Remarks at the Center for American Progress

John Allen
Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition To Counter ISIL 
Washington, DC
July 14, 2015

(As Prepared)

I want to thank Vikram for his generous introduction and also for his service. As many of you know, Vikram made substantial contributions to our diplomatic and coalition efforts in Afghanistan … efforts which helped lay the ground work for some of the difficult progress that followed during my service as Commander of NATO forces.

I also want to thank the Center for American Progress for its contributions to the conversation on so many of the most complicated questions facing this country. And certainly, what we have come together at CAP today to address, the scourge of ISIL and how to counter it … this is one of the most complex problems that our nation, and indeed, the community of nations, is challenged to confront.

As President Obama said last September at the UN General Assembly, this is a moment where the world is “at a crossroads.” We are living during a time in human history when the old order is passing and a new order is coming into being. In how ISIL has effectively used 21st century tools – the ease of world travel, global financial networks, the Internet – we see some of the vulnerabilities and gaps in the global order that is emerging. Indeed, it is one of ISIL’s great ironies that they are so skilled at using modern technologies to spread such an anti-modern, medieval, and dehumanizing ideology.

As someone who spent four decades as a U.S. Marine, I have come closer than many to inhumanity. I have never before seen the kind of depravity and barbarity … and I use those words specifically … that ISIL represents, and in fact, celebrates. But in my service as the President’s Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL over these past ten months, the global response to ISIL’s calculated inhumanity has given me reason for optimism.

I am continually impressed by the diverse group of partners who have committed to this Counter ISIL Campaign … by their willingness to make substantial contributions of national prestige, and their blood and treasure, to what they know will be a complicated and difficult effort.

Indeed, it has been a great privilege to help organize the efforts of these nations and a Coalition campaign that matters profoundly to the security of nations across the world.

From the outset of this Coalition campaign to Counter ISIL -- which I will henceforth refer to by the Arabic acronym Daesh – we have understood that success would require us to persist, adapt, and reassess our activities in light of both victories and setbacks … setbacks such as was experienced in Ramadi in May.

At the same time, it is also imperative for all of us to understand the direction of our campaign from a more expansive horizon than one setback or one victory. Having been part of four previous Coalitions over the course of my career … and having commanded a Coalition of 50 nations in Afghanistan, I’ve seen how important … indeed essential … it is to see the ups and downs of a campaign within the context of long-term strategic objectives.

As we mark one year from the horrific events in Iraq which spurred the United States to act and convene a global Coalition, we have an important opportunity to take stock of how far we have come and how much further we have to go.

It is difficult to remember just how perilous a moment it was last June as Daesh fighters crossed the Syrian border en masse and began to pour down the Tigris River Valley.

As Daesh destroyed entire communities and massacred thousands of ethnic minorities in its path, it was a moment where Iraq was under siege and largely alone in the world.

Not only did Daesh win quick victories on the battlefield during those early weeks, they demonstrated an ability to use information operations as a force multiplier. As Daesh fighters took to social media to boast of the women they had brutalized or had forced into the sex trade, these messages had a remarkable effect.

Ultimately, we will never know the complete impact this messaging had on thousands of Iraqi soldiers who fled their ranks to defend their homes and families. We do know this: Daesh’s ability to define the information environment played a pivotal … a defining … role in their rise. Our ability to delegitimize this narrative, and in fact, the very idea of their organization, will play just as pivotal a part in their demise.

Nowhere has Daesh’s messaging mattered more than in the weeks after their capture of Mosul, when they declared the existence of a so-called Caliphate. Indeed, when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed himself Caliph of the faithful from Mosul’s Nuri al Din Mosque, he proclaimed Daesh’s global ambitions. But it was also during those difficult days last summer … as Daesh fighters surrounded thousands of Yazidis on Mount Sinjar … as they threatened the approaches to both Erbil and Baghdad, that the United States took a series of actions that would ultimately shift the momentum. President Obama made a series of critical decisions that would lay the ground work for the Coalition and the comprehensive effort to come.

First: We surged intelligence assets over Iraq from one ISR sortie per month to 60 per day, gaining a more granular picture of Daesh’s movements, essential to our future operations.

