Senior Administration Officials on Terrorist Designations of the al-Nusrah Front as an Alias for al-Qaida in Iraq
MODERATOR: Good morning everyone, and thank you for joining this call this morning. Today, we’re going to have a background call with three senior Administration officials. We have – Senior Administration Official One will be [Senior Administration Official One]. Senior Administration Official Number Two is [Senior Administration Official Two]. And then [Senior Administration Official Three] is our Senior Administration Official Three.
So they’re going to talk about some of the designations and then take a few questions. So we’ll start with our Senior Administration Official Number One, over to you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Okay. The State Department has formally amended al-Qaida in Iraq as a Foreign Terrorist Organization and Executive Order 13224 designations to include the alias al-Nusrah Front. Al-Qaida in Iraq, or AQI, was first designated by the State Department in October of 2004. By way of background, in 2011, the AQI emir, Abu Du’a, tasked Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani to establish al-Nusrah Front in Syria. Abu Du’a provides strategic guidance to al-Jawlani, al-Nusrah’s leader.
Since November 2011, al-Nusrah Front has claimed hundreds of attacks, nearly 600, in major city centers across Syria in which numerous innocent Syrians have been injured and killed. AQI has dispatched money, people, and materiel from Iraq to Syria over the past year to attack Syrian forces both on its own initiative and at the request of AQI’s facilitation network members in Syria.
Al-Nusrah Front has sought to portray itself as part of a legitimate Syrian opposition, but today’s actions are intended to expose them and make clear that the United States believes that al-Nusrah’s extremist ideology has no role in a post-Assad Syria. Among the consequences of today’s actions is a prohibition against knowingly providing or attempting or conspiring to provide material support or resources to or engaging in transactions with al-Nusrah Front.
It’s important to note that the designation of al-Nusrah Front does not mean we have changed our view regarding Assad as the leader of a state that has been a designated state sponsor of terrorism since 1979. Today, we’ve also sanctioned pro-Assad regime elements, and my colleague from the Treasury Department will speak more specifically to these sanctions and to the designation of two key members of al-Nusrah Front. Over.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Good morning. This is [Senior Administration Official Two] from the Treasury Department. Thank you. Today, we have taken a number of actions alongside and in coordination with our colleagues at the State Department in order to continue and intensify our pressure against the Assad regime, its affiliated militias, and to take action against terrorist leaders who are active in Syria.
Since the beginning of the uprising in Syria, we have been working to powerfully and swiftly intensify sanctions against the Assad regime, to isolate the Syrian Government, hasten Assad’s fall, and to encourage those within the Syrian Government to abandon the regime’s campaign of violence. We have also used targeted sanctions to expose and combat the interventions of Iran as well as terrorist groups like Hezbollah which have been actively supporting Assad’s regime.
The actions we took today fall into basically two buckets: actions against two militias that have been perpetrating violence in coordination with and in affiliation with the Assad government, and then actions in concert with the al-Nusrah action that the State Department has announced to target two main leaders of the Nusrah Front. I’ll take those in turn.
Since the beginning of the unrest in Syria, the Shabiha have operated as a direct action arm of the Government of Syria and its security services, with Shabiha units providing support to units from designated security services, such as the Syrian Air Force intelligence and Syrian military intelligence, that have been among the most active in the violence. Ayman Jaber is currently a Shabiha leader responsible for directing Shabiha operations in Latakia, Syria on behalf of the Syrian regime and is working with the Ministry of Defense and other senior regime officials, including Maher al-Assad, to procure weapons for the Shabiha units under his command.
His brother, who we are also designating today, Mohammad Jaber, arranged for the transportation of pro-Syrian regime thugs from the Shabiha to Turkey in order to attack anti-Syrian regime persons there.
The other pro-regime militia that we are sanctioning today is Jaysh al-Sha’bi, which operates throughout Syria and has been particularly active in Damascus and Aleppo where the militia has supplemented Syrian Government forces operations against the opposition. Jaysh al-Sha’bi was created and continues to be funded and maintained with support from Iran and Hezbollah, and it is modeled after the Iranian Basij militia, which has proven so deadly and effective at using violence and intimidation to suppress political dissent in Iraq.
In addition to our actions against the regime proxies, Treasury is targeting Nusrah Front leaders Maysar Ali Musa Abdallah al-Juburi and Anas Hasan Khattab. Al-Juburi is the religious and military commander for the Nusrah Front in eastern Syria. He moved from Mosul, Iraq to Syria in late 2011 with the objectives of transferring al-Qaida’s ideology and techniques to Syria and forming likeminded terrorist groups.
