On 10 September 2014, the US announced the formation of a broad international coalition to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). However, as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at a Riyadh ministerial meeting on 8 June, “For all our progress, the fight is not yet done.”
Mr Blinken updated a D-ISIS meeting on 28 June on the coalition’s efforts saying, “Last November the United States and Nigeria convened a coalition meeting with representatives of West African states to discuss countering the ISIS threat in West Africa and the Sahel. We’ve also held informal discussions among coalition partners on the pressing ISIS threat in northern Mozambique.”
Deputy Special Envoy (DSE) Ian McCary, in a one-on-one interview spoke to PREMIUM TIMES’ White House correspondent, Pearl Matibe, about the global coalition.
Here’s an excerpt of the interview, lightly edited for length and clarity:
Ms Matibe: Deputy Special Envoy McCary, thank you on this fourth day of the High-Level week at the 78 UN General Assembly. You joined the US Department of State’s Bureau of Counterterrorism a year ago. There is much to discuss about the global coalition and efforts to defeat ISIS. So, at the top, the data I will be referring to today, are based on the Global Terrorism Trends and Analysis Centre (GTTAC) data, which partnered with the Terrorism Transnational Crime and Corruption Centre (TraCCC). TraCCC is a research centre within the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. So that said, I would like to dive right in.
The common belief is that ISIS-CORE based in Syria and Iraq has lost its capacity and is a defeated organisation. However, the State Department’s annexe of statistical information reported 645 ISIS incidents in 2021. In 2022, it was 535, according to GTTAC data. And as I said, this is data from the GTTAC Record of Incidents Database (GRID), accessed yesterday September 2023. Considering the high number of ISIS incidents and fatalities recorded in these attacks, how would you assess the fight against ISIS? Is it your assessment that ISIS is now a defeated organisation?
Mr McCary: No, I don’t think I have ever said that ISIS is a defeated organisation. It does obviously continue to create problems and pose challenges in northeast Syria and Iraq and in several other parts of the world. But it’s worth also taking stock of how much progress has been made in the campaign against ISIS and if you compare where they are now, to where they were, say, in 2015, or 2016, the contrast is very dramatic. Back then, of course, they controlled the vast swathes of territory from Mosul to Ar Raqqa, stretching down towards Tadmur, stretching down towards Baghdad and into Fallujah, or that area. And today, they don’t control any territory whatsoever in that region. They have been substantially defeated. Tens of thousands of their fighters were taken off the battlefield. Thousands of them are in detention. And like I said, they do not control any territory. They do retain a capability to conduct attacks on some small scale. And I think that would be in line with the statistics that you’re citing. And so, you know, we do not take it for granted at all. We do not consider this fight to be over in northeast Syria and Iraq. The principal challenge right now is one of stabilisation and addressing the humanitarian concerns that remain there. We are focused on implementing stabilisation projects, rebuilding community infrastructure, assisting families that were displaced during ISIS’s occupation with building new lives, restoring services in the communities that they were forced out of, and also helping as many people as possible who have been living in these displaced persons camps, to leave the camps, return to their original locations, and rebuild their lives. And we work closely with international partners, working closely with the government of Iraq to help make those goals a reality.
Ms Matibe: So, after losing power in Iraq and Syria, ISIS has created regional branches affiliated with organisations. These groups were the perpetrators of more than 1300 terrorist attacks in 2022. As I said—according to the GTTAC data – ISIS branches in the Sahel, Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, and Nigeria, seem to be the most violent and active ones from the perspective of The Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. Which regional ISIS branches should get a closer look and a magnified lens, particularly in Africa?
Mr McCary: Yeah, well, we are certainly focused on all of those areas that you mentioned. We’re particularly focused on the situation in the Sahel and West Africa, where, as you rightly said, we’ve seen in recent years, a number of criminal gangs and organisations, and sort of miscellaneous militias formally adopt ISIS ideology, and seek to use that brand to enhance their own prestige. And so, we have – within The Global Coalition – established a focus group of stakeholder countries, principally with an emphasis on African states themselves, working closely with our African partners, to help them build up their own counterterrorism capabilities so that they can defend their public, and defend their sovereignty against threats posed by violent extremist organisations, including some self-identified affiliates of Daesh or ISIS in that region.
Ms Matibe: And, as you rightly mentioned, we do see how jihadist groups compete with each other—to be under the banner of ISIS or Al Qaeda in Africa. For example—aiming to get more resources and benefits from ISIS’s popularity, Ansar al-Sunna in Mozambique and Allied Democratic Forces in the DRC are today, ISIS’s regional branches. And because of their violent attacks, these two groups are now on the US FTO list. Do you think states in Africa lack government resources and grappling with endemic corruption can effectively counter ISIS regional branches? What should The Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS do against ISIS’s increasing presence and influence in Africa?
Mr McCary: In Africa? Yeah, well, let’s be honest. There are serious governance challenges in various parts of Africa. And there are many regions and different countries in Africa that don’t enjoy the effective delivery of government services. And what we’ve seen in these areas is that this creates conditions where you have conditions of economic deprivation, other factors, and a lack of effective governance. We see other actors move in and seek to exploit that void. So, that is certainly part of the reason we’ve seen the appearance, or growth of these groups, in the areas that you mentioned. So obviously, working with governments to enhance their ability to deliver services to their citizens, providing schools, hospitals, basic infrastructure, roads, electricity, and the like; is certainly part of the long-term solution. That’s a bigger challenge than The Global Coalition can take on by itself. The Global Coalition is specifically focused on helping African states build up their CT capacities, but we’re also constantly coordinating with other parts of the US government and development agencies in other areas – or in other partner countries – to see what we can do to address the broader challenges.
Ms Matibe: Thank you so much, Deputy Special Envoy McCary. I really appreciate your time today. Do you have any closing remarks, or do you think that there is something that, maybe, is not being talked about – or should be talked about more?
Mr McCary: Honestly, Pearl, I can’t think of an especially articulate closing remark. I would refer to the points I made before. This: The Global Coalition is a broad coalition. We have 87 members that bring all kinds of capabilities. We are evolving, as the threat is evolving. And we are focused on the threat, as it emerges and evolves in various parts of the world. And we are bringing to bear the strengths of our different coalition partners in each area to address this challenge effectively.
Ms Matibe: Thank you so much, Deputy Special Envoy McCary, and thank you for your availability today.
Mr McCary: Thank you. It’s a pleasure talking to you.