The international community must agree on how to bring ISIS fighters to justice after SDF forces captured their last enclave of Baghouz, a senior commander says.
Maj Gen Christopher Ghika, deputy commander of the combined joint task force, said in Baghdad that his organisation and the global coalition fighting ISIS were trying to find fighters responsible for crimes against the Iraqis and Syrians.
“There is a specific strand of work on foreign terrorist fighters that seeks to identify those most responsible and their whereabouts if they are in custody,” Gen Ghika said on Tuesday.
“We need to come to an international consensus on how we deal with those who are responsible for the horrendous crimes of the past five years.”
Gen Ghika said how foreign citizens who travelled to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS should be dealt with was a matter for each country to decide, but more co-operation was an option.
“In the longer term, we probably need to seek an international consensus on a process that holds those who are members of Daesh or who have assisted them to account,” he said. “That may be in the region, it may be elsewhere.
“I think that’s a subject of ongoing discussions. But the basic premise is that foreign terrorist fighters and the policy on what to do with them must be the preserve of sovereign national governments.”
“These family members will not easily abandon their ideology. Their reintegration into society will require a collective effort from the coalition and international community to help to eliminate conditions that would allow Daesh to re-emerge.”
The risk is that ISIS will try to evolve into an underground organisation, Gen Ghika said.
“They’re going to try and become a group that uses insurgent tactics to attack the stabilising forces of the state, to undermine efforts of reconstruction and stability, and to attack the population,” he said.
Gen Ghika said that the best way of battling that risk was to support the Iraqi security forces and SDF in rooting out ISIS members and supporters.
Below is a full rush transcript of the press conference by U.K. Major General Christopher Ghika, Deputy Commander of Strategy and Information for the Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve.
I’ll just give a couple of opening remarks and then I’ll turn it over to you for questions, because I think your questions will be the most valuable part of this, but I think it’s fair to say that this weekend has been a highly significant one in the fight against Daesh. It’s a signal to the end of their territorial control. This was an organization that established itself in 2014 and really made its mark by its claim of the creation of an extremist state which held land, where now today it holds nothing.
But I don’t think this is the end of Daesh. It’s not the end of the threat from Daesh or the military campaign against them, which will continue. It will continue because Daesh continues to pose a threat both to Iraq and Syria but also to the region and the world. They have adapted. They are trying to morph into an underground movement. They are seeking to conduct targeted attacks. And with the aim of destabilizing areas of Iraq and Syria, and we’ve seen this with some of their attacks in the last few months.
That is why the coalition are committed to supporting the Iraqi Security Force, supporting the Syrian Democratic Force to continue the fight against Daesh and prevent their reemergence.
That’s kind of where I stand this morning, but I’d be very happy to take any questions that you may have.
Question: Reports have mentioned that there are tens of thousands of silent ISIS supporters spread throughout Iraq and Syria. What measures are being taken to fight this threat?
Major General Ghika: I think that really speaks to ISIS’, Daesh’s narrative, because the silent supporters of those who for one reason or another have subscribed to Daesh’s narrative. That’s why you would be a silent supporter. That’s why you would be in any way a supporter of this organization. And I would say that if you were to go to people in the liberated areas of Iraq and Syria as I have done. I’ve walked down the street in Raqqa, in Kobani, in Mosul, and if you talk to the people who’ve lived under Daesh’s oppressive regime you would need no persuasion that people should move away from that narrative.
But countering the narrative against Daesh is one of the key challenges. One can defeat a military force, but defeating the narrative is more difficult. The way in which the narrative can be transmitted in this day, in the 21st century by the internet is one of those challenges.
So I think what we need to do is engage a whole collection of people, all elements of government. I think we need to engage different groups, different organizations, to show the evil in Daesh’s narrative; to show a better way of life. We need to have regional voices engaged in this so that we can bring out in the open and lay bare the emptiness and the evil of Daesh’s narrative which will at least go some way to countering those tens of thousands of supporters and persuading them that they are pursuing and supporting an empty group.
