As Prepared Remarks by APHSCT Lisa Monaco at the International Special Operations Forces Convention
Lisa O. Monaco
Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism
Remarks at the International Special Operations Forces Convention
Tampa Convention Center, Florida
May 24, 2016
General Thomas—“T2,” as he’s fondly known—thank you for your insights and for that kind introduction. General Thomas and I mostly communicate via secure video teleconferencing, so I’m very glad to be here in person with him and with all of you. Actually, I’m glad to be anywhere with natural light. I spend most of my time in a windowless office in the West Wing of the White House or the equally windowless Situation Room. So I appreciate the excuse to enjoy some Florida sunshine.
Before I begin, I’d like to express this country’s gratitude to all the special operators gathered here. A few months ago, President Obama awarded the Medal of Honor—our country’s highest military honor—to one of our special operators, an extraordinary U.S. Navy SEAL, Senior Chief Ed Byers, Jr. When he presented the Medal, the President said, “Our Special Operations forces are a strategic national asset. They teach us that humans are more important than hardware…our nation has to keep investing in this irreplaceable asset.”
What President Obama said about America’s special operators is true of all of you. You come from different countries and cultures. You speak different languages and confront different threats. But all of you are the very best at what you do. We count on you to be agile and creative, to think strategically and act tactically. We ask you to excel in some of the most dangerous and dynamic situations on Earth. We call on you to be to be flexible and forward-leaning, to make a tremendous difference with a small footprint.
In countless ways, you are working to protect citizens across the globe in a dangerous and ever-changing world. That includes three brave special operators—Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler, Petty Officer Charles Keating IV, and Staff Sergeant Matthew McClintock—who made the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq and Afghanistan. From counter-proliferation to counterterrorism, from Syria to Cameroon, you are “the tip of the spear.” Together, you form part of a highly effective and interwoven network tackling today’s threats. You are quiet warriors, but your courage speaks volumes. So on behalf of President Obama, thank you for your dedication, your service, and your sacrifice.
The theme of this year’s conference is “Evolving the Network to Counter Emerging Threats” And over the next few days you will address some of the most serious and complex threats we face—from terrorism and foreign fighter flows to criminal groups and other illicit networks.
These threats pose urgent challenges—and they require a networked approach to confront them. That is certainly the case with violent extremist organizations, which our distinguished panelists will be discussing shortly. We now have foreign terrorist fighters and a migration crisis putting immense pressure on our border security. We all face the danger of homegrown terrorists. In ISIL, we’re facing a hybrid organization that is both a terrorist group and an insurgency with conventional military capabilities. These challenges cross borders and agency boundaries. They demand that we partner even more closely together. And your global SOF network will be central to confronting all these threats.
So, today I want to discuss the threat posed by terrorist groups—including ISIL—and other violent extremist organizations that this conference will cover—and the United States’ strategy to confront these threats and future ones. That strategy relies on building a network of global partnerships and harnessing all elements of our national power. It relies in large measure on the unique contributions of our special operators. And nowhere is this more true than in the way we’re taking the fight to ISIL, the most challenging and dangerous terrorist group we face today.
Here’s the bottom line up front. Over the past few years, the danger posed by terrorist groups has evolved dramatically into a truly trans-regional challenge. The threat we confront today and going forward is more diffuse—and less predictable—than at any time since the September 11th attacks. It exploits technology and the seams between countries to—paradoxically—become both more interconnected and more decentralized. We still see top-down terrorist networks and “sleeper cells” like those before and after 9/11, but we’re increasingly facing empowered local groups and lone actors. The iconic image of terrorism for the past 15 years has been a 767 plowing into the World Trade Center. Adding to that picture now are the horrifying images of a masked man in black standing over brave journalists and aid workers; of troubled souls browsing extremist websites; of fanatics wielding assault rifles as they carry out another Paris-style attack.
The primary manifestation of this threat is the scourge of ISIL. Indeed, ISIL is now the principal counterterrorism threat facing the United States and our international partners. ISIL’s extreme ideology and grotesque brutality defy comprehension. ISIL presents a different kind of threat—equal parts terrorist group, insurgent army, and social phenomenon. They seek to control physical as well as digital territory, and to project power beyond ISIL’s self-proclaimed caliphate in Iraq and Syria through regional branches, including in several countries represented here. ISIL is using the Internet and social media to radicalize, recruit, and mobilize at an unprecedented rate—directing and inspiring supporters to commit acts of horrific violence around the globe.
