Moderator: Good afternoon from the U.S. State Department’s Brussels Media Hub. I’d like to welcome all participants to today’s telephonic press briefing with Ambassador-at-Large Nathan Sales, the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism. Ambassador Sales will be discussing steps the United States is taking to defeat Hizballah’s terrorist activities in Europe and around the world.
We will begin with opening remarks from Ambassador Sales, and then we will turn to your questions. We will do our best to get to as many as possible in the time that we have today, which is approximately 30 minutes. As a reminder, today’s call is on the record. And with that, I will turn it over to Ambassador Sales. Please go ahead.
Ambassador Sales: Thanks very much, Justin, for organizing the call. And thanks to our journalist friends who are on the line today. I’ll speak very briefly. I just came from a panel discussion hosted by the American Jewish Committee about the Hizballah threat to Europe, and I wanted to share with you some of the key points that came up during this conference.
The United States has long designated Hizballah as a terrorist organization in its entirety. That goes back to 1997. And we encourage more countries around the world to do the same, that is to say, to reject the false notion that there is a distinction between a so-called political wing of Hizballah and Hizballah’s terrorist enterprises. Our ask is for more countries to designate Hizballah in its entirety.
We’re seeing really incredible moments on that front as more and more countries around the world recognize reality and designate or ban the group in its entirety. In 2019, the United Kingdom did so. Germany this year banned Hizballah in its entirety. And just within the past several months we’ve seen similar announcements from Lithuania, Kosovo, and Serbia. Closer to home, here in the Western Hemisphere we’ve seen incredible momentum with countries like Argentina, Paraguay, Colombia, and Honduras designating or banning Hizballah in its entirety within the past 18 months.
Part of the reason why these groups – these countries are designating Hizballah is because they recognize the threat that Hizballah poses to the world and to them. Earlier today I revealed new information about the threat that Hizballah poses to Europe and its presence in Europe, and I’d like to share that previously sensitive information with you now.
Since 2012, Hizballah has established caches of ammonium nitrate throughout Europe by transporting first aid kits whose cold packs contain the substance. And as we all saw in the Port of Beirut explosion, ammonium nitrate is a truly dangerous substance.
To continue, I can reveal that such caches have been moved through Belgium to France, Greece, Italy, Spain, and Switzerland. I can also reveal that significant ammonium nitrate caches have been discovered or destroyed in France, Greece, and Italy. We have reason to believe that this activity is still underway. As of 2018, ammonium nitrate caches were still suspected throughout Europe, possibly in Greece, Italy, and Spain.
And that is why we continue to regard Hizballah as a threat, not just to the United States but to our European allies as well. And that is why we renew our call for more countries to designate Hizballah in its entirety, and for the European Union to expand its 2013 designation of the so-called military wing to reach the entire organization.
And with that, I’d be happy to entertain a few questions.
Moderator: Thanks very much for those remarks, Ambassador. We will now turn to the question-and-answer portion of today’s call. Our first question will go to Hadi Bou Chaaya calling in from Lebanon. Please go ahead.
Moderator: Hadi Bou Chaaya with Al Hadeel in Lebanon, please go ahead.
Question: Okay. Just one moment, please. Our first question is, what’s your assessment of the reality that Hizballah and its [inaudible] within Lebanon and the region?
Ambassador Sales: I’m sorry. There was a big of a garble there. Could you please repeat the question?
Question: What’s your assessment of the reality that Hizballah and its [inaudible] represent in Lebanon and the region?
Ambassador Sales: Well, we think that Hizballah is not a force for stability in Lebanon. To the contrary, we think that Hizballah is a force for instability in Lebanon. Hizballah is not a solution to Lebanon’s problems. Hizballah is the cause of Lebanon’s problems. It has helped foster a culture of corruption and impunity. It has enriched itself at the expense of the Lebanese people. And the solution is for us to recognize the reality that Hizballah is not a political organization. It’s not a legitimate representative of the Lebanese people. What it is, is a terrorist organization that exists to shed blood around the world, act at the behest of its masters in Tehran. The way to address this problem is to call it for what it is, and marginalize and isolate Hizballah as the terrorist group that it is. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you very much. Our next question comes to us from Maria Maalouf with Saudi24. Please go ahead, Maria.
