MODERATOR: Good afternoon from the U.S. State Department’s London Media Hub. I’d like to welcome all participants to today’s telephonic press briefing. Today we are very pleased to be joined by John Godfrey, Acting U.S. Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and Acting Counterterrorism Coordinator. Acting Special Envoy Godfrey will discuss his recent travels to Iraq, Syria, and Rome. We will begin today’s call with opening remarks and then we will turn to your questions. We’ll do our best to get to as many possible in the time that we have today, which is approximately 30 minutes.
As a reminder, today’s call is on the record. And with that, I will turn it over to Acting Special Envoy Godfrey for his opening remarks. Please, go ahead.
MR. GODFREY: Thank you very much and I very much apologize for being a few minutes late. Thank you for making time to join me today for a brief overview of my trip to the Iraqi Kurdistan Region and northeast Syria last week, followed by joining Secretary Blinken for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS ministerial meeting in Rome on Monday June 28th.
It was very important to see the situation on the ground ahead of the ministerial meeting in Rome, which is the first one that we had held in, oh, a couple of years thanks to the challenges of COVID. While the D-ISIS coalition has achieved extraordinary success in the fight against ISIS, including ending ISIS’ fraudulent territorial caliphate, it’s clear that we still have more work to do.
In Iraq, ISIS remains active in the northern part of the country, splitting the seams between areas controlled by federal Iraqi Security Forces and areas controlled by Kurdistan Regional Government security forces. Those seams afford some limited space in which ISIS is able to operate. While the attacks in Iraq have so far been less lethal this year than last year, the terrible twin suicide bombings in Baghdad in January were a stark reminder that ISIS continues to aspire to conduct large-scale attacks in Iraq. The coalition continues to support partner forces with high-level advising, intelligence-sharing, air support and equipment.
I’d also note that threats from Iran-aligned militia groups complicate the security picture in Iraq, endangering the lives of Iraqi citizens and threatening coalition forces and facilities.
In Syria, I visited the Al-Hol camp for displaced persons and separately visited a detention center for ISIS fighters in Hasakah. It was clear to me that the large displaced population, the vast majority of whom are children, as well as the detainees in northeast Syria are placing a major strain on local partners’ resources and capabilities. The detained fighters and some elements of the residents of the IDP camps constitute a potential threat to security in the region and beyond.
In Syria, I met with the leadership of our local partner forces to reiterate our enduring commitment to the defeat of ISIS. The United States continues to urge countries of origin to repatriate, rehabilitate, reintegrate, and to prosecute as appropriate foreign terrorist fighters and associated family members. We also continue to urge countries to contribute to efforts to responsibly house those individuals in northeast Syria.
One thing I heard consistently in both Iraq and Syria is that poverty, inequality, and perceived injustice continue to drive many young people to join terrorist groups, including ISIS. The combination of a severe drought and a wheat harvest that will be about half of what is normal has created a significant economic downturn that impacts the revenues of local partners and also contributes to unemployment. And I heard that ISIS is actively seeking to exploit that economic situation to reconstitute presence – or to try to reconstitute presence in areas hardest hit by the economic downturn. And that’s part of why ensuring continued support for coalition stabilization efforts is such a major objective of the coalition and which featured so prominently at the ministerial meeting.
In Rome, Secretary Blinken stressed that the situation with respect to the foreign terrorist fighters and internally displaced persons is untenable and can’t continue indefinitely. I’m very pleased to say that the initial response to the stabilization pledge drive from members of the coalition has been encouraging and, with continued support, we anticipate being able to meet our target for 2021. The 2021 Stabilization Pledge Drive goal is 670 million U.S. dollars, and to date we have garnered pledges of a bit more than 500 million U.S. dollars.
In addition to reinforcing stabilization efforts, we had two additional primary goals for the ministerial. The first was to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to the Defeat ISIS Coalition and its efforts and to underscore the continued relevance and vitality of the coalition and the Defeat ISIS campaign. As it turns out, this was the most well-attended ministerial meeting in coalition history in terms of the number of foreign ministers who participated. While some of that may be partially attributable to the pent-up desire to have face-to-face meetings after COVID lockdowns, I think it was also a clear statement about the seriousness with which the international community views the ISIS threat and the continuing commitment to the Defeat ISIS live effort.
The third objective was discussing expansion of the coalition’s focus on ISIS in Africa where the threat has significantly increased. The coalition has already begun discussing potential lines of effort in West Africa and the Sahel and has more recently begun informal discussions about potential efforts elsewhere in Africa to help blunt the ISIS threat there.
In addition, Secretary Blinken announced the designation of a leader of the ISIS Greater Sahara branch, Ousmane Djibo, as a specially-designated global terrorist during his remarks in Rome. Djibo is a close collaborator and a lieutenant of the senior-most ISIS Greater Sahara leader that operates in Mali.