In recent months, we’ve seen ISIL and their supporters use car bombs in Turkey and hatchets in Bangladesh. They have orchestrated complex attacks and directed foreign fighters to attack soft targets, like the cafes and concert halls of Paris, the airport and metro in Brussels, and a beach in Tunisia. They inspired a husband and wife in San Bernardino, California, to kill in ISIL’s name. They have deployed chemical weapons against Syrians and Iraqis. The nature of the attacks differ, but one thing holds true: too many of the nations represented in this room have felt the pain and suffering of ISIL’s violence.
Even as we confront evolving terrorist threats, we have not taken our eye off al Qaeda—the organization that murdered nearly 3,000 people on September 11th, and has conducted attacks from London to Morocco to Indonesia. Thanks to brave law enforcement, intelligence, and military personnel, we have decimated core al Qaeda as we once knew it. Five years ago this month, special operators hunted down and delivered justice to Osama bin Laden, further crippling core al Qaeda. And over the weekend, SOF and intelligence professionals killed Taliban leader Akhtar Mohammad Mansur, whose al Qaeda-aligned organization has continued to attack American and coalition forces and waged war against the Afghan people.
Yet, core al Qaeda and its offshoots remain determined to kill civilians. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has tried to attack the West multiple times. The Nusrah Front in Syria, al Qaeda’s largest affiliate, is actively plotting against external targets and encouraging other al Qaeda elements to relocate to Syria to establish its own supposed caliphate. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has committed brutal attacks in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Cote d’Ivoire. Al-Shabaab in Somalia has rained terror on innocents in the Horn of Africa. The list goes on. That’s why the United States and our partners will relentlessly pursue al Qaeda, its affiliates, and its adherents, even as we pressure ISIL.
Taken together, this toxic brew poses a daunting challenge, and our response must be equal to it. No single nation or force can do the job alone. These terrorists are adaptable. And as the threat environment becomes more fragmented and dispersed, our response to it must become even more unified. That’s true between countries, and it’s true within countries, in our agencies and ministries and commands.
The need for partnership is one of the critical lessons the United States has learned in the decade and a half since the September 11th attacks. Indeed, building partnerships—at home and abroad—is the cornerstone of our counterterrorism strategy. As President Obama said in 2014 at West Point, “we must shift our counterterrorism strategy…to more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold.” Our strategy must be one, as the President said, “that matches this diffuse threat—one that expands our reach.”
So what does this strategy look like on the ground? As you’d say in the SOF world, it’s working “by, with, and through others.” It means leveraging our bases and other outposts across the globe to partner with nations to gather intelligence, train forces, and respond quickly to violence and crises. It means working together to counter extremist ideologies. It means using diplomacy, intelligence, border security, and law enforcement to counter terrorist travel. It means using our finance ministries to trace and disrupt terrorist financing, and our development agencies to spur greater opportunities in fragile states where extremism can take hold. Simply put, we must draw on our global counterterrorism network and on every element of national power to combat terrorism’s trans-regional reach.
Though it won’t come as a surprise to those gathered here today, within this network special operators are playing a vital role in countering the terrorist threat. With a unique set of capabilities, even a small number of special operators—working across countries and agencies—can bring to bear the full might of your partners’ power against terrorists and other threats.
We all know “Special Ops” can act swiftly and discreetly when needed—bringing some thunder and some lightning, in the President’s words. But as many of you know well—and as I’m privileged to witness every day—the value of SOF goes far beyond removing terrorists from the battlefield. From rescuing hostages and collecting intelligence to humanitarian relief, the world benefits from your tremendous contributions.
Indeed, Special Operations forces are playing a critical role in gathering intelligence—intelligence that’s supporting operations against ISIL and helping to combat the flow of foreign fighters to and from Syria and Iraq. Building on their relationships with the law enforcement community, special operators are sharing information to help identify terrorists who are recruiting and radicalizing Americans here in the United States.
From Somalia to the Philippines, you’re advising and assisting local forces in building capacity, and training other countries’ militaries. I saw this up close in 2014, when I visited the King Abdullah Special Operations Training Center in Jordan, whose graduates are fighting ISIL and al Qaeda in the region. And Australian special operators were some of the first into Iraq in 2014, and helped train the Iraqi forces who retook Ramadi.
