Moderator: Greetings to everyone from the U.S. European Media Hub in Brussels. I would like to welcome our participants dialing in from around the world and thank all of you for joining this discussion.
Today we are pleased to be joined by Nathan Sales, Ambassador-at-Large and Coordinator for Counterterrorism; and Marshall Billingslea, U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing. Thank you Ambassador Sales and Assistant Secretary Billingslea, for taking the time to speak with us today.
We will begin today’s call with opening remarks from Ambassador Sales and Assistant Secretary Billingslea. We will try to get to as many questions as possible during the time that we have which is about 30 minutes today. As a reminder, today’s call is on the record.
With that, I will turn it over to our speakers for opening remarks. Since there are two of you, please remember to identify yourself when speaking or answering a question.
Ambassador Sales: Thanks very much, Vanessa. This is Ambassador Sales. I’d like to thank all of our guests for joining us today on a very solemn anniversary for the United States, and indeed for the world.
Eighteen years ago this morning al-Qaida’s attacks on the United States heralded a new era in our fight against terrorism. In the years since then we’ve decimated al-Qaida and used every tool at our disposal in the fight against global terrorism. But as the terrorists have adapted to escape our pressure, we’ve adapted as well.
That’s why yesterday President Trump issued a tough new Executive Order to squeeze terrorists’ finances. It’s the most significant update to our terrorist designation authorities since the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. This Executive Order enables us to more effectively and efficiently target the leaders of terrorist groups as well as those who participate in terrorist training. Using this new tool we will aggressively target our enemies’ sources of support and deny them the resources they need to carry out attacks no matter where they hide.
Over the past 18 years the United States has used our terrorism sanctions to designate over 1500 individuals and entities. These actions have played a major role in disrupting terrorists’ sources of revenue and cutting off their access to the U.S. financial system.
In the Trump administration we’ve used our terrorism sanctions more aggressively than any previous administration. Since January of 2017 we’ve announced more than 400 of these designations.
Here at the State Department we’re already moving aggressively to use our authority under the new Executive Order. Yesterday the Secretary of State designated Hurras al-Din, an al-Qaida affiliate in Syria. He also designated 12 leaders of terrorist organizations including Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, ISIS, ISIS-Philippines, ISIS-West Africa, and Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. We will continue to expose and isolate terrorists, disrupt their support networks, deny them access to our financial system and do everything in our power to protect the security of the United States.
A/S Billingslea: Good afternoon in Brussels, this is Marshall Billingslea, the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorist Financing.
To build on Ambassador Sales’ comments as we join you on a very somber day, on 9/11, I’m pleased to tell you that the new authorities granted to the Department of the Treasury by the President yesterday with the Modernization Executive Order have already been put into motion. And as Ambassador Sales has indicated, we have already begun targeting and designating additional terrorist groups and terrorist financiers.
The Counterterrorism Executive Order that was signed nearly 18 years ago in the wake of the 9/11 attacks has been and remains the bedrock of our efforts to isolate and degrade terrorist financial and support networks. We have used it to disrupt and to expose al-Qaida financial facilitators, ISIS front companies and recruiters, and fundraisers for Iran and its terrorist proxies. Yet, as Ambassador Sales has indicated, terrorists and their supporters continue to adapt and evolve the different duplicitous measures they employ to raise and move money and people and material, and therefore it’s incumbent upon us to do the same.
President Trump’s enhancement of this authority yesterday underscores this administration’s decisive leadership in fighting global terrorism. These new authorities allow the United States government to starve terrorists of the resources they need to attack the United States and our people and our allies, and it will hold foreign financial institutions who continue to do business with terrorists, accountable.
We have, as the Ambassador has indicated, intensified our counterterrorism sanctions efforts under the past two and a half years of President Trump, and our tempo exceeds that of any other United States administration since 9/11.
In 2018 alone we designated the most number of terrorists of any prior administration.
I want to give you a few details on what is new and important about the expanded Executive Order because it very much enhances our ability to identify and sanction perpetrators of terrorist acts worldwide.
