White House Update on Counter-ISIS Campaign
On December 13, the U.S. Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL (also known as the Islamic State, Daesh or ISIS), Brett McGurk, gave an update on the group’s loss of territory, leaders, fighters, revenue and more. The following are excerpts from his briefing.
Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL Brett McGurk
I thought I would give an update on the counter-ISIL campaign. The last time I was here I think was about six months ago, and I have a lot of new information, which I'll convey. The President just convened, as Josh mentioned, his National Security Council today to discuss the current status of the global campaign against ISIL. The meeting provided an in-depth overview of where we are in this campaign, and I want to provide just an update overall.
So as you know, we analyze ISIL and focus our policy on destroying it in really three dimensions -- its core in Iraq and Syria and shrinking its physical space; its network, so that's foreign fighters, finance and propaganda media networks; and then the so-called affiliates, made of affinities, affiliates around the world, of which Libya has been of particular concern to us.
The United States, we have an Integrated Campaign Plan that incorporates our entire government -- Defense, State, Treasury, Justice, Homeland Security, and the intelligence community -- around specific lines of effort. It's called the ICP, and it's an effort we review and refresh really each quarter to help identify opportunities, reinforce areas where we're having success and address areas that may have fallen behind. The President received a detailed update on this ICP this morning.
We also, of course, lead a global coalition of 68 members -- this is one of the largest coalitions of its kind in history -- to relentlessly combat ISIL across all lines of effort. So, militarily, on the ground in Iraq and Syria, we're supporting partners with training, equipping, advising and airstrikes. That's 17,455 airstrikes against ISIL terrorists as of this morning.
Through law enforcement cooperation, where we're sharing information to find and disrupt plots around the world. Through intelligence, homeland security and other channels to help combat the flow of foreign fighters across borders. Through treasury and finance to destroy ISIL’s economic infrastructure. And through both governments and the private sector to combat ISIL’s poisonous ideology and their propaganda online, their ability to recruit.
Our global coalition has also provided billions of dollars to support stabilization in areas cleared of ISIL, enabling citizens to return. And this is not only a U.S. effort; ISIL is an enemy that threatens the entire world, so we have leveraged resources from around the world, including more than $2 billion pledged for humanitarian, stabilization efforts in Iraq during coalition meetings in July.
But U.S. leadership matters on this. And that's why I want to thank the Congress for their close coordination in supporting a counter-ISIL budget amendment in the recently passed continuing resolution. These funds will be essential to help us accelerate the campaign and support efforts such as demining that allows people to return to their homes. And I'll be calling on coalition partners to make similar contributions here over the coming days.
Let me update you briefly on some of the update -- the campaigns we have ongoing now, particularly in Sirte, Libya; and Raqqa and Mosul.
In Sirte, about a year ago ISIL controlled approximately 150 kilometers of land on the Mediterranean coastline. It was using Libya as a haven from which to plan attacks in neighboring Tunisia, and ISIL leaders were encouraging people to travel to Libya, instead of Syria, to join ISIL. They saw it as their growing safe haven.
Since that time, at the President’s direction, we've eliminated the mastermind of the Tunisia attacks, Noureddine Chouchane; the leader of ISIL in Libya, Abu Nabil, who came from Syria to lead ISIL in Libya. And now we've just completed operations to liberate Sirte and its surrounding areas. So in Operation Odyssey Lightning, U.S. military forces conducted almost 500 airstrikes in support of units fighting under the authority of Libya’s Government of National Accord. And while we've still got work to be done, this strategic location in the Mediterranean is no longer accessible to ISIL terrorists. We'll, of course, continue to support the Government of National Accord as it pursues ISIL throughout the country.
In Raqqa -- Raqqa remains ISIL administrative capital and it is under more pressure now than ever before. Forces partnered with our coalition have now entirely severed routes between Raqqa and ISIL locations in Iraq. And the Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition of local Arabs and Kurds, are steadily advancing on Raqqa with the aim to isolate or really strangulate the city. Since this operation began about one month ago, the SDF has cleared 700 square kilometers north of Raqqa, and just on Saturday began a second phase of operations along the new access just to the west, and this is proceeding quite well.
The pressure in Raqqa is bearing fruit as ISIL leaders come out of hiding, which allows us to kill them. Today we confirm the deaths by precision coalition airstrikes of three terrorist leaders in Raqqa -- Salah Gourmat, Sammy Djedou, Walid Hamman.
