Interview With Elise Labott of CNN

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
September 11, 2014

QUESTION: Secretary Kerry, thank you so much for joining us.

SECRETARY KERRY: Pleased to be with you.

QUESTION: Is the United States at war with ISIS? It sure sounds from the President’s speech that we are.

SECRETARY KERRY: I think that’s the wrong terminology. What we are doing is engaging in a very significant counterterrorism operation, and it’s going to go on for some period of time. If somebody wants to think about it as being at war with ISIL, they can do so. But the fact is it’s a major counterterrorism operation that will have many different moving parts, many different things that one doesn’t think of normally in context of war. But it’s an effort to destroy them ultimately through that counterterrorism approach.

QUESTION: The Administration’s message on the kind of authorization from Congress is confusing. You say you have the authority under the AUMF, but it’d be great if Congress would give you more authority, more specific authority. You voted for the AUMF as a senator. Did you envision it to be tackling groups that are not affiliated with al-Qaida?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, this group has been affiliated with al-Qaida.

QUESTION: It’s not now though.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, they say they’re not, but you don’t just run away because you say you are. And so yes, the answer is we anticipated a long-term fight with al-Qaida. We’ve been engaged in it. Nobody has questioned the authority of that effort against al-Qaida over the last years. This group is and has been al-Qaida. It’s the same thing as al-Qaida. And it has – by trying to change its name, it doesn’t change who it is, what it does, or its – or the legitimacy of the authority of the AUMF.

QUESTION: But how much of it is letting Congress away with not having to stamp their vote on something?

SECRETARY KERRY: None. None. The President – if he feels that that is the requirement that needs to be made, he’ll make it.

QUESTION: The President engaged in this strategy, comparing it to Yemen, Somalia. Those threats have not been eliminated. And in fact, the intelligence community says that AQAP poses a greater threat as ever to the United States, and al-Shabaab, as you know, is growing. So that doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement for a strategy, to compare it to two states that are rife with terrorism.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, first of all, I – there’s no similarity – well, maybe there’s some – excuse me. There are some similarities between al-Shabaab and al-Qaida in Yemen. But ISIL is an animal unto itself. And it is significantly such a threat because of the foreign fighters that are attracted to it, which you don’t see in Somalia, similarly in Yemen. It is promising to do things externally, which those other groups are not.

And thirdly, most importantly, it is attracting a significant coalition to go and destroy it. Neither of those other groups have attracted a coalition or have been deemed to merit that kind of coalition. So what you’re seeing here is a unique response to a global threat. Australians are responding. You have Asia, you have Central Asia, you have Europe, you have major response here, countries that see the threat in ISIL, which is much more significant.

QUESTION: You call Saudi Arabia a great partner in this coalition and praise the work of the kingdom, yet Saudi support and financing for radical Islam, Wahhabism, over the years is widely seen as part of the problem. Is part of your efforts with the Saudis to get them to stop educating young Muslims in this very extreme, anti-American version of Islam?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, Saudi Arabia is deeply committed to the effort to terminate ISIL and to end this particular threat, and they understand the nature of the threat. And they have never funded the kind of effort you’re talking about with respect with ISIL. Have they supported a certain ideological point of view? Sure. A lot of people in the region do. But that’s different from supporting overt terror and the kinds of activities here. They’ve never – they don’t support that and they haven’t supported that. And they’ve been a solid partner in the counterterrorism efforts that we’ve engaged in over these last years. So I think that that’s sort of lumping too much into one inappropriate pot, if you will.

QUESTION: Well, I mean, but their – the officials might not have, but individuals have over the years, and the Saudis haven’t cracked down on it though.

SECRETARY KERRY: There are individuals. It is accurate. And – well, no. They have cracked down on it. And the Saudis understand there are individuals who have donated and do donate. And they will increase efforts, as a result of this, as will other countries. I think everybody understands that the private funding of this kind of activity, which takes place in a number of different countries throughout the region, and I might add even from America on the internet and otherwise – people send cash through certain kinds of solicitations, and fundraising takes all forms. So that has to be reduced. That is a very significant focus of this overall counterterrorism initiative.

QUESTION: How do you undertake this campaign in Syria without strengthening Assad? I mean, the President talks about a political solution. We know that Western intelligence agencies have been reaching out to the regime. What’s the political way out to reach out to those members of the regime without helping Assad and perhaps working together to fight ISIS?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we – first of all, Assad’s legitimacy will never be restored by any action. He is illegitimate with respect to any capacity to lead Syria to a place of – where the conflict ends. The people who are targeting Assad from the beginning are not going to stop. So that’s number one.

Number two, it is entirely possible – not just possible, it is going to be our policy to separate Assad, who is mostly in the western part of Syria, in a certain corridor, from the eastern part of Syria, which he doesn’t control. ISIL controls that part. So it is clearly not a very difficult task to target ISIL. And Assad will still remain the focus of attention of the moderate opposition and the people who are continuing to oppose him within Syria.

QUESTION: A couple of weeks ago the President said that it was a fantasy to think that the opposition would be able to be trained and armed and battle the Assad state.

SECRETARY KERRY: No, he didn’t say that forever.

QUESTION: Now you’re saying --

SECRETARY KERRY: What he talked --

QUESTION: But now you said that they’re going to battle the Assad state and battle ISIS. So I mean, what’s changed?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, they have been battling ISIS. They’ve been battling ISIS for so many years now.

QUESTION: Not very effectively though.

SECRETARY KERRY: They’ve had problems because they’ve been outgunned and more manpower and so forth. That’s one of the reasons why the President believes you have to focus on ISIL wherever they are. So who knows if that equation changes when they begin to see a different level of opposition than they’ve seen thus far. But in addition to that, the President was referring to the opposition that existed back in time, at the beginning. He’s not talking about what can happen if they receive proper training, if there are recruits that come in, and it grows over a period of time. And that is, in fact, the strategy that is being pursued.

MS. PSAKI: Thank you.

QUESTION: Thank you, Secretary Kerry.


QUESTION: Hope we can do it again soon. Thank you.