Briefing With Coordinator for Counterterrorism

Briefing With Coordinator for Counterterrorism Ambassador Nathan A. Sales On the United States Designation of the Russian Imperial Movement And its Leaders as Global Terrorists

SPECIAL BRIEFING
NATHAN A. SALES, COORDINATOR FOR COUNTERTERRORISM
APRIL 6, 2020

MS ORTAGUS: Good morning, and thanks for joining this briefing. Today, the State Department has announced the designation of Russian Imperial Movement, or RIM, and members of its leadership as specially designated global terrorists – the first time in the history that the department has designated a racially or ethnically motivated terrorist group.

To explain that decision and further actions, we have joining us for this on-the-record briefing our Coordinator for Counterterrorism Ambassador Nathan Sales. Ambassador Sales will begin with some opening remarks, per usual, and then we’ll take a few questions.

Just a reminder, please, that this briefing is embargoed until the end of the call. Ambassador Sales.

AMBASSADOR SALES: Thanks very much, Morgan, and thanks to everybody for joining this morning. Since 2015 the world has seen a surge in white supremacist terrorism around the globe. Last month was the first anniversary of the horrific terrorist attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. And the United States is not immune to this threat. We’ve seen attacks targeting people because of their race or religion in places like Pittsburgh, Poway, and El Paso.

Countering this threat is a top priority for the Trump administration. After the El Paso attack, President Trump said, “In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry, and white supremacy. These sinister ideologies must be defeated.”

This administration isn’t just talking the talk. We’re also walking the walk. We’re taking decisive actions to counter this threat.

Today, the State Department is designating the Russian Imperial Movement – also known as RIM – as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist, or SDGT. We’re also designating three of RIM’s leaders as SDGTs: Stanislav Anatolyevich Vorobyev, Denis Valliullovich Gariev, and Nikolay Nikolayevich Trushchalov.

These designations are unprecedented. This is the first time the United States has ever designated foreign white supremacist terrorists, illustrating how seriously this administration takes the threat. We are taking actions that no previous administration has taken to counter this threat.

RIM is a terrorist group that provides paramilitary-style training to neo-Nazis and white supremacists, and it plays a prominent role in trying to rally likeminded Europeans and Americans into a common front against their perceived enemies. RIM has two training facilities in St. Petersburg, which likely are being used for woodland and urban assault, tactical weapons, and hand-to-hand combat training.

This group has innocent blood on its hands. In August of 2016, two Swedish men traveled to St. Petersburg and underwent 11 days of paramilitary-style training provided by RIM. A few months later, these men and another person conducted a series of terrorist attacks in the Swedish city of Gothenburg. In November of 2016, they detonated a bomb outside a cafe. Two months after that, they bombed a migrant center, gravely injuring one person. And three weeks after that, they placed another bomb at a campsite used to house refugees. Thankfully, that device failed to detonate.

Swedish authorities were able to arrest the attackers, and they’ve now been tried and convicted for their crimes. The prosecutor who handled their case blamed RIM for radicalizing them and for providing the training that enabled the attacks.

These historic designations are just one part of the Trump administration’s broader efforts to counter white supremacist terrorism abroad. We’re bringing all of our counterterrorism tools to this fight – information sharing, counter messaging, combatting terrorist travel, engaging with tech companies, and building partner capacity to protect soft targets like synagogues and mosques.

Today’s actions are possible because of an order President Trump signed in September of last year – the most significant expansion of federal terrorism sanctions authorities since the aftermath of 9/11. Thanks to this order, the State Department can now designate groups and individuals that participate in training to commit acts of terrorism. We can also designate the leaders of terrorist groups, without needing to show that they were involved in particular attacks.

And 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, regardless of ideology, that threatens our citizens, our interests abroad, or our allies.

And with that, I’m happy to take some questions.

MS ORTAGUS: Okay, thanks, everybody. I think you know the drill, but please dial 1 and then 0 if you’d like to ask a question. Okay, and I think we have Jennifer Hansler that has already – is in the queue? Is that right, Ruben?

MR HARUTUNIAN: Yes.