Gourmat was a French Algerian, Djedou a Belgian. They were responsible for planning and facilitating the November 13th attacks in Paris last year. They were also actively plotting attacks when they were killed on December 4th in the streets of Raqqa. Hamman had been convicted by a Belgian court for a terrorist plot in 2015, and he was working with Gourmat and Djedou to plan new attacks.
So these three dead terrorists in Raqqa join a growing list from ISIL’s what we call their external operations network that we have targeted and eliminated. Last month, coalition forces eliminated Abd al-Basit al-Iraqi. He was the ISIL emir for attacks throughout the Middle East region and a key facilitator for terrorist travel through Turkey. Coalition strikes also killed Boubaker al-Hakim, an ISIL leader planning attacks in France and throughout Europe. And a leader of all ISIL external operations, of course, Muhammad Adnani, was killed on August 30th as he traveled from Raqqa to Bab.
So the point is, even as operations continue to move towards Raqqa, our coalition is relentlessly reaching into Raqqa to eliminate ISIL leaders with a particular focus on those planning and plotting against our homeland and our partners.
For the operation to seize and hold Raqqa, which will be coming, we’re in close consultation with our partners including Turkey. I was in Ankara last week for talks on this and other topics and these talks were quite fruitful. And the President’s authorization over the weekend for an additional 200 Special Operations Forces in Syria will help further accelerate our campaign to eject ISIL from Raqqa. I visited these Special Operators several times and they are doing truly heroic work to protect our homeland and to eliminate this haven of ISIL in Syria.
And I'll briefly discussed the Mosul campaign. We’re now in month two of what is really the most complex operation to date -- the liberation of Mosul -- and thus far we’ve seen a very steady and deliberate advance along all axes against ISIL terrorists, which are using the civilian population in Mosul as human shields.
I just visited the eastern axis, just in the outskirts of Mosul, last week. Secretary Carter was in Iraq, and he visited the Qayara airbase, south of Mosul, over the weekend. And General Votel, our CENTCOM commander, was in the same area just yesterday and gave a very detailed to the President this morning. And all of us witnessed this unprecedented cooperation between the Iraqi security forces and Kurdish Peshmerga, which has really been essential to this campaign.
Our coalition since the beginning of this campaign, about two years ago, we’ve trained over 65,000 Iraqi personnel who are now fighting professionally and performing heroically. So ISIL terrorists are now trapped in Mosul. They’re unable to resupply or replenish their dwindling ranks. Throughout this campaign, which began just a couple months ago now, we’ve already conducted over 500 airstrikes, destroyed about 100 car bombs, 100 tunnels, 300 bunkers -- this is ongoing every single day.
We’re often asked how long this is going to take, and the answer is, in Mosul, it will take as long as it takes. I think it’s useful to remember other campaigns against ISIL. Kobani, Raqqa, Baiji oil refinery are very significant campaigns; each of them took about six months. Some have gone faster -- Fallujah went a little faster than anticipated. And the key thing is that, what ISIL does in these cities is they set up concentric rings of defenses, and once you break through the crust of that defense, you don’t know what’s going to come next. Eventually they reach a culmination point; they simply cannot resupply, they run out of suicide bombers, and they culminate. And in Mosul, we don’t when that will come. It could come very soon; it could come a couple months from now. But our momentum will be sustained and we’ll provide relentless pressure on the enemy throughout Mosul.
Every single operation in Iraq that we have supported has succeeded, and all the ground that has been retaken from ISIL in Iraq has been held, and Mosul will be no different.
Let me very briefly, in about five minutes, just go through some of the indicators that I discussed last time when I was here in June -- there’s about eight of them, but I’ll go them fairly quickly -- of how we track this overall campaign and how we measure how we’re doing.
The first is territory. And we actually have a new map here which just came out this morning from our intelligence community, and the map demonstrates that ISIL continues to lose significant ground. And why is this important? Because what has made ISIL this global phenomenon, with all of these recruits from all around the world -- although that’s rapidly diminishing -- is this notion of this homeland and caliphate. And all of their propaganda used to talk about this expanding homeland, this expanding movement, and they can no longer say that because their territory is now rapidly shrinking.
So in Iraq now, about 61 percent of territory that had been controlled by ISIL has now been reclaimed, and in Syria, about 28 percent. But what is most significant -- I think the last time I was here there was still a 98-kilometer strip of border with Turkey in which ISIL terrorists were still able to come in and out, and that is where the Paris attackers, the Brussels attackers transited through this route. So since then, over the last six months, we’ve worked very closely with the Syrian Democratic Forces, and also with Turkey and the moderate opposition to close off that route. It’s at the number one in the map.
