Thank you, Dina, and thanks to the American Jewish Committee for inviting me to speak today about the Trump Administration’s efforts to counter the threat of terrorism in the Western Hemisphere. I’m especially pleased to see that Daniel Pomerantz is here, the Executive Director of AMIA, and a survivor of the 1994 Hizballah terrorist bombing in Buenos Aires. Daniel has worked diligently to see that the perpetrators face justice and to prevent future attacks.
Let me begin by commending AJC for your leadership on these issues, particularly in highlighting Hizballah’s dangerous presence in Latin America.
It’s easy to think about terrorism as a problem that’s confined to the Middle East. But in reality it’s a global threat. Countries around the world have suffered deadly terrorist attacks – in Asia, in Africa, and right here in the Western Hemisphere.
That’s what I’ll be speaking about today: the terrorist threat in the Western Hemisphere, as well as the steps we’ve been taking to counter it. I’ll focus primarily on the threat posed by Hizballah, the Iranian regime’s most dangerous and lethal terrorist proxy, which remains active here in our neighborhood even as we speak.
I. Terrorism in the Western Hemisphere
The hemisphere has long faced a variety of terrorist threats. Let me share a few highlights taken from our recently released Country Reports on Terrorism for 2018:
- In 2018, Hizballah continued its long history of activity in the Western Hemisphere, including its use of Hizballah financiers who continued to operate in the Tri-Border Area (TBA) of South America, where Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay meet. Individuals affiliated with al-Qa’ida and other international terrorist groups, including ISIS, continued attempts to exploit the region.
- In February 2018, authorities in Trinidad and Tobago disrupted an ISIS-inspired plot to attack the country’s Carnival celebrations.
- The Caribbean – particularly Trinidad and Tobago – have been significant per capita sources of ISIS foreign terrorist fighters.
More recently, in August of this year, the FBI added a Brazil-based al-Qa’ida facilitator to a list of wanted terrorists, seeking to question him about his involvement in attack planning against the United States.
All of these present a danger to the region. But the terrorist group that carried out the most devastating terrorist attack in South America, and that carries out the orders of its masters in Tehran to this day, is Hizballah.
In July, we marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of Hizballah’s bombing of the AMIA Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires – an attack carried out with the full support and direction of Iran. An attack that demonstrated that Iran and Hizballah were ready to strike anywhere for any reason.
Secretary Pompeo has emphasized that “Iran is the world’s largest state sponsor of terror.” That was true in 1994, when AMIA was bombed, and it’s true now. The leaders in Tehran endorsed the attack. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, provided funding and logistical support. And Hizballah carried out the operation.
Twenty five years later, these threats remain undiminished. The regime in Tehran continues to provide millions of dollars every year to terrorists across the world. Historically, it has given Hizballah alone some $700 million a year. It does this despite ongoing economic turmoil that has impoverished its people and led to widespread protests. Tehran’s priorities are clear. It doesn’t seek to boost economic growth at home, or to reduce Iran’s growing unemployment. What the regime prioritizes is buying guns and bombs to export terror.
Hizballah continues to have our hemisphere squarely in its sights today.
In January, Hizballah proclaimed its support for the corrupt regime of Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela. Additionally, Tarick El Aissimi, Maduro’s former Vice President and a Hizballah supporter, was indicted by the U.S. in March 2019 for violating U.S. sanctions laws.
A few other examples are worth highlighting. There’s Mohammed Hamdar, an alleged Hizballah member who was arrested in 2014 and is currently on trial in Peru on terrorism charges. Assad Ahmad Barakat, a key Hizballah financier, is now sitting in jail in Brazil, awaiting extradition to Paraguay on several criminal charges.
Relatedly, Argentina has frozen the assets of 14 members of the “Barakat Clan,” an extended family and illicit finance network that has raised funds for Hizballah. Then there’s Nader Farhat, a Hizballah supporter who was recently extradited from Paraguay to the U.S. to face federal money laundering charges in Florida. The loosely regulated Tri-Border Area, where Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay meet, continues to be a node of Hizballah activity.
