THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.
MODERATOR: Thank you so much. Yes, this Cheryl Neely. Welcome, everyone, to the Foreign Press Center’s teleconference briefing on the State Department’s Terrorist Designation of the Russian Imperial Movement. The operator has muted all of the journalists’ microphones. If your cell falls or disconnects, please dial in again to rejoin. The ground rules are that this is on the record.
I’d like to introduce our briefer, Ambassador Nathan Sales. As the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, Nathan A. Sales leads the State Department Counterterrorism Bureau and serves as the principal advisor to the Secretary of State on international counterterrorism matters. Ambassador Sales was additionally delegated the authorities of Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights. In this capacity, he oversees nine bureaus and offices responsible for preventing and countering threats to civilian security, including terrorism, mass atrocities, and violations of human rights and the rule of law.
Ambassador Sales will give an opening statement, and then the operator will open it to Q&A. Thank you.
AMBASSADOR SALES: Thanks very much for the introduction, and thanks to our journalist friends for joining the call today.
Since 2015, the world has seen a surge in racially or ethnically motivated terrorism, or REMT. Last month was the first anniversary of the horrific attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. We’ve seen similar attacks here in the United States targeting people because of their race or religion.
Countering REMT is a top priority for the United States. After one attack in the United States, President Trump said, “In one voice our nation must condemn racism, bigotry, and white supremacy. These sinister ideologies must be defeated.”
On Monday, the State Department took decisive action to counter this threat by designating the Russian Imperial Movement, also know as RIM, as a specially designated global terrorist, or SDGT. We also designated three of RIM’s leaders as SDGTs: Stanislav Anatolyevich Vorobyev; Denis Valliullovich Gariev; and Nikolay Nikolayevich Trushchalov.
These designations are unprecedented. This is the first time the United States has ever designated white supremacist terrorists, and it demonstrates how seriously this administration takes this threat. This administration is using tools to counter white supremacist terrorism in a way that no previous administration ever has.
Let me tell you a little bit more about RIM. RIM is a terrorist group that provides paramilitary-style training to neo-Nazis and white supremacists, and it plays a prominent role in trying to rally likeminded Europeans and Americans into a common front against their perceived enemies. RIM has two training facilities in St. Petersburg which likely are being used for woodland and urban assault, tactical weapons, and hand-to-hand combat training.
This group has innocent blood on its hands. In August of 2016, two Swedish men traveled to St. Petersburg and underwent 11 days of paramilitary-style training provided by RIM. A few months later, these men and another person conducted a series of terrorist attacks in the Swedish city of Gothenburg. In November 2016, they detonated a bomb outside a cafe. Two months later, they bombed a migrant center, gravely injuring one person. And three weeks after that, they placed another bomb at a camp site used to temporarily house refugees. Thankfully, that device failed to detonate.
Swedish authorities were able to arrest the attackers, and they have now been tried and convicted for their crimes. The prosecutor who handled their case blamed RIM for radicalizing them and for providing the training that enabled the attacks.
These historic designations are just one part of the administration’s broader strategy to counter white supremacist terrorism abroad. We’re bringing all of our counterterrorism tools to this fight: information sharing, counter messaging, combating terrorist travel, engaging with tech companies, and building partner capacity to protect soft targets like synagogues and mosques.
Let me be clear: Today’s designations send an unmistakable message that the United States will not hesitate to use our sanctions authorities aggressively and that we are prepared to target any foreign terrorist group regardless of ideology that threatens our citizens, our interests abroad, or our allies.
And with that, I’m happy to take a few questions. Thank you.
OPERATOR: And ladies and gentlemen, if you’d like to ask a question, please press 1, then 0 on your phone’s keypad. You’ll hear an acknowledgement that you’ve been placed in queue. An operator will gather your name and your outlet and return you to the conference to ask your question. Once again, for questions, press 1 then 0 at this time. We have a few moments, ladies and gentlemen, for us to gather some information for those first questioners, so please stand by, or if you want to continue on for a moment, that’s also welcome.
MODERATOR: We’ll continue to stand by.
OPERATOR: One moment, please.
MODERATOR: Would you like to give instructions one more time about how to dial–
OPERATOR: Yeah, one more time. Ladies and gentlemen, once again, to queue up for a question, press 1 then 0. You may withdraw your question by repeating the 1-0 command.
Okay. And we have a question coming in now from Mounzer Sleiman with Al Mayadeen. Go ahead, your line is open.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. Can you hear me?
MODERATOR: Yes, we hear you.
