Remarks at the Herzliya Conference
Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition To Counter ISIS, Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition To Counter ISIS
MR. MCGURK: Minister Liberman, General Gilead, distinguished colleagues and friends, I am honored to be with you on this beautiful morning in Herzliya. My remarks will focus on our campaign to destroy ISIS; not just militarily, in Raqqa and Mosul, but also in cyber space and ideologically.
My colleague Tina Kaidenow will address this conference later today, focusing on the historic security partnership between Israel and the United States, a partnership that is unbreakable.
In that regard, let me recognize at the outset General Gilead. Amos has always made himself available to discuss the complexities of this most complex region with myself and many of our colleagues, including a very interesting conversation this morning; and we have benefited greatly from your hard-earned wisdom and decades of experience.
So I just want to say thank you, Amos, for your lifelong commitment to serving your great country, protecting your people and now for bringing such a remarkable group together here at this conference. I think this is your maiden voyage in organizing this conference and you’re off to a terrific start.
My remarks this morning will first define the ISIS challenge, review where have been from 2014 through the end of last year.
I will then address changes to our campaign initiated by President Trump, where the campaign stands at this very hour, as well as where we see it going over the coming months.
So what is ISIS? It is the largest, most sophisticated, and most global terrorist organization the world has ever seen.
Only two years ago, it controlled what was effectively a quasi-state, its so-called caliphate, with territory the size of Lebanon spanning across Iraq and Syria.
It controlled millions of people, entire cities, dual capitals in Raqqa and Mosul, generating revenue through oil and gas, taxes, antiquities trade, hostage taking, of more than a billion dollars per year.
It enslaved thousands of young girls, committed acts of genocide against minority groups, Yazidis and Christians, and sought to destroy our common human heritage, from Palmyra in Syria, to the Ninewa plains in northern Iraq.
It also established franchises, seven in all, from Sinai just to our west, to Afghanistan, Libya, and Nigeria, all with central direction and planning from ISIS’s capital in Raqqa.
And it sought to spread terrorism to all of our homelands, directing attacks from Raqqa … in Paris, Istanbul, and Brussels, and inspiring them from London, to Berlin, to Garland, Texas.
Its manpower at its height in 2015, while hard to pinpoint specifically, was in the upper tens of thousands – hard core fighters, at least.
The figures we can pinpoint are staggering: more than 40,000 foreign fighters, Jihadists, flooded into Syria between 2013 and 2016 from over 100 countries all around the world. The world had never really seen anything like it – the supercharged global Jihad.
General Gilead, many of us in this room, were extremely alarmed by this phenomenon as early as 2013. Many of us in Washington, some of my former colleagues here, were also discussing it with extreme concern.
Foremost attention among many, however, in those years, I think we have to be honest, there was a belief, by some, that this flood of Jihadist fighters could somehow be tamed and contained – after Bashar al-Assad was removed from power. I think that was a false assumption and it carried some tragic consequences.
The flood of extremist fighters and weapons into Syria combined with the crimes of the Asad regime created an explosive environment for al Qaeda, from which ISIS sprung.
ISIS rapidly spread, in 2013, across eastern Syria, killing anyone who sought to confront it. It spread openly into Iraq in early 2014, capturing Fallujah, and laying siege to Ramadi in Anbar province.
Suicide attacks in Iraq nearly all of whom at the time were committed by foreign fighters, people coming from around the world into Syria and Iraq to blow themselves up – rose from five to ten per month in 2012 to sometimes 60 per month in 2014, targeting markets, mosques, soccer games, local officials – mayors, town councils – and security personnel.
In June, 2014, Mosul, a city of nearly 2 million people, fell to ISIS; and its leader Abu Bakr Baghdadi, declared a caliphate from the grand Mosque of Al Nuri in Mosul’s old city. And late yesterday, as Iraqi Security forces closed in on that mosque, about 100 meters away, ISIS blew it up. A mosque which sat there since the 12th century, ISIS blew it up. The last month in Mosul is really telling. Summer of 2014, Baghdadi announces from that mosque that he’s the caliph creating a caliphate—the caliph proclaims his legitimacy by this ability to protect people in his so called caliphate. All of this was a false lie. But that’s what he said in the summer of 2014.
