Media Roundtable with General Joseph F. Dunford and Special Envoy Brett McGurk
General Joseph F. Dunford, Jr., Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff Brett McGurk, Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, State Department
GENERAL JOSEPH F. DUNFORD, JR.: Thanks so much for coming. I’ll maybe just talk a little bit about what we’re doing here today and why we’re here.
This is the third time we have conducted what we call a Countering Violent Extremism Conference at the chief of defense level. We started in 2016; we had 43 countries that were here. Last year we had 71. And this year we have 83. So we’re very pleased with the turnout.
You know, when I opened up my comments this morning, I kind of described the nature of the fight and I said, you know, when we’re dealing with violent extremism, let’s make a couple of assumptions. One of those assumptions is that this is an enduring challenge that we have. Some people call it generational. I wouldn’t argue with that. But certainly many, many years before you get after the underlying conditions that feed violent extremism. And therefore, we need kind of a transregional approach as well.
So it’s an enduring problem and a transregional problem. And that requires a network of likeminded nations to share information, to share intelligence, and where appropriate to take collective action – and collective action meaning in places like Syria and Iraq, where we have a 70-plus-member coalition as a result of Mr. McGurk’s leadership in that regard. So, with that as a basic framework, the network – the network is the chiefs of defense and opening up opportunities, again, to share information, share intelligence, share best practices, and then – and then, where appropriate, take collective action.
We have spoken about specific issues, frankly, all around the world. We spent some time on West Africa and the G5 Sahel. We spoke about Libya and specifically the maritime operation that the European Union is conducting. We, of course, had a presentation by Mr. McGurk on Iraq and Afghanistan. Later today we’ll talk about – I’m sorry, Iraq and Syria. Later today we’ll talk about Afghanistan. And then – and then we also have had conversations about the Sulu Sea and some of the challenges in Southeast Asia. So we have literally talked about this challenge from a global perspective and highlighted, in many cases, lessons learned, challenges, issues that are really – that have universal applicability.
It’s been a good dialogue. I’ve been – I’ve been very pleased with the interventions by the chiefs of defense. They came prepared to engage and have a discussion. Sometimes with 80 people in a room it’s a little difficult, but the presentations were done by and large by commanders. So, in other words, we had the commander of Operation Sophia from the European Union give a presentation. We had the commander from the G5 Sahel mission give a presentation. Later today we’ll have the deputy commander of Resolute Support, General Cripwell, give a presentation. So we had the people in the room that are currently conducting these operations to facilitate the dialogue and a conversation. So I feel like it’s been a very productive day.
After we did it the first year, I actually asked the chiefs of defense: Should we continue to do this? And so we are doing it really by demand. They found it to be productive, and I think you can see that the word is getting out as we’ve more than doubled it in two years. There’s a strong interest amongst my counterparts to be in this venue for a couple reasons. One, the work that we do in the day that we just had. But also, it’s an opportunity for a number of bilats and multilateral exchanges that have taken place, both Monday through the day today and will continue on through tomorrow.
So I won’t take any more time. I’ll see if Mr. McGurk wants to just make a few comments, and then we’d be happy to take whatever questions you have.
BRETT MCGURK: Oh, thanks.
Very briefly, we had a really good discussion of the counter-ISIS campaign. The counter-ISIS campaign, kind of a microcosm of this effort: We started with 14 coalition partners and now up to 79 coalition partners. I think the theme of the day was that the conventional fight is not over. It’s coming to a close. We can kind of see the – we can see the endpoint as we’re in our final phase of operations in Syria, but that’s not the end of the campaign. So we talked about transitioning to a new phase, really focused on the stabilization and the sustained effort.
So, in Syria, I think you’re pretty well familiar with the effort from the coalition, about $300 million in contributions just over the last four to five months alone, which allows us to really sustain our stabilization initiatives even in very difficult places like Raqqa. We have – 150,000 Syrians have returned to their homes, and we have Americans on the ground working with other coalition partners to do that very difficult diplomatic work on the ground day to day.
In Iraq, similarly, we have now trained 170,000 members of the Iraqi security forces. We had a very good presentation today from the new NATO mission commander that will be based in Iraq to help continue to professionalize the Iraqi security forces as they look to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS and controlling their sovereign territory.
And similarly, on the – on the stabilization civilian side, a key component of our effort in Iraq, we announced today from the State Department the continuing commitment, really led by Vice President Pence, Secretary Pompeo, Administrator Green, about $178 million in U.S. foreign assistance funds for vulnerable communities in Iraq that have been – that have been, those communities, so damaged by the fight and campaign and the genocidal acts by ISIS, particularly north of Mosul in the Nineveh Plain.
