The U.S. military’s top general warned Tuesday that the international community must maintain its focus on the terrorism threat even as the Islamic State nears defeat on the battlefields of Syria and other security challenges rise around the world.
Despite the loss of land in recent years, ISIS and al-Qaida still have the ability and the desire to conduct and inspire terrorist attacks globally, said Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The threat of transnational terrorism is a generational problem that the United States and its allies remain years away from solving, he added.
“When the enemy holds ground like [ISIS] did in Iraq and Syria in 2014, they are a much more lethal threat than they are when they are running on a constant basis,” he told reporters Tuesday during a yearly meeting of top uniformed leaders from some 80 nations, dubbed the Countering Violent Extremist Organizations Chiefs of Defense Conference. “In that regard their lethality has been reduced, that doesn’t mean they are not dangerous.”
American leaders must work hand-in-hand with their allies to share intelligence, best practices and conduct counterterrorism operations to root out extremist groups throughout the world even as the number of headline-grabbing terrorist attacks has dropped in recent years, Dunford said.
“Perhaps the greatest challenge facing us today is the danger of complacency,” he said in opening remarks to the conference held outside Washington. “A misreading of our progress today and a misunderstanding of the character of the threat may cause political leaders to lose focus on violent extremism while they turn to other pressing challenges.”
Dunford issued the warning as U.S. political leaders, including President Donald Trump, wrestle with the nation’s future posture in Syria, where ISIS holds only 2 percent of the territory that it once held in its so-called caliphate across Syria and Iraq. The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces have surrounded the remnants of ISIS in eastern Syria’s Middle Euphrates River Valley, where officials believe it retains about 2,000 fighters. Officials also believe the remaining land held by ISIS will be recaptured within several months.
Army Col. Sean Ryan, the Baghdad-based spokesman for the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition, said Tuesday that the terrorist group had essentially already been “territorially defeated,” but he added the remaining ISIS fighters were the “diehard fighters” who would continue to fight until the very end.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon has turned much of its focus to preparing for war against a major military power, such as Russia or China, as those nations seek to challenge the long-held U.S. dominance of international power.
Trump at times has mulled publicly about removing the roughly 2,000 American troops operating in Syria as soon as ISIS has been defeated, though Pentagon officials — including Dunford and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis — have expressed the need for those troops to remain there until the local forces they are training can hold the land and keep the terrorist group from re-establishing itself.
“I believe those of us gathered here today have a good appreciation for the consequences of prematurely relieving pressure on the enemy and allowing them the space to reconstitute,” Dunford said. “There’s many examples over the last few years where we’ve relieved pressure and they’ve reconstituted only to grow more virulent [with] their second strain of violent extremism.”
None of those examples is more notable than ISIS, itself. The group, once part of al-Qaida, rose to prominence as it swept across Syria and northern Iraq in 2014, defeating American-trained Iraqi security forces just more than two years after the United States withdrew from Iraq in December 2011.
Dunford said repeatedly Tuesday that he would not lose focus on counterterrorism operations, cautioning that ISIS and al-Qaida were actively working to grow their global networks, often by engaging with established local extremist groups in places such as West Africa and Southeast Asia.
Al-Qaida affiliates, for example, have shown greater cooperation among their cells throughout the world as the group attempts to increase its following and influence that had been curtailed in recent years through military operations and, inadvertently, through ISIS’ rise, he said.
“What we’ve seen is increased communications between al-Qaida and their affiliates in an attempt to broaden their network of individuals who can plan and conduct attacks elsewhere,” the general said. “In my judgement, they are trying to regain relevance … and conduct attacks.”
The United States and its allies must continue to stay ahead of al-Qaida and ISIS in order for the recent trend in global terrorism to continue dropping, Dunford said, attributing at least some of the success to the dismantling of ISIS’ caliphate.
For example, he said, ISIS conducted 23 percent fewer terrorist attacks in 2017 than in 2016. And, in 2018, each ISIS attack has killed an average of three people, down from an average of 25 deaths in ISIS attacks in 2015, which include the Paris attack that left more than 130 dead.
ISIS has also lost some of its ability to spread its message.
This year, the group is producing about 15 percent of the amount of media it once produced and has not published its monthly online magazine, Rumiyah, in more than year, Dunford said.
Nonetheless, Dunford said he worried ISIS and al-Qaida remained deadly as prolonged military operations against them in locations spanning from West Africa across the Middle East and Afghanistan and into Southeast Asia have driven many of their operatives underground.
“We are a long way from defeating the generational threat of violent extremism,” he said. “In many ways, the threat we face today is more lethal and it has become more difficult to disrupt and destroy their plots.”
Dunford said he believes one key to curtailing the global terrorism threat will be an international effort to improve education, economies and governance in regions where extremism is common.
That is not something the military can do by itself, he said, but military leaders can encourage their nations to remain involved even after the fight concludes.
“It’s not about winning the war, it’s about winning the peace,” Dunford said. “That is most important to ensure that the [military] success we’ve had is enduring.”
Stars and Stripes reporter Caitlin M. Kenney contributed to this report.
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