Nathan A. Sales, Coordinator for Counterterrorism
MR ICE: Good afternoon, everyone, and thank you for joining us today for this briefing. Today, the State Department has announced the designation of al-Shabaab leaders Abdullahi Osman Mohamed and Maalim Ayman as Specially Designated Global Terrorists.
To explain that decision and further actions, we have joining us our Coordinator for Counterterrorism Ambassador Nathan Sales, who in addition to that particular role now serves as Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS following the retirement of Special Envoy James Jeffrey last week. Ambassador Sales is going to open, begin with some opening remarks, and then we’ll take a few questions.
Just as a reminder, this briefing is on the record and embargoed until the end of the call. Just stand by just a moment, please. I will go ahead and give you a heads up that we are transmitting here in just a moment a statement, an official statement from Secretary Pompeo on this issue, so you should be seeing that hit your inboxes as well during the briefing.
Okay. Again, a reminder this briefing is on the record but embargoed until the end of the call. And with that, I’m going to turn it over to Ambassador Sales. Ambassador Sales.
AMBASSADOR SALES: Well, thanks very much, J.T., and thanks to everybody who dialed in for today’s announcement.
Today, the State Department has designated two senior al-Shabaab leaders as Specially Designated Global Terrorists, or SDGTs, under Executive Order 13224: Abdullahi Osman Mohamed – who is also known as Engineer Ismail – as well as Maalim Ayman.
As a result of today’s designations, U.S. persons are generally prohibited from engaging in transactions with Mohamed and Ayman, and all of their property and interests in property subject to U.S. jurisdiction are hereby blocked.
As you know, al-Shabaab is a Somalia-based affiliate of al-Qaida – indeed, it’s one of the most dangerous and capable al-Qaida affiliates in the world. We are aware that al-Shabaab has claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing targeting a Somali police headquarters in Mogadishu earlier today, and we’re looking into these reports.
Today’s designations reinforce the United States commitment to degrading and defeating al-Shabaab, as well as the broader al-Qaida network.
Abdullahi Osman Mohamed is a senior al-Shabaab official and the terrorist group’s senior explosives expert. He is responsible for the overall management of the group’s explosives operations and manufacturing. He’s a special adviser to the group’s so-called “emir,” and he is the leader of the group’s media wing, al-Kataib.
Maalim Ayman is the leader of Jaysh Ayman, an al-Shabaab unit that conducts terrorist attacks and operations in Kenya and Somalia. Ayman was responsible for preparing the January 5th, 2020 attack on Camp Simba in Manda Bay, Kenya that killed one U.S. military service member and two American contractors.
The State Department originally designated al-Shabaab in March 2008 both as a Foreign Terrorist Organization under Section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act as well as an SDGT.
Since that initial designation, al-Shabaab has killed numerous civilians throughout East Africa, including a truck bombing in Mogadishu in October 2017 that killed over 500 people, the September 2013 Westgate Mall attack in Kenya that killed more than 70, and the July 2010 suicide bombings in Kampala, Uganda during the World Cup which killed 76, including one U.S. citizen.
Today’s designations are just one part of the administration’s broader efforts to counter terrorism abroad. We’re bringing all of our tools to this fight – not just sanctions, but also information sharing, counter messaging, combating travel, and building partner capacity to protect soft targets.
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 that threatens our citizens, our interests abroad, or our allies. We aim to disrupt terrorist threats like al-Shabaab with our designations, and today’s actions will do just that.
And with that, I’m happy to take your questions.
MR ICE: Very good. Thank you, Ambassador Sales. Just as a reminder, to get into the question queue, just dial 1 then 0. That will put you into the queue.
Why don’t we go out to Joseph Haboush with Al Arabiya English?
QUESTION: (Inaudible) this. I wanted to ask the – if you could talk about the accuracy of reports that the administration is also preparing to designate the Houthis, the Yemen’s Houthis, as a terrorist organization. Thank you.
AMBASSADOR SALES: Yeah, I don’t have anything for you on that, Joseph. As you know, the State Department doesn’t offer sneak previews of any designations actions that we might or might not be considering.
MR ICE: Very good. Let’s go to Conor Finnegan at ABC News.
QUESTION: Hey, Nathan. Two questions for you. First, in your remarks just now you called al-Shabaab one of the most dangerous and capable affiliates of al-Qaida in the world. Why, then, would the U.S. pull troops out of Somalia? How do you anticipate that impacting efforts to counter al-Shabaab?
And then secondly, we’ve seen the violence and chaos in Ethiopia. Do you have any concerns about spillover from Ethiopia to the rest of the region, including Somalia?
