Assistant Secretary for State for Diplomatic Security Michael T. Evanoff, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorist Financing Marshall Billingslea, and Ambassador-at-Large and Coordinator for Counterterrorism Nathan A. Sales
FOREIGN PRESS CENTER BRIEFING WITH Assistant Secretary for State for Diplomatic Security Michael T. Evanoff, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorist Financing Marshall Billingslea, and Ambassador-at-Large and Coordinator for Counterterrorism Nathan A. Sales
TOPIC: Announcement of a New Initiative to Stem Hizballah Financing
MONDAY, APRIL 22, 2019, 1:30 P.M. EST
THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.
MODERATOR: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for joining us, and we’re very pleased to have this, our latest in the Rewards for Justice series of briefings. I’m very pleased to introduce Assistant Secretary of Diplomatic Security Mr. Michael Evanoff, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Mr. Marshall Billingslea, and our Ambassador-at-Large for Counterterrorism Ambassador Nathan Sales.
The biographies are in the briefing announcement, so I won’t quote from them here. I’ll just note that since 1984 the United States Government has paid more than $150 million to over a hundred people who have provided actionable information that put terrorists behind bars or prevents acts of international terrorism worldwide under the Rewards for Justice Program.
A few words about the order. This event is on-the-record. We’ll have brief remarks from all three principals, and then we’ll come back for a brief Q&A. And with that, I’ll turn it over to Assistant Secretary Evanoff.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY EVANOFF: Good afternoon. Today the U.S. Department of State’s Rewards for Justice Program is offering a new reward offer up to ten million U.S. dollars for the information leading to the disruption of financial activities that support the global terrorist organization Lebanese Hizballah.
This announcement marks the first time that the Department has offered a reward for the information on Hizballah financial networks. The Lebanese-based terrorist organization, which the State Department designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization in October 1997, receives weapons, training, funding from Iran. The Secretary of State designated Iran as a State Sponsor of Terrorism in 1984.
In previous years, Hizballah has generated about $1 billion annually through direct financial support from Iran, international businesses and investments, donor networks, and money-laundering activities. The group uses these funds to support its malign activities throughout the world, which includes the development of militia to Syria in the support of Assad dictatorship; and to Yemen in support of the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels; surveillance and intelligence-gathering operations in the American homeland; and enhanced military capabilities, including its claim to possess precision-guided missiles.
Such terrorist operations are funded through Hizballah’s international network of financial supporters and activities. We intend to stem that critical flow of money using the Reward offer, as well as sanctions and other tools available to the U.S. Government. We urge anyone with information on Hizballah financial networks to contact the Rewards for Justice Program via the RFJ website@rewardsfor dot – rewardsforjustice.net or via email at LH@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.
What sort of information are we seeking? We are welcoming any information that leads to the identification, the disruption of Hizballah’s financial mechanisms and individuals who manage or facilitate them. The Rewards for Justice Program has been an effective law enforcement tool in our fight against international terrorism since its inception in 1984. To date, the program has paid in excess of 150 million U.S. dollars to more than 100 individuals who provide information that prevented international attacks, terrorist attacks, or helped to bring terrorists to justice.
I am confident that the reward offer that we are offering today – announcing today, will provide incentive for people to come forward with information that will help us take down Hizballah’s financial networks.
Now I’d like to turn the microphone over to my Department of Treasury colleague, Assistant Secretary Marshall Billingslea, who will speak about Hizballah’s financial funding mechanisms and type of financial information we are seeking.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BILLINGSLEA: Thanks, Michael. Good afternoon, and I want to give a special thanks to Assistant Secretary Evanoff and to Ambassador Sales for working so closely with the Department of the Treasury in launching this most important program. We are proud to play a role in this effort as a means to further expose and financially isolate this terrorist group.
Make no mistake: The United States Government will use all available tools to extinguish Hizballah’s sources of revenue. We will also target any and all financial means of the group and its masters in Iran, and every mechanism that they together use to support terrorist activities in the Middle East and, in fact, around the world.
