Update on Campaign Against ISIL

Special Briefing
Brett McGurk
Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition To Counter ISIL, Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL
Washington, DC
October 7, 2016

MR KIRBY: Happy Friday, everybody.


MR KIRBY: Today we have a special guest briefer. You know Brett McGurk, the presidential special envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL. Brett’s going to come up here. He’ll talk a little bit about where we are in the campaign against ISIL. He’ll have time to take a few questions, but only a few. I’ll moderate those. As you have in the past, please identify who you are, who you’re with, before you ask your question. Let’s limit follow-ups if we can so we can keep moving through this, and then we’ll get to the regular daily briefing for today.

So with that, Special Envoy McGurk.

MR MCGURK: John, thanks. I thought I’d give a brief update because there’s been a lot of interest kind of where we’re heading in the next few weeks, but I want to kind of back up at this overall global campaign against Daesh and just emphasize the truly global nature of it. So when I’ve been here before, I’ve talked about we analyze Daesh in three dimensions. There’s the core in Iraq and Syria; we have to shrink their physical space, and we’re doing that quite rapidly, which I’ll talk about. Then there’s the networks. There’s the foreign fighter network, the financial network, and the propaganda network, and we’re working to chop those up every single day 24/7. And then there are the affiliates – eight affiliates around the world.

But one reason we’re so focused on this, of course, is their external plotting network, what they’re trying to do as a global terrorist organization. So to defeat that – it is a global network and we’ve built this global coalition of 67 members. And I just want to kind of give some highlights starting from the outside in before I get to Syria and Iraq about what we’ve done.

First, although it is in Syria, the operation in Manbij, which I know a lot of you have covered. We uncovered in that operation – we knew it was a hornet’s nest – a trove of their foreign fighters, where they’re planning, where they’re plotting, and where they process foreign fighters when they come into the country. Since we have gotten Daesh out of Manbij, we’ve recovered a huge trove of intelligence – over 15 terabytes of material now. When I was recently in Syria, I kind of saw how we process it all, we disseminate it. We then work as a global coalition to make sure that we’re sharing information as rapidly as we can.

So one thing about the coalition that when I’m traveling in capitals what we really emphasize is we need radical information sharing to stay ahead of this threat, and that’s what we’re trying to do as a coalition. If we get a phone off of a dead ISIL fighter in Manbij and it has a number of telephone numbers into a particular capital or city around the world, we share that information with the coalition members so that they can conduct their own investigation. And this is now really starting to work at light speed, although we want to speed it up.

Since August 30th we’ve taken out more than 18 ISIL leaders including, of course, some of their most prominent and Baghdadi’s deputy Mohammed Adnani, who was the leader of all of their external operations. That was a very significant operation led by, of course, our colleagues in DOD and one of the benefits and the fruits of the Manbij operation. I do not think it’s a coincidence that after the loss of Manbij, after ISIL lost Manbij, a lot of their key leaders left wherever they were and gathered in other places. We were able to track them quite effectively.

But through all of this intelligence and through all this information sharing and working as a global coalition, we’re seeing more and more countries take action against ISIL or ISIL-affiliated fighters. These types of people are trying to conduct inspired plots. So just – I just want to kind of go through the list of countries just so you have a sense of the scope and breadth of this. I was in Canada yesterday and we talked a lot about not just everything we’re doing in Iraq and Syria as a coalition, as a partner – and our - Canadians, of course, are on the ground there in northern Iraq – but also as law enforcement, intelligence, and constantly sharing information as a coalition.

So countries in which people have either been detained or prosecuted or they’ve broken up plots include: in Europe, Bulgaria, Germany, Spain, France, Montenegro, Italy, Turkey of course, Netherlands; in the Middle East, Morocco, Algeria; all the way out to South Asia/Pacific, Indonesia, Singapore; Africa, South Africa; in Latin America, Brazil; and, of course, in North America here we had a very successful cooperative relationship with the Canadians which stopped an attack before it was about to happen by a terrorist by the name of Aaron Driver.

So --

QUESTION: Sorry, could you --

QUESTION: Sorry, this is based on Manbij stuff, all of this?

MR MCGURK: Not all of it’s based on Manbij stuff.

QUESTION: Oh, okay.

MR MCGURK: But it’s based upon the point of what we’re doing as a coalition is not just what we’re doing in Iraq and Syria, which I know gets a lot of the focus. It is about strengthening these ties between all different branches of our government, sharing information to try to stay ahead of the threat.

