Sunday, July 28, 2019

Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General John P. Cronan of the Criminal Division Delivers Remarks at the AMIA 25th Anniversary: Improving Regional Counterterrorism Cooperation in the Wake of a Tragedy

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Good morning.  Thank you, Joseph, for that very kind introduction.  It is an honor to speak on behalf of the United States Department of Justice as we commemorate the horrific bombing of the AMIA Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires, and honor those who lost their lives on that tragic day.

In 2019, the public safety threats that we face are more complex and transnational than ever.  The threat that Hezbollah in particular continues to pose is a very real one.  To be best positioned to dismantle Hezbollah's support networks and neutralize terrorist actions against U.S. interests, it is essential that we work productively with our international partners. That is why today's theme of international cooperation and securing justice for victims is so important and timely. 

Prior to my current position, I supervised the national security unit at the federal prosecutor's office in Manhattan.  Time and time again, I saw that we are most effective in our fight against transnational crime when we work across borders.

I prosecuted a UK-based terrorist leader who orchestrated global acts of terrorism that directly impacted our country's national security.  Some of our most valuable proof at trial came from searches conducted by British law enforcement and from evidence recovered in Pakistan.  I prosecuted multiple international drug traffickers who were flooding our streets with poisons.  Our ability to neutralize and convict those traffickers was augmented by international assistance, such as judicially-authorized wiretaps in foreign countries, testimony from foreign law enforcement officers who had infiltrated the drug organizations, and fruitful extradition relationships.  And repeatedly U.S. law enforcement has provided vital assistance to our foreign partners that has saved lives, whether by thwarting a terrorist plot or otherwise sharing our expertise and experience.

I continue to see the value of international cooperation in my current role.  Most of the Criminal Division's over 600 attorneys are based in Washington, D.C., but many of them are stationed around the globe – including in regions where Hezbollah's support networks thrive.  That international coverage is a practical necessity today. 

As economies become increasingly global, so too are the terrorist and criminal schemes we target.  The challenge that we in law enforcement face is how to most effectively investigate and prosecute in this environment.  How do we build a criminal case where the evidence and witnesses are located halfway across the globe?  How can we more effectively and efficiently track, lure, and extradite fugitives across borders?  How can we prosecute cases in a public courtroom, while protecting the equities of our intelligence services?  And when criminal prosecution is not viable, how can we still disrupt and neutralize threats? 

There may be no criminal organization for which these challenges are more prevalent and acute than Hezbollah, whose global reach and violent ideology imperil the national security of the United States and our allies. 

To some extent, Hezbollah has avoided the global notoriety captured by the likes of al Qaeda and ISIS, thanks largely to its sophistication and secrecy of its activities.  But Hezbollah's ability to evade regular front page headlines in no way diminishes the threat the terrorist organization presents. 

Hezbollah – which has been designated by the Secretary of State as a foreign terrorist organization since 1997 – has long presented a grave threat to our national security.  Prior to 9/11, Hezbollah was responsible for more American deaths than any other foreign terrorist organization – dating back to the 1980s, when Hezbollah executed multiple bombings of U.S. targets in Beirut, killing hundreds of Americans. 

Of course, many of our allies have experienced Hezbollah's murderous brutality as well.  Hezbollah's attack 25 years ago on the AMIA community center left 85 innocent people dead and hundreds injured – and marked the second deadly attack by Hezbollah in Buenos Aires over a two-and-a-half year period.  Back in June, I had the privilege of participating in a workshop in Buenos Aires on disrupting Hezbollah's terrorist activities with many of our Western Hemisphere partners.  While there, I visited the AMIA center and saw the very moving and powerful memorial to the victims.

Just last week, coinciding with the 25th anniversary of the AMIA bombing, Argentina took the historic step of officially designating Hezbollah as a foreign terrorist organization.  That designation marks the first terrorist designation of Hezbollah in Latin America, and sends a clear and unequivocal message that there is no ambiguity whatsoever when it comes to whether Hezbollah is a terrorist organization. 

