Foreign Fighter Fallout: A Conversation with Lt. Gen. Michael K. Nagata
April 5, 2017
THOMAS M. SANDERSON: Good morning, folks. Welcome to CSIS and to the Transnational Threats Project event “Foreign Fighter Fallout.”
Let me first point out our emergency exits. We can, I believe, exit through the back here to a staircase out here, to a staircase directly in the back left, and then there’s the large staircase that many of you may have come up to join us today. And also, look for my team – Zack Fellman, if you can raise your hand, out in the back here; Maria Galperin – and those two – those two will lead you to safety. But hopefully we won’t have a problem here.
My name is Tom Sanderson. I serve as director of the Transnational Threats Project. I’ve been here at CSIS for 15 years. It’s a fantastic institution, and always happy to welcome you here and discuss some of these important issues.
TNT, the Transnational Threats Project, covers terrorism, insurgency, and organized crime. We look at the intersection of those issues. We conduct a tremendous amount of field work overseas, 70 countries at this point. We’re heading off soon to a number of countries to continue the work we are covering here today. We bring that work back and we bring those perspectives back from the wide spectrum of interviewees with which we engage, and we bring that and put it in front of the intelligence community, in front of policymakers, in front of warfighters, in front of CTE – counterterrorism practitioners, in front of the media, in front of the public and the private sector. So we try to bring uniquely sourced perspectives back to a range of individuals and audiences.
Today’s event will feature comments by and an interview with Lieutenant General Michael Nagata, to be followed by an expert panel – hope you can stay around with that – for that – on groups in Syria, Iraq and Libya. And that will be the subject of our engagement today.
An accurate counting of foreign fighters is just not possible, but various official estimates exceed 40,000 fighters from more than 120 countries over the past five years of fighting in Syria, Iraq and Libya. The factors pushing and pulling volunteers to the battle are numerous and specific to the individual. But more important than numbers are capabilities, intentions, and the impact on others. Many fighters have honed urban combat skills. They can miniaturize bombs, operate sniper rifles, raise money, coordinate operations, network and recruit, and they have tremendous street credibility and legitimacy when they go back home. Many have a newfound sense of purpose, and they are now being pushed out of territory that they deem sacred or that someone has told them is sacred. That their skillset and their mindset pose a threat to military and civilian targets across the world is the reality that is upon us today.
To better understand the nature of this threat, our TNT team here, in cooperation with the CSIS Middle East Program, undertook research on the various elements of the foreign fighter threat. Completed work that you can view today on the CSIS foreign fighter website – which is foreignfighters.CSIS.org – includes a chapter on the role of foreign fighters in previous conflicts authorized by Maria Galperin Donnelly (sp); an in-depth examination of Tunisia authored by our Middle East Program colleagues Haim Malka and Margo Balboni, from whom you’ll hear later this morning; and a look at ahead at the implications of foreign fighters authored by my colleague Zack Fellman. Additional modules will appear on the site as we complete and undertake work across the Levant, Russia, Europe, and Southeast Asia throughout this year and next. Field work for this effort took place across several countries in the Middle East, North Africa and Europe.
Let me take a moment here to thank other members of the CSIS team who played important roles in bringing this together: Hannah Werman, Natalia Peña, Jessica Di Paolo, Guilia Teleganova (ph), Debbie Stroman, Kathleen Tiley, Jake Lippincott, Jim Dunton, and the iLab team.
We’ve seen a lot of progress against the Islamic State over the past year or more, but as we know some of the keys to success include durable socioeconomic development and political reform. Neither is in sight. And though 60,000 fighters have been killed by counter-ISIS forces on the field, we have a dispersed ISIS and a still-potent al-Qaida network to reckon with, and we may even see something of a reconciliation between the two groups. These developments point not to a lessening of the foreign fighter threat, but possibly to a heightening of the danger posed by them.
Bruce Hoffman, writing in the December 2016 issue of the West Point CTC Sentinel, notes that, quote, “Any kind of reconciliation between Islamic State and al-Qaida or re-amalgamation would profoundly change the current conflict and result in a significantly escalated threat of foreign fighter terrorist operations in the West.” Suffice to say, as we make some progress on the military side of countering ISIS and al-Qaida, we have a lot more to do to prevent a repeat of what we’ve seen over the past several years.
It’s now my pleasure to introduce to you one of the most important individuals in the effort to confront foreign fighters and terrorist groups more broadly, General Michael K. Nagata – Lieutenant General. Lieutenant General Michael K. Nagata assumed the position of director of the Directorate of Strategic Operational Planning at the National Counterterrorism Center on May 13 of 2016. Previously, Lieutenant General Nagata served as the commander of Special Operations Command, SOCCENT, at CENTCOM, a sub-unified command of CENTCOM, from June 2013 to October 2015, a tremendously importantly time with regard to the subject at hand today.