First and foremost, this new Executive Order allows the United States government to better target terrorist group leaders and officials without needing to tie them directly to a specific act of violence.
Secondly, it provides new tools to pursue individuals who participate in terrorist training, to starve them of the resources they need to attack the United States, our friends and our allies.
Crucially, for the first time, it authorizes secondary sanctions on foreign financial institutions that have knowingly conducted or facilitated significant financial transactions for sanction purposes.
And finally, it targets those who are acting for or on behalf of the specially designated global terrorists, providing for secondary sanctions against all designated terror groups.
As the Ambassador has mentioned, using the newly amended Executive Order yesterday, Treasury designated over two dozen individuals and entities from 11 different terrorist groups. We targeted entities and individuals representing leaders, operatives, financiers, from groups including Iran’s Quds Force, Hamas, ISIS, al-Qaida and a number of affiliates. The wide range of terror groups we targeted makes this action yesterday one of the most far-reaching of the United States government, again, in more than 15 years of our counterterrorism sanctions regime.
Thank you very much.
Moderator: Thanks so much for those remarks. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call.
Our first question comes to us from Tamam Abusafi with Alayam in Bahrain.
Question: This is Tamam Abusafi from the Alayam newspaper, Bahrain.
My question is, the sanctions also would target some, as to be honest, Hamas is part of the Islamist Brotherhood. And we know Islamic Brotherhood, they have many organizations in several Arabic countries [inaudible]. So these sanctions also in the future will target some organizations in Arabic countries, like some companies, some banks. We know that behind these companies or behind these organizations, is the Islamic Brotherhood. You target this organization in the future?
Ambassador Sales: Thanks for the question. This is Ambassador Sales.
Assistant Secretary Billingslea and I are here to explain what the President has done and what the Secretaries of State and Treasury have done. We’re not here to sneak preview anything that the administration might or might not do in the future.
I can tell you here at the State Department our process for conducting a designations review is the same for any group regardless of its nature or location. We look at the standards under the law. We look at the facts available to us from public source and other sources. Then we make a determination whether the group meets the legal standards.
I can tell you that in the past we have not hesitated to use our sanctions authorities to go after groups that previously had some association with the Muslim Brotherhood. For instance, last year the State Department designated Hasm, and we will continue to apply the standards in accordance with the law and evidence going forward.
A/S Billingslea: I will further add that we will target terrorists and their financiers regardless of what particular banner or association they claim. If they engage in violence against the United States, our friends and our allies, they will be targeted.
Last week we designated four Hamas financiers and yesterday we moved forward to disrupt a major financial network that Hamas operates in Turkey, associated with an exchange called Redin and all the key individuals surrounding that exchange.
So again, we will not hesitate to disrupt terrorist financial networks regardless of the label that they apply to themselves.
Moderator: Thanks for that answer.
Our next question was submitted in advance by Valerie Hopkins with the Financial Times in the UK. She asks:
Question: Which of the countries are doing the best to prepare for and cope with the return of foreign fighters? More than 100 people were returned to Kosovo from Syria in April. To what extent were you concerned about the programs and resources in place to deradicalize the former fighters and their families? And to what extent will the programs there become a model for other countries?
Ambassador Sales: Thanks for the question.
The position of the United States on this question has been very clear. As the President has said publicly and as the Secretary of State has said publicly, we expect all of our coalition partners in the Defeat ISIS Coalition to take back their citizens who went to Syria and Iraq to fight for ISIS, bring them back home, prosecute them for any crimes they’ve committed, and for those who have served their sentences or are not prosecutable, take steps to deradicalize them and reintegrate them into society.
That’s what we’re doing here in the United States. We’re leading by example. And we’re happy to say that some other countries around the world have stepped up as well. You mentioned Kosovo. I would also hold up as an example of responsible leadership here the country of Kazakhstan which has been very forward-leaning, repatriating its citizens, prosecuting the fighters and other enablers of ISIS, and also engaging in important deradicalization and reintegration activities.
The United States can’t solve this problem ourselves. There’s 70,000 women and children in displaced persons camps in Syria. There’s another 2,000 foreign fighters in custody in Syria. This is a global problem. It requires a global solution.
