Opening Session of the Small Group of the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL

Remarks
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
Berlin, Germany
November 17, 2016


(Joined in progress) I thought what I would do rather than give a prepared speech is just step back a little bit. We have had these meetings here over the years, the last time we got together was in July in Washington, D.C. with our ministers talking about the Mosul campaign and preparing for the Mosul campaign which is now underway.

But I thought I would just step back a little bit and talk about some of the indicators that we look at internally when we try to assess how we are doing against Daesh. When we started this campaign about two years ago, all of these indicators were running the wrong way. This was a tremendously daunting challenge from any way you looked at it. In terms of territory in Iraq and Syria, Daesh was telling the world and telling all of its potential supporters that they were a movement on the march, they were constantly expanding, they were unstoppable, and that they were growing this homeland – this so-called caliphate – and come join it. They were actually putting out a very positive message in most of their propaganda to the world. Their networks and the foreign fighter flow, it was unprecedented in terms of the numbers of foreign fighters that had poured into Syria really over the last five years but they were coming in at about 1,000 a month and it looked to be nearly unstoppable. Their propaganda online, they seemed to have a monopoly of messages and propaganda and very slickly produced propaganda messages.

So from everywhere we looked, and their finances were the most well-financed terrorist organization in the history of the world. From everywhere we looked, we knew we had a daunting challenge, we knew we had to build a global coalition, and we knew we had to pursue multiple lines of effort simultaneously to take away their territory, to deny their finances, to deny their ability to cross borders, to deplete their manpower and resources, and to counter their messaging and propaganda. So we have done that as a Coalition behind the scenes with all the working groups we have established, and I know you had very detailed meetings yesterday at the working level about the work that has been done and that we still have to do.

And just a sign of our commitment how we bring our whole government of effort here to this effort we have colleagues here today from our government from the Department of Defense, Treasury, Homeland Security, and of course at the State Department here today with us to discuss all this.

But let me just go through some of these indicators briefly and they can kind of inform the conversations as we go forward on these specific issues. We have a number of them but I’ll go through seven, the seven kind of key indicators. First indicator is territory. What makes this terrorist organization so different is the fact that it sees itself as a quasi-state like entity and frankly it was controlling a quasi-state like splotch of territory with millions of people under its control. Since we began this campaign, we have now taken back 56 percent of the territory in Iraq, including major cities and population centers Tikrit, Fallujah, Ramadi, and now what is upon us of Mosul. We have cleared out most of Anbar Province and all the way out to the Jordanian border because we have mobilized the Anbari tribes and about 20,000 of them are now under arms fighting Daesh with the support of the central government.

And in Syria, Syria is a much more challenging situation as Marcus said, but in Syria we have now taken back 27 percent of the territory Daesh had controlled, and most significantly the entire border area with Turkey. Daesh no longer has an international outlet, it no longer has any international borders under its control and that is quite significant. We are very grateful for the efforts of Turkey in closing off that final 98 km strip of border that we talked about her for some time and we are proud to work with them on that.

Most importantly on the territorial nature of the campaign which is largely a military focus, but critically Daesh has not retaken any of the territory it has lost and that is really quite significant. That is because, I think we have been very successful and we said this at day one, this is not just about kicking them out of areas, it is about making sure the defeat is lasting. That means making sure that we are empowering local people to take charge of their affairs and their communities. Central to that has been our efforts in stabilization. And stabilization, which you heard from Lise earlier this morning, we are really pioneering how we are doing this. We are not looking to go and reconstruct these countries, that is something that is not possible, we are looking to work with the local people who know their local communities to identify projects and figure out what is needed to get people back to their homes even after this unbelievable trauma of living under Daesh.

There, as Lise explained this morning, 1 million Iraqis have now gone back to their homes. We know the story of Tikrit where nearly the entire city is back in their homes. In Ramadi, almost 300,000 people back in their homes. The limiting principle often times is what Daesh leaves behind in areas it controls. They leave behind landmines and IEDs in people’s dresser draws, connected to children’s toys, in closets, so people come home and they find that their home has been booby-trapped. That is why we, as a Coalition, have stepped up to get world class demining firms into these places to clear the streets meter by meter. It is painstaking work but it is something that we have all managed to help the Iraqis with together and without this Coalition that would not have happened.

Mosul of course is the penultimate test and we will be working very hard today to discuss the efforts in the Mosul campaign which is going well and then of course looking ahead to Raqqah. So territory, they are losing territory rapidly and they will continue to lose territory.