QUESTION: I’m sorry. Can you just clarify what you did in all – you disrupted plots, or --

MR MCGURK: Yeah, we can get you all the details in every single country I’ve listed. So these countries have either arrested individuals, stopped plots, such as I just mentioned in Canada. But it’s just an example of the breadth and scope of what we’re doing as a global coalition, because even after we get Daesh out of Iraq and Syria, which we will – when we get them out of their physical space, they will remain a threat for some time. As I’ve said before here at this podium, this is an unprecedented threat. We’ve had 40,000 foreign fighters pour into Syria over five years from over 120 countries all around the world. That’s twice as many of these jihadist-oriented individuals that went into Afghanistan in the ‘80s, and we know where that led to, so we have to stay ahead of this.

Let me give just a brief update of the situation in Iraq and Syria and how we’re working to really strangle what is left of their physical space. The number one on the map – I’ve discussed this for quite some time – this is the 98-kilometer strip of border that they controlled with Turkey. They no longer control that strip of border with Turkey. The Turks, obviously supporting a number of moderate Syrian opposition groups, moved into Jarabulus about a month ago. We are on the ground and helping them, and they have pushed to the west and cleared off that entire zone. And those forces are now moving towards the strategically symbolic town of Dabiq. That is the name of the – of ISIL’s propaganda magazine, and they’re going to have to find a new name for their propaganda magazine – which, actually, they already have.

So number two, Raqqa. Raqqa remains their administrative capital. We’re working very closely with our partners, Syrian Arabs and Kurds, to build a force to begin to move the push on Raqqa, and that is something that we want to do as soon as possible. We, of course, have people on the ground working that now every single day.

Let me focus though on number three, because this is Mosul. It took some time to get in place to talk about the actual liberation of Mosul. Mosul, of course, is where Daesh burst onto the international scene. It’s where Baghdadi declared his phony caliphate. And we now have all the pieces in place to get Daesh out of Mosul. So I won’t talk about the timing, I won’t talk about the specifics of the overall plan, but I will just talk about the extensive amount of planning that has gone into this.

My deputy general, Terry Wolff, is here. He spent about three and a half weeks in Iraq, over a hundred different meetings helping to coordinate and bring everybody together to do this. There are four dimensions of the Mosul plan. One, of course, is the political dimension of the disposition of forces. We have built a force of over 30,000 for this total operation. That includes Kurdish Peshmerga. It includes Iraqi Security Forces, their counterterrorism service forces. It includes local Nineveh tribal fighters – we hope to have about 14,000 of those – and of course, local police.

So getting all of these forces together and arranged and where they’re going to go and what they’re going to do takes an awful lot of work. We worked very hard and had very close cooperation with our partners in Erbil in the Kurdistan Regional Government and President Massoud Barzani and the Government of Baghdad to agree on the overall disposition of forces – where everybody would go, what they will do. That is now all agreed. So that is a very good sign, and President Barzani’s presence in Baghdad, which some of you may have covered last week, was quite significant – first time he visited Baghdad in some years, and much of it was focused on making sure we have the pieces in place for the Mosul military operation. So the political agreements for how that’s going to go are in place.

The second dimension of the plan is humanitarian assistance. You may have seen some estimates of up to perhaps a million IDPs. That is kind of the apocalyptic scenario. It’s the worst-case scenario. We have to plan for the worst-case scenario. But of course, I think that is the real high end of what we might see.

The plan is to keep people in their homes, and the messaging that is ongoing now for the people of Mosul is to keep people in their homes. One example of that was an operation that was done about two weeks ago in the town of Sharqat south of Mosul. It was a stronghold of Daesh. We thought it would take some weeks. It actually – that town fell in about two days because the population rose up, kicked Daesh out as soon as the Iraqi Security Forces entered, and we did not have a serious flow of refugees out of Sharqat. So the plan is to keep people in their homes – very methodical, neighborhood by neighborhood. But of course, the unknown is what Daesh is going to do.

We are now working every single day with NGOs, with the Iraqi Government, with the Kurdistan Regional Government and local officials in Nineveh to pre-position resources for IDPs. We want to have enough in place to be sufficient to accommodate up to one million IDPs. I think we’ll definitely have enough for 750,000 – again, preparing for the very worst case.

Issues now are down to – we’re securing additional land in case you do get the kind of worst-case scenario, and we’re doing that now. Just yesterday, we had a very important meeting with the Government of Iraq and the UN. The Government of Iraq has directed construction of 20 additional emergency sites, and these things can be put up pretty fast.

