The United States stepped up its push Monday for European countries to repatriate and put on trial their citizens who fought for Daesh (ISIS), launching talks with officials in Brussels.
Days after the U.S. and European allies clashed over the fate of thousands of militants jailed in Syria, the State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator Nathan Sales arrived in Brussels to press Washington’s argument that returning fighters to their home countries is the most effective way to deal with them.
“We all understand the need to be tough on terrorists. But we think the way to be tough on terrorists is to prosecute them and hold them accountable,” Sales told reporters in Brussels.
“Leaving them in the desert is not an effective solution. It makes it more likely they’re going to find their way back to the battlefield, and accepting that risk is not being tough on terrorism.
“Countries in the region have their hands full already and are doing the right thing by prosecuting or reintegrating their own citizens. We shouldn’t ask them to bear the additional burden of solving our citizens’ problems.”
“We don’t think citizenship stripping is an effective counterterrorism tool,” he said.
“In the 1990s Saudi Arabia stripped Osama bin Laden of citizenship – that did nothing to prevent 9/11.”
Below is a full rush transcript of the press conference with Nathan A. Sales, Ambassador-at-Large and Coordinator for Counterterrorism at the U.S. Department of State.
Ambassador-at-Large Sales: Thanks very much and thanks to everybody for joining the call. I wanted to raise two issues on this call today. First, the repatriation and prosecution of foreign terrorist fighters from Syria. And second, the role of Iran in fomenting terrorism around the world, but particularly here in Europe. Let me walk through those two issues in a bit more detail.
First of all, on foreign terrorist fighters, last Thursday at a meeting of the Defeat ISIS Coalition in Washington, D.C., U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on all coalition members to take back their citizens who have been captured in Syria, repatriate them to countries of origin, and prosecute them for any crimes they’ve committed. We think that this is an essential step to ensuring that ISIS fighters are made to face justice for their crimes and preventing them from ever returning to the battlefield. We’re talking about some battle-hardened, experienced terrorists who, if given the opportunity, would return to the fight, and it’s incumbent upon all of us to make sure that they’re not able to do so.
We assess that the most effective way to keep them off the battlefield is for countries of origin to take them back and prosecute them. The United States has been leading by example on this issue. We have repatriated six adults and prosecuted them for a variety of crimes, including terrorism-related crimes. We’ve also brought home 14 children who have been put into various rehabilitation and reintegration programs. We think that right now there is a window of opportunity for all countries who wish to move forward on this to do so.
Today, the situation in northeastern Syria seems relatively stable. But I have to emphasize, as we all know, things can change very quickly in northeastern Syria. And so we think that there should be a sense of urgency for countries to take advantage of this window of opportunity now, bring their folks home, and prosecute them or rehabilitate them, as the case may be.
Second, Iran has been the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism for many years, for many decades. 2018 was the year when Iran demonstrated its reach into the heart of Europe. We saw a plot to bomb a rally outside of Paris that was to be carried out by a supposed Iranian diplomat based in Austria, using assets based here in Brussels. We also saw an attempted assassination of an Iranian dissident living in Denmark. These plots came on the heels of Germany’s arrest in 2018 of 10 suspected Qods Force operatives and successful assassinations by Iran in the Netherlands in 2015 and 2017.
The threat that Iran and its terrorist proxies pose is not an abstract and hypothetical one; it is not a threat that is limited to far-off countries. It is a threat that we face in the United States at home, and it is a threat that our European allies face here as well. We think it is essential to impose withering economic sanctions on Iran and its proxies to deprive them of the resources they need to commit attacks around the world, and we know that our pressure campaign is working. We know this because the secretary general of Hizballah, Hassan Nasrallah, has publicly appealed for donations. Now that he can no longer count on the same robust financial support from his enablers in Tehran, he and his terrorist colleagues are having to raise a substantial amount of money on their own. And that’s why we think it is essential for more countries to join the United States in sanctioning Hizballah in its entirety. It is not an organization that can be divided neatly into a military wing and a so-called political wing. There is no such thing as Hizballah’s political wing. It is a terrorist organization, root and branch.