So ISIL now has no access to an international border, and this is significantly impacted the overall campaign because they are now a very isolated entity within Syria and Iraq, and, most importantly, it is much harder for them to come in and out, which is critical for them to project their terrorist acts outside of Iraq and Syria. So territory we’re continuing to shrink as we speak, and that will continue.
Leadership. ISIL’s leadership ranks are dwindling. I already mentioned some of the recent strikes against their leaders in Raqqa. But since the start of the campaign we’ve eliminated nearly all of Abu Bakr Baghdadi deputies and his trusted advisors. That includes his likely successor, Haji Imam; his ministers for war, finance, oil and gas, security, and external operations. And as these leaders are replaced, we target and kill their replacements. And we’ve seen a significant degradation in their overall capabilities and ranks.
Baghdadi himself -- he claims to be the caliph -- we have not seen his face in well over a year. He issued an audiotape about a month ago, but issuing audiotapes deep in hiding is not really a sign of a confident leader, particularly in today’s media age. So eventually, we will find and eliminate him as well, but the leadership ranks continue to diminish.
Third indicator, their overall fighting capacity, their overall strength, overall fighters. The number of battle-ready fighters inside Iraq and Syria is now at its lowest point that it’s ever been. We estimate about 12,000 to 15,000. And ISIL is unable to replenish its ranks.
Whereas we used to see about a thousand foreign fighters in the 2014 time frame flowing into Syria, coming from all around the world -- I’ve mentioned this before -- an unprecedented number of these foreign fighters, these jihadi fighters coming from all around the world, almost 40,000 -- it’s now down to really what is quite a negligible amount, in our estimation.
And that’s really thanks, again, to our efforts on the ground and our Special Operators that have done an incredible job to clear out that area of the border just south of Turkey, and now the intervention from Turkey to protect its border, make sure that these terrorists cannot get in and out.
We are also making sure that foreign fighters cannot transit across borders. So about 60 countries within the coalition have really strengthened their laws against the transit of foreign fighters. Plots have been disrupted in about 15 countries, and this continues. One of the unsung efforts of our coalition which has really strengthened is the information-sharing among different capitals. This is something that has now really accelerated, and it’s increased our ability to stay well ahead of this enemy.
Fourth indicator, briefly, is revenue. We’re destroying ISIL’s economic base. Just last week -- it’s only one example, but last week, our air coalition destroyed about 168 ISIL oil tankers, the largest strike of its kind. And we’ve continued to target their oil and gas infrastructure, their bulk cash storage sites and their financial facilitators. They cannot pay their fighters. The fighters come thinking they’re going to have this lavish lifestyle -- that is not happening. Their fighters are not getting paid, and we have multiple indications of that. And we will continue to maintain this relentless pressure.
The fifth indicator is one I mentioned -- this was really critical when we started this -- was their access to borders. Again, they were flowing in and out by almost over 1,000 a month. That is no longer happening. So quite significant development to close off their entire access to international borders.
Sixth indicator, media propaganda. ISIL used to have this very slick, sophisticated media information apparatus, and it was led by two people. One was Muhammad Adnani, their chief spokesman and also their head of external operations; and, two, a very sophisticated media expert named Dr. Waeli. He was kind of the head of all those slick videos they used to produce. Both of them are no longer around.
We also have been working very closely with the private sector and within the coalition to get their content off the Internet, to make it far harder to access. Their overall output is down by about 75 percent. If you just measure -- we measure these things in 12-month increments -- from August of 2015 to August this year, decrease of 75 percent. Twitter -- just one example -- have taken down 400,000 pro-ISIL Twitter handles. And the ratio of anti-ISIL information to pro-ISIL information has totally flipped from where it was two years ago. And we’ll keep this going.
This is also a global effort. So ISIL tries to recruit with different messages around the world. So in the UK, we have the UK leading an effort to really target those who might be recruited in Europe. In the Gulf region, we’re working very closely with the UAE. I met them -- really incredible young people who are working 24/7 to counter the toxic ideology and poisonous messages of ISIL. Saudi Arabia is helping quite a bit with that. And even in Southeast Asia, Malaysians and other critical partners within our coalition are helping to counter the message in that part of the world. Very different messages in different parts of the world, and we work to adapt to that.