So the humanitarian coordination is ongoing. As you know, we have raised an awful lot of funds and resources for this campaign. We had the event here in July with the coalition. We raised over 2 – about $2.3 billion. We also had another event at the UN, at the UN General Assembly last week, in which we raised another about $100 million. I was in UAE just last week, had a very good meeting with His Highness Mohammed bin Zayed. They have put in about $60 million into the stabilization funding. So the resources are coming in; the resources are there. The issue is making sure that they are in the right pots in order to be spent immediately on the needs as they develop and as they evolve.

The third dimension of the Mosul plan – and this has been going on now for many, many months, all – each dimension of the plan – is stabilization. And the elements of stabilization – humanitarian assistance focused on taking care of people as they leave the city. Stabilization is focused on getting people back into their homes. And in Iraq, through our stabilization planning through the coalition, about a million IDPs are now back in their homes. In Ramadi, now that we’re finally getting IEDs out of the streets – it takes a lot of time to meticulously clear out all these IEDs – 200,000 people have now returned. Even in Fallujah, one of the most recent cities cleared, we have about 2,000 people now back in their homes, and this will continue.

So in Mosul, we’re focused on making sure we pre-position the material that we will need to support people returning to their homes. We’re also making sure that as IDPs come out of their homes – we’re working closely with the Iraqis on this – that security screening is put in place, and that’s necessary to do, that we do not have the types of problems we had in Fallujah. So we’re looking for independent screening mechanisms and also to make sure that armed groups that are not under the full control of the Iraqi Government are not a part of the Mosul campaign.

So stabilization is screening of IDPs, the police to come in and hold the city afterwards. The army of course will have a significant role in holding, and also making sure that we have the conditions in place to return people to their homes, learning the lessons we have already learned from Tikrit, from Ramadi, these other areas where we have seen IDPs return.

The fourth dimension of the Mosul plan – I’m obviously hitting only the wave-tops here – is the governance plan. The governance plan is focused on the existing Iraqi institutions. There is a governor of Nineveh province. His name is Governor Nofal Agoob. He will, of course, be empowered as Abadi – Prime Minister Abadi in Baghdad has really focused on trying to empower the governors and his policy of decentralization, empowering local leaders, empowering local people from the bottom up. But Mosul is obviously a very big challenge, so President Barzani of the Kurdistan Region will appoint somebody to be with Governor Agoob. Abadi is doing the same thing. We’ll be with them, and the UN, to help manage the overall stabilization and governance aspects of Mosul. The city is a big city, divided into eight districts, and actually who will governor each of those districts is something that we now have in place.

So we think the plan has come – is coming together quite well. That said, this will be a very unpredictable, very dynamic, very uncertain operation. There are a lot of unknowns. We do not know what Daesh is going to do in Mosul. We have some estimates that they will stay and fight to the last man, as they tried to do in Manbij. We have some estimates that they’re actually preparing to give up Mosul. We actually don’t know. We will be prepared, again, for the worst case, and we will develop the force and our advisors and all of our partners in – my colleagues in DOD will be helping to make sure that the force is able to win on the ground militarily, and then we will be working with our humanitarian colleagues to make sure that we’re ready to handle the humanitarian flow that comes out.

So we do not know exactly what Daesh will do. We know pretty much how they are positioned, but there’s a lot of uncertainty here. So I think things will probably look fairly uncertain. It’s one of the most complex things the Iraqis have done. But we have seen them do things now that would be unimaginable two years ago.

My final point – I’ll get to questions. Just to set up this campaign to liberate Mosul, which is really the last step of this very difficult campaign against Daesh, the Iraqi Security Forces have charged up 80 to 100 kilometers up the Tigris Valley. They’ve done a river crossing. They have seized territory that about a year ago it looked a little bit beyond their reach. They are acting with professionalism and with increasing confidence. The last time I was in Iraq, what was really struck by was the confidence among particularly the Iraqi Security Forces that they are going to defeat Daesh. It was a different story even six months ago, when some of these battles were extremely difficult.

But this will be one of the hardest things they’ve done. It’ll obviously be a significant moment in our overall campaign. But we need to focus on why this has to be done. There’s over a million people in Mosul living under the boot of Daesh. We think most of the Yezidi slaves who were taken by Daesh almost two years ago, a vast majority of them are in Mosul. They are executing people in the streets. We are having increasing reports of Daesh terrorist fighters who are actually shooting themselves in the leg or in the arm to try to get out of the fight. So there are signs that Daesh’s morale is plummeting quite rapidly. But there is a humanitarian imperative to get Daesh out of Mosul as soon as we can, and we think we are rapidly approaching that day.

So that will unfold here over the coming weeks. We will, of course, be all over it with our team. And I’ll keep – we’ll keep everybody updated as it goes on. I’ll take a couple questions.

MR KIRBY: Okay, we’ve got time for just a few questions. Matt, you want to start?

