MR PALLADINO: Thank you all for coming today. Today we’re very happy to have with us the Secretary of State’s Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, Ambassador Jim Jeffrey, as well as the Secretary’s Coordinator for Counterterrorism, Ambassador Nathan Sales.
The two of them have some opening remarks, and then we’ll be happy to take some questions, and they’ll be providing an update on the coalition’s efforts to defeat ISIS in Syria, Iraq, and across the globe.
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Hello, everybody. Thanks for coming. Let me start with the situation of what we call the core in Iraq and Syria. The 80-member Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS achieved a significant victory by destroying the last remnants of the ISIS physical caliphate along the Euphrates in Syria in March. This removed one important element of ISIS’s threat to the international community, but not the only one. It is still a threat in this core area of Iraq and Syria, and I’ll get into that. And as Nathan will talk about, it is still a threat globally.
The formation of this coalition, with the support of much of the international community, is itself a major diplomatic and counterterrorism success. We are encouraged by members’ commitments to stay active even after the defeat of the physical caliphate. We also welcome since January 2017 12 new members from Africa and Asia to the coalition.
The coalition, aside from the military effort, takes on ISIS in four separate civilian ways: through counter-financing, through counter-messaging and public affairs, through foreign terrorist fighter activities, and finally through stabilization of areas that have been liberated from ISIS. All are critical.
Let me talk about Iraq and Syria. In Syria, after the defeat of the caliphate, we are working with the Syrian Democratic Forces, our local partner, to go after cells that have been left behind. That activity is going on well. We are seeing a diminuation of the remaining limited ISIS capabilities in the northeast of the country. But that’s only where we are. ISIS elements are still very active to the south of the Euphrates, where the regime, the Assad regime, does not have control, and in Idlib, which is a major terrorist concern not just for ISIS.
As you know, the President announced a deliberate and coordinated drawdown of our remaining American forces in the northeast back in December. He then added that he would be planning to keep a small residual contingent of American forces indefinitely there. What we’re looking is to get coalition partners to make more of a contribution of on-the-ground forces to continue the training, equipping, and accompanying of local forces. We haven’t finished our discussions with these countries yet, but we’re pretty optimistic that we will get considerably more than we’ve had in the past.
Let me turn to Iraq. Of course, after the defeat of ISIS in Mosul, Iraq did not have an ISIS terrain-holding threat. But what we have seen is a persistent, resilient, rural terrorist level of violence generated by these underground cells of ISIS, particularly in the area south of – as you’re looking at the map – Mosul and the Kurdish areas down to – down to Baghdad. We’re working closely with the Iraqi military on this effort. We have some scores of coalition countries with us in that fight. We have some 5,000 U.S. forces there, thousands more of coalition forces. We’ve trained over 200,000 Iraqi army, police, and Peshmerga forces in this fight, and we’ll continue it.
A couple of very specific civilian-side issues related to this core battle: First of all, the liberation of the last areas in Syria has produced both a large collection of foreign – of terrorist fighters – some 10,000 of them are under lock and key in northeast Syria, held by the SDF with some support from us. Most of them, about 8,000, are Iraqi or Syrian nationals, and we have efforts in place – they’re going slowly – to move – but they’re going – to move the Iraqis back to Iraq, and the Syrians to be placed on trial.
A bigger problem from the standpoint of logistics and humanitarian effort is the al-Hawl displaced persons camp. Basically, there’s some 70,000 people there, down a bit from last month. These are mainly people – family members of ISIS fighters. There’s about, oh, 60,000 Iraqis and Syrians among those numbers, but again, there’s about 10,000 third-country foreigners associated with the 2,000 non-Iraqi, non-Syrian foreign terrorist fighters that are being held in the various detention facilities. There are a variety of humanitarian issues that we’re working our way through in al-Hawl, but there’s also a problem of radicalization. In the long run, what we’re trying to do is to get people out and back into their communities.
Finally, stabilization. We have a major stabilization effort underway in Iraq with the coalition in support of UNDP’s FFS, which is a fund for stabilization. We have helped return 4.3 million people to their homes after the fighting was over and it brought electricity, water, and immediate medical services to about 1.5 million Iraqis. In Syria, the President has decided that we will stop our stabilization funding. We’re continuing our humanitarian funding, which is about $10 billion for Syria alone since that war broke out in 2011. But we’ll turn to our partners to do the stabilization funding. We received $325 million last year. We’re hoping for a similar amount this year as part of the spirit of burden-sharing, which is also why we’re turning to them for forces to be with us in northeast Syria.
