In an interview before the Paris attacks, President Barack Obama said ISIS had been contained, that the militants were losing ground. In Turkey on Monday, he acknowledged the terrorism ISIS claimed responsibility for, but continued to defend his strategy to combat the group.
"As I outlined this fall at the United Nations," he said, "we have a comprehensive strategy using all elements of our power, military, intelligence, economic, development and the strength of our communities."
But critics are firing back. Republican Senator John McCain told NPR's Morning Edition this week that the White House really doesn't have a strategy to fight ISIS, and on MSNBC, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein disagreed with Obama's assertion that ISIS has been contained.
"I've never been more concerned," Feinstein said. "I read the intelligence faithfully. ISIL is not contained. ISIL is expanding. They just put out a video saying it is their intent to attack this country."
Here & Now's Indira Lakshmanan talks to Brett McGurk, Special Presidential Envoy to the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, about the challenges of fighting ISIS and how the attacks in Paris and Beirut and the downing of the Russian plane over Egypt are affecting the U.S. and coalition strategy.
Explain what you’ve noticed in your role as presidential envoy
"What’s going on within this jihadist community is the competition for the mantle of global jihad. It’s a competition between al-Qaida senior leadership in Pakistan and ISIL, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. It’s a dangerous phenomenon and we’re not focused on only one and not the other, but the difference is that ISIL is focused on actually establishing its phony self-declared caliphate and establishing a state. I’ve traveled to almost 30 capitals all around the world from Europe to the gulf region to Asia, and what we’re finding in this phenomenon of foreign fighters - and 30,000 from a hundred countries all around the world, it’s almost twice as many of the jihadist fighters that went into Afghanistan in the '80s and those only came from a handful of countries - is that the attraction to be part of this phony self-declared caliphate is something that is a magnet and a draw. That is why ISIL in particular has been drawing so many young men and women from around the world and it’s one reason why we are so focused on Iraq and Syria on retaking territory from ISIL and we’ve had some real success in that regard. In Iraq we’ve now retaken about 40 percent of territory that ISIL controlled, but that figure isn’t as important as the actual strategic ground that we’re taking back.”
Have you been asking other countries to do more on military side in the coalition?
“We are. I think if you look at the airstrikes statistics, we have a very broad air coalition both in Iraq and Syria. The French were one of the first countries to strike with us back in September in Iraq, they also were one of the earliest Western partners to join the air campaign in Syria. The Australians are also doing airstrikes with us in Syria. But we’re obviously always asking about a little bit more in the air, a little bit more intelligence collection of information, but right now we’re also focused on not only special forces on the ground but also the training of Iraqi security forces, of Iraqi police, of indigenous forces such as the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga.”
What are the most important elements of counter ISIL strategy?
“Number one, we’re looking to degrade and suffocate and destroy them in their core. And their core is in Iraq and Syria, and we’re doing that by working with indigenous forces on the ground combined with an air campaign to degrade their networks and take out their leaders, and to take out their command control platforms and their supply lines. We’ve been doing that consistently week to week, it took a long time to set up the conditions by which we could get our special forces into Syria and work effectively with forces on the ground there. It took us a while to work with the Peshmerga to get them in place to begin to do an operation like they did last week to retake Sinjar. All of that is going on. Anytime we see their leaders, we’re able to quite effectively take out their leaders. The military is very connected with the economic – this is the most well funded terrorist organization in history. So for example, their number one financier was a terrorist name Abu Sayyaf, we did a Special Forces raid into Syria, about six months ago, we collected more information off of that site than any Special Forces raid in history, and from there we’ve been working with the coalition partners and with the Iraqis to really cut into their finances. And based on all intelligence we started about two weeks ago, on the military side, a concerted campaign to take out their ability to get resources out of the ground, in oil trade, and actually move it by trucks. This is all a fusion of economics, intelligence, and military.”
On the videos where ISIS threatens to attack Washington and New York
“We take any threat very seriously. FBI Director James Comey and the Attorney General spoke yesterday about the fact that we have no actual direct intelligence on threats now, but this is something we take extremely seriously. This is why we are at war against this barbaric terrorist organization, and we’re working across all multiple lines of efforts from military to economic to diplomatic to suffocate it at its core and outside of the networks the feed it.”
What is your response to criticism of the bombing campaign?
“No question they’re trying to recruit and radicalize young men and women in capitals all around the world. But this is something they’re trying to do for some time. As I mentioned earlier, one of the principles we found around the globe is that this notion that ISIL controls what it calls a state, and that it’s trying to establish a caliphate. In its recruiting material, if you look at it, it’s not only the gore, it’s also come be a part of this historical movement. Which is why we have to keep a focus on its core in Iraq and Syria, while we’re focused in parallel, with just the same urgency and intensity, on the global networks.”
This segment aired on November 20, 2015.
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