MODERATOR: Thank you, everyone, for coming today. It is my pleasure to introduce the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL Brett McGurk. Thank you.
MR. MCGURK: It’s very good to be here again. I’m very pleased to be here in Jordan. And I think I saw many of you the last time I was here. It’s always an honor to be in this country. As President Obama has said, Jordan is an invaluable ally of the United States. They are an invaluable ally in this global campaign against Daesh. And it truly is a global campaign, with 67 members of our global coalition, but Jordan is really a bedrock founding member of this overall effort against Daesh.
I will brief briefly on kind of where we are in this overall campaign, and I would just remind everyone that, while Iraq and Syria gets a lot of the focus, this is a global effort. It is an effort to defeat the landmass that Daesh still tries to control. But most importantly, this is an ideological struggle to defeat the idea, this horrific, perverse idea that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Daesh is trying to spread around the world. And that is where our invaluable ally, Jordan, plays such a critical role.
I had meetings today throughout the day, starting with His Majesty and senior national security team here. I saw the foreign minister who had just came from the chief of defense. We had very detailed, very constructive, and very positive meetings. I’m also grateful for the expression of condolences from His Majesty, and from the entire team here, for the loss of our three American soldiers, and I have conveyed those expressions of condolences back to Washington. This is obviously a very tragic incident. It is under investigation, and we will support Jordan as it continues with this investigation. But I was very grateful for the very sincere expressions of condolences from His Majesty for this incidence. And nothing here would come between Jordan and the United States, as we continue to support each other and continue to support Jordan as a pillar of stability in this region and as a pillar in our overall coalition against Daesh.
Let me briefly just talk about where we are in this overall campaign. And we analyze this battle against Daesh in three dimensions. First is in the core in Iraq and Syria. That is where Daesh, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared in this false caliphate. And they used to always talk about, when you go back to their propaganda from two years ago, this historic, expanding, unstoppable movement. Every single piece of propaganda, they would retain and expand the caliphate. And they said to people all around the world, come and join our historic expanding movement, bring your families, this is where we are changing history. That was a couple years ago. And they can’t say that anymore, because their territory is rapidly shrinking as we speak, which I’ll discuss in some detail.
Outside the core in Iraq and Syria are the global networks. We call them the networks because they are truly global. Those are the foreign fighter networks. About 40,000 foreign fighters have poured into Syria over the last five years. I am happy to report it is much harder for them to get into Syria now. Don’t take it from me; Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi himself issued an audio tape from some deep hiding place the other day, and he said, it turns out it’s actually really hard to get to Syria now, so maybe think about going somewhere else. But there are global networks, foreign fighter networks. There are global propaganda networks. There are propaganda machine and media networks. Those have also been significantly degraded. And there are global financial networks, which we have also almost now entirely cut off.
The third dimension of Daesh are their affiliates around the world. They claim to have aided these so-called affiliates. Most of them are just pre-existing terrorist organizations such as Boko Haram in Nigeria, for example, that one day decides to fly the flag of Daesh. Where we see Daesh and as an affiliate actually sending leaders, sending money, sending resources, we take it with utmost seriousness. That primary example is in Libya. Libya is where they hope to establish a third capital in its phony caliphate. And that was in Sirte, and now they are about to lose Sirte entirely.
So we are making significant progress against this very serious threat. However, this will be a multi-year effort. It’s a generational effort. And even after we get Daesh out of Mosul and out of Raqqa, which we will, the long-term ideological struggle against these extremist organizations will continue, and we will very much count on and support our vital partners in this region, most indispensably with our partners in Jordan.
Just briefly, on this map, I’ll just discuss where we are. A lot of this has been in the news, but I can bring you up to date to the extent that I’ve been brought up to date. I will start – I’ll actually start with the number 3. So I’ll go backwards, because that is Mosul. Mosul is where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in the summer of 2014, ascended to the Grand Mosque and declared a caliphate. It is their national capital. It is a capital that they have said to the world that they will hold onto. We worked with the Iraqi Security Forces to rebuild those forces for the last two years. We worked with them to retake territory. All the green on that map is area that has been retaken from Daesh. And not a single speck of territory that has been retaken from Daesh has Daesh come back and taken back.
