Department of Defense Press Briefing by Secretary Carter and General Dunford in the Pentagon Briefing Room
Secretary of Defense Ash Carter; Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Joseph F. Dunford
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ASH CARTER: Well, let's see. Good morning and thank you all for being here. I want to start by reiterating that our thoughts and prayers remain with all those affected by Tuesday's bombing in Brussels. As you know, this tragedy has hit our military community as well. And our hearts go out to the injured airman and his family.
Like Paris, Brussels is a strong reminder of why we need to hasten the defeat of ISIL, wherever it exists in the world. Today, the United States is as committed as ever to our European friends and allies. Our enemies are one and the same, and together we continue to do more and more to bring the full weight of our vast military capabilities to bear in accelerating the defeat of ISIL.
After Chairman Dunford and I spoke with our commanders this morning, let me update you on some new actions we've taken in just the last few days. First, we are systemically eliminating ISIL's cabinet. Indeed, the U.S. military killed several key ISIL terrorists this week, including, we believe, Haji Imam who was an ISIL senior leader, serving as a finance minister and who is also responsible for some external affairs and plots.
He was a well-known terrorist within ISIL's ranks dating back to its earliest iteration as Al Qaida in Iraq, when he worked under Zarqawi as its liaison for operations with Pakistan. The removal of this ISIL leader will hamper the organization's ability for them to conduct operations both inside and outside of Iraq and Syria.
This is the second senior ISIL leader we've successfully targeted this month, after confirming the death of ISIL's so-called minister of war a short time ago.
A few months ago, when I said we were going to go after ISIL's financial infrastructure, we started with the storage sites where it holds its cash, and now we've taken out the leader who oversees all of the funding for ISIL's operations, hurting their ability to pay fighters and hire recruits.
As I've said, our campaign plan is first and foremost to collapse ISIL's parent tumor in Iraq and Syria, focusing on its power centers in Raqqa and Mosul. In Syria, motivated local forces that we support recently took the town of Shaddadi, repelled ISIL's counterattacks and ultimately severed the main artery between Syria and northern Iraq. And as a result, it's become much harder for ISIL's leaders and forces to travel between Raqqa and Mosul.
I'm also pleased to see that Iraqi Security Forces have moved from their staging base at Makhmur and are advancing to new positions as part of the early stages of operations to collapse ISIL's control over Mosul. The U.S. Marines we've seen near Makhmur, where Staff Sergeant Cardin gave his life, are now providing artillery fire at the request of the Iraqis to help support the ISF advance against the enemy and protect their forces.
So in both Syria and Iraq, we're seeing important steps to shape what will become crucial battles in the months to come.
As our partners move forward, we're continuing to bring relentless pressure on ISIL commanders in Mosul. And we've taken a significant number of actions this week, one of which I've already mentioned. But second, we targeted Abu Salah, one of the top ISIL leaders charged with paying fighters in Northern Iraq.
Next, we targeted a number of ISIL associates who were directly involved in external plotting and training. And these precise actions came after recent strikes that destroyed a significant quantity of improvised explosive devices and bomb making equipment that could have been used against our partners headed for Mosul.
We believe these actions have been successful and have done damage to ISIL.
As Chairman Dunford noted earlier this week, the momentum of this campaign is now clearly on our side. The United States military will continue to work intensively with our coalition partners to build on this progress, as our counterparts throughout our governments work to defend our homelands at the same time.
One final note before we turn to questions. Yesterday I spoke with my Saudi counterpart, the Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammad bin Salman. We agreed to convene a U.S. Gulf Cooperation Council defense ministerial on April 20th in Riyadh, ahead of President Obama's participation in the USGCC Leaders Summit there the following day.
This will be an important forum to build on our counter ISIL defense ministerial in Brussels last month and to strengthen USGCC defense partnerships, including by reviewing and discussing the way ahead for joint regional defense initiatives that we all committed to during the 2015 USGCC Camp David Summit last May.
Chairman Dunford and I are now prepared to take your questions. I have to say, we have limited time to do that, because we have something else that we both need to do upstairs. But we want to do that.