QUESTION: Thank you. I submitted a written question. I’m going to talk about it. But first, Ambassador, thank you very much. Did you consult with the Russian Government on this, and what’s the presence of this organization in the Middle East? We heard about at least two of them probably died in Libya, and on which side they are. And at the same time, what is the – on the criteria that you used to designate this terrorist organization can be applied in the United States on white supremacist or right-wing extremists that they had been reported in many FBI reports about the danger that they represent?
AMBASSADOR SALES: Well, thanks for the questions. First of all, on U.S. engagements with the Government of the Russian Federation, I can’t go into any detail about private diplomatic conversations that take place for reasons that I’m sure you can appreciate it. But suffice to say we have been very clear with all four partners – not limited to Russia – that we hope that other countries will take this threat as seriously as we do and take appropriate action under their domestic authorities to limit this group’s ability to provide training for terrorism and otherwise promote violence.
As for the groups present around the world, we’ve assessed that the group is focused largely on Europe. We know that it has recruited individuals to attend its paramilitary-style training camps from countries such as Poland, Germany, Scandinavia, and elsewhere. That’s not say that it may not have a broader role to play elsewhere in the world, but we assess that it is primarily focused on like-minded white supremacists in Europe.
As far as taking action under domestic authorities here in the United States, to be very clear: The State Department authority to designate terrorist organizations and individuals is limited to foreign groups and foreign citizens. We do not have the authority to designate U.S.-based organizations as terrorist organizations. However, our domestic counterpart agencies are very much focused on this threat, organizations such as the FBI, the Justice Department, the Department of Homeland Security. I will have to defer to them on the details of what they’re doing, but they share our view that the white supremacist terrorist threat is a very significant one, and they have been dramatically ramping up their efforts to neutralize this threat as it presents itself inside the United States.
QUESTION: Thank you. Can I follow up on one thing, please?
MODERATOR: Ambassador, would you take follow-up, or —
AMBASSADOR SALES: Sure.
MODERATOR: — should we go to the next question for time?
QUESTION: Well, thank you again. For the record, my name is Mounzer Sleiman. I am with Al Mayadeen. It’s a channel based in Beirut, Lebanon; I am the Washington bureau chief. To your knowledge, does the Russian Government designated this group as terrorists? What is – from your information, what is the position of the Russian Government regarding this organization?
AMBASSADOR SALES: Well, we’re aware of the Russian Government’s prohibition on this group operating a website in Russia, and we think that, while that is a good first step, we would encourage the Russian Government to take more robust and assertive action against this group, to prosecute individuals who may have violated any domestic laws in Russia, to close down the training camps to prevent them from drawing white supremacist terrorists from around the world to receive paramilitary training. The Russian Federation has made a number of public commitments about its resolve to confront global terrorism, and we encourage them to implement those commitments with respect to this group.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MODERATOR: Let’s move on, John.
OPERATOR: Next question comes from Alex Raufoglu with Turan. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Good morning, and thank you for doing this. Ambassador, Russia’s related skinheads have been terrorizing foreigners for decades, right? In fact, in 1998 there were so many assaults that prompted the U.S. Embassy in Moscow back then to put out a warning to Americans of African and Asian ethnicity to be on their guard against Russian skinhead. And it is increasingly dangerous to have a dark skin in Moscow. I represent Azerbaijani news agency Turan. Azerbaijani and Central Asian migrants are reportedly their primary target.
But the question I’m trying to understand is why now? Is the timing relevant here? The U.S. didn’t take this step in 1998, as I mentioned, or when Russian nationalists participated in 2011, 2012 anti-Kremlin protests, or during the armed conflict in Eastern Europe – sorry, eastern Ukraine. So the question is: Why now?
And if you could, the second question I have, if you could please talk about a little bit tactical implications of this designation as well, whether they are legal – I know you mentioned economic and maybe military impact that come along with it. The U.S. designated Iranian Revolutionary Guard a couple months before Soleimani killed. So perhaps it will help their understanding the bigger picture if you named more names here, who runs the show inside RIM and how much they are related to Kremlin and perhaps Putin himself. Thank you very much.
AMBASSADOR SALES: Thanks for the questions. On your first question regarding timing, why now, that’s a two-part answer. The reason we’re acting now is because the threat that is posed by white supremacist terrorism globally has really been on the rise in recent years. In 2015, we saw a dramatic spike in white supremacist and REMT terrorist attacks across North America, Europe, and Australia. The number jumped from just a handful the previous year to as many as 135 in the year 2015. That number came down a bit to 88 in 2017, but that’s still a number that is far too high. So we’re acting now because the threat is with us now.
