Interview on CNN's Situation Room With Wolf Blitzer

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
Department of State
Washington, DC
November 20, 2015

WOLF BLITZER: Let's talk about all of this and more with President Obama's Special Envoy to the global coalition to counter ISIS, Bret McGurk. Brett, thanks very much for joining us. Based on all the information you're getting, is there a connection between what has happened in Mali today and the Paris attacks?

BRETT MCGURK: I think, Wolf, as your reporters just pointed out these are all late-breaking situations. We've been in touch with our people on the ground in Mali throughout the day. We have confirmed that no Americans were lost in this barbaric terrorist attack. We don't see anything right now to connect anything that happened in Mali to Paris. But obviously we're continuing to follow-up very aggressively. And as Jim just mentioned, we have about 25 U.S. Special Forces on the ground. And we understand that some of them played a heroic role in helping to evacuate some of the casualties and the hostages today.

BLITZER: Do we know -- or do you know for more specifically whether this was ISIS, al Qaeda, a combination thereof or some other terror group?

MCGURK: Again, hard to say. Indication now is this is more of an al Qaeda affiliated group. There of course is a competition going on for the mantle of this global jihad, between ISIL and al Qaeda, which gets into issues that developed in Syria over recent years. But again, Wolf, it's just too early to say. This is a late-breaking situation.

BLITZER: Are there occasions – because we've been told there are in various countries where ISIS and al Qaeda elements actually cooperate, is that possible in this particular case?

MCGURK: It's possible. It's really hard to say. A lot of these groups are interwoven, kind of marbled together. In Syria you see the sharp distinction between the al Nusra front al Qaeda's global affiliate in Syria and ISIL. More of a looser affiliation. But again, Wolf, far too early to say. The most important thing is we've been very focused on with our colleagues in Mali and Bamako in making sure that Americans are safe. And we're pleased to hear that they are. We're also of course proud of the role that our brave special forces played in helping to bring some of these casualties to safety.

BLITZER: ISIS as you know has threatened to attack New York and Washington, DC in two separate propaganda videos released over the past few days. Here's the question, does ISIS really have the capacity to strike at times square or herald square, New York, or the White House or monuments here in Washington as they've threatened?

MCGURK: Well, we've seen, I think James Comey the head of the FBI and the attorney general spoke yesterday about the fact we have no credible actionable intelligence of any sort of plots like that in the homeland. One of the reasons is because since 9/11 we've worked so hard to really harden the homeland against -- you know, we know everybody that's coming in on an airplane. We track people very closely. So we see no actionable intelligence right now. But I will say, you know, in the hours after the Paris attack President Obama pulled together his entire national security team with the most important agenda item number one making sure that we are doing all we can to protect the homeland. And then number two to make sure we stand in full solidarity with our French partners.

I just came back from Paris, and we all it's really remarkable resiliency, courage, resolve, strength, I think we've all been impressed with how they've responded to this attack. And we're going to stand in solidarity with them. They’re moving the de Gaulle air craft carrier to the Eastern Mediterranean, it’s there now. Then they’ll relocate to the Gulf, that's going to increase our capacity in terms of the overall air campaign. We signed an intelligence sharing agreement with them to get them more information to help them respond. And working hand in glove with our French partners and with the entire global coalition.

Here at the State Department on Monday we'll have all the ambassadors of the coalition together to talk about the next steps in this campaign, to talk about things that we hope they can do because there's a greater role for all members of the coalition to play. And the vice president will be here to address them and answer questions they have. But we have to intensify our efforts. We are intensifying our efforts. And we want to take the fight to ISIL in the heart of its phony caliphate in Raqqah, Mosul and elsewhere.

BLITZER: We're going to talk about that, that effort now to destroy ISIS. We're getting some new information, Brett McGurk, stay with us.


WOLF BLITZER: We're following the breaking news in the Paris terror attacks including the revelation by Paris prosecutors that the suicide bomb set off in that dramatic raid was detonated by a man, not the woman police initially thought, a relative of the terror mastermind Abdel Hamid Abaaoud, all of whom were killed. We're back with President Obama's Special Envoy to the global coalition to counter ISIS, Brett McGurk, he's joining us from the State Department. Brett, in the past month alone, past few weeks ISIS has been able to bring down a Russian commercial airliner killing 224 people. They've carried out the deadliest attack in Paris since World War II killing another 130 people. They've had suicide bombings in Beirut, in Baghdad, in turkey. Here's the question, the coalition -- and you're the special envoy, is the coalition right now losing this war to ISIS?