I'm going to ask you also, please, to respect the fact that we're not going to go into any further details about how our coalition conducted the operations I mentioned earlier. Any more details than that could put lives and our future operations at risk, hinder the effectiveness of our campaign. So we're going to ask you to be restrained in that regard, as we intend to be as well. Let me ask the chairman --
GENERAL JOSEPH DUNFORD: Sure. I just join you in expressing my condolences for those affected by the attacks in Brussels this week, in particular, the families of the two Americans that were lose. Also, to recognize Staff Sergeant Cardin, by all accounts, a great leader who we lost last weekend in operations in Iraq. (inaudible)
SEC. CARTER: Lita?
Q: Mr. Secretary, I realize you said you didn't want to go into any more details. I was hoping you could at least confirm that this was - -happened in Syria, that this latest death of the latest -- of the ISIS senior leader was in Syria? And more broadly, can you talk a little bit about -- we've all saw a lot of Al Qaida senior leaders killed repeatedly over the years. The number three, was killed, you know, every six months or so. What do you think this actual death suggests in terms of plots, particularly those involving the West? I mean, does it really mean anything or do they simply just replace them?
SEC. CARTER: Well, strikes --
Q: And then I have a question for the chairman.
SEC. CARTER: Okay. I'll turn it over to Joe after this.
Q: General Dunford, the Marines that the secretary --
SEC. CARTER: You know, why don't I just take your first question first --
Q: Oh, sure.
SEC. CARTER: -- just to -- on -- on the question of leadership, striking leadership is necessary, but as you note, it's far from sufficient. Leaders -- leaders can be replaced. However, these leaders have been around for a long time. They are senior, they're experienced, and so eliminating them is an important objective and it achieves an important result. But they will be replaced and we'll continue to go after their leadership and other aspects of their capability. So I would say it's necessary. It's not sufficient, but it's important.
Q: The Marines this week in their support of the Iraqi offensive operation, is this something we will see more of, do you think, as time goes on in the fight to get to Mosul? And is -- can you talk about the accelerants that the secretary has talked about before and whether this is a key part of what you want to see the military do more of in Iraq over the next several months?
GEN. DUNFORD: I mean, Lita, we've talked I guess now for some months about setting the conditions for success in Mosul and -- and facilitating the Iraqi forces and staging around Mosul to begin to isolate Mosul, and as the Iraqis have announced, that has begun. These Marines that were there, the artillery battery that were there were in direct support of that. We put the -- we put the battery there to support the Americans that are there advising the Iraqi forces and also in a position to provide support to the Iraqi forces.
And from my perspective, this is no different than aviation fires we've been delivering. This happens to be surface fires -- (inaudible) -- artillery. But certainly no different conceptually than the fire support we've been providing to the Iraqis all along.
And with regard to further accelerants, the secretary and I do expect that there'll be increased capabilities provided to the Iraqis to set the conditions for their operations in Mosul. Those decisions haven't been made yet, but we certainly -- we certainly do expect more of the kinds of things that we saw in Ramadi, albeit a bit different tailored for operations in Mosul. But it's -- but again, the primary force fighting in Mosul will be Iraqi security forces and we'll be in a position to provide advise, assist and enabling capabilities to make them successful.
Q: It appears to be part of a -- more of a ground combat role than we've seen before.
GEN. DUNFORD: No, it's not. I mean, we have -- we have -- we have surface fires in Al Asad and other places, as an example, and we've used those in the past. And so this is not a fundamental shift in our approach to supporting the Iraqi forces. This happens to be what was the most appropriate tool that the commander assessed needed to be in that particular location.
Q: Secretary Carter, Abd ar-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli, who you call Haji Imam, was in an Iraqi prison up until 2012. He was released in 2012 shortly after U.S. forces were pulled out at the end of 2011.
Do you see this as a cautionary tale for releasing these prisoners who are already caught and captured?
SEC. CARTER: Well, the -- a number of the leaders of ISIL were in detention in Iraq back in former years, including the head of ISIL himself, in Iraqi detention, so it is important that -- these are people who have experience, they're people who've shown dedication over the years, and that's why it's so important that we eliminate them.
Q: But does it give you pause about releasing prisoners from Gitmo?
SEC. CARTER: Well as far as Gitmo is concerned, that's the very reason why we need an alternative detention facility to Gitmo, because it's not safe to release everybody or transfer to the custody of another country everybody in Gitmo. So that's the -- that's the very point of that. Mik?