Seventh indicator, briefly, is what we call global cohesion. ISIL had sought to be a global organization with direct links, financial fighters, leaders, between its core in Iraq and Syria to these so-called affiliates. So in response, we’ve strengthened a global coalition to find and sever all of those links. The result has been a weakening of their so-called affiliates across the board. I mentioned Libya, but also Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Basin, and Afghanistan -- all of these entities are being significantly degraded.
Importantly, our coalition also includes multinational organizations, such as INTERPOL and Europol, to help develop a global database of ISIL-affiliated fighters to stop, again, their transit across borders. My deputy, Lieutenant General Wolfe, was at the INTERPOL annual meeting last month to try to strengthen these relationships and make sure that we are sharing the information we need to stay ahead of this threat.
So as ISIL’s global cohesion weakens, ours is strengthening with cooperation across the globe.
I would just say in conclusion -- and I mentioned this last time -- we are having tremendous success against this enemy. It is accelerating. We are now putting pressure on its two so-called capitals of Mosul and Raqqa -- simultaneous, relentless pressure. That will continue. We are killing their leaders. We’re taking off their ability to finance and resource themselves. But this remains an unprecedented threat. The fight is not over. This will remain a multiyear effort. But we have developed a campaign that is global, and I hope I’ve demonstrated the overall breadth of the campaign.
I also just want to say, since we’ve been doing this for a couple of years, and I visit our guys in the field all the time, we’ve lost five Americans in this campaign. Five of our military personnel have been killed in this campaign. And it’s important to keep in mind, because I saw with my own eyes the casualty collection points just outside Mosul of the Iraqis who are fighting. We are advising them to fight and retake their territory, similar to our Syrian partners. And their casualties are very high. An operation in Manbij, Syria, for example, which was really important to protect us -- Manbij is where the foreign fighters were flowing through. It’s where they were planning external operations. And the Syrian Democratic Forces in that operation had over a thousand casualties.
Similar in Mosul, the Iraqi security forces that we are training, advising and enabling are fighting heroically. They are taking casualties and continuing to advance. And I think we're all very proud to work with them and grateful. And it's also just a reminder of the different mode of operation we have here -- enabling, advising local partners to take back the ground that they have lost. And I think it is significant that all the ground we have taken as a coalition, working with locals, everything we've taken back from ISIL -- that's over 60 percent in Iraq, 28 percent in Syria -- none of it ISIL has been able to retake. And that is because before we do any of this we have a tremendous effort -- sometimes months long, sometimes shorter -- to prepare the ground politically, economically, to get the stabilization resources in place to help make sure people can return to their homes, and make sure that the defeat of ISIL is a lasting one.
So it is significant that to date ISIL has not retaken any of the ground it has lost in operations we have enabled. And we're going to make sure it continues that way.
That's quite a different approach, I will just say in closing, than the Russians. The Russians have really had one counter-ISIL mission -- they claim to be fighting ISIL -- they’ve had one counter-ISIL mission and that was Palmyra. And they made a big deal about that. They had a big concert and they invited members of the media to come see it. And ISIL has now retaken Palmyra. In our operations, ISIL has not retaken a speck of ground that we have taken from them. And I think it is fairly significant that the one operation the Russians touted as a counter-ISIL operation ISIL has now retaken.
We're not pleased about that. We want to wipe ISIL entirely off this map. The point of the map -- as I have explained before, everything that's in color on this map used to be controlled by ISIL. So the summer of 2014, everything there was part of the caliphate. Everything in green has been retaken, and everything in dark green is just what has been retaken in the last month. The dark red splotches in the southwest are areas that actually ISIL has gained over the last two years -- very small areas and areas that we primarily do not operate.
And I'll just say finally on the situation, of course, in Aleppo -- this was discussed briefly in the meeting this morning, and there is a very active effort going on to try to resolve this. The Security Council, of course, will be convening later today. But of course, we've said a lot what we think about the tactics the Russians, the regime are using -- tactics that are totally different than anything we do against ISIL in Mosul. We are cognizant of every single innocent life in Mosul. We're fighting an enemy that is using human shields, and we're acting with tremendous precision. And if you see what the Russians are doing with the regime in Aleppo, it could not be any different.
So the contrasts I think are quite stark.
With that, I will leave it there. And I think overall, the campaign here against ISIL has momentum. We're always looking for ways to accelerate it and we're always talking about that, and we will not stop until we destroy this enemy.
QUESTION: Can you say how you hand over an operation as complex as this to a new administration? And have you yet briefed any Trump transition personnel?