In the United States, we have long designated the entirety of the group and we’ve been grateful in the past year to see several other countries acknowledge the reality that Hizballah is terrorist through and through. We commend countries like the United Kingdom, Argentina, Paraguay, and others who in the past 12 months have moved forward to designate Hizballah in its entirety, and we hope that other countries will follow suit.
Question: Ambassador, thank you for taking the time to talk today. The New York Times and The Intercept just released a trove of secret intelligence cables from Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security, and they concluded that the documents show that Iran at every turn has outmaneuvered the United States in the contest for influence in Iraq. And I wanted to ask you if the – if you found the American invasion of Iraq empowered Iran, helping them to become, in your estimation, the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism.
Ambassador-at-Large Sales: Well, Iran has held that title since 1984 – a good two decades before the events of the early 2000s, so I don’t see a correlation there at all. We’re aware of the report. We’re looking at it very closely and, since it’s so new, I don’t have any particular reaction for you now.
I will say, however, that the United States policy in Iraq is for Iraq to be a free and sovereign and independent state that respects the wishes of its people, and that is free from outside malign influence. Needless to say, that is not Iran’s vision for Iraq. Iran’s vision for Iraq is for it to be a vassal state entirely subordinate to the will of the leaders in Tehran.
Question: So the first question is: How long would it take for sanctions taken against Iran to filter through Hizballah, and then separately, any sanctions taken against Hizballah to affect them directly? And then, what kind of financial sanctions are we looking at? And maybe thirdly, how will this help improve the situation in Lebanon, and how fast?
Ambassador-at-Large Sales: Well, I think we’re already seeing the effects of the sanctions on Hizballah – both the sanctions that the United States has imposed on the terror regime in Tehran, as well as the sanctions that we have imposed directly on Hizballah and its enablers and supporters and facilitators. Hassan Nasrallah is looking at his books and realizing that he doesn’t have the same amount of support from Iran that he once had, and that’s why he’s out in public calling for contributions to make up for the shortfall.
So we’re very confident that our sanctions are already having a bite. And the effect of that is not just some abstract effect. It deprives Hizballah of the resources that it uses to plot terrorist attacks in the region and around the world. We know that Hizballah is active in places like the Tri-Border region of South America. We know that Hizballah has active facilitation networks in Africa. We know that Hizballah has supporters and enablers in the United States, some of whom are currently being prosecuted right now.
As our financial pressure squeezes Iran and Hizballah ever more tightly, Hizballah will have to resort more and more to developing alternative sources of revenue, and that is why we are extending our sanctions campaign against this terrorist organization to deny it those resources.
Question: The U.S. sanctions against Iran and Hizballah stretched out to businesses in Belgium. Are these sanctions being upheld by Belgian and E.U. authorities? If yes or no, what is your position?
Ambassador-at-Large Sales: Well, the United States has been very clear that any company that chooses to do business with Iran in violation of our sanctions runs the risk of being subjected to secondary sanctions in the United States. And as a result of that message, we’ve seen companies begin to vote with their feet. They recognize that it’s much more lucrative to them to be able to do business in the United States than it is to do business in Iran, and we’re seeing the results.
So I would renew today the message that we have delivered consistently over the past 12 to 18 months: If you do business with the mullahs, if you provide a financial lifeline to Tehran in violation of U.S. sanctions, you run the risk of being sanctioned yourself. We encourage all companies to avoid going down that road.
Question: Thank you for the questions. Just going back to the earlier point about the ISIS returnees, repatriating ISIS fighters and their families, here in Germany and across Europe there is a massive issue with that because prosecutors are often unable to gather evidence, obviously, because the crimes will have taken place in a conflict zone. And quite often, they don’t even – they can’t prosecute these people and they’re let loose. Is there any help that you could provide, or do you have any position on that critical issue? And going forward, is there any kind of vision for an international tribunal or that sort of thing that – where these people could be put on trial and which would be given powers to investigate in these difficult regions?