Hizballah is also active right here in the United States. Just last week, a federal court in New York sentenced a Hizballah operative named Ali Kourani to 40 years in prison. Kourani was convicted of planning terrorist attacks in New York City, and spent years conducting surveillance on the City’s critical infrastructure, federal buildings, international airports, and even daycare centers.
In September, the Justice Department indicted Alexei Saab, an alleged Hizballah operative and naturalized U.S. citizen, for scouting possible targets in our country for attack. This allegedly included UN headquarters, the Statue of Liberty, Rockefeller Center, and Times Square, along with New York area airports, bridges, and tunnels.
The charges against Saab followed on the heels of an FBI arrest of another Hizballah operative in 2017, Samir el-Debek. El-Debek allegedly was surveilling potential targets at Hizballah’s direction in Panama, including the Panama Canal.
Of course, for Hizballah, the Western Hemisphere is just the tip of the iceberg. It is a truly global threat.
Hizballah has operatives, financiers, front companies, and other assets in Lebanon, in the Gulf, in Africa, in Asia, and in Europe. In recent years, Hizballah operatives have been caught preparing and laying the groundwork for attacks as far afield as Azerbaijan, Bolivia, Cyprus, Egypt, Peru, and Thailand. Hizballah likes to masquerade as a defender of the Lebanese people, but these actions reveal its true agenda: global terrorism.
Its patrons in Tehran are committed to the same agenda. And in 2018, the Iranian regime struck at the heart of Europe.
At the very same time our European friends were rallying to preserve the flawed nuclear deal, the Iranians were plotting terrorist attacks in their capital cities. Last year, in June, authorities in Germany, Belgium, and France thwarted an Iranian plot to bomb a political rally near Paris, arresting several Iranian operatives, including an official operating under diplomatic cover in Austria. In October 2018, Danish authorities stopped an Iranian plot to assassinate an opposition figure living in Denmark. A few years earlier, in 2015 and again in 2017, Iran assassinated opposition figures in the Netherlands.
Why would Tehran target Europe at the same time it’s engaging Europe to salvage the JCPOA? Its plotting calls to mind the fable about the scorpion that stings the frog carrying it across a river, dooming them both. The Iranian regime can’t help it. This is its nature.
II. Countering Terrorism Worldwide
Let me say a few words now about what the Trump Administration has been doing to counter Iranian and Hizballah terrorism, both in Latin America and elsewhere.
Under the President’s leadership, we’ve intensified our counterterrorism efforts against Iran, the IRGC, and Hizballah worldwide. This April, Secretary Pompeo took the unprecedented step of designating the IRGC, including its Qods Force, as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, or FTO. This was the first time we’ve ever designated part of a government as an FTO. The U.S. government now formally acknowledges the reality that the IRGC doesn’t just finance and promote terrorism. It actively engages in terrorist activity as a tool of statecraft.
To further squeeze Iran, in September the State Department announced a Rewards for Justice offer of up to $15 million for information leading to the disruption of IRGC financial mechanisms. Last week, we announced another $15 million offer, this time for information relating to Abdul Reza Shahlai, a senior Qods Force commander based in Yemen. Shahlai has a long history of involvement in attacks targeting the U.S. and our allies, including in the 2011 plot against the Saudi Ambassador here in Washington, DC.
To counter Hizballah, we’re using law enforcement and financial tools to disrupt its networks. We’re hitting its wallet and denying it the funds it needs to commit terrorism around the world. All told, the U.S. government has designated approximately 170 entities and individuals tied to Hizballah, including more than 50 since 2017.
We’ve sanctioned Jawad Nasrallah, the son of Hizballah’s Secretary General and a Hizballah leader in his own right. We’ve designated Hizballah’s security and intelligence chiefs, along with two Hizballah members of the Lebanese parliament. We’ve sanctioned members of Hizballah’s Shura Council, key operational leaders in the Western Hemisphere, and financiers raising money for the group. We’re hitting all levels of the organization and its support network with our sanctions, and we’ll continue to do so.
