Remarks at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv Annual Conference
Ambassador-at-Large and Coordinator for Counterterrorism
I’d like to thank INSS for inviting me to speak at this conference. This is my fifth visit to Israel, and it’s a pleasure to be back. The past few days I’ve been in Jerusalem leading the American delegation for our annual counterterrorism dialogue. And let me just say what an honor it was to represent the United States in the capital of Israel.
We’ve held this dialogue for almost 25 years now, and it’s a testament to our shared determination to confront the terrorist threats we both face. When it comes to counterterrorism, the United States has no closer friend than Israel.
I’m here to talk about CT – one of the highest priorities for President Trump and Secretary Tillerson. But it’s worth taking a step back to reflect on the broader relationship between our two countries.
In a time of continued turbulence across the Middle East, Israel is a beacon of stability – the most successful democracy in the region. It’s also a beacon of prosperity. Israel has made itself into a leading center of technological innovation, with many top tech companies from the United States and around the globe opening up shop here. And in a part of the world where the rights of women and minorities are often severely constrained, Israel stands out as a pluralistic and open society – while still maintaining its Jewish identity.
These shared values are the reason for the unbreakable friendship between the United States and Israel. We believe in democracy and self-government. We reward innovation. We’re committed to individual rights, including the free exchange of ideas that is the hallmark of liberal democracy. We honor the right to dissent. We know that men are not angels, as James Madison put it, and so we put strict limits on government power.
America and Israel don’t just share common values. We also share common adversaries. That’s not a coincidence. Part of the reason our enemies target us is because of our open, liberal societies.
Today, Israel confronts a number of serious threats, right on its doorstep: An emboldened Iran and its terrorist partner Hizballah. A resilient and determined Hamas. An ISIS branch in the Sinai.
The President and the Secretary are committed to working hand-in-hand with our Israeli allies to tackle these challenges. I’d like to briefly outline how the Trump Administration views our shared threats, and what we’re doing to mitigate them – including several new actions we’re announcing today.
Let’s start with Iran.
While ISIS has justifiably dominated the headlines in recent years, Iran has extended its malign influence across the Middle East and around the world. Iran has played a key role in Syria, where the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Hizballah have provided critical help to the Assad regime throughout the bloody civil war. The IRGC has also backed the Houthi rebels in Yemen, providing them hundreds of millions of dollars and sophisticated military equipment.
Additionally, Iran has developed new militia forces in Syria and Iraq, primarily drawing on non-Iranian recruits. These battle hardened fighters could serve as an expeditionary force for the Iranian regime, returning home or redeploying to other countries to carry out Tehran’s commands.
Beyond its military interventions, Iran remains the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. It continues to support a rogues gallery of terrorist groups, including Hizballah, Hamas, Palestine Islamic Jihad, and others.
Here are some numbers. Iran gives Hizballah about $700 million a year. As for Palestinian terrorist groups, it gives them potentially up to $100 million annually.
Iran has also taken aim directly at the U.S. homeland. In 2011, senior IRGC commanders plotted to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador at a restaurant in Georgetown. Fortunately we disrupted the plot; had it succeeded, it could have killed dozens of innocent bystanders.
Let me say a few more words about Hizballah in particular.
Hizballah likes to tout its political role and social services in Lebanon. But the United States isn’t fooled. We know it for what it is: a terrorist group – indeed, the most powerful and capable of Tehran’s terrorist partners. It has perpetrated violence and destruction in Lebanon, throughout the region, and around the world.
Thanks to Iran’s backing, Hizballah continues to expand its arsenal in Lebanon. It now has more than 100,000 rockets or missiles, and it’s capable of hitting all of Israel with these weapons – a significant change from the situation in 2006.
It’s also clear that, despite the enormous costs of its military interventions in Syria and elsewhere, Hizballah remains committed to global terrorism. Consider a few examples just from the past six years:
In 2012, Hizballah bombed a bus in Burgas, Bulgaria that killed five Israeli tourists and one Bulgarian citizen. It also undertook two separate plots in Cyprus, in 2012 and in 2015. In recent years, Hizballah operatives have been caught laying the groundwork for attacks in places as far afield as Azerbaijan, Bolivia, Egypt, Peru, and Thailand. And Hizballah weapons caches have been discovered in the Gulf and Africa, among many other places.
The United States isn’t immune to this threat. In June 2017, the FBI arrested two alleged Hizballah operatives in New York and Michigan, who we believe were surveilling U.S. government facilities in the U.S. and in Latin America.