MR. MCGURK: I was senior director for Iraq and Afghanistan in the Bush administration. It was the first transition in wartime in 40 years. And we worked very hard with President Bush and the incoming President-elect, President Obama, to have a very seamless transition, given the importance of a transition in wartime.
So this is similar -- a transition in wartime. It's complex. And the direction very clearly from President Obama is to make sure were doing all we can to ensure it can be a seamless transition. There, of course, will be a lot of continuity on the military side, and so we're doing all we possibly can to support that effort. I'll leave it there.
QUESTION: First was Libya, and I know you outlined a lot of progress. The estimates have been that there were between 5,000 and 8,000 ISIL fighters there. Obviously they weren’t all killed, and so there’s outstanding question about if those estimates were high, or if not, if they’ve escaped in a way that they could regroup and pose a problem later. And the other question was about oil revenues. You talked about that a lot the last time we saw you. And I'm wondering if the rise in oil prices globally could help ISIL in a way that sort of counteract some of the gains that you outlined here, or if you feel like they’re cut off at this point from the global oil.
MR. MCGURK: So in Libya, it's hard to get a precise estimate of how many. We think most of them were probably killed in Libya -- or in Sirte in that campaign. But they really holed up -- I mentioned this is what they do -- this is their defense strategy. They have these kind of rings of defense and then they have a little citadel in the middle where they try to hole up. And in Sirte, they did that for some months in a little final area of the city.
Peter Bodde, our Ambassador to Libya, is in discussions with Prime Minister Sarraj about the next steps in this campaign and what support the Libyans might want. We want to make sure, in our view, that ISIL and extremist groups cannot have safe haven and sanctuary anywhere in Libya.
On the oil trade, we have significantly reduced their ability to generate any serious revenue from oil. Of course, though, it does continue, but it's all self-generated. I mean, they cannot get any oil out of their little self-contained entity. There is definitely trade going on between different groups -- this is a very chaotic situation, particularly in Syria -- but their ability to replenish their resources is just significantly degraded. And whenever we find where they are extracting oil we make sure that we eliminate that.
QUESTION: The concern seems to be, though, that fighters were able to escape. And you're discounting that? You think sort of the -- our allies were able to sort of fully encapsulate the city?
MR. MCGURK: We think we eliminated the vast majority there in Sirte. But if they try to regroup, I'm certain we'll find a way to deal with that.
QUESTION: The information-sharing with the Turks, it's been really strained on the diplomatic level -- obviously the whole question of cooperation with the coup and the allegations and the request for the return of the fellow that they think was involved in the coup. Has that been reflected at all in the cooperation you’ve seen in the counter-ISIL campaign?
MR. MCGURK: Obviously it's a complex relationship. I was in Ankara about four or five days ago, had very good, very detailed meetings in Ankara about the overall situation. And the Turks have done an awful lot here over the last year, very close cooperation with us in the counter-ISIL fight, and I felt very good coming out of those meetings about the way forward.
General Dunford is in regular contact. The day before I was in Ankara he was in Incirlik meeting his counterpart, General Akar. So our communications with Turkey is extremely close. They are doing an operation now -- just south of that green splotch here, near Al-Bab -- and obviously we're looking for ways to try to help them defeat ISIL in that particularly sensitive area.
It's also a sensitive area of the country because you have a number of different forces converging. So a lot of what we do every single day is try to make sure that we deescalate any tension between non-ISIL affiliated forces that we have relationships with so everybody is focused on the same enemy. This is extremely hard.
And that's why I mentioned there’s another model for doing this -- we can send in the 82nd Airborne to go in and do all this kind of stuff. We do not think that that would be a lasting, sustainable way to do it. We think what is sustainable, particularly in something as complex as Syria, is advising, assisting, enabling. And I think the record of what we've been able to clear out proves that. But it makes it complex, because we're trying to encourage our partners that were working with on the ground, you guys need to go that way, when sometimes they want to go a different way. So this is what the daily communication and constant discussions are with the Turks and different actors on the ground. But I was very encouraged by my meetings in Ankara last week that we have a shared way forward, and it's going to continue.
QUESTION: They’re fighting the ISIL forces as much as they want to fight the Kurds?
MR. MCGURK: Well, right now they are engaged in a hostile fight against ISIL, and Turkey soldiers have taken casualties. And I think we have to extend our condolences to them. I did that when I was there. They are engaged in a fight against ISIL on the ground, definitely.