Question: I wonder now that the end of the territory is over, the military campaign so far, certainly from the public’s perspective, has been very much an air campaign. I wonder what kind of military campaign it is going forward? And do you have any idea how long this coalition will need to remain as a coalition, as a military force?
Major General Ghika: I wouldn’t want to be drawn on time in a call like this, but I think on the ground and from a U.K. perspective for BFBS, I think what’s important to understand is that the U.K. is at the center of a coalition of over 30 nations in the Middle East, 74 nations more broadly, who are training, developing, raising the capability of the Iraqi Security Forces — for the U.K. that’s at Taji and Erbil — so that the Iraqi Security Forces are increasingly capable of countering the threat from Daesh on their own. That is an effort that’s been going on since 2015. That is an effort that is working. I was here myself in 2014 and ’15 and I can see that the effort the coalition has put into the capability building of the Iraqi Security Forces really is working.
Question: According to data there are I think 1600 foreign fighters who joined ISIS and spread in the area of Iraq and Syria. I wonder, and many of them are women and children who are right now in the camp area which is under by SDF military forces. I wonder whether the government is proposing to send them back to their original country before?
Major General Ghika: We’re talking here I think about the foreign terrorist fighters who have been [inaudible]. And I think that my first thing to say is that those who have committed crimes, those who have been members of Daesh must be held to account in the force of the law.
The issue of what to do with foreign nationals who have left their own countries to fight for this terrorist organization is a matter for the sovereign national governments of those individuals.
I think more broadly, in the longer term, we probably need to seek an international consensus on a process which holds those who are members of Daesh or who have assisted them to account. That may be in the region, it may be elsewhere. I think that’s a subject of ongoing discussions. But the basic premise is that foreign terrorist fighters and the policy on what to do with them must be the preserve of sovereign national governments.
Question: Where will ISIS fighters go after being defeated in Syria and Iraq?
Major General Ghika: Thank you for the question, and that’s something which I think everybody’s concerned about. We know that a number of Iraqi fighters aspire, they want to return to Iraq, and that’s why the coalition is so active in helping the Iraqi Security Forces to raise their capability so they can counter that effectively. And the Iraqis are doing a very good job of that.
There are other places they could go. I suspect some of them would try and go back to places in Syria where they came from, and that again, is why we will assist the Syrian Democratic Force to provide security for the local populations in Syria so that they can prevent that happening.
But I think the intention is to make sure that the ISIS fighters do not have that freedom of action to decide where they want to go, and that we do everything we can to prevent their freedom of action.
Question: In places where the coalition has been working to defeat Daesh, we see huge infrastructure damage and what appear to be kind of lack of planning about the day after. And I wanted to ask you about what the long-term strategy is for the families of ISIS who’ve now come out of the Baghouz area in Syria. What is the long-term strategy for these families behind keeping them in an overcrowded camp with very bad humanitarian conditions and possibly not sufficient services? What’s the long-term strategy?
Major General Ghika: I think it’s fair to say that the, and I think you’re talking about the al-Hawl camp here in particular where a large number of the families are.
I think it’s fair to say that the population in al-Hawl, the population which has come out of the last ISIS pocket is bigger than anybody really expected. But the SDF, our partner force, have been very effective in screening the ISIS families and the aid agencies have done an excellent job in providing food, water, shelter, and essential supplies to the population of al-Hawl. But as you alluded to, that is a short to medium term solution.
I think the long term solution is that that population return to their homes. The government of Iraq have agreed that the Iraqi citizens can return to Iraq, and we would anticipate the Syrians doing likewise.
I think it’s important to remember that the issue of IDPs is not new in this conflict. Over seven million have been displaced in the course of the last five years, and the very vast majority of that population have returned home. That has been our long term strategy all along, and it remains so to this day.
Question: The first question would be could you give us any kind of guess how many ISIS fighters you think are still active somewhere in those hidden cells? The second question is, what do you know about the whereabouts of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi?
