Briefing on New Rewards for Justice Reward Offer
First up is Robert A. Hartung, who’s the Assistant Director for the Threat Investigations and Analysis here at the Department of State’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security. And he’ll be followed by Eytan Fischer – Fisch, rather – excuse me – who’s the Assistant Director of the Treasury Department’s Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence1.
Rob, all yours.
MR. HARTUNG: Thank you. Good afternoon. Today the U.S. Department of State’s Rewards for Justice program is offering a reward of up to $10 million for information that leads law enforcement or security forces to the person pictured behind me, Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil, better known as Yasin al-Suri. Today’s announcement marks the first time that the Rewards for Justice program has offered a reward for information that leads to a terrorist financier. Under an agreement between al-Qaida and the Government of Iran, Yasin al-Suri has helped move money and recruits through Iran to al-Qaida leaders in neighboring countries in the region.
From his sanctuary inside Iran, he has moved terrorist recruits through Iran to al-Qaida leaders in Pakistan and in Afghanistan. He has also arranged for the release of al-Qaida operatives from Iranian prisons and their transfer to Pakistan. And he has funneled significant amounts of money through Iran to al-Qaida’s leadership in Afghanistan and Iraq. He is a dedicated terrorist working in support of al-Qaida with the support of the Government of Iran, which the Department of State has designated a state sponsor of terrorism.
As a key fundraiser for the al-Qaida terrorist network, he is a continuing danger to the interest of the United States, to its facility, and its citizens. Locating al-Suri and shutting down his operations would eliminate a significant financial resource for al-Qaida. For that reason, we urge anyone with information on the whereabouts of al-Suri to contact the Rewards for Justice program, a U.S. embassy or U.S. consulate, or a U.S. military commander immediately.
You may contact Rewards for Justice by visiting the RFJ website at www.rewardsforjustice.net. There, you may submit a tip anonymously. You may also reach the Rewards for Justice program via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Individuals in Afghanistan may call the RFJ tip line at 0-700-108-600. All information will be kept strictly confidential.
The RFJ program has been an effective tool in our fight against international terrorism. Since its inception in 1984, the program has paid more than $100 million to more than 70 people who provided credible information that prevented international terrorist attacks or helped to bring terrorists to justice.
Through the efforts of the courageous people that have stepped forward with information about wanted terrorist suspects, the Rewards for Justice program has helped law enforcement authorities throughout the world to stop terrorists and to save lives. I am hopeful that the reward offer we are announcing today will play a similar role in bringing Yasin al-Suri to justice. Thank you.
QUESTION: Sir, can you read the name you originally used to identify him and spell it please?
MR. HARTUNG: Sure. The pronunciation is Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil. Ezedin: E-z-e-d-i-n. Abdel: A-b-d-e-l. Aziz: A-z-i-z. Khalil: K-h-a-l-i-l.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. TONER: We’ll have handouts, I think right after this, for you guys.
MR. FISCH: Good afternoon, and thank you, Robert, for your remarks on this new reward offer, the first such reward offered for a terrorist financier and a noteworthy addition to our efforts to combat al-Qaida. Today’s announcement of the reward offer for Iran-based terrorist financier and facilitator, Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil, also known as Yasin al-Suri, complements the measures that the Treasury Department took this past July to disrupt the al-Qaida network he heads.
The July 28th, 2011 designation of al-Suri and five other members of his al-Qaida network not only targeted a core al-Qaida financial channel, but helped expose an agreement between Iran and al-Qaida that allows al-Qaida to move funds and operatives through Iranian territory. Al-Suri is a senior al-Qaida facilitator and operates in Iran under this agreement between al-Qaida and the Iranian Government. Iranian authorities maintain a relationship with al-Suri and have allowed him to operate within Iran’s borders since 2005.
Al-Suri’s network has served as a financial conduit, collecting funds from donors throughout the Gulf and moving those funds via Iran to al-Qaida’s leadership in Afghanistan and Iraq. Al-Suri’s network also serves as the core pipeline for al-Qaida to funnel operatives and facilitators from the Middle East to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Al-Suri works with the Iranian Government to secure the release of al-Qaida operatives held in Iranian prisons. Once released, the Iranian Government transfers the prisoners to al-Suri, who then helps them transit to Pakistan.
The United States has regularly used sanctions as part of our overall effort to unmask and cut off al-Qaida’s financial support networks. As a result of our designations, U.S. individuals and entities are prohibited from engaging in commercial or financial transactions with the designees, and any assets they may hold under U.S. jurisdiction are frozen. We have seen many of our partners take similar actions.