A more specific answer to your question is we’re acting now because President Trump recently expanded our authorities to act. In September of last year, the President issued an order that amended our designations authorities. It was the most significant expansion of U.S. counterterrorism sanctions authorities since the immediate aftermath of 9/11, and the President made two changes that are particularly relevant to the RIM designation. First of all, the President authorized the State Department to designate groups that provide training for acts of terrorism. That was the basis of the designation of RIM the group. The second thing the President did was authorize designation of leaders of terrorist groups without having to demonstrate that those leaders were personally linked to particular terrorist attacks, and that was the basis of the designation of the three RIM leaders. So why are we acting now? We’re acting now because the President recently gave us the tools to act.
As far as the practical implications of the designation are concerned, I would highlight two that are, I think, particularly important. First of all, financial: As a result of the designation, all assets held by the designated group and individuals inside the United States or subject to U.S. jurisdiction are hereby blocked. That makes it substantially more difficult for RIM and indeed for any designated terrorist group to move money through the international financial system. In so doing, we deprive the group of resources that it uses to provide training for the attacks of the sort that we saw in Gothenburg, Sweden.
A second practical consequence that I would highlight concerns travel. As a result of the designation, it now becomes considerably easier for United States border security officials to prevent individuals linked to RIM from trying to enter the country. It helps us toughen our borders to prevent violent actors from coming into the United States. Thank you.
QUESTION: And was there any Kremlin connection here? You also mentioned St. Petersburg a number of times.
MODERATOR: Alex. Alex.
MODERATOR: Hi, Alex, I’m sorry. We need to move on. We’ll come back to you at the end if we have time. We only have about 10 more minutes, so let’s move to another questioner, please.
OPERATOR: And our next question comes from Roland Oliphant with The Daily Telegraph in London. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Hello there. Can you hear me?
AMBASSADOR SALES: Yes. Go ahead, please.
QUESTION: Brilliant, fantastic. So I spoke to this group the other day. They obviously kind of strenuously deny that they have anything to do with terrorism or violence and that this is all something that President Trump needs for his re-election, et cetera, et cetera. Other than the Gothenburg incident, are there any other specific acts of terrorism that these people you believe are directly or indirectly linked to that you can point to?
And my second point is there are a huge number of groups kind of similar to this in Russia, the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe in general – kind of far-right-leaning people who do paramilitary training and have links to other groups around the world. So my question is: Why this particular group? And does it mean you will designate other kind of former Soviet, East European white supremacist groups with international links as well? Specifically, I’m thinking about the Azov movement in Ukraine.
AMBASSADOR SALES: All right, thanks for the questions. As far as RIM’s culpability, I think the information that we have put out in the public domain speaks for itself. I think not just what the United States has attributed to RIM, but also bear in mind what the Swedish Government has attributed to RIM and the prosecutor who handled the case of the two RIM-trained terrorists who committed a series of bombings. In addition – so in addition to those specific acts, we know that RIM maintains an active effort to recruit likeminded white supremacists to come train in St. Petersburg. It has reached out to individuals across Europe and elsewhere, and that is why we are designating them now, in order to cut off that flow of white supremacists to their camps from which they can receive further indoctrination and weapons training that makes them dangerous when they return home.
As far as why we designated this group as opposed to the wide variety of other white supremacist or REMT groups, we designated this group because it meets our standards for designation. It is engaged in training for terrorist activity. It’s – the graduates, if you will, of its training camps have gone on to commit acts of violence, and that is the reason why we’ve singled them out.
I can’t sneak preview any other designations actions that we may or may not be considering, but I can tell you we are always on the lookout for other groups that meet our designations criteria and we will not hesitate to use our sanctions authorities robustly against foreign terrorist groups that threaten our values or our interests or our people.
OPERATOR: And we have a question that’s coming in from Dmitry Anopchenko with Inter Channel. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Good morning. Thank you very much for doing this. Thank you, FPC. Just a question – sir, you talked about the possible consequences, the possible visa ban for those individual and the access frozen for those organizations, but I covered the previous sanctions and as I understand – tell me if I’m wrong – it usually works two ways. So does it mean that American individuals and American companies can’t finance them and can’t contact them as well?
AMBASSADOR SALES: So I want to make sure I understand the question. Are you asking about the financial implications of the designation for U.S. companies or individuals?