I’ll stop at this point and turn it over to Nathan. Thank you.
AMBASSADOR SALES: Thanks, Jim, and thanks, everybody, for being here today. So in addition to the work that Ambassador Jeffrey has highlighted in Iraq and Syria, we also need to keep ISIS from continuing the fight from its international networks. The so-called ISIS caliphate has been destroyed, but the ISIS brand lives on around the world.
Today I’ll summarize the ISIS-related threats we face across the globe as well as the steps that we are taking with our coalition partners to counter those threats. So here are a few examples of the threats we’re seeing. In Africa, ISIS-linked groups are on the rise. ISIS branches and networks now span the African continent from east to west and north to south. They’ve increased the lethality of their attacks, they’ve expanded into new areas, and they’ve repeatedly targeted U.S. interests.
In Nigeria, for example, ISIS West Africa has begun to impose Sharia law in the areas it controls, and it’s killed hundreds of Nigerian forces in the past year.
In Niger, ISIS affiliates were responsible for the deaths of four American soldiers in an ambush in October of 2017. This past May, ISIS claimed to have killed 40 Nigerien soldiers at Tongo Tongo. In places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Mozambique, local armed groups are publicly aligning themselves with ISIS.
And in Egypt, ISIS Sinai conducts regular attacks against Egyptian security forces in the Sinai while also targeting tourist sites and churches in mainland Egypt. I’ll be traveling to Cairo next week to discuss a range of counterterrorism issues including this threat.
In South Asia, ISIS networks and ISIS-inspired terrorists are increasingly active. We saw this on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka. The Easter attacks were a grim reminder that ISIS-inspired terrorists are able to carry out complex and deadly attacks. That’s why the State Department is working to revitalize our CT partnership with Sri Lanka, particularly building capacity in the areas of law enforcement and crisis response.
Meanwhile in Afghanistan, ISIS-Khorasan has become one of the deadliest ISIS affiliates in the world. In the past year, they’ve carried out dozens of attacks, killing close to 800 people and injuring over 1,400 more.
Let me now explain our vision for the role that the 80-member Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS can play going forward. In this next stage of the campaign, my team is focusing on countering ISIS around the world as Ambassador Jeffrey and his team work to consolidate ISIS’s territorial defeats in the core. To accomplish this, we’ll need to supplement our military efforts with civilian sector counterterrorism tools. And once again, we’ll be looking for our coalition partners to join us in this fight. The United States can’t do this alone.
At the coalition political directors meeting in Paris in June, we discussed our collective responsibility to thwart ISIS’s global ambitions. We’re now working closely with our partners to identify focus regions for the coalition, and we expect to have more clarity soon on where we intend to be active. As an important next step, we’re planning a coalition meeting in the fall focused on West Africa and the Sahel.
In this new phase of the fight, we’ll focus on four key areas which Ambassador Jeffrey has previewed: law enforcement, border security, the terrorist financing, and counter-messaging. Let me say a few words about each of them.
First, across the coalition, we need to prosecute ISIS leaders, fighters, financiers, and facilitators for the crimes they’ve committed. That includes building the law enforcement capacity of partner states that have the will to act but might lack the resources or expertise to do so. It also means repatriating and prosecuting foreign terrorist fighters. I’ll come back to that in a minute.
Second, coalition members need to harden our borders against ISIS travel and help other countries do the same. We estimate that since 2015 some 1,200 ISIS fighters have traveled back home to Europe, while hundreds more have returned to Southeast Asia. Other terrorists, inspired by ISIS and other terrorist groups, likewise are looking to cross international borders.
To combat this threat, we need to help frontline states fully implement UN Security Council Resolution 2396, a historic resolution that requires the use of screening tools like watch lists, airline reservation data, and biometrics. Here in the United States, we’ve been using these sorts of tools for years, and in some cases decades, and we’re glad that the rest of the world is catching up.