AMBASSADOR SALES: Well, thanks for those questions, Conor. On the first, I don’t have anything for you on any plans that DOD might or might not be developing. I’ll defer to colleagues at the Pentagon to discuss their anticipated moves or moves they might not be making.
With respect to the conflict in Ethiopia with the separatist breakaway region, obviously, this is a strategically important part of the world. The more violence and the more instability there is in the Horn of Africa, the more we have to worry about spillover effects to other parts of the region, other parts of the continent. So we’ve been grateful to Ethiopia for the role that their armed forces have played in Somalia, helping to promote stability and reduce violence there, and we hope that they will be in a position to continue that role for the foreseeable future.
MR ICE: Okay. Thank you. Let’s go to Jackson Richman at JNS.
QUESTION: Hi, Nathan. Thank you for doing this. My question is: Does the administration plan to enact further sanctions on Iran and/or its proxies? And also, why hasn’t the – so the administration has sanctioned the ayatollah and Zarif, yet why hasn’t it sanctioned President Rouhani? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR SALES: Thanks. So once again, I’m not going to be able to go into detail about any designations, actions that we might or might not be considering, but I can tell you that this administration has been relentless in its use of sanctions tools to increase pressure on the Iranian regime, not only for its support of terrorism around the world, but for its manifest human rights violations at home.
We remain committed to holding the regime accountable for the bloodshed that they have committed across the world in places like South America, in Europe, in Syria, in Lebanon, in Yemen, and elsewhere. And make no mistake, we will continue to use our sanctions authorities, given to us by Congress and delegated by the President, as we see fit to protect American foreign policy and national security interests.
MR ICE: Thank you, Ambassador. Okay. Let’s go to the line of Jonathan Landay at Reuters.
QUESTION: Ambassador, thank you for doing this. There was a UN report on Somalia, on al-Shabaab’s finances that came out in October. It talked about 5,000 fighters, that the group itself had last year generated around $21 million, that it still remained fairly strong both financially and militarily. Could you talk about how strong the threat still posed by al-Shabaab remains, including some of the conditions on the ground and its ability to operate?
AMBASSADOR SALES: Yeah. Thanks, Jonathan, for the question. I think al-Shabaab continues to pose a significant threat inside Somalia and increasingly in the region as well. We’ve seen, as recently as today, if the reports are confirmed, another suicide attack potentially by an al-Shabaab operative targeting security forces in the capital of Mogadishu.
Unfortunately, we’ve seen far too many of these sorts of incidents perpetrated by al-Shabaab over the years: attacks committed against civilians in Somalia, attacks committed against security services and government personnel in Somalia. And regrettably, we also see al-Shabaab with ambitions to perpetrate that violence in neighboring Kenya as well. The attack at Manda Bay is one good example and the attack on hotel and entertainment complexes in Nairobi being another recent example.
And that is why the United States takes seriously our responsibilities to use what tools are available to us to roll back, degrade, and defeat this dangerous terrorist group. We worked very closely with our partners in Somalia. We’ve also worked very closely with our partners in Kenya and elsewhere in the region to apply pressure to this group using all instruments of national power: countering terrorist travel, countering terrorist finance through sanctions of the sort that we’ve announced today, as well as boosting crisis response capabilities to put down terrorist attacks in real time as they’re unfolding, and to help law enforcement and prosecutors do a better job of holding terrorists responsible for the crimes they’ve committed in a way that’s consistent with the rule of law.
MR ICE: Thank you, Ambassador. Okay. Let’s go to the line of Muath Alamri at Asharq News.
QUESTION: Hi. Good afternoon. I would like to ask you about Hizballah and Gebran Bassil. Is there any more sanction on Hizballah and the former minister, Gebran Bassil? And any news about killing the number-two leader in al-Qaida in Iran? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR SALES: Thanks. I don’t have anything that I can share on either of those points. What I can tell you is that with respect to Hizballah, the United States has long seen that group for what it is. It is not a resistance movement; it is not a defender of Lebanon. It is a terrorist group – full stop – that has helped to prop up the brutal Assad dictatorship in Syria, committed attacks against American and allied interests around the world, and been a force for instability inside Lebanon.
That is why we have not hesitated to use our sanctions authorities and other tools in a robust way against Hizballah and its allies. The most recent designations, which you mentioned, are the most recent part of our campaign to try and get Lebanon back into the hands of the Lebanese people, not under the thumb of a ruthless terrorist group.
MR ICE: Thank you, Ambassador. Okay, let’s go to the line of Christina Ruffini at CBS.
