Background Briefing Previewing Secretary Kerry's Visit to Rome

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Official
Rome, Italy
February 1, 2016


MODERATOR: So in light of tomorrow’s ministerial meeting of the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, we have with us a senior State Department official known to you as [Senior State Department Official] to walk us through, on background as a senior State Department official, the agenda for the meeting as well as give his impressions about the goals of tomorrow’s meeting and the progress that’s been made over the past several months in countering ISIL. So without further ado since time is tight, I’ll hand it over to a senior State Department official.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay, so just some background on why we’re here in Rome. This is the third small group meeting of the coalition. It brings together about 23 ministers – the EU, the UN is here – to kind of assess where we are in the overall campaign. The last one we had was about six months ago in Paris, and I think that’s important because that was at a time when Ramadi had just fallen to ISIL. It was a very serious time of a lot of questions about where we were heading in the campaign and how we as a coalition could respond. You might remember that was shortly after the Secretary broke his leg, and he called in – given the importance of the moment and the Secretary’s leadership in forming this coalition over the last 18 months, he called in and co-hosted virtually from his hospital bed. It made an incredible impression on me and I know everyone else in the room.

The discussion in that session in Paris was led by him and Prime Minister Abadi talking about what we had to do as a coalition to help the Iraqis get Ramadi back. And that at the time looked like an incredibly daunting challenge, and it was everything from surging some Special Forces capabilities. We, of course – the President had made a decision to send U.S. Special Forces into Taqaddum Airbase near – between Fallujah and Ramadi. We were later joined there by the Australians and some others who played a very important role in getting Ramadi back.

We knew we had to get a hold force in place, because it’s not enough to just retake it but also hold it. And that’s where the Italians – and that’s why it’s very important that we’re here in Rome. The Italians really stepped into a leadership role to train the Iraqi police. They now have a program going at a base near Baghdad training about 900 Iraqi police every two months. I was just in Baghdad yesterday and saw the governor of Anbar province, who confirmed to me there’s about 4,000 local Anbari police now, many of them trained by the Italians who are in Ramadi. The situation in Ramadi remains very difficult with unexploded ordnance and all sorts of things. But the police training mission led by the Italians was very successful.

So out of that session in Paris, I think it showed how these types of meetings actually have a – can have a very important, tangible effect. They’re not just getting around the table to talk about where we are. It’s actually setting the stage for what we need to do, and that Paris meeting was a real springboard to pool resources and to work in concert as a coalition. And I think because we did that and because Prime Minister Abadi came into that meeting and laid out a very coherent plan for how he wanted to get Ramadi back, we were actually able to succeed.

So now we’re here post-Ramadi and the focus is now on kind of where we go from here. We always said this will be a long-term campaign. We are now at the process where we want to accelerate some things. So I think the conversation tomorrow will focus on, first, in terms of Ramadi and other areas that have been taken from Daesh, the concept of stabilization as a key word which will be discussed quite a bit. Through the coalition we set up a stabilization funding mechanism. There’s now $54 million in it now. This is led by the Iraqis and the UNDP and it’s been incredibly successful. So it is focused on immediate, quick-hit projects in areas that are cleared of Daesh – getting in electric generators, getting water going again, and getting homes restored so people can move into their – back into their neighborhoods.

The test case for this was Tikrit, and we heard today from the UN representative who is leading this effort that about 95 percent of the population is now back in the city of Tikrit. This is just really remarkable. Tikrit was totally depopulated by ISIL terrorists. And to get the city back entirely – it’s an iconic Sunni city in the heart of Salahuddin province – is quite remarkable. Again, it would not have happened without the leadership of the Iraqis and without the coalition and the stabilization fund, all the training we’re doing. So it’s kind of an example of where things came together, and now we’re building on the lessons of Tikrit as we move to Ramadi.