Third, we need to cut off the flow of money to ISIS networks around the world. One of our most effective weapons against terrorism is sanctions and designations. Last year, the State Department announced 19 related ISIS – 19 ISIS-related designations and the Treasury Department completed another 14. We’ll be looking to add to those numbers.
In addition, last year the UN listed 11 ISIS-linked individuals at the so-called 1267 Committee. That’s a good start, but these UN designations need to be implemented in individual countries, and that means we need more partners to adopt effective domestic designations regimes that allow them to sanction known terrorists.
Fourth and finally, we need to deny ISIS the ability to radicalize the next generation of fighters. While the caliphate has been destroyed, ISIS’s ability to inspire attacks persists because its ideology persists. We need to collectively refute the hateful, intolerant, and supremacist messaging that helped give rise to ISIS in the first place.
Let me end with a final word on prosecutions. There’s currently about 2,000 ISIS foreign fighters in SDF custody in Syria, and that’s in addition to the Syrian and Iraqi citizens captured by the SDF. Let me be clear: These fighters are dangerous, battle-hardened terrorists. They left comfortable lives to go to the desert to fight for an idea, and they’re still committed to that idea. We all have an obligation to keep them from ever returning to the battlefield.
The most effective way to do that is for countries of origin to take back their citizens and prosecute them for crimes they’ve committed. That’s what the United States has done for our citizen fighters and that’s what we expect other countries to do as well. This is a priority for the President and it’s a priority for the Secretary.
To sum up, the ISIS threat is evolving and our fight is entering a new phase. It’s imperative that the coalition approach the effort to defeat ISIS globally with the same level of urgency and commitment that brought us victory in Syria and Iraq. We owe it to the past victims of ISIS to make sure that there are no future victims of ISIS.
Thanks, and Jim and I would be happy to take some questions.
MR PALLADINO: Great. Thanks. We’ll start with Reuters, Lesley.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. I was wondering if, given this is linked, whether you can confirm that Usama bin Ladin’s son has been killed, Hamza bin Ladin, and was it done in Syria?
AMBASSADOR SALES: I was wondering whether that would be the first question or the second question.
QUESTION: It is.
AMBASSADOR SALES: Yes, we’re aware of the reports. We don’t comment on intelligence matters.
MR PALLADINO: Okay. Said.
QUESTION: Can you – can I ask just one quick – are you aware of him ever operating in the areas that we’re discussing today?
AMBASSADOR SALES: As I mentioned, we’re not going to comment publicly on intelligence reports.
MR PALLADINO: Let’s go to Said, please.
QUESTION: Thank you. Ambassador Jeffrey, I have a quick question for you on Idlib. You acknowledge that there is a large presence of terrorists in Idlib, and not only ISIS but also other groups such as al-Nusrah and so on. How do you see the Idlib situation being resolved? Because on the one hand, you don’t want forces, the regime or the Russians, to attack Idlib, but on the other, you want to end that situation. Thank you.
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: First of all, it’s the very definition of a complex situation, as you just laid out. Our primary issue right now is to halt the violence against civilians in Idlib. As President Trump said in Osaka, even if there are terrorists there, that’s no excuse to bomb 3 million people who are already internally displaced. Today, with a lot of support from the United States, the secretary-general just announced a board of inquiry to investigate what has happened in Idlib, particularly the attacks on civilians since the Turkish-Russian Sochi agreement to set up a ceasefire, which has been violated mainly by the regime since that time in September of 2018.
So that’s where our priority is, to put pressure on the regime and on the Russians to stop those bombing attacks. We have put pressure on them not to use chemical weapons successfully, not to undertake a major offensive – they haven’t – and not to do anything that would generate huge refugee flows, destabilizing Turkey and Europe. That we’ve been successful in. We’re still working on this important issue of the bombing of civilians.
MR PALLADINO: National Public Radio, Jill.
QUESTION: Thanks. I’d just follow up on that. Can you just characterize your dealings with the Russians on this? Because it seems that the U.S. and Russia are, again, completely at odds over what’s even happening in Idlib.
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: The Russians do deny many things that we believe are facts – we’re sure that are facts. At every level, including President Trump in Osaka with President Putin; with President Putin when I accompanied Mike Pompeo to Sochi in May; and at every other level, including basically several conversations a week at mine and other levels, we raise this at the very top with the Russians.