Still today, 25 years removed from the AMIA attacks, Hezbollah has not strayed from its willingness to resort to violence across the globe to achieve its aims.  Iran remains the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism, and continues to engage in terrorism-related and destabilizing activities through Hezbollah.  In its most recent Country Reports on Terrorism, issued last September, the State Department noted that Iran and Hezbollah are emerging from the Syria conflict emboldened and with valuable battlefield experience that they seek to leverage across the globe.  According to that report, Iran has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in support to Hezbollah, and has trained thousands of Hezbollah's fighters at camps in Iran.  Thanks largely to receiving such sizable financial support from Iran, Hezbollah remains one of the world's most dangerous and capable terrorist organization, having amassed a massive stockpile of weapons, and Hezbollah continues to plot terrorist attacks around the world. 

Countering the Hezbollah threat is a priority of the Department of Justice – and the U.S. Government, and I want to briefly discuss some of the efforts we are undertaking.

In January 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions created the Hezbollah Financing and Narcoterrorism Team, or the HFNT, and asked me to lead the Team. The decision to stand up the HFNT reflected a recognition of the ongoing, sophisticated, and global threat posed by Hezbollah to the United States – and that this threat demands an aggressive and coordinated law enforcement response. 

Through the HFNT, we are vigorously embracing that coordinated and aggressive response, by working to bring to justice those who provide any support to Hezbollah – financial support, manpower, weapons, or otherwise.  We have adopted a multi-pronged, "all of the above" approach, which has entailed coordination among federal prosecutors and investigators across the country, exploration of non-terrorism charges where appropriate to neutralize Hezbollah support, coordination among various agencies of the U.S. government, and close collaboration with our foreign counterparts. 

This interagency effort has been a tremendous success.  Obviously, I cannot discuss publicly the majority of work that we have done, and are doing, but let me give a few examples of what our work has entailed.

First, we have been facilitating and ensuring coordination among the various law enforcement officers and prosecutors who are targeting Hezbollah and its support networks.  When multiple prosecutors – in different offices across the country – are looking at the same threat, there is the risk that individual investigations will be siloed.  But in the face of a complex and sophisticated threat like Hezbollah, prosecutors must be in sync and support each other's efforts. 

Through the HFNT, we have been ensuring that that is happening.  We have been meeting with prosecutors and law enforcement officers across the country to ensure that they are sharing evidence, witnesses, and information, and that their Hezbollah-related investigations and prosecutions are being prioritized, are moving expeditiously, and are supported by sufficient resources.

And our prosecutions are having a powerful impact.  Just about two years ago, we received a sobering reminder of the ongoing threat that Hezbollah continues to pose to our country when two alleged trained Hezbollah operatives living on U.S. soil were arrested. 

In June 2017, Samer El Debek and Ali Khourani were arrested for providing material support to Hezbollah, and their alleged conduct is nothing short of bone-chilling.  Both defendants allegedly joined Hezbollah's External Security Organization, or ESO, which is the branch of Hezbollah responsible for planning, coordinating, and executing terrorist attacks outside of Lebanon.  They allegedly received extensive military training from Hezbollah, received taskings from Hezbollah, and resided in the United States, essentially to be sleeper operatives waiting for assignments from their Hezbollah handlers.

I am able to go into a bit of detail as to Kourani's conduct, because he was convicted after a public trial in Manhattan in May and much of his conduct was laid bare in a U.S. courtroom. 

Kourani received over a decade of training from Hezbollah, including in tradecraft, military tactics, and advanced weapons, such as AK-47 assault rifles and rocket launchers.  Starting in 2003, Kourani began to act as a "sleeper" operative in the United States.  At the direction of his ESO handler, Kourani then naturalized in 2009, and later obtained a U.S. passport. 

While on U.S. soil, Kourani engaged in covert communications with his ESO handler and performed numerous taskings for Hezbollah.  He conducted physical surveillance on multiple targets in New York City, including a federal office building where the FBI is located, a U.S. Army National Guard facility and an Armory, and a U.S. Secret Service facility.  Kourani also was tasked to collect evidence on security features and layouts of airports.  Kourani provided detailed information to his ESO handler regarding specific security protocols, baggage screening, and the locations of surveillance cameras, security personnel, law enforcement officers, and magnetometers at JFK Airport in Queens and an international airport in another country.