Q: But General Dunford, we've just heard this week that there are actually 5,000 U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq. Why is the Pentagon and senior military leadership reluctant to say that it's more than 3,800?
GEN. DUNFORD: We're not reluctant, Jennifer. What we track is the number that are in our force management level. That's 3,800. But this is nothing that's inconsistent with what's been going on for the last 15 years in terms of people that are in and out on temporary duty less than a certain period of time, people that are in direct support of the embassy. Those have -- those have not been counted. In other words, there's a consistency in the way we've been counting people that's been going on for the last 15 years.
And at any given time, we have 3,800 directly in support of the mission. When units rotate, for example, we don't double-count those numbers, so if there's a unit of 200 that's being replaced by a unit of 200 and they both happen to be on the ground at the same time, we don't count that as 400, we haven't in the past 15 years, because that hasn't -- that hasn't counted against our force management level.
So the accounting of our people has been consistent. We're not denying that there's more people than 3,800; I think you got the numbers from us. But in terms of what we count in the mission, and that's in accordance with the direction that we've been given, the 3,800 is what's against the mission.
SEC. CARTER: Jim.
GEN. DUNFORD: No, I didn't say 5,000 was accurate, I said 3,800 was the force management level and there's some number above that on any given day as a result of people that support the embassy, people at a TDY and people in other categories that don't count against that 3,800.
SEC. CARTER: Jim?
Q: I'd like to follow up, if I could, on Lita's questions about the Marines and that fire base. Unlike the previous U.S. military combat positions and fire support, this is an independent base, these are U.S. military only. And by all indications, they are not just defensive, but in this latest movement by Iraqi forces, they provided fire support for offensive operations against ISIS. So why is this not the first footprint of a U.S. combat ground operation there in Iraq?
GEN. DUNFORD: Jim, the reason they're in a different base is simply a function of geometry. They're designed to support forces in an area called Makhmur. The artillery can't be co-located with the ground forces in Makhmur and provide effective fire support, so this position was selected because of the geometry necessary to support that particular location.
And with regard to providing support to Iraqi offensive capability, once again, I mean, to me, there's no inconsistency between what this artillery unit did and what our aviation support is doing every single day. I don't draw a distinction with it. In other words, we've said that we're providing enabling support to include combined arms capability to Iraqi forces as they conduct operations, which is exactly what this artillery unit was doing.
Q: Well, we have all indications that this is a pretty permanent position right now; that after a short period of time, U.S. Army personnel are going to replace the 26 MEU Marine there. And it still has all indications that the U.S. military is directly involved in the ground operations of -- with the U.S. -- with the Iraqi.
SEC. CARTER: Yes, maybe very quickly just say, even since last week now, as the Iraqis have started to consolidate their positions, the situation on the ground has changed in terms of where the Iraqis are in the relationship to the support, the defense of support they're providing to our artillery unit that's there. So that's already changed, you know, through the course of the week.
But in all honesty, I just cannot see this being inconsistent with everything that we've been doing over the last several months.
SEC. CARTER: And let me just add to that, what we'll be doing in coming months. This is our approach to eliminating ISIL from Mosul. The Iraqi Security Forces are the ones who are carrying out the assault, the envelopment, the assault, but we're helping them.
That's our -- that's been our approach and we'll continue to do that. Started in Ramadi, we'll continue to going up to Mosul. Carla?
Q: When do you anticipate seeing U.S. American ground forces closer to the front lines as the battle towards Mosul looms?
GEN. DUNFORD: Jim, one thing that I probably just need to clarify, this position is behind what is known as the forward line of troops for the peshmerga and Kurds. So it's by no means out in front on its own.
And secondly, what I would say about your question about the future is we have a series of recommendations that we will be discussing with the president in the coming weeks to further enable our support for the Iraqi security forces.
So again, the secretary and I both believe that there will be an increase to the U.S. forces in Iraq in the coming weeks. But that decision hasn't been made.
Nor -- you know, you alluded to decisions that have already been made about Army units replacing the Marine units. All that is pre-decision. There's been no decisions made about what's going to happen to this particular position in the future.
