Policy & Strategy

Defense secretary: ISIS threat ‘beyond anything we’ve seen’

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The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is beyond “just a terrorist group” and poses a greater threat than al Qaeda, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Thursday. 

“This is beyond anything that we’ve seen,” he said during a briefing on Thursday afternoon about the Sunni militant group that has taken over territory in Iraq and Syria and earlier this week beheaded American journalist James Foley. 

{mosads}”ISIL is as sophisticated and well-funded as any group that we have seen,” Hagel said, using another acronym for the group. “They marry ideology, a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess. They are tremendously well-funded.” 

“So we must prepare for everything. And the only way you do that is that you take a cold, steely, hard look at it … and get ready,” he said. 

Hagel’s remarks come months after President Obama dismissed ISIS, calling the group “JV”.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said it was possible to “contain” ISIS, but “not in perpetuity.” 

“This is an organization that has an apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision and which will eventually have to be defeated,” said Dempsey, who spoke alongside Hagel.

Dempsey said for ISIS to be defeated, it would have to be addressed in Syria, possibly in part by airstrikes. 

“And that will come when we have a coalition in the region that takes on the task of defeating ISIS over time. ISIS will only truly be defeated when it’s rejected by the 20 million disenfranchised Sunni that happen to reside between Damascus and Baghdad,” he said. 

“It requires a variety of instruments, only one small part of which is airstrikes. I’m not predicting those will occur in Syria, at least not by the United States of America. But it requires the application of all of the tools of national power — diplomatic, economic, information, military,” he said.

Hagel also pushed back against the notion that there was any “mission creep” in Iraq. 

Since ISIS’s takeover of Mosul in June, the president has incrementally increased the U.S. troop presence in Iraq, from several hundred to more than 800. 

In addition, the U.S. troop mission in Iraq has gone from protecting U.S. personnel and property in Baghdad to assessing the security situation and Iraqi forces, then to protecting U.S. personnel and property in Erbil, then to airdropping humanitarian supplies to tens of thousands of Iraqis stranded on a mountain, and most recently to assisting Iraqi forces in protecting “critical infrastructure.” 

“The president has been very clear on mission creep. And he’s made it very clear that he will not allow that. This is why he’s been very clear on what our mission is. We comply with the War Powers Act and informed Congress on how many people we have,” he said.

So far, the U.S. has delivered 636 bundles of food, water and medical supplies, is conducting more than 60 intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sorties per day, and has conducted 89 targeted airstrikes in northern Iraq. 

Hagel also discussed why the administration disclosed a failed attempt to rescue Foley and an unspecified number of other American hostages held in Syria earlier this summer.

The disclosure came a day after Foley’s beheading, and fueled speculation among Republican lawmakers that the administration was attempting to improve its image in the wake of Foley’s death and an inability to recover him. 

“There were a number of news outlets that were aware of the action, of the raid. And it was a decision made by the administration, which we concurred with, to address the mission,” Hagel said. 

“Also, the administration had informed the families of the hostages of this effort. So it was the decision and it was unanimous that we should, in fact, acknowledge this effort without going into any of the specifics of it, which we, as you know, will not,” he said.

“The mission was executed flawlessly after a significant period of preparation and planning and rehearsal. And the — it turned out that the hostages were no longer at that location,” said Dempsey. 

Hagel said the failure of the operation was not an “intelligence failure.” 

“Intelligence doesn’t come wrapped in a package with a bow,” he said. “It is a mosaic of many pictures, of many factors.” 

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