These efforts have caused significant damage to al-Qaida’s ability to finance its operations and maintain its infrastructure. We have made significant progress in breaking al-Qaida’s financial backbone, and today’s announcement adds a new tool in our campaign to obstruct the financing of al-Qaida’s activities. As Treasury Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen stated in the announcement of al-Suri’s designation in July: “Iran is the leading state sponsor of terrorism in the world today. By exposing this deal with al-Qaida, we are illuminating yet another aspect of Iran’s unmatched support for terrorism.” The Treasury Department has taken extensive action to counter Iran’s support for terrorism, and we remain committed to using sanctions to target and expose this activity.
Al-Suri’s leadership of this al-Qaida network remains a source of critical funding and recruits for al-Qaida, and today’s announcement once again highlights why we are working to disrupt this network and this link between al-Qaida and Iran. Today’s reward offer will hopefully aid efforts to bring al-Suri to justice, and in doing so, further disrupt al-Qaida’s financial support system.
MR. TONER: Yeah. Go ahead, Kirit.
QUESTION: I was just curious if you could speak a little bit more to the actions from July, now six months out – five months out – whether you can say how effective those have been. You spoke to it a little bit in your remarks.
MR. FISCH: Well, I think that the – I can’t speak specifically to amounts frozen, if that’s what you’re referring to. I think we can say generally that a result of these types of actions, both in July and earlier actions with respect to designations of al-Qaida members, that we’ve seen them cause a significant strain on al-Qaida’s financial streams and that al-Qaida is in a much worse financial position today than, for example, they were 10 years ago. I think that that’s – that’s about as – that’s what I can say.
QUESTION: And broadly, you could say that there was funds – there were funds that were frozen? I mean, there was something within U.S. jurisdiction that you were able to take action on?
MR. FISCH: I can’t comment on whether --
QUESTION: Can you say at all? I mean --
MR. FISCH: The Treasury Department generally – we don’t generally comment on whether funds are frozen and, if so, how much.
QUESTION: Which kind of makes it impossible to tell whether it’s actually been effective, huh? I mean, you can say it’s been effective all you want, but you can’t point to anything that says that it is, right?
MR. FISCH: Well, I think there’s the component of actually freezing the assets, and then there’s the mark that it places on the individual, both with respect to sort of interactions by U.S. persons – there’s a component of actually freezing the assets, and a prohibition that a designation places on U.S. persons dealing with the individual.
QUESTION: Prior to the designation, how much interaction did U.S. – did Americans have with this guy?
MR. FISCH: I can’t tell you that specifically. I’m happy to --
QUESTION: Do you know? I mean –
MR. FISCH: I can’t tell you that specifically.
QUESTION: Because, I mean, if you banned the transactions but there weren’t any transactions beforehand, the ban doesn’t really have an effect, does it? All right.
Can you say where this guy is from? Could you say?
MR. FISCH: He’s – he was born in 1982 in Syria. He currently operates and lives in Iran.
MR. TONER: Arshad.
QUESTION: If I understood correctly, you said a couple times that this is the first time that a – the Rewards for Justice program has been used to a terrorist – an alleged terrorist financier. We’re a decade beyond 9/11, and of course far beyond other attacks attributed to al-Qaida – the embassies in Africa and the bombing of the Cole. Why has this tool not previously been used against alleged terrorist financiers?
MR. HARTUNG: Well, the process that we follow with RFJ, for someone to become a part of the RFJ program, we have an inter-government committee that looks at individuals that we may want to make part of the program. So in this case, Mr. al-Suri was discussed, and it was determined that he would be a good person to bring into the Rewards for Justice program. And that’s why we proceeded in that way.
As far as others that we may be considering to become part of the Rewards for Justice or people who have been discussed before that we want to make part of our program, we don’t discuss that publicly.
QUESTION: No, I – but what I don’t get is, I mean, if it’s an effective tool, why not have used it in the previous decade? It may be that it’s hard to build an evidentiary case. There may be reasons for this. But it just seems odd that if it’s a tool of some utility it has not been previously employed, and I’d like to understand why that is.
MR. HARTUNG: Well, again, we cast the net wide and far as far as terrorists, whether someone is involved in the financing side or others, to be able to bring them into the Rewards for Justice program. And it doesn’t mean that we haven’t looked at others that may fit the category that you’re referring to to be part of Rewards for Justice, but they haven’t made it completely through our process for one reason or another.
QUESTION: And --
MR. HARTUNG: And it’s something that we intend to use in the future.