In places like Kobani, Syria, special operators are helping to rebuild communities destroyed by terrorists and providing vital medical and humanitarian relief. This critical work helps stabilize shattered populations and prevent terrorists from exploiting grievances and regaining support.
You’re also innovating in remarkable ways, like when SOF medics invented a sponge-filled syringe—the XSTAT 30—that allows first responders to quickly stop a bleeding gunshot wound—potentially saving many lives. This SOF innovation is a testament to your creativity, and is now used by soldiers and medical personnel around the world.
And, perhaps most importantly, despite fighting under different flags, you epitomize the idea of partnership, operating seamlessly across agencies and countries. Eighteen nations have SOF liaisons right here in Tampa. American and British special operators have worked together for half a century, and continue to stand together against ISIL and al Qaeda in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and North Africa. We’ve worked hand-in-hand with French SOF in northern Mali. Through a robust NATO SOF mission in Afghanistan, many of you in this room have forged relationships. And you have leveraged these experiences and collaborations in countless missions—from Libya to the Horn of Africa to Iraq.
This is the strategy—with special operators, in many ways, as the backbone—that we are employing to destroy ISIL. We have assembled a broad coalition of 66 partners, from Nigeria and the Arab League to Australia and Singapore. Many of the countries represented here are playing critical roles in this coalition.
Together, we’re partnering to destroy ISIL by attacking their leadership in Syria and Iraq; by halting the global spread of ISIL’s branches and other extremist groups; by cooperating to dismantle ISIL’s global network; and by strengthening borders to protect our homelands.
First, our coalition is attacking ISIL’s core in Syria and Iraq. The coalition has conducted more than 12,000 precision strikes so far, supported by, among others: Belgian, British, Dutch, French, Bahraini, and Emirati aircraft, with many targets identified by special operators. Coalition forces have eliminated thousands of fighters, including senior leaders like Haji Mutazz, ISIL’s number two; and Hajji Iman, ISIL’s finance chief.
As part of our advise and assist mission, coalition SOF members—including from Canada, Italy, Norway, and the Netherlands—are identifying, training, and equipping local Iraqi and Syrian forces. So far, together we’ve trained over 30,000 Iraqi troops. Because of this work, ISIL is on the defensive. Local forces have pushed ISIL out of approximately 45 percent of the populated territory it once controlled in Iraq, and 20 percent of the territory it held in Syria. And we’re increasing the number of American special operators in Syria. They will work closely with our European and Arab SOF partners, especially as we move to pressure ISIL’s stronghold in Raqqah and deny ISIL safe haven.
Second, we’re working to degrade ISIL’s eight branches and prevent the rise of additional terrorist groups. With SOF in the lead, our militaries are working to build partner capacity, empower local governments, and target extremist leaders and operatives. You see this in Libya, where we’re bolstering the capabilities of our regional allies and assisting the new Libyan government. And, last November, we removed the leader of ISIL’s Libyan branch, Abu Nabil, from the battlefield. You also see this in Nigeria, where we’re partnering with the Nigerians and regional governments to combat ISIL West Africa—also known as Boko Haram—one of ISIL’s deadliest affiliates. Meanwhile, Saudi and Emirati SOF in Yemen are taking the lead in rooting out ISIL’s growing presence in the country. Whenever, wherever, the next ISIL branch or al Qaeda affiliate gains momentum, it will likely be SOF ready to take them on.
Third, we’re working with partners to disrupt the connective tissue that links extremist networks like ISIL—in particular, their money, manpower and their message. That starts with better intelligence and information sharing, both within and among governments. This is a point I stressed when I recently met with my counterparts in Brussels, Paris, and London. We are sharing the lessons the U.S. Government learned after 9/11. And there’s no question that our European partners understand the challenges ahead of them. From Europol’s new counterterrorism center to greater sharing of passenger flight data, I’ve been impressed by the professionalism and energy I’ve seen. Likewise, last year I witnessed special operators from almost two dozen nations working together to fuse intelligence and build a deeper understanding of ISIL’s ideological appeal and recruiting. This intelligence cooperation will continue to be absolutely essential to this fight.