But it is going to be decided in the context of the broader issue that the secretary will bring to the president again, focused on what it is we need to do to maintain a minimum money campaign and what specifically do we need to do to enable operations in Mosul.
SEC. CARTER: Carla?
Q: Thank you, secretary.
Back on the Haji Imam, was it in Syria? And was this a U.S. raid or was it a drone strike or a manned aircraft?
SEC. CARTER: I'm not going to say where and how it was done, Carla. I'm simply not going to do that.
But it's -- the only thing I will say, it is consistent with our strategy there, which is to put pressure on ISIL every single way we can, from the leadership, which we've discussed previously, right down to supporting local forces on the ground.
And with respect to operations in Iraq, I want to make clear and reiterate that everything we do is with the consultation and approval of the Iraqi government.
Q: One more.
Can I ask you the same about Abu Sara? You said he was targeted. Can we assume that that was an air strike?
SEC. CARTER: Again, I'm not going to talk about how these guys went out. You know, we have a number of ways to do that and I'm going to ask for your forbearance there. We're going to be disciplined about that.
SEC. CARTER: I don't think he wants to add anything to that. But if he does, he can.
Q: You said to Congress that the Europeans need to step up their intelligence sharing. I know that several people who were part of the Brussels attacks have been on our terror watch list and would not have been let into the United States.
Are we increasing our sharing of our intelligence? Did we share all that information with the Belgians?
GEN. DUNFORD: We -- I can speak military-to-military level. I was speaking broader when I spoke to Congress, in other words, you know, intelligence agencies, military capabilities law enforcement, and so forth.
From a military-to-military perspective, we've significantly increased our information intelligence sharing over the last few months, and we have specific locations where we bring together a number of our coalition partners to do just that.
I mean, we think that over 100 countries have foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq. You've seen the numbers that exceed 30, 35,000. I wouldn't put, you know, a high degree of confidence that we have those exact numbers, but that gives you an order of magnitude of what the problem is we're dealing with.
In my judgment, unless all the countries that are affected by the foreign fighters are cooperating at the law enforcement, the intelligence community level and the military level, we are not going to be able to have the kind of site picture, as I describe it, necessary to take effective action against these individuals prior to attacks, like the one we saw in Brussels this week.
SEC. CARTER: Carla, just to reinforce what the chairman just said in getting back to the fight in Syria and Iraq, I should also mention that a number of our European partners, to include Belgium, in the last month and a half after I had the counter-ISIL ministerial in Brussels, the chairman had the CHOD’s conference, have increased their contributions. And I want to note the Belgians did that too. That's different from the homeland security, law enforcement and intelligence side of things.
But in the fight in Iraq and Syria, I -- for -- I want to note that the Belgians have intensified their role in view of what happened in Brussels, and that's worth noting.
Q: Mr. Secretary, in light of Brussels and the attacks that have happened in Paris, as you look at the death of this person and other ISIS leaders in Syria, can you tie some of this together for us?
Do you see these plots in Europe, these cells in Europe being directed from ISIS leadership? Do you -- for example, do you think this man, Haji Imam, because you said he had some external affairs plotting involvement, could he have been and was he involved in the Paris or Brussels cells?
Are there operatives in Syria training them how to make bombs? What are the links you're seeing between ISIS in Syria and these cells emerging in Europe?
SEC. CARTER: I can't confirm that this individual had anything to do with the Brussels attacks specifically, but the general phenomenon you're describing is correct, and the kinds of influence are various.
They range all the way from fighters who have trained in and participated in ISIL operations in Iraq and Syria, returning to their countries of origin, and that's where the -- these many foreign fighters that the chairman was talking about are concerning to us. Right through ones who are recruited and trained by such individuals, but have not themselves been in Iraq and Syria or been in contact with ISIL forces directly, right back through those who are simply inspired by, maybe get some sort of general instructions from ISIL, but are otherwise self-motivated and self-radicalized.
So, there's an entire spectrum here that our law enforcement and counter-intelligence colleagues are dealing with.
Q: Can I just follow up very quickly? Of course, yet we see the link between the Paris and --
SEC. CARTER: Oh, I'm sorry.
And one other thing I should say, Barbara, there is no question that this individual and other individuals we have eliminated have been part of the apparatus of ISIL to recruit and to motivate foreign fighters, both to return from Iraq and Syria to countries in Europe and elsewhere, and also simply by using the Internet and other communications to do so.