Since 2017, the Treasury has moved at an unprecedented rate to disrupt Hizballah’s financial activities and deny it access to the global financial system. We’ve designated more than 40 individuals and entities working behind the scenes as well with friendly nations, scores of countries, to close down Hizballah-controlled companies, money exchanges, and laundering operations. From Argentina and Paraguay to the Gambia to Dubai, we’ve worked with friendly governments to roll up these financing networks.
In fact, nowhere better can the impact of our efforts be seen than in the statements of Hizballah’s secretary general Hassan Nasrallah. Last month Nasrallah, for the first time publicly, bemoaned Hizballah’s financial situation and claimed that the financial warfare of the Treasury Department was taking its toll. In fact, he’s stooping to new lows, recently resorting to exploiting charitable donations and diverting that funding to its fighters, as well as relying on political coercion and intimidation to squeeze Lebanon’s financial sector and mortgage Lebanon’s future.
Today’s reward initiative, I’m going to talk about three specific Hizballah financiers. We will leave no stoned unturned in our pursuit of information that will help us clamp down further on these individuals and on others they use to access the international financial system, either directly or via cash smuggling networks and other seemingly legitimate businesses and investments. As part of today’s launch we highlight, as I mentioned, these three individuals: Adham Tabaja, Mohammad Ibrahim Bazzi, and Ali Youssef Charara.
Together, these individuals comprise key parts of Hizballah’s financial modus operandi, and they have networks that span four continents with links to the formal financial sector as well as the drug trade and corrupt foreign governments. The first, Adham Tabaja, once ruled a vast commercial and construction investment network across the Middle East. Tabaja and his network attempt to maintain direct ties to senior Hizballah leadership as well as the group’s terrorist operational arm, the Islamic Jihad, and they tap into Tabaja’s network for financial aid and support. Tabaja was designated by the Treasury in 2015, and since then we have gone after three branches of his business. We’ve worked with foreign governments to dismantle his companies in Ghana, in Iraq, Lebanon, and Sierra Leone.
Next is Ali Youssef Charara, who acted as Hizballah’s personal wealth manager both inside and outside of Lebanon. Charara received millions of dollars from Hizballah which he then used to invest on its behalf in the oil and telecommunications sector in Iraq, Europe, and West Africa. Treasury designated Charara and his Lebanese-based company, Spectrum Investment Group Holdings SAL, in 2016, and we continue to pursue his network globally.
Last is Mohamed Ibrahim Bazzi, who provided Hizballah with millions of dollars from his transcontinental business holdings. He leveraged his political relationships to build a vast petroleum, mining, milling, and energy services empire that, again, spanned Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, all to Hizballah’s benefit. Bazzi is now struggling to maintain his business ties to Belgium, Benin, Cote d’Ivoire, Iraq, the Gambia, Lebanon, and Sierra Leone.
He’s also worked closely with the Central Bank of Iran to expand banking access between Lebanon and Iran and has leveraged a close personal relationship with the ousted former Gambian dictator, Yahya Jammeh, to re-establish political ties between the Gambia and Iran. Treasury designated Bazzi and his companies in May of 2018.
Tabaja, Charara, and Bazzi collectively represents several diverse streams of funding by which Hizballah has raised and laundered millions of dollars. They have leveraged political ties with corrupt regimes and often gained unfair monopolistic control over state industries. The inter-connectedness between their global networks of seemingly legitimate businesses and Hizballah, including its operational units, make it critically important that their access to the international financial system be permanently severed.
However, as prominent as these three may be, by no means are they the only Hizballah financiers we pursue. The United States Government seeks information related to any Hizballah financial source as well as any financial institution, whether it be a bank, an exchange house, a hawala, or a business that Hizballah uses to raise or move money.
The way that Hizballah’s money-making apparatus operates using both the formal and the informal financial sector leaves a transnational paper trail that implicates scores of individuals and companies, and in support of today’s Rewards for Justice Program, again, the United States Government seeks any and all information that helps us uncover these financial activities and which leads us to financial disruption.