And there’s a good reason for that. We’re not only focused on supporting our partners on the ground to defeat Daesh, we’re focused on what comes next: to make sure this is a lasting defeat, to make sure that local people in these areas that have been terrorized from Daesh will be in charge of their local affairs, their local security; to set the conditions for refugees to return home. And even as displaced people are coming out of Mosul now to get away from Daesh, a million Iraqis have actually returned to their homes in areas that have been liberated from Daesh.
So when it comes to Mosul, we’re working to apply all the lessons that we’ve learned in these very difficult places like Tikrit, like Ramadi, and relying on the Iraqi Security Forces that we have helped train and the Kurdish Peshmerga that we have helped train as a coalition to take the fight to Daesh.
We’re now in the third week of this operation. Everything right now is ahead of schedule. Very importantly, the planning that went into this operation was truly extraordinary. We are seeing cooperation between the Iraqi Security Forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga that is totally unprecedented. They are literally working together on the battlefield. I had the honor of visiting a hospital in Erbil, where wounded Kurdish Peshmerga from the front lines near Mosul were recovering together in the same room with members of the Iraqi Army. And they both said they want to get back on the front lines and fight Daesh as brothers. Truly extraordinary cooperation.
You may have seen this last night; Prime Minister Abadi visited the front lines of Mosul. He visited the Iraqi forces on the front lines of Mosul. And then very importantly, he went to Erbil to meet with President Barzani, the leaders of the Kurdish Peshmerga. And it was not only President Barzani and Prime Minister Abadi, but also the commanders of the Kurdish Peshmurga, the commanders of the Iraqi Security Forces, sitting together to plan and finalize the next phase of this campaign and to talk about what comes next in Mosul after Daesh.
And what comes next will be very important. We have a very well-resourced humanitarian plan in place to care for the internally displaced from Mosul. So far, we have about 37,000 displaced people from Mosul. They are being taken care of by the heroic efforts of not only the Iraqis, who are working to take care of the refugees and the IDPs, but also the NGOs that are in place from – particularly led by the UNAMI/UN team in Baghdad. They are doing a tremendous job under very difficult circumstances.
So right now, everything in Mosul is ahead of schedule on all axes of advance. But Daesh, as we expected, is putting up a fierce fight, and I expect this will take some time to conclude. But right now, the plan is very much on track.
At the same time, we are not going to allow Daesh to have sanctuary anywhere else, either on that map or around the world. So today you may have seen the initial phase. The initial phase of operations to liberate Raqqa have begun. This will happen in phases. It’ll happen in very close consultations with our partners on the ground, Syrian Democratic Forces, and also with our allies in the region, particularly Turkey. And our Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Dunford is in Ankara today talking with his Turkish counterparts about the subsequent phases of the Raqqa campaign.
So the Raqqa campaign will proceed in phases, very deliberate phases. There is an isolation phase which began today, and there will be subsequent phases to make sure that we kick Daesh out of Raqqa. And that will happen. As we do that, we are very focused on southern Syria, and making sure that our close ally here in Jordan is protected in southern Syria. So you can see on the map some of the focus points, particularly al-Tanf and some of those other areas, we’re very focused and working with the Jordanians to make sure that threats to their border do not emerge. That is a fundamental priority of ours as the United States and as a coalition. So we’ll continue to work on that.
So we will be applying constant, simultaneous, synchronized pressure against Daesh in the core in Iraq and Syria – this is ongoing now and will accelerate over the coming weeks and months – and also globally against the networks and against the affiliates. It is a global campaign. That’s why we have a global coalition, and the epicenter forces here in Jordan, which is a bedrock ally of ours across every aspect of this campaign, from the military fight with Jordanian pilots in the skies every single night on what we call our air tasking order, to the training, and to the ideological component of the campaign, which is really one of the most important aspects.