In the last month, as Iraqi Security forces closed in on that last district in Mosul, ISIS has killed any civilian trying to leave. They used a hospital on some high ground, just north of the old city, as a killing tower—with snipers killing any civilians trying to leave. We’ve actually been accused, our forces, of using white phosphorus for example, in Mosul. And I defer to our military professionals, but they use white phosphorus not to target anybody, not to kill anybody, but as a shield to allow civilians to escape. We were somehow declared of using this ammunition which was harming civilians. In fact, we were helping civilians escape as ISIS sat in a tower—a hospital which we did not want to target—and killed anyone that tried to leave. And last night they blew up the mosque in which Baghdadi declared his caliphate, I think it was a very significant moment here in the last 24 hours.
But back in 2014, if you rewind the tape, this announcement of a caliphate accelerated recruitment from around the world, with thousands of men, women, and even children, traveling through Turkey and into Syria through established smuggling networks.
About a month later in July 2014, ISIS broke through the western Iraqi border at al Qaim and approached Baghdad down the Euphrates valley, and also in the north along the Tigris valley.
Near Tikrit that summer in 2014, ISIS terrorists rounded up One Thousand Seven Hundred young Iraqi military cadets, and murdered them one-by-one, and they filmed the scene on YouTube.
I was in Iraq at the time. Newspaper headlines declared Baghdad was about to fall. There were reports of an ISIS “zero hour” in the capital and it was causing a panic among the population. We in fact reduced our embassy personnel and dusted off contingency evacuation plans given the uncertainty.
President Obama early in this crisis asked for my recommendation among others, some that are in this room, Elissa Slotkin among others, about what we should do. And our only response was we had to fight back – and fight back soon because there we had no other choice.
But we had to fight smartly, not with U.S. forces in Iraqi and Syrian towns and villages; but by strengthening local forces – Syrians and Iraqis – to take on the fight themselves, combined with devastating air power, and importantly with a political strategy that empowered people at the local level to secure their own communities, with a government in Baghdad that was responsive to its people.
We had to rally the world – particularly the Muslim world – to take on the fight themselves, combating ISIS’s poison in the mosques and online and in the media 24/7.
We had to ensure that what came after ISIS was more stable, creating the conditions for people to return to their homes and rebuild their devastated communities.
And we had to prepare a campaign that targeted ISIS financing, foreign fighter networks, global affiliates, and propaganda.
In the summer of 2014, that seemed a nearly impossible task –the Iraqi Security Forces had just completely and totally collapsed and we had almost nobody to work with on the ground in Syria--but we got to work.
We built a global coalition against ISIS, that is now the largest of its kind in history with 71 members, including 67 nations, plus NATO, INTERPOL, the EU, and the Arab League.
Early on, we organized this grand coalition around five specific lines of effort, each focusing on a particular aspect of the ISIS problem and pooling global resources to confront it:
First, we provide military support to our partners on the ground;
Second, we work to stop the flow of foreign fighters, by securing the border between Syria and Turkey and severing the international networks.
Third, halting ISIS access to financial support;
Fourth, we address the humanitarian and stabilization in areas cleared of ISIS to allow the population to return;
Fifth, we combat ISIS’s poisonous ideology.
The first airstrikes by our coalition were launched in September, 2014. There have been nearly 30,000 since, it’s been the most precise air campaign in history, and combined with aggressive and innovative global initiatives along each of the lines I just mentioned.
And while this war is far from over, the results to date are promising.
On the ground, in Iraq and Syria, coalition supported forces have cleared over 60,000 square kilometers of territory that had once been held by ISIS.
Significantly, all/all of that territory, no territory liberated by coalition-enabled operation has been retaken by ISIS. 60,000 square kilometers, they have not retaken any of it.
These coalition-enabled operations have freed over 4 million people who had been living under ISIS.
In Iraq alone, in addition, 1.9 million people, formerly displaced people have now returned to their homes in areas liberated from ISIS. The flow of displacement from 2014 has completely reversed – people are no longer fleeing Iraq, they are actually returning to their homes … and this rate of post-conflict returns is historically unprecedented. And due to the work we do not just militarily, but also politically, and through stabilization to create those conditions.
Even in Mosul, where as I mentioned, combat operations are ongoing as we speak, in the liberated eastern side of the city, 250,000 boys and girls, according the UN zone figures, that’s250,000 boys and girls who only six months ago were living under ISIS, are back in school, and over 190,000 Mosul citizens, Moslawis, have returned to their homes.
