HOST: Welcome to LiveAtState, the State Department’s interactive virtual press briefing platform. I’m delighted to welcome participants joining us today from around the Western Hemisphere region and across the globe. Today we’ll be speaking with Ambassador Nathan A. Sales, the U.S. Coordinator for Counterterrorism.
Ambassador Sales leads the State Department’s Counterterrorism Bureau and serves as the principal advisor to the Secretary of State on international counterterrorism matters. Before joining the State Department, Ambassador Sales was a distinguished legal scholar and previously served as deputy assistant secretary for policy in the Department of Homeland Security. He also worked on counterterrorism policy in the Department of Justice. He’s happy to take your questions today on the threats posed by transnational terrorist groups, including ISIS, al-Qaida, and Lebanese Hizballah, on the – to the collective safety and security of the countries in the Western Hemisphere and their citizens. He is also happy to comment on the results of yesterday’s landmark ministerial conference on counterterrorism in the Western Hemisphere region, hosted by the Department of State.
Before I turn it over to Ambassador Sales for some opening remarks, I would like to make a few comments on procedures for questions. You can start submitting your questions now in the box on the top right of your screen that says “Type your question.” Please, feel free to leave questions in English, Spanish, or Portuguese, and our moderators will translate as necessary. If you see a colleague ask a question you’d also like us to answer, you can up-vote it by clicking the “Like” button to the right of that question. We will try to answer as many as we can, but our time is limited, so show your support for the questions you’d most like us to cover.
A quick note on interpretation as well. This programs is being presented online in English with a Spanish voiceover. The broadcast is in stereo, however, so you can isolate one language by selecting a specific audio channel on your device. If you’re listening through headphones, you should hear English in one headphone and Spanish in the other.
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With that, let’s get started. Ambassador Sales, thank you for joining us today. I’ll turn it over to you for opening remarks.
AMBASSADOR SALES: Well, thanks very much. Hello and good morning. Yesterday the State Department hosted a ministerial-level dialogue focused on counterterrorism in the Western Hemisphere. Thirteen key North, Central and South American partners joined the United States for this landmark meeting. It’s tempting to think of terrorism as a problem that’s confined to the far reaches of the globe, but these partners and the United States know that transnational terrorist groups pose a threat here in our own hemisphere, whether it’s ISIS or al-Qaida or Iran-backed terrorist groups like Hizballah. These threats must be taken seriously.
I look forward to answering your questions today on the ministerial and the work we’ll be doing to keep our neighborhoods safe from transnational terrorist threats.
HOST: Great. With that, let’s get started with questions. Our first question comes from Monalisa Freiha from the An-Nahar Newspaper, and it is: Have you noticed any changes in Hizballah activities since imposing more sanctions on the organization and the re-imposing of U.S. sanctions on Iran?
AMBASSADOR SALES: We know that Iran is the principal benefactor of Hizballah. Hizballah receives – in the past has received some $700 million a year. That’s an enormous amount of money and it’s money that should properly be going to the Iranian people to address their needs and to address their priorities. Instead, we know what the priority of the Iranian regime is. It’s to spread bloodshed around the world using its proxies. We know that – we’ve seen evidence that as we have tightened the screws on Iran by imposing sanctions, we know that the money that otherwise would have been made available to Hizballah has to go to other purposes, which makes it even more important for us and for our partners to use our own efforts to cut off the sources of money that Hizballah will be looking to use to make up for the revenues that they’re losing as a result of sanctions on Iran.
HOST: Thank you. Next question comes from O Estado de Sao Paulo in Brazil. The question is: There have always been rumors of Hizballah activity in the Triple Frontier between – excuse me, I just lost that question. There we go, got it back. There’s always been rumors of Hizballah activity in the Triple Frontier region between Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. How is the situation now? Is there any – are there any new findings about activities in that area?
AMBASSADOR SALES: Yes. Well, Lebanese Hizballah has fundraising networks across the globe, not just in the Middle East but also in Africa and in South America as well, and one of the regions in which they have been most active in funneling money back home for use in terrorism is the tri-border region of Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil. Just a couple of months ago Argentina froze the assets of the Barakat Clan, which is one of the most prolific fundraising networks that Hizballah has in the region, and we commend Argentina for that step.
In addition, shortly after that the Government of Brazil arrested a leader of the Barakat Clan, Barakat himself, in connection with this fundraising network. We commend Brazil for that effort as well and we look forward to a successful resolution of that case.