QUESTION: Hey, Nathan. You talked to us before about the threat posed by ISIS-Khorasan, ISIS-K. And I’m wondering if you think the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq or Afghanistan, or even a force reduction there, is likely to help or hurt the efforts to combat ISIS in that theater. Thanks so much.
AMBASSADOR SALES: Thanks. So I’m going to probably give you a version of the same answer I gave to the version of that question that was asked earlier in the call. I don’t really have anything to add to what DOD might or might not say about its plans. Defer entirely to DOD about any statements about what it’s thinking or what it’s not thinking.
What I can tell you is that we continue to regard ISIS-K as a substantial terrorist threat, and we’ve worked hard with the Afghan Government to bolster its capabilities, to protect its institutions, and to protect the Afghan people against this threat, including through funding and training and equipping crisis response teams that have been incredibly successful at addressing the ISIS-K threat, including, you’ll recall, the truly ghastly attack on a maternity hospital not too long ago perpetrated by ISIS-K. It was U.S.-trained crisis response units that were successful at intervening and stopping that attack before it could become even more horrific.
MR ICE: Thank you, Ambassador. Okay, let’s go to the line of Courtney McBride at The Wall Street Journal. Courtney?
QUESTION: Thank you. Ambassador Sales, you said you won’t preview potential sanctions, but various groups are warning that an FTO designation for the Houthis could exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. I’m just wondering how you respond to those concerns.
AMBASSADOR SALES: Well, I’m not going to respond to hypothetical concerns, because that’s all we’re dealing with now is hypotheticals. I have nothing to add to what others said previously. Courtney, you’re a smart reporter, we’ve had this conversation a bunch of times in the past, and you can probably predict that I was going to say, once again, we don’t offer any sneak previews or hints or tips about sanctions actions that we might or might not be considering.
MR ICE: Okay. Thank you, Ambassador. Thank you, Courtney. Let’s go to Nadia Charters at Al Arabiya.
QUESTION: Thank you, Ambassador, for doing this. Can you tell us how this designation today will practically curtail Al-Shabaab activities considering that they don’t have assets in the U.S. – correct me if I’m wrong – and they have their illicit way of obtaining funds? And if I may – thanks you – for the last time, the Houthis – I mean, what will it take to put the Houthis on the list? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR SALES: Thanks. The last question, thanks for asking it again. You guys can keep asking it as many times as you want, and I’m going to keep giving you the same answer, which is we don’t sneak preview any designations actions that we might or might not be contemplating.
When it comes to Al-Shabaab, we need to use all of our tools to constrain their ability to raise money. Whether or not they have assets in the United States, sanctions have very powerful secondary consequences because it makes it that much harder for designated individuals or organizations to try and move money through the international financial system. Much of that is dollar-denominated, and excluding organizations and individuals from the international financial system dries up their costs of moving money and otherwise doing business, which is why we see enormous practical upside to announcing the sanctions of the sort that we announced today – not just on Al-Shabaab, but more broadly our sanctions actions as a general proposition.
MR ICE: Okay, great. Let’s go to the line of Joyce Karam at The National.
QUESTION: Yes, hi. Thanks for doing this. I’m just wondering how confident are you that these designations will carry on to the next Biden administration? I mean, do you have any concerns that policy differences could reverse some of the designations that you guys have taken? Thanks.
AMBASSADOR SALES: Well, look, I’m here to talk about the actions that the administration has taken today, not to offer any thoughts about what the future might hold. We took the action we took today because we see a threat to U.S. national security interests that is posed by Al-Shabaab, and we’re going to continue to use the tools entrusted to us to advance American values and interests. And that will remain our commitment for as long as we have the privilege of serving the American people.
MR ICE: Thank you, Ambassador. Okay, let’s go to Jennifer Hansler at CNN.
QUESTION: Yes, hi. I wanted to follow up on the specific consequences of today’s actions. Did you have proof that these individuals were engaging in the international community? And how long had this been in the works?
MR ICE: Ambassador Sales?
OPERATOR: Please stand by.
MR ICE: Sorry about that, Jennifer. Just hold on with us. We’ll try to get the Ambassador back on the line.
MR ICE: So, Jennifer, colleagues, I think that at this point we’ve had a technical issue with Ambassador Sales. If he pops back on, fine, but I think at this point we’ll go ahead – Jennifer, it’s okay – if it’s okay with you, we’ll take your question as a taken question. If you’d like to send that in to us, we’ll get you a response to that, if that works.
And I think at that point, that should be it for today. We very much appreciate everyone dialing in and your interest in this issue. And that concludes our call. At this point, the embargo is lifted. Have a good day.