So, no question these leaders have that -- did that.
Q: So, people like Abu Salah and the leaders that you see in the Paris and Brussels cells, what is your assessment? Do you think these -- this cell that has emerged in Europe, do you think -- and several of them have gone to Syria by all accounts -- do you think they're being directed by ISIS leadership, or is that even a relevant question to ask? Is being inspired, you know, by them enough for them to have the expertise, equipment, technology, weapons to carry out these missions, these attacks?
SEC. CARTER: It's a relevant question because if they're directed, we want to get at the people, and that's what we're doing, and eliminate the people who are directing them. But even if it's just inspiration, it still takes you back to Iraq and Syria and the need to eliminate the sources of that inspiration, the idea that there can be an Islamic state based on this ideology with a capital in Raqqa, we're going to eliminate that image. And that's an important part of eliminating the inspiration, even if it's not direction.
But the answer to your question is there is both direction and there's inspiration and various shades in between, and we need to combat them all.
SEC. CARTER: Well, I can't speak for the Paris and Brussels cells, that's a law enforcement matter. And my impression is it is a mixture of some who are inspired either by the Internet or by a friend or associate or family member who himself did travel to Iraq and Syria. I think you see that mix in what we already know of the cells involved in Paris and Brussels. But I'm not going to presume that I know everything that French and Belgian law enforcement know. That's their business, and they share it through law enforcement channels with us.
STAFF: We have time for one last question.
SEC. CARTER: One last question?
Q: Mr. Secretary, you mentioned -- it seems for months now that the progress against ISIL has been frustratingly slow. You mentioned that the momentum is now clearly on your side. Are we at a point where there's a turning point? Are we seeing signs that ISIL is beginning to crack? Are they offering less resistance? Are they -- have we turned the corner in the fight against ISIL?
SEC. CARTER: Well, we're certainly gathering momentum and we're seeing that that momentum is having effect. And we're broadening both the weight and the nature of our attacks on ISIL.
We've learned a great deal, and we continue to learn about who is who in ISIL so we can kill them, about how they get their finances so we can dry that up. And the forces that we're working with on the ground in both Iraq and Syria continue to gather strength because our strategic approach for the re-taking of territory is to help local forces to do so.
And you see both in Iraq, the Iraqi security forces first with Ramadi, now with other towns up the Euphrates Valley and with the envelopment of Mosul, gathering that momentum with our help. And you see it also in Syria with the taking of -- an example I gave at the top of my statement in the taking of the town of Shaddadi, which is that key connection between Raqqa and Mosul, and the idea there is to bisect -- dissect the parent tumor of ISIL into its Syrian side and its Iraqi side.
So in all of these ways, we're other gathering momentum, broadening both the nature of the tools we're using and the pure weight we're bringing, and the same is true of our partners as well. Let me see if the chairman wants to add anything.
GEN. DUNFORD: The only thing I'd say, Jamie, is that -- you know, we talk about momentum, and I think it's indisputable, whether it be the amount of ground that the -- that ISIL holds, the resources. We've made a dent in the resources. We've started to affect their command and control in a negative way. I think we've begun to undermine the narrative. But there's a lot of work that remains to be done.
And at the same time, while ISIL has not been able to seize ground in the past several months, that hasn't precluded them from conducting terrorist attacks, and it hasn't precluded them from conducting operations -- that are more akin -- guerrilla operations then the conventional operations that we saw when they were seizing territory.
So, I think the momentum is in our favor. I think there's a lot of reasons for -- for us to be optimistic about the next several months. But by no means would I say that we're about to break the back of ISIL or that -- that the fight is over.
SEC. CARTER: And one final note I'll make if I may, Peter, just to reinforce what the chairman said and in answer to your question, Jamie, one things Brussels also reminds us is, essential as the military effort is, and confident as I am that we're going to be successful -- you know, we're gathering momentum in the military campaign -- it is necessary, but there's a critical law enforcement, intelligence and Homeland Security ingredient to this. And they're our partners in this fight here and in other countries. And Brussels is a reminder that that fight is necessary as well, both in the European countries and any other country potentially affected by that including our own.
And with that, let me thank you all very much.