A native of Virginia, Lieutenant General Nagata graduated from Georgia State University and was commissioned as an infantry officer in 1982. He initially served as platoon leader in the 2nd Infantry Division before volunteering for Army Special Forces in 1984. Throughout his career he’s served in various positions within Army Special Forces, to include detachment commander, executive officer, battalion S3, operations center director, battalion executive officer, group operations officer. Later he served as the commander of the 1st Battalion, 1st Special Warfare Training Group, responsible for the Special Forces Qualification Course. In 1990, General Nagata volunteered and assessed for a Special Missions Unit, in which he served at various times throughout his career as a troop commander, operations officer, squadron commander, and SMU commander.
After graduating from the National War College, Lieutenant General Nagata served in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence. He then served within the intelligence community as a deputy director for counterterrorism. As a general officer, he’s served as the deputy chief, Office of Defense Representative to Pakistan; the deputy director of special ops and counterterrorism, J-37 of the Joint Staff; and commander, SOCCENT. He has deployed extensively throughout his career, participating in contingency and combat operations in such varied locales as Somalia, the Balkans, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria and elsewhere.
Lieutenant General Nagata is a graduate of the Infantry Officer Basic and Advance Courses, United States Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and the United States National War College.
Lieutenant General Nagata and his wife Barbara have five children who are the lights of their lives.
With that, I turn over the lectern to General Nagata for his remarks. General Nagata, thank you again for your service to our country and for your great partnership with us at CSIS. (Applause.)
LIEUTENANT GENERAL MICHAEL K. NAGATA: Well, good morning, everyone.
First of all, Tom, thank you. Thanks for the introduction. Thank you to CSIS for inviting me here. And particularly, thank you for your forbearance. I am obviously late, but the only excuse I will give you is that I think that one of the greatest threats to national security are traffic patterns in the Washington, D.C. area. (Laughter.) But enough of that subject.
I’m going to try to make my remarks here relatively brief. My experience in these fora are generally that the greatest value people can derive are getting a chance to ask people like me any questions you may have or challenge any assertions I may make from this podium. So let me just cover a few topics here as a way of priming the pump.
As you’ve already heard, I am speaking here from my position in the National Counterterrorism Center. For those of you that are curious what a three-star general does in the National Counterterrorism Center, I am responsible for what is essentially a strategy development and strategic assessment shop within the National Counterterrorism Center. In other words, we assist the United States government in formulating counterterrorism strategy. And we have a corresponding responsibility to assess whether or not those strategies are effective. And we’re very busy doing both, as you might imagine. CT is a busy business.
As you already know, the rise of the Islamic state, the foreign terrorist fighter threat that has been part and parcel of the rise of that organization, is occurring at a time – it has been occurring during a time, it is still occurring during a time of enormous geopolitical complexity and change. All you have to do is pick up the newspapers to realize that the Islamic State, ISIS, the threat that its foreign terrorist fighters pose is not the only strategic challenge the United States or the global community faces on the world stage. It is simply one of them.
That makes confronting the Islamic State, that makes confronting the foreign terrorist fighter problem more difficult, because we have to be – we have to be able to juggle more than one ball at the same time. The problem for the past four years, as Tom has already indicated, has been enormously complex in and of itself, but I’ll just hit a few highlights here. As you’ve already heard, somewhere around 40,000 foreign terrorist fighters that the world has been able to identify so far, that that money has inherent imprecision in it. So far, we think they have emanated, or we assess that they have emanated from at least 120 countries around the world.
And it is probably the most ethnically diverse, sociologically diverse, non-monolithic, if that’s a term, foreign fighter problem we have seen so far. Just the foreign terrorist fighter alone, understanding what it is comprised of, has been an enormously complex endeavor by both the intelligence community, other government and international actors, and civilian actors. Just identifying the nature and scope of the problem is unfinished work together, but it is, I think, inarguably the largest foreign terrorist fighter challenge the world has seen in the modern age.
As I’ve already said, they’re not monolithic. The motives, that cause a man or woman to wish to travel from their homes, wherever that may be around the world, to join ISIS are incredibly diverse. There are probably some reasons we do not yet understand. We do know some simply come for the adventure. Some come to fight for ISIS for a variety of ideological reasons. There are a number of them. Some come because they are seeking to redress a grievance. Some believe, perhaps, that they can – they can find the elusive – the elusive item called justice by flocking to ISIS’ banner. But as I’ve already said, I do not believe we actually know all of the motivations at this point.
In terms of the world’s approach to the foreign terrorist fighter problem, in my own view there have been roughly two phases to the way the international community has grappled with this problem. The first phase, at the risk of oversimplifying this, is recognizing we had a problem. This began four years ago, that there was a foreign terrorist fighter component of the rise of ISIS. And the more we looked at it in those early days, the more troubling just the volume of indicators we had were, but how big was this problem? How many fighters were we talking about?