QUESTION: But just – but when you were in Sochi, I mean, the Secretary seemed to suggest that there was some sort of real deal with the Russians. What happened with that?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Well, there’s a real deal to try to get the ceasefire restored. The Russians have now, we believe – we’re just getting the tickers in now – have announced at what we used to call Astana – now I think it’s Nur-Sultan – in Kazakhstan that in a meeting with the Turks and Iranians that they have effected yet another ceasefire. The problem is we’ve helped broker a handful of ceasefires there. They keep on falling apart, and the bombings continue.
MR PALLADINO: Let’s go to Laurie.
QUESTION: The Kurds, I want to begin, really do appreciate this administration’s vigorous work to defeat the territorial ISIS, so thank you both. Ambassador Jeffrey, can we understand from your comments that you’re still committed to working with and protecting your Kurdish partners in Syria?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: We are committed to defeating ISIS in northeast Syria. The SDF, which is a mixed Kurdish-Arabic military force, is our partner there. We are committed to those who have fought with us not being attacked and not being harmed by anyone. The President made that clear publicly. That includes our concerns about the Turks.
Equally, we’re very concerned about the threat of the PKK and offshoots of the PKK against Turkey, which lost a diplomatic official in Erbil just last week. So we’re trying to balance both of these very important concerns with one very important NATO ally and one important partner in the fight against ISIS.
MR PALLADINO: Wall Street Journal, Courtney.
QUESTION: Thanks. To follow on Laurie’s question, what is the status of any talks with the Turks about protecting the Kurds and the possibility of an invasion?
And then separately, what is the status of talks with European countries, particularly on repatriation of foreign fighters?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: There are no talks with the Turks on protecting the Kurds – which make up a very significant percent of the Turkish population, for example – or stopping an invasion, because we don’t see an invasion. We are talking with the Turks, and we’re doing it right now, on the possibility of a safe zone that would have U.S. and Turkish forces, again, dealing with Turkish security concerns along a band in northeast Syria right up to the Turkish border. We don’t have an agreement yet, but exchanges are continuing.
AMBASSADOR SALES: And on foreign terrorist fighter repatriation and prosecution, we’ve seen some successes and we’d like to see more. Countries like Kazakhstan and Kosovo have been able to repatriate dozens – and in some cases hundreds – of fighters and their family members, prosecuting people for crimes and, as far as families and children are concerned, placing them in rehabilitation and reintegration programs and de-radicalization programs.
Italy recently announced that it was repatriating one fighter, and that person will be investigated for prosecution. We’d like to see more Western European countries follow suit. I think the President has been very clear about this and the Secretary has as well. Every country has an obligation to solve the problem of their citizens who’ve gone off to fight for ISIS. No one should expect the United States to solve this problem for them or the SDF or anyone else. This is a problem that fundamentally is owned by the countries where their citizens were radicalized back at home.
MR PALLADINO: New York Times, please.
QUESTION: Hi. Lara Jakes with the Times. To follow up on that, ambassador, how is the United States ensuring that the forces who are detaining some of these ISIS fighters and their families are still respecting their human rights and are not subject to any kind of abuse?
I have a follow-up question for you in a second, but just a tactical question, Ambassador Jeffrey. Can you assess how many ISIS fighters remain in Syria and Iraq at this time?
And then pivoting back to you for one second, can you also assess to what extent that ISIS-Khorasan is a threat outside of the borders of Afghanistan?
AMBASSADOR SALES: Let me answer part one and part three.
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Of this five-part question.
AMBASSADOR SALES: We didn’t get up to a five-part question. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Only three.
AMBASSADOR SALES: Maybe we can diagram this out. Yeah.
So we assess that the SDF has been very committed to ensuring that these very dangerous terror suspects are, first of all, treated securely, and second of all, treated humanely. Now, the situation could be better. These prisons in which they are being held are, in many cases, ad hoc improvisations that were not designed as maximum security facilities. That is part of the reason why we think that there is a sense of urgency for countries to take their citizens back and prosecute them so that they can be placed into more permanent facilities if convicted.
As for ISIS-Khorasan, yeah, it’s a major problem in the region. And what we have to do is make sure that ISIS-Khorasan, which has committed a number of attacks in the region, is not able to engage in external operations.