HOST: Another question coming in now from Brazil, from Patricia Campos Mello from Folha de Sao Paulo: The incoming administration in Brazil has stated that protection of the borders is a top priority. How could the U.S. work with Brazil to strengthen border protection, and what are the main terrorist threats now in Brazil?
AMBASSADOR SALES: I think the recent election in Brazil creates a new opportunity for a renewed and expanded partnership between our two countries and we look forward to exploring the possibilities of that relationship as the new administration takes office in Brazil.
When it comes to border security, one of the most important things we can do to secure our borders or that any country can do to secure its borders is to make sure that they have the data they need to analyze inbound and outbound international travelers.
Last December the United Nations Security Council adopted a new resolution, Resolution 2396, which calls on all UN member-states to analyze passenger name recognize data. This is essentially the data you give to an airline when you book a ticket. This is a very powerful tool that we can use to spot known terrorists, but just as importantly, to spot unknown terrorists by identifying links between bad actors we know about and folks who are not yet on our radar screen. We’ll be looking to work with Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, any country in the region, any country in the world to stand up these capabilities.
HOST: Staying on Brazil, another question from O Estado de Sao Paulo: Are there ISIS cells operating now in Brazil?
AMBASSADOR SALES: Well, we know that ISIS has been active in the Western Hemisphere. Just last – just this year the Carnival plot in Trinidad and Tobago opened a lot of people’s eyes about the need to be mindful of this threat here at home. ISIS is not just in Syria and Iraq. It’s not just in Mindanao in the Philippines. The Trinidad and Tobago plot is a reminder that we need to be aware of this threat here and to take decisive action against it. We’ve worked very closely with Trinidad and Tobago on the plot and in the aftermath of its uncovering, and we’re eager to work with other partners in the Western Hemisphere on this threat as well.
HOST: So next question comes from Beatriz Pascual Macias with the EFE news agency. She asks: In the Western Hemisphere, what is the possible connection between transnational organizations such as the ELN and terrorist groups such as Hizballah, and did this topic come up in yesterday’s ministerial?
AMBASSADOR SALES: Our focus was largely on transnational terrorist groups, those backed by state sponsors, such as Iran-backed terrorist groups including Hizballah, as well as the transnational terrorist groups that we have been focusing on since 9/11, namely al-Qaida and its offshoots, as well as ISIS and its global network of affiliates.
HOST: Another question along the same lines, an advance question that we got from reporter Maria Zuppello who is also in Sao Paulo, which is: Do you have any information about partnerships between groups like the Calabrian mafia and jihadists in Latin America?
AMBASSADOR SALES: We know that terrorists are opportunistic. We know that they will look for any opportunity available to them to raise money, to move weapons, to move personnel. So we have to be mindful of any possible links to organized crime or other illicit businesses in order to cut off the flow of money, in order to cut off the flow of persons and material.
HOST: New question coming in from Cristobal Vasquez with Caracol Radio in Colombia. The question is: Is the FARC guerilla organization going to be taken off the U.S. terrorist list considering the peace agreement recently signed in Colombia? Has the FARC continued their drug-dealing activities?
AMBASSADOR SALES: Well, our hope is that the recent agreement gives the people of Colombia what they deserve, which is peace and stability. We’ll be watching this very closely to ensure that the terms of the agreement are faithfully implemented by all parties.
HOST: Turning to Europe, we have a question from Anton Chudakov with the TASS News Agency in Russia.
He says: Deputy Secretary Sullivan will lead an interagency counterterrorism dialogue with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Syromolotov in Vienna on the 13th of December. Can you say anything about your expectations concerning the meeting and what topics might be discussed?
AMBASSADOR SALES: Right. So we remain concerned about destabilizing behavior by Russia. Despite those concerns, the deputy secretary will be meeting with his Russian counterpart to see if there are areas of mutual cooperation that we can address to improve the security and safety of the American people. If a country has information that can save American lives, we want to hear about it.
HOST: A question coming in now – let’s see, turning to the Middle East, a question from Al Zaman newspaper: The U.S. names Hamas a terrorist group. What about the Israeli bombs on Gaza that kill children?
AMBASSADOR SALES: Well, Hamas has been very clear in its ambitions. It is an eliminationist group that denies the right of Israel to exist. That is why the United States has never wavered in our condemnation of this group as a terrorist organization. It was one of the first groups we designated as a terrorist organization back in 1997, and successive administrations since then have seen it for what it is: a group that is devoted to the destruction of Israel and that uses terrorism as a tool to accomplish that.