So with that, I’m very pleased to be here and I’m happy to take your questions.
MODERATOR: If you can please state your name and organization.
QUESTION: Karin Laub from AP. On Raqqa, I assume the Kurdish announcement today was coordinated with the United States. Is the U.S. ready to provide air cover, and how are you discussing it with the Turks, who have called the forces there terrorist groups? How are you balancing your two allies?
MR. MCGURK: So the announcement today came from the Syrian Democratic Forces, which is a coalition of Kurds and Arabs. And when it comes to Raqqa, I want to make very clear it is our principal priority throughout this campaign that the vanguard of the force that takes major territory from Daesh should be locally-based forces.
So when it comes to Raqqa, we want a force that ultimately liberates Raqqa that is primarily from the local area – Arabs from the area. And so we have trained many of these fighters and that force will continue to grow as we get to the subsequent phases of the campaign. We, of course, work very closely with the Syrian Democratic Forces. When they are fighting Daesh, we do provide air support. It has to be coordinated, and that’ll obviously continue as they begin this movement south against Daesh positions north of Raqqa.
With Turkey, we are on the ground – our Special Forces are on the ground with the opposition that is working very closely with Turkey. I think the last time I was probably here – and I think I spoke with many of you – I had this map and I talked about a 98-kilometer stretch of border that was still open between Daesh and Turkey. Turkey has done a great job in terms of shutting down the access routes on its side of the border, but we ultimately had to clean out the southern side of the border. And so right in the one on that map to the north is where operation with the Turks, called Operation Euphrates Shield, has been ongoing. We call it Operation Noble Lance. And we are on the ground with them helping to clean out that buffer zone, and when those forces are fighting Daesh, they get coordinated air support from us.
So it’s a complex environment in Syria, to say the least, but we are constantly in touch with all the different players. And I think in terms of the phasing of the overall Raqqa campaign, we have a fairly good understanding of what’s to come.
QUESTION: Hi, Sara Williams, The Telegraph. More on this. This morning, the SDF spokespeople said that the U.S. has given them assurances that they didn’t need to fear the Turks coming after their flank in Syria, and then likewise, that they had given assurances that they wouldn’t join up the three cantons. Is that accurate?
MR. MCGURK: I’m sorry, say that second part again?
QUESTION: So that the SDF, the Kurds, had said that they would not join up the three cantons in Syria, that that was sort of the price that they would pay for the guarantee from the U.S. that they didn’t need to worry about Turkey coming into northern Syria. Is all of that accurate? Has the U.S. finagled that?
MR. MCGURK: So I can’t – I didn’t see the statement. I’ve been in meetings with the Jordanian officials all day, so I haven’t seen the actual statement. I’ll just say that it’s no surprise this operation to begin the initial push on Raqqa began over the last 24 hours. We’re obviously supporting that movement. There are multiple interests here from the different sides, and we are certainly – our diplomats are constantly working to try to ensure that interests are aligned and that there’s a mutual focus against Daesh. So I just can’t comment on a statement that I have not particularly seen.
We will support the Syrian Democratic Forces as they begin this movement on Raqqa, but again, this will proceed in phases. And we’re in close, close contact with our Turkish allies, and that’s why the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs is in Ankara today. So we want this to be as coordinated as possible, recognizing that there would be a mix of forces on the field and that many of those forces, of course, do not see eye to eye, but they do share a very common and still very lethal enemy against Daesh.
MODERATOR: Sir, I think we have a couple questions in Arabic.
QUESTION: Arabic? Sorry, English, sorry. Hi, sir. How are you? I’m Haidar Al-Abdaly from Al Hurra Television. My question is – we still have to defeat ISIS in Mosul, but we have still a problem between Haditha and Albu Kamal. Is there a new plan about them? Many times we defeat – they defeat ISIS from Tikrit and return back to the same place, and that’s what happened in Diyala and in other places. So is there a new plan to protect Anbar and Rutbah and these places from ISIS?