In the early months, we simply did not know. But what we were seeing, what we did understand at the time was pretty troubling. And as we now know, we have counted, recognizing the count is imprecise, the largest amalgamation of foreign terrorist fighters in a condensed period of time that we have ever seen – at least certainly in my 30 years of working on counterterrorism unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
And that caused us to ask the question, not just the United States but internationally, the whole community was asking how can this be? And perhaps, just as importantly, at the mechanical level, how can so many people have traveled for this purpose successfully without the world being able to stop them? And it caused the international community to realize that we had enormous inconsistency around the global landscape about whether or not deciding to travel to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria was a criminal activity.
The good news is that in I think it was September of 2014, a new United Nations Security Council resolution was passed, 2178, that recognized the problem and that urged all nation-states to act against this problem, perhaps most importantly in making it a criminal activity. Now, did that stop the flow of foreign fighters? No, it did not. But just the fact that the world decided to make it a crime was a – was a very important step in the right direction.
I think if you had asked me two years ago what our biggest problem was, three years ago really, it would have been that we have to make this activity a criminal action, no matter where you are in the world. Now that we have taken that step, we have moved into what I would call the second phase of the world’s struggle against the foreign terrorist fighter problem. Now, I’m going to be very brief about this, but I don’t want to oversimplify this. What I’m about to suggest is not the only thing we have to do. There are many other things we have to do besides.
But for me, the most vivid challenge we now face is ensuring that the information and intelligence about the travel, the plans, the intentions and identities of foreign terrorist fighters are as broadly known as possible everywhere in the world, because their travel can be so unpredictable. And unsurprisingly, a foreign fighter seeks to mask his or her travel. They don’t advertise the fact that they intend to go fight for ISIS. They try to hide within the otherwise very positive development of the free flow of people, goods and services around the world. They take advantage of that.
So getting information and intelligence about the plans, intentions and travel of a foreign fighter is inherently difficult. But as we learned in our own country after 9/11, it’s insufficient for one entity of a community to know a piece of information about a nefarious actor if that information is not shared with everyone else who has a stake in this. And that is the challenge the world now faces. If a law enforcement actor, an intelligence officer, a civil society member somewhere in the world believes they have information or intelligence about a potential foreign fighter, can that information be shared with the widest possible audience to increase the likelihood that someone along their route of travel can prevent them from reaching their destination?
Have we gotten better at this? Yes, we have. Much of the world since the passing of the U.N. Security Council resolution has been towards this end, to improve and strengthen information sharing. We have made inarguable progress in many arenas. Is it good enough? No, it is not good enough, particularly when you consider the size, the quantity of this problem – somewhere around 40,000, we think; that’s a breathtaking number.
Bringing it closer to home, let me make a few comments about what the United States government has been doing and continues to do to strengthen our own national ability, not only to deal with this problem ourselves, but to assist our allies and partners around the world in doing likewise. Much of what I’m about to say is going to probably sound pretty obvious to most of you, so I’ll be brief about this.
First of all, we had to address as a government, and we are still addressing, how to ensure that every part of the United States government is contributing to this effort and contributing to it in a way that fosters coordination, integration, collaboration and just simply good teamwork across all the departments and agencies of the United States government. If that sounds like an extension of the journey the U.S. government has been taking against terrorism ever since 9/11, that’s because it is. It is simply an extension of that original journey, but now against the largest foreign terrorist fighter problem we’ve ever seen. We have made clear progress in this arena. But as I said earlier about the world’s approach, is it good enough yet? Not yet, we are working on it.
Secondly, we’ve had to adapt our thinking, both as a government and as an international coalition against the Islamic State, about the fact unfortunately that the very welcome defeat of ISIS’ army-like capabilities in Iraq and Syria will not bring an end to the global terrorist attack threat that ISIS poses, including by the utilization of foreign fighters. We must defeat ISIS’ army inside of Iraq and Syria. And we are well on the way to doing so, although it will take continued months of very serious effort to do that. But unfortunately, that military defeat of that military instrument does not end the foreign terrorist fighter threat, it does not eliminate ISIS’ ability to inspire new recruits around the world. Unfortunately, that will continue, so we need to remind ourselves and we have been reminding ourselves that there is still so much more work yet to do even after we have defeated its army.
We also have had to recognize and we are recognizing that foreign terrorist fighters, the number of them, their identities, their nature, is not constrained, it’s not confined to those who travel to Iraq and Syria. Unfortunately, there are people who leave their homes somewhere in the world to join a part of the Islamic State that is not in Iraq and Syria. That is that it is related to the original problem, but it is different than the original problem and we have to grapple with that as well.
And then finally, I’ll say we are working on something that isn’t necessarily the strong suit of any government, but it is absolutely necessary. We have to be patient. We are not going to end this threat this year. I don’t think we can identify a time horizon within which we will somehow contain and eliminate the ISIS-related foreign terrorist fighter problem. We can; if we do this properly, we will, but it will take years to solve this problem. If we try to pretend that we can solve it sooner than that, I think we’re kidding ourselves. So this requires strategic patience, hard for any government, but still necessary.
