MODERATOR: All right. So let’s go ahead and get started. Everybody knows [Senior State Department Official]. He’s going to talk to you about the CT ministerial that he just came back from. Sir, go ahead.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So hello, everybody.
MODERATOR: This is on – all of it’s on background. Senior State Department Official.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So hello, everybody. Thanks for coming by. I just thought I’d give you a quick rundown of how the ministerial went and some of the key outcomes from the ministerial.
You had a couple dozen countries represented in Bogota at very high levels – foreign ministers from a number of countries and deputy foreign ministers as well. Of course, the United States delegation was led by Secretary Pompeo, and I joined him down there. Colombian President Duque opened the ministerial. It was closed by the minister of defense, and Venezuelan President Juan Guaido was there as well.
The timing of the ministerial was highly significant, because it occurred on the one-year anniversary of the ELN attack on a police barracks that killed 22 police cadets and injured more than 80 others. As the Secretary mentioned in Bogota, that attack hit home for us as well in the United States, because a number of those cadets who were killed were beneficiaries of support from the State Department.
As far as the outcomes of the ministerial are concerned, a couple of things that I wanted to highlight for you. First of all, we saw a number of countries announce their designation of Hizballah as a terrorist organization. We’ve seen some really substantial momentum on this in South America over the past six months. Six months ago, Argentina and Paraguay designated Hizballah, and within the past week, we saw Colombia, Guatemala, and Honduras do it as well.
There’s one other particular angle to the Colombian designation that I wanted to highlight. President Duque announced that the Colombian Government was essentially doing a cut-and-paste job for E.U. terrorism sanctions and U.S. terrorism sanctions. They will be adopting those sanctions lists in their entirety, and President Duque called on all the other countries of the region to follow suit. We think it’s highly significant that Colombia sees the value in the E.U. and U.S. lists and wants to establish those as a global benchmark for countering terrorist finance.
A second deliverable that I wanted to highlight: While I was in Bogota, I signed an information-sharing agreement with Colombian counterparts to facilitate the sharing of terrorist watchlist information. This is one more step in our effort to share information with partners to better detect and deter terrorist travel.
And then a final point I would highlight – this is a sort of softer and gauzier outcome of the ministerial, but it’s one that I think is important nonetheless – this thing has legs. This administration came into office determined to re-establish relationships with friends and partners in Central and South America. One of the ways that we have done that is through security cooperation of the sort that we saw at the CT ministerial. And the reason this is so significant is because the rest of the region sees the value in this kind of cooperation. Peru announced that it was going to be hosting the fourth counterterrorism ministerial at some point in the coming months. Peru sees the value to partnering with the U.S. on counterterrorism just as Colombia does, just as Argentina does. So I think that we expect to see this forum continue to emerge as an incredibly valuable platform not just for counterterrorism cooperation, but for deepening the connections between the United States and our hemispheric partners.
And with that, I’m happy to answer any questions.
MODERATOR: You first.
QUESTION: Yeah. Can I – I got two on this, one on something related.
On – one, on the terrorist – sharing the terrorist watchlist information, weren’t you already doing that with the Colombians with – like, particularly with FARC and ELN?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So we share information with the Colombians on a sort of ad hoc basis, and we have been doing that for many years. They’re one of our closest security partners.
But what we did on – this week was formalize this as part of a border security-related information sharing arrangement.
QUESTION: Okay. All right.
Second, you said that Duque wanted to cut and paste from the E.U.’s and U.S. sanctions, but the E.U. and U.S. sanctions are different, right? I mean, they’re not a perfect match here, so if he’s designating all of Hizballah a terrorist organization, then he’s taking the U.S. version, not the E.U. version. So —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Right. So there is —
QUESTION: — yours are much more – well, maybe not much more, but they’re more expansive than the E.U. list.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: In most cases, that’s right. I think there may be some situations where the EU list is a little bit broader, but generally speaking, you have very extensive overlap, but the Venn diagram is not a complete overlap. As for how the Colombians will reconcile those differences, I don’t know. I suspect that that is a question that they’d be able to answer better than I.
MODERATOR: Next? Abbie.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Oh, hey.
QUESTION: Hey. This is a little on the side, but I – there’s some muddled reports coming out of Colombia about people obtaining false documents and then trying to get U.S. visas. Can you speak to that at all?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, so what I can tell you on background is we’re aware of the reports, we’re looking into it. It’s very early as we look into this, so we don’t have anything that we can give you right now. But we’re aware of the disturbing reports and we’re taking a look at it.
QUESTION: Did you hear anything from your Latin American counterparts to suggest that the death of Soleimani has had any noticeable impact from their perspective? Any at all? I realize not much time has elapsed, but what kind of feedback did you get on that, since they support Hizballah and you were talking Hizballah a lot?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. Honestly, it didn’t come up in that context. What did come up was a number of countries in the region aware of the threat that Hizballah poses to them, and an expression of interest in using designations tools and law enforcement tools to continue to put pressure on this terrorist organization. So I mentioned the designations already. All of those had a Hizballah dimension to them. In addition, we talked a bit about law enforcement cooperation. So the Peruvians are going to be – I think it’s the Peruvians – are going to be re-trying a suspected Hizballah operative. There’s another Hizballah financier – alleged Hizballah financier – Barakat – who has been arrested by the Brazilians and is awaiting extradition to Paraguay, I believe. So those sorts of finely grained conversations about how we can do more work together to counter Hizballah were very much on the agenda.