On foreign fighters, we have largely halted the flow into Syria from Turkey – from hundreds per week to a handful a month. The Syrian-Turkey border, much of which had been controlled by ISIS on the Syrian side only two years ago, is now controlled by Coalition-backed forces, on the Syrian side, and largely sealed from the Turkish side.
In addition, our coalition is building a global database of foreign fighters through information sharing networks and INTERPOL to ensure that anyone who fought with ISIS in Syria or Iraq can be identified in either routine traffic stops, border entry points, or in the course of routine police work.
Make no mistake, for any foreign fighter still left in Iraq and Syria today who came from outside– it is our mission to ensure that they die in Iraq or Syria. For those who have already snuck out, it is our mission to ensure that they can be identified, tracked, and, depending on the laws of our partner nations, detained and imprisoned.
On counter finance, the flow of outside money to ISIS has largely been severed, ISIS is now entirely a self-financing organization from within its dwindling holdings in Iraq and Syria. These holdings are shrinking, and we have been relentlessly targeting its oil and gas facilities, its networks, its smuggling networks, and bulk cash storage sites.
In terms of countering ISIS propaganda, as we just heard, this is now a 24/7 endeavor. Our coalition has established 24/7 counter messaging hubs in UAE and the UK. Whereas ISIS once had free rein on Twitter, back in that summer of 2014 when we looked at this, with pro ISIS content back then outnumbered anti-ISIS content almost 6 to 1. We’ve worked with Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and that ratio is now totally reversed—it’s 6 to 1 reversed, you’re more likely to find anti-ISIS content than you are pro-ISIS content.
An individual seeking ISIS propaganda, for example, is now as likely to find narratives from ISIS defectors – telling the real story of what the so-called caliphate was like – as they are to find messages from Baghdadi or other recruiters.
These trend-lines are encouraging, but this war is not over, and President Trump has asked us to ensure not only that they continue – but accelerate, so let me talk a little bit about that.
In February, the President tasked Secretary of Defense Mattis with a review of our campaign and charged all of us to find ways to accelerate it: to move faster, more effectively, more efficiently.
In response, we reviewed the campaign design from top to bottom, military and civilian dimensions.
Secretary Mattis concluded that authorities should be delegated from Washington to the lowest possible level in the field, thereby allowing us to seize opportunities in real time as they develop.
He also concluded that our tactics on the ground would focus on annihilating the enemy – ensuring that operations against ISIS result in no escape for ISIS fighters while at the same time we have not changed at all, and this is sometimes misunderstood, we have not changed at all the very high standards for our airstrikes and civilian casualties. The battle has simply gotten more difficult over the comings months as we moved into urban areas and ISIS is using hundreds of thousands of civilians literally as human shields.
We also conducted and concluded in the course of this review, that we can strengthen and better coordinate the non-military instruments of the campaign, that’s both within our own inter-agency and across the global coalition.
The results of this review – an accelerated campaign plan -- are now visible on the ground.
In Raqqa, ISIS is now surrounded and our partner, the Syrian Democratic Forces, is making steady progress towards the city center. The operation to seize Raqqa began on June 6 and has proceeded now according to plan.
In Mosul, ISIS is down to its last few square kilometers, and Iraqi forces just five days ago launched decisive operations from three axes to clear the last district of the city—the most difficult in old Mosul, in the middle of Mosul, and that is ongoing and we saw some of the results last night as they approached the Grand Mosque.
ISIS leaders are being removed one-by-one through precision strikes and special operations raids. Some of which we talk about, and many of which we don't. Nearly all of Baghdadi’s deputies are now dead and he is sure to follow.
Just two days ago, we confirmed the death of ISIS’s so-called Grand Mufti—the self-proclaimed Grand Mufti of ISIS, its spiritual advisor, a terrorist named Turki al-Bin-Ali, who is also the right hand man to Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi.
Turki Bin-Ali wrote pamphlets and crafted propaganda justifying the rape and enslavement of minority women and girls, and the mass murder of anyone he viewed as standing in the way of ISIS’s perverted vision of Islam. He was killed by a coalition strike on May 31st in Mayadin, Syria--a fate he and all ISIS terrorists justly deserve.
As we succeed in defeating ISIS on the ground, our global coalition against ISIS is continuing to grow, adding INTERPOL, NATO, Djibouti, and Chad just in recent months, with a concerted effort to focus on ISIS’s fledgling attempts to organize on the African continent.