MR. MCGURK: So it’s a great question. Yeah, everything that’s still orange on that map we want to turn green. If you look at Anbar province – I think there’s some more in the green now that – if the map was updated as of today. But all the way – the 5 on the map to Rutbah, that is the Baghdad-Amman highway and we want to get that highway open as soon as possible. We’re working very closely with the Iraqis and with the Jordanians to help open that highway. Most importantly, that will require local Anbaris. We have about 20,000 Anbari volunteers, tribal fighters who are fighting Daesh who are organized, most of whom are paid by the government, supported by the government in Baghdad. And so that is something that we will continue to build upon.
There was an operation that Daesh tried to – tried to launch this little offensive in Rutbah the other day. I think it’s important to clarify exactly what’s happening when you see these things happen. They did the same thing in Kirkuk. They are losing territory. They put together these commando teams of 60 and 70 people who are literally suicidal. One of them went into Kirkuk and one of them went into Rutbah. And what they do is they come in, they kind of shoot up the place, they try to put things on social media, but then they all eventually – they’re suicidal. They all eventually die. And so they did that in Rutbah, but Rutbah is now secure. And we’re working very hard to secure that highway and we want to open it, obviously, as soon as possible given the commerce and the benefits to the people of Anbar and to the people of Jordan.
We’re also talking about a number of long-term infrastructure development projects in Anbar province. We’re discussing that with the local provincial officials in Anbar and, of course, Jordan. And we’re, of course, ready to facilitate those. But as you go up the Euphrates Valley, Al-Qaim and Albu Kamal – those areas have to be ultimately cleaned out from Daesh. And the way to do it is we are going to help organize the local tribal fighters. We, of course, have a coalition presence at Al-Assad Air Base and we will work with the Iraqi Security Forces to do that.
So again, this is all part of an over – if I was here two years ago, most of that map was all orange. And a lot of people said, “Well, how are you possibly going to do this?” So we have a phase campaign strategy. It will be difficult, there will be setbacks, but we are very focused on that piece of the Euphrates Valley and we are not going to allow Daesh to basically relocate there and use it as a sanctuary.
MODERATOR: In Arabic? Arabic? Yes, in Arabic too.
QUESTION: (In Arabic.)
MR. MCGURK: Your second one I’ll take first. No, we do not coordinate with the government of Bashar al-Assad, we’ve no relationship with the government of Bashar al-Assad. We believe that so long as Bashar al-Assad is in power, the civil war, which is basically destroying the western side of that country and has destroyed most of Syria, will continue. And so we absolutely will not coordinate with the government in Damascus as it is presently constituted, so absolutely not.
Your first question – I would just – Prime Minister al-Abadi has said repeatedly his number-one concern is for civilians as we move in these operations against Daesh. That is one reason in Mosul we are moving very deliberately and very carefully. The force mix in the overall operation in the Mosul campaign are some of the most well-trained units, units that we have trained as a coalition, and we have great confidence in them. And so we have worked very hard also to organize and recruit 15,000 local fighters from Nineveh province. And that is because, as I said, the first principle of this campaign is that as we clear areas from Daesh, we want the vanguard of that force to be locally based forces in order for them to hold the terrain and allow people to return to their homes and get on with their lives.
So we think that plan has come together well. Any human rights abuse is totally unacceptable. It’s unacceptable to us, it’s unacceptable to the Government of Iraq, and people who commit such crimes have to be held accountable. Thus far in the Mosul campaign, we have not seen significant reports of such abuse, and we want to try to make sure it stays that way. This will be a very difficult military endeavor. The forces on the ground are fighting a barbaric and literally, in many cases, suicidal organization. So it will be difficult but we believe the performance of the Iraqi Security Forces in particular thus far have been quite heroic and quit extraordinary together with their brothers in the Kurdish Peshmerga.
