This week, officials in both Congress and the Trump Administration explored the remaining and persistent threats of terrorism against the United States. White supremacist and neo-Nazi terrorism is growing in the country and has resulted in a large number of fatalities during the last two years. The so-called Islamic State (IS) and its predecessor, al-Qaeda, continue to pose a danger to US interests; however, it is important to note that these two groups and a number of others overwhelmingly remain formidable threats to the citizens of the Middle East and North Africa. Just this week a terrorist attack in the Syrian town of Tel Halaf left five civilians dead and a dozen more injured.
As the menace of terrorism has only evolved and not dissipated, the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Intelligence and Counterterrorism held a virtual hearing with two former government officials and a scholar who studies the threats posed by these groups. The State Department released its 2019 Country Reports on Terrorism, a congressionally mandated report that provides “to Congress a full and complete annual report on terrorism for those countries and groups meeting the criteria” prescribed by law.
Al-Qaeda, IS, and Hezbollah Remain Threats, Lawmakers Say
During the House Homeland Security subcommittee hearing, members were in agreement that terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and IS continue to pose a serious threat and to leverage vulnerable communities and dysfunctional governments to recruit new followers.
Thanks to the Islamic State’s unprecedented social media presence, brutal tactics, and former control of vast swaths of territory, the group receives the bulk of this country’s attention. As Thomas Joscelyn (from Foundation for the Defense of Democracies) illustrated for the subcommittee, al-Qaeda still has thousands, if not tens of thousands, of loyal followers around the globe. Further, it has offshoots throughout the Middle East, North and East Africa, and South and Southeast Asia that are less visible, comparatively speaking, but that are seeking to uproot local political institutions in order to capitalize on the subsequent chaos to entrench IS’s power.
To emphasize the dangers of IS, the State Department this week increased the reward for information that could lead to the top leader of IS, Amir Muhammad Sa’id Abdal-Rahman al-Mawla. The department also cited both IS and al-Qaeda as remaining and persistent threats, but Ambassador Nathan Sales, the director for counterterrorism, noted in the 2019 report that the department holds similar views regarding groups like Hamas, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front in Turkey, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Kataeb Hezbollah in Iraq, al-Ashtar Brigades in Bahrain, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, and Lebanese Hezbollah. On Hezbollah, a number of lawmakers agree with Sales’s characterization; to wit, on June 24, 30 members of Congress sent a bipartisan, bicameral letter to all European Union member states calling on them to collectively designate Hezbollah as a terrorist group in its entirety, including its political wing.
Where Does the United States Go from Here?
Two former government officials—former Acting Director of the Central Intelligence Agency Michael Morell and former Coordinator for Counterterrorism Tina Kaidanow—expressed concern about Washington’s posture toward the threat of terrorism. Clearly the American public is exhausted by endless wars and distracted by domestic turmoil, so most Americans no longer perceive counterterrorism as a heightened priority. Morell and Kaidanow expressed concern about IS in Iraq and Syria and both described it as evolving and reconstituting. Morell assessed IS’s external capabilities in places like Europe as growing, saying that Washington must continue to be focused on foreign terrorist groups, working with allies and partners to keep pressure on these groups. In addition, he noted that the United States must think about the role it can play in alleviating the underlying problems that make terrorism and terrorist groups attractive to so many.
To Morell’s final point, Robert Destro, the Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, delivered a keynote address this week to explore the situation of Iraq’s ethnic and religious minorities “post-ISIS.” Destro listed a host of policy goals but noted that many of them are falling well short of being realized, raising concerns that the conditions that allowed the rise of groups like IS in Iraq are not being adequately addressed. There remain outstanding questions about accounting for IS crimes and atrocities as well as the conditions that would allow for the safe return of internally displaced persons (IDPs) to their places of origin. Destro said he also remains deeply concerned about the squalid camp conditions of many IDPs.