All right. I told myself that I would not leave this podium without saying something uplifting and optimistic. I haven’t managed to yet, so let me close before we go to questions by just saying this. As serious as this threat is, as large as the problem is, in some ways as unprecedented as this foreign terrorist fighter problem is, I had the privilege of attending the ministerial that was held here in Washington, D.C. a couple of weeks ago and many of the foreign ministers of a very large proportion of the international coalition against ISIS were gathered. And I suppose there were probably some people who were observing this who thought or were wondering if perhaps the world’s patience or the world’s stamina or the world’s durability against what is inarguably a long-term problem might begin to dissipate because we can now see on the horizon the collapse of its army-like capabilities inside of Iraq and Syria. It hasn’t happened yet, but you can see it on the horizon, whether it’s on Mosul or Raqqa or elsewhere in the Levant. The coalition is going to defeat the army of ISIS.
And I suppose there were some people wondering, you know, are we going to take our foot off the gas too soon, are we going to declare it over when in fact it is not over, not just because of the foreign terrorist fighter problem, but because of many of the other aspects of ISIS that cannot be defeated militarily? And I’m happy to report that I saw no evidence of that in the ministerial. In fact, what I saw was representatives of all the coalition nations actually reaffirming their commitment to stay together to deal with what is left of ISIS after their army is defeated. And that was a very encouraging sign.
So much work yet to do. We don’t have the answer to every problem. I suppose all the places where I don’t have answers, that’s exactly where you’ll ask me questions. But nonetheless, I’d be happy to answer any that you have. Thank you. (Applause.)
MR. SANDERSON: Great. Thank you, General. Thank you.
Thank you very much, General Nagata. Appreciate your comments. And I know that we have a great crowd here today and a lot of folks here that I know have experience in the realm of counterterrorism and international security on a number of levels. So we’ll jump to the questions; I have six here, but I’m just going to do one since we have such a good crowd today.
Let me just jump right to one that has concerned us greatly and I know has concerned the U.S. government and many others in the region, and that is Turkey. Now, the foreign fighter issue can’t be discussed without mentioning Turkey and Turkey’s role. They have accommodated a wide range of fighters as they have crossed the border into Syria with very specific reasons for doing so, one of which the U.S. shared early on at a strategic level, bringing down the Assad regime.
Late in 2015 and more significantly in 2016, Turkey starts to change its attitude towards the fighters, some of them, as they start to strike inside the country. How soon after the Syrian conflict did you think that the Turkey and U.S. disposition towards fighters changed? And where do we stand today with Ankara in this challenge of managing foreign fighters?
LT. GEN. NAGATA: Let me start by saying that in my previous assignment as the commander of SOCCENT, I visited Ankara and particularly Turkish military forces, as you might guess, but also some of their political leadership pretty frequently. You know, despite the fact as a military, as a Department of Defense matter, Turkey, as you know, lies in the European combatant commanders’ area of responsibility, General Breedlove at the time was very gracious in allowing me to constantly interact with my Turkish military colleagues because it’s obviously so important, not just for the foreign terrorist fighter problem, but because of the challenges we face against ISIS, both in Syria and Iraq.
So I think I can say with some confidence that, unsurprisingly, because of the enormous loss of life in Turkey because of ISIS attacks of various types for several years now, they are passionate about ISIS. What happened – what their attitudes may have been before about 2014 – which is, I think, when I made my first trip there as the SOCCENT commander – I cannot speak to firsthand. What I saw in 2014 is, because they were beginning to experience direct loss of life, direct casualties from ISIS attacks emanating out of Syria, is I saw a great deal of concern, a great deal of worry, and the beginnings of what you have seen in ensuing months beyond simply clamping down on the travel of potential foreign terrorist fighters transiting through Turkey.
All of you know by now, Turkish military forces have crossed the border into northern Syria. They’ve conducted their own series of operations to clear hundreds of kilometers along their border, push ISIS away from their own border. It’s had the commensurate effect – or, I’m sorry – it has had the corollary effect of making it exponentially more difficult – not impossible, but exponentially more difficult for a terrorist foreign fighter – for a foreign terrorist fighter to cross in either direction the border of the Turkey.
That said, I saw it firsthand. I think I would have been able to at least articulate this even before I visited there. The Turkish border, southern Turkey, northern Syria, it’s enormously complicated for historical reasons, particularly as everyone here I think knows, the unfortunate history between the ethnics Turks, or the Turkman, and the ethnic Kurds. That complexity has had an impact on both our own, the coalition’s, and Turkish effectiveness against foreign terrorist fighters.
So I guess what I’d say, to wrap it all up, is Turkey is demonstrating in my opinion an enormous amount of seriousness at preventing foreign fighters across their border. It is incredibly complicated, though. It is certainly not perfect. We know that foreign terrorist fighters can still find pathways to move across the Turkish border. It’s just much harder for them than it used to be. And that’s a good thing. And there’s a history problem regarding Turkey and the border with Syria, as well as the border with Iraq, that is a complicating factor as well. And unfortunately – fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, it’s a fixed part of the landscape.