Second: We established joint operations centers in Baghdad and in Erbil, restoring critical relationships between Iraq’s central government and Kurdish commanders. Third: We deployed Special Forces teams to assess Iraqi Security formations, with a focus on Baghdad, ensuring that defenses could hold, and that our people would be protected. Fourth, and perhaps most critically for Iraq’s future, we redoubled efforts to support Iraqis in their political process following national elections.

These actions were absolutely essential in the immediate term but by no means sufficient to address many of the greater dangers. Indeed, it was also last summer that we began to understand that Daesh was not simply an Iraqi or Syrian problem but emerging as a regional problem with global and generational implications.

It was out of a keen awareness of that reality … and an understanding of the unthinkable human implications if this emergency were to go unabated … that President Obama and Secretary Kerry resolved to build a Global Coalition last September, and it was at that time when the White House asked me to assist in organizing, consolidating, and coordinating this Coalition as the President’s Special Envoy.

Since I began serving in this role I have now traveled to 30 capitals, many of them repeatedly, and during that time we have assembled a global Coalition of more than 60 nations and partners.

Unlike other Coalition campaigns I have been a part of, we have had to build this Coalition from whole cloth. When I served as Commander of our NATO forces in Afghanistan for instance, our authorities rested on a UNSCR and our framework mechanism was the NATO and the NAC. The unprecedented nature and urgency of this effort required that we create an organizational framework that would sustain a long-term effort while we simultaneously confronted the current emergency.

Last December in Brussels, the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL agreed unanimously to a Joint Statement which outlined our objectives and commitments to work together over multiple lines of effort.

While it is the Coalition’s kinetic actions that will receive the most attention, it is the aggregate effect of the Coalition’s activities across multiple lines of effort that will … in the end … determine the Coalition’s success. That is why in every visit I make to a Coalition Capital and in every conversation I have with a prime minister, king, or president, I describe the Coalition campaign as organized over the following multiple lines of effort:

  • A military component to deny safe haven and provide security assistance
  • Disrupting the flow of foreign fighters,
  • Disrupting access to Daesh’s financial resources,
  • Providing humanitarian relief and stabilization support
  • Counter-messaging – or defeating Daesh as an idea.

Briefly, let me provide an overview of the Coalition’s progress over of our central lines of effort and some of the ways the Coalition is evolving to confront an adaptable enemy.

Our first line of effort is focused on providing security support for our partners on the ground. While these efforts are the purview of CENTCOM and its partners, it is essential that Coalition’s activities over each of the lines of effort are synchronized and mutually reinforcing.

As we evaluate the success of this line of effort, Ramadi is a setback from which we must learn and understand. But we should also not forget that Daesh has been defeated from Babil to Diyala to Ninewa, in Kirkuk Province, at Mosul Dam and Mount Sinjar, at the Rabiyah crossing, and in its assault on the KRG.

In Kobane, where Daesh hoped to achieve a media spectacle for the entire world to see, they were soundly defeated.

Beyond Kobane, across the long stretch of northern Syria neighboring Turkey, 2/3 of the border is now controlled by Coalition supported forces.

In Tikrit, where Prime Minister Abadi asked for Coalition support at a decisive moment, our fires permitted Iraqi Security Forces to push Daesh out of Tikrit and recover the city. Today, less than three months later, hundreds of displaced families have now made a peaceful return to the city. This process gives us reason to be cautiously optimistic about Iraqi-led efforts to stabilize liberated communities and prevent sectarian reprisals.

While these important gains are a credit to our partners on the ground, the Coalition has played a vital role in improving their capabilities.

15 partners are helping to build the ISF’s capacity and six partners are contributing to the Coalition’s advise and assist mission. Eight nations have participated in airstrikes Iraq and five over Syria.

Among the more than 8,000 Iraqi fighters the Coalition has trained, many are now helping secure Bayji. Several hundred more are preparing for critical operations to take back Ramadi. In the short period of time since Ramadi’s fall and President Obama’s decision to open an additional training site at Taqqadum, an additional 1,300 Sunni fighters have received training and will soon join the fight.

Make no mistake: more Iraqis -- Sunni, Shia, and Kurd alike -- must be recruited, trained, and engaged to take back their country. Building the capacity of Iraq’s security forces will require an enduring commitment. Others may not agree, but it is my belief that with each passing week, as greater numbers of Iraqis are trained, equipped, and take to the battlefield, we will see their increasing effect. Success will inspire success as it inspires others to enter the fight.