We also, in Iraq – we discussed this today – there’s a new Iraqi government emerging, and very encouraged by the leaders that are – that are coming to the forefront there. A new speaker of parliament, Mohammed al-Halbousi, a long-term – longtime friend of ours. Also, a new prime minister-designate, Adil Abd al-Mahdi, similarly someone we’ve known a long time, a real Iraqi patriot, and looking forward to getting in the chair. And new President Barham Salih, similarly, someone we’ve known a long time, and we have congratulated him on his selection. Our deputy secretary of state just finished a very productive visit to Iraq over the last couple days, and I’ll be heading back there later in the week.
So the overall focus today was – on the ISIS side was we’ve made a lot of progress in the last four years, made an awful lot of progress in the last two years, in particular. It’s not over, but when the conventional fight ends we’re going to transition to this new phase. And that’s really the focus on the stabilization, continued burden-sharing from the coalition, and in Syria making sure the defeat of ISIS is enduring as we work just as hard. And Ambassador Jeffrey now in the chair leading the diplomatic effort in Geneva to try to resolve the underlying civil war, and also working to ensure that the Iranians cannot continue what they’re doing in Syria because it’s just – leads to the cycle of violence that we’ve seen.
So I thought it was a very good discussion with a bit of a look back, but most importantly a look ahead, with burden-sharing from coalition partners.
GEN. DUNFORD: Just a quick comment. Why Mr. McGurk’s here sitting with me, but more importantly why we asked him to come to the conference and he’s supported it all three years, is one of the messages, of course, is that this – the solution to violent extremism, and particularly the underlying conditions, is a whole-of-government solution. And there is a military dimension, and chiefs of defense play an important role in supporting in the military dimension as to the counterterrorism fight, and in many cases dealing with mass migration. But getting after the underlying conditions – the economy, the education, the legitimate governance – is a broader issue. And so what we’ve tried to do throughout the day is make sure that we have in context the role of the chiefs of defense.
One of the things that I think most of them will be more empowered to do when they return back to their countries is to describe the nature of the challenges that we face and help craft more comprehensive solutions to deal with violent extremism beyond just a military solution, which as we know can deal with the symptoms but not the long-term issues. As Mr. McGurk said, as we transition to the phase – many times today the words “it’s not about winning the war, it’s about winning the peace” were addressed, or thoughts like that, because it really is the work that Mr. McGurk has embarked on right now that is most important to make sure that the success that we’ve had to date – and it’s real and it’s quantifiable – but to make sure that the success that we’ve had to date is enduring.
Pat – how about you do the questions?
Yes, go ahead, Lita.
Q: General – I mean, thanks to both of you for doing this.
On the detainees that are in Syria, that’s been a lingering problem for months. The secretary was in Europe early this year trying to convince allies to take on responsibility for some of them. Can you give us an update on the discussions today about whether or not there’s any progress in having any of the countries take responsibility for some of those detainees? And is the U.S. willing to do that also? And, if not, are you coming up with any alternative solutions?
GEN. DUNFORD: Yeah, so I raised the issue this morning, and I’ll see if Mr. McGurk has anything else he wants to say. I did raise it in my opening comments this morning. I said we have over 700 detainees with the Syrian Democratic Forces from over 40 countries. And although we have been successful in returning some, there are still many more that have to be returned. I think we all recognize that many of the individuals that led ISIS in the early days had been detainees at one time or another, and so what’s very important is that we address this properly, and particularly where appropriate return them home for prosecution.
The challenge has been there’s not only political issues, but there’s legitimate legal framework issues for addressing this in many of the countries. And so Secretary Pompeo, at Secretary Mattis’ request, has made this a high priority for the State Department. We’re appreciative of the State Department’s engagement with each of the countries from which these individuals come. But it’s been a long, slow progress.
And again, no one in the room today was in a position to commit to do something about it. But again, part of today is raising awareness on those challenges that we have that must be addressed. So I know that the chiefs of defense will return home to their home countries and make it clear that this issue was addressed and that some action is required, particularly from the countries that these individuals came from.
MR. MCGURK: I would just say as we’re working – and my colleague Nathan Sales and his team has been working on this capital by capital – as we’re working to try to repatriate these people to their home countries for prosecution, given the difficulty with the legal challenges and things, although we are making some progress on that, we’re also making sure inside Syria that these people are housed in a facility in which you cannot – they can’t simply commingle with each other so they become kind of a nucleus for a future threat. We want to make sure that they can never get out, and that as they remain in Syria they remain in a facility that is safe, that is secure, that has access to the ICRC so it meets international standards as much as possible, and is also well-resourced.
That’s something else that the coalition – we’re calling on the coalition to help with the burden-sharing of this because it truly is a multinational problem. I think we have 700 detainees from about 40 different countries. So, again, the benefit of having so many chiefs of defense here today was to raise this issue in some detail as we – as we discuss it with the civilian counterparts in these capitals.