Stepping back, there will be strategic discussion about ISIL writ large. We analyze ISIL, as I’ve discussed before. There’s the core in Iraq and Syria. There’s then the global networks – that’s foreign fighter networks, the financing networks, their propaganda networks. And then there’s the affiliates. The affiliates – there’s about seven of them. The ones that we’re most concerned about, of course, Libya predominates. And the Italians in particular want to have a discussion about Libya, and we will over a working lunch tomorrow. Libya will be the focus of the conversation about ISIL’s growth in Libya.

We’ll also review where we are on the coalition lines – we call them lines of effort. It’s how we’re organized as a coalition. There’s, of course, the military support, but there’s also the counter-finance, there’s counter-foreign fighters, and there’s the counter-messaging. So today – I just got here tonight, but today at the deputy level there was a working group session, an all-day session to go through all the working groups and kind of how we’re doing on these different lines of effort.

In the economic side, one thing that’s happened since we met in Paris – and again, that’s how the coalition – this coalition is – has an impact on the ground, because we had a plan to pool resources, to pool information, to really get after ISIL’s economic lifelines and networks. We learned a lot about this through the Abu Sayyaf raid, which you’ve all been briefed on before. And out of the last meeting in Paris, and led by the UK and some of our officials – intelligence, economics experts – we really isolated and learned about how ISIL was moving money, their finances. And then we went about a very deliberate military campaign to target those facilities. That’s the oil. That’s the trucks, the cash storage sites in Mosul. And indications now are that we’re having a pretty good impact on ISIL’s economic situation in its core in Iraq and Syria. So we’ll have an update on that and talk about how we can accelerate some of those efforts.

On foreign fighters, the foreign fighters getting in and out of Syria, there are indications now that it is much harder for them to get into Syria. We, of course, want to make sure they can’t get in, and when they do get in, make sure they can never get out. There’s a 98-kilometer strip of border that ISIL still controls with Turkey. The Turks have done an awful lot on their side of the border since President Obama had a good meeting with Erdogan in Antalya in the G20, and we just saw President Erdogan and Prime Minister Davutoglu with Vice President Biden last week kind of reviewing some of this. The Turks have done an awful lot on the border. It’s much harder for these guys to get in; and once they’re in, it’s now much harder for them to get out; but we want to continue to squeeze that.

Also on foreign fighters, it’s the global external threat-plotting network, and we all remember the attacks in Paris – that’s one thing we’ll also talk about tomorrow – and how we fuse information through law enforcement and intelligence communities and try to really crack down on the global foreign fighter networks.

Since the Paris attacks alone, foreign fighter cells have been broken up. There have been arrests or trials in Belgium, Egypt, France, Germany, Indonesia, Kuwait, Malaysia, Netherlands, Philippines, Spain, Tunisia, Turkey, Qatar, and the U.S. This shows, I think, an increasing cooperation across borders as we get after this network and learn more about it. It also indicates the extent of the threat that we continue to face and why this remains of the highest order priority of our national security in all of our capitals.

In terms of counter-messaging, through the coalition we’ve set up what’s called the Sawab Center in the UAE. I visited that center a few months ago, and really quite impressive – young men and women 24/7 countering ISIL’s message online. And again, it’s hard to kind of get the data on this, but all indications are now that their effectiveness on social media has been dramatically reduced. They actually have a study at the Sawab Center about the number of times ISIL/Daesh is mentioned in various ways or various capacities, and the kind of pro-Daesh messaging is a little – they kind of have a network analysis – it’s a little island out on its own. Most of the messaging now is actually counter-ISIL and counter-Daesh.

The Malaysians are going to set up a similar center, so we have – because it’s a different message in the Gulf, in the Arab world, in Asia, in Europe. So we want to get after this in a sophisticated way, and the Malaysians are working to set up a similar center there. And also the OIC is working on some counter-messaging initiatives, and we, of course, have reorganized our own counter-messaging efforts. And the leaders who are taking that on will be here as well to talk about the counter-messaging side. The counter-messaging, of course, gets easier when ISIL is losing, so that’s why the fact that we actually have some success on the ground is definitely helping the counter-messaging side.

