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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

New Tools to Counter al-Qa'ida and Its Future Leadership

Nathan A. Sales
   Ambassador-at-Large and Coordinator for Counterterrorism 
Michael T. Evanoff
   Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Diplomatic Security

Washington, DC
February 28, 2019




THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.

MODERATOR: So good afternoon, everyone, and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center. Today we have with us Assistant Secretary for Diplomatic Security Michael T. Evanoff and Ambassador-at-Large and Coordinator for Counterterrorism Nathan A. Sales. They are here today to discuss new international efforts aimed at weakening al-Qaida leadership. They will start off with some opening comments, and then they will each take your questions. Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY EVANOFF: Thank you and good afternoon. Today the U.S. Department of State’s Rewards for Justice program is offering a reward of up to 1 million U.S. dollars for the information leading to the identification or location in any country of the al-Qaida leader Hamza bin Ladin. Hamza bin Ladin is the son of the deceased AQ leader Usama bin Ladin and is emerging as a leader in the AQ franchise.

Letters reportedly written by Usama and seized from the Abbottabad, Pakistan compound where he was killed by U.S. service members indicate that he was grooming Hamza to replace him as a leader in al-Qaida. Since at least August of 2015, Hamza has been – has released audio and video messages on the internet calling on his followers to launch attacks against the United States and its Western allies, and he has threatened attacks against the United States in revenge for the May 2011 killing of his father.

On January 5th, 2017, the Department of State designated Hamza bin Ladin as a specifically designated global terrorist pursuant to Executive Order 13224. As a result of the designation, all of Hamza bin Ladin’s assets based in the United States or in the possession or control of U.S. persons are frozen, and U.S. persons are generally prohibited from engaging in transactions with him. Today’s announcement demonstrates the United States resolve to use all its available tools to counter terrorism and to hold al-Qaida and its leaders accountable for their actions.

We urge anyone with information on the whereabouts of this individual to contact the Rewards for Justice program via the RFJ website at www.rewardsforjustice.net, or via email at info@rewardsforjustice.net. Individuals outside the United States may also contact the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate. All information submitted to us will be kept strictly confidential.

The Rewards for Justice program has been an effective tool in our fight against international terrorism. Since its inception in 1984, the program has paid in an excess of $150 million U.S. to more than 100 people, individuals who provided credible, actionable information that prevented international terrorist attacks or helped to bring terrorists to justice. I’m hopeful that the reward offer that we are announcing today will play a similar role in bringing Hamza bin Ladin to justice.

So thank you, and now I’d like to turn the microphone over to Ambassador Nathan Sales, who will share with you some additional information that actually happened today in New York.

AMBASSADOR SALES: Thanks very much, Assistant Secretary Evanoff, and thank you all for being here today. I’d like to say a few words to put the assistant secretary’s announcement into a broader context, the context of our overall efforts to defeat al-Qaida and the threat that it poses to us and to our allies.

Today’s al-Qaida is not stagnant. It’s rebuilding. And it continues to threaten the United States and our allies. In recent years, the world’s attention understandably has been focused on the ISIS threat. Al-Qaida, during this period, has been relatively quiet, but that is a strategic pause, not a surrender. Make no mistake, al-Qaida retains both the capability and the intent to hit us.

After 9/11, the United States and our partners launched a successful campaign to decimate AQ’s core leadership. But with ISIS’s recent setbacks, al-Qaida is now aiming to re-establish itself as the vanguard of the global jihadist movement. Today’s al-Qaida relies on an international network that rivals that of ISIS in terms of its geographic scope, capability, and intent. It maintains affiliates in countries throughout Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. And Iran continues to allow al-Qaida veterans to operate from within its borders.

Let me be more specific about the threat as it currently stands. In the Sahel region of Africa, JNIM aims to establish an Islamic state centered in Mali, while targeting Western and local interests in West Africa and the Sahel. It has openly claimed responsibility for attacks in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso.

In Somalia, al-Shabaab continues to plot and launch attacks that kill innocents and threaten countries throughout the region. That includes Kenya, as we saw with last month’s attack on the Dusit hotel in Nairobi.

In Yemen, AQAP, or al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, continues to exploit the political and security vacuum created by the conflict between the Yemeni Government and the Houthis. AQAP carries out terrorist attacks throughout the country and it repeatedly has attempted to hit the U.S. homeland.

