progress there?
AMBASSADOR SALES: Thanks for the question, Matt. As to the question of why now, the reason is because KH continues to present a significant terrorist threat to our forces in Iraq as well as the Iraqi people, as Assistant Secretary Schenker has pointed out. We’re adding to the pressure that has already existed against this group for a decade. Now is the right time to intensify the pressure, to starve this group of its resources, and deprive it of tools it uses to attack our people.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Detained Americans, Matt, is an issue that comes up with some frequency in our representations with the Egyptian Government. Secretary Pompeo raised this in his most recent meeting with Sisi, the president of Egypt, and I know this gets raised all the time in Cairo by our ambassador.
MR BROWN: Go ahead. Next question.
QUESTION: (Inaudible), have you seen any sign of – any potential progress?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: This is a work in progress, unfortunately.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR BROWN: Michel.
QUESTION: Yeah, Assistant Secretary Schenker, any update on the talks with Iraq regarding the withdrawal from there? And why the Treasury has delayed the delivery of money to Iraq a couple weeks ago?
And on Lebanon, what is the message from the sanctions today?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: What was the third one, Michel?
QUESTION: The sanctions in Hizballah today, what’s the message?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: All right, so three questions. First of all, I’m not aware of any Treasury delay of money being delivered. I know that the Secretary recently renewed the energy waivers for Iraq for a 45-day period, but I don’t know of any delays of Treasury delivery of money.
About withdrawal from Iraq, there is no withdrawal from Iraq. We are beginning to engage with the Government of Iraq, such as it is, and I expect in the future in a discussion about the nature of our strategic relationship. And that will include discussion of economics, of our diplomatic issues, and about our presence on the ground, but we’re not talking about withdrawal.
MR BROWN: Okay.
QUESTION: And on the sanctions?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: On sanctions of Hizballah, what message that sends? It sends a message that Hizballah is exploiting —
QUESTION: The timing.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: — Hizballah is exploiting the banking system of Lebanon, and we will hold them accountable for doing so. Hizballah is an organization that thrives and survives based on corruption. They are a designated terrorist organization and we will take steps to ensure that they cannot freely raise money and operate enterprises on Lebanese soil or anywhere in the world.
MR BROWN: Okay.
QUESTION: So Iranian (inaudible) —
MR BROWN: Excuse me. You weren’t called on, sir. Next question, hopefully on today’s designation, Humeyra.
QUESTION: It’s not. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: I have one that is.
QUESTION: That’s last. Assistant Secretary Schenker, can – you were in Saudi recently. Can you talk a little bit about your meetings there, and especially about with the Gulfies and the Qataris in terms of getting the blockade lifted? The talks have broken down. What is the impediment? Why is progress so difficult? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: No, I can’t. No, I’m not going to give you details. I mean, obviously, the – this is an issue that we’re working on with our friends in the region. We’d like to solve this. We think this is a distraction from the larger strategic problem of the region, which is Iran, but I’m not going to go into details of our bilateral talks.
MR BROWN: Nike.
QUESTION: Thank you. So the United Nations has a new designation, ISIS-West Africa and ISIS-Greater Sahara. So if I may ask about Africa, is there any additional impetus now for the U.S. and the anti-ISIS coalition to focus in a more substantial way on Africa? And is there a wait for the Pentagon decision for a posture in Africa? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR SALES: Well, thanks for the question. The United States welcomes the decision by the United Nations 1267 committee to sanction ISIS-West Africa and ISIS-Greater Sahara. As we all know, the physical caliphate that ISIS once held – so-called caliphate in Syria and Iraq has been completely destroyed, but the ISIS brand lives on around the world. We’re seeing increased activity by ISIS affiliates in West Africa, in East Africa, in Southeast Asia, and other parts of the world. The United States remains committed to taking the fight to those affiliates and destroying and degrading them as we did ISIS core.
The United States also is fully committed to our West African partners. As they face the threat posed by ISIS, al-Qaida affiliates, and other terrorist groups, we will stand shoulder to shoulder with them in starving these groups of resources, in our diplomatic engagement, and in our programmatic assistance to build these countries’ capacities to defend themselves on the front lines. Thanks.