QUESTION: Yeah. Historically, I mean, have you placed more of an emphasis for Rewards for Justice on people whom you believed were actually responsible for killings rather than enabling them through financing?
MR. HARTUNG: No. I mean, for Rewards for Justice, the goal – we have two goals with Rewards for Justice. One is to bring international terrorists to justice. The other is to prevent acts of international terrorism against American property and American persons. So anyone that is involved in those activities are people that potentially could become part of the Rewards for Justice program. And again, this is an inter-government committee that would make a recommendation to the Secretary of State, then who would make a final decision.
QUESTION: The last question. One of the things that came out in the 9/11 report was how relatively small were the sums of money necessary to fund the 9/11 attacks. Are the sums of money that this man is allegedly responsible for – are we talking millions of dollars, tens of thousands of dollars? Can you give us some sense of how much money this man is alleged to have moved around in – to try to support terrorism?
MR. HARTUNG: I think that’s a question, Eytan, that you may want to address.
MR. FISCH: Sure. Al-Suri himself has been responsible for significant amounts of – moving significant amounts of funds via Iran to South Asia to al-Qaida leadership there. Those associated with his network, the network he heads, have been responsible for moving at least hundreds of thousands of dollars to al-Qaida leadership. Al-Suri, in addition to moving funds, he has helped moved – move operatives via Iran to al-Qaida leadership. When he does help an operative transit to, often, Pakistan, he requires that they carry with them $10,000. That’s --
QUESTION: Can I ask why you’re offering $10 million for a guy who’s only moved a few hundred thousand? I mean, it just seems a little mismatched --
QUESTION: His network.
QUESTION: His network, his network, not even just him. It just seems a little – I mean, in the range of rewards that you’ve offered through this program, I mean, they’ve gone as low as $1 or $2 million dollars, and 10 is near the top end of that. I’m curious why $10 million for a guy who’s –
MR. HARTUNG: Well, through the program, we can offer rewards up to $25 million. And again, we’ll go back to when we nominate someone or someone is looked to be part of that Rewards for Justice program. This inter-government committee looks at a whole basis of information to also provide a recommendation of what that reward amount should be. In this case, it’s $10 million. We have two other individuals listed on RFJ website that we’re looking at or that we’re offering $10 million for. One is Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader in Afghanistan. And one is – the second one is Abu Du’a, the Iraqi – the al-Qaida Iraq leader.
So that gives you an idea of the importance and the effect that we feel that he has had on the – on his terrorist activities. And when you’re talking about – we’re not only talking about the monetary amount. We’re talking about also moving individuals through Iran and to leaders of al-Qaida in other countries in the region.
QUESTION: And how many people are we talking about here? I mean, because when I think $10 million, I mean, al-Qaida would make more money by turning their own guy over than the amount that he’s actually been able to give to them, so --
MR. HARTUNG: Well, we’d be happy to have them turn him over to us if that was possible.
QUESTION: And give 10 million to al-Qaida?
QUESTION: How many people are you talking about when you talk about how many he’s brought over --
MR. HARTUNG: Eytan, do you want to --
MR. FISCH: I don’t have information that I can share with you on the number of people he’s --
QUESTION: Generally, can you say dozens? I mean, what are we talking --
MR. FISCH: I don’t have any information --
QUESTION: It says on the screen -- I don’t know what’s -- is there anything more after the ellipsis? You’re just looking for his location?
MR. HARTUNG: There -- we’re going to have some other information that goes with that to hand out.
QUESTION: I know, but is that what you want? You want to know where he is?
MR. HARTUNG: We want a specific location. That’s correct.
QUESTION: And once you get that information, you’re going to do what with it? Mount an operation inside Iran to pick him up and take him out, kill him?
MR. HARTUNG: The purpose of Rewards for Justice is to locate that individual.
QUESTION: I understand that, but what -- in this case, is there anyone else in Rewards for Justice who is located inside Iran?
MR. HARTUNG: I’m not aware of anyone else with Rewards for Justice that’s located in Iran. But once we receive information, that’s provided to other government agents to handle that information and decide how to act.
QUESTION: To go in and get him and bring him out or to kill him?
MR. HARTUNG: I can’t -- what I can do is address the questions for Rewards for Justice and what the program’s about and what we do with the information.
MR. TONER: Goyal.
QUESTION: Sir, before announcing this reward, did you talk to the concerned governments – like through your channels like Iranian Government or the Pakistani Government or other governments in South Asia, which you mentioned?
And second, as far as money is concerned flowing around from the Middle East and so forth, also a lot of money is going through the Swiss banks where there is no record or through (inaudible) numbers. I mean, are you in touch with them also?