MR. SANDERSON: Yeah, absolutely. And they have 35 million people who come in every year as tourists. So it is hard to pick up all of them.
LT. GEN. NAGATA: That’s right.
MR. SANDERSON: OK. Folks, please state your name and your affiliation before you ask your question. And, Gulia (sp), if you can come up to the front here, this gentleman here. Thank you.
Q: I’m Michael Gordon, New York Times.
General, following on your recent comments, what is the current fighter flow – foreign fighter flow to ISIS? What are the numbers you’re seeing now? What is the reverse foreign fighter flow and how is it being impeded by the Turkish military operations, SDF, et cetera, in Northern Syria? And then lastly, clearly ISIS must see the handwriting on the wall. They know they’re going to lose Mosul. Some of their foreign leaders – some of their own leadership has left Raqqa. How are they planning to use foreign fighters after the fall of Mosul and Raqqa? Are they planning to have the volunteers stay in place in Europe and create mayhem there? Are they redirecting them elsewhere? How is their concept for using foreign fighters changing? Thank you.
LT. GEN. NAGATA: Thank you, Michael. It’s good to see you.
Let me stipulate up front, to get it out of the way, that I can give you very little precision about the rate of flow or the volume of flow. I think I can confidently say we know it’s much less than it was. I have seen some statistics, but they’re very general statistics, that perhaps we’ve reduced the flow in and out of Syria by more than half. But my confidence level in our precision is not – it’s not terrific. We know we’ve damaged it. We know we’ve damaged it significantly.
But having said that, when I recall for myself that we’re talking about an aggregate of somewhere around 40,000, even if we have cut it in half, even if we’ve cut it by two-thirds, that’s still a very significant number of foreign terrorist fighters. Let me put it in a little bit of context. When I served in Iraq, I tried to track foreign fighters supporting AQI very closely. At the time – and this was during the surge. This was during the height of the fighting in Iraq – we were fighting foreign fighters in the hundreds, not in the thousands. So this – the challenge we face both in terms of measurements, but more importantly in terms of taking action, this is a much large problem. And this is a very different problem, as you already know.
So we know we’ve damaged it. We know we’ve reduced it substantially. But we don’t – we cannot provide ourselves, and I certainly can’t provide you, a lot of precision because, as I’ve already indicated, it’s hard to identify these people. They’re trying very hard not to be identified, not to be counted, and our instruments for measuring – when you consider the chaos around Syria – you know, Turkey doing the best it can, Lebanon doing the best it can, Iraq doing the best it can, Jordan doing the best it can. But you know, if you want to hide, you can hide. If you want not to be counted, you can not to be counted. So imprecise.
In terms of your second question, how will they use their foreign fighters? Well, I think they will use them in all the ways you might imagine they will. But what’s interesting to me about ISIS, as opposed to al-Qaida and other groups that preceded ISIS – I’m actually stealing a line a little bit from some of my FBI colleagues, which I agree with, where they say, you know, one thing about these other organizations, like al-Qaida, is they really tried to give centralized direction to their foreign fighters. We want you to go here. We want you to do this. A lot of what comes out of ISIS is just go where you can and kill who you can.
So it’s less targeted, in some ways. It’s certainly less planned, in some ways. But there’s an inherent danger to this, because it makes them – their use of foreign fighters more unpredictable, because there’s less central direction, so – but they will use them to commit acts of violence. They will use them to try to inspire others to join their ranks. All of these are predictable. We’ve seen these in other foreign fighter phenomenon over the years, but the decentralization problem is serious.
MR. SANDERSON: Great.
Q: General, first of all, thanks for coming and sharing your experience with us.
My question concerns training, in the sense of how many have been – some sort of training or military experience, combat experience in some of the part that’s come? And then, what kind of training do they get to try to pull together this very diverse group to an effective fighting force? Thank you.
LT. GEN. NAGATA: Great question.
Because it is such a diverse population coming to Iraq and Syria, or going elsewhere in the world as indicated in my opening remarks. Some foreign fighters don’t actually touch Iraq or Syria. But, you know, some have absolutely – many have no training whatsoever. They are simply assuming that they will receive it upon arrival. I suppose there are probably some young men particularly who are assuming they don’t need it at all. They’ll find out how wrong they are. But we don’t – I’m unaware of any ability we’ve demonstrated to count who needs – who has training, who doesn’t have training. It’s kind of the same imprecision we suffer from just in terms of counting numbers.
I think it is safe to conclude – I think it is – I think I can confidently conclude that particularly in Iraq and Syria ISIS ability to train, organize and equip these fighters upon their arrival is significantly reduced, because of all damage we’ve inflicted not just on those who would otherwise be training them – because many of the trainers have been called to the frontlines because of the casualties they’ve been taking. So there are fewer people to do the training. They need these bodies more urgently on the frontlines than they used to. There was a time, as some of you may recall – this was widely reported journalistically – that, you know, they had established very elaborate training sites, very elaborate training programs. Much harder for them to do now. In some places, it’s become impossible for them to do.