This includes specifically information on corporation and shareholder documents. We will pay for bank records, customs forms, real estate transactions, and anything evidencing money laundering or cash smuggling. As detailed by the assistant secretary, the United States Government is prepared to pay for this information, and we will award up to $10 million for leads that result in financial disruption, whether by U.S. law enforcement, sanctions, or other enforcement actions. I reiterate: We will pay up to $10 million for information that leads to disruption of Hizballah’s financial networks.
In closing, I thank our partners at the State Department and I extend – as well as extending our support to all of those who ultimately will come forward under this program with information that further clamps down on this terrorist group’s financial network. And I now have the pleasure of turning it over to Ambassador Sales, who will put Hizballah’s financial activity into the broader context of this administration’s counterterrorism mission.
AMBASSADOR SALES: Good afternoon, everyone. We’re talking about Hizballah today, but any conversation about Hizballah must begin in Tehran. Iran remains the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. This is a reprehensible distinction that the regime has held since 1984. The regime spends nearly a billion dollars a year on its terrorist proxies around the world, and that includes up to $700 million for Hizballah alone.
Of course, Iran does more than just support terrorism. It actively engages in terrorism itself, and it’s an outlaw regime that uses terrorism as a fundamental tool of its statecraft. That’s why Secretary Pompeo recently designated Iran’s IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization, the first time we have ever designated another state entity as an FTO.
Today’s announcement is equally unprecedented. It’s the first time the State Department has issued an RFJ offer focused solely on Hizballah financing. This offer is another step in our unrelenting campaign against Tehran and its terrorist proxies around the world.
Let me say a few words about the threat that Hizballah poses and why we’re intensifying our financial pressure on this dangerous terrorist group. Hizballah has a truly global reach. It has operatives, financiers, front companies, and other assets in Lebanon, in the Gulf, in Africa, in Asia, in Europe, and in the Western Hemisphere. It likes to masquerade as the defender of the Lebanese people, but we know it for what it is: a group whose true agenda is global terrorism.
In the Middle East, Hizballah is actively working to prop up the brutal Assad dictatorship in Syria, and it’s applying the lessons it learned in Syria to create and sustain violent militias loyal to Iran throughout the region. We’re seeing this pattern play out in Bahrain, in Iraq, and in Yemen. Make no mistake: Hizballah and their Iranian masters want to turn these proud and sovereign nations into Iranian vassals.
Hizballah’s reach is not limited to the Middle East. It continues to actively plot and carry out terrorist attacks around the world. Hizballah activity has been uncovered in recent years in places like Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Nigeria, Panama, Peru, and Thailand. The United States is not immune to this threat. In 2017, two suspected Hizballah operatives were arrested in New York and Michigan. We believe they were conducting surveillance of U.S. Government facilities as well as the Panama Canal.
The good news: Hizballah is feeling the pinch. As our sanctions on the Iranian regime have taken hold, Hizballah has had to tighten its collective belt. The group’s secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, is now publicly soliciting donations. The resistance needs your support, he says. “Resistance,” that’s his word, not ours. That’s why today’s reward offer is so important. If Hizballah can’t count on the same levels of support from Tehran, the group increasingly will need to raise money to support terrorism itself. In this administration, we use every tool at our disposal to dismantle Hizballah’s global financing network.
Today’s announcement is part of our broader campaign to hit Hizballah in the wallet and deny it the resources it needs to spread terrorism around the world. Let me give you a few examples. Since 2017, the State Department has used our terrorism designation authorities to designate a number of top Hizballah leaders. They include the following: Jawad Nasrallah, the son of Hassan Nasrallah and a rising leader in the organization; Mustafa Mughniyeh, a Hizballah commander; Ali Damush, leader of Hizballah’s foreign relations department; Hashim Safi al-Din, a key member of Hizballah’s executive council. In addition, in 2015, we designated the operatives who carried out the 2012 bombing in Bulgaria – Burgas, Bulgaria, which killed five Israeli tourists and their Bulgarian driver.