MR. HARTUNG: Well, I can address the first question, and Eytan probably can address the second. As far as conferring with other countries for Rewards for Justice, if we’re in some cases or if we want to work with other countries or we have a Rewards for Justice program in another country, of course, we do not do that unilaterally. We work with the host government to put that program in place.
MR. FISCH: With respect to the second part of your question, I would just say that we -- the Treasury Department and the State Department regularly engage partners in Europe and the Gulf with respect to terrorist financing generally, al-Qaida in particular, but terrorist financing across the board. So --
MR. TONER: Okay. Last question, Josh.
QUESTION: Yeah. I just want to -- two more. How many people are in the Rewards for Justice program – I mean, targets? And how many people have you determined have been brought to justice or have been -- you’ve achieved the objective of the program?
MR. HARTUNG: Well, as far as the number, I don’t have that exact amount. You can go to our Rewards for Justice website and see it, or we can be happy to provide that information with you -- to you afterwards. As far as the success of the program or how many individuals have been brought to justice, we keep most of this information confidential and we don’t publicize it. Obviously, the security of the people who provide us with information is paramount. It’s a cornerstone of this program, and we go to great lengths not to reveal that information and also, at many times, not to even reveal to the public that we’ve paid a reward.
But let me provide you with two high-profile cases that have been publicized before. The first would be Saddam Hussein’s sons. Uday and Qusay were both located through information that was received through Rewards for Justice. I believe once the -- we listed Uday and Qusay as part of our program, within 18 days we had received information that the U.S. Government was able to act on. And a second high-profile case would be the case of Ramzi Yousef, one of the first bombers and masterminds of the World Trade Center bombings in 1993. Due to the Rewards for Justice program, we were able to locate him and apprehend him in 1995.
QUESTION: And just to clarify, Kirit’s question was -- you don’t have any vetting for who gets the money? If you give the tip that results in it, you get the money; it doesn’t matter if the person giving the tip also poses a risk or danger?
MR. HARTUNG: In general terms, anyone is available to receive a reward.
MR. TONER: And last one, David.
QUESTION: Can you describe who this guy is interacting with in the Iranian Government? Do you think that, say, Ahmadinejad, the head of the government, is aware that this is going on? Isn’t this supporting al-Qaida sort of a rather grave act in international affairs?
MR. FISCH: We have reliable information indicating that there is an agreement between the Iranian Government and this al-Qaida network. I can’t comment on which specific individuals the network has been engaged.
QUESTION: I’d like to follow up on Josh’s question.
MR. TONER: Yeah. Sure.
QUESTION: You said that in general terms, anyone is eligible. But surely, excluded from eligibility would be anyone who has already been designated, for example, under various anti-terrorism executive orders, correct? I mean, you’re not going to go hand U.S. taxpayer dollars to an individual whom you have already identified as barred from transactions with U.S. persons because of whatever other factors, correct?
MR. HARTUNG: In general terms, anyone is available to receive the reward. Members of a government who acquire information through their activities are not eligible. And as far as other aspects of an individual’s background, that would be looked at by this inter-government committee to determine if a reward should be offered. Everyone is looked on a – at a case-by-case basis. So I can’t address a general term.
QUESTION: But you’re leaving open the possibility that someone who has already been designated as a terrorist by the U.S. Government could, in fact, conceivably receive Rewards for Justice money, which seems to me to be kind of inconceivable.
MR. HARTUNG: I agree with you. And without speaking to a specific case, it’s hard to answer that question. But I think common sense indicates, no, we would not.
QUESTION: So if Mullah Omar turns this guy in, he isn’t going to get $10 million?
MR. TONER: And vice-versa. (Laughter.) Go ahead. Last question.
QUESTION: Yes, sir. Since the Syrian – and his name is Yasin, the Syrian in English – do you have any information about a link between him and the Syrian Government, since you are confirming his link with the Iranian Government?
MR. FISCH: As I said before, he currently lives and operates out of Iran, and he works kind of moving funds and operatives from across the Middle East to South Asia. We’re not saying today that he has links to the Syrian Government.
QUESTION: One quick one. Is this –
MR. TONER: Last question. This is --
QUESTION: Is this the last case – or is the first case or the first person that you established these strong ties between the Iranian Government and a person who supports al-Qaida?
MR. FISCH: There were five other individuals designated along with al-Suri as part of this network, as part of Treasury’s July designation. There is – Treasury did designate certain – I believe four – Iran-based al-Qaida personnel I believe back in 2009. I can get you that information later.
MR. TONER: Great. All right, guys. Thanks.