HOST: Continuing in the Middle East, also from Al Zaman newspaper. They mention: Israel has discovered a second tunnel between Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. How would you describe that connection?
AMBASSADOR SALES: A connection between what?
HOST: That’s a good question, and unfortunately, maybe we can throw it back to the reporter to clarify that question and come back to it.
AMBASSADOR SALES: Right. In the meantime, let me just say that the United States supports any reasonable effort that any country must take to defend itself against external threats. We know that these tunnels are a tool for moving personnel, for moving weapons to commit terrorist attacks on Israel, and we support the right of Israel to defend itself.
HOST: Another advance question coming in from Maria Zuppello in Sao Paulo, to return it back to our Western Hemisphere focus: We know that Hizballah is in partnership with the PCC and some Colombian cartels like the Urabenos. What about these – what connection is there between these criminal groups and jihadists in Latin America?
AMBASSADOR SALES: Well, we must always be mindful of the risk that terrorist groups will opportunistically seek to leverage relationships with organized crime, illicit businesses, or other bad actors. Terrorist groups are opportunistic. They will seek chances to raise money to support their operations, to smuggle personnel in order to commit terrorist attacks. And we must always be mindful of the adaptive nature of our adversaries. They will work with whoever suits their interests to work with. We have to be mindful of that and keep an eye on it and take steps to counter it.
HOST: Staying again in the Western Hemisphere region, Valentina Antolinez from RCN Radio asks: Does the United States have any evidence of alliances between the Colombian guerrillas and the Government of Venezuela?
AMBASSADOR SALES: Well, we have called on the Government of Venezuela to respect the human rights of its citizens. We are watching with great distress the unfolding humanitarian situation in Venezuela. We are also hopeful, as I indicated earlier, that the peace agreement in Colombia holds and that the people of Colombia receive the benefits of that agreement: peace, stability, order, and tranquility.
HOST: Staying on the same theme, another question, if there’s anything to add, from O Estado de Sao Paulo in Brazil, about: Is there any evidence of collusion, any collusion at all between Colombian guerrillas, mostly the ELN, and the Venezuela army, specifically in drug trafficking in the Andes?
AMBASSADOR SALES: I think my previous answer covers that one as well.
HOST: Covers that one, great. Staying on Venezuela, a question from Jesus La Patilla – Jesus from lapatilla.com: How do you see the Venezuelan Government’s relationship with Iran? What would be the approach of the U.S. Government for the coming months and years?
AMBASSADOR SALES: Well, the Government of Venezuela has no qualms about associating with some of the world’s most sordid actors, Iran being among them. Iran is, as we all know, the world’s preeminent state sponsor of terrorism. It uses terrorism as a tool of statecraft, committing attacks and carrying out operational planning in places as far afield as Africa, South America, Europe. Just the past several months we’ve seen Iranian diplomats – I use the term advisedly – orchestrating terrorist plots in the heart of Western Europe – a plot to bomb a political rally outside of Paris, a plot to assassinate figures in Denmark. This is not the sort of regime with which any respectable nation should seek to do business.
HOST: Another question coming in from Patricia Campos Mello in Sao Paolo, which is: Besides financing Hizballah, what other terrorist activities do you see ongoing right now in Brazil?
AMBASSADOR SALES: Let me talk a bit about the sorts of threats we have to be prepared to address. We have to be prepared to address terrorist financing, whether it’s Hizballah financing or al-Qaida or Iran. And I’m speaking not just to Brazil and the region, but globally. We also have to be mindful of the risk of terrorist travel. Terrorists rely on travel to raise money, to case their targets, to receive training. And so we need to have in place the tools to identify terrorists as they seek to cross our borders and prevent them from doing so.
We also have to be mindful of the utility of criminal prosecutions. We tend to think of counterterrorism as kinetic, as military, and the Defeat ISIS Coalition’s efforts against ISIS in its false caliphate of Syria and Iraq are an excellent example of what that can look like. But terrorism isn’t just for the military. It’s also a crime that is effectively addressed through prosecution in civilian courts. And so we have to be aware of conduct that terrorists and their supporters might be committing that runs afoul of our laws, and the need to use our criminal laws to cut off that threat to us and our allies.
HOST: Another question from Caracol Radio, from Cristobal Vasquez: Is the United States open to giving military support to Colombia considering Maduro’s threats to security in the region? Also considering that the Russians are providing Venezuela with airplanes.