The State Department’s Rewards for Justice Program also recently offered up to $10 million for information leading to the disruption of Hizballah’s financial mechanisms. This was the first time we’ve issued an RFJ reward focused solely on Hizballah financing.
Our sanctions are starving these terrorists of the money they need to plot attacks worldwide. The good news is that Hizballah is feeling the pinch. As our sanctions squeeze the Iranian regime, Hizballah has had to tighten its belt. The group’s Secretary General, Hassan Nasrallah, is now publicly pleading for donations; “The resistance needs your support,” he said. In the last several months, Hizballah has been forced to implement unprecedented austerity measures because money isn’t flowing in from Iran like it once did.
We will continue to increase the financial pressure and impose costs on the Iranian regime and its terrorist proxies until they abandon their outlaw behavior.
Here at home, we’re actively working with our partners in this hemisphere to counter Hizballah and other terrorists. Those efforts are paying significant dividends. Earlier this year, Argentina announced that it was creating a new terrorism sanctions regime and placed Hizballah on the list. Paraguay likewise adopted its own sanctions framework, designating Hizballah, ISIS, al Qa’ida, and Hamas.
Other countries in the region are now considering following suit, and we’ve seen progress outside Latin America as well. Several months ago, the UK and Kosovo took actions to designate Hizballah as a terrorist group.
The world is finally recognizing the truth: Hizballah is a terrorist organization. Period. It exists to pursue its goals, and those of its Iranian patron, through murder and intimidation.
These historic achievements were enabled by a campaign of smart and steady diplomacy. It culminated in July of this year, when the U.S. and Argentina co-hosted the second Western Hemisphere Counterterrorism Ministerial, on the 25th anniversary of the AMIA bombing. We brought together 18 countries and the Organization of American States to bolster our counterterrorism cooperation, with a particular focus on the Hizballah threat.
A communique affirmed additional commitments to counter terrorist financing and terrorist travel, and concern over Hizballah’s activities in the region. These were major steps forward in a region long reluctant to acknowledge Hizballah’s presence.
The U.S., Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay also agreed to create a new mechanism to address threats in the Tri-Border Area, including Hizballah and organized crime. This Regional Security Mechanism, as it’s known, met for the first time in Asuncion in mid-November to begin tackling the most serious threats to our hemisphere.
Before I conclude, I’d like to speak for a few minutes about an issue of particular concern to this audience, and to the Administration. While the State Department is determined to counter transnational terrorist groups like Hizballah, we’re also expanding our efforts to combat racially or ethnically motivated terrorism – in particular, white supremacist terrorism.
The scourge of anti-Semitism keeps reappearing, as seen by horrific attacks targeting synagogues in Poway and Pittsburgh, and in Halle, Germany where worshippers were attacked on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. And we cannot forget the brutal attacks at mosques in Christchurch, which left more than 50 dead. These terrorists targeted people because of the religion they practice or the color of their skin.
The United States condemns these attacks unreservedly, and we will mobilize all the resources of the federal government to fight terrorism in all its forms. As President Trump said after the attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, “This evil, anti-Semitic attack is an assault on humanity…We must unite to conquer hate.” And we will.
Defeating these threats is a top national security priority. The Administration’s 2018 National Strategy for Counterterrorism specifically called out the threat of racially motivated terrorism. It was the first such strategy ever to do so.
At the State Department, we’re working to turn these words into actions. For instance, we’re working with social media companies to remove content that incites violence from their platforms. We’re also coordinating with foreign partners. Earlier this month, we arranged for a former Neo-Nazi to speak in Austria and Belgium about his community-based rehabilitation and reintegration programs in the U.S. – offering important lessons for our allies confronting similar challenges.
We will remain focused on how we can be most effective in countering the threat posed by these groups to U.S. partners and U.S. interests abroad. We will do this by working with international partners, the law enforcement community, advocacy groups like the AJC, and members of faith communities, leveraging the full range of tools at our disposal.
Thank you again for giving me the honor of addressing your distinguished organization. I wish you the greatest success in your important work.