MS ORTAGUS: Great. Jennifer, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks so much. Could you talk to us a little bit about the practical implications of this designation, whether there are economic impacts that come along with it? And then any background on why this particular group was chosen as the first designation. Are there other white supremacist groups that also fit the bill that weren’t chosen for this particular unprecedented designation? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR SALES: Yeah, thanks for the questions. I would say, first of all, with respect to your last question, this group was designated because it meets our statutory and regulatory thresholds for designation. No, we are always on the lookout for other groups that may likewise meet our standards for designation, looking at intelligence information, open source information, information that’s provided to us by our allies. Not in a position to comment on any internal deliberations that may or may not be taking place, but rest assured we are always looking for potential designations, targets that meet our standards and that pose a threat to the American people and our interests and values.

As for your first question, remind me what that was? The practical impacts? Yeah, let me just highlight two in particular. First of all, this designation denies RIM and its leaders and its members access to the United States financial system. Any assets that they had in the United States or that are subject to U.S. jurisdiction are now frozen. We think that that’s going to make it substantially more difficult for them to move money throughout the international financial system.

A second consequence that I would flag is today’s announcement makes it easier for our officials at the borders to stop RIM-related individuals from ever seeking to travel to the United States. It enhances our watchlisting capability and our general border security posture with respect to this group. Thanks.

MS ORTAGUS: Okay, great, thanks. I think, let’s see, we have Barbara Usher.

QUESTION: You mentioned – you mentioned some examples of this group rallying likeminded Europeans. Do you have any examples of this group rallying likeminded Americans? Because you say – you mentioned Americans, that they’re playing a prominent role to get Americans into a common front.

AMBASSADOR SALES: Well, we are aware of public reports that RIM has reached out to Americans or even travel to the United States to reach out to Americans. We’re not in a position to comment on whether or not those reports are accurate, but I can tell you that, as a general matter, any foreign terrorist group, if it seeks to make common cause with Americans, is a grave concern to the United States, a grave concern to the State Department, and we will not hesitate to aggressively use our authorities to counter such groups.

MS ORTAGUS: Okay, great, thanks. Next we have Tracy Wilkinson.

QUESTION: It’s a similar question. I wondered if you have any evidence that RIM has participated at all in any of the election interfering that has gone on from Russians; and second, if you have any evidence of RIM having ties to Putin. Thanks.

AMBASSADOR SALES: On the first, I can’t comment on any intelligence matters. What I can tell you is that the basis of the designation is RIMs provided provision of training to terrorists in Europe for the commission of terrorist attacks in Europe.

As for RIM and its relationship to the Russian Government, we call on all partners, our allies in other countries around the world, to take actions commensurate with what we have taken today. We encourage Russia, we encourage other countries to use domestic legal authorities available to them to designate this group, to deny it the ability to travel, and to cut off its access to the international financial system.

MS ORTAGUS: Great, thanks. Let’s go over to Humeyra now.

QUESTION: Hi. Nathan, can you elaborate a little bit on what you said about you’ve designated this particular group because it met your statutory and regulatory thresholds? That’s a little bit too sophisticated talk for, like, general audience. Can you talk a little bit about why this particular group? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR SALES: Sure, and just – don’t disparage yourself and your colleagues. You are the epitome of a sophisticated audience. So our standards for designating terrorist groups are consistent across the board whether we’re talking about Islamist groups, neo-Marxist groups, or racially or ethnically motivated terrorist groups like RIM. We look at is it a foreign group? We do not have the authority to designate groups with a substantial connection to the United States. Second of all, is it engaging in conduct that meets the standards for designation, such as it is engaging in incitement to violence; is it fundraising for terrorists; is it facilitating terrorist attacks; is it directing or planning attacks? In the case of RIM, is it providing training for the commission of terrorist attacks?

The United States does not have the authority to designate groups on the basis of constitutionally protected speech. So when we look at whether a group meets our standards for designation, we’re always looking at the presence of violent action. That’s the sort of conduct that is necessary to get a foreign group on our list.

MS ORTAGUS: Great. Next question, Kim Dozier.

QUESTION: Thank you. I wanted to ask if you could go into either cooperation with Russia to hunt these actors or lack thereof. And you mentioned Christchurch at the top of your statement. Is there any link that you can go into more detail of inspiration of the Christchurch shooter? Did we see social media from this group or similar? Thanks.