So their ability to train and prepare people to go into combat has been significantly reduced. I don’t think it’s been eliminated, but it’s been significantly reduced. That said, when one considers the question of how sophisticated do you actually have to be if you manage to go elsewhere, you manage somehow to escape Iraq and Syria, or you never went there to begin with, and you’ve simply been told kill who you can, where you can, how much training and preparation do you actually need? The answer, unfortunately, is not very much. Best example of that was the truck driver in Nice. He required a driver’s license.
MR. SANDERSON: Yes. In the middle on this side, please.
Q: Thank you. My name is Laurent Barthelemy from Agence France-Presse news agency.
I would like to know if you can characterize the size of the problem of foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria. How many are there now? Because I suppose that many have been killed. So can you give some kind of estimate?
LT. GEN. NAGATA: Our ability – we have – as I’m sure you’ve seen in coalition reporting a couple of months ago, I think, now – the coalition confidently reported that we know we’ve killed in excess of 60,000 ISIS combatants in Iraq and Syria. I – we probably are getting close to 70,000 at this point. For all I know, we’ve crossed it. It’s an astounding number.
Unfortunately, our ability to distinguish – whether it’s through the combat actions of Iraqi forces, combat actions of Syrian forces, coalition airstrikes, our ability to specifically identify when one of those action has killed a foreign fighter versus someone who was born and raised in either Syria and Iraq is very limited.
So that’s a very long way, sir, of saying we really do not know. We know we have killed several thousand foreign terrorist fighters in Iraq and Syria, but we – we’re – I’m unable to give you a precise number. It’s a – it’s a substantial number, but this is another example of where precision remains elusive for us.
But I say again – I remind you, I remind myself that when you start with a number of somewhere around 40,000, even if we assume we’ve killed – let me – I’ll just pick a number. Let’s say we can – we could – we cannot, but let’s say we could say we’ve killed 80 percent of them. That still leaves an enormous number of foreign terrorist fighters. And as, unfortunately, many of our governments have experienced, if – an attack in a national capital somewhere in the world does not have to be conducted by 100 fighters; it can be conducted by a single person.
MR. SANDERSON: And remember, that single person coming back or two or three people are coming back with urban combat skills going against police forces – though well-trained in major cities are not police officer – were just in combat in Aleppo or something like that. So they have quite an impact.
All the way in the back, please.
Q: Hello. My name is Margus Solnson. I’m a DCM with the European Union Delegation in Tajikistan. First of all, thank you for your presentation.
Question: From colleague to colleague, there is an information that there is a number of Tajik and Uzbek persons with Tajik and Uzbek ethnicity in ISIL in situations –
LT. GEN. NAGATA: I’m sorry, sir, I didn’t understand what you just said. What kind of persons?
Q: As to all information, there are a number of people with different nationalities, and there are also people from Central Asian states, some with Tajik ethnicity, some with Uzbek ethnicity.
LT. GEN. NAGATA: Right.
Q: And also our latest information, there is also a question about ex-General Halim (sp), who should be in Mosul, and also with a small Tajik unit in – are also participating in these latest operations.
But actually my question is about for the future, that in case things get too hot in Syria and Syria-plus, so could we envisage relocation of some of the ISIS/ISIL people to Afghanistan or some other countries, next to Central Asia? And could we – could we prognose any threats raising to Central Asian countries? So thank you.
LT. GEN. NAGATA: Thank you. Well, I think by now we should realize that ISIS’s ability to export its ideology, its resources and people, and its intent to attack, that they have demonstrated a global ability to do all of these things. And I think it would be a mistake for us to assume that they will not continue to do so. They will continue to do so.
It’s not – and, unfortunately, it’s not completely dependent on their ability to have a foreign terrorist fighter move from Iraq or Syria to South Asia, to Central Asia, to Europe, to anywhere in the globe. That is an important instrument for them, but it’s not the only instrument that’s available to them. One of – one of the things we’ve seen ISIS do – in my own view, with unprecedented effectiveness – is to radicalize someone who never leaves their home, someone who never leaves their home, never leaves their country, but they become radicalized – usually online, but that’s not the only way – they take up the cause of ISIS, and they become willing to die to commit an act of violence in their home.
That is just as important as the problem of foreign terrorist fighters or – one of the – this is actually an opportunity for me to say something that really doesn’t flow from your question, but I do want to remind everyone that it’s very important to realize that the problem of foreign terrorist fighters, urgent and important as that is, is not the only way that organizations like ISIS can create violence around the world. Global terrorist attacks and foreign terrorist fighters are not the same thing. Foreign terrorist fighters are a subset, they are a component of global terrorist attacks.
But if somehow through magic we could eliminate all foreign fighters everywhere today, unfortunately ISIS could still create acts of violence around the world.
MR. SANDERSON: Absolutely. Yes, ma’am.
Q: Hi. My name is Melinda Carter from DOD.