QUESTION: I’ll be very brief with one, and then I have a second one, which just – it’s not on that map up there, but on the handout it said there’s – 9-16 at the bottom – does that mean that this was prepared September 16th? (Inaudible.)

MR MCGURK: I actually don’t have that there. But yeah. So if you have the most updated – it’s --

QUESTION: Is that correct?

STAFF: It’s through August.

QUESTION: Yeah, I know, but was this prepared on the 16th of September?

STAFF: Yeah, but that is through August.

QUESTION: I understand that. I just wanted --

MR MCGURK: Yeah, so --

QUESTION: And do you have any reason to believe that this has substantially changed since then?

MR MCGURK: It’s actually changed in more positive ways. So just to situate you on this map, which you – many of you have seen before, anything in color is territory that Daesh at one point or another controlled. Everything in green is territory they have since lost. Orange is where they still are, and the small red blotches are actually areas that they’ve gained. So if this map was updated, the number one – there’s a whole – this is all now green to about 15 kilometers in there is a – they no longer control that border. That’s what I mentioned before with the Turkish-led operation with the opposition. You’d also see some more green around between Hiit and Ramadi, because the Euphrates Valley there, there have been a number of successful operations with Iraqi tribes of Anbar province who are performing quite heroically against Daesh. So --

QUESTION: All right. And then – okay. And then my second is unrelated, but it’s come up over and over and over again, and I just want to get your take on it because it involves you personally, and that is, you’ve seen the report about the – these three documents that are sitting up on the Hill in this SCIF and that were – relate to the Iran deal and the Bank Sepah and the prisoners being released. And it is alleged or said that the date on the original was the January 16th, and that was scratched out and the 17th was written instead. Can you explain – is that true? And secondly, can you explain why?

MR MCGURK: What I can really say about that is, of course, as I think’s been discussed many times here by John and others, we had a number of strands of diplomacy come together at the exact same time on the same day and we had a very difficult 24 hours with the Iranians to finalize the prisoner trade. So a number of things were going on. We wanted to get a lot of business done the same day. There were a number of documents signed on that final day. And so, that’s really what happened that final day.

MR KIRBY: Okay, Michael.

QUESTION: Brett, apropos, Mosul. I’ve talked to a number of the interested parties who are concerned with the battle for Mosul, and they say that there is, in fact, no agreed political vision for what should happen in Nineveh province or in Mosul post liberation. Governor Najafi wants basically an autonomous region, and he’s advocated for that. Some of the Kurds have talked about grafting parts of Nineveh province, maybe Sinjar and other areas, onto the KRG. It looks like the Iraqi Government wants to keep things more or less the way they are, and they say the Americans have been reluctant to come in and impose a solution or enforce a solution prior to hostilities. Is there an agreed vision among all these parties? Have the people of Mosul, the Iraqi Government, and the Kurds, all sat together and agreed on a political roadmap for Nineveh, or is this something that you intend to work out after the operation commences?

MR MCGURK: Yeah, Michael, so it’s a great question. And when you’re in Iraq talking to all these, everybody has a different idea for how Nineveh province should be governed, who should be the governor. Every other person you meet will say, I should be the governor, he should be the governor. The problem here is that if you try to resolve all of those issues, Daesh will remain in Mosul for the foreseeable future and perhaps forever.

So what we have agreed with the Iraqis – it’s their plan – is that the same principles apply in Nineveh province that applied in Salahuddin province, which is also a very complex mosaic, and also in Anbar province. There are existing political institutions, the provincial councils, the governors – those leaders will be empowered. However, there is an important role for all the notables of Nineveh province and also Mosul. So one thing Terry did particularly when he was there for three and a half weeks was meeting with everybody, making sure that everybody feels invested in the future of Nineveh province and the future of Mosul. But the governance plan will rely on the existing political institutions. So there will be an important role for all the notables of Mosul, but the assessment from the Iraqis, which I very much agree with, is that it would be impossible to resolve all of these very difficult issues while Daesh is sitting in Mosul. But we have worked very hard to make sure the humanitarian plan is as ready to go as possible – and I stress as possible – and the governance plan is also as ready to go as possible.

So it will be a structure with the governor, with the provincial council, with a representative from the KRG, and a representative from the Government of Iraq, together with us and the UN to help organize the post-Mosul future – post-Daesh future of Mosul. But we think this is a pretty good structure. It has worked in all of these other areas. Every single city that has been taken by Daesh, nothing has been retaken by Daesh. That includes cities in which the governance plan was very clear in which there was unanimity, and also situations in which there really wasn’t a good governance plan and just organically there was stability afterwards, something we worked very hard on.