AMBASSADOR SALES: Thanks. Let me take Christchurch first. We know that the global racially or ethnically motivated terrorist community or the global white supremacist terrorist community is very much a transnational phenomenon. The shooter at the El Paso Walmart who deliberately targeted Hispanics claimed to be inspired by the Christchurch shooter, which I think is a bloody and grisly demonstration of how these networks interrelate with one another and inspire one another.

As for RIM and its relationship to Russia and what we might or might not be doing with the Russian Government, I can only tell you that we encourage the Russian Federation to live up to the commitments it has made to countering terrorism. We have identified this group as a terrorist organization and we encourage all partners around the world, including the Russian Government, to take this threat as seriously as we take it.

MS ORTAGUS: Great, thanks. Next question, Nike Ching.

QUESTION: Thank you, Morgan. Nathan, could you just talk about what impact this designation will have on domestic cases involving racially motivated extremist groups? And separately, if I may, it appears that the State Department and Justice Department have been bouncing responsibility for doing this back and forth since at least January. What has changed now? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR SALES: Well, I think I would disagree with the premise of your question. The State Department and our domestic counterparts have distinct and separate authorities here. The State Department’s authorities begin and end at the water’s edge. We have the authority to designate foreign groups. We do not have the authority to designate or take any action with respect to domestic groups. Those sorts of threats are very much within the purview of the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Justice.

As far as what steps, if any, those authorities would plan to take against RIM or any other white supremacist group, I’m going to have to defer to them to speak to what they have in mind.

MS ORTAGUS: Great. Next question, Shaun Tandon.

QUESTION: I wanted to follow up on Russia, on the government. I know you mentioned your comments about the relation with the state, that you weren’t going to say much about that. But can you say what the – whether there’s been communication with Russia before this designation? Have you asked Russia in the past do more on this group? And just a basic question: Do you anticipate more designations of white supremacist groups?

AMBASSADOR SALES: So I can’t comment on any diplomatic exchanges that we have with foreign counterparts for reasons that I’m sure you can all appreciate. But with today’s announcement, we are not shy at all in our call for other countries, Russia included, to take decisive action to counter this threat to international security.

As far as future designations, once again, we don’t telegraph our plans when it comes to designations. Suffice it to say that we are always on the lookout for groups that engage in violent activity and that present a threat to U.S. national security interests, and we will not hesitate to designate such groups in the future, regardless of their ideological motivation.

MS ORTAGUS: Great, thanks. Joel Gehrke.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this. Still following up on the Russia angle, there have been reports that RIM is closely – was closely associated with Russian military instructors, little green men who went into Crimea in 2014. Do you assess that this organization is an unofficial part of Russia’s foreign policy toolkit?

And regarding their outreach to Americans, do you assess the Russians as being – potential violence associated with this group in America as aligned with their interests? Do – are we at loggerheads in that way?

AMBASSADOR SALES: So on the Ukraine question, I can tell you we are aware of public reports that RIM was among the forces that fought in Ukraine on behalf of the pro-separatist forces. Our position on this question is clear and unambiguous. The United States supports the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. That is why this administration has provided unprecedented levels of support to our partners in Kyiv as they defend themselves against Russian aggression, including the provision of lethal assistance.

As far as the connections between – potential connections between RIM and the United States, we’ve seen what RIM-trained terrorists can do in Europe and we want to make sure that RIM is not able or any terrorist group is not able to accomplish something similar here in the United States – that is to say, providing training that could enable violent attacks and deadly attacks here in the homeland. That is why we are designating RIM today, because it enables us to better protect our borders, to keep these terrorists out of our country, and to deny them resources they might use to plan additional training that could harm our interests.

MS ORTAGUS: Great, thanks. Next question, Jessica Donati.

QUESTION: Hi. I was wondering if there is any evidence that RIM has substantial financial inflows or ties to the U.S. or whether the designation is going to be more symbolic in terms of impacting their financial flows. Thank you.

AMBASSADOR SALES: Thanks, Jessica. I can’t comment on the details of any financial holdings they may or may not have in the United States, but as a general matter, I will simply say something that is true of all of our terrorism designations: Even if a foreign terrorist group doesn’t have a bank account at a U.S. bank, a designation still has a significant financial impact on them because it increases the difficulty of them moving money. If they are unable to participate in transactions denominated in U.S. dollar currency, that increases the cost to them of coming up with workarounds and various other measures to try and move money. So even if they don’t have a savings account at your local corner bank or any other presence specifically in the United States, designations of the sort that we’re announcing today can have a significant crippling effect on their ability to finance their activities and move money abroad.