QUESTION: Yes, sir. Because you told that their assets will be frozen in America and those individuals will be not able to travel, so possibly it will be a visa ban. Could you give a little bit more details about the consequences and what assets? Do – does it mean that when you provided the sanctions, American companies will not be able as well to finance them and American individuals, American civilians will not be able to contact them as well?
AMBASSADOR SALES: Right. So on the financial consequences of a sanction, that’s essentially correct. The initial effect of the designation is to block all assets that RIM or its leaders who have been designated might have inside the United States or subject to U.S. jurisdiction. As a secondary consequence of that blocking, it becomes prohibited for any person subject to U.S. jurisdiction to engage in prohibited transactions with RIM, such as moving money or selling goods or so on. And so the knock-on effects of a designation are important, because it makes it significantly more difficult for RIM and its leaders or indeed for any designated terrorist organization to try and move money through the international financial system.
OPERATOR: And we have another question coming – yep, next question coming in from Paolo Mastrolilli, and he’s with La Stampa. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you very much for the briefing. I would like to know if you are aware of any activity or any attempt to recruit or to penetrate Italy or a neighboring country like Slovenia, Austria, France, but also Hungary, Slovakia, or Czech Republic.
AMBASSADOR SALES: Thanks for the question. I can’t comment on the particulars – getting into intelligence matters here. What we have said publicly is that RIM has sought to recruit like-minded white supremacist extremists from across Europe. Some of the specific countries that we have pointed out are Scandinavian countries, Germany, Poland, and others, but I think we should expect that RIM would not limit itself to recruiting from just a handful of countries but rather would try to cast a wide net to recruit as many as possible.
MODERATOR: Okay. We have one final question in the queue. John .
OPERATOR: One last question in the queue. We’re going now to Daniel – Daniel Galperovich. He’s with Voice of America. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you very much indeed for doing this. I have a question about visits of the members of this organization in United States, because this – RIM is particularly known for establishing contacts with white supremacist organizations in the U.S. And we have all over the public domain pictures of them posing in front of White House with some white supremacists from United States. My question is in two parts: Do you know about these connections of RIM in the United States? It was in 2017. And if yes, was it a role – did it play some role in designating them as global terrorists? Thank you very much.
AMBASSADOR SALES: Well, thanks for the questions. So we’re aware of those photos demonstrating that some RIM individuals have been present in the United States. We’re also aware of public reports that RIM reached out to Americans in an effort to recruit them to visit St. Petersburg – the St. Petersburg training camps. We’re not in a position to confirm whether those latter reports are accurate or not, but let me say as a general matter: Any group whose leaders or members have visited the United States or any group that has sought to recruit Americans into its twisted causes is a matter of grave concern. That is the reason why we would want to designate a group, to prevent it from establishing inroads in the United States, to travel here, to raise money here, and so on.
QUESTION: Thank you very much, indeed.
MODERATOR: Ambassador, this is Cheryl. Do you have time to take that follow-up question from Alex with Turan News Agency in Azerbaijan?
AMBASSADOR SALES: Yeah, I think we’ve got time for one more.
MODERATOR: Okay. If the operator could unmute Alex, we will take that follow-up and —
OPERATOR: Yeah. Be one moment.
QUESTION: Can you hear me?
OPERATOR: Alex, your line is now open. Go ahead, sir.
QUESTION: Yes. I really appreciate that, what you did. Thank you very much. I’m just wondering if there’s any connection with Kremlin because ambassador, you mentioned St. Petersburg, Putin’s hometown, a number of times. Is it just a coincidence or are there any other connections you are thinking about? Thank you very much.
AMBASSADOR SALES: Thanks. I can’t comment on any connections between the Kremlin and RIM. I’ll just say as a more general matter the Russian Government has said publicly that it’s committed to fighting terrorism. We take them at their word and we expect them to live up to those representations when it comes to RIM.
More broadly, we know that the Russian Government has in the past and on an ongoing basis used proxy groups to carry out malign influence abroad and to further its aggressive policies. It uses these networks to deliberately amplify extremist ideologies across the political spectrum in order to exacerbate social tensions and undermine democratic institutions. So we think that the designation of RIM provides a valuable opportunity for the Government of Russia to put its money where its mouth is, to join with us in imposing sanctions on this group, and prevent it from exporting violence and extremism around the world.
MODERATOR: Okay. Thank you so much. That’s all the time we have. Thank you so much, Ambassador Sales, for doing this, and thank you all for participating. That concludes our briefing this morning. The transcript will hopefully be ready this afternoon or tomorrow morning, and we will be posting that on our website.
Thank you very much.