We commend Kazakhstan for its leadership, and we call on other countries to follow their example.
Moderator: Thank you so much for that answer.
Our next question comes to us from Monalisa Freiha with Annahar Newspaper in Lebanon.
Question: Hello. After a series of sanctions, the administration took in two, three years, and especially this last year after the sanctions they imposed on several terrorist entities, can you identify specific increase in terrorist activities?
A/S Billingslea: Nathan, I’ll answer that. We have engaged in a number of significant financial disruptions of terrorist organizations, and we have seen as a result of those actions, not just the sanctions themselves, but all of the associated financial diplomacy that surrounds our legal actions. We’ve seen a noticeable degradation in the capacity of certain terrorist groups to conduct attacks.
We have seen in the case of ISIS in particular, that they have been forced to completely change their funding model and how they generate and move revenue due to the financial pressure of the United States, the government of Iraq, and other key countries.
Likewise, a number of al-Qaida affiliates have been targeted and disrupted, and here I’m speaking of the joint efforts that we have undertaken in the Gulf with the other GCC nations through the Terrorist Financial Targeting Center in Riyadh, where we have designated both ISIS-Yemen and al-Qaida and Arabian Peninsula financiers, and weapons traffickers.
Finally, closer to home for you in Lebanon, we have significantly degraded the ability of Hezbollah to obtain and move funds. And don’t take my word for it. Hassan Nasrallah himself has declared the need for a “Jihad for money” as his sources of revenue are drying up, both the revenue he receives from his Iranian masters as well as the money he attempts to generate through illicit financial networks around the globe.
So yes, we have seen a significant effect on terrorist groups in terms of their ability to conduct lethal attacks due to a loss in funding.
Moderator: Thanks very much for that answer.
Our next question comes to us from Nicolas Zannettos with Alpha TV in Cyprus.
Question: Hi from Cyprus. A question basically to Mr. Billingslea. Cyprus sits in a very sensitive region and was often reported as a tax paradise or face allegations regarding money laundering. You visited Cyprus a couple of times the last few years, so I was wondering if you can briefly tell us what your findings were, and if you find anything, if you have found anything related to global terrorists while being in Cyprus.
A/S Billingslea: Thank you for the question, Nicolas. You’re correct, I have visited Cyprus on multiple occasions and continue to work closely with the government of Cyprus and Cypriot diplomats on a wide range of financial matters.
As I have said publicly in the past, we appreciate the significant steps that are now being taken to ensure that Cyprus is not open for business with respect to money launderers, but I will tell you on the counterterrorism file, the United States government has an excellent relationship with the government of Cyprus and what we now need to do is work together closely with respect to regulation, regulatory authorities and close supervision of the kinds of structures that if not properly supervised could lend themselves to money laundering.
Terrorist financing is a threat to all financial jurisdictions. There is no jurisdiction around the world that is immune to it, and that is why it’s very, very crucial that we not only close off the activities of specific individuals, but in a broader sense, that we improve and strengthen the regulatory and legal frameworks that our nations use together to protect our financial system.
I am very confident that the government of Cyprus is committed to taking the necessary steps. They are long overdue. But we are making good progress.
Moderator: Thank you for that answer.
For our next question we’ll go to Hba Nasr with Sky News Arabia.
Question: Good morning, Ambassador Sales and Mr. Billingslea. I want to ask in the wake of 9/11 attacks, I want to ask what the change in the U.S. approach towards terrorist designations?
And one other question, since you were talking about the new Executive Order, you said you can use this order to the people, to target the people who act on behalf of terrorist organizations. I want to understand here. You don’t have to tie them to violent actions, so do you mean here for example you can use this new Executive Order towards people who are aligned with terrorist organizations, especially here, talking about Lebanon and Hezbollah, for example.
Ambassador Sales: Thanks for the question. This is Ambassador Sales.