Let me tell you what we’re doing about it at the State Department and throughout the United States Government.

To address the al-Qaida threat, the United States and our partners are taking a number of military and non-military actions. First, we have and will continue to conduct military operations to ensure that al-Qaida plotters in places like Somalia and Yemen and Syria are unable to threaten the United States and our allies.

But we can’t defeat al-Qaida through military might alone. That’s why the State Department is rallying our international partners to use both military and civilian counterterrorism tools to destroy al-Qaida’s global network. These efforts are all the more important today as ISIS loses territory and ISIS fighters may seek to shift their loyalty from their current organization to al-Qaida.

In particular, the State Department continues to designate al-Qaida’s affiliates, branches, and key personnel. We are squeezing the organization’s finances, denying it the resources it needs to carry out terrorist attacks. Here are a few examples.

In September of last year, State designed JNIM as a foreign terrorist organization. In July, we amended the designation of al-Shabaab in Somalia to include al-Hijra and other aliases. And in May, State amended the designation of al-Nusrah Front, an al-Qaida affiliate in Syria, to include Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and various other so-called rebranding aliases that al-Qaida was using to evade international pressure.

We’ve also led diplomatic efforts in the UN Security Council’s 1267 Sanctions Committee to designate numerous al-Qaida-affiliated organizations and individuals alike. More on that in a moment.

In addition, the United States is building the civilian counterterrorism capabilities of key frontline states in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. Our goal is to enable these countries to respond to al-Qaida threats directly rather than turning to the United States for assistance. For instance, in Mali and Somalia we’ve built specialized teams that respond to and investigate terrorist threats in real time.

Finally, we’re working to deny al-Qaida and other terrorists the ability to travel. In late 2017, the United States led negotiations on UN Security Council Resolution 2396. This landmark resolution requires all UN members to use proven counterterrorism tools like watch lists, biometrics, and airline reservation data to harden their borders and block terrorist transit.

Today’s action by the UN is a perfect example of international cooperation against al-Qaida. Earlier today, indeed within the hour, the UN’s 1267 Committee designated Hamza bin Ladin under its authorities. As a result of the United Nations actions, all member-states are required to freeze his assets, comply with the travel ban, and enforce an arms embargo barring the sale or transfer of weapons.

The United States remains committed to defeating the al-Qaida threat that addresses – that challenges us across the globe. Working with our partners, working with the interagency community, and taking actions like those we have announced today, we will do exactly that. Thank you and we will welcome your questions.

MODERATOR: I’d like to remind our journalists please to wait for the microphone before asking your question and please state your name, outlet, and country clearly so that I can take your name down for the transcript. Thank you.

Who would like to go first? Sir, Rahim.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. Mr. Khdr from Kurdistan TV. My question about that, we know he was in Iran and he was married in Iran. How would you describe the relationship between al-Qaida and Iran? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR SALES: Well, thank you for the question. The relationship between al-Qaida and Iran is a relationship of convenience and it’s one that we are very concerned about. Since 9/11, Iran has given sanctuary to key al-Qaida figures who fled Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks and the United States response. In addition, Tehran has allowed al-Qaida to run facilitation networks for the movement of weapons as well as fighters into Syria and Afghanistan.

Iran is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, and its relationship of convenience with al-Qaida is just additional evidence that this regime regards terrorism as absolutely fundamental to what it is. We renew our calls for all nations, but especially Iran, to do everything in their power to bring to justice the al-Qaida terrorists who were responsible for 9/11.

MODERATOR: Nothing else on that question? Then we’ll go to our journalist in New York.

QUESTION: Hi there. Can you hear me?

MODERATOR: Yes, we can.

QUESTION: Hi, there. My name is James Reinl. I’m with Middle East Eye. Thanks so much for the briefing, gentlemen. I’ve got a question about the foreign fighters that have been operating with Daesh, ISIS in Syria. The numbers of them, somewhere between 800 and 3,000 from European countries and North America, the fighters, their wives, and some children – President Trump said that he wanted European nations to shoulder the burden and take some of them back, but European nations seem to be reluctant to do so. The U.S. is also seen to be reluctant to take these fighters back. It seems to be a really, really colossal problem for the U.S. and its allies as to what to do with these people. If you take them back, it’s very difficult to prosecute them, because there might be a lack of evidence. Maybe they could be stripped of citizenship, but then they become stateless, and then they’re going to be a problem for someone else down the line. I mean, are you guys and your NATO allies – are you knocking your heads together about this? And what might be the way forward, as you see it?