In addition, we’ve previously offered multimillion dollar RFJ offers for key Hizballah figures. They include Fuad Shukr, a senior Hizballah operative who played a central role in the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut; Talal Hamiya, head of Hizballah’s external security organization; Khalil Yusif Mahmoud Harb, a close advisor to Hassan Nasrallah; and Haytham Ali Tabatabaei, a senior commander of Hizballah’s special forces in Syria and in Yemen.
The point of this campaign is clear and the point of today’s announcement is clear. We will continue to increase the financial pressure and impose costs on the Iranian regime and its terrorist proxies until they abandon their malign and outlawed behavior. Thank you all very much.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much, Ambassador. (Applause.) I know we have a lot of veterans here, but if I can quickly go over house rules. Please wait for a microphone, please identify yourself by name and outlet, and please limit yourself to one question at the outset.
We’ll take some down here, and then go to New York. New York, please stand by. We’ll start right here with Joyce.
QUESTION: Do I get a mic? Oh. Ah yes, hi, thank you. Joyce Karam with The National. Thanks for a very busy Monday. You mentioned that you have a transnational paper trail that implicates companies. Any intention to reveal the names of these companies? And will you be going after these companies, or allies of Hizballah who might be helping in financing efforts?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BILLINGSLEA: Thanks for the question. Exactly my point. The way Hizballah operates leaves a paper trail. And what we are offering today for the first time is a rewards program that is designed to pay individuals for information like the kinds of documents I mentioned that leads to disruption of Hizballah finances.
MODERATOR: Let’s take this one here and we’ll go to New York.
QUESTION: Yes. Hiba Nasr, Sky News Arabia. I want to ask about the sanctions against Hizballah allies in Lebanon. We have heard that – in the media that you’re going to sanction some allies. And you met also a parliamentary delegation last week in – here in Washington, Lebanese parliament delegation. What was the message from Washington to Lebanon?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BILLINGSLEA: Well, so to begin with, I’m not going to talk about future sanctions activities other than to say that I did meet with a parliamentary delegation. The nature of the discussions is, of course, confidential between governments, but what’s very important to understand is we are focused on Hizballah – not on the Shia community; we are focused on Hizballah, and on cutting this cancer out of the financial system.
MODERATOR: All right. We will go to New York, and then here. James, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi there. Can you hear me?
MODERATOR: Lean into the mic a little bit more, please.
QUESTION: Hi, can you hear me, guys?
MODERATOR: Yes. Yes.
QUESTION: Yeah, thanks very much. It’s James Reinl here from Middle East Eye. You’ve spoken about Hizballah’s global reach. You mentioned Cyprus, Azerbaijan, Panama, Thailand, et cetera. We also know that the organization is active in Venezuela. They’ve had a long history there. But I’m wondering, are you following their activities since the political discord erupted there? Have you seen any Hizballah activities? Are they fundraising there? Are they rallying militias there in support of the Maduro regime? What is Hizballah doing there, and what are your observations on it?
AMBASSADOR SALES: There are certain things I can’t say in this setting. What I can tell you is something that will, of course, come as no surprise, and that is Hizballah thrives in chaotic environments such as the Syrian civil war, such as in Yemen. We know that Hizballah has long had an active presence in the Western Hemisphere, particularly in the tri-border region where Argentina and Brazil and Paraguay come together. They exploit their presence there to raise a great deal of money and send it back home where it can be used for the malign purposes with which we’re all familiar. Thanks for the question.
MODERATOR: This gentleman here, and then we’ll come over to this side.
QUESTION: Hi. I’m David Alandete from ABC in Spain. Have you – continuing with the Venezuelan question – any links of these three people that you’re identifying here with the Maduro regime, or any commercial ties, companies that operate in the two places?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BILLINGSLEA: The three financiers that I discussed today, we have not identified publicly any particular business operations that they may have in Venezuela. However, we are focused on a number of other individuals who, in addition to operating corruptly in the Venezuelan economy, also have Lebanese passports.
MODERATOR: Let me take Laurie, please.