MS ORTAGUS: Okay, thanks. So we have one person left in our queue, which is Conor Finnegan, but if anyone has – we have a couple more minutes – if anyone else has a final question, 1 0, and if not then we’ll just end it with Conor, so go ahead, Conor.

QUESTION: Hey, thank you. Nathan, just to be clear, this isn’t a foreign terrorist organization designation, it’s the specially globally designated terrorist. So does that mean that the Department of Justice can’t bring charges based on Americans providing material support to this group, and if so, why not do an FTO designation as opposed to the other category?

AMBASSADOR SALES: Well, thanks for the question, Conor. I’ll defer to the FBI and the Justice Department on the details of how they would handle criminal charges related to RIM, but in broad strokes, you’re exactly right. This is an SDGT designation, not an FTO designation. As a result, the possible criminal charge for providing material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization would not be available here. However, the FBI and the Justice Department do have other prosecutorial tools available to them to bring criminal charges against people associated with SDGTs. And again, on the details of that, I’m going to have to defer to the experts at DOJ and FBI.

As to your second question, why not the FTO, the reason the SDGT is a better fit here is because President Trump’s order in September of last year dramatically expanded the utility of that sanctions authority. I want to foot-stomp a point I made a couple of minutes ago: Prior to those changes that the President announced in September, it was more difficult for us to designate groups that provide training to engage in acts of terrorism. Now, that authority is expressly spelled out in the executive order.

And second of all, it was previously more difficult for us to designate specific leaders of groups, because it was necessary as a general matter to tie them to specific terrorist attacks. Under the President’s revisions, that is no longer the case. An individual’s leadership status in an organization is itself a sufficient basis to designate them. So we used the SDGT tool here because the President’s expansion of it made it a perfect fit.

MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Let’s go over to Kylie Atwood.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this. So I just wanted to circle back to your opening remarks when you cited a number of examples from 2016 with regard to RIM training and attacks that they had carried out. But I’m just curious if you have any more recent examples, because it seems like having to reach back to 2016 may indicate that the group is diminishing in terms of what it’s doing.

And then my second question is just on outreach to Americans. Can you give us a timeframe for when the outreach happened? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR SALES: Thanks. So on the reported outreach to Americans, as I said a moment ago, we are aware of publicly available reports that this outreach happened. We can’t comment on whether those reports are accurate or not, but to the extent that that outreach is happening, I can assure you that it is of keen interest – for any terrorist group that is contacting Americans – that is a matter of keen concern and interest not only to the State Department, but to domestic law enforcement as well.

As far as what kinds of activities RIM continues to engage in, the specific examples we gave were from 2016 and into 2017 because that’s the specific series of terrorist attacks that these RIM-trained individuals perpetrated in Gothenburg, Sweden. But RIM is still very much in the business of providing training to likeminded Neo-Nazis and white supremacists across Europe. We know that they have recruited individuals from other countries in Europe and continue to do so. Today’s designation is a way of denying them the financial resources they need to continue that training, and also to make it much more difficult for them to travel here to the United States to carry out that malign activity in the homeland.

MS ORTAGUS: Okay, and last question – we have time for one more – and it’ll be Said.

QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you, Morgan. My question is – I think I missed it, maybe you said it in the beginning – was there anything in particular that prompted this designation as opposed to, let’s say, all the other European groups, like the National Democratic Party of Germany and other groups? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR SALES: Yeah, thanks for the question. We designated this group because it meets our standards for designation. That is to say, it is a group that is a foreign organization, not a United States-based organization, and it’s an organization that is engaged in violent conduct – in this case, training to commit acts of terrorism. The United States doesn’t have the authority to designate groups or individuals on the basis of constitutionally protected speech. Our authorities allow us to go after violent actions such as training to participate in terrorism, fundraising for terrorism, facilitation of terrorism, solicitation or direction and control of terrorist acts. This group met all of those benchmarks, and that’s why we designated it and its leaders.

MS ORTAGUS: Well, thank you so much, Ambassador Sales. We really appreciate you being on the call today. Thanks, everybody.