AMBASSADOR SALES: Well, thanks for the question. The way forward is for every country whose citizens went to Syria and Iraq to fight for ISIS to take responsibility for their citizens, to bring them home, and to prosecute them for any crimes they’ve committed. That’s what the United States has done, and we are leading by example. In the past several years, we have repatriated four fighters from Syria and Iraq, returned them to the United States, and charged them with a variety of crimes related to their alleged criminal activity in Syria and Iraq on behalf of ISIS. We call on the rest of the world to do the same thing. If you have citizens in Syria and Iraq who can be charged with crimes – and we all have obligations to ensure that our criminal laws are adequate to the terrorist threats that we face – we ask that you take these people back, prosecute them, and ensure that they are unable to return to the battlefield and threaten international peace and security again.

MODERATOR: Let’s go --

QUESTION: Thank you very much. My name is Alex Raufoglu. I represent TURAN News Agency of Azerbaijan. Just wanted to follow up. Its timing is very interesting. We talk about the potential jihadists returning back to Europe or the Caucasus and other countries, and also at the same time we talk about al-Qaida threats and affiliated organizations. Do we differ threats from potential jihadists in different countries? But you’ve highlighted frontline states – Africa, Middle East, and South Asia. How do we (inaudible) potential threats from ISIS jihadists? Thank you very much.

AMBASSADOR SALES: Well, we have to be aware of and acting vigilantly to counter the full spectrum of terrorist threats we face. Al-Qaida remains a threat; ISIS certainly does, even though their physical caliphate is on its last legs in Syria. And we must also be mindful of the threat posed by Iran-backed terrorism. The recent plots by Iranian operatives in Europe to commit assassinations in the heart of Western capitals such as Paris, such as Copenhagen are reminders – if we need them, and I don’t think we do – that Iran remains the world’s leading state sponsor of terror.

So we adopt tools that are threat agnostic and that can used against the full spectrum of threats. The tools that we use to deny resources to al-Qaida can also be used to cut off the flow of money to ISIS. The tools that we use to prevent Hizballah operatives from traveling internationally can also be used to prevent ISIS foreign fighters from traveling internationally.

MODERATOR: Let’s go to this gentleman and then in the back.

QUESTION: Hi. My name is Peter Winkler from a Swiss daily, Neue Zuercher Zeitung. You were saying that you expect some sort of change of allegiance of ISIS fighters who are now on their last legs. I was wondering whether you could elaborate a bit more. Also, the question of rebranding of certain groups that – I think there was a rumor a few years ago that al-Qaida or other radical groups had then taken the label of ISIS because it was very successful. And so I suppose there’s no coincidence that now that the fortune of ISIS is going down that you’re reminding the world that al-Qaida is still out there.

AMBASSADOR SALES: On the question of shifting allegiances, ISIS grew out of al-Qaida. What we – the organization we now know as ISIS was originally known as al-Qaida in Iraq. We – so we have to be aware of the fact that boundaries between organizations can sometimes be fluid, and as one rises and one falls there might be movement between them. It’s a risk, and so we address the risk and prepare for it.

As far as rebranding, the problem that we’ve encountered around the world in a number of different countries is efforts by al-Qaida networks, affiliates, individuals to portray themselves as more moderate, to portray themselves not as terrorists but as political actors. The United States is not fooled by these efforts. If you walk like a terrorist and talk like a terrorist, you’re a terrorist, and our designations policy reflects that reality.

MODERATOR: Let’s go to the gentleman. Yeah.

QUESTION: Thank you so much. My name is Khaled from Al Ghad TV, Emirates. My question is concerning about the financial channels for these terror groups. How do we fight them through this, especially they are hiding now through, like, civil society, human rights organizations? Also, will we see the United States recognize Muslim Brotherhood as a terror organization?

AMBASSADOR SALES: I’ll take that last one.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY EVANOFF: Yeah, sure.