Also Happening This Week in Washington
Foreign Advanced Technology Surveillance Accountability Act. Reps. Tom Malinowski (D-New Jersey) and John Curtis (R-Utah) introduced H.R. 7307 in an effort to clamp down on private companies providing autocratic regimes with the technology necessary for surveilling their citizens. In the authors’ words, the bill “would recognize unreasonable or oppressive government surveillance as a human rights abuse.” Israel’s private company, NSO Group, has been perhaps the most notable, selling technology to Saudi Arabia to spy on dissidents.
Recognizing the 75th Anniversary of the Establishment of the United Nations. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-California) introduced H. Res. 1024 to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the birth of the international body.
2) Personnel and Correspondence
Chairs, Ranking Members Applaud UN Effort to Provide Aid to Syria. On June 30, Senators James Risch (R-Idaho) and Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) released a joint statement alongside Reps. Eliot Engel (D-New York) and Michael McCaul (R-Texas) lauding the United Nations’ efforts to provide aid to those in need in Syria.
191 House Democrats Sign Letter on Annexation; Others Unveil Tougher Letter. House Democrats sent a letter opposed to Israel’s annexation of occupied Palestinian territories which, in total, garnered the support of 191 members of the party’s House caucus. Meanwhile, 13 other members of Congress—12 House Democrats including Reps. Ilhan Omar (Minnesota) and Rashida Tlaib (Michigan), with Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont)—addressed a separate letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, calling on him to stop Israel’s pursuit of annexation. Their letter goes further than previous Democratic efforts, telling the secretary that Israeli annexation would “lay the groundwork for Israel becoming an apartheid state” and they vowed to immediately seek to hold Israel to account, writing:
“[W]e will work to ensure non-recognition of annexed territories as well as pursue legislation that conditions the $3.8 billion in U.S. military funding to Israel to ensure that U.S. taxpayers are not supporting annexation in any way. We will include human rights conditions and the withholding of funds for the offshore procurement of Israeli weapons equal to or exceeding the amount the Israeli government spends annually to fund settlements, as well as the policies and practices that sustain and enable them.”
As would be expected, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee was vociferous in its opposition to this letter.
15 Joint List MKs Call on Democrats to Stop Annexation. On June 25, the same day that House Democrats sent their letter to the Israeli government, 15 members of Israel’s Knesset (MKs) sent a letter calling on Democratic Party members to do everything possible to stop the looming annexation. Hadash MK Aida Touma-Sliman made the appeal to Democrats after reading the political environment of the United States. She tied the effort with broader themes of justice and urged Democrats to flex their political muscle to pressure the Israeli government to relinquish its annexation plan.
With Presumptive Engel Loss, Democrats Jockey for HFAC Chair. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-New York), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is trailing his primary challenger and seems very likely to lose. With such a loss, and should House Democrats remain in the majority after the 2020 elections, Reps. Brad Sherman (D-California) and Gregory Meeks (D-New York) are vying to become his replacement. Sherman is staunchly pro-Israel so he would not gravitate very far from an Eliot-led posture. Meeks is also considered pro-Israel but may be more willing to consider public sentiment.
3) Hearings and Briefings
Reps. Schneider and Schakowsky Discuss US-Israeli Relations after Annexation. On June 30, the Jewish Democratic Council of America held a virtual briefing to explore the ramifications of annexation for Israel and for US-Israeli relations. Reps. Brad Schneider (D-Illinois) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Illinois), two of the coauthors of the aforementioned letter that received a majority of the caucus’s support, offered their thoughts about why annexation was bad for Israel and for its longstanding relationship with Washington. Nevertheless, both members of Congress, particularly Rep. Schneider, refused to entertain any suggestion that Washington should hold Israel accountable if it pursues annexation.