QUESTION: Hi, Taylor Luck from The Washington Post. You mentioned that the assault on Raqqa is in its initial phase, an isolation phase. What may the future phases encompass, and will your Special Forces join in a potential future phase in Raqqa?
MR. MCGURK: So we have Special Forces on the ground in northern Syria and they are, of course, doing an advise and assist role and they’re playing a critical role. They help with training, they help with air support, they do a number of things – those guys are quite extraordinary, I’ve gone to visit them myself – and quite heroic. So obviously, our Special Forces have an enabling role, but the fighting is being done by Syrians and we expect that to continue.
And the future phase of the Raqqa campaign in the future, that ultimate phase will focus on getting Daesh out of Raqqa. We are absolutely determined to do that for a number of reasons. If Mosul is the national capital of Daesh, Raqqa remains is administrative capital. It is where many of its leaders seek to congregate, it’s where they seek to plan and plot attacks against us, attacks against our neighbors, attacks against our partners, and is completely unacceptable. So we are going to move as fast as we possibly can to get Daesh out of Raqqa in a smart and deliberate way to ensure that their defeat is a lasting one. And again, that is why the focus on locally-grown, locally-based forces with local knowledge is so important.
QUESTION: Amjad Tadros from CBS News. Yesterday the family of Sergeant Moriarty expressed doubt about the account on Friday’s shooting in Jafr. Did you hear anything today that will change the official account?
MR. MCGURK: So again, I think our condolences go out to the families of these heroes who lost their lives here. This is an incident that just happened that is under investigation. We will obviously lend our support to that investigation, and I heard nothing but from – from his majesty on down about the condolences that they convey to the families of these heroes and also for their commitment to a full and transparent investigation to find out exactly what happened. But it’s simply too early to say exactly what happened.
QUESTION: Jomana Karadsheh from CNN. During your last press conference, I think you expressed concern about ISIS in Libya. I think you described it as the most dangerous affiliate. It’s been about six months since the operation began to retake Sirte and we’ve seen hundreds of airstrikes, yet they seem to be still holding on to Sirte. What is your assessment of the situation there and when it comes to – you know, Sirte will eventually fall. What happens afterwards? On – nothing’s really changed in the overall situation in Libya. It’s probably more chaotic than what it was when ISIS first gained a foothold there. So how do you make sure that when it’s pushed out of Syria and Iraq that you won’t see them heading to Libya?
MR. MCGURK: So it’s a very good question. I think if you look at the spokesman of Daesh, who is also their operational commander, Mohamed Adnani, he was the brain of all their external operations – Paris, Brussels. He’s now dead. He said in one of his last statements, you know, we might actually might lose Raqqa, we might lose Mosul. But he talked about you can go to Sirte. Then he eventually said in his last statement before he died we might actually lose Sirte as well, because they will lose Sirte.
So six months in Libya there was no government. It was very hard to see who we could work with on the ground. And some analysts, when they looked at the growth of Daesh in Libya, described it as like a hockey stick-like growth; it’s just continuing to go up. So that’s why when I was last here – I don’t remember, probably six months or so ago – I probably did say it’s very concerning, and it was.
We worked very hard with the Libyans and with the UN Special Representative Martin Kobler, who’s doing a terrific job, and my colleague, Special Envoy for Libya Jonathan Winer, to help their new government get established, get a foothold back in Tripoli, and then work with forces who are loyal to the government to begin to fight back against Daesh in their sanctuary in Sirte.
So this has now been ongoing for a few months. President Obama authorized air support, which has also been ongoing. And actually, if you look at Sirte, Daesh has almost been entirely eliminated from Sirte. They are holding on to a patch of land that is the size of a soccer field, a football field. And again, they’re suicidal. They’re snipers. And if you want to hold on to a little teeny patch of land, you can do that.
We do not use the same tactics as the Syrian regime or the Russians and simply carpet-bomb part of a city that there’s some Daesh in. We are going to – we are methodical as much as possible, and so that is the case in Sirte. They have been defeated in Sirte, and it is a matter of time until they lose this final foothold. And those fighters, those terrorists who are in that foothold, will all – they’re fighting to the death and they will all get their wish.