MR BROWN: Jennifer.
QUESTION: Are you seeing any indications of any imminent threats against U.S. interests in Iraq or in the region from Kata’ib Hizballah or any of the other organizations operating in that region?
AMBASSADOR SALES: Well, I’m not going to comment on intelligence matters, but we know what the group is capable of. We only have to look to its recent history. This is a group that has engaged in rocket attacks against our soldiers, against our diplomats, that has conducted kidnappings for ransom, that has engaged in abductions, and that has used explosively formed penetrators to kill and maim countless American soldiers.
I think we can take them at their word that they see the United States as an avowed enemy, and that’s why we’re amping up our financial pressure on them, to starve them of resources.
QUESTION: And then quickly for Assistant Secretary Schenker: Are you any closer to taking any action against Egypt for the death of Mustafa Kassem in custody?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: It’s a work in progress.
QUESTION: Yes, your sanctions on Kata’ib Hizballah, it’s part of the Popular Mobilization Forces, so do you see that as an issue? And does it reflect more broadly on your relations with the Iraqi Government, the Iraqi Government’s failure to protect American personnel in Iraq?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Thanks, Laurie. Yes, Kata’ib Hizballah is a member of the Hashd. It is a constituent group, it’s funded by the Government of Iraq. This is problematic. It’s deeply problematic. And we are certainly concerned about the Government of Iraq’s failure to protect the U.S. diplomatic facility and other facilities throughout the country, historically on December 30th, January 1st – December 31st and January 1st when the government did not fulfill its obligations, its international obligations to protect the embassy.
MODERATOR: A couple more.
QUESTION: Thank you. On – since you said, the U.S. said that it has restored some deterrence against Iran and its proxies after the Soleimani raid, have you noticed less attacks against U.S. interests in the region, or the trend by Kata’ib Hizballah and other is the same than before?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: I think it was an important step toward reestablishing deterrence, showing what we are willing to do, following through on the President’s commitment to – and the Secretary of State’s commitment to hold Iran directly responsible for the actions of its proxies. And it laid down a marker. Undoubtedly, Iran, if history is any indication, will continue to test our resolve, to see – to push the envelope, to see how far they can go, and to see what our response will be.
AMBASSADOR SALES: And part of our response is to use our unilateral authorities to deprive these groups of the resources they need, in addition to using a deterrence posture to prevent attacks on our soldiers. There are tools that we can use on our own, and that is our financial sanctions pressure, to starve these groups of resources.
MODERATOR: Okay. We have time for one more, because our briefers have a hard stop. But Conor.
QUESTION: For Assistant Secretary Schenker, on Idlib. As you know, over – or nearly a million people now have been displaced by the Assad regime and Russia’s warplanes, hundreds killed, people dying of the cold, including children. I know that the administration has condemned the offensive, but are you considering any urgent action, whether it be requesting emergency funding from Congress to help the humanitarian crisis, or sending someone to Moscow to talk to the Russian Government? Any – or even support for Ankara and their request for Patriot missiles?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Well, I know that Ambassador Jeffrey just returned from a trip to the region. Joel Rayburn is out there again right now, the DAS in NEA. I think I can better direct you to him on these questions. But we’ll put it to them, and I’ll get your more details on exactly the state of play, as I can’t comment on the Patriot story. I’m not going to. But it is atrocious what’s going on there. This is intentional, and atrocities are being perpetrated, and it’s an outrage.
AMBASSADOR SALES: And the only other thing I would add to that is that it has nothing at all to do with counterterrorism. The Assad regime’s interest in Idlib has nothing to do with fighting terrorists that are there, and everything to do with reestablishing control over territory and subjecting the civilian population there to the sort of brutality we’ve come to expect from that regime. And the same goes for the Assad regime’s outside enablers. They’re not concerned about fighting terrorists; they’re concerned about reestablishing hegemony.
MODERATOR: Thank you.
AMBASSADOR SALES: Thanks.
QUESTION: Thank you.