Overall, the coalition remains an extraordinarily effective and flexible forum in which to coordinate with key partners and allies on counter-ISIS efforts which remain vitally important. And with that, I’d be happy to take a few questions.
MODERATOR: And our first question will go to Michel Ghandour of Al-Hurra TV. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Yes, thank you for doing this. My question is: The Iraqi Government condemned the U.S. airstrike along its border with Syria and called it a violation of Iraqi sovereignty. Meanwhile, the Iraqi Government did not condemn the attacks on the international forces in Iraq and did not consider them in violation of Iraqi sovereignty. How do you view this double standard and how are you dealing with that?
MR. GODFREY: Sorry, Michel, could I ask you to repeat the second part of your question? I didn’t quite understand the – the Iraqi Government did not condemn the attacks?
QUESTION: The attacks on the coalition forces in Iraq and on the military bases in Iraq, and they didn’t consider them a violation of Iraqi sovereignty since they are made by militias supported by Iraq.
MR. GODFREY: Right. So the – thank you for the question. The United States has been clear in our engagements with senior Iraqi leadership that the agreements that were undertaken in connection with the security dialogue earlier this year include an affirmation by the Iraqi Government that coalition forces are in Iraq to conduct the campaign or help conduct the campaign against ISIS, and they are there at the invitation of the Iraqi Government and the Iraqi Government bears some responsibility for ensuring the security of those forces. That remains our position and I think the President and Secretary of State Blinken have publicly and clearly articulated their reasons for the airstrikes that were taken, and we stand by that.
MODERATOR: Great. Our next question goes to Camille Tawil of Asharq Al-Awsat.
QUESTION: Thank you for taking my question. First of all, I have two questions. One regarding the ISIS that – would you say now the steps from ISIS branches around the world is more acute than the threat coming from the remnants of the group in Syria and Iraq?
And another one that’s related to the – to your thoughts as acting coordinator for counterterrorism. There has been some talk lately about dialogue with Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, HTS. Al-Julani has been stressing that he has no relationship with al-Qaida anymore and he has been coming to – offering talks with the West. Would you talk to him, would you consider him as not related to al-Qaida anymore? Do you trust him? Thank you.
MR. GODFREY: Thanks very much, Camille. Sorry, just one moment please.
So on your first very good question about the comparative level of threat between the branches around the world and the so-called core in Iraq and Syria, I think what I would say is that while we have certainly seen an increase in activity by the branches and networks around the world and frankly an increased focus on those by ISIS leadership itself, particularly in the wake of the Easter Sunday attacks in Colombo, Sri Lanka in April of 2019, ISIS remains very keenly focused as an organization on Iraq and Syria precisely because that was where the so-called physical califate was located and continues to be very focused on trying to regain control of physical territory in that space. It has enormous meaning and significance for the group as a geographic area and as a symbol of what it aspires to do.
At the same time, it is fair to say that the number of branches and networks of ISIS outside of Iraq and Syria that are active and engaged in conducting attacks has increased and that is something that we’re keenly focused on. The coalition has as a stated goal achieving the enduring defeat of ISIS globally, and as we talked about at the ministerial in Rome, that entails dealing with the threat where it is. And I think right now today some of the threat, as an important part of the threat is – related to ISIS is emerging outside of Iraq and Syria. That’s not to say that we can ignore what’s happening in Iraq and Syria. It was very clear at the ministerial that there is an understood need to remain very focused on tamping down ISIS in Iraq and Syria to prevent a resurgence there.
To your second question regarding HTS, it is a designated terrorist organization and that has some fairly serious implications for our ability to have anything to do with it, and we continue to assess that it is a terrorist organization.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question goes to Joyce Karam of The National.
QUESTION: Yes, hi. Good morning. Thanks for doing this. I have two questions for you actually. U.S. military commander have been very clear that in the event that the – government in Kabul collapses, an ISIS resurgence could happen there in less than two years. What is your assessment on that? And you’ve mentioned I think in your opening remarks threats from the Iran militias in Iraq. Given the attack on U.S. forces in Syria a couple of years ago – or a couple of days ago, can you give us an assessment on that threat there from the Iran militias?
MR. GODFREY: Thanks, Joyce. In terms of the first part of your question regarding the ISIS-Khorasan branch in Afghanistan, it is a group that we have been focused on for some time. We assessed that it constitutes a serious threat. It’s one that we’ve certainly been focused on. And I think that the assessment that you mentioned by U.S. military leadership of the potential for that group to reconstitute capability within two years is consistent with what we’ve heard from other corners of the U.S. Government, so I think we would echo that.