These plots cost a lot of money. And the resources Hizballah gets from the Iranian regime – remember that $700 million? – all of it comes out of the pockets of ordinary Iranians. We know what Tehran’s priorities are. It’s not boosting economic growth, improving wages, or driving down unemployment. It’s terrorism and regional hegemony. The Iranian people deserve better. And as President Trump reaffirmed last night, the United States stands with them in their desire for a better future.
While Iran and Hizballah may have a longer geographical reach, Hamas continues to pose a significant threat.
It’s been more than two decades since the United States first designated Hamas as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, or FTO. Indeed, it was one of the first groups we put on our FTO list back in the 1990s.
This audience is all too familiar with Hamas’s bloody history. But it’s important to recall the details at a time when Hamas is trying to rebrand itself.
Hamas has mercilessly targeted innocent civilians since its founding. In the 1990s, it carried out a deadly campaign of suicide bombings, killing almost 60 Israelis as well as a number of Americans. Just a few years ago, in 2014, it kidnapped and murdered three Israeli teenagers, one of whom was a dual U.S. citizen. And in 2016, a Hamas member conducted a suicide attack on a bus in Jerusalem, killing 20 people.
Hamas became even more ambitious in 2007, when it assumed control of Gaza and immediately intensified its terrorist campaign. Over the past decade, it has used its Gaza base to indiscriminately launch thousands of rockets into Israel. In July 2016, Hamas rockets hit a kindergarten in the southern Israeli town of Sderot. Fortunately no one was killed, but that was due to bad aim, not Hamas’s respect for innocent young life. A few years ago, Hamas even erected a monument in Gaza to its M75 rockets.
There’s no meaningful evidence that Hamas is willing to recognize Israel and abandon terrorism once and for all. Quite the contrary. Its new charter, released last year, remains committed to Israel’s destruction, calling for a Palestinian state that reaches from the “river to the sea.”
We all know what that means.
Hamas is also working hard to improve its missile and rocket capabilities. It budgets tens of millions of dollars annually for its military efforts, and those efforts are paying off. Early last year, it reportedly developed a new short-range rocket with a far larger explosive payload. These new weapons could have a devastating impact if and when Hamas uses them against Israel. No nation should have to live under that kind of threat.
In addition, Hamas continues to divert aid coming into Gaza for its terrorist purposes. Construction material that could be used to rebuild homes is regularly seized to construct tunnels into Israel for use in kidnapping operations and other terrorist attacks.
The bottom line is that, like the Iranian regime, Hamas values terrorism more highly than the needs of the people it purportedly represents.
Nor is Hamas the only bad actor in Gaza. A number of terrorist organizations are active there, including groups inspired by ISIS and al Qa’ida, as well as groups backed by Iran. Palestine Islamic Jihad is among the most notorious Iranian proxies, but a dangerous new group has also emerged – Harakat al Sabireen.
Harakat was founded in 2014 and, with support from Tehran, it has pursued an aggressive terrorist agenda ever since. The group has launched rockets into Israel and it previously built its own rocket factory in Gaza, which was later destroyed. In early 2016, Harakat launched a plot against Israeli targets – at Iranian direction and with Iranian funding. Fortunately, the Palestinian Authority disrupted the plot before it could come to fruition.
What We’re Doing About It
I’ve painted a pretty stark picture of the threats we face. Let me tell you what we’re doing about them.
Countering Iran and its terrorist partners is a top priority for the Trump Administration. We recently finalized a new, comprehensive Iran strategy, and now we’re beginning to implement it.
Our new approach marks a dramatic break from the past. We’re no longer downplaying the threat of Iran-backed militancy. Nor are we so focused on Iran’s nuclear program that we’re willing to overlook the regime’s many other malign activities. Earlier today, you heard my colleague Ambassador David Satterfield outline our Iran policy. The Trump Administration is addressing the totality of the threat Iran poses, and applying pressure to bring about a change in Tehran’s behavior.
Here are a few specifics.
In October, we took a major step forward to hold Iran accountable when the Treasury Department designated the IRGC a Specially Designated Global Terrorist, or SDGT, for its support to terrorism. We first designated the Qods Force in 2007, and now the IRGC has been listed in its entirety. This new designation will hit them where it hurts the most – in the wallet.
In addition to its terrorism and military adventurism, the IRGC has deeply penetrated the Iranian economy. That means that any legitimate business attempting to work in Iran is at risk of financing the IRGC – and, by extension, giving it the resources it needs to fuel its aggression. We’re making sure that companies everywhere understand this risk.
