Interview With Scott Pelley of CBS

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Chief of Mission's Residence
Paris, France
November 17, 2015

QUESTION: Is it worth it to put troops on the ground now to prevent an attack on the United States?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, as you know, President Obama made the decision some time ago to put American Special Forces on the ground in order to augment the ability of Syrian Arabs and Kurds and others to do the job. And it’s getting the job done. It is working. Unfortunately, as we know, there are fighters that have come from many countries in the world – ours included – who have gone to Syria. And so the challenge of foreign fighters returning to their homes is one we have been focused on for a year or so. It’s a big challenge, and we’ve seen the consequences in the last days.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, you say it’s working. But in two weeks’ time, ISIS brought down the Russian jetliner, attacked their enemies in Lebanon, and now attacked Paris. It doesn’t feel like it’s working.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, the strategy is to contain ISIS within Iraq and Syria and diminish their hold and destroy their headquarters and them, fundamentally. Because that’s where all of this has emanated from. So when the President says they’re contained, he’s talking about Iraq and Syria, where we have diminished their ability to move. They are now governing, so to speak, 25 percent less territory. Major communities have been liberated from their clutches. Major leaders have been taken out and eliminated from the battlefield. And slowly but surely, that pincer is working.

But yes, they have foreign fighters who have left there and gone to other places. That remains a challenge. And we’ve known all along that challenge is there. I think it’s – we – the basic strategy of destroying Daesh’s center, its core, which is what we did with al-Qaida, is working. And al-Qaida was diminished as an entity that had the ability to do what it did in 9/11 through the protracted effort in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, and elsewhere in the Arabian Peninsula. And that’s – Daesh sort of filled their void.

QUESTION: We did that --

SECRETARY KERRY: Now we have to do it to Daesh.

QUESTION: We did that with an enormous land invasion of Afghanistan. You know better than anyone that never in history has an air campaign accomplished the goals that you just set out in this interview.

SECRETARY KERRY: Correct. And there’s no pretense here. President Obama does not – has never suggested --

QUESTION: How do you root them out of Syria?

SECRETARY KERRY: Which is exactly what is beginning to happen now as the Syrian Arabs, as the Kurds and others move and earn back their capacity to be able to fight. One of the lessons of Iraq is that it doesn’t have to be American soldiers who are on the ground in order to be able to fight the fight. They can be enablers, they can help, but you’ve got to have the people who live there invested in that fight. And President Obama’s strategy is to continue to empower them, which is what we’re doing. They are currently full-square in the fight to liberate Ramadi. And it’s a tough fight, and they’ve lost over 200 people, and 1,200 wounded. But they’re fighting. They’re doing it.

And that’s exactly what the strategy is. It may take a little longer – it’s tougher – who knows? But if we don’t empower them to have the control over their communities, then when you leave, Daesh will move right back in. And you wind up in this cycle; you – that’s not where we want to go, and I think the President’s on the right track to be able to take out Daesh in a methodical, systematic way, which is now, frankly, going to increase through the help of – obviously, the Russians are going to care about it. The French are now upping their involvement, and that’s all to the better in terms of speeding up the process of taking them on.

QUESTION: After Paris, the question becomes: Do we have time to wait for that strategy to work before we see this kind of thing in the United States?

SECRETARY KERRY: We are doing everything possible within the framework of Homeland Security, the FBI, our counterintelligence, the counterterrorism efforts, the exchange of information. We know that there are threats. We see those threat streams every single day. Every – very frequently, the President meets with the national security team, we review the threats – and there are threats to the United States. But if there was a specific threat, we would know it and be able to act on it immediately.

And what we worry about – and everybody worries about in today’s world – is that for a terrorist, you only have – if you’re willing to die, you want to strap a suicide vest around yourself and you want to walk into a crowd and blow yourself up, you can choose almost anywhere to go do that. And everybody else who’s in law enforcement trying to prevent it has to get every single thing right all the time, 24/7, 365. That’s a much tougher task. And we’ve seen even in the United States – with theater shootings and mall shootings and other things that are outside even of the course of Daesh – that people who want to wreak havoc, regrettably, can find a way to do it.

We are doing everything in our power to get at Daesh and its core as rapidly as possible, and the President is constantly trying to look for things that he thinks will work. And if there’s a way to do something faster that works, I know the President is open to doing that.

QUESTION: Do we know how many U.S. citizens are fighting for ISIS in Syria --


QUESTION: -- and do we have a good sense of where they are?

SECRETARY KERRY: We have calculated that probably plus 100, 100-plus have gone from the United States there, more than 500 people from France, people from Australia, people from Belgium, Germany, enticed by the notion, the lies, and the insidious social media appeals of Daesh – which, by the way, we now have opened a center in Abu Dhabi that is focused in Arabic on state-of-the-art response and discrediting of the lies, taking the stories of disaffected fighters who have gone and found that it wasn’t what it was promised to be, who have left, are telling their stories. So this takes a little bit of time. It’s not one of those overnight, go in and snap your finger, and say, “Hey, victory.” This is going to take a bit.

But I am confident the strategy that is being pursued is the right strategy to be able to defeat Daesh over a period of time.

QUESTION: And with all these international fighters, have the goals of ISIS changed?

SECRETARY KERRY: The only goals that I can define of Daesh are to enforce their twisted concept of a caliphate, which has nothing to do with Islam; and to force other people to be like them, to live like them, to do exactly what they say; to put women into slavery; to license rape as the will of God of non-Muslim women; to be able to kill Yezidis because they’re Yezidis, kill Shia because they’re Shia, kill Christians because they’re Christians – that’s what they do. And there’s nothing that I have ever seen about them that suggests something legitimate in terms of governance or life itself.

QUESTION: And now they’re --

SECRETARY KERRY: That’s why they have to be destroyed.

QUESTION: And now they’re --

SECRETARY KERRY: And that’s what’s we’re doing.

QUESTION: I’m sorry, sir. Now they’re exporting that wholesale.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, let’s see how wholesale it is. They’re exporting it, yes. But most of the folks that I’ve heard responding, and particularly in the Muslim world, do not accept this. And that is why every Muslim country in the region and in the world is opposed to Daesh. Iran is at the table with Russia now. And you have Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Turkey, Qatar, Kuwait – all of these countries – Jordan – all united in their opposition to Daesh. I believe that’s one of the things that gives me confidence that ultimately Daesh is going to be destroyed.