So tomorrow is a good opportunity, led by the Secretary and our Italian host, to take stock of where we are, I think recognize the progress we’ve made since the Paris meeting six months ago. But also we’re all – those of us who work on this every day are very sober to the challenge, the fact that we will have setbacks, there will be unexpected turns of events, but as a coalition we want to remain agile and flexible.

If you look success that we’ve had over the last six months, the last year, oftentimes it’s not things we plotted out on a linear course. Tikrit was something we didn’t fully plan for. We adapted to it; it became a success. Ramadi, of course, was a setback. We adapted to it; it became a success. Kobani is the good example of this – how most people never heard of Kobani, the town was about to fall. We made a decision at a critical time to do an air drop to help the defenders of Kobani, and we turned that situation around quite dramatically.

So it’s a lesson that you can’t plot out a linear course for how things are going to go. You have to be flexible, adaptive, have the resources, and be able to take on this very decentralized network in a way that we kind of beat it at its own game across all these multiple lines of effort, and meetings like this kind of help us do that.

So with that, I can take some questions.

QUESTION: For the next two days, or for the next day and a half, whatever, what’s the state of play on possible airstrikes in Libya? What would you need to see on the ground from the Libyan Government, and what type of response would, for example, a recognized government prompt from the coalition?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So this is background?

QUESTION: Background.

MODERATOR: Yeah.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay. So we’re obviously watching the growth of ISIL in Libya quite closely. There’s an active political process ongoing. My colleague, Jonathan Winer, is in the lead on that as the envoy for Libya. He is here in Rome with the Secretary. There will be meetings on the margins of Libya. This is a real focus of all of ours.

First and foremost, when we see a threat to the United States or external plotting, we will not hesitate to act upon that threat. So the number one ISIL in Libya, Abu Nabil, we did a strike against him a couple months ago, and those are things we’re continuing to watch quite closely. Anything broader, I think, would require discussion with the Libyans and with, obviously, coalition partners. And so the Italians, French, obviously many of our coalition partners, are looking quite closely at Libya. We had a National Security Council meeting with the President on it last week focused on the Libya question.

So there’s an awful lot of attention to it right now, but I would just say when we see threats emerging that could harm us, it’s in our national security interest to act against those threats and we’ve shown we will continue to do that. But anything further, I’m just not going to address right now.

QUESTION: If the French and the Italians decide to address threats to Europe, would the U.S. be there in a supporting role?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Again, I just don’t want to get ahead of the process. I mean, we’re all – this is one of the reasons we’re here in Rome, to talk about the situation in Libya, particularly the situation in Sirte, and how we as a coalition can address it.

Now, as a coalition we’re already organized to address the networks that feed the affiliates, so the foreign fighter flows. As it’s been harder for foreign fighters to get into Syria, we have an increasing stream of information that they are sending their fighters to Libya. That’s what they’re saying in their magazine, Dabiq: “Go to Libya.” So they are now trying to make Libya their hub.

I think that’s part and parcel of the success we’ve had in Syria. If you’re a foreign fighter joining ISIL in Syria, you’re going to die in Syria. And so I think they are learning that. Many of them actually go, they want to die in Syria, but actually, a lot of them don’t. They want – they’re attracted to – if you really look at the ISIL propaganda, some of it is the gore and the war. But a lot of it – actually a vast majority of it – is this sun-drenched scenes of the caliphate, and come, you’ll have a family, and all this kind of total nonsense. That attracts people.

That is not what’s happening in Syria. And the message is getting out now that if you go to Syria that is all a big lie, you’re actually going to have a pretty miserable time. So they’re now trying to say, “Well, okay, come to Libya.” And so we’re already organized as a coalition to crack down on the foreign fighter networks, and so that’s what we’re doing, and the anti-propaganda and the counter-finance. But in terms of anything broader, that’s one of the things that we’ll be discussing here in Rome.