At the same time, we must appreciate that the security gains can only be sustained if political reforms are made in parallel. Toward that end, we must continue to encourage Prime Minister Abadi’s pursuit of the inclusive path he has set out for his country, an approach he has described as “functioning federalism.”

This vision of governance emphasizes the importance of de-centralizing authorities to the provinces, and it is an approach that will be put to the test as the Prime Minister implements his five-point plan to retake Anbar province.

Success in Anbar will depend heavily on Baghdad’s ability and willingness to recruit, train, and equip Sunnis to take back their communities. This is an effort that will require the Prime Minister and others in his government to assume political risk with their largely Shi’a base. But if Iraq is to be sovereign and if its people are to be secure, Sunnis in Anbar must be empowered to confront the Sunni threat in their midst.

In how we support Iraq’s efforts, we too must avoid oversimplification of Iraq’s sectarian identities. Here, we have taken note of the decision of Sunni leaders within Anbar’s Provincial Council to endorse the contributions of Shia fighters. They recognize that there is a distinction to be made between many of the Shia hardliners under the influence of Iran and the large number of Shia who answered Grand Ayatollah Sistani’s call to defend Iraq last summer, and they came to the country’s rescue by the tens of thousands.

I believe I am better qualified than most to understand the destructive and destabilizing role the sectarian Shi’a militias can play. But as someone who is deeply committed to this Coalition campaign and Iraq’s success, I also understand the error in seeing Iraq’s fighters, Iraq’s communities, or Iraq’s future through a narrow and sectarian prism.

In fact, enabling Iraqis to move beyond these divisions is part of why stabilization efforts in liberated communities are so important, and why the Coalition’s support for these activities is one of our central lines of effort.

As I see it, there are four components to the counteroffensive now underway that require these efforts must be synchronized:

First, there is the clearing element when the Iraqi Army and Popular Mobilization Committee elements or PMF remove Daesh from an area.

Second, there is the security and policing element … also known as the hold force … that deals with crime and provides general security to the liberated population, so that life can return to normal. This hold force will likely come from a combination of militia units, local tribes, and reconstituted Sunni police.

Third, is restoration of local governance, an effort made more difficult when so many officials have been exiled, killed, or forced into cooperating with Daesh.

Fourth is the stabilization effort itself … or the provision of essential services. This includes immediate humanitarian assistance to address life threatening issues, as well as short-term restoration of services like health care, water, and electricity.

On each of these four elements, the Coalition is surging technical support and assistance to Iraqi-led efforts. While the Germans and Emiratis are helping organize these activities, other Coalition partners are providing significant support. The Italians, for instance, are playing a substantial role training an effective Iraqi police force. Several Coalition nations, including the United States, have made sizable contributions to a, UN-administered stabilization fund.

This fund will allow Iraqis to make immediate investments to meet the urgent needs of those who suffered daily depredations under Daesh’s heel for months and to restore critical infrastructure such as water purification and electrical distribution.

Through the support Baghdad provides these populations, they have an important opportunity to strengthen the connection between the capital and the provinces. The central government can also demonstrate the benefits of returning home to hundreds of thousands of displaced Iraqis that remain.

These kinds of stabilization efforts will eventually be just as critical in Syria, where Coalition-supported fighters have made a series of recent gains. The Coalition is enhancing our coordination to capitalize on successes in Kobane and Tal Abyad and we are stepping up our air campaign to put greater pressure on Daesh’s nerve center in Raqqah.

At the same time, CENTCOM is looking for ways to streamline our train and equip program’s vetting process so that we can get more recruits into the training pipeline. We can plainly see that the number of fighters currently enrolled in the program is far smaller than we had anticipated.

Because we will continue to require capable partners on the ground in Syria to ensure ISIL’s lasting defeat, we must find ways to improve this aspect of our strategy. More generally, we cannot afford to be desensitized to the level of violence in Syria or the belief that nothing can be done for its people.

While it is not the place of the United States or the Coalition to dictate the future for Syria’s people, each of us has a profound stake in creating the conditions where Syria’s people can begin to determine their own future, a future that is free from the brutality of Bashar Al Assad, as well as Daesh.