Major General Ghika: In the ISIS cells we’re unsure of the exact number but we think it’s probably some thousands. But it’s difficult to tell, and I think those thousands are probably split into some are fighters and activists and others are supporting members of Daesh.
Baghdadi, an often talked about subject. I’m afraid I don’t know where he is. If I did know, we would do something about it. But I think it’s important to realize that he is increasingly less relevant. He had his moment of prominence in 2014 and we believe that he is an ISIS member like any other, but one who decreases in relevance with every day that goes by.
Question: I was actually going to ask about Baghdadi. But what’s being done, now the caliphate has fallen, how much work is being done to sort of identify those who weren’t physically in the caliphate, who were internationally based, who were supporting them financially and acting as their agents abroad? I’m in Britain, so I’m thinking are we able to identify if anyone in the U.K. was supporting them. But I know it was an international movement.
So now that their physical compact is gone, how much work is being done to look at the international network that made up Daesh at its height? Does that make sense?
Major General Ghika: That’s a really good question.
I think there’s no doubt that Saturday was a very significant moment here in the Middle East because Iraq and Syria is where Daesh set their heart, it’s where their anchor point is, if you like. But it’s important, as you alluded to, to realize that this is a global issue. They present a global threat. So I would point you to the work of the Global Coalition. That’s the 74 nations and 5 organizations. And the Global Coalition has set up bespoke programs, bespoke lines of effort to deal with the breadth of the threat. So there are programs to counter financing, the ideology, the military operation, to bring in stabilization to liberated areas and thereby undermine the causes of Daesh’s rise. But the one you talked to, there is a specific strand of work on foreign terrorist fighters which seeks to identify those most responsible and their whereabouts, if they’re in custody.
Then as I said earlier, I think we need to come to an international consensus with how we deal with those who are responsible for the horrendous crimes of the last five years.
Question: What are your expectations for the next ISIS moves?
Major General Ghika: I think ISIS’ next moves are quite easy to talk about because ISIS, Daesh have put them out in the open source. What they’re going to try to do, they recognize that they are no longer a credible force holding territory. We’ve seen that, and they understand that. They’re going to try and turn themselves into an underground organization. They’re going to try and become a group that uses insurgent type tactics to attack the stabilizing forces of the state, to undermine efforts of reconstruction and stability, and to attack the population.
So what we need to do to counter that is to support the Iraqi Security Forces, support the Syrian Democratic Force, so that they can with our support identify where that is happening and then counter it effectively.
Question: how many boots on the ground are you planning to leave in Syria? And what are you expecting Turkey to do in the near future?
Major General Ghika: You’ll forgive me if, I don’t think you would expect me to tell you exactly how many forces we’re going to leave in Syria, but I think what’s happened since the end of February is that the United States have understood the threat that Daesh pose if they’re allowed to form a safe haven in Northeast Syria, if they’re allowed to reestablish themselves. So the president’s been quite clear that we will leave some forces behind who will be there with the intention of conducting a mission against Daesh to ensure with our partners, the Syrian Democratic Force, that they cannot reestablish themselves.
Question: I was just wondering if you could say to what extent allies coordinate their actions with the Russian side? How would you assess overall Russia’s contribution to defeating ISIS?
Major General Ghika: I think everybody in the world recognizes the threat that’s posed by Daesh, and I think that includes Russia. So I think we share a common view of the threat posed by Daesh and a common and positive view about what happened this weekend.
Question: With ISIS territorial defeat, how should the prisoners be handled? What are the security concerns with respect to the thousands currently in SDF custody?
Major General Ghika: I think the same applies to this question as applies to the numbers in the IDP camps. I think we’ve been really surprised by the numbers coming out of the MERV, out of the final Daesh pocket. But the SDF, our partner force, have done a really excellent job in screening the fighters and the families, to separate the fighters from the non-combatants. And the fighters are being held in SDF prisons. They are being held in accordance with international humanitarian law. Those prisons have been inspected by the ICRC.