QUESTION: Laurie Mylroie, Kurdistan 24. Are there ties between Hizballah and the drug industry in Latin and South America?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BILLINGSLEA: Yes, there are. There are a number of Hizballah financiers who, in addition to running various types of import-export businesses – I mentioned oil and petroleum-type activities – but there are several Hizballah financiers who are also involved in the drug trade. Mohammad Ibrahim Bazzi is an excellent example of an individual who traffics in narcotics in addition to his other nefarious behaviors. Last week, for instance, we designated a money exchange house in Lebanon, the Chams Exchange, run by an individual who launders money – extremely large amounts of money – for narcotics organizations, including Colombian narcotics organizations, and who also moves money for Hizballah.
MODERATOR: We’ll go here and then here, sir.
QUESTION: Thank you. Jafar Jafari with Al Mayadeen. I’d like to take your argument of – from a domestic Lebanese perspective, and that is the sanctions you’re imposing on Hizballah’s finances and individuals and what have you. What are the ramifications for the normal Lebanese who usually deal with – they rent apartments to probably identified or non-identified Hizballah members, buying groceries at the store, getting medical assistance, medical care that is – and all other services. Are those sanctions going to impact innocent people in the – along the way?
AMBASSADOR SALES: I imagine Marshall will have something to say about this as well, but let me just take a first crack at that. These sanctions are pro-Lebanon. Make no mistake, the first victims of Hizballah are the Lebanese people, because it’s the Lebanese people who see their resources siphoned off and squandered on military adventurism abroad, terrorism abroad, and terrorism at home. The goal of U.S. policy with respect to Lebanon is to isolate and marginalize Hizballah so that it can no longer play the outsized and malign role that it does within the Lebanese political system, a policy whose goal is to benefit – is precisely to benefit the long-suffering Lebanese people.
QUESTION: But they’re part of the Lebanese Government.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BILLINGSLEA: I think we have to be very clear that the kinds of social services that you’re talking about – the use of credit cards, the access to finance, the ability to take out a loan, to buy property – this all depends upon the strength and the stability of the Lebanese banking sector. When you talk about Lebanon, there are two main pillars of stability, right? The Lebanese armed forces and its financial sector. And I work very closely – we work in the Treasury Department extremely closely with Governor Riad Salameh and his vice governors to protect the Lebanese banking sector. It is vital that the governor of Lebanon understand that the protection of the Lebanese financial sector is jeopardized by Hassan Nasrallah and Hizballah, who attempt to make inroads into the banks. They need to stay out of the banking sector.
MODERATOR: Okay, let me take the question here, please.
QUESTION: Roj Zalla with Rudaw TV. Your new initiative, how do you see it being received in Iraq? Hizballah and their allies and their offshoots in Iraq through PMF have – allegedly are benefiting from even state institutions for financial means. What do you see in terms of working with the Iraqi Government in that regard?
AMBASSADOR SALES: Well, I think Iraq has a very keen interest in not being subjected to the same sorts of destabilizing domestic influences that we’ve seen in other countries where Hizballah has played a malign role. The United States and the Government of Iraq and the people of Iraq, we all share a common interest in a vision for what Iraq should be, and that is a strong and stable and prosperous democracy that is free from outside malign influence. Friendship with the United States brings that about. A strong or even minimal Hizballah presence is inconsistent with what we all want Iraq to be.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BILLINGSLEA: I’d also simply further add that Hizballah financiers are very active in Iraq. I mentioned Adham Tabaja; he maintains a construction company in Iraq. He’s running around trying to get paid for various construction activities that he undertook. I think a number of Iraqi citizens stand to benefit should they come forward with information that leads to disruption of these kinds of networks.
MODERATOR: Why don’t we take this question here and then I’ll come back up front.
QUESTION: Voice of America, Turkish Service, Begum Ersoz. My question will be on the Iran sanctions. U.S. today announced that it will no longer issue waivers to – oil waivers to eight countries, including Turkey, and we know that Mr. Billingslea held talks with the Turkish officials a few months ago. So I was wondering if, based on your talks with the Turkish officials, did Turkey promise to comply with the sanctions and to go to zero? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BILLINGSLEA: That’s off topic for what we’re here to talk about today, but I’d be happy to schedule a discussion with you at a later date.