So where we go from there in Libya is obviously to try to pull the country together, and there’s tremendous political discord between different factions in the country. We are encouraging all the factions to recognize the Government of National Accord. That includes General Haftar in the east. And this is something that was part of our conversations here in Jordan. It’s part of the conversations I have when I travel to other capitals here in the region.
So number one, make sure Daesh can have no sanctuary in Libya. And in Sirte in particular, as as well, we’re well on the way. And number two is to try to coalesce the political forces underneath the umbrella of the GNA. And anyone who comes under the umbrella of the GNA we can provide enabling support for with the authorization of Prime Minister Sarraj. So we have some ways to go. It’s a very complex situation, but I do think it is moving in the right direction from six months ago.
MODERATOR: A question in Arabic.
QUESTION: (In Arabic.)
MR. MCGURK: Well, I get this question a lot. I think we have to remember for a while in Iraq in particular we had 160,000 American troops fighting and dying in Iraqi cities and villages. That was against the predecessor of Daesh, al-Qaida in Iraq, led by Zarqawi. Very difficult. And what we found was ultimately that’s not a source for lasting success – young Americans going and fighting in the streets and villages of Iraq. We have to empower locals to do this. That was one of the lessons we took very late in the overall conflict in Iraq during the surge with the Awakening, and it is a fundamental core priority of ours in this campaign to have local fighters fighting Daesh and controlling their areas after Daesh is defeated with coalition support and training and enabling and intelligence and then air support.
But taking on a force like this takes time. I mean, they are literally, as I’ve said, a suicide organization. According to their own statistics, last month alone they had 120 suicide bombers. So – and they come at the military forces with these enormous truck bombs and vehicle bombs, which you all probably have seen. And we have helped the forces on the ground develop tactics and techniques to defeat those type of – those types of suicide bombs and tactics. But it is a careful, methodical campaign. There are really no shortcuts here.
So months ago I would ask – it looks like you’re never going to get to Mosul. In fact, the planning for Mosul is being put together. And the planning in Mosul is being put together in a way that all these disparate forces – the local Nineveh tribal-based organizations and volunteers, the Kurdish Peshmerga, the Iraqi Security Forces, Special Services, Army, the 9th Armored Division – all these units are organized to work in a coordinated campaign. That takes time to put together, but it is valuable time because it is how you do this right and make sure the defeat of Daesh is a lasting one. So we want to go as fast as possible empowering the local forces on the ground to take back their own homes.
MODERATOR: Another question in Arabic.
QUESTION: (In Arabic.)
MR. MCGURK: Al-Nusrah, so-called Nusrah, is – even though they changed their name, they’re still al-Qaida. We are striking their leaders. We just killed one of their key leaders, Haydar Kirkan, who’s a – used to be Usama bin Ladin’s right-hand man, eventually emigrated to Syria to work with Nusrah. When we find those leaders, we do precision airstrikes and we take them out. Very different tactic than the Russians and the regime, which calls everyone Nusrah and by their tactics ultimately drive ordinary Syrians into the arms of Nusrah.
So we will fight al-Qaida – Nusrah is al-Qaida – but in a careful way. And as you saw just recently some of the airstrikes which took out some of their leaders, obviously that will continue because that is about protecting the security interests of the United States and of our partners here around the world.
In terms of the Russians, we do not coordinate with the Russians. We talk to the Russians every day in military channels to de-conflict, to make sure that we don’t have any accidents in the skies. And that has been a very professional channel, and obviously that will continue. But we do not coordinate with the Russians, and we have encouraged the Russians to change their tactics in Syria in a way that could be more effective against what are interests that we do both share – defeating Daesh and defeating Nusrah.
MODERATOR: We’ve got time for two more questions.