QUESTION: About a week ago, there were reports in Syria the ISIS leadership or what’s left of it was meeting to try to pick a al-Baghdadi successor. What do you know about that? Do you think al-Baghdadi is wounded or incapacitated in some way? And even if he were taken out of the picture, how much of an effect would that have on their strength?
MR. MCGURK: I saw those reports, which we can't confirm. I would say any ISIL leaders have a pretty good succession plan because we're removing them at a pretty fast clip. Baghdadi is unique because he’s the guy that rose in the Grand Mosque in Mosul and declared a caliphate, which I think I mentioned this the last time I was here -- but I travel now all around the world to countries in which their young men, and in many cases, young women, have been attracted to this movement. And when you say what is it that has attracted your young people to this movement, there’s a number of different answers, but there’s a common denominator -- this notion of a homeland and a caliphate.
And Baghdadi claims to have a unique -- this phony unique claim to being a caliph. This is all a total fraud, but he claims to have this unique lineage that makes him a caliph. So I definitely think that when we do eliminate Baghdadi it will make a significant difference.
I also think it is significant that he tried to be a kind of new type of terrorist leader -- giving public speeches, going to the Grand Mosque and giving this sermon in the summer of 2014 -- and he is now in deep, deep hiding. And we have not heard from him until he issued this audiotape a couple months ago, and it was a very defensive message. It basically said, for all of the fighters in Mosul, stay and fight to the death. But all the indications we're getting is that many did not take that message well because where is Baghdadi? He is somewhere in hiding. And we also know he hides with slaves and all sorts of terrible things. This guy is one of the most despicable we've ever seen.
So we're doing all we can to find and eliminate him. As I mentioned, all of his deputies -- nearly all of his deputies have been eliminated. And it's a matter of time before we find him. I do think it will make a significant difference on ISIL as an organization, as a movement, once he’s eliminated, but it will not eliminate this kind of global jihadi terrorist threat, obviously.
QUESTION: Given all the progress, does ISIS still have the ability to plot and orchestrate attacks against the United States and our allies from the territory that they have remaining? And will President Obama leave office with that ability apparently still intact? And on Aleppo, there are reports that there are scores of civilians being massacred by the advancing Syrian army. There are also reports of a ceasefire. Did those issues come up, and was there any response to that from the President?
MR. MCGURK: So in terms of plotting, this is what they want to do. ISIL wants to attack us, and they want to attack our partners. And they’re very sophisticated -- the Paris attacks, the Brussels attacks, those were planned in Raqqa. They ran through some of these other towns I mentioned and they would deploy their operatives to carry out attacks. We think we significantly degraded their ability to do that. But they do have operatives in a number of places in which they are planning external attacks. This is something that is the primary focus of ours, to eliminate what I call that external operations network.
So the head of it was Mohammad Adnani. That's why targeting him was so significant. Most of this is also being done in Raqqa, but I think we have demonstrated these three I mentioned today that were eliminated just a few days ago were part of this very sophisticated terrorist plotting network.
So every single opportunity we get we are degrading this network, but it still exists. This is still a threat. They are trying to recruit -- not planned, sophisticated attacks -- they’re trying to do that, but they’re also trying to recruit deranged individuals from all over the world to act in their name. And that is something that is very hard to stop, which is why the information-sharing and everything we're doing kind of behind the scenes as a coalition is so critical.
I can't speak to what’s happening in Aleppo right now. I will just say, as I think I mentioned at the outset, this is a horrific situation. I think it demonstrates once again the tactics that the Russians are using in support of the regime are something that is truly beyond the pale, could not be any different than the types of tactics that we utilize. And I’ve also seen these reports of the ceasefire and a potential agreement, but I can’t confirm any of that because this is all fairly late-breaking. But I understand the Security Council will be convening later today to discuss it.
QUESTION: What did you hear from the Turks that made you so confidant, vis-à-vis what they planned in Al-Bab and with regards to what you just said?
MR. MCGURK: Turkey is at war against ISIL. They are fighting on the ground, they are taking casualties. And ISIL is a significant threat to Turkey, and that is something that they see very clearly, and so we’re working through various ways in which we can help them.
We do have disagreements, of course, in terms of some things going on in Syria, which we also have very candid discussions about. When it comes to Raqqa, we want to get ISIL out of Raqqa as soon as possible, but this will be a sequence campaign. That’s the only way to do it. So we’re in the isolation, kind of the strangulation phase now. And then we have to identify the force to actually move in and seize and hold the city. There are a few options for that. One of the options, of course, is working very closely with Turkey, and we are having a detailed discussion with them about this.