QUESTION: Is ISIS-Khorasan —
AMBASSADOR SALES: And this is part four?
QUESTION: Yes, it is.
AMBASSADOR SALES: Okay.
QUESTION: And I have a follow-up to your part one. Is ISIS-Khorasan a threat to the United States?
AMBASSADOR SALES: Any ISIS affiliate around the world has the – that has the capability and intent to conduct external operations is a threat to the United States and our partners and our interests.
QUESTION: Okay, thank you. And then you described what was happening. You had some confidence with the SDF. How about with Iraqi Security Forces?
AMBASSADOR SALES: Ambassador, do you want to take that one?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: I would have preferred to reinforce your point that the SDF – because I’ve been on the ground with people who have been in these camps and working with them. We are very confident about them. As you know because we both went out there earlier, the Iraqi Security Forces and government have had problems in the past with holding prisoners. We don’t see the same level of problem now. It is an issue that I and others raise with the top level of the Iraqi government all of the time, however.
In terms of the ISIS numbers, between Iraq and Syria – and this is only a guesstimate – it would be, say, 15,000 with a standard deviation of significant thousands in either direction.
QUESTION: And mostly in Syria or mostly in Iraq?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: It’s split between the two. But remember, they see this as one front, and these people, we know, travel back and forth south of the Euphrates. They don’t go through the northeast because we have good security there, but they do go south of the Euphrates.
MR PALLADINO: Let’s go Fox, Rich.
QUESTION: Ambassador Sales, as you talk about ISIS, what is your assessment recently of the strength of al-Qaida? And I know – perhaps maybe you would comment on its leadership or the status of its current leadership, but the group as a whole.
AMBASSADOR SALES: Yeah, so al-Qaida has been strategic and patient over the past several years. It’s let ISIS absorb the brunt of the world’s counterterrorism efforts while patiently reconstituting itself. And so what we see today is an al-Qaida that is as strong as it has ever been. We see active and deadly al-Qaida affiliates across the globe, including in Somalia, where al-Shabaab commits regular attacks inside Somalia and also has begun to attack its neighbors as well, particularly Kenya.
We see active al-Qaida plotting and activity elsewhere in Africa. AQIM, al-Qaida in the Islamic Magreb, JNIM in the Sahel region of Africa – both of those organizations are extremely active. And for many years, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen we assessed to be probably the most threatening of the al-Qaida affiliates because of its interest and capabilities in attacking the U.S. homeland.
No one should mistake the period of relative silence from al-Qaida as an indication that they’ve gotten out of the business. They are very much in this fight, and we need to continue to take the fight to them.
MR PALLADINO: CNN, Kylie.
QUESTION: Hi. Ambassador Jeffrey, a few weeks ago when you were in Aspen and you laid out the policy goals in Syria, the first point that you made was that the U.S. wants to get Iranian groups, Iranian proxies, out of Syria. So is it possible to have a political settlement in Syria in which Iranian groups are still in the country at all, and is Russia helping the U.S. with that effort any more so than they have in the past year?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: What we’re trying to pitch is that if you get a resolution of the Syrian conflict as laid out in UN Security Council Resolution 2254, December 2015, with an end to the conflict though ceasefires, a new political process with a constitution that has been reformed or replaced, and free and fair UN-regulated elections, you will have a new situation that would allow not just the Iranian but all foreign forces that were not there in 2011, which is essentially only the Russians were there before 2011, to withdraw from Syria. We are raising this publicly. We discuss it with the Russians. We discuss it with everybody else involved.
QUESTION: So the onus would be on the Syrian government at that point to make sure that all of the groups are out of their country?
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Exactly. They are legally responsible for, just as we and anybody else is legally responsible through treaties and agreements for foreign forces on your territory and what those forces do, and we’re particularly concerned about what the Iranian forces do, especially threatening Israel with long-range missile systems. It’s up to the Syrians to get those – Syrian government to get them out. Our hope is that if you resolve the underlying internal conflict, the reason for these forces to be there, to the extent they have an excuse to be there, would be gone.
QUESTION: And Ambassador Sales, can I just ask you one question too? You mentioned that the repatriation of these ISIS fighters and the prosecution is something that these European countries should do, but when they are under political pressure to do just the opposite and not follow through on that kind of action, what’s your argument to them? Why should they face the political pressure backlash that they will for doing something like that?