I had a question about the children of the foreign fighters. Are they accounted for in your numbers and, you know, if they are being trained, whether it be on the ground in Iraq and Syria or virtually? And how is that – how is that in your – in your research and planning; and if they go back, how easy that is for them to go back? And then what’s the future for that?
LT. GEN. NAGATA: Thank you for the question. Unfortunately, you’re taking me out of my field of research. That’s actually a question that I haven’t considered. I should have by now, so thank you for asking me. I’ll actually go back to my office and do a little research. So because it’s not something I’ve studied very hard, I’m going to – unfortunately, I’m not going to be able to give you a particularly satisfying question (sic).
We do know – you’ve seen it – ISIS has tried to – tried to create a propaganda-drive impression that all the children of ISIS fighters will take up the black flag, that they’re ready now – even if they’re only, you know, 11 or 12 years old, they’re ready now to commit acts of violence. But we need to remember that’s propaganda. There may be some truth to it, but it’s probably not as strong or as ubiquitous as they are trying to convince us it is. But my hunch is, my guess would be that when you consider that I can only give you imprecise numbers about foreign terrorist fighters themselves – and we’ve got massive resources trying to do this counting – my guess would be we probably have little to spare to examine the question you’re asking.
So my hunch is I – even if I had studied this, I’d probably still be giving you a disappointing answer. I don’t think we really know. That’s my guess.
MR. SANDERSON: In the panel that follows this, I think we can address the issue of some of the families who’ve come, especially from North Africa, to the battle space. And so if you’re going to join us for that, I think we can – we can cover families in general and maybe the children specifically.
I think someone had their hand up over here. Yes, the gentleman in the middle.
Q: Hi. Paul Hanley, also from AFP.
You’ve spoken about them as a force in the battlefield or out there, but – and as a threat, but can you give us a picture of the movement back to – back to their homes or movement away from the battlefield at this time, what are they doing, what are you intercepting? Or is this still more a potential threat than – and they’re staying on the battlefield?
And also, one last thing. What do you do with the foreign fighters who are captured on the battlefield?
LT. GEN. NAGATA: OK. Well, I’ll take the last one first. The foreign terrorist fighter – pretty obviously international problem, coalition problem. And so what the coalition relies on, frankly what the international community relies on, particularly in the wake of the U.N. Security Council resolution – and then what I did not mention in my prepared remarks, dozens of nations on the heels of the passage of the Security Council resolution enacted new laws in their own countries to criminalize foreign terrorist fighter travel, foreign terrorist fighter activity. So the world is primarily reliant on, when a foreign terrorist fighter is apprehended – in transit, before he or she leaves, when he or she comes back, whatever the case may be – to rely on either preexisting or new laws that have criminalized this behavior. And into the that country’s judicial system these people go, assuming they have, in fact, be successfully detained.
But there is no other answer, but to use the judicial processes of the countries from which they have emanated or, if they’re arrested in a – in, for them, a foreign country, occasionally you’ll see them prosecuted and some sort of consequence delivered while they are in a foreign country from the country of their birth. But predominantly, it’s – particularly if they return to their country – we’re relying on their judicial system. And like I said, the good news is that in large measure across the world, this is now a crime. Whereas four years ago, in many countries it was not.
Your first question. I think all I can really tell you is, first of all, this is not a potential threat. This is a threat right now. There is latent potential in it, but it is a – it is a contemporary threat today. Not everywhere, but to certain countries, to certain populations the foreign terrorist fighter threat is a threat today. In terms of the variations of outcomes, all I can do is tell you that it’s the – it’s probably the things you would imagine anyways.
First of all, we see some foreign terrorist fighters deliberately dispatched by ISIS for specific activities around the world – some of which we have been able to detect and thwart. Unfortunately, are there probably things that they have directed foreign terrorist fighters to do that the international community has not been able to detect? Probably. But I can’t prove a negative. It’s just – there’s ample opportunity for them to direct the activities of foreign terrorist fighter and travel, that I’m sure there’s some that escape our notice.
Some are simply escaping to save their lives, because they can see the imminent defeat of the army of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. So they’re acting in their own self-interest. They’re acting to survive. In fact, they’re breaking faith with their comrades, but they’d rather survive. But that begs the question, what will they do. And the answer is, if we – if we look at the historical record, away from ISIS, it’s probably true that most of them will not commit acts of violence when they go home. But you certainly cannot dismiss the possibility that some of them will seek to commit acts of violence. Even though they acted to save their skin by fleeing Iraq and Syria. There’s still a latent desire to wreak havoc. And they’ll find a way that – they’ll find an outlet for that.
There are others who have been ideologically disappointed. They’re not fleeing to save their lives, they’ve just discovered that ISIS not what it purported to be. And they’re so disappointed they leave. But they’re not leaving to survive. They’re leaving because of disappointment. There are others as well. But again, ISIS and the foreign terrorist fighter is not a monolith. It is an incredibly diverse set of actors with incredibly diverse motivations.