Ambassador-at-Large Sales: Well, we think that prosecution in national-level courts is the best approach. National-level courts have an established track record of being able to deliver justice and accountability in terrorism cases that international tribunals simply can’t match. We think if we tried to stand up an international tribunal to deal with 2,000 ISIS fighters in Syria who have been captured by Syrian Democratic Forces, that would take billions of dollars, it would take many years, even decades, to process all of the fighters and pursue their appeals. And it’s simply not a viable option to take on that kind of financial burden that would drag out over so many years. We simply don’t have that kind of time. We need to prosecute these fighters now.
On the question of evidence, I can tell you that the United States has been actively supporting our partners by providing evidence to them that our soldiers have taken off the battlefield. We have prepared detailed dossiers – we call them detainee summary packages – that we have handed off to countries of origin as they have repatriated their fighters. And I can tell you that these dossiers of evidence have proven extremely valuable to countries that have prosecuted their fighters, it’s enabled them to put these folks behind bars for lengthy terms to make sure they can’t return to the battlefield. And we’re prepared to continue to provide that kind of assistance to any other country that wants to take its fighters back and put them in jail.
Question: Iranians are trying to acquire private and public sector companies in Syria to extend their influence and take over the reconstruction of Syria. If this happens in the future, what are you doing to limit Iran’s influence in Syria?
Ambassador-at-Large Sales: Well, thanks for the question. Our policy in Syria has been consistent over the years and I’m happy to reiterate it now. We want to accomplish three things in Syria. First of all, to ensure the enduring and lasting defeat of ISIS. We’ve destroyed the physical caliphate, so-called caliphate, and now we all have an obligation to make sure that ISIS cannot ever reconstitute itself.
Second, our policy is to minimize Iran’s malign influence in Syria. We’ve seen the instability that Iran brings when it wraps its tentacles around another country. We’ve seen it in Lebanon. We’re seeing it in Iraq. We don’t want to see it in Syria.
And third, our – the third pillar of our Syria policy is to bring about an end to the fighting and a political resolution consistent with UN Security Council Resolution 2254, a resolution in which all stakeholders in Syria have a say in the outcome of the political resolution.
Question: It was reported in The Washington Post last month that the U.S. had taken custody of two British men, Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, in Iraq. I wonder if you can confirm that, and if you can tell us whether you have had any joy from the British authorities on taking back these and other prisoners, especially when you have the difficult issue of some of them being stateless, having had their passports canceled.
Ambassador-at-Large Sales: Right. I don’t have any updates for you on the two men you mentioned, the so-called Beatles. The United States position has been the countries of origin are in the best position to prosecute fighters, and we don’t think that it is an effective solution for fighters to have their citizenship removed. As an example, I would simply point to Usama bin Ladin, whose citizenship was stripped in the 1990s, and that did nothing – his Saudi citizenship was stripped in the 1990s, and that did nothing to prevent him from committing the worst terrorist attacks in U.S. history on 9/11. So we think the most effective approach is prosecution in countries of origin.
With respect to the Beatles, I can’t get into the details of their particular case because of the possibility of prosecution, but rest assured that the United States is working very closely with the UK to ensure that these two very dangerous men are never able to return to the battlefield.
Ambassador-at-Large Sales: Well, regardless of what specific role NATO as an institution would play, I think that all NATO members have an interest in protecting themselves from the terrorist threat that Iran poses. Iran and its terrorist proxies, like Hizballah, are active all over the world. I mentioned a couple of recent plots in Europe – the plot against a political rally outside of Paris last year, Germany’s arrest last year of 10 suspected Qods Force operatives, assassinations in the Netherlands carried out by Iran in 2015 and 2017. This is why we think that all like-minded countries should band together to do what they can to counter Iran-sponsored terrorism.
The United States this year designated Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, including its Qods Force, as a foreign terrorist organization. It’s the first time we’ve ever used that authority against a state entity, and it reflects how deeply committed Iran as a regime is to the use of terrorism as a basic tool of statecraft. We’d like to see other countries join us in bringing to bear maximum economic and diplomatic pressure to force Iran to abandon terrorism as a basic tool of statecraft.