Ministers, Ambassadors, Excellencies, good morning and good afternoon. I am very pleased to welcome you here today to our virtual Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS meeting focused on West Africa. I would like to thank the government of Nigeria for co-hosting this event, and Rear Admiral Yaminu E. Musa, the Coordinator in Nigeria’s Counter Terrorism Centre, for his compelling opening remarks.
I would also like to thank our partners, including the governments of Niger and our co-host Nigeria, for their assistance in the recent rescue of an American held hostage in Nigeria. We are very grateful for your efforts.
This meeting marks a couple of important transitions. First, as some of you may have seen, Secretary Pompeo designated me as Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, following Ambassador Jim Jeffrey, who retired yesterday. I want to thank Jim for his superb leadership of the Coalition, and for his long years of hard, capable work in our nation’s Foreign Services.
Second, this meeting marks an important pivot of the Global Coalition to one of the most important fronts in the fight against ISIS outside the so-called “core” space of Syria and Iraq. While we must and will remain focused on preventing the resurgence of ISIS in the core, we must also address ISIS’s focus on using its branches and networks outside the core as the platforms from which to continue fighting. Nowhere has this trend been as alarming as in Africa. If we are committed to ISIS’ global defeat – and we are – we have to confront it together here in Africa, and particularly in West Africa.
We know that ISIS-affiliated groups have increased the volume and lethality of their attacks in West Africa, undermining state authority and threatening lives and livelihoods. A couple of figures highlight the trendline:
First, according to open sources, deaths due to ISIS-affiliated attacks in West Africa almost doubled from around 2,700 in 2017 to nearly 5,000 and still counting in 2020. There were more conflict fatalities involving ISIS affiliates in the first nine months of 2020 than in any previous year. ISIS also expanded its geographic range in West Africa.
Second, civilian fatalities linked to ISIS groups in West Africa climbed from 600 in 2017 to over 1,000 in both 2019 and 2020. In addition, more than five million people are currently displaced due to conflict in the region, including more than four million internally displaced persons and more than one million refugees and asylum seekers.
Let me turn now to the basic question of this meeting: What difference can the Global Coalition make in West Africa and the Sahel?
The Global Coalition boasts a track record of important victories against ISIS. In March 2019, we defeated ISIS’s so-called “ caliphate” and liberated all ISIS-controlled territory in Iraq and Syria. A few weeks ago, we celebrated the one year anniversary of the operation that took out Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the former leader of ISIS.
The Coalition has demonstrated that it is flexible, and capable of adapting and responding to an evolving threat. That is important because unlike Iraq and Syria, where our principal tool was the use of Coalition military force, in West Africa and the Sahel the picture is more mixed. ISIS and other terrorist groups hold territory in some areas, but in others they conduct hit and run attacks before melting back into the landscape.
One consequence of that is that we see a need for greater development of civilian counterterrorism capabilities to complement existing military lines of effort. Those include capabilities reflected in the Coalition’s working groups, which focus on countering radicalization and recruitment, foreign terrorist fighters, countering the financing of terrorism, and stabilization. We will hear more about those efforts a bit later in the meeting.
Importantly, the Coalition has developed a culture of coordination across civilian and military lines of effort, and bilateral and multilateral initiatives. That is part of why the Global Coalition is well-suited to complement – not duplicate or undercut – other counterterrorism initiatives in the region.
We know that each battle against ISIS must be fought on its own terrain; what worked in Iraq and Syria may not always work the same way in West Africa or anywhere else. We will discuss today two specific proposed areas for Coalition efforts – battlefield evidence and border security. We think it is important to quickly focus on specific, concrete efforts to help address aspects of the ISIS threat. A principal goal of today’s meeting is to start – not conclude – a conversation between partners about capacity-building efforts the Coalition can usefully undertake.
I also want to acknowledge that ISIS is by no means the only terrorist threat that countries in West Africa face. The threat environment includes a mix of ISIS-affiliated groups, al-Qa’ida-affiliates, and local terrorists. The important point is that the tools we’re discussing are threat-agnostic. The counterterrorism capacities the Coalition can help develop can be used against to protect against any of those groups.
However the Global Coalition decides to contribute to the D-ISIS fight, it will be important to make improving security forces’ respect for human rights a key component of our efforts. As we have seen time and time again in many places around the world, human rights abuses perpetrated by security forces directly contribute to terrorists’ ability to radicalize, recruit, and discredit government legitimacy. Security and human rights are not mutually exclusive. They are mutually reinforcing.
I would like to close by reiterating the United States’ commitment to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, and to counterterrorism efforts in West Africa and the Sahel. Since 2017, the American people have invested more than $114 million in counterterrorism assistance in the wider region encompassing the G5 Sahel and Lake Chad Basin.
As a signal of our commitment to supporting partners in the counterterrorism fight across West Africa, as well as our vision for Coalition efforts in the region, I am pleased to highlight that the United States plans to contribute more than $30 million in counterterrorism support to this region over the next year.
With that, I thank you again for embarking with us on this critical effort. We look forward to this first, action-oriented discussion about how the Global Coalition can bolster our common fight against ISIS threats in West Africa.