International

No U.S. plan to target local banks: official

Treasury Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing, Marshall Billingslea, left, meets with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, in Beirut, Lebanon, Monday, Sept. 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

BEIRUT: A senior American official said Monday that the U.S. Treasury had no plans for the time being to add any new Lebanese banks to its sanctions list, expressing deep satisfaction with the cooperation of lenders and the Central Bank in combating terrorism financing, including Hezbollah funding.

“Let me be very clear. I did not come to Lebanon with a list of banks. There is no intention at this stage to target Lebanese banks. I am not going to talk about potential future action because we never do,” Marshall Billingslea, assistant secretary for terrorist financing at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, told reporters at the U.S. Embassy.

Billingslea said the U.S. Treasury was posting a $10 million reward for anyone who provides valuable information on Hezbollah’s finances.

Billingslea held talks with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Central Bank Gov. Riad Salameh and a delegation from the Association of Banks in Lebanon headed by its president, Salim Sfeir.

Billingslea’s visit was to ensure that Lebanon in general and the Central Bank in particular had effectively liquidated Jammal Trust Bank.

Last month, the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control accused JTB of “brazenly enabling” Hezbollah’s financial activities.

The ABL said in a statement that it met Billingslea, who welcomed the Lebanese banks’ commitment to abide by the rules and international criteria to combat money laundering and terrorism financing.

Some news media had claimed that the U.S. planned to slap sanctions on four more Lebanese banks, an allegation vehemently denied by ABL and the Central Bank.

Billingslea added that he was very satisfied with the full compliance of the banks on combating terrorism funding. He reiterated that the U.S. Treasury had no intention to target any religious sect and most notably the Shiite community.

Billingslea repeated that the main goal of the U.S. Treasury was to deprive Hezbollah of all financial support, whether from Iran or through any other means.

The American official said JTB had willingly and knowingly dealt with Hezbollah and with Amin Sharri, one of the party’s lawmakers.

“Sharri among other things has practiced intimidations and coercions against banks and the Central Bank itself,” Billingslea said, without elaborating.

He insisted that sanctions would target any person or group, irrespective of their religion or political affiliation, that provides any form of financial support to Hezbollah.

Billingslea said U.S. sanctions had drastically deprived Hezbollah of funds, especially those coming from Iran.

He said Hezbollah used to receive around $700 million a year from Iran but thanks to tough U.S. sanctions on Tehran, this cash inflow had diminished considerably.

“We have repeatedly made it clear that we will continue to focus on any individual or group which provides material support to Hezbollah, regardless of their religious background or their political parties. Hezbollah is a terrorist organization with the blood of many Lebanese and Americans on their hands,” he added.

Billingslea advised all Lebanese political parties to distance themselves from Hezbollah.

He declined to say whether the relationship between Hezbollah and other parties would lead to new sanctions against other groups.

“It is essential that all political parties in Lebanon distance themselves from Hezbollah. It is unacceptable that this terrorist organization has inserted itself into the fabrics of Lebanon’s democracy,” he added. Most observers believe that Hariri, Berri and the rest of the political leaders in Lebanon will continue to work with Hezbollah in the Cabinet.

These observers argue that it is difficult to isolate Hezbollah, since it has 14 lawmakers and three Cabinet ministers.

Billingslea praised the strong ties the U.S. had established with many CEOs of banks in the country.

“We have a good working relationship with most CEOs of major banks in Lebanon. Each of these CEOs and chairmen know what they need to do and I believe that they are doing a good job,” he said.

Billingslea recalled that the U.S. was willing to pay up to $10 million for information leading to the disruption of Hezbollah’s finances.

He said the U.S. Treasury had already received important information about the group’s finances from the private sector in Lebanon.

“We got a lot of interesting stuff. Can’t get into details. Some of the information we got is very credible and some of it is very alarming. We are still in the process of paying the money,” Billingslea said.

He denied that the tough U.S. sanctions on Hezbollah would gravely affect the banking sector and depositors.

Responding to a question, Billingslea said that the U.S. was keen for all the clean deposits of any blacklisted lender to be protected by the Central Bank.

Replying to another question, he denied that the shortage of U.S. banknotes was caused by Hezbollah, insisting that the issue was strictly a financial matter.

The official also underlined the importance of appointing new vice governors for Salameh to help him in his work.

He also focused on the need to combat corruption and implement badly needed reforms in order to cut the budget deficit and increase government revenues.

Billingslea said that combating corruption in Lebanon should be one of the priorities of the Lebanese government because such a step would encourage foreign investment in the country.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 24, 2019, on page 1.

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