Secretary of State Tillerson in March gathered all coalition members in Washington to prepare for this accelerated campaign, he called on capitals to contribute stabilization and humanitarian resources to ensure that IEDs can be cleared from the streets, water and electricity restored, and conditions set for people to continue to return as we continue to clear ISIS out of territory it still controls.
In that session alone, we raised over $2 billion for these initiatives, but more will be needed from our coalition over the coming months.
We have also been working diplomatically through our coalition to crack open doors that had been closed in the region, one manifest of which was Prime Minister Abadi's historic visit to Saudi Arabia earlier this week.
I happened to be in Jeddah the day before this breakthrough visit, meeting with now Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and we commend the initiative from both capitals to restore these important ties between Baghdad and Riyadh.
So let me offer one example how this accelerated campaign plan that we put together works together on the ground.
In March, just a few months ago, I visited Syria—I go into Syria periodically with our team to asses what’s happening—so I visited Syria in March with some of our military commanders to assess the military and civilian situation on the ground. We met with leaders from our partnered Syrian Democratic Forces (known as the SDF) at a town just north of Raqqa. This was before the Raqqa campaign had begun in earnest.
These local leaders told us they sensed an opportunity. Just to our south, across Lake Assad, on the Euphrates River, lay the town of Tabqa, the Tabqa airport, and the Tabqa dam. These were long-held strongholds of ISIS.
SDF commanders believed that if the U.S. could provide helicopter transport across the lake, an 8 km jump across the water, with a force of local Arabs from the area, from Tabqa, backed by Kurds, each site could be surrounded and seized within a month, thereby thoroughly enveloping and isolating Raqqa, and enabling its more rapid seizure later in the summer.
They also asked for civilian support after the battle, to help clear land mines and support the population in Tabqa, nearly 90,000 people before the war, who had since been living under ISIS.
The commander of our combined joint task force, LTG Steve Townsend, approved the operation.
Within days (of that meeting), it launched. Caught ISIS completely by surprise, and within thirty days, all three sites had been taken from ISIS, which was routed, with hundreds of its fighters dead, and those watching from the sidelines in Raqqa we know, were thoroughly demoralized.
We have since worked to clear the Tabqa dam of explosives left by ISIS, and our diplomats and civilian affairs teams on the ground are supporting the local council as it works to return the population to the city – now 15,000 returnees and counting.
On my most recent visit to Syria just last month, I met this local council of Tabqa, and we helped mobilize coalition support to address a growing list of specific needs.
An elderly man from Tabqa approached me to explain what life was like under ISIS. And it’s quite extraordinary to talk to these people that have been living under ISIS for a period of years. He said foreign fighters from as far away as Trinidad and Tobago came into his town to live there; they stalked his streets and murdered his friends and neighbors for not adhering to ISIS’s arbitrary laws.
This man is now on the local council helping to restore life to his hometown, and we are proud to support him and so many Syrians and Iraqis like him.
The speed of this surprise operation in Tabqa, surrounding the enemy, and responding with civilian support, was due to authorities delegated from Washington to ground commanders, and diplomats with ready access to coalition resources.
And it set the stage for the seizure of Raqqa, which as noted, is underway and proceeding according to plan.
Tabqa was in the news this week after Syrian regime forces launched an offensive towards a town controlled by the SDF approximately 20 kilometers to the south. Whether on purpose or by mistake, this regime offensive crossed what both sides had understood to be an established line of separation between these forces.
The escalation led to U.S. air forces destroying a Syrian SU-22 in the air, to help defend our partner forces on the ground.
As General Dunford said earlier this week, we are prepared to resolve situations like this through regular de-confliction channels to maintain maximum pressure on ISIS, which in this part of Syria, lies to the east of Syrian regime forces, not to their north where they started moving.
And while this situation remains dynamic, we have been encouraged by discussions over the last 96 hours among relevant parties to avoid further confrontations, and establish more stable de-confliction lines. This will be increasingly important as ISIS degrades and multiple forces begin to converge in its wake.
In the meantime, as we have shown, while we do not seek a conflict with anyone in Syria other than ISIS and al Qaeda, which pose a threat to the United States, we will act whenever necessary to defend our forces and our partners on the ground fighting ISIS.
Looking beyond ISIS in Syria, in cities like Raqqa and Tabqa, as has been the case for every other coalition supported operation to date, and we’ve been doing this now for two years, liberated 60,000 square kilometers, multiple cities, towns, and villages, we will help enable local actors to restore life in their cities, Coalition resources will help with the most basic stabilization needs, such as water and electricity, while the UN leads the humanitarian response.