STAFF: Let’s go to Reuters and then Alhurra.
Q: On Saudi Arabia, given the disappearance of the Saudi journalist and his presumed killing, do you believe the U.S. military relationship with Saudi Arabia is at risk? And have you considered downgrading or canceling, or do you see any impact on the military relationship given the –
GEN. DUNFORD: Yeah, sure, no, look, it’s a – it’s a fair question, although I’m not – I’m not prepared to discuss it yet. I’ve been here, of course, locked up all day, and I think we’re waiting for Secretary Pompeo to come back. And certainly any change in our military-to-military relationship would be a policy issue. But I think it’s very premature to speculate on what may happen, so I don’t have any more to add on that today.
Q: And have you talked to your Saudi counterpart who is here? And did you bring up the issue of –
GEN. DUNFORD: I have a bilateral meeting with him tomorrow. So yesterday I had, you know, seven or eight meetings and had a few through the day, so I haven’t – I haven’t got to all the bilateral meetings that I’ll have yet. I do have one with him tomorrow, and certainly I’m not going to raise anything now that I’ll speak to him about. Thanks.
Q: Thank you. Sir, my question is for both of you. As you may know, tensions are very high between the U.S. administration and Iran. Are you concerned about the U.S. strategy in Syria and in Iraq, who is mainly to fight ISIS, could turn into a war or a conflict with Iran or with Iranian militias?
GEN. DUNFORD: First, let me – let me address the broader context. We, obviously, were in the region before we were dealing with violent extremism, and we have a deterrent posture, and we have – we have national security interests in the region. Maintaining freedom of navigation in the Straits of Hormuz, through the Bab el-Mandeb is certainly one of those. Deterring regional conflict is another. And now we’re dealing with violent extremism.
So our deterrent posture remains. That is the framework within which our presence in the Middle East occurs. And so we’ll continue to ensure that anyone who would attack U.S. forces or attack U.S. interests understand that we’re in a position to respond.
Q: Quick follow up, sir. As you may know, the United States and coalition has deconfliction lines with the Russians. Are you in favor of having deconfliction lines with the Iranians?
GEN. DUNFORD: Yeah, that’s going to be a policy question that – you know, to the extent that I’ll talk about that, I’ll talk about it in private until we change U.S. policy. But we have not had a conversation about that recently.
MR. MCGURK: I would just add in Syria we want to see the Iranians leave Syria. You’ve heard Secretary Pompeo speak to this, Ambassador Bolton, and others. And frankly, even the Russians tell us that’s their goal. So there seems to be some consensus that the Iranians and their forces inside Syria should leave Syria.
We’re, obviously, committed to staying in Syria for the enduring defeat of ISIS. And, as Secretary Pompeo has discussed, other mutually-reinforcing objectives also come into play there.
In Iraq, we support the sovereignty and independence of the Iraqi government and the Iraqi state. And many things the Iranians are doing in Iraq actually violate – clearly violate Iraq’s own sovereignty. On the military side, obviously, as the chairman said, we’ll be prepared to protect ourselves, but nobody wants a conflict inside Iraq. And we’re there to support the Iraqi government and support Iraq’s own sovereignty and independence.
STAFF: We’ll go to Military Times and then – (inaudible).
Q: Hi. Tara Copp, Military Times.
First, just a follow up on Joe’s question. NBC News is reporting that the administration has a new plan for Syria that involves adding diplomatic pressure on Iran to help drive them out of Syria. Is this part of discussions today to – or, is it already part of the plan to keep pressure diplomatically and economically on Iran to make it not worth their while to be in Syria?
GEN. DUNFORD: Let me – let me answer the question: is it part of today. Today has not been about Iran at all. Today has been about, you know, violent extremism. And I talked about the areas in West Africa, Libya. I talked to East Africa, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, to some extent Southeast Asia. So the issue of Iran, which is really a U.S. with other nations specifically, is not part of this broad network of information and intelligence sharing. And I wouldn’t want to conflate the two issues. The countries that are here today, the 80-plus countries, are not here to talk about Iran. They’re here to talk about violent extremism. So, no, it hasn’t come up in any sidebar conversations, any bilateral conversations, and certainly not in the plenary session.
Q: OK. Then, secondly, just to follow, one of the reasons – one of the causes of the rise of ISIS in the first place was their use of social media, their online campaign’s ability to recruit. Has that come up today as a topic on how do you prevent, like, a second wave of online recruiting or misinformation to potentially fuel another rise?
GEN. DUNFORD: Yeah. I’ll talk to how it’s coming up, and then Mr. McGurk may want to comment.