Second is their overall access to fighters. As I said, we have never seen anything like this before in terms of the number of foreign fighters pouring into these areas to join Daesh. There was about 1,000 per month in 2014 when we started this. Last year in 2015 it was about 500 a month, we cut it in half. And this year, our indicators on this, it takes a while to put them all together – sometimes there can be an 8 month lag – but it’s negligible. It’s negligible the number of fighters that are going into Syria to join this organization. I think you all see that from your own domestic statistics but don’t take it from me, in the propaganda that Daesh puts out they are no longer calling for people to come into Syria and they recognize, they actually say that it is hard to get into Syria now so maybe go somewhere else. They used to say go to Libya, but they don’t say that anymore. And now they are calling for people to conduct individual attacks at home, which they have always done but that is really now their core message. They cannot get into Syria anymore and once they are in Syria and Iraq, they cannot get out. We want to make sure that it stays that way.

We think their manpower now is at the lowest point that it has ever been and it will continue to shrink because they cannot replenish the battlefield losses. I would also just say in terms of access to fighters, we have worked very hard as a Coalition, beginning with the Chapter 7 resolution passed in 2014, Resolution 2178. Sixty nations around the world have strengthened their domestic legislation to make sure that these fighters cannot cross borders. And we have had an increasing number of arrests within Coalition partner countries. In the last 90 days alone, 15 countries have broken up extremist related cells and we are doing a very good job as a Coalition sharing information. I’ll get to that at the end but we are very proud, for example, to have INTERPOL here in terms of a multi-national organization making sure that as we build these data bases we learn who these people are, we are able to track them so that they cannot come in and cross borders to carry out attacks. So two indicators so far, territory and access to fighters, now running in the right direction.

Third indicator is revenue. This was the wealthiest terrorist organization we had ever seen before. Our knowledge of how it was funding itself in the early days was, we did not have the clarity that any of us would have liked. Thanks to really painstaking work by our intelligence community and by some of our heroic military professionals who did some raids early on against some of the key financiers of Daesh, we learned a lot about how they are financing themselves. They are financing themselves by self-generation revenue, by extraction across the local population, by both oil and gas and antiquities trade, and so based upon that information we developed a very sophisticated and very precise military campaign to make sure we were eliminating those sources of revenue.

Their revenue has absolutely plummeted. We know it from their ability to pay their fighters, which the last hard data we had was cut in half and that was about six months ago, and it has gone down since then. We do not believe they are getting much outside funding at all. And their ability to do anything, in terms of the oil and gas trade, is increasingly reduced.

Fourth indicator I mentioned but it is very important and that is access to borders. This terrorist organization was sending people into Syria and out of Syria. Major attacks here in Europe, in Paris and Brussels, those attacks were planned in Raqqa and they sent operators from Raqqa through what we know is a Manbij pocket ultimately what we know is to Paris and Brussels to carry out their attacks. We had to shut off their ability to do that—that was a critical component of the campaign over the last twelve months and we’ve been quite successful in that regard —they simply can’t do that anymore. No question that they can find smuggling routes here and there, but their ability to move across borders has been significantly degraded and that will continue.

I would just say a critical operation in that regard, was the operation to liberate the town of Manbij because Manbij was where we knew it was a hub of their foreign fighters. It was a very difficult military operation that went on for three months; we believe Daesh tried to defend it, they tried to defend it until the last man until the last day, they lost about 3,000 fighters in that battle, many of their most heartened units, Chechen units, Eastern European units, tried to defend that town and they are now all gone. But most importantly the intelligence we have scooped up off of Manbij is 15 terabytes of information about Daesh, about their foreign fighter networks. It is a true treasure trove and we are now processing, analyzing, and disseminating that information throughout our Coalition through appropriate channels.

The next indicator, the fifth indicator, are leaders. This is an organization that is also unique because it claims itself to be a “Caliphate” and to have this historic calling which we all know is a lie and is phony, but this is Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. He is the so-called “Caliph.” We have not seen his face now in a couple of years, we had not heard from him in almost a year, and just the other day a couple of weeks ago, he issued an audio tape. So he is in deep, deep hiding at best, able from time to time to issue an audio tape which is not the most inspiring form of leadership in the digital media age. He is in deep hiding because we have eliminated nearly all of his deputies. We had their network mapped, if you look at all of his deputies and who he was relying on, they’re all gone. And they’re all gone based upon a very painstaking work again by our intelligence community’s fusing their information with our military professionals.

A couple of the most recent since the last time we got together in July, and very significant, Mohammad al-Adnani, he was Baghdadi’s chief deputy, he was Daesh’s spokesperson, but most importantly, he was the brain and the operational planner for all external attacks. His job everyday was to plan external attacks against our homelands. We were able to identify his location and eventually target and kill him. The Russians have tried to take credit for his death, because it was a very important one, I can guarantee you it was not the Russians, it was our Coalition.