QUESTION: Can you talk about the prospect that we’re going to see additional troops in Iraq and Syria in the coming weeks? You talked about accelerating at first when you kind of laid out what you were going to talk about with the coalition. I mean, what – how advanced are those talks? And what’s the timeframe for when they would need to be set in order to take advantage of some of the gains you’ve talked about?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So I think – let me actually address one thing, because the Iraqis are asking about this. I just want to make sure it’s clear. Because there was stuff out there that we’re bringing in the 101st Airborne and this was like an increase in what we’re doing. It’s not. It’s the 101st Airborne is replacing the 82nd Airborne. So we have about 3,500 American troops doing advising and assisting, and I think we’re going to stay at that level.

We are, of course – as we plan for major campaigns like Mosul, which is going to be extremely challenging, we are, of course, looking at what else we might do. And those will be conversations we have within our national security team and, most importantly, with the Iraqis. Because everything we do in Iraq is based on the principle of Iraqi sovereignty, Iraqi permission. So as we plan Mosul and other (inaudible) like that, obviously this will be a conversation we have. But for right now, no decisions have been made on any direct accelerants. We’ve talked about things like the expeditionary targeting force and things, but I’m not going to say anything more on that.

I will just say on Mosul, having just come out of Baghdad, it was quite interesting. I was in Baghdad yesterday and the Kurdish – Kurdistan Regional Government sent a very senior delegation led by their Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani to Baghdad to meet with Prime Minister Abadi and all the leaders in Baghdad, which was a somewhat rare event actually to have a broad-based, face-to-face meeting like that.

It was focused first and foremost on the economic challenge that Iraq is facing because of the price of oil. It’s an extremely serious economic crisis that Iraq is challenging – Iraq is facing that the prime minister is working his way through. And we’re trying to help him with that through technical assistance and working with the World Bank and the IMF. But it was also focused on planning for the Mosul campaign, because when it comes to Mosul you need total cooperation between Kurdish Peshmerga forces, Iraqi Security Forces, coalition advisors. It’s complicated. But we now have this nested and in Makhmur we’re setting up the kind of joint operation command where everything will be pulled together – militarily, humanitarian, stabilization, the tribal fighters – I mean learning all the lessons we’ve learned in Tikrit and Ramadi.

So this is now starting to move and come together, but I wouldn’t want to put a timeline on it because it’s going to be very difficult and it’s not going to launch until it’s ready. But we’re also already doing Mosul, so the fact the Peshmerga took Sinjar some months ago, that cut the main road to Mosul, and some things that we hope to happen in Syria over the coming weeks will continue to constrict and cut off that supply line between Raqqa and Mosul. So that will be ongoing over the coming months.

MODERATOR: I’m going to have to make this the last question, guys. Any other questions, or are we good? Great.

QUESTION: I did have one more.

QUESTION: Yeah, I have one.

MODERATOR: A quick one please.

QUESTION: Can you explain why you’re looking at Sirte specifically? You mentioned that’s the highest --

QUESTION: You’re not worried about (inaudible) and Derna?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Sirte is just one part on the whole coastal map of Libya. It’s where ISIL, in its own propaganda, focuses its efforts. So it’s just one area. But Sabratha and other – there’s ISIL cells popping up, but Sirte seems to be where they’re trying to set up a – why they’re different than al-Qaida is they come in and set up their version of a state. So I mean, that’s what they’re clearly trying to do. It’s one thing if they have a cell. I mean, they have cells in Bangladesh and other countries, and affiliates, but where they control territory is where it raises – it gets on our radar screen because that is what makes ISIL different than other threats. So what they’re trying to do in Libya now, in certain parts of Libya, is establish itself as a quasi-state. And we’re going to work with the Libyans primarily, first and foremost, but also through the coalition to try to make sure they can’t do that.

MODERATOR: Thanks so much, everyone.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Thank you very much.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thanks.