But the most significant thing when I was in Turkey was just their threat perception of ISIL as a significant threat to Turkey, which it is. Turkey has suffered more casualties in ISIL attacks than almost any of our other coalition partners. And so while we’ve had some disagreements over the years, I thought we had a pretty good shared way forward. Not to say there isn’t some tension, obviously.
QUESTION: I also wanted to ask, are U.S. forces embedding with the Popular Mobilization Forces?
MR. MCGURK: Embedding with popular -- I think you’re talking about a report in which there was a photograph of some training of -- so Popular Mobilization Forces are known as being primarily Shia militia forces, many of which operate outside the command and control of the Iraqi government, which is a significant problem, not only to us but also to the Iraqi government.
But under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilization Forces, there are local forces from these areas to hold the ground after operations conclude. Many of these are locals from Nineveh Province -- so Sunnis, Christians, all sorts of -- it’s a very diverse province. I’ll give you an example. In Anbar Province, under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilization Forces, about 15,000 local Anbari tribal fighters mobilized to fight Daesh. That is one reason why, from the four to the five, all of that is green. We cannot do that only with the Iraqi security forces. We needed the tribes to be mobilized. So those are all Sunnis from Anbar. They’re being paid by the government to fight ISIL, and we’re, of course, supporting them.
QUESTION: Could you tell us a little more about the coalition partners? Are they just as resolute as the U.S. in continuing further? And can you tell us -- the operation themselves, how -- what’s the percentage of the operation being done by the U.S., and the coalition -- the percentage by the coalition partners? Besides Turkey?
MR. MCGURK: I’ve been at this from the beginning, the inception of the coalition, when we had about 15 countries, and there was always a question of what will this grow into.
In the last three weeks, we had all 68 -- ambassadors from all 68 members at the State Department, and we also held what’s called kind of the small group of coalition countries, over 20 countries, in Berlin, just a couple weeks ago. And what is fairly extraordinary about this is the sense of international consensus about the need to basically destroy this enemy, and the sense of burden-sharing.
As I mentioned, the United States will not do this -- we cannot succeed in this alone. And the coalition remains extremely strong. So Secretary Carter will be seeing his counterparts in London here in a few days. And the overall cohesion of the coalition across all these multiple lines of effort -- the military gets a lot of the focus, but it is counter-finance, counter-propaganda, counter-foreign fighters, and everything kind of working together -- that we have coordinating mechanisms throughout the coalition. It is working extraordinarily well. And the international consensus behind this effort is something I think we have to continue to build upon, because it is something that’s quite extraordinary.
In terms of overall effort, I mentioned there’s been about -- over 17,000 airstrikes now. I think if you add them up, about 4,500 or so have been coalition airstrikes. So, definitely U.S. military forces are doing the bulk of the airstrikes. There’s a reason for that -- we have the best military in the world. But the number of coalition partners operating to support that effort is quite significant.
And, of course, we couldn’t do this without flying out of Incirlik Airbase, flying out of some other areas within the region. And we’re obviously very grateful for that. Without the coalition, we would not be able to defeat this enemy.
QUESTION: There’s been some reporting, Brett, that the U.S. needed to use the Australians to conduct strikes against some of the Paris attackers, and I wonder if you can sort of help me unpack the complications as it relates to the chain of command that the United States might have in conducting airstrikes and having to utilize coalition partners like Australia and others?
And second, I wanted to ask you about Saudi Arabia. That story has come out today and I wondered if you could sort of help unpack this idea that the U.S. is limiting military support for the Saudis because of what’s been happening vis-à-vis civilian casualties in Yemen.
MR. MCGURK: This has been the most precise air campaign in history. It will be studied in the future and people will -- the most precise air campaign in history. And all of our airstrikes go through a common structure in terms of validating the targets. And it is really moving at an incredible clip.
I can’t get into the details of sometimes who does a strike and everything. What I will say is, eliminating these external plotters in the streets of Raqqa, painstaking, tireless work by coalition actors, our military forces, our folks on the ground, our intelligence apparatus -- all working as one team. And it doesn’t always work that well, but it is working quite, quite well.
But I just can’t get into in terms of who does what. But it is the most precise air campaign in history. We’re very proud of it, and that will continue.