Question: Yes, dear Ambassador. I see that most European countries consider that Hizballah is a completely terrorist organization. This was well-received by the United States. But the question is, why France is dealing with flexibility with Hizballah in Lebanon?
Ambassador Sales: Well, thanks for the question. I think a number of European countries, like the UK and Germany, share our view that Hizballah is a terrorist organization through and through. We’d like to see more join the club, as it were. When it comes to France and our objectives in Lebanon, I think France and the United States share the same goal; we all want to see a Lebanon that is sovereign, that is prosperous, and that is stable. At the same time, I think we have to recognize that we have some pretty substantial disagreements about how best to accomplish that goal.
We do not think that it is helpful to engage with Hizballah as though it were a legitimate political actor. In our view, those sorts of engagements only serve to legitimize what is in fact a terrorist organization. Instead, the U.S. approach is to engage with the legitimate organs of the Lebanese state, including providing extensive assistance to those entities in the hopes that the Lebanese state can stand up strong and prosper without Hizballah’s interference.
Since 2006, the United States has invested billions of dollars in Lebanon. We’ve devoted more than $2 billion to improve the capabilities of Lebanon security services. We’ve also devoted more than a billion dollars of economic assistance to Lebanon. So we all want the same thing for Lebanon, but the way to get there does not run through Hizballah, in our view.
Moderator: Thank you very much for that. Our next question comes to us from Michel Ghandour with Al Hurra TV. Please go ahead, Michel.
Question: Yeah. Hello. Thank you for doing this. First, what’s the importance of the sanctions today on Hizballah? And second, what’s the effect of the U.S. sanctions on the party, especially that it’s still able to provide money, salaries, and its followers’ needs?
Ambassador Sales: Well, thanks for the question. Just to clarify, are you asking about the Treasury Department sanctions that were announced earlier today?
Ambassador Sales: Yes. Yes. Okay. Thanks. So for those of you who weren’t tracking this, earlier today the U.S. Treasury Department imposed additional sanctions on two Hizballah-linked companies, in particular Arch Consulting and Meamar Construction. Treasury also imposed sanctions on Sultan Khalifa Assad, who’s a Hizballah executive council member who has ties to those two businesses. Today’s actions follow in the wake of our September 8th announcement that we were imposing sanctions on former Lebanese minister Yusuf Finyanus, who colluded with those two companies to conceal their activities and support Hizballah’s self-enrichment.
So the reason we made this announcement today is to draw further attention to the fact that Hizballah and its supporters continue to engage in self-dealing, and enriching themselves at the expense of the Lebanese people, and exploiting and plundering the Lebanese economy for their own benefit.
Moderator: Thank you very much for that. Our next –
Question: What’s the importance of – I’m sorry. Follow-up question?
Moderator: Sorry. One question per journalist. So let’s go to Joyce Karam with The National. Please go ahead, Joyce.
Question: Yes. Hi. Good morning. I just want to follow up on Michel’s question. Are you seeing any signs from Lebanon that these sanctions are perhaps driving a wedge between Hizballah and its ally? And I know it’s one question, but I’m going to just throw that in. There is a sectarian, now, battle over the formation of the next government. Does the U.S. object to having a Shia finance minister, I mean, if we can be blunt about it? Thank you.
Ambassador Sales: Thanks for the question. So these are sort of inside baseball questions about the behind-the-scenes developments in Lebanon as it – as it struggles with some very significant crises: the financial crisis brought on by decades of corruption and mismanagement, aided and abetted, of course, by Hizballah, as well as the more immediate humanitarian catastrophe in the wake of the Beirut port explosion.
I don’t have a whole lot to say about what’s going on behind the scenes other than to reiterate what the United States’ goal is in this situation. We want to see a Lebanon that is sovereign and independent and prosperous and stable. And we want to see it emerge from the current crises in a way that allows it to reach that goal. And we think the best way to reach that outcome is not to legitimize Hizballah as a political player, but to marginalize and isolate it and rely on other legitimate organs of Lebanese society and the Lebanese state. Thanks.
