Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, leads his fellow chiefs of defense to a meeting on countering violent extremist organizations at Joint Base Andrews, Md., on Oct. 16, 2018. (DoD photo by Jim Garamone)

Dunford Discusses ‘Atomized’ Terror Threat with Global Defense Chiefs: ‘The Enemy Has Adapted’

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford said that defense representatives of 83 nations covered terrorism concerns ranging from Africa to Iraq and Syria, over to Afghanistan and “to some extent Southeast Asia,” but Iran didn’t come up in any of the sessions or sidebars because the countries in attendance were “here to talk about violent extremism.”

On the agenda was the challenge of keeping stability in liberated areas, battling terror groups in cyberspace and preparing for the next iteration of rapidly evolving and adapting extremist groups.

Dunford hosted Oct. 16 the chiefs of defense conference on countering violent extremism at Joint Base Andrews outside D.C. for the third time since 2016. The event, which now draws twice as many nations as that initial meeting, included all of the U.S. combatant commanders and Brett McGurk, the U.S. special envoy for the global coalition to defeat ISIS.

“I think we all recognize that violent extremism is a generational challenge that demands we develop solutions that are politically, fiscally and militarily sustainable,” Dunford told his global counterparts in introductory remarks, adding that when it comes to the military dimension of counterterrorism there’s a “unique role the chiefs of defense have in influencing, developing and implementing comprehensive solutions.”

Information-sharing among the coalition has increased as terror attacks and deaths around the world have decreased, he noted.

“I think we are all realists in this room that despite recent successes against ISIS and the positive trends, we know there is actually much work to be done,” Dunford said.

At a press conference alongside McGurk, Dunford said the defense network is focused on “opening up opportunities” to “share intelligence, share best practices, and then, where appropriate, take collective action.”

“We have literally talked about this challenge from a global perspective and highlighted, in many cases, lessons learned, challenges, issues that are really – that have universal applicability,” the chairman said. “It’s been a good dialogue. I’ve been very pleased with the interventions by the chiefs of defense. They came prepared to engage and have a discussion.”

McGurk said he believed the “theme of the day was that the conventional fight is not over.”

“We can see the endpoint as we’re in our final phase of operations in Syria, but that’s not the end of the campaign,” he said. “So we talked about transitioning to a new phase, really focused on the stabilization and the sustained effort… I thought it was a very good discussion with a bit of a look back, but most importantly a look ahead, with burden-sharing from coalition partners.”

Dunford said he felt confident that the counterterrorism chiefs would head home “more empowered” to “describe the nature of the challenges that we face and help craft more comprehensive solutions to deal with violent extremism beyond just a military solution, which as we know can deal with the symptoms but not the long-term issues.”

“As Mr. McGurk said, as we transition to the phase – many times today the words ‘it’s not about winning the war, it’s about winning the peace’ were addressed, or thoughts like that,” he said. “Because it really is the work that Mr. McGurk has embarked on right now