There is no room for complacency in the fight against violent extremist organizations, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told his worldwide counterparts here today.
Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford welcomed chiefs of defense from 82 nations to the third Counter Violent Extremist Organizations conference. “We are here today to have a candid exchange of views, and find ways to enhance our effectiveness in dealing with violent extremism,” he said.
Extremism Affects Everyone
All involved realize that violent extremism is a transregional threat that affects the security of all nations, the chairman said in his introductory remarks. “I think we all recognize that violent extremism is a generational challenge that demands we develop solutions that are politically, fiscally and militarily sustainable,” he said.
The chiefs also recognize that defeating transregional extremist organizations requires a broad network of like-minded nations to share intelligence, information and best practices, Dunford said. The chiefs also agree there are times for collective or cooperative action, he said.
“Most importantly, while we recognize that combating violent extremism requires a whole-of-government approach, we also appreciate the military dimension of the challenge and the unique role the chiefs of defense have in influencing, developing and implementing comprehensive solutions,” the chairman said.
Each chief, he stressed, brings a unique perspective to the challenge, influenced by geography, neighbors, political and legal systems and more.
Cooperation Supports Progress
Dunford detailed the progress against violent extremism so far — and it has been extensive, he said. “Our progress has been enabled by improved information sharing in military, intelligence and law enforcement channels,” the chairman said. He noted that Operation Gallant Phoenix — an information-sharing effort — has grown from fewer than 20 people representing two nations, to more than 250 people representing 25 nations. “This initiative has contributed an impressive number of disrupted attacks, arrests and prosecutions,” Dunford said. “In addition to Operation Gallant Phoenix, there are complementary issues that are being developed in a number of regions to include West Africa and Southeast Asia.”
The effort against violent extremists has also disrupted the flow of foreign fighters, slowed resources going to terror groups and cut into the narrative that ideologies like the one the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria espouses is successful.
This must continue, he said, as it is the long-term solution to extremism.
The chairman noted that 2017 marked the third consecutive year in the decline of terrorist attacks and deaths worldwide. “The progress against ISIS has been particularly encouraging,” he said. “In 2017, compared to 2016, global ISIS attacks were down 23 percent. The lethality of external ISIS attacks have also declined. In 2015 ISIS averaged 25 killed per attack. In 2018, the average number killed was three.”
In Iraq and Syria, ISIS holds 2 percent of the territory that they held in 2014 and their access to resources has been greatly reduced, Dunford said. The flow of foreign fighters into Iraq and Syria has been reduced to about 100 per month from a high of about 1500 per month. In addition, many ISIS experts have been killed including external operation leaders and facilitators.
ISIS media production has fallen by more than 85 percent and its monthly publication hasn’t been produced in over a year.
“But I think we are all realists in this room that despite recent successes against ISIS and the positive trends, we know there is actually much work to be done,” the chairman said.
Little has been done to address the underlying conditions that lead to violent extremism, he said. Challenges remain cooperation politically, militarily, in intelligence and in law enforcement.
ISIS itself is far from defeated, Dunford said, and has a presence in countries from West Africa to Southeast Asia. The group continues to search for areas to grow, and they are redoubling efforts in cyberspace to inspire homegrown violent extremists. “We saw that last year in the United Kingdom, Spain, Egypt, the Philippines and the United States,” the chairman said.
Coalition forces are clearing ISIS from its last territories in Iraq and Syria, but ISIS “is already evolving to implement a more diffuse model of command and control and operations, And they are looking to maintain relevance by exploiting disenfranchisement and conducting high profile attacks,” he said.
Greatest Danger is Complacency
Al-Qaida is not dead yet, either, and that group is looking to enhance collaboration with its affiliates and increasing its connectivity and access to operatives and targets, Dunford said.
“In short, ISIS, al-Qaida and associated groups remain resilient, determined and adaptable,” he said. “While some areas of sanctuary have been reduced, both groups are operating in a more dispersed and clandestine way, leveraging the internet to keep their narrative alive and becoming less susceptible to conventional military action.”
The greatest danger is complacency, the chairman said. “A misreading of our progress to date and a misunderstanding of the character of the threat may cause political leaders to lose focus on violent extremism while they turn to other pressing challenges,” he said. “I believe those of us gathered today have a good appreciation for the consequences of prematurely relieving pressure on the enemy and allowing them the space to reconstitute.”
The general also believes that it is a generational threat, and that the efforts of the last 18 years must continue. “In many ways, the threat we face today is more virulent, and it has become more difficult to detect and disrupt plots,” Dunford said.
Intelligence professionals are looking ahead trying to fathom the threat from violent extremism in the next decades, he said.
“The character of the threat will be affected by how we address conflicts in places like Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Chad, Mali and the Philippines,” the chairman said. “As we discussed in our previous gatherings, how we win the peace is most important. Our collective success in stabilizing, reconstructing, and implementing effective governance will determine the size and scope of the future extremist threat.”
How nations identify, prosecute, de-radicalize and reintegrate foreign fighters will also help determine how violent extremism develops — or doesn’t develop — in the future, Dunford said.“One example of the challenge of prosecuting foreign fighters is the situation in Syria,” the chairman said. “Currently, we have over 700 detainees from over 40 countries in … Syrian Democratic Force custody. The progress in returning these fighters home for prosecution has been delayed by political considerations and inconsistent legal frameworks.”
Nations need to address the challenge “and prevent these detainees from becoming the leaders of tomorrow’s extremist organizations,” he said.
Migrants and the challenges of large populations becoming open to radicalization is another problem, the chairman noted.
“Finally, our ability to meet the challenges of extremists leveraging innovations in technology will impact the character of the threat,” Dunford said. “We must develop effective measures to mitigate the risk of extremists using cyberspace and advanced technical means to enhance their communications, recruitment, logistics and lethality.”