On the question about 9/11, the attacks really did change everything in the United States in terms of how we understand the terrorist threat and how we’re going to respond to it. We’ve mobilized a whole of government response to the fight against this scourge. It’s not just a military campaign. We also have to use law enforcement tools. We have to use border security tools. And we realized that we also have to use our financial and sanctions authorities to choke off the flow of money. We have to attack the entire life cycle of a terrorist enterprise, not just the perpetrators at the tail-end of the cycle, but the enablers and the facilitators and the planners and the leaders, all of whom contribute to the plotting over the course of the plot.
And that’s what yesterday’s Executive Order helps us achieve even more effectively. As Marshall pointed out, it’s no longer necessary under this order to demonstrate that a particular target played a role in planning an attack or carrying out a specific attack or financing a specific attack. Under the new authority it is a sufficient basis for a designation to show that the person is a leader of a terrorist organization.
So, let me just put this in practical terms.
In 2001, if we want to designate Osama bin Laden under the previous executive order it would have been necessary for us to show that Osama bin Laden personally authorized or planned or financed or contributed to the 9/11 attacks. Of course, we were able to show that. But under the current Executive Order, in order to designate a leader of al-Qaida, all you need to show is that the person is a leader of al-Qaida without any specific link to particular terrorist plotting. That’s why we’re able to more effectively, efficiently, and aggressively use this authority against our terrorist adversaries.
A/S Billingslea: I would add to that that the new Executive Order also allows us to do exactly the same rapid targeting of terrorist enablers by focusing on those who recruit, and those who seek terrorist training. Moreover, the executive order makes clear that it’s not necessary to actually engage in the recruitment or training, but conspiracy alone is sufficient to allow the Department of Treasury to target these individuals.
This also builds upon the important work that President Trump and the administration have engaged in at the United Nations, with the government of France and multiple other countries in securing a new UN Security Council Resolution that now legally obligates all nations around the world to criminalize terrorist financing even in the absence of a direct link to a terrorist attack.
Yesterday’s Executive Order builds on that success at the United Nations with the government of France and other allies by allowing the Department of the Treasury to impose secondary sanctions on financial institutions that knowingly transact with these various terrorists and terrorist facilitators. Thank-you.
Moderator: Thanks for that answer.
Our next question come from Aaron Eglitis with Bloomberg News. He asks?
Question: How do you view Latvia and Estonia’s progress in fighting money laundering? What more do they need to do, and what is the risk that they would be placed on the FATF Gray List?
A/S Billingslea: The purpose of this call is to discuss the expanded Executive Order that gives these additional authorities. I’d be happy to have a separate discussion on Latvia and Estonia. Suffice it to say that I will not comment on FATF Gray Listing issues, but it is incumbent upon all nations to remain vigilant and to make broad, systemic progress in improving their AML CFT regimes, their anti-money laundering and countering the financing of terrorism regimes, and I think we have seen significant political will in the Baltics to do exactly that.
Moderator: Thank you for that answer.
We have time for one more question. It will go to Michele Neubert with NBC News.
Question: Hi, good afternoon. I’d like to ask you about the UK stance on foreign fighters. I’m sure you know better than we do, their intransigence in allowing any foreign fighters to come back and stripping them of citizenship. How much does that impede what you’re trying to achieve?
Ambassador Sales: Thanks for the question. Let me speak more generally about the challenges we’re seeing here.
We would like to see, candidly, more of our European allies step up and take responsibility for their citizens and bring them home. We know that the countries of Western Europe have extensive capabilities when it comes to using their courts as tools to ensure that terrorists are taken off the battlefield. We also know that our Western European allies have longstanding commitments to conducting prosecutions in a way that accord with the rule of law. We have every confidence that our partners have the ability to prosecute these citizens and put them away for the crimes they’ve committed. What we want to see more of is the will to do so.
We were encouraged to see Italy recently decide to repatriate and prosecute one of its citizens, and we hope that Italy’s neighbors in Europe are paying attention.
Moderator: Thank you for that answer.
Unfortunately, that was the last question that we have time for today. Speakers, do you have any closing words that you would like to offer?
Ambassador Sales: Nothing here.
A/S Billingslea: No, I appreciate everyone joining the call. Thank-you.
Moderator: Thank-you, speakers, for joining us and thank all of you for participating and for your questions.