I certainly raised in my opening comments that, you know, the media production of ISIS over the past year has been reduced to about 83 percent, which is significant progress. And in their magazine, which was at one time monthly, hasn’t been out in a year. So we’ve has some success in the media space. We’ve also had some success in cyberspace, without going into a lot of detail. I think – and then the other comment we made is, among the many things we need to think about as we look at violent extremism to the future, their ability to leverage technology, cyber capabilities, information operations, and for that matter remotely piloted vehicles and other capabilities, is one of the things we need to anticipate and be out in front of. And so we very much believe that dealing with the ideology is important, the narrative, if you will.
And a key piece of that is going to be denying the ability in cyberspace to have sanctuary. So much as we have worked over the last few years to deny them sanctuary in the physical space, we’ve done the same thing to deny them freedom of movement in cyberspace. And, again, as Mr. McGurk outlined, we’ve had success in both areas. I don’t think either one of us – we’ve been doing this too long to be complacent. So we’re not complacent. But we do believe that the trends are all in the right direction. And we need to – we need to identify those areas where we’ve been successful and reinforce them, and then anticipate those challenges that we’re going to see around the corner, and make sure we’re in a position to deal with them when the – when they arrive. And that’s a big piece of our conversation today.
Q: Couldn’t quite hear you. Did you say ISIS media production has been reduced by 83 percent in a single year?
GEN. DUNFORD: I did. I did. Yeah. This – 2016 to 2017 is the number. And I’ll confirm the 2016-17. But I believe the numbers that I quoted was the reduction over a one-year period, from 2016-17. And, Pat, I’d just ask you to fact check that beforehand. I know it’s 83 percent. I’m pretty sure that’s the window of time. Yes. Thanks.
Q: General, thanks. You had met yesterday with the Turkish general, the chief of forces.
GEN. DUNFORD: Right.
Q: And it has taken actually, for Manbij, it has taken more than three months just to prepare to adopt a joint patrol in Manbij. The two countries have a seven-decades-old alliance. And then they have done millions of joint operations, engagements, and battles around the world. What is difficulty here? Why did joint patrols in Manbij took so long for the U.S. and Turkish militaries to agree to?
GEN. DUNFORD: Well, first of all, we started conducting independent patrols with coordination right away. And so the real issue that President Erdogan and President Trump, you know, gave us for a task, was to ensure that we provided security in that area and provided security in a way that gave confidence to Turkey that the challenges from Manbij were being addressed. And we did that immediately. And then when it came to combined patrolling, one, we needed to just develop a staff plan that included how the patrols would be conducted, how the patrols would be command and controlled, what the rules of engagement would be. And then we needed to get individuals to go be trained to conduct these combined patrols.
Frankly, we were moving at a reasonable pace. There wasn’t a sense of urgency about it. The immediate security issues were addressed right away. There was no calendar that said we must begin to conduct combined patrols by a certain date. And I would tell you, I’ve met with my Turkish counterpart twice in the past three weeks. Yesterday was the second time. And he has expressed – on both occasions, he’s expressed satisfaction with the progress to date. We believe that we have now met the direction from President Erdogan and President Trump from the security perspective around Manbij. And we’ll be ready soon to transition into the vetting of individuals and the – and the political piece of Manbij.
But I would reframe the issue a bit, and not say, hey, why did it take so long. We were given a task, and we’re actually accomplishing that task. And we’re reasonably satisfied, in the context of all else that we’re doing right now, that we met the mark.
Q: And then just to follow up –
STAFF: I’m sorry. We got to go to Jim. Go ahead.
Q: Sir, this morning you said it takes a network to defeat a network. And then you spoke about Operation Gallant Phoenix, and the fact that that may be expanding to West Africa and Southeast Asia. How will that work?
GEN. DUNFORD: Sure. Jim, I’m glad you gave me a chance to clarify. We’re not necessarily expanding Operation Gallant Phoenix to West Africa or Southeast Asia. There are similar initiatives in West Africa, Southeast Asia, and other areas, where regional initiatives to set up a – you know, set up a center where information and intelligence can be shared. But you bring up a good point. One of the key things that we’re trying to do right now is to make sure that we have an architecture in place where these nodes can be complementary. And because, again, we’re dealing with a transregional problem, these nodes are designed to give us visibility in the flow of foreign fighters, the flow of resources, and an appreciation for the messaging.
And what we want to do is make sure that as these initiatives are stood up in other areas outside of Operation Gallant Phoenix, that they’re all able to give us collectively, in this network that we’re talking about – when we talk about the network to defeat a network, that network is in a room down the hall here about 100 feet. That’s the network that we’re trying to – that we’re trying to reinforce. And we just want to make sure any initiatives to better improve regional or national intelligence and information sharing also complicates – also complements the transregional information and intelligence sharing that we think is so critical to stay out in front of the threat.
STAFF: Let’s go to Corey.