I was in Saudi Arabia a couple weeks ago to meet with Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. I’ve seen him a number of times, including also with Muhammad bin Nayef. And Saudi Arabia also is in this fight. ISIL is a fundamental threat to Saudi Arabia. If you read ISIL’s propaganda, if you read what Baghdadi writes, he’s obsessed with Saudi Arabia and striking in Saudi Arabia. So we are working very closely with the Saudis in a whole range of areas in order to help degrade ISIL, particularly on a lot of the counter-ideological fights. So they’re very much in this as well.
QUESTION: John Brennan has suggested that the campaign on the ground and the campaign against ISIL globally are going in two opposite directions. He said this summer, we still have a ways to go before we’re able to say that we’ve made some significant progress. And he warned that the trajectories for this ISIS religious state or caliphate and global violence point in opposite directions. “As the pressure mounts on ISIL,” he said, “we judge that it will intensify its global terror campaign to maintain its domination of the global terrorism agenda.”
You’re sort of saying the opposite thing. You’re saying that these two campaigns are going in exactly the same directions instead of opposite directions, and you’re pointing to the three deaths recently of these external plotters as evidence of that.
Tell me why there’s such a difference between what you’re saying and what some other intelligence people in the administration are saying. Why are you so convinced these two things are going together while other say it’s sort of like squeezing a balloon -- if you squeeze it here, they’re going to show up someplace else?
MR. MCGURK: I don’t think it’s so much of a disagreement. In fact, all of our intelligence assessments inform the way we obviously discuss this and prosecute the campaign. I said this will be a multiyear effort. Be very clear about that. The number of foreign fighters, the number of people indoctrinated into this ideology is something that will not be overcome for a number of years. And while the notion of the caliphate is what kind of led to this explosive growth of ISIL -- that is why shrinking the caliphate is so important -- but their desire to inspire attacks around the world as they lose their territory is something that we expect will probably increase.
How do they want to stay relevant? They’re trying to spark and inspire attacks around the world. That’s why they used to say -- Muhammad Adnani’s last statement was very interesting. If you read of Muhammad Adnani, the spokesman, all of his propaganda, again, it used to be about, come to the homeland, or retain and expand the caliphate. Most of their propaganda were these sundrenched scenes of children and families and a very optimistic message, actually.
His last message before his death was very different. It actually said, we might lose all of our territory, but we’ll still be around, and, in fact, if you can’t come -- because you can’t because it’s hard to get in here now -- stay home, pick up a knife, and attack someone down the street. It was a very different message. It’s a message that does not appeal to a broad segment of the population. It’s a message that appeals to really deranged individuals. But they are trying to remain relevant as they lose their homeland -- what they call their homeland -- by trying to inspire these attacks.
And that is something that will continue. And that is why one thing we’ve done in the coalition, we talk about even as we degrade their ability to have territory in Iraq and Syria, we need to adapt as a coalition to increase our ability to share information, our hubs of sharing information, to be able to stay ahead of the threat. So that’s something as a coalition I think will continue for some time.
So the military-focused coalition of taking back these cities, which we will do, will evolve into a coalition focused on the information-sharing, the patterns of interaction among capitals, among intelligence communities, among law enforcement communities. It's something we have to continue to expand upon and grow.
QUESTION: But that’s a much less optimistic, even frightening message for those of us in this part of the world, because it’s suggesting that your success there only increases the dangers here, no?
MR. MCGURK: No, because what they can do inside of Iraq and Syria are these big spectacular attacks. Make no mistake, these are terrorists. It’s an international terrorist organization that has the same ideology as Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. The only difference between ISIL and al Qaeda is that ISIL said, let’s do a caliphate now, whereas al Qaeda said, well, we’ll do a caliphate down the road.
That’s the key difference. But they aspire to do massive spectacular attacks around the world, and in order to do that, they need territory to plan and plot and resource. And so we’re making sure that they are on their heels every single day, but I would never get up here and say this threat is something that is going to go away or something that we cannot remain absolutely vigilant on.
And which is why, as I mentioned, it’s not just DOD and State; it’s our entire government working as part of this integrated campaign plan to stay ahead of it because it’s different tools. It’s military, law enforcement, intel, and counter messaging. So we need to stay at it every single day and remain vigilant for a long time to come.
"The Islamists" is a book and website on the origins, evolution, and positions of Islamist movements in the Middle East. The movements are redefining the order and borders in the world’s most volatile region. Yet they have diverse goals and different constituencies. Sometimes they are even rivals. Read more