Across both Syria and Iraq, one of the best tools the Coalition can use to disrupt Daesh’s management and organization is our ability to squeeze its access to financial resources. These counter-finance activities, led jointly by Italy, Saudi Arabia and the U.S., constitute another one of the Coalition’s central lines of effort.

We are sharing information to block their access to the global financial system and uncovering their points of access in the region and abroad for financial support. The Coalition has also worked to degrade Daesh’s oil enterprise through our air campaign. Still, Daesh is proving resilient in its ability to bring degraded energy infrastructure back on line and we must redouble these efforts.

We also know that Daesh’s financial resources are diverse. Beyond its oil enterprise, their portfolio includes: massive criminal extortion of populations under its control; looting, kidnaping for ransom, human trafficking, a slave trade, and potential profit from the sale of plundered antiquities.

Daesh also operates in territory where there is an extensive criminal infrastructure to support illicit financial activity, much of it dating back to historic smuggling routes and to the efforts exerted by the Saddam regime to subvert sanctions in the 1990s.

In the recent raid on Abu Sayyef, we collected substantial information on Daesh financial operations and organizational structure.

The Coalition’s counter-messaging line of effort is also contesting Daesh’s narrative across platforms and languages. Here, it is important that key, credible Muslim voices and scholars speak out and publicly reject Daesh’s ideology. In the Arab world, it’s important that the voice discrediting Daesh is Muslim voice and that it has an Arab face.

Just last week, the United Arab Emirates and the U.S. launched a joint center to help coordinate counter-Daesh messaging in the region. We are discussing other regional messaging centers with other partners in Europe and Southeast Asia.

These efforts will remain an uphill battle. Still, this remains an area where the Coalition must take more comprehensive and decisive actions. Daesh’s toxic message cannot be allowed to go unchallenged.

The final line of effort I will mention today is an area that evokes the most universal concern in my conversations with Coalition partners: the effort to stem the flow of foreign fighters.

Most of the foreign fighters enter the battlespace somewhere along Turkey’s 900km border with Syria. Our Turkish allies have, in the past year, stepped up their efforts to interdict this border. But the burden of stopping the flow of foreign fighters to the battlefield cannot rest with the Turks alone. Other partners need to step up their own interdiction, intelligence collection, and sharing efforts. In fact, the Turkish border is the last line of defense in this equation.

Last week I led a high-level, interagency delegation to Ankara for extensive consultations. We have seen substantial progress by engaging in a sustained and respectful dialogue on this and a variety of issues. I believe enhanced cooperation with Turkey will present further opportunities for our two countries and the Coalition’s efforts to counter Daesh as we enter into the second year of this campaign.

We need nations working together at each link along the chain of becoming a foreign fighter or Dash recruit: at every border between a potential foreign fighter and the battle space, in their home communities, and at the point of recruitment and radicalization, which is often a personal computer or cell phone.

To date, over 30 Coalition partners have enacted laws to create greater obstacles for those planning to become foreign fighters and those who support them. At least 26 countries have made arrests breaking up Daesh-affiliated networks. Nonetheless, stopping the flow of foreign fighters to Iraq and Syria continues to be a serious challenge.

As we asses our Coalition strategy we must also confront a new reality: potential foreign fighters no longer need to leave their home countries – or even their homes – to be radicalized, recruited, or to carry out lone wolf attacks.

We must appreciate that there is no one “type” of foreign fighter, no single method of recruitment, and no one source to support them financially.

One critical issue we need to address is how we manage to reach, rehabilitate, and reintegrate the thousands of young people who become known to us, and who will need our help returning to their societies as productive members.

There is no denying that many societies find the idea of rehabilitating foreign fighters objectionable. And indeed, those who have broken the laws of our lands must be held accountable. But long-term detention cannot be the sole means of dealing with returning foreign fighters.

I believe we must strive to be a Coalition of compassionate states. Especially when certain Coalition partners have experienced success, the promise of rehabilitation and reintegration is one we ought to embrace.

Earlier this year I met with key Muslim leaders and social scientists in Singapore who have successfully de-radicalized young men, and in so doing supported their successful return to society.