Moderator: Thank you very much for that. We’re going to take a question that was submitted to us in advance. This is from Grecia Antoun with LBCI in Lebanon. She writes, “Today new sanctions will be issued against Lebanese officials that are linked to Hizballah. Will the U.S. sanctions be similar to European sanctions? What will the repercussions be on the struggling Lebanese government? Will you be able to separate the military and political part?”
Ambassador Sales: Well, let me take the last part first. Our sanctions do not distinguish between a military part of Hizballah or a political part of Hizballah. Our sanctions are premised on the reality that Hizballah is a single organization, and it’s a terrorist organization, root and branch. And you don’t need to take the U.S.’s word for that. Hizballah itself has been perfectly clear that they do not themselves recognize a distinction between their terrorist operations and a so-called political branch. So our sanctions against Hizballah are and always have been directed at the entirety of the organization, and that will continue to be the case.
As far as the effects of our sanctions are concerned, and this is true regardless of whether we’re talking about sanctions on Hizballah or al-Qaeda or ISIS or any other terrorist organization, the effect is to exclude the named individuals and entities from the U.S. financial system, and to drive up their costs of doing business. We want to make it harder for them to raise money. We want to make it harder for them to transfer money. We want to make it harder for them to run front companies because by starving these organizations of resources, you prevent them from committing acts of mass murder.
Moderator: Thank you very much for that. Our next question comes to us from Alain Dargham with The Independent in the – I’m sorry, with MTV Lebanon. Please go ahead.
Question: Yes. So you mentioned that they found – Europe – with some people that belonged to Hizballah, nitrate of ammonium. Are you trying to link the incident that took place in our port here in Beirut with the – with what’s happening in Europe and, like, waiting for the [inaudible] here? So are you trying to say that these ammonium nitrates belonged to Hizballah at the port? Is that what you’re trying to picture here, Ambassador Sales?
Ambassador Sales: Well, thanks for the question. Here’s what we know. We know that Hizballah has stored massive amounts of ammonium nitrate across Europe. According to the information I revealed today, those sorts of caches have been found in a number of countries, including the UK, Greece, France, Italy, and a number of others. We also know from what we saw in Beirut the truly destructive power of ammonium nitrate. It’s capable of inflicting mass destruction when used as an explosive. That is why the United States has called for a full, open, and transparent and thorough investigation of the explosion in Beirut, and we hope to see the results of that shortly.
Moderator: Thank you very much. Our next question comes to us from Jeanine Jalkh with L’Orient-Le Jour in Lebanon. Please go ahead.
Moderator: Hi, Jeanine Jalkh with L’Orient-Le Jour?
Question: Yes, I’m here. Hello?
Moderator: Yes, please go ahead with your question.
Question: Yes. My question was that Mr. David Schenker mentioned that the sanctions on former ministers Finyanus and Ali Hassan Khalil were a message to other Lebanese politicians who failed to fight corruption. On what grounds would the U.S. administration take this kind of sanctions leaning towards – in – for targeting corruption, or those who didn’t fight corruption?
Ambassador Sales: Well, we think that the sanctions send a clear signal that business as usual in Lebanon is not going to work for the Lebanese people. I don’t have much more to add beyond what Assistant Secretary Schenker has said. But the United States stands firmly on the side of the Lebanese people whose aspiration is for a stable state in which the government is responsive to their needs and not beholden to a terrorist organization.
Moderator: Thank you very much for that. Our next question comes to us from Raji Unnikrishnan with the Gulf Daily News in Bahrain. Please go ahead.
Question: Hi. Thank you, Ambassador, for the briefing, and I know you’ve been speaking in the context of the European – Europe and Hizballah in Europe. I would like to ask you, are there any comments on the Hizballah in the GCC? As you mentioned on the cache of the ammonium nitrate, do you see a risk of these in this region? What’s your comment on that? Thank you.
Ambassador Sales: Thanks. I don’t – I don’t have any more sensitive information to reveal today. But what I can tell you more broadly is in the Gulf region, we are grateful to the Gulf Cooperation Council as well as the Arab League for the actions they have taken to counter Hizballah. Both organizations have joined the United States in designating Hizballah in its entirety, and we commend them for that. More broadly, we have seen a range of Iran-backed terrorist organizations – not just Hizballah but others backed by Iran – that are active in the region and that seek to promote violence, whether it’s Kata’ib Hizballah in Iraq, Al-Ashtar Brigades in Bahrain, or various other groups with links to Iran. The story is very similar. The story is the same. These groups take money, weapons, and resources from their masters in Tehran, use those resources to commit acts of violence, and the United States will do everything in our power using our sanctions tools to dry up those resources so that our partners in the Gulf don’t have to face this threat.