MODERATOR: Okay. And we’ll take this question here, please.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. Mr. Kurd from Kurdistan TV. If Iranian regime continue to support Hizballah publicly, what will be the U.S.A. reaction and next step by United States? And any comment about relationship between Hizballah and Hashd al-Shaabi in Iraq? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR SALES: Well, I think Iran is going to continue to support Hizballah, as they have for decades and as they have to the tune of, by now, many billions of dollars. I think the United States response to this is going to be to continue to intensify the pressure, cut off the flow of money to the terrorist regime in Tehran, cut off the flow of money to the regime’s proxies around the world. And we know that this is effective. We know it’s effective because Hizballah has told us that it’s effective. Otherwise, Hassan Nasrallah would not be out with a tin cup trying to raise money that he previously was able to command from his masters in Tehran.
MODERATOR: We have one more in the back.
QUESTION: Thank you. David Mirejovsky, Czech public TV. You’ve mentioned these three individuals. Do you know where they are currently, just right now? You mentioned they are active all around the world, so where they are just right now. And is the goal of the American administration to bring them to the justice on the American soil? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BILLINGSLEA: Well, I’m certainly not going to speculate as to whether we know where they are or they aren’t. Our – the purpose of today’s announcement is to offer reward money, bounty money for anyone who comes forward with information that leads to disruption of the financial networks. And we very much look forward to compensating those who do so.
MODERATOR: One more question, sir?
QUESTION: Ali Harb, MEE. Will your efforts target Hizballah-linked individuals, including officials in the political wing of Hizballah, or will it focus on the organization itself?
AMBASSADOR SALES: There’s no such thing as a political wing of Hizballah. It’s one organization; it’s a terrorist organization. And you don’t have to take our word for it, you can take Hassan Nasrallah’s word for it. Hassan Nasrallah rejects this false convenient distinction between a political wing and a military wing. In answer to the other part of your question, we will offer up to $10 million for information relating to the financing of the unified Hizballah organization, including all subsidiaries. Thanks.
MODERATOR: Okay. We’ll take your question, sir.
QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you. Kawa Khdr from Kurdistan24 too. After the fall of too many disputed areas in 2017 from the Kurdish region of Iraq, it’s very well-known and there are too many intelligence reports that a land bridge been opened from Iran through these disputed areas, through Syria to Lebanon for supporting technical and logistic capabilities to Hizballah directly. There are too many reports for the intelligence and it’s very well-known. So do you believe that the KRG can play a role in reducing the influence that – from this land bridge by supporting the go back for the Peshmerga much more to the places? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR SALES: We would be grateful for the assistance of any responsible party to shine a light on Hizballah’s malign activity as well as that of its Iranian enablers.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BILLINGSLEA: I would say we have a very good relationship with the KRG on these kinds of financial matters, and we appreciate greatly their support.
MODERATOR: All right, and this will be our last question, please. Simon.
QUESTION: My name is Simon Ateba from Today News Africa here in Washington, D.C. I was wondering if you see any connection between Boko Haram and some terrorist organization in Africa with money from Iran. Thank you.
AMBASSADOR SALES: Let me answer that question at a slightly higher level of generality. We know that Iran-backed terrorist organizations are active in Africa. We know that Hizballah in particular is active in Africa, raising money throughout the continent. I believe the Treasury Department issued a number of designations some months ago focusing on Hizballah activity in Africa, and one of the front companies that stood out to me was a pig farm, I think in Liberia. Yeah, the Hizballah pig farm in Liberia. So we know that these malign actors are very active on the continent, and we look forward to partnering with governments there to cut off a flow of money back to Hizballah.
MODERATOR: All right, and with that, I will close today’s briefing. I want to thank our briefers very much for coming in today. As you are departing, there are a number of materials that are available for you with further details about today’s briefing. And I also want to take a moment to introduce the new State Department spokesperson, Ms. Morgan Ortagus, who is here today to observe how we do things at the FPC. Thank you all very much.