AMBASSADOR SALES: Well, I think the political pressure is to be tough on terrorism. There are no constituencies anywhere that say, “All right, terrorists? Let them off the hook,” right? But the reality is the way to be tough on foreign terrorist fighters is to prosecute them. Right now, they are not facing justice for the crimes they have committed. They are in temporary holding facilities, and we’ve seen a number of attempted jailbreaks. The risk that they could get out is not trivial.
So I think the political dimension here needs to be inverted. If you want to demonstrate to your voters that you’re taking the terrorist threat seriously and you’re protecting your people from terrorists roaming around the world at will, the way to do that is to bring them home, put them in front of a court, have them tried, and then if they’re convicted, make sure they serve lengthy sentences.
MR PALLADINO: Janne.
QUESTION: Thank you. There’s – it is reported that North Korea send their military to Syria for the training for the terrorists. Do you have any things that North Korea linkage with ISIS?
AMBASSADOR SALES: Nothing that I’m prepared to comment on in public.
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: North Korea has a long history of supporting —
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: — the regime, including – and the nuclear program, the Al Kibar site that was struck in 2007.
QUESTION: Mr. Sales, that sounds like yes.
AMBASSADOR SALES: If I wanted to say yes, I would have said yes.
QUESTION: Well, because the North Korea —
QUESTION: But if you wanted to say no, you could have said no.
AMBASSADOR SALES: That would take the fun out of it. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Their cooperating, North Korea and Syria cooperate in their nuclear weapons stuff, so why not that you cannot say a yes or a no?
AMBASSADOR SALES: I think you have our answer.
MR PALLADINO: There we go. So CNN. Go ahead, Jennifer.
QUESTION: Ambassador Sales, you mentioned earlier that you’d like to see families put into rehabilitation. Is that U.S. policy writ large that these families should not be prosecuted, or are there instances where foreign terrorist fighters’ families should face criminal proceedings?
And then Ambassador Jeffrey, have you gotten any contributions, firm contributions, from partners in the coalition to either the safe zone or the continued fight?
AMBASSADOR SALES: So I think it’s case-by-case. Some of the family members, particularly the women, have committed crimes in support of ISIS. Others are victims of ISIS. Children in almost every case, especially young children, should be treated as victims of ISIS. And so I think our policy is where somebody has committed a crime, prosecute them, and where somebody is a victim of ISIS, ensure that they are given the social support and medical attention and psychological services that they need.
QUESTION: How will you make that determination, though? Because some of these fighters have said they were victims of ISIS retroactively.
AMBASSADOR SALES: Again, that’s a case-by-case question that you rely on law enforcement professionals, medical professionals, and so on, to asses each particular person who comes before them.
MR PALLADINO: Yes, sir.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Could —
MR PALLADINO: Wait, hold on.
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Okay, this administration has put a lot of emphasis on burden sharing for very good reasons, and we see Syria and Iraq as a very good example. As I mentioned, we have thousands of coalition troops from scores of coalition countries serving side-by-side with us in Iraq. The coalition has provided over a billion dollars in stabilization funding to Iraq, a significant part of that American funding, and in addition, very large amounts for humanitarian assistance.
Now, in Syria, three things. First of all, we are the biggest donor with almost $10 billion, but the international community has also stood up with, all in all, totally an even larger amount, although we’re the largest donor, as I said. I was in a pledging conference in Brussels in March that came up with $7 billion. Again, that’s humanitarian.
For stabilization for the northeast, last year we received $325 million from other countries. This year I am very confident we’ll receive roughly an equal amount, but I can’t say that officially so I can’t give you the numbers.
In terms of troops, again, we’re in conversation with – certainly in the two digits of countries about possible troop contributions on the ground, and some facilitation either in the air or next door, but we’re particularly focused on troops on the ground in northeast Syria. That was the President’s mandate to us, and I think we’re having success. And eventually either we, or more likely they, will be announcing what they’re doing.
MR PALLADINO: Sir, please.