Q: Sir, Corey Dickstein with Stars and Stripes.
We’ve obviously heard a lot about ISIS in the last couple, I think, years. You know, you mentioned Al-Qaeda this morning in your comments. Can you walk us a little bit through how you view the state of Al-Qaeda and maybe their interconnectivity between different groups?
GEN. DUNFORD: Yeah. No, yeah, sure I can, in a couple minutes. Number one, you know, I think – I think it’s fair to say, and you can quantify it, that al-Qaida’s ability to conduct external attacks was disrupted quite a bit over the last few years. And they’ve been relatively quiet in that regard. Having said that, we don’t have any illusion about what their intent is, and what they are trying to do in terms of developing the capability to conduct external attacks. What we have seen is increased communications between Al-Qaeda and their affiliates in an attempt to broaden the network of individuals who can plan and conduct attacks elsewhere.
We’ve seen linkages from Al-Qaeda in West Africa to Al-Qaeda in Syria, to Al-Qaeda in South Asia. So in my judgement, they are trying to regain relevance. Regain relevance by increasing their network and conduct attacks. We’re trying to – all of what we just talked about a minute ago is an effort to stay out in front of that. In other words, this information, intelligence sharing, and a common understanding of not only the geographic location of the threat but the character of the threat and the intent of the threat is all designed to stay out in front of that threat and disrupt these plots when they occur.
I don’t have the statistics off hand, but I could get those for you. When we look at, for example, Operation Gallant Phoenix and the number of intelligence tips that have led to law enforcement actions and disruption of attacks – most recently in Netherlands, where seven individuals were ready to conduct an attack. I think it’s that kind of work that we’re doing that really is designed not just for ISIS, but for Al-Qaeda and, frankly, any of these groups that have transregional implications.
And, you know, we’re really talking about two things here today. We’re talking primarily about this network of chiefs of defense and nations, more properly, that are trying to have a transregional approach to a transregional problem. But we also want to make sure that where appropriate we can help local forces deal with challenges they have that could become connected to a broader transregional terrorist organization. And that’s what we see Al-Qaeda trying to do, is leverage groups in various areas that are disaffected and try to rebrand them with an Al-Qaeda brand. And, again, the key to staying ahead of that is the information and intelligence network, and then the action that can be taken, either by the coalition in areas where we are operating, or by other coalitions – as an example, the G5 in the Sahel, which has an AQIM problem.
I don’t know if Mr. McGurk has anything on al-Qaida.
STAFF: We got time for two more. We’ll go with the gentleman back here.
Q: (Inaudible) – from AFP.
I wanted to – can you give us a little idea of the 40 countries where these detainees are from, or tell us how many are from, say, Western European countries, which do have pretty established legal systems that can deal with these?
MR. MCGURK: Yes. I don’t think we’re in a position to address kind of what – where individuals are from. We also leave it to certain countries to announce or not their efforts to bring people back. But it’s about 40 countries and over 700. And, as I said, as we work to try to encourage capitals to bring the back, as they work through their very difficult legal processes, we’re focused just as intensely inside Syria to ensure that these people are housed in a way that does not allow them to significantly commingle, and that meets international standards to the extent possible. So it’s a very difficult problem, but I don’t think we’re going to get into a breakdown of numbers.
Q: Can you say whether anyone is actually willing to, to set an example?
MR. MCGURK: Oh, yes. Yeah, some – yeah, countries have. Yeah. But we leave it to them to state –
Q: Will we see any movement on this then, in the near future?
MR. MCGURK: Again, not in huge numbers, but in countries definitely we have had some breakthroughs.
STAFF: I’m going to move on to – sorry, sir. We got – we have another question. So, Jack, go ahead.
Q: Thank you for doing this.
This morning you talked about how both ISIS and Al-Qaeda have kind of changed the ways that they operated, where conventional warfare isn’t necessarily working as well. How concerned are you, especially given that we’ve heard from – during the OIR briefing this morning that, you know, we had the arrests of the financial operatives who were in Baghdad and Erbil, in Ramadi there were arrests. There was stockpiles uncovered in Anbar and there’s actually infrastructure in Kirkuk. Have ISIS in particular, you know, sort of kind of found ways to get around and harden themselves against the current coalition strategy? And how expansive are these networks that seem to be popping up?
GEN. DUNFORD: Sure.
Q: Because those numbers seem to be very high.
GEN. DUNFORD: Yeah. I think – I think both Mr. McGurk and I can talk about this. As a result of the success we’ve had over the last couple years, the enemy has adapted. This is not a surprise. This was anticipated by the intelligence community. And, frankly, the word the intel community is used is atomized. They’ve become much more dispersed in terms of their command and control. And so when we talk about the success we’ve had to date, we very quickly qualify that by saying we’ve had success to date in dealing with this particular manifestation of ISIS. But we’re under no illusion that we’re dealing with a long-term challenge when it comes to violent extremism, and they will try to adapt.