Just this past week, the World Food Program delivered food aid for 80,000 people, and nutritional supplements for 5,000 children in areas north of Raqqa, and while our coalition is working with local Raqqawis from the Raqqa Civilian Council to identify stabilization projects in the city that will restore electricity, bakeries, and water, we will be prepared to help them restore these facilities as soon as the battle is over. Very similar to what we did in Mosul, although the situation in Syria is far more complex.
The ultimate resolution of the Syrian civil war, and the potential for return of state services to some of these areas that had been controlled by ISIS, is political question that must be resolved politically – whether through the Geneva process, led by Staffan de Mistura, and/or through direct talks between the parties on the ground.
The Syrian regime, however, should not expect the global response that will be required to rebuild the areas now under its control absent a credible political horizon that can result in a change in leadership and representative governance in Damascus.
International support for Syria’s post-ISIS future will be tied to this credible political horizon that can result in meaningful change.
Beyond Iraq and Syria, our coalition is focused on ensuring ISIS affiliates remain local problems, able to be handled by local actors and partner nations, before they can become transitional threats.
In Libya, we have removed the ISIS safe haven in Sirte, destroyed its leadership network, and seek to forge political ties between different factions in the country to deny space to extremists.
In Egypt, we support President Sisi and the Egyptian government in its efforts to combat terror networks in Sinai, just as we offer appropriate support to any partner nation where ISIS has sought to raise its black flag, from Bangladesh to the Philippines.
As ISIS loses its core territory in Iraq and Syria, we are also preparing for a shift in emphasis within our coalition from military operations to intelligence and law enforcement operations.
We are building a global network to share information in real time and detect ISIS operatives before then can act or travel across borders.
To do this, we encourage every member of our coalition to think differently about this problem. ISIS is a metastasized terror system, different from the al Qaida we confronted after 9/11.
It requires different tools, and a willingness to share information in real time within governments and between governments.
Our coalition, through one of its newest members, INTERPOL, is building the databases that will help protect all of us in the future; and we are establishing innovative information sharing and fusing centers designed to identify ISIS fighters and stop attacks.
We are also asking a lot of our coalition partners to reform their own internal structures to remove silos and share information from the national level to the local level, and across borders to partners.
Few do this better than Israel, and so I will end where I began, thanking you again for this invitation, and reminding everyone that Israel remains in the eye of the storm.
Not long ago, I stood on the Golan Heights with Israeli Defense Forces, overlooking southwest Syria, where an ISIS cell – known as Jaysh Khalid bin Walid is entrenched in a pocket of the tri-border region. Our coalition, working with the moderate opposition, must work to remove that presence as soon as possible.
Because ISIS, as it loses territory, recruits, and appeal, will seek to attack Israel. We must do all we can and we will do all we can to ensure we defeat those designs.
Nor can we allow Iran to jeopardize our gains and fuel instability in ISIS's wake, by placing foreign proxies anywhere near the border regions with Jordan and Israel.
Our core coalition principle, and its remained consistent throughout, is that local people, Syrians and Iraqis, local to their particular village, town, or city, should be in charge of their areas after ISIS is defeated – not foreigners.
All foreign fighters should leave Syria, period, whether fighting with Nusra or ISIS or Hezbollah. Any other formula fuels the conflict, places innocent Syrians between crossfires on their own land, and encourages extremists and spoilers on all sides.
So as we go forward, we call on all parties with influence in Syria to prioritize the fight against ISIS while de-escalating the civil war, whether through local agreements or defined de-escalation areas, to set conditions for a political horizon and ultimate settlement.
Let me close with a caveat: this is among the most complex challenges in the most complex region of the world. Progress is not linear. There will be setbacks. There will be adjustments. Not everyone will be happy with every decision that is made. That is the nature of a coalition.
But just as ISIS is dedicated to attacking us, in our homes, our concert venues, our restaurants, even children in an ice cream parlor as happened last month in Baghdad, we must be dedicated and committed to defeating them and we are.
Our coalition is on a fixed course, with a sound and proven strategy, committed to the total destruction of ISIS, the destruction of the physical caliphate, while in parallel preparing for the day after.
Friends and colleagues, I hope have offered you a brief window into this ongoing campaign. The road ahead remains daunting, but less so from the vantage point of how far we have come.
Thank you again for the opportunity, and General Gilead, it has been a rare honor. I will return the floor back to you.
Thank you very much.