But just to the heart of your question, because it’s a good one, is that if we try to resolve everything before Mosul, Daesh will never get out of Mosul. And this is really a war of momentum. We feel the momentum is on the side of the Iraqi security forces. They are the ones that will set the date for when this launches, and we will support them when they’re prepared to go.

MR KIRBY: Elise.

QUESTION: A couple of quick ones. First of all, if you could put out, as you said, like, some information on those disruptions --

MR MCGURK: Yeah, I have all that.

QUESTION: -- on the coalition that you said. What kind of – I don’t know if you guys would be doing this, maybe more the Iraqi Government, but what kind of information campaign is being done to educate the people of Mosul, in terms of having information about what’s coming and what they should be doing?

And then, is there any – in this operation, is there a specific strategy to try and rescue – you mentioned you think a lot of these Yezidi slaves are being held in Mosul. There is some expectation that they will try to move them if they leave this city, and so is there a specific strategy to try and rescue some of these?

MR MCGURK: Yeah, so it’s a great question. So first, how do you communicate with the people of Mosul? This is very difficult and – for example, we’d know where we’d like the IDP flows to go, but do you want to preview that too early to give the enemy exactly where they want the IDPs to go? Because we’ve seen Daesh in other cities, Fallujah and elsewhere, assassinate civilians as they’re trying to leave. So we are doing leaflet drops quite constantly. The Iraqi Air Force are doing leaflet drops to the people of Mosul and the Iraqis have also begun a radio station directly into the heart of Mosul. Prime Minister Abadi addressed the people of Mosul on that radio station just two nights ago.

So we’re communicating with them a number of ways, but there is a balance between making sure the people of Mosul know as much as we want them – that they need to know to protect themselves. The number one message that is going to them is the operation is designed to have them stay in their homes as much as possible. So – but the radio station and the leaflet drops are ongoing on a very regular basis.

And your second question is a very good one and is something that I am very focused on with our team. It’s very hard to get a handle on exactly where these people are. I met with one of the escaped Yezidi slaves, Nadia Murad, in New York at the UN General Assembly. We’re doing all we possibly can to try to find where these people are and I – we’re going to try to make sure that if Daesh escapes Mosul, which will – I don’t think they’ll be able to do, that they can’t take these people with them. So it’s a very good question. It’s one of the most difficult questions and we want to free these people. That’s one of the key objectives of the operation.

MR KIRBY: We’ll take the last one from Dave.

QUESTION: In recent weeks, there’s been a certain amount of tension in rhetoric between Baghdad and Ankara about the situation around Mosul. The Iraqi Government has demanded the Turkish troops leave the area. The Turkish troops insist they have a role to play. Does that in any way undermine your planning, and do Turkish troops in Nineveh have a role in the upcoming Mosul operation?

MR MCGURK: Yeah, so it’s a great question. I was in Ankara about 10 days ago with Deputy Secretary Blinken. We had very detailed discussions with the Turks with all levels of their government. Our principles on this are very clear: all military activities in Iraq – this is a fundamental principle of ours – all military activities in Iraq have to be with the full consent and coordination of the Government of Iraq. We do not do anything in Iraq as a coalition without the consent of the Government of Iraq.

A second fundamental principle of ours is the sovereignty of Iraq and the territorial integrity of Iraq. So those are fundamental principles of ours that we will adhere to.

This deployment at Bashiqa happened a little over a year ago; been through it sometime before. There was either some miscommunication or something, but it did not have that consent of the Government of Iraq that we would require before a military force comes into Iraq. That said, they have trained a number of local Nineveh fighters and we are prepared to incorporate those fighters into the operation under the Iraqi command.

The key principle when it comes to Mosul is there is one plan, there is one command. Any armed groups outside of that structure are going to be a very serious problem. So obviously, we’re working very closely with our partners in Baghdad to help resolve this issue diplomatically, and we’ll be very seized with that over the coming days.

QUESTION: Can I follow up with that --

MR KIRBY: Okay, thanks. Said, we’ve got to get going. I’m sorry.

QUESTION: Just on the popular mobilization units. I mean, they will not have any role with that?

MR MCGURK: About 14,000 local popular mobilization, local volunteers from Nineveh similar to as we done – have done in Anbar province and the role of the Hashd al-Shaabi from the south. We think we have that worked out politically, but there are a lot of wild cards here, so I don’t want to predict the future. We’re trying to make sure this is done in a way that gives the people of Mosul confidence that the liberation forces are the disciplined Iraqi Security Forces and that they will have a much better life after Daesh. Thanks.

QUESTION: Thanks, Brett.