The key is for us to be in a position with our intelligence and information sharing to disrupt the terrorist acts and the other acts of violence that they have – that they have conducted to try to gain their attention and maintain relevance. I believe that we still have good visibility on these networks. We are still achieving a disruptive effect. But if I’ve at any point today conveyed complacency, let me quickly correct that, because I’m not at all complacent. We are dealing with an enemy that now has morphed into a more decentralized threat. We still are putting great pressure on them. We’re denying them freedom of movement. We’re denying them sanctuary from which to plan attacks. The less terrain that they hold, the fewer resources they have. So they have resource challenges. The more success we’ve had, we’ve also eliminated some of their media capacity.
But make no mistake about it. They’re in the process of trying to regenerate all of that in a different form. And the key is for us – and that’s one of the messages we talked about today – is we know from previous experience that when you relieve pressure on the threat, they will take the ability to reconstitute. And so the key to success is to continue to provide pressure, even if that pressure is a different kind of pressure where they’re not holding as much ground and they’re operating in a more decentralized manner. That doesn’t relieve us of the responsibility to relieve pressure. What I did say was that they’ll be less susceptible to conventional military operations when they’re not holding large areas like Mosul, Raqqa, Ramadi, and the other areas that have been cleared over the past year. Does that – does that get at the question that you’re asking?
Q: A little bit. I’m also curious just about how giving that – the news that, you know, there are cells that are activating in places that have previously been cleared by U.S. forces, or U.S.-backed forces, and by the U.S. bombing campaign. How expansive are these networks? Are you worried that ISIS in this new, diffused, morphed structure has been able to set up cells in key places like Baghdad, where they can cause a lot more trouble and you can’t reach them with conventional forces?
GEN. DUNFORD: Yeah. I’m going to let Mr. McGurk jump in. But I would just say this: We are not surprised that this is what they have done. They’ve done this in previous permutations, where, you know, they have been cleared from large areas of ground and then they’ve gone to ground and had these cells. At the end of the day, this is a fight for intelligence. That intelligence leads to the actions that are necessary to disrupt their plans. And so we have to be a bit more deliberate in our intelligence collection. And we’ve got to – we’ve got to adapt our network, just as they have adapted their network. And that’s what we’re – that’s really what we’re doing. And I think Mr. McGurk’s efforts on stabilization are also a key to that. I’ll let him talk to that – local law enforcement and so forth.
MR. MCGURK: Yeah. I was going to say we always anticipated – and think if you heard the chairman, myself, over the years – we always anticipated – again, defeat of the physical space is not the defeat of ISIS. They will try to morph into clandestine networks. But it gets to a key theme of this conference, where you had ISIS in 2014, a truly global phenomenon, tens of thousands of foreign fighters coming into Syria and Iraq, planning and plotting major attacks around the world because they weren’t feeling significant pressure, using these sanctuaries for that. You want to kind of get that down to what is a regional and then a more local problem.
And I think the example of – I heard you say, it must have been briefed today – of our very close partnership with the Iraqi security forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga in taking down the financing cell’s an example of this, enabling local forces to be able to take on the problem on their own, so it doesn’t become a more regional and global phenomenon. It’s exactly what this kind of new phase of the campaign will transition into. And so that was fairly encouraging. But we have to keep the pressure on, maintain our presence in Iraq and Syria, and also help ensure that people can return to their homes and get on with their lives.
This is extremely difficult. In Iraq, we’ve had – 4 million Iraqis have returned to their homes in areas that used to be controlled by ISIS. That’s a fairly remarkable statistic. Some areas have really come back to life, like east Mosul. Others, like west Mosul, are, frankly, going to take a decade or more to get back on their feet. And that’s where, working with the World Bank and other international institutions to really drive the investments that will be needed for a challenge like that is where the focus is.
But in terms of ISIS morphing into a more clandestine, cellular network, this is something we anticipated. And working very hard on the intelligence side, and with the Peshmerga and the Iraqi security forces to continue the pressure. Similar on the Syrian side. And that’s what we mean by enduring defeat. So while the defeat of the physical space is actually – we don’t want to put a timeline on it – it’s very difficult in that final area in the Euphrates Valley. But that will not – the enduring defeat will be a longer-term effort. And, again, that was a key theme of having so many chiefs of defense here today. That’s why it’s so useful to have these very important meetings, because that was a critical theme. We have to sustain this on the military side and on the – on the civilian side.