QUESTION: This is Mohammad with the Jordan Times. I have two questions. The first: Have your estimates changed for the time needed to eradicate ISIS in Iraq and Syria after the Raqqa operations? And you mentioned that after the fight in Raqqa to move to the south of Syria. Which forces will be doing that, and how is that coordinated with Jordan? Thank you.
MR. MCGURK: I think I said – what I meant to say is that we’re going to make sure they can’t move to the south toward Jordan. We’re going to – we’re going to help Jordan protect its border and we’re going to do all we possibly can to make sure that they cannot relocate to the south. So that’s something that, obviously, we’ll be working on. I won’t get ahead of exactly what we’re going to do, but we will not allow them to relocate to the south, because the protection of Jordan is first and foremost in our minds and critical to reaching a stability.
In terms of your first question on how – on Raqqa —
QUESTION: The estimates now, have your – have your estimates changed now, or what’s the time needed to eradicate ISIS in Raqqa and Nusrah in Syria after the Raqqa operation?
MR. MCGURK: So when we first put this overall – you’ve got to remember the summer of 2014. Summer 2014 Daesh runs through Mosul, come all the way down to Baghdad. They break through al-Qaim. They were – looked like a behemoth to some people. They were constantly expanding. The Iraqi Security Forces had collapsed. We had no allies really to work with in eastern Syria. And when we put together the campaign plan and we looked at this very carefully, very empirically, about how long this will take to do it in a smart and effective way, and we thought about three years to really degrade the organization and to really break up the physical caliphate.
And so we’re about two years into that, and I think that remains about right. In many ways we’re ahead of where we thought we would be. So I don’t think anything has been reassessed. If anything, we’ve been very encouraged by the partners we’ve been able to develop on the ground in Syria and really, critically, by the performance of the Iraqi Security Forces. If you remember where they were in the summer of 2014 until now, they are performing now heroically, with tremendous professionalism, and they continue to advance even under very tough resistance. And so that has been encouraging.
So I think we’re about where we wanted to be. We, of course, want this to go as fast as possible. And as we are doing this on the ground, taking back territory, don’t forget we are decimating their leadership corps. So nearly all of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s deputies have been removed. We had not heard from him in about a year. He just popped up the other day, apparently, with an audio tape. I don’t think we’ve verified that, but presumably that is him. He popped up with an audio tape. He has not shown his face in well over – I think almost two years. So he is in deep, deep hiding. He is able to communicate by audio tape, apparently – not something that is a real testament to leadership in the digital media age.
He eulogized some of his main leaders who have been killed and he claims there’s been no effect on the organization; everything is fine. It’s not fine for him, and it’s a matter of time until we eliminate him. His days are very much numbered, and all of his deputies, as I mentioned, particularly Mohammad Adnani, who was his real right-hand man, has been eliminated.
So even as we are taking back territory, we are focused relentlessly on their leaders. And those are things that – operations we don’t always talk about, but that is happening every single day, every single night. When we see their leaders, we make sure that their leaders are eliminated. It is a matter of time before Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi meets the same fate.
MODERATOR: This will be the last question, if I could have everybody to hold in the room so our guests can leave after this question.
QUESTION: Last question on Mosul. How many Islamic State fighters are in Mosul now, and has that number changed – either decreased or increased – since the start of the operation there? And do you have any idea where Baghdadi is?
MR. MCGURK: So I’m very hesitant to get into numbers just because it’s very hard to – it’s not an exact science. We anticipated about 5,000 fighters when the operation began. I think that’s probably a pretty good rough ballpark. But again, it’s hard to know with real precision. But we anticipated 5,000 when it began. Some of my other colleagues have discussed how many since have been eliminated since the operation began, but I won’t get into those numbers.
I will just say Baghdadi obviously is in a deep hiding place. He cannot show his face. He cannot come out in the open. And so I don’t want to speculate on where he is, but again, I would just say his days are numbered, as are all the leaders of Daesh and anyone still fighting with Daesh.
MODERATOR: Thank you for coming today. If everyone could just please hold for two minutes. Thank you.
Source: U.S Department of State.