AMBASSADOR SALES: But Assistant Secretary, do you want to take that first piece about how you use – the financial flows?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY EVANOFF: The Rewards for Justice is a tool, a successful tool, that’s been used since 1984, and over 150 million U.S. dollars have been doled out to people that have given us actionable intelligence to (inaudible). We think this is a valuable tool and will continue to be a valuable tool to ferret out – the need to make sure that people want money, need money, and they have a need to go after somebody will always be there, so it’s probably one of the most important tools next to intelligence.

AMBASSADOR SALES: And I can’t comment on any internal deliberations that may or may not be taking place about possible designations, but what I can tell you is that in the past when we have found that a group with some sort of connection to the Muslim Brotherhood meets the statutory criteria for designation, we have not hesitated to do so. For instance, Hamas was one of the very first groups that the United States Department of State designated under our statutory authorities after Congress enacted the relevant legislation back in the 1990s, and we are prepared to designate groups that meet the statutory criteria.

MODERATOR: So we have time for just a few more questions. Let’s go to New York and then we’ll come back here.

QUESTION: Thanks very much. This is Manik Mehta. I’m syndicated. We have been getting reports that al-Qaida is collaborating with other groups, as you also suggested in your earlier remarks. There are reports that al-Qaida has ties with the JEM terror group in Pakistan, which carried out a suicide attack on an Indian convoy in Kashmir. What are you doing about the JEM?

AMBASSADOR SALES: Well, let me begin by offering our condolences to the government and people of India for the attack of – in the middle of this month. The United States has designated JEM and its leadership under our domestic authorities to cut off the flow of money, to deprive them of the resources they need to commit attacks like the one we witnessed just a couple of weeks ago.

It’s also important to amplify those unilateral efforts that we’re taking under our own laws with multilateral efforts. We call on other countries to follow our lead and we call on the international community as a whole to follow our lead in designating this organization and its leadership.

MODERATOR: Let’s go in back.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. I am Kawa Khdr from Kurdistan 24. The latest reports in the cooperation room between the U.S. coalition force – the United States and Iraqi forces in Iraq – said that within last week, around 1,000 ISIS members crossed through Syria to Iraq again and includes some leaders of ISIS again. So the question here – and some of them are fleeing around Kirkuk city to the Kurdish areas. So the question here is to what extent the United States is concerned, and what’s the plan for capturing these leaders back there before – recollecting them back again, because it’s a very big fear in Iraq now. Thank you.

AMBASSADOR SALES: Right. So the situation on the ground is obviously very fluid as coalition forces continue to pound the last physical holdings that ISIS maintains in the MERV. Our approach today is what it always has been. ISIS fighters who are taken into custody – we need to take them off the battlefield and ensure that they are never able to return to terrorism.

And there are a number of different tools we can use to accomplish that. We can return them to countries of origin to prosecute them. In the United States, we have a very robust legal regime that allows us to charge terrorists with providing material support to a designated organization. A conviction carries quite severe penalties that take people off the street, off the battlefield in terms that are measured in decades. We’ll be looking to do the same thing with respect to the fighters who have already been captured and are currently in custody in the theater, as well as those that we might take into custody or, to be more precise, that coalition partners might take into custody going forward.

MODERATOR: We have time for one more question. Let’s go to the gentleman here.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. Hi, my name is Rafael Salido from EFE News. Going back to Hamza bin Laden, I was wondering if you could give us some information about what was the last information that you had from him, where you suspect that he may be, if you could provide some details about that – on that. Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY EVANOFF: Well, we do believe he’s probably in the Afghan-Pakistan border, and probably could go into Iran. We also believe he’s going to be emerging later, and we’ve identified that. I think he’s – again, he’s in the Indo-Pak area, Afghanistan area, and that we probably – believe he probably will cross into Iran. So that’s the location that we think where – at now. But he could be anywhere, though, in the south – South Central Asia.

QUESTION: So there’s some kind of urgency because if he crosses into Iran --

QUESTION: Yes.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY EVANOFF: Well, I don’t – it’s – I don’t think the urgency is pronounced, per se, but it’s a heads-up that we are looking for you, and we will get you.

MODERATOR: I would like to thank our speakers, Assistant Secretary Evanoff and Ambassador Sales, and our briefing is now concluded.

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