MR. SANDERSON: Great. Do we have time for one more, or? OK. Ma’am, you had one in the middle. Yeah, go ahead. And then we have one more after that, OK, good.
Q: I’m Dana Hansen, a contractor at State Department.
What is the U.S. government doing to equip partner security forces to address some of more grievances and long-term issues that breed instability and radicalization?
LT. GEN. NAGATA: Great question. I wish I had the rest of the day to answer it, because it would take that long.
Unsurprising, both our own government and governments around the world are seeking to eliminate – I’ll use the term that is often used, even though it’s an imperfect term – the root causes, the drivers that lead to a foreign terrorist fighter problem itself, ISIS as a phenomenon. But I mean, I probably do not need to tell you that just achieving consensus – global consensus about what the drivers of extremism actually are, how they may differ in terms of content and costume, and texture, whether you’re – you know, it’s different in Asia than it is in Europe. It’s different in Europe than it is in America. These are all different cultures, different populations.
So this is – this has been a very complex journey to try to achieve sufficient commonality, sufficient consensus, sufficient sophistication depending on the local, depending on the population, depending on the society they emanate from. What is it that causes a man or woman, a group of individuals, to choose the path of extremism, to choose the path of radicalization? We know a lot more than we did several decades ago, but I don’t – I don’t think I know anyone in this profession, in this arena of trying to prevent radicalization that would claim we completely understand why human beings become extremists, why people take on radicalization to violence characteristics.
And because that is unfinished, our work against it is unfinished. There is an enormous amount of activity against it, but obviously given the size of the foreign terrorist fighter problem, the size of ISIS – which just exploded on the world stage in 2013 and 2014 – we clearly don’t have it figured out yet.
MR. SANDERSON: All the way in the back for the final question.
Q: I’m Yahia Barzangi (ph) from Voice of America (Kurdish ?) Service.
Most of the country, they fight ISIS. But all the time I’m wondering about one question: Who is supporting ISIS financially?
LT. GEN. NAGATA: Many people, and many actors, many organizations, many societies. That’s probably an unsatisfying answer. But first of all, ISIS supports itself. ISIS, in my judgement – my personal experience – has been the most successful terrorist organization at generating revenue that I’ve ever seen. Probably most well-known was their takeover of oil fields and natural gas sources inside of Syria. They made significant profit on that. We have significantly reduced their ability to do so. We haven’t completely eliminated it, but it has been significantly damaged. There are other sources. They use extortion, they use hostage-taking, these are all familiar to this audience. Terrorists have been doing this since time immemorial. They take advantage of local corruption. Again, a time-honored tactic by extremists around the world.
But I think it’s important to remember that terrorism, unfortunately, is not expensive. I’ve been asked in other fora, why are they able to do – to sustain this tempo of attacks around the world when we’ve taken so much money away from them. Unfortunately, the answer, I think, is because terrorism is cheap. It doesn’t take a lot of money. We do need to attack their money. We do need to take as much of their finances away from them as we possibly can. But, you know, just as with everything else in life, there’s no magic instrument for defeating ISIS. Taking away their money just by itself is insufficient. It’s necessary, but it is insufficient. Just like defeating their army in Iraq and Syria is necessary and going to happen, but it won’t stop global terrorist attacks.
So the – I would encourage all of all – since this is my last question. I apologize for deviating somewhat from your question here. Please remember that whether it’s the foreign terrorist fighter problem itself or ISIS more broadly, there’s no single formula, there’s no single action, there’s no single success that wipes this scourge from the planet. It takes an almost bewildering number of activities, a diverse set of activities – some that only governments can do, some that only civil society can do, and we shouldn’t confuse the two.
But this is a world problem. And the only way the world is going to solve it is if the entire world engages in it. If the people that deal with finances don’t work on it, if the people that deal with their military capabilities don’t work on it, if people that don’t try to contest their use of propaganda don’t work on it, and dozens of other things besides, we will live with this scourge for far too long. We already have.
But thank you for your question, and thank you for listening to me.
MR. SANDERSON: Great. Thank you very much. (Applause.)
Folks, before I formally thank General Nagata, please we’ll have about a five-minute break or so before the panel. We have three excellent experts on regional issues related to the foreign fighter threat. And there are bathrooms out to the right. But the general will exit to the rear.
But let me just say, General Nagata, to finish on such a great point, understanding the multidimensional nature of approaching this threat of terrorism and of foreign fighters is a lifelong enterprise. Unfortunately, as Tony Cordesman here at CSIS likes to say – doesn’t like to say, but he says – (laughter) – that this is – don’t expect an end to the violence, but an evolution of the violence. And you’re right to point out it takes more than military. It’s socioeconomic, it’s so many elements that must be brought to bear, and we’ve got quite a job ahead of us.
Thank you so much, and to your team, and for all those who are confronting this threat today. Thank you very much for joining us.
LT. GEN. NAGATA: Thank you. Thanks. (Applause.)