GEN. DUNFORD: Let me just – one slide that we looked at may touch on this as well. We looked at a slide early in our intelligence brief that showed terrorist acts from 1970 to today. And so what you see is a kind of relatively flat line of terrorist activity that really spiked in 2014-2015. And the trend lines are now down, where the numbers of attacks and the lethality of attacks have been reduced. But the effort that must now be in place to sustain that is really what we – what we talked about today.
And we have done it in the past, but the enemy – what we do know is this: When the enemy holds ground like they did in Iraq and Syria in 2014, they are a much more lethal threat than they are when they’re running, you know, on a constant basis and they don’t have physical sanctuary from which to – from which to plan and conduct operations, and when they aren’t able to tax people and garner the resources associated with oil and so forth when they were holding large terrain. So, in that regard, their lethality has been reduced. That doesn’t mean they’re not dangerous.
STAFF: Let’s go to Missy and then Katie, and then we’re done.
Q: OK. I just want to thank you again for being here. I appreciate it.
And I have a quick question for each of you. For Brett, just building on some earlier questions today about the mission in Syria, sometimes from the outside it’s hard to untangle when the post-kinetic ISIS stabilization mission will end and when something else will begin. And it seems to me like what people in the administration are now saying is that the United States will have some sort of presence – possibly military, maybe just diplomatic – until Iranian forces leave, which seems to me like would be the end of the Syrian conflict. Is that correct? And, if so, how do you reconcile that with the regime’s stated desire to take back the rest of the country? And what will be the authority for that?
And then should I ask my question now for you, General Dunford?
GEN. DUNFORD: You can wait. I’ll let – (laughs).
MR. MCGURK: So the military mission in Syria is ISIS.
MR. MCGURK: That is clearly the coalition. That’s where – that’s where the authority is derived from.
MR. MCGURK: And it’s not over, so we still have a ways to go. And again, even when that final – that’s a very difficult – I think Secretary Mattis just spoke to this – this final phase of operations on the map is very small, but it’s extremely, extremely difficult – and I’ve been to Syria; I’ve been there about 20 times, I’ve met many of these guys leading these operations – the IEDs, the snipers, the suicide bombers. So it’s going to take time to finish that up.
But even once that’s finished, the enduring defeat, those authorities remain in place because we all know that if you just declare defeat and leave the problem can come back. So we feel very comfortable about the longer-term platforms in terms of our platform for an enduring defeat. And what the coalition has done, particularly by stepping up with the $300 million in stabilization assistance, we now can kind of look over the horizon and we’re pretty confident we’ll be able to sustain that. Again, Secretary Pompeo has spoken very clearly about mutually-reinforcing objectives in Syria.
So, obviously, enduring defeat of ISIS is a top priority. We have other very important priorities – trying to resolve the underlying civil war – and that’s what Ambassador Jeffrey is working so hard on now to try to get the Geneva process really reinvigorated, and we would like to see the removal of all Iranian and Iranian-backed forces from Syria and, as I mentioned, that’s something we hear from our partners and competitors all around the world as something that is – they’d like to see and, you know, even, as I mentioned, the Russians have said the same thing to us. We don’t fully trust everything they tell us but it’s interesting that they say that. So OK, well, let’s see how we can do that. But the means of doing that will be different than the way that we fought ISIS, obviously. So but they’re mutually-reinforcing objectives in Syria.
I think our presence provides influence. It provides stability. This area of northeast Syria, you know, it’s a pretty stable permissive environment. We want to keep it that way. We’re very encouraged by the work we’re doing with the Turks in Manbij, which has been very constructive. So there isn’t really a kind of a set point when the phases transition. It’s more of an evolution.
But we’re heading now into that evolution to a more – to more sustainability and stabilization phase and, again, we have Americans on the ground doing pretty heroic work every day to get after it.
Q: And, General Dunford, just to ask you a Saudi-related question. I think part of – and the reason why I’m asking this is because I think that the way a lot of people in Congress are seeing this Khashoggi situation builds on their feelings about the U.S. involvement in Yemen and the Saudi conflict in Yemen, and just because – I don’t think I had a chance to ask you since the certification came out. Do you – do you also believe that Yemen – that Saudi Arabia is doing enough to reduce the risk of civilian casualties in Yemen? You know, as you know, Secretary Pompeo made the certification –
GEN. DUNFORD: No. I mean, look, we’re working with the Saudis to do exactly that, to reduce casualties. But, Missy (sp), the real focus, too, is we believe Saudi Arabia and the UAE have a right to defend themselves and much of our effort has been to help to protect them from the missile threat and the remotely-piloted vehicle threat that comes from Yemen and so we’ve helped support them.
We do believe that our engagement has reduced civilian casualties. It’s improved their tactics, techniques and procedures, so to speak, and we believe our continued engagement – that was the point of Secretary Pompeo’s letter – that our continued engagement would help us continue to move in that direction to reduce civilian casualties. It’s absolutely the objective that we have. But I’m not ready to connect the two issues.