In terms of the Iran-backed militias in Iraq, I think we’ve been quite clear publicly about our concerns about the threat that those groups constitute both with respect to the safety and security of coalition forces operating in Iraq to work against Daesh, but also frankly with respect to the safety and security of Iraqi citizens as well, and I would – that position remains unchanged.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question goes to Elizabeth Hagedorn of Al-Monitor.
QUESTION: Hi. Thank you. The International Committee of the Red Cross said this week that hundreds of children are being held in adult prisons in northeast Syria. Did you see minors detained during your visit? And my second question. Can you give us an update on the number of Americans repatriated from Iraq and Syria so far [inaudible] how many remain in detention? Thanks.
MR. GODFREY: Elizabeth, thank you for the good questions. Give me one quick second and I’ll get right back to you here.
Thanks, Elizabeth. To the second question that you posed, I believe to date we’ve repatriated 28 Americans from Iraq and Syria, and I believe that 10 of those either have already been prosecuted or are currently undergoing prosecution in the United States. And I believe that the number of adults is 12, so 12 of the 28 would be adults; 16 would be children.
And I don’t have anything further on children or minors in adult detention facilities in northeast Syria.
MODERATOR: All right. Our next question goes to Borzou Daragahi of The Independent.
QUESTION: Hi. Thank you so much for doing this. I have one quick question and then one, like, broader question. The quick question is just regarding Libya. I’m getting sort of contradictory reports about whether or not there is something of a ISIS resurgence in Libya and more in North Africa generally, and I was wondering if you had any information or assessment of that. And then the broader question, if you wanted to address it, just in general what do you think what is the big-picture view of what ISIS is morphing into? What is this, jihad 3.0? Do you consider al-Qaida sort of the predecessor of ISIS and the fact that the caliphate has been crushed, and the fact that its efforts to reconstitute itself as a sort of credible, coherent guerilla force have also been sort of thwarted? Where do you see it going in the next few months or years? And answer that as you will.
MR. GODFREY: Borzou, thank you very much. To the first part of your question on efforts by ISIS to reconstitute itself in Libya and or more broadly in North Africa, we have seen since late 2019 when ISIS in Libya suffered some fairly serious attrition of leadership in its membership in Libya at the time that was mostly in the southwest part of the country. They have not gone away entirely in Libya, and indeed, further afield in North Africa they continue to maintain some limited presence. I think one of the things about ISIS in that space but more
broadly that is notable is that they remain quite persistent and quite patient in terms of trying to reconstitute capability and reassert some level of presence in any – and in some cases control in areas where they have previously suffered setbacks. And I think that that’s true in the Maghreb as well. I don’t think that we necessarily assessed that at the current time that threat is acute but it’s certainly something that we keep our eye on, again, because they have been so persistent in trying to re-establish presence in areas where they’ve previously been active.
To the second question, it’s a really thoughtful one. I thank you for it. And it’s an important one. I think what we see are a couple of things happening in parallel with ISIS as an organization. One. It does continue to harbor aspirations of reconstituting itself in Iraq and Syria and that’s something that demands both the D-ISIS Coalition but other international partners and entities remain focused on tamping that down and really limiting the ability of ISIS to regain territorial control or solidify further its position on either side of the Syria-Iraq border.
But in parallel with that, we have really seen, going back to 2019, 2020 when the organization or group went through quite an evolution, a much greater and concerted focus on branches and networks outside of Iraq and Syria. That’s primarily been in terms of headline-grabbing events in Africa where we’ve seen the emergence of branches and networks both in terms of greater lethality and number of attacks, and then particularly in the case of Mozambique, the emergence of a new branch if you will that has really, in a remarkably short amount of time, managed to constitute quite a threat in the northern part of Mozambique.
I think that that reflects the broader effort by the group to, with the loss of the physical caliphate that was signified with the fall of the Baghuz in March of 2019, to look to the branches and networks outside of Iraq and Syria as the platforms from which to continue fighting. That’s the way ISIS has characterized it. That’s not to say that they’ve surrendered their aspirations in Iraq and Syria, but it is to say that I think they’ve realized the utility of having presence elsewhere in the world.
One of the things I think that is interesting about that is that to devolve some level of authority to those local villayets* in terms of organization, revenue generation, and in some cases the authority to plot and execute attacks, and that, I think, is something that is quite troubling and that we remain quite focused on.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We have time for one more question.
OPERATOR: There are no questioners in the queue.
MODERATOR: All right. With that, we will end today’s call. I’d like to thank Acting Special Envoy John Godfrey for joining us today and also thank the reporters on the line for your participation and your questions.
MR. GODFREY: Thanks, everybody. Appreciate it.