Moderator: Thank you very much for that. Our next question comes to us from Joseph Haboush with Al Arabiya English in the UAE.
Question: Thanks for doing this, Mr. Ambassador. There was a previous question that was asked and I just wanted to follow up on it. You specifically mentioned that sanctions have had an impact on Hizballah specifically. Do you see the sanctions having a positive impact on the U.S. will to drive a wedge between Hizballah and its allies inside Lebanon?
Ambassador Sales: Well, we think the sanctions help mark Hizballah as a pariah. If you’ve been sanctioned by the United States and by Britain and by Germany, that is a pretty good sign that you’re not a legitimate political organization. It’s a pretty good sign that you’re a terrorist organization. So we think there is an obvious practical effect to our sanctions, which is to dry up resources, and those are having a demonstrable effect. Hassan Nasrallah not so long ago was publicly requesting donations because our sanctions have had a significant enough bite that he is not able to count on the same level of support that he previously enjoyed. But in addition to those practical consequences, there’s also a very strong messaging value to our sanctions, and that is to say by branding you a terrorist organization, by recognizing the reality that you’re a terrorist organization, it helps to marginalize and isolate that group.
Moderator: Thank you very much. Our next question comes to us from Thomas Nehls with ARD-Radio in Germany. Please go ahead.
Question: Yes, thank you. Hello from Berlin. I don’t understand the double standard, if I may ask you. On the one hand, you label Hizballah at a whole as a terrorist group; on the other hand, your – as far as I know, your ambassador is in Beirut and is dealing with Hizballah members of government and the U.S. does it too, the whole administration. So isn’t that consequent – inconsequent, because is the U.S. dealing with terrorists, negotiating? I mean, that can’t be.
Ambassador Sales: Well, I guess – I guess I’d reject the premise of your question, which is that the United States is engaging with Hizballah. That’s simply not the case. Our policy has never been to engage Hizballah, and that is a policy that has stretched back for 23 years and has been shared by presidents and administrations of very different political parties and very different overall views. But the one thing that has united U.S. policy towards Hizballah since 1997 is to call it for what it is: a terrorist organization.
Now, we are engaged in very robust diplomacy with Lebanon and we are engaged in very robust foreign assistance to Lebanon. But make no mistake, that is engagement with the legitimate organs of the Lebanese state, and the purpose of that engagement is precisely to strengthen them against Hizballah’s malign influence. So we see no double standard whatsoever in marginalizing and sanctioning Hizballah on the one hand, and dealing with non-Hizballah elements of the Lebanese state on the other. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you very much. We have time for one last question, and that will go to Ibrahim Rihan with Al Hadeel in Lebanon. Please go ahead.
Question: Hello, Ambassador Sales. Thank you. I want to ask about Ismail Haniyeh’s visit to Lebanon. His – lately he’s living in Lebanon for two weeks. How does the United States look for this visit, especially since he was in Turkey and he met President Erdogan, knowing that Turkey is a member of NATO?
Ambassador Sales: Thanks for the question. It’s not helpful for a designated terrorist like Ismail Haniyeh to be able to travel freely throughout the Middle East or throughout the world. Our position is very clear. Hamas is a designated terrorist organization. Like Hizballah, it was one of the first groups ever to be designated by the United States. And Haniyeh himself has been additionally singled out as a specially designated global terrorist. We do not regard him as a legitimate political actor. He is a person who has blood on his hands and we would encourage the rest of the world to recognize him for what he is and treat him accordingly, as a terrorist, not a statesman.
Moderator: Thank you very much. Unfortunately, that was indeed the last question we have time for today. Ambassador Sales, do you have any closing words you’d like to offer?
Ambassador Sales: No. Thank you very much for joining the call and I appreciate your time and questions.
Moderator: I’d like to thank Ambassador Sales for joining us today and thank all the journalists on the line for joining us with your questions.