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CIA's Pompeo: Sunni Partners Key to Fight Against Extremism

On January 23, CIA director Mike Pompeo reflected on his first year at the agency, including the success against ISIS in Syria, at an American Enterprise Institute event. In his discussion, Pompeo emphasized the importance of Sunnis in the fight against extremism. "We absolutely need Sunni partners," Pompeo said. "It is an absolute imperative that we achieve that if we're going to be successful for the long run." The following are excerpts from the director's opening remarks and his conversation with the moderator, Marc Thiessen. 

MR. POMPEO: The counterterrorism fight, which I have not yet mentioned, continues. CIA is a central part of making sure that policymakers understand the threat and how best to attack it.

MR. THIESSEN: All right. Well, let’s talk about your leadership at the CIA. You recently said that your goal is to make the CIA more vicious, more aggressive, more inclined to take risks to come directly at the threats that America faces in the world. How are you making the CIA more vicious, more aggressive, and less risk averse in the fight against terror?

MR. POMPEO: It’s all about incentives. It’s all about the things that are rewarded. In every organization I’ve been a part of, it is the human condition that you respond to the guidance, to commander’s intent, the incentives that are laid out in an organization. So you used CT as an example. It’s important. If you say it’s a priority, you’d better mean it, and by mean it doesn’t mean — it doesn’t mean just giving really good speeches about it. It means if you care about something, you will apply resources against it. In the agency, that’s money, people, technical skill, other tools that we have. You will actually take those and apply them against that problem set.

MR. THIESSEN: It’s also really hard to penetrate groups like al Qaeda and ISIS. I mean, your experience serving on the front lines of the Cold War — you had Russian émigrés. It wasn’t a tribal culture in the same way. I mean, how hard is it to — before 9/11, we had almost no human assets. I assume we’re doing better in that way, but we’ve got — as al Qaeda was pushed back, then all of a sudden ISIS emerged. How hard is it to get human intelligence on these terrorist networks, the Salafi Jihadi movement?

MR. POMPEO: So they’re difficult targets for sure, but as the US government has been successful against them in different places, whether it was a significant set of successes in the previous administration against al Qaeda, as we’ve had significant success at taking the caliphate away against ISIS, it provides us real opportunities to reach in. There are more people who decide being part of Team America might be better than being part of Team Jihadi. And so we are beneficiaries when those big disruptions occur and they allow us to collect in ways that we can’t when their force is united and we don’t have any chance to touch them.

MR. THIESSEN: So the success in Syria against ISIS has been remarkable in terms of taking away their physical caliphate, but it’s arguably come at a little bit of a price because we did it with Kurdish fighters, which has caused some tension with Turkey. We are perceived, at least by the Sunni population in Syria, as being at least tacitly in an alliance with Russia and Iran in that fight against ISIS, which pushes Sunnis away from us and toward al Qaeda, which is sitting there waiting. Have we been too focused on ISIS and not focused enough on al Qaeda? And can we defeat the global jihadi movement without bringing Sunnis into our orbit? Can we do this with Kurds and Russians and Iranians, or do we need a Sunni partner on the ground that’s going to fight these guys?

MR. POMPEO: We absolutely need Sunni partners. And I think we’re working diligently to do that. In Eastern Syria, the Department of Defense has done good work trying to bring the Sunnis in alongside our Kurdish partners there as well. I think they’ve made real progress there. This administration has broadly reached out to Sunni countries all throughout the Middle East to form coalitions against — not only against ISIS, but against Iran as well. And so I think we have made some substantial progress there. If we’re going to be successful at taking down the jihadist threat, we will absolutely need Sunni partners aiding us in that effort.

MR. THIESSEN: What worked in Iraq during the surge was the sons of Iraq.

MR. POMPEO: Right.

MR. THIESSEN: The fact that the Sunni tribes came over. We were a force enabler by sending additional troops, but it was really a Sunni uprising against al Qaeda, which was both a military defeat and an ideological defeat because the Jihadists claim to be the vanguard of the Sunni masses and so when they’re rejected by the Sunnis, it sends a signal throughout the region. How are we doing? Are we making any progress in getting a sons of Iraq equivalent in Syria and in some of these other places where we’re fighting them?

MR. POMPEO: I’m just going to — I’ll let others talk about the progress that we’re making there.


MR. POMPEO: But you should know that the CIA understands that. Our analytic assessment is much in line with what you describe. It is an absolute imperative that we achieve that if we’re going to be successful for the long run.


MR. THIESSEN: OK. One last question, then we’re going to turn it to the audience. So this is a question I ask all national security policymakers when they come to AEI. So during the 1988 presidential debates, no one asked either candidate about Iraq. And during the 2000 presidential debates, no one asked either candidate about al Qaeda. Yet in both those cases, those two elements because crises that became to dominate the presidencies of George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush. What is the threat that’s out there — and you see these — you see threats none of us see, but what is the thing that worries you the most in the world that none of us are talking about and none of these journalists here are asking anyone about that really could come out and surprise us — that you worry about at night?

MR. POMEO: … The other thing that — frankly, that the Intelligence Committee needs to get right is that some of these threats that are real — one of them you mentioned, al Qaeda, aren’t nation-states. So, historically, the threats to the United States, and your — I’m looking around the room to see how old everybody is — your history books would have all reflected threats from countries. What was America doing against the threat from Yugoslavia or some other nation-state? Today, the threats are much more varied than that, whether it’s threats from groups like Hezbollah or al Qaeda, threats to our information systems from groups like Wikileaks. They don’t have a flag at the UN, and they present real threats to the United States of America. And so we need to make sure that our collection — the way we think about attacking our adversaries from an intelligence perspective — matches that. And that means we have to go back and fix some of the rules, some of the laws that are designed to solve the nationstate challenge of history.

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