Khattab was involved with the formation of the Nusrah Front for AQI and has communicated with AQI leadership to coordinate the movement of funds and weapons for the Nusrah Front. Khattab also works closely with al-Qaida-linked facilitators to provide logistical support to the Nusrah Front. All of these actions are a part of our ongoing efforts to target actors within Syria working to frustrate the desires of the Syrian people to end the violence and to realize a representative government. We will continue to target the thugs that have worked with the Assad militias, just as we will the terrorists who try to cloak themselves in the flag of the legitimate opposition.
And with that, I’ll turn it over to [Senior Administration Official Three].
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: Thank you very much. The steps that we are announcing today in Washington really are the result of growing American concern about the escalation of violence in Syria.
First of all, let’s be clear: The Syrian regime started this violence by brutalizing what was a peaceful protest movement. We all know that. We all understand that. And the Syrian regime has used aircraft, it has used artillery, and it appears that it has even used missile to attack the Syrian population and to attack what was a peaceful protest movement. And we have considered the Syrian regime to be a State Sponsor of Terrorism since 1979. We’ve taken additional steps against the regime in terms of sanctions and in terms of isolating the Syrian regime and putting pressure on it internationally and economically.
Today’s actions against the Shabiha, against the Jaysh al-Sha’bi – the People’s Army as they call it – against people like Ayman Jaber and Mohammad Jaber are both a recognition of the violence that the regime is inflicting on the Syrian people, and then it also repeats and emphasizes our message that the Syrian regime needs to stop that, and Assad needs to step aside and a political transition needs to begin.
But when we think about that political transition, extremist groups that are denouncing the government and attacking the government, they themselves, as extremists, have no role in that transition and in a future Syria. The protest movement that started out peacefully that I mentioned – it started out peacefully in February and March of 2011 – has always called for a tolerant Syrian society which is free, which respects the human rights of all Syrians equally. That was in the national vision statement that the Syrian opposition published in Cairo on July 3rd, 2012 – that is to say about five months ago, five and half months ago – and in other statements which Syrian opposition figures have announced. But Nusrah, as [Senior Administration Official One] was just talking about, and as [Senior Administration Official Two] was saying, the Nusrah Front is directly linked to al-Qaida in Iraq, and we know what its ideology is.
And we know that the Nusrah Front has denounced the Syrian Opposition Coalition’s founding, that it rejects the vision statement that was issued in Cairo, that I mentioned, of a tolerant society, and insists that instead of elections there must be an Islamic state imposed upon Syria. And the Nusrah Front, extremists like it, have no place in the future of the Syrian society, in a tolerant society. And so we have made clear that Nusrah also is an extremist organization and it has to be isolated and that more moderate forces, more forces that believe in tolerance as a model for Syrian society, they need to carry the work of the political transition forward.
I think I’ll stop there.
MODERATOR: Thank you. At this time, Operator, we’ll be ready to take questions for our three senior Administration officials.
OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, if you wish to ask a question, please press * followed by 1 on your touchtone phone. Once again, for any questions, please press *1 at this time. One moment, please.
And we’ll go to the line of Ilhan Tanir with Turkish Daily. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Thanks so much. Quick couple questions. One of them is: How is the reaction so far from the Syrian – other Syrian opposition groups? As far as we can see, there is a lot of complaining about this decision on Twitter and social networks that – argument is while the U.S. Government has been talking, Nusrah Front is coming here to fight, and basically they are fighting with the Assad regime, and die.
Can you give us what kind of reaction and see if the Nusrah Front is fighting with the Assad regime? I just don’t understand what kind of message is that you mentioned. The message is to Assad regime to leave, but you are labeling his organization as a terrorist organization while they are fighting with the Assad regime. Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: I guess I’ll take my first stab at that. I don’t know if my colleagues want to join in later. I will let the Syrian opposition representatives speak for themselves. I don’t need to speak on their behalf. It’s not proper. What I would say is that the United States and other Friends of the Syrian People have long acknowledged the Syrian people’s right to self-defense and to defend themselves against the brutality of the Syrian regime. There is no question about that, and we have been saying that for many, many months.
However, acknowledging the right of self-defense is not itself a justification for extremism. And I want to underline here that many people in Syria are afraid of extremism. Many people in Syria are not fighting for an extremist cause. Rather, they are fighting to have their dignity respected, they are fighting to have their human rights respected, and they do not want – and the United States and the Friends of Syria do not want one terrorist regime to be replaced by a new extremist model. Rather, it is important that Syrians who believe in tolerance, Syrians who believe in the respect for the human rights of all Syrian citizens be the ones who move the political transition forward.
And so there is no contradiction. Instead, what is important is to understand that extremists fighting the Assad regime are still extremists, and they have no place in the political transition that will come. Bashar al-Assad will depart. If he departs today, it’s better than if he departs tomorrow. There is too much bloodshed. But extremists should not dictate that political transition.