I think that at this stage we need to leave it to what is an ongoing discussion about the way in which we hold accountable those who are proven to have been members of Daesh so that they are held to account for their crimes.
Question: The Pentagon has confirmed that the war on ISIS hasn’t ended completely yet. And that the limited number of U.S. troops will stay in Syria for an indefinite period of time. And that there is a plan to support a credible Syrian opposition to form about 60,000 fighters.
So my question is to you, does the Pentagon announcement encourage other coalition forces to keep troops east of the Euphrates? And what is the role in the previous U.S. proposal for the peacekeeping force and the international observers in that region?
Major General Ghika: I think the U.S. intention for Syria has been very clear, which is to keep a force in Northeast Syria which can help and partner the SDF in preventing the resurgence of Daesh.
As I think’s been clear by the tenor, the tone of some of the questions, it’s obvious that they still pose a threat and the continued American presence in Northeast Syria is recognition of that threat. It will enable a continuing effort against the Daesh so they cannot form a safe haven there from which they can threaten security in the region.
With respect to the coalition, I think the coalition presence is in Iraq so it’s not relevant in discussion of Northeast Syria.
Question: ISIS may have lost its territories and caliphate but many reports say that it remains, that the group remains a financial powerhouse. It still has access to hundreds of millions of dollars. What measures are you taking to confront this huge amount of money? And do you have information about transferring this money to Turkey or other countries?
Major General Ghika: The lead for this sits in the Global Coalition, so the Global Coalition of 74 nations have a specific cell, a specific group who work on the money, the funding flow for Daesh.
When you say they remain a financial powerhouse, I would challenge that, and I think if you were to examine their financial position compared to say four or five years ago, you would find that it was substantially reduced. In other words, this is going in the right direction.
The execution of that plan is not anchored, it’s not headquartered here in Baghdad, it is with the Global Coalition. There are a number of ways in which we are taking that effort on. For example, making it more difficult for Daesh to conduct any kind of transactional activity, making it difficult for them to sell a product like oil. There are a number of ways in which we do that, but I think it’s going in the right direction. Like in other areas, there remains more work to be done, but I think it’s trending positively.
Question: if the European countries don’t move as fast as you would like to take back their citizens, and that appears to be the case. Belgium, as one example, is fighting a court order to take back children of ISIS fighters. Is it still the case that there’s the threat that they would just be let go where they are? If they have no other place to go, they don’t have passports, nobody wants them. I mean what’s the scenario for them?
Major General Ghika: That is not a credible solution, a credible option. As I say, this is an issue, as I said before, for individual sovereign governments, but at the moment the SDF are holding the ISIS fighters. It is their interest probably above anybody else’s to hang onto them because they recognize only too clearly the threat that they pose. So they’re not going anywhere at the moment. They’re being held in humanitarian and acceptable conditions, and I think it’s a matter for discussion now with national governments about what happens to their own nationals. And then there needs to be a consensus about the way in which we hold those who are most accountable to a court of law and to justice.
But the threat of letting them go, I don’t see as credible.
Question: I just asked about the money, but there’s also possible ISIS using a hawala system. This system is very hard to detect. Are you aware of such transactions or such money moving from ISIS members?
Major General Ghika: I think there are reports of a range of ISIS attempts to continue their financial revenue streams. I don’t know how many of them are credible. But I think the more the work of the international coalition develops on preventing the movement or the transfer of ISIS money the more effective it will be and the less easy it will be for them to carry out what they’ve been able to do for the last few years.
I also think that as an organization that does not hold ground, it makes their long-term financial sustainability far more difficult because they’re less able to conduct extortion, smuggling, and sale of goods than they were in the past.
So I think as time goes on these restrictions will begin to bite. And as I said, the downward trend in ISIS’ financial credibility will continue.
Major General Ghika: I’ve enjoyed the question and answer session and I’d be willing to do it again if people would like to.