A second leader shortly after Adnani is a terrorist by the name of Dr. Wa'il, he was the head of all Daesh propaganda and media products. All the propaganda that used to be the talk of the world two years ago, he was the individual putting it all together. He is also no longer with us. And a number of deputies have been killed over the last 60 days, some very recently in fact which we will be announcing in short order.

The next indicator, and I have two more I’ve touched upon it, but it is the media and the propaganda of Daesh. We have made a concerted effort as a Coalition, and I am truly grateful for the work of the UAE, for the work of the UK, and for so many in this room for leading the counter messaging, and the counter propaganda campaign. I am also grateful to the private sector which has really stepped in to work with us to make sure that we are countering Daesh’s message online. We benefitted because two years ago Daesh used to say ‘we’re the winning team, we’re constantly expanding our territory’, every single media product they put out they would say ‘we are retaining and expanding our caliphate’ — they can no longer say that. In fact, Mohammad Adnani’s last public statement before his death, he said ‘you know we might actually lose all of our territory.’ He specifically said ‘we might lose Mosul, we might lose Raqqa, we might lose Sirte, but come join us anyway.’ That’s a very different message, it’s an easier message to counter.

So defeating them on the battlefield, taking away territory is critical to the counter messaging. But also what we have done, and particularly what our regional partners have done to counter the religiously based message that Daesh tries to poison so many people’s minds around the world. When we started this, I’ll just take Twitter as one example of a platform when we started this, pro-Daesh content was running about six to one — six pro-Daesh propaganda versus one trying to counter it — that has now flipped. Twitter alone has taken out going up to now 400,000 Twitter handles have been removed, and that is continuing. So their overall content is plummeting, their ability to get their message out around the world is being diminished and most importantly it is being countered by a very different narrative, a very different message led primarily by our Islamic members of the Coalition which we’re extremely grateful for.

Finally an indicator we track, and it’s a little harder to measure with empirics, but their overall global cohesion. This is an organization that is truly global, we analyze it in terms of the core in Iraq and Syria, the networks, the foreign fighters finance, and propaganda networks, and the affiliates. They claim to have seven to eight affiliates or so around the world, most of these are pre-existing terrorist organizations that now fly the flag Daesh, but in Libya for example, where we see Daesh sending leaders to Libya, where we see Daesh trying to set up a safe haven, a sanctuary, and trying to plan attacks across borders as they did from Libya into Tunisia, and we’re very grateful Tunisia is here with us, we take that extremely seriously as a Coalition, we act and we eliminate the threat.

So in Libya, we acted to eliminate the leaders of Daesh in Libya, we did that immediately, and then we worked with the government in Tripoli to organize forces on the ground to push back against what was becoming a Daesh safe haven, and they’re about to lose what used to be their capital in Libya of Sirte. The networks of course are also drying up, and they’re drying up because of our information sharing across the Coalition. I like to use the phrase, we need radical information sharing to address this threat, and our ability to share information now is greatly enhanced from where it was two years ago and I think that will continue to improve. Again, all of us working multilaterally as a Coalition, working bilaterally, and working with multinational organizations such as INTERPOL, EUROPOL, and others, so we can identify these people before they try to cross our borders.

So with all of these indicators now running our way, we need to make sure that we sustain this. There have been a lot of questions since I arrived here in Germany about what is the future of our Coalition, what is the future of this overall campaign. It will evolve. We will get Daesh out of Mosul, we will get them out of Raqqa, but Daesh will remain a threat for us, against us for years to come. That’s just the nature of this organization, but we will need to adapt and evolve.

We just had an election in the United States, and obviously it was a divisive election as sometimes elections are, but the election is over, and as President Obama has said we are now preparing for a very seamless transition to the President elect’s team and that’s a process that will be getting under way very soon.

And one thing that unites the American people and unites much of the world, I think is indicative of all of us in this room, is the need to defeat this terrorist organization. It is something that has united the world. Our Coalition has 68 members, and 68 members acting in all sorts of different ways, 29 members as troop contributing nations helping to train and support forces on the ground that are fighting Daesh, and a number of others providing stabilization resources, humanitarian resources, counter messaging resources. This is a truly global coalition. We are united. That sense of unity and purpose I think will remain, it has to remain. And our Coalition will continue it’s very important mission, I am quite confident under a new leadership in Washington, because this is a mission that unites all of us, it is a threat that threatens all of us, and we are on the right path but we have to sustain it. And to sustain it, we have to get the stabilization right and make sure that we are following through so we do not jeopardize any of the very important gains that we have made over recent months, and that is what we are all here to talk about today. So again I am very grateful for all of you to be here. I’m very thankful to Marcus and Sabine for having us and hosting us and I look forward to the meetings and discussions throughout the day.