OPERATOR: You do have a question from the line of Michael Gordon with The New York Times. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Yes, this is primarily for [Senior Administration Official Three], but the others can chime in. Could you please explain what practical, tangible effect this edict on the Nusrah Front might have? It stated that it would prohibit American or American entities from providing support. Are there any such Americans who are providing support? And if not, how will this affect those who have been providing support who are probably sympathetic with this group?
And lastly, tomorrow there’ll be a meeting in Morocco of various opposition groups and Friends of Syria. Do any members of this political opposition gathering in Morocco have influence or control over armed opposition elements in Syria today?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: Michael, I’m going to let my colleagues answer the question about the practical and tangible effects because they’re more involved in the immediate implementation of the measures. But on the – with respect to your last question about members of the Syrian opposition who will come to Morocco for the Friends of the Syrian People meeting, what I would say on that is that there are not members of armed groups represented at this meeting that I am aware of.
However, there are people here who definitely coordinate with armed groups, with the Free Syrian Army, and who have regular contact with elements of the Free Syrian Army. That is not to say they are giving instructions to it; they do not. It is not to say that they are telling it what to do or what to say in the international field; they are not. In a sense, the Free Syrian Army is a separate organization from, for example, the Syrian National Council or the Syrian Opposition Coalition. They are separate organizations. But there certainly are communications between the two, and there are members of the Syrian political opposition here in Morocco who contact and talk to people from the Free Syrian Army.
I’m – I’ll turn it over to my colleagues to talk about the practical and tangible effects and your other question.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Okay, so I think I need to go next. This is [Senior Administration Official One]. Michael, as we said at the top, the technical impact of the – adding al-Nusrah Front as a new alias for AQI, includes this prohibition on knowingly provided material support and the freezing of all property and interest in property in the United States or that come within the United States under the control of U.S. persons. So there are some practical sanctioning effects of the designation, and it can be a powerful tool over the long run, for law enforcement purposes.
But I think one of the primary effects of this designation is to really expose the presence of al-Nusrah Front, an organization that has been established by the leadership of AQI in Syria, and its activities there.
SENIOAR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: If I could just add – this is [Senior Administration Official Two] – exposing the operations and the identities of al-Nusrah’s leaders is a key objective here. So I just wanted to underscore that. Having these individuals on a blacklist has a practical impact beyond just the direct implications of U.S. law. It means for individuals who have demonstrated that they desire to travel back and forth across borders, actions like these in the past have frustrated that ability, have exposed them to being interdicted and detained.
It also means that as al-Nusrah tries to wrap itself in the legitimacy of the opposition that does reflect the Syrian’s people desires, we have called them out, and for those who are seeking to support the legitimate opposition of the Syrian people, we have drawn a bright line. So I think there are very real sort of second-order effects to today’s actions as well.
OPERATOR: You do have a question from the line of Margaret Brennan with CBS News. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi. This is a question for [Senior Administration Official Three]. Al-Nusrah Front is viewed as an effective, very lethal fighting force inside of Syria. When it comes to what’s actually happening on the ground right now, what does today’s action do in terms of in any way lessening what they control or what they influence inside of Syria?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: Al-Nusrah Front is one of many groups that are fighting the Syrian regime now. It is not the only one. And in fact, it is a minority. Its influence has grown over recent months, but it still represents a minority element within the broader armed opposition to the Assad regime. So I don’t want to leave any kind of impressions that we are in any way acting against the broader Free Syrian Army, which is a much bigger organization.
And I’d be very clear we talk – I myself talk to the Free Syrian Army, and we have talked to them about things like the code of conduct and how to treat prisoners, et cetera. We have gotten assurances, and we have seen in many instances good behavior and even sanctioning against those elements of the Free Syrian Army that have acted improperly or against that code of conduct. Nusrah, by contrast, has actually been involved in summary executions of prisoners, for example. Whether the American steps today will immediately curtail Nusrah’s capabilities, I don’t think they will, but I think other nations that are involved in helping the armed opposition will now take more seriously our concerns about the Nusrah Front and its expanding influence, and it is important for countries to understand what al-Nusrah is and what it represents.
And it is important for the Syrians in the political opposition and in the armed opposition to understand what Nusrah is and what it represents. The time of a political transition is approaching. It’s approaching quickly as events on the ground move. And it is important to understand that Nusrah is an extremist group that cannot possibly be a part of the political transition to a tolerant and free Syria.