STAFF: Last question.
Q: Hi. I’ve got two quick follow-up questions. Mr. McGurk, on the foreign fighters issue, first of all, you mentioned that some nations already have taken back some of their foreign fighters. Setting aside Macedonia, has any of those – can you tell us whether any of those countries have been European?
MR. MCGURK: Again, I’m sorry. I just don’t want to get into the specific countries because we have a pretty – we have a pretty fixed principle, given the sensitivity of this issue, that we leave it to each capital to announce and to discuss this.
Q: And then, separately, as you sort of talked about the importance of some of these countries taking these guys back as appropriate for prosecution, the U.S. has been holding a Saudi citizen now for over a year without bringing him home for charges. Has that been a factor in any of these discussions and is there any update on the discussions of what’s going to happen with this guy? Does he come back here? Does he – do these discussions to send him back to Saudi Arabia get reinvigorated? What’s going on with that now?
MR. MCGURK: Again, I think that case it just highlights the difficulties of this challenge. So, obviously, that’s a case that is in our court system. So I’d defer to the Department of Justice on that. But it highlights the difficulties of this challenge that so many of our partners are facing.
You know, a lot of these people are dangerous people, and to bring them back you want to make sure that they can be prosecuted and what’s the evidentiary basis for that and everything. Given the standards of evidence in different countries, it’s a very, very difficult legal policy and procedural question, and I think that case it, obviously, is moving within our own court system. I won't – I won’t comment on it specifically. But it just highlights the difficulties of the nature of this.
STAFF: Final final question.
GEN. DUNFORD: Because then that’ll be everybody. Everybody’s had one, so that’ll be – and we got to run back in and close out the conference. So –
Q: A quick one. Seth Jones at CSIS is about to come out with a report. It’s been reported but not in full detail, but the top line is that they’ve never counted more violent extremists than right now, despite more than a decade of battling them. Do you think that’s inaccurate and –
GEN. DUNFORD: Kim, I’d have to see the methodology. I’ll be honest with you. When we started in 2014, really, a concerted effort in Iraq and Syria, the estimates, as I recall, were 20(000) to 30,000 fighters. Is that about right? About, you know, three or four years ago. And today, you know, many of the think tanks and so forth that have published have said the number is about 20(000) to 30,000, which would be the same.
I find that very difficult to believe. And so I would have to – to address your question, Kim, I’d have to see what is the methodology – what is the geographic orientation of the study. Here’s what we know. So we can talk about numbers. We know that the numbers of attacks from 2016, 2017 and into 2018 have significantly reduced. We know that.
We know that the lethality of those attacks have significantly reduced, and that’s not ISIS attacks. It’s overall terrorist attacks. I don’t think we ever knew the numbers of people that might be inclined towards radicalization back in 2014 and I’m not sure we know that number today, which is why many of the nations today are talking about efforts to ensure that individuals don’t become radicalized and those that have become radicalized, you know, are re-educated, so to speak.
But I don’t have a lot of confidence in numbers that are being bounced around and I would find it hard to believe that the numbers of individual terrorists have significantly increased at the same time the numbers of attacks and the lethality of attacks has significantly decreased. Again, I’m not for a second complacent that we’re not still dealing with the challenge – a large challenge – a transregional challenge. I accept all that. But I don’t have a lot of confidence in the math and I’m not – you know, Brett’s been dealing with this as long or longer than anybody and so I’d see if he has anything on that.
MR. MCGURK: The fixed number is just – the numbers are – but the fixed data points are important. I mean, suicide bombers is one we look at. So suicide bombers years ago 70 a month or something. In Iraq, most of the suicide bombers, we believe, were foreign fighters, the ones that we could document. That number has gone significantly down to less than five and six a month – sometimes now even less than that. So it doesn’t mean it can’t pop up again. But that’s a pretty fixed statistic for the really kind of hardcore. To get a suicide bomber into the country to the target takes a very advanced network and we’ve seen that number go down significantly. But I just want to emphasize what the chairman said. We’re not complacent at all. This is a massive challenge. It’s a long-term challenge, and that’s why this network of chiefs of defense here is so important, most importantly, protecting all of our homelands.
Q: This is global, including Africa and Asia.
GEN. DUNFORD: Yeah. Well, and, Kim, whatever the number is, it reinforces one of the other themes that I’ll close with is we said – the first thing I said this morning is we’re talking about solutions. Informed by the fact that it’s transregional and it’s going to be a long time, we need solutions to this problem that are politically sustainable, fiscally sustainable and then militarily sustainable, and sustainable in the context of all of the other challenges that we have. And so, again, whatever the numbers are, we know we’re in for a long-term endeavor.
We’ve got to go back in and close out the conference. But thanks so much for being out here.