The numbers are not as high for Singapore as they are for some others, but their success is notable: out of 57 releases, they have only had one recidivist.

Belgium, Austria, and Germany, have also developed successful reintegration programs and provide helpful lessons in a western context. For its part, Saudi Arabia has developed a set of effective practices for their specific cultural and national context at their Mohammed bin Nayef Center.

Any successful approach will have to respond to uniquely local social conditions and realities. At the same time, some of the forces which compel young men, and increasingly young women, to become foreign fighters, are thoroughly global and modern in their nature.

Daesh is practiced in exploiting a sense of rootlessness and separation that many young people feel in their communities. Whether in minority communities in the West, in certain Arab societies, or in Southeast Asia, a feeling of disenfranchisement and “otherness” is present and powerful for many.

There is a separation between these young people and what is defined as mainstream or the majority culture. There is separation between the opportunities young people see on their smart phones and those they believe are available to them in their own lives. There is separation between these young people and the true depth and richness of the Islamic faith.

We must save our children. We must guard against the manipulation of these separations and anxieties, while at the same time working to address their root causes.

Truly, this is no small task. It is a matter of working together as a Coalition and a community of nations to ensure that the promise of modernity is available and achievable to all.

In my discussions with Islamic scholars and Imams over the years, I have been told that it is by embracing modernity and connecting with the world, not through their rejection, that a Muslim can fully appreciate the richness of their faith.

Developing this sense of mutual respect strengthens our ability to act in shared purpose, which is absolutely essential in the fight in which we are now engaged.

When Daesh seeks to divide and conquer, we must draw strength from the diversity of our Coalition.

When Daesh succeeds only when men and women feel little connection to their governments and to their societies, it is necessary for all of us to work together to offer better models.

When Daesh defines itself by what it seeks to destroy, we must define our ultimate efforts by what we seek to build together.

And when we see groups and individuals seeking to affiliate and align with Daesh in several parts of the world, we see clearly how these challenges are not unique to one region.

Indeed, the growth in the number of Daesh affiliated groups is a challenge that the Counter-ISIL Coalition is beginning to confront. We must understand that not every group who raises the black flag represents the same threat. In fact, many of these groups are simple criminal gangs or contained insurgencies.In trying to determine the potential threat from a Daesh affiliate, I find it useful to ask a series of questions.

  • First, what command and control does core Daesh have over this group?
  • Second, has Daesh leadership decided to link itself publicly with this group, and coordinate their propaganda and messaging?
  • Third, can core Daesh and this potential affiliate exchange resources, including funding and fighters?
  • Fourth, and most importantly: can this group threaten a Coalition homeland?

If the answer to most of these questions is “yes,” the Coalition has ways to mitigate the threat. On three lines of Coalition effort: Counter financing, counter foreign fighters, and counter messaging, we can build on our current capabilities to counter Daesh affiliates.

We must also not forget that Daesh’s legitimacy is tied to a so-called caliphate, a proto-state with a specific geography. That means our overarching objective must remain countering core Daesh within Iraq and Syria. Squeezing, degrading and defeating Daesh there strikes a blow at the distant provinces, too.

As a Coalition, we cannot eliminate every rivalry, whether between different nations, different faiths, or those who hold political and historical grievances against one another. But in coordinating this global effort to counter Daesh, in championing a spirit of mutual interest and mutual respect over our many differences, we can and have changed assumptions about how nations come to work together to fight the great challenges of our time.

Over ten short months we have united dozens of partners to confront this emergency, while at the same time we have created lasting structures and mechanisms of action that will endure long after this present campaign.

Having commanded a theater of war in a major coalition effort in Afghanistan, I’m beginning to see strategic momentum building. Sustaining that momentum takes daily attention across the Coalition and within the lines of effort and working groups. It means learning from setbacks and not letting them define the long-term objectives of your campaign.

And this will be a long campaign. Aspects of it, like defeating Daesh’s ideology, will likely take a generation or more. But we as an international community can and must rise to this challenge.

I know that some of the experts before me today understand the complexities of this campaign and the enemy we face better than nearly anyone else in the world. I look forward to taking a few of Vikram’s questions today and to drawing from your insights as our Coalition campaign continues to progress. Thank you.