Kourani's trial – and his conviction on all counts – left no doubt as to the gravity of the threat we continue to face from Hezbollah and Hezbollah's sophistication in deploying its trained operatives.

Cutting off Hezbollah's financial support also has been central to our efforts.  Money is the lifeblood of any terrorist organization, and Hezbollah is no different. 

On the prosecution side, this focus on the money was reflected in our recent conviction of Kassim Tajideen.  Tajideen – who presided over a multi-billion commodities shipping empire – was sanctioned by the U.S. Department of Treasury for being a significant financial contributor to Hezbollah.  This past December, Tajideen pleaded guilty to a money laundering conspiracy in connection with his violation of those sanctions, and has agreed to forfeit to the U.S. Government approximately $50 million.

Through the HFNT, we also have been working closely with other agencies to ensure maximum disruption to Hezbollah's financial support networks.  Probably the best example is the work being done by the Department of Treasury. 

The efforts of the Department of Treasury to dismantle Hezbollah's support network have been extraordinary and historic.  Since 2017, the Department of Treasury has sanctioned over 50 Hezbollah-related persons and entities.  Last year, Treasury issued more Hezbollah-related designations than in any year since the inception of its primary counterterrorism authority. 

These designations have a powerful impact on Hezbollah's financial support networks.  A Treasury designation freezes any assets of the designated individual or entity that are based in the United States or in the possession or control of U.S. persons, and generally prohibits U.S. persons from engaging in transactions with the designated person or entity.

The Treasury Department has designated various members of Hezbollah's Shurah Counsel, including Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's highest-ranking official, as well as multiple individuals who allegedly have provided key support to Hezbollah, including a Hezbollah financier named Mohammad Ibrahim Bazzi; Hezbollah's representative to Iran, Abdallah Safi al-Din; Adham Husayn Tabaja, a Hezbollah financier with direct ties to senior Hezbollah officials and the ESO; and Muhammad Abdallah al-Amin for providing material support to Tabaja.  The Department of Treasury also recently designated two Hezbollah members of the Lebanese parliament for using their political office as cover for illicit and criminal activity.

Just last week, the Department of the Treasury designated another alleged key Hezbollah leader named Salman Raouf Salman.  Salman allegedly played a prominent role in the AMIA center bombing, is a leader of Hezbollah's ESO, and directs and supports terrorist activities in the Western Hemisphere.  On the same day as that designation, the U.S. Department of State announced a reward of up to $7 million for information leading to Salman's identification or location.

We also have been working closely with our foreign partners in this shared mission against Hezbollah.  For example, the U.S. Government has provided assistance to Peruvian authorities in the ongoing retrial of alleged Hezbollah operative, Muhammad Hamdar.  Department of Justice prosecutors have developed considerable experience in national security prosecutions, and we are eager to share those experiences and assist our international partners in any way we can.

In December, I had the privilege of participating at a Western Hemisphere Counterterrorism Ministerial on the Hezbollah threat at the Department of State with 11 key international partners.  That Ministerial culminated with the release of a joint communique outlining a plan to improve cooperation in countering terrorism financing, as well as to improve law enforcement capacity, information sharing, and border security.  Last week, Argentina hosted a follow-on Ministerial that was attended by senior members of the Administration.  These Ministerials have highlighted the importance of strengthening regional counterterrorism capabilities and enhancing cooperation.

Those are things we constantly need to be thinking about.  How can we work even better with our partners across the globe?  How can we strengthen the capabilities of those partners?  How can we most powerfully combat the Hezbollah threat that we all face?

As I mentioned before, much of the work that we have been doing at the Department of Justice cannot be discussed at this setting.  Investigations may be covert, charges may be sealed, defendants may be cooperating, Hezbollah supporters may be facing non-terrorism crimes as we work to build terrorism charges.  But make no mistake: destroying Hezbollah's support networks and neutralizing the Hezbollah threat is a top priority for this Department of Justice and will continue to be.

Thank you for inviting me to join today, and I look forward to the rest of today's event.

Updated July 25, 2019