OPERATOR: Next we will go to the line of Mina al-Oraibi. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi. This is a question also for [Senior Administration Official Three]. If I can ask, do you expect a position to be taken against Jebhat al-Nusrah Front in Marrakesh tomorrow from other countries? And I also wanted to know, you said you have been in touch with the FSA, so have you informed them in advance of this designation? And have they voiced concerns to you about Jebhat al-Nusrah Front and what they’re doing on the ground and whether that actually makes certain civilians in Syria wary of the opposition?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: The meeting in Marrakesh hasn’t started yet. The ministers have not arrived. And so I don’t want to prejudge what the outcome will be. But what I would say is that the previous Friends of the Syrian People meetings in Tunis, in Istanbul, and in Paris, in each of those occasions, the partner states of the Friends of the Syrian People have emphasized their support for a tolerant Syrian society. They have emphasized their hope that the next Syrian government, after the Bashar al-Assad regime ends, will be one that respects human rights and that treats all Syrian citizens equally, without discrimination, and without prejudice because of their ethnic or religious views. And I do not think that this Friends of Syria conference will deviate from that strong support, that vision of the next Syrian government, after the political transition begins.
With respect to the Free Syrian Army, they know our concern about the Nusrah Front. I have talked to them myself about it and we have talked to others in the Syrian opposition over the past month. And they know what our position is and I’ll leave it at that.
OPERATOR: And you do have a question from the line of Joyce Karam with Al Hayat. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Yes, hi. My question is also to [Senior Administration Official Three]. Would this make it more likely that the U.S. would arm non-extremist elements in the Syria opposition? And if the regime targets al-Nusrah Front now, would the U.S. be okay with that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: I’m sorry. I didn’t understand the second question. Can you say it again?
QUESTION: Yeah. If the Assad regime goes ahead and targets al-Nusrah Front, would you be okay with that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: I see. Okay. With respect to your first question, we have always said with respect to our policy on providing arms that, number one, we do not provide arms to the Syrian opposition now. We have also said that the President has never ruled out in the future providing arms, but we do not do it now. But number three, for us, providing arms has to be done in a way that helps promote a political solution. And until we understand how these arms promote a political solution, we do not see how provision of arms is a good idea.
With respect to the Assad regime targeting al-Nusrah, I would simply say that we have condemned the Assad regime as a state sponsor of terrorism. We have condemned the Assad regime’s incredibly brutal and excessive, egregious acts of violence against the Syrian population. The news from yesterday is just shocking. I’m not going to comment on when it targets al-Nusrah, except to say that we condemn extremism on both sides. We condemn extremism that is the Syrian regime, and we condemn extremism in the Syrian armed opposition. Neither one of them presents a good – neither one of them presents a realistic way forward for a Syrian political transition that wants to give the Syrian people a system that will be free and respect the human rights of all Syrians.
MODERATOR: Operator, we’ve only got time for one more question.
OPERATOR: Okay. And that question will come from Hannah Allam with McClatchy Newspaper. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Yes. Thanks for the call. I was wondering, how do you disentangle the sort of Free Syrian Army rebel units from Jebhat al-Nusrah fighters when there appears to be such close coordination on the battlefield that’s opened the door to a scenario where somebody like the Syrian Support Group could come under scrutiny for providing materiel support to Jebhat al-Nusrah via these other more accepted rebel groups? And also has the U.S. talked to the Qataris and the Saudis about cutting off Nusrah – not just state funding but the individuals that are believed to be funding them from those countries? Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: I’m going to answer the second question first about our diplomatic work. And then with respect to the first question, I’ll make a comment or two on that, and then – and/or [Senior Administration Official Two] may wish to add something in terms of distinguishing.
With respect to our diplomatic contacts, we absolutely have made our views known about Nusrah to our international partners that are working with us to find a solution, a peaceful and political solution to the Syrian crisis. We absolutely have informed them, and they too know about our views.
I think it is also important here to note one positive sign of how the Free Syrian Army itself has understood the threat that Nusrah represents to the political transition in Syria, which is that during the meetings in Antalya in Turkey last week where they were working to set up a unified command for the Free Syrian Army, notably excluded from that meeting was the Nusrah Front, and we think that was a wise decision. With respect to distinguishing, as I mentioned in Antalya, the groups themselves know who Nusrah is, and I think they are better understanding the threat that it represents.
And so we will certainly continue our discussions with them, which in many cases will be an effort to convince more and more elements of the Free Syrian Army to stay away from al-Nusrah. But as I mentioned, the meeting in Antalya was a step forward. I don’t know if [Senior Administration Official One] or [Senior Administration Official Two] want to comment on that business about distinguishing between elements of the Free Syrian Army and other elements of – or I mean, Nusrah.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I think the only thing I would add to that is that we’ve taken an important step today to help these groups make the – underscore the importance of the distinction, and the most important thing that we can do in our own assistance is to continue to, as we always do, to strive to ensure that our assistance doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Nothing to add from here.
MODERATOR: Thank you all for joining the call today, and thank you to our officials, and have a good day.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Thank you.