We’re partnering to secure our borders and restrict the flow of foreign terrorist fighters in and out of Syria and Iraq. Since 2011, nearly 40,000 fighters from more than 120 countries have traveled to Syria—including 6,900 with Western passports. This is an unprecedented number of fighters over the course of a conflict. In Paris and Brussels, we’ve seen what can happen when these fighters return as external operatives. That’s why we’re working to disrupt the flow of these fighters at every step. Special operators—including Turkish and Jordanian forces—are securing the northern and southern Syrian border. Last year, Lebanese SOF killed or detained almost a dozen ISIL and Nusrah operatives trying to infiltrate the country. We’ve also seen roughly 45 countries establish mechanisms to identify and interrupt terrorist travel.
After the Paris attacks, we sent “surge teams” of American intelligence and law enforcement personnel to several countries to strengthen counterterrorism cooperation further. These teams are assisting our European allies in key ways, from detecting fraudulent passports to hardening security at nuclear sites. And it’s having an impact. In the past year, the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq and Syria is down significantly—at least 50 percent from its peak of 2,000 a month. And we’re not letting up. The United States stands ready to assist our partners—from Europe to the Middle East to the Pacific—as they confront today’s distinct face of terror.
That same cooperation is helping us cut off funding for ISIL and other extremist groups. In addition to targeting the financial and oil infrastructure ISIL needs to fuel its terror, we’re working with our partners to trace and disrupt the flow of donations that support ISIL’s ongoing operations. It was a special ops raid last year against Abu Sayyaf, ISIL’s oil chief in Syria, which provided significant insight into ISIL’s finances. The United Nations Security Council has adopted several landmark resolutions, sponsored by the United States, which help choke off ISIL funding sources. And we’ve established a Counter-ISIL Finance Group—co-led by the United States, Italy, and Saudi Arabia—which is working to stop ISIL from abusing the international financial system.
Of course, the biggest blow we can strike against violent extremism is to reduce the appeal of their hateful ideology. Every special operator appreciates that the human elements of any fight are just as critical as military hardware. That’s why it is more important than ever—especially as we work with our partners in the Muslim world—to emphasize that ISIL does not speak for Islam, and that terrorists like ISIL and al Qaeda are in fact killing many innocent Muslims. So, here in the United States, our new Countering Violent Extremism Task Force is centralizing our domestic efforts to prevent terrorist recruitment and radicalization. Meanwhile, the State Department’s Global Engagement Center is supporting international efforts to counter terrorist content and amplifying moderate voices. And for the last several years, our SOF community has supported cutting-edge research and programs designed to more fully understand the ideological roots that drive extremism and terrorism.
Since ISIL is using the Internet and social media to recruit—even using gaming sites and dating apps—we also must work to counter ISIL’s online activities. Over the last year, tech companies have increased their efforts to address ISIL’s use of their platforms. But more needs to be done. That’s why, in January we brought together leaders from government, civil society, and the private sector to discuss ways we can all do our part to counter ISIL’s digital presence. Through words and actions, online and offline, we must ensure that those who might be tempted by violence and extremism continue to hear messages of peace and tolerance.
Finally, as the President’s Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Advisor, my top priority will always be protecting the United States. We continue to use every available tool to detect, disrupt, and defeat terrorist plots to attack the United States or American citizens and interests overseas. That same goal—protecting the homeland—motivates our partners around the world. It motivates all of you. We are all determined that our countries stay strong and free. We all want our loved ones to live their lives without fear of violence or hate. We must refuse to be terrorized.
And, even on the dark days when those attacks have come, even as we see humanity at its very worst, we have seen also seen humanity at its best. In Paris, people stood in long lines waiting to give blood to help the victims of the Bataclan attacks. After a string of Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria, more than 12,000 Nigerian civilians volunteered to help fight future attacks. When the San Bernardino attacks occurred, a local American Muslim set out to raise $20,000 for the victims—and instead raised nearly $200,000 in one week. That spirit of cooperation and unity—of resilience—is what will sustain us.
Fifty-five years ago, almost to the day, as America faced unconventional threats of a different kind, President John F. Kennedy recognized the central role of special operators and partnerships in bringing peace and prosperity to the free world. We confronted, he said then, “a contest of will and purpose as well as force and violence—a battle for minds and souls as well as lives and territory.” But, he also noted that we are not alone. In today’s struggle against ISIL and violent extremism in all its forms, I’m confident that, standing together, we can bring all of our power to bear on these challenges, and that, standing together, we will prevail.