QUESTION: This is Namo Abdulla. I have two brief questions. One on Iraq: Today ISIS launched an attack on the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, killing at least four of them. And I just want to know: What’s your assessment of the ISIS threat in Iraq? We thought it was defeated. The second one is about Turkey. Foreign minister of Turkey said he was rejecting your offer for the safe zone. Can you give us more details about the offer? How large would the United States want that safe zone be? What about the Kurds? What do they say? Thanks.
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Sure. First of all, as I said, we’re concerned about ISIS attacks, ISIS – not physical presence, but ISIS underground cells in that band of territory in Diyala, Saladin provinces – again, south of Mosul in the Kurdish areas, down to just north of Baghdad. And of course, the Kurds are occupying, the Peshmerga are occupying a line at the north of that, and that’s where that attack took place. And it’s another example of the tragic loss of life that the Iraqis and Syrians in the thousands have paid for defeating ISIS. We should remember that at all times. They have the biggest burden.
In terms of the safe zone negotiations, the minister took a pretty tough position, but we’ve continued talking at various levels, including military-to-military. The Turks want a deeper zone than the one that we think makes sense. In our case, it’s between 5 and 14 kilometers with heavy weapons drawn further back. And there are some disagreements, or some differences of opinion I would say – I wouldn’t put as much emphasis on this – on how we, the U.S. and the Turks, would operate in that zone. But we’re willing to work with them on this. We think that this is a deal that we can sell to the people of northeast Syria. That’s very important.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PALLADINO: Associated Press.
QUESTION: Hi. Eric Tucker with the Associated Press. I was wondering what either of you two gentlemen might be able to say about the latest U.S. citizen repatriation just this week, and what the circumstances of that particular case are.
AMBASSADOR SALES: So let me dodge that one. We are aware of the reports about a repatriation that took place recently. We’ll defer to DOJ on whether anything has happened, and if so, whether to announce it.
But let me speak more broadly to the U.S.’s record in this space. So the United States is leading by example. We’ve called on other countries to repatriate and prosecute; that’s exactly what we did – that’s exactly what we’ve done. To date, we have brought back five adults – that’s four males and one female – who have been charged with a variety of terrorism-related crimes, related to their involvement and/or support to ISIS. One person has been convicted; in the other four cases, the charges are pending. But in all five cases, you’re looking at relatively severe penalties. For instance, our federal criminal statute prohibiting the knowing material support to a terrorist organization carries maximum penalties, upwards of 20 years. So we’re taking this threat very seriously, and we’re using the law enforcement tools at our disposal to address it.
MR PALLADINO: Last question’s for Reuters, please.
QUESTION: Yeah, sorry, I want to come back to what you mentioned on Africa. Can you tell us a little bit more about this coalition – increased coalition, including Africa? Are a lot of the fighters – have you seen any of the fighters coming out of Syria going into Africa? You’ve traditionally spoken about Nigeria and Somalia, Mali as well. Now you’re talking about DRC and you’re talking about northern Mozambique. Is this a whole different set of ISIS? Is this a new way that they are fighting? I mean it’s probably worth a separate briefing, but whatever you can sort of —
AMBASSADOR SALES: Yeah. So if that’s a request to defer my answer to that question until we can set up a separate briefing, I’m happy to do so. (Laughter.) But in the meantime, let me say I think it’s very much all of the above. In some cases, the ISIS-affiliated fighters that you see in Africa are sort of indigenous militants that have associated themselves with the ISIS brand. In other cases, at the other extreme, what you see are battle-hardened ISIS fighters who originated in Africa, traveled to the war zone in Syria and Iraq, gained battlefield experience, and returned home to either found or enrich existing ISIS affiliates. It’s a very complex picture, and it’s one that we think the coalition has some value to add in terms of addressing the solution. And that’s why we’re going to be encouraging our coalition partners to focus on this challenge.
QUESTION: Where has the U.S. been successful in preventing that from spreading?
AMBASSADOR SALES: Where has the U.S. been successful in preventing them from spreading? Well, I think every time somebody is taken off the battlefield and incarcerated in Syria, and especially every time one of those detainees is then taken back home and prosecuted, that’s a success story right there.
MR PALLADINO: Great. Thank you all. Thank you, Ambassador Jeffrey, Ambassador Sales.
QUESTION: Thank you.
AMBASSADOR SALES: Thank you, all.
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Thank you