II. Executive Branch
1) White House
White House Still Undecided on Green-lighting Annexation. Trump Administration officials most closely involved in the decision-making process regarding Israel and Palestine met last week to decide whether to give Israel the go-ahead for annexation. According to reports this week, the team failed to reach a decision and opted instead to continue discussing the matter with their counterparts in Israel. White House aide Avi Berkowitz accompanied US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman back to the country where he reportedly met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister of Defense Benny Gantz. As this shuttle diplomacy was taking place, Secretary of State Pompeo told reporters that the question of annexing illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank is one to be answered by Israel only.
President Trump Unnerved by Congressional Notifications. Frustrated by lawmakers’ willingness and ability to place holds on proposed arms sales, the Trump Administration is considering ending the informal but longtime practice of notifying Congress of potential weapons deals before the formal notification process. The administration may be responding to congressional efforts to end its arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. This will undoubtedly be taken as an affront by members of Congress and could lead to more proposed legislation to block potential sales.
2) Department of State
Trump Administration Seeks Additional Pressure on Iran. As part of its “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, the Trump Administration has been actively recruiting partners and allies in the fight to extend the UN arms embargo on Iran. Secretary of State Pompeo spoke before the UN Security Council while Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook held a virtual briefing with UN Ambassador Kelly Craft before flying to the Middle East, where he met with partners in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Israel.
In addition, the administration levied additional sanctions on Tehran this week. The State Department announced that Washington would be targeting Iran’s metal industry as well as five Iranian ship captains accused of ferrying over one and half million barrels of Iranian gas to Venezuela, a country that is also under US sanctions.
US Working with Sudan, Libya on Strengthening Relations, Ensuring Stability. Sudan and Libya continue to seek their own domestic stability as well as better relations with the United States. As such, Secretary Pompeo spoke with Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok to discuss Khartoum’s status as a state sponsor of terrorism, its democratic transition, and its protection of civilians in conflict areas. As for Libya, officials from the Departments of Defense and State and the National Security Council held a virtual meeting with many of their Libyan counterparts this week. The conversation revolved around securing a lasting cease-fire between warring parties, returning to UN-led political negotiations, and demobilizing the countless militias fighting for power throughout the country.
State Department Releases 20th Annual Report on Trafficking in Persons. On June 25, the State Department unveiled its 2020 Trafficking in Persons Report. The report made waves in the international community for its upgrading of Saudi Arabia from tier three—the group of the world’s worst offenders—to the tier two watch list. Turkey also expressed frustration because it felt it deserved to be higher than its tier two ranking. In total, only Israel received a tier one ranking while other US partners and allies were scattered between tier two and the tier two watch list rankings. Iran, Algeria, and Syria received the worst rankings while Libya, Yemen, and Somalia—all countries experiencing war and instability—were deemed “special cases.” In addition, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen were all included in additional reporting on countries of concern due to the practice of recruiting of child soldiers.
US Pledges Additional $696 Million in Humanitarian Assistance for Syria. Ambassador James Jeffrey announced at the Brussels Conference on “Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region” that the United States is committed to providing nearly $700 million in humanitarian aid for the people of Syria.
Lebanese Judge Puts Media Ban on US Ambassador. A judge in Lebanon issued a gag order of sorts on US Ambassador Dorothy Shea after she criticized Hezbollah during an interview with the Saudi al-Hadath. The judge imposed a ban of one year and threatened any foreign or domestic media outlet that may want to interview or host her with a one-year suspension and a $200,000 dollar fine. Almost immediately, at least one media outlet appealed the ruling while the Ministry of Information—the entity responsible for enforcing such an order—discarded the idea, saying no one can limit media freedom.
3) Department of Justice
Justice Department Appeals Early Release of Convicted Hezbollah Financier. This week, attorneys from the Department of Justice appealed a federal judge’s ruling that, as of now, will allow convicted Hezbollah financier Kassim Tajideen to be released from prison early and repatriated to Lebanon in July. Tajideen began serving a five-year sentence in 2019. The Justice Department is arguing that his crimes are too serious for him to be released early, even for fears of potential exposure to the coronavirus.
Marcus Montgomery is a Congressional Resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Marcus and read his previous publications click here