BRETT MCGURK: Well, there's no question as I think I've said on your show before, Wolf, we have 30,000 foreign fighters, these jihadist fighters have come from a hundred countries all around the world and poured into Syria in recent years. We've never seen anything like it. If you run the numbers, and numbers vary from the 80s, but it's about twice as many as went into Afghanistan in the '80s. And those guys came from just a handful of countries. So we've never seen anything like this. We have to join together as a global community and a global coalition to eviscerate these foreign fighter networks and allowing these people to get across borders. We've done a pretty good job at it here in the United States in terms of tracking everybody who comes in. There's more for the EU to do, frankly. And I think the reports out of Brussels today that they've set a target date by the end of the year to pass legislation, to put in place a passenger name record information for everybody flying on airplanes going across borders in the EU and coming into the EU. That's very important. That has to happen. That's something we've been encouraging them to do for some time.

We also need to focus, Wolf, on degrading and destroying their core in Iraq and Syria. I've been to about 30 capitals all around the world from North Africa to the gulf to Europe and to Asia, and one thing that is attracting all these young people to come in to join ISIS is this notion of this phony caliphate. A year ago Baghdadi's narrative was this war, flags, constant expansion, planting his flag throughout this expanding phony caliphate. We need to focus on making sure we shrink it. In Iraq we've taken back about 40% of the territory ISIL controlled a year ago. And we're going to continue. We’ve cut off the roadway between Mosul and Raqqah, we did that just 10 days ago, that's going to continue. We're putting in U.S. Special forces into northern Syria to help enable and advise local forces to take the fight to ISIL and isolate and entrap them in Raqqah. Those efforts are going to intensify. But we need to work this at every single line of effort, military, diplomatic, economic. There's more for every coalition member to do. And that's why we're getting all the ambassadors here together on Monday to talk to them about what they can do and what we're going to do together as we increase the pressure on ISIL.

BLITZER: So how long is it going to take to liberate Raqqah, the so-called capital of the Islamic state?

MCGURK: Well, the first step is to isolate and entrap them. Cutting off roadways, cutting off supply networks, cutting off the infiltration networks. Six months ago their main infiltration route was a town called Talabiad. We worked with local forces to take that away from them. There's a 98-mile stretch of border they still control in turkey. We're in active discussions with the Turks to combine and join forces on the ground in a coordinated campaign to pressure ISIL in a critical stretch –

BLITZER: So how long is this war in other words going to last?

MCGURK: I'm not going to put a timeframe on it but we're going to do all we possibly can to begin this isolation stage. It's already started, to cut and entrap them in Raqqah. What's important is they get nervous, they do stupid things, we can find them and we can kill them. That happened with Jihadi John, the barbaric terrorist that took the life of brave American journalists not long ago, we found him in Raqqah and he's no longer alive.

BLITZER: What about Mosul? Mosul is the second largest city in Iraq, a city that used to be a city of 2 million people. ISIS took over, the Iraqi army ran away, left tons of U.S. Military equipment behind for ISIS to use. They've got all that gold, all that money. This is a rich terror operation right now because of what they stole in Mosul, the oil that's going on. Where's the Iraqi army in all of this? They seem to be MIA –

MCGURK: The first step in Mosul is to isolate it. Something we did with the Kurdish Peshmerga we just did the other day –

BLITZER: When is that going to happen? When is any of that going to happen? Right now the Iraqi army is not there.

MCGURK: The Iraqi army is focused on two fronts, one up the Tigris river about 50 kilometers south of Mosul and second on Ramadi. It's difficult, they've taken 1,200 casualties Iraqi security forces, many of whom we've trained, they're moving meter by meter through IED chains, through sniper belts. Moving meter by meter fighting and taking back territory. In Mosul, Wolf, this took a lot of political effort with the Iraqi government, central government just east of Mosul to plan for the liberation of Mosul. We have a new governor -- I won't get into all the details that helped coordinate this effort, but it's going to be a strangulation and isolation campaign. We want to strangle them, cut off the networks, cut after the supply lines. It's not going to be a D-Day kind of thrust into Mosul. But that strangulation and isolation has already begun. That's why you saw the Kurdish Peshmerga take Sinjar, and that was coordinated with similar operations of Arabs and Kurds in eastern Syria cutting off this key highway 47 that feeds Mosul from Raqqah. So cutting off those supply routes was the first step. Now we're just going to continue the strangulation and pressure while we're doing air strikes every day into Mosul every time we find their leaders. We killed in fact the number one ISIL leader in Iraq, we found him and tracked him outside Mosul and were able to strike him. It's going to take time, Wolf. We all need to do more. We need to stand with our French partners. And as an entire global coalition enhance our resources and intensify our efforts.

BLITZER: Brett McGurk is the president's Special Envoy to the global coalition fighting ISIS. Brett McGurk, thanks very much.

MCGURK: Thank you.