AMBASSADOR SALES: I’m going to defer to my colleagues at the Pentagon and in our Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, as my writ is more narrowly focused on terrorism problems in particular.
HOST: So getting back to that core issue of terrorism problems, Alfredo Crespo asks: What are – what important links exist, or are there, between al-Qaida and ISIS now?
AMBASSADOR SALES: ISIS is an offshoot of al-Qaida. The group that we now know as ISIS was originally formed in Iraq in the 2000s, early 2000s, when it was known as al-Qaida in Iraq. The groups differ in important respects in terms of their aspirations and tactics, but they are fundamentally aligned with each other insofar as they both seek to use violence as a tool for achieving political ends. That’s the very definition of terrorism, and al-Qaida and ISIS are examples of that without peer in this world.
HOST: Great. Well, I can see we are getting close to running out of time, so I’d like to ask viewers if you have any last questions to submit, please get them in now. We have Ambassador Sales for a few more minutes, ready to answer your questions.
Let me turn to another question about Venezuela from Duda Teixeira. He asks, simply: What are the terrorist groups that are being supported by Venezuela today?
AMBASSADOR SALES: Well, we have a statutory framework in the United States that spells out what criteria must be met in order for a country, any country, to be named a state sponsor of terrorism. What it boils down to is the Secretary of State must make a determination that a particular country has repeatedly provided support to acts of international terrorism. Now, here at the State Department we’re constantly monitoring any country around the world to assess whether there is reliable information that would indicate whether or not a country meets that statutory threshold.
HOST: We have – going to turn to an advance question from reporter Carmen Chamorro. She’s asking about violent social movements that are taking place in Europe right now in places like Spain and France. Do you think these show evidence of a specific pattern of terrorism or is it possible that there is a main power sponsoring these social movements?
AMBASSADOR SALES: It’s difficult to answer that question without knowing a bit more about the specific movements that the questioner has in mind. What I can tell you is that at the State Department, and throughout the U.S. Government’s counterterrorism bureaucracy, what we’re focused on as our top priority are transnational terrorism groups that pose a threat to the United States national security, and that pose a threat to the interests of our country, and that pose a threat to the safety and security of Americans abroad.
HOST: We’ve talked about connections between terrorist groups and organized crime in a number of different countries. On that theme, we have a question from Carolina Rivera, who asks: Do you have any information that there are terrorist groups connected to organized crime, specifically in Mexico?
AMBASSADOR SALES: Well I think I’m going to fall back on the answers that I’ve given to similar questions earlier. We know that terrorist groups, globally, are opportunistic. We know that they seek opportunities to work with organizations and individuals that will help them facilitate their terrorist agenda. They’re looking for hired guns who will help them move money, move weapons, move people. We have to mindful of that threat, whether it’s in our hemisphere or elsewhere around the world.
HOST: And I think we have time for one last question, again, turning to Patricia Campos Mello from Folha de Sao Paulo. The Brazilian congress is debating new legislation for the prosecution of terrorism activity. Previously, this type of crime was not characterized in the penal code. What is the importance of anti-terrorism legislation and is the United States consulting with Brazilian authorities on that topic?
AMBASSADOR SALES: It’s really important for Brazil or any country to have on its books laws that are adequate to address the terrorist threat. Here in the United States, we have a law known as the material support statutes, which makes it a crime to provide weapons, money, expert advice and assistance, and various other types of support to terrorist organizations. That has enabled us to stop American citizens who might be tempted to go fight for ISIS, who might have made plans to go fight for ISIS, who might be raising money for Al-Qaida and so on. I think that kind of law is a model for what other countries can do to equip their prosecutors with the tools they need to address whether it’s Hizballah, ISIS, Al-Qaida, or any other transnational terrorist group.
HOST: Well, thank you sir. That is unfortunately all the time we have for today. To participants, thank you for your questions, and of course, thank you, Ambassador Sales, for joining us. To those who are watching online, let me remind you, if you would like to clip audio or video from today’s program, we will be able to send you links to broadcast-quality files momentarily. We will also provide a transcript as soon as it is available in English, Spanish, and Portuguese. If you would like to receive any of these products, please remember to fill out the survey located on the “Polls” tab of this event page, or you can send an e-mail to LiveAtState@state.gov. Thanks again for your participation and we hope that you can join us for another LiveAtState program very soon.