The Trump Administration will continue to use designations aggressively to pressure Iran and its proxies. Today, I’m announcing that the United States has designated Harakat al Sabireen, the Iran-backed group in Gaza, as an SDGT. Attacking the group’s funding isn’t just good for security. It will also help keep the group from further destabilizing an already volatile situation in Gaza.
While we’re in the region, let me say a few words about the situation across the border in Egypt. Egypt is an important counterterrorism partner for the U.S., and it’s facing some serious and growing threats.
In addition to a number of domestic terrorist organizations, there’s an active ISIS branch in the Sinai. ISIS-Sinai is one of the group’s most sophisticated and lethal affiliates, targeting and killing Egyptian security forces on a near daily basis. Last year it conducted horrific attacks on Coptic Christian churches in the Nile valley and on a mosque in Northern Sinai, killing over 300 people. And in 2015, it downed a jetliner flying from Sharm El Sheikh to Russia, killing 224.
The United States has used our sanctions authorities to choke off the flow of money to ISIS-Sinai. We designated the group as an FTO in 2016, and we designated its leader as an SDGT last year.
More broadly, we’re committed to helping our Egyptian partners build their capabilities to defeat the terrorist threats they face. That’s why we’re providing Cairo a range of security assistance that prioritizes counterterrorism, the Sinai, and border and maritime security.
Today, the United States is designating two more groups in Egypt as SDGTs – Liwa al-Thawra and HASM. Each is a violent group that’s splintered off from the Muslim Brotherhood.
Liwa al-Tharwa has perpetrated a number of terrorist attacks against Egyptian government targets in recent years. In October 2016, the group assassinated a top Egyptian general outside his home in Cairo. And in the same year, it bombed a police center in the city of Tanta.
HASM was responsible for assassinating Egypt’s chief prosecutor, killing a key officer in the National Security Agency, and the attempted murder of the former Grand Mufti.
In addition, the Trump Administration is ramping up our efforts against Hizballah. We’re using our law enforcement and financial tools to disrupt its networks, target its financial resources, and squeeze it out of the international financial system.
The U.S. has charged the two Hizballah operatives arrested in June, and we’ve prosecuted a number of other people for Hizballah-related crimes over the years. We’ve also designated more than 100 Hizballah individuals and entities around the world under a range of legal authorities.
We’re also using the Rewards for Justice program, or RFJ, to increase pressure on Hizballah. In October, we announced two awards for information leading to the identification or location of two key Hizballah leaders – $7 million for Talal Hamiyah and $5 million for Fu’ad Shukr.
Hamiyah is the head of the ESO – Hizballah’s international terrorism branch. Shukr is a senior military commander and a member of the Jihad Council. He also helped plan the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Beirut.
Far more work remains to be done. Hizballah is not sanctioned by the UN. Nor is it sanctioned regionally or at national levels in South America, Africa, or Southeast Asia – all areas where the group is active. And some countries have only designated Hizballah’s so-called “military” wing, embracing the fiction that the group’s “political” activities can somehow be cordoned off from its terrorism.
Of course, we know that money is fungible. Every dollar given to a Hizballah hospital frees up a dollar to buy rockets.
In any event, these gaps are not merely symbolic. They limit governments’ ability to freeze Hizballah’s assets, shut down its front companies, eliminate its fundraising and recruiting networks, and prosecute its operatives. Pressing for greater international action against Hizballah is one of our top diplomatic priorities, and we’re already engaging our partners at high levels to deliver this message.
The bottom line here is that Hizballah is vulnerable. The numerous plots disrupted over the last several years show that it can be thwarted through constant vigilance and close international coordination.
Finally, we’re increasing pressure on Hamas as well.
Today, we’re designating a senior Hamas leader, Ismail Haniyeh, as an SDGT. Haniyeh is the president of Hamas’ Political Bureau. He’s also closely tied to the group’s terrorist operations, including attacks on Israeli citizens. Haniyeh has been a member of Hamas since the 1980s, and he rose through the ranks in large part by championing terrorism against Israel.
Haniyeh’s calls for a renewed intifada just last month underline how important today’s designation is. We will not be distracted by Hamas’s efforts to obscure its true and bloody nature.
Counterterrorism is just one aspect of the broader U.S-Israel partnership, but it’s a vital one that benefits both nations. Both the American and the Israeli people are safer today because of the long-standing and deep CT cooperation between our countries. Our continued counterterrorism cooperation is essential to our collective security.