QUESTION: And Soleimani didn’t come up at all?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I wouldn’t say that, but the focus was on what Hizballah has been doing in the hemisphere.
MODERATOR: Okay. Jennifer.
QUESTION: When you mention that they’re aware of these threats, are these active threats? What evidence is there of these threats, and how widespread are they throughout the region?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, well, we’ve been very clear in our public messaging about what we’re seeing from Hizballah in the region. We’re seeing money-laundering activity in the Tri-Border Area of South America, for instance. We’ve been very clear about weapons caches that have been discovered. Hizballah modus is to plant weapons around the world. We’ve seen that in Cyprus; we’ve seen it elsewhere. And as far as the law enforcement dimension of this is concerned, the indictments against the various Hizballah operatives that I mentioned – the one in Peru, the one in Brazil – all that is a matter of public record. So I think Hizballah’s nefarious activities in the region, it’s not something that we’ve been shy about shining a light on. We’ve been very public, both with allies and with members of the news media, to deliver this message, to shine a light on the realities.
QUESTION: Just to follow up.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, please.
QUESTION: Is that evidence all coming from the United States side or is that coming from the regional governments as well telling you about these threats? Or is that solely within our Intel Community?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Let me answer it this way: We have very robust information-sharing relationships with our partners.
MODERATOR: Cool. Michel.
QUESTION: Yeah. To what extent were you able to squeeze Hizballah resources in Latin America in the last few years, in the last two years at least?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, we’ve done a couple of things. One is increase the financial pressure through designations of the sort that I mentioned. Another is law enforcement cooperation, in particular through this platform that we call the Law Enforcement Coordination Group or LECG. It’s cohosted by the United States and Europol, and it’s a platform for practitioners around the world, basically investigators as well as prosecutors, to share information about what they are observing in terms of Hizballah financing, Hizballah tradecraft. And that information sharing helps prosecutors develop more effective cases when it’s time to go to court.
QUESTION: And on the British decision to designate Hizballah political and the military wing, how do you view this decision? And do you expect other European countries to make the same decision?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, we think it’s great. We think it’s great and we think it’s simply recognizing reality. Hizballah is not a group that’s split into a political wing and a military wing. You don’t have to take my word for it. Hasan Nasrallah himself has publicly rejected the fiction that there is a difference between a political wing and a military wing. It’s all terrorist, root and branch, and we’re grateful that the British Government has recognized that.
And we’d like to see other European governments recognize that reality as well. I would note for this group that the German Bundestag recently passed a resolution calling on the German Government to take a similar step and designate Hizballah as a terrorist organization in its entirety. We’re hopeful that other countries will follow suit.
MODERATOR: Anybody else?
QUESTION: When you talk about Hizballah infiltrating or becoming active in Latin America, is this through people who are originally – trace their origin to the Middle East? Are they getting converts among Latin American Roman Catholics or – I mean, who is – where’s the base of Hizballah coming from in Latin America?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I think in many cases you have substantial Lebanese diaspora populations.
QUESTION: Phoenicia – sorry.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: And these – needless to say, not every Lebanese descent citizen of Latin America is sympathetic with Hizballah. But there’s a critical mass of them who are. And sometimes they run licit business that are used to channel money back to Lebanon for – to fill Hizballah’s coffers. Sometimes they engage in illegal activity, whether it’s narcotics trafficking or money laundering, human trafficking. It’s really – it really runs the spectrum of businesses, legitimate and otherwise.
MODERATOR: Cool. Nick.
QUESTION: Just on Lebanon, do you have any – well, Secretary Pompeo’s support yesterday for the new Lebanese Government – essentially he’s saying the jury’s still out because haven’t been able to make a determination. Do you have a sense in the last 24 hours or so whether the U.S. is leaning towards supporting the Lebanese Government? Or did you see Hizballah as being too closely associated with them?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The jury’s still out. Yeah. We’re taking a look at it, as the Secretary said yesterday. And I’m sure we’ll have something to announce when the time’s right.
QUESTION: When will the jury come in? (Laughter.) Roughly around the same time as the Senate comes in? (Laughter.)
MODERATOR: Michel, do you have a follow up CT question?
QUESTION: It was – this was my question.
MODERATOR: Okay. Anyone else have a CT-related question?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Please.
QUESTION: I was wondering if you could comment at all on the reports of the new leader of ISIS, his actual identity being reported in The Guardian. Is that something that State is tracking as accurate?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. So the reports that describe intelligence assessments, which I’m just not going to get into – I think I would say that, first of all, it’s not a promotion I would take. Second of all, we are going to bring to bear the same pressure against any new leader of ISIS that we have brought against the organization for the past number of years – unrelenting use of law enforcement capabilities, sanctions capabilities, and, where appropriate, military capabilities to take these guys off the battlefield.
QUESTION: Can I have one? To what extent —
MODERATOR: Last one.
QUESTION: Yeah. The threat has minimized or decreased in Iraq and the region after killing Soleimani?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The threat?
QUESTION: Yeah. The terrorism or —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Of ISIS?
QUESTION: Not ISIS.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Oh, I thought you were following up on the ISIS question.
QUESTION: No, no. Iran proxies.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. General Soleimani was one of the world’s worst sponsors of terrorism. By definition, removing him from the battlefield removes capabilities that Iranian terrorist proxies can use against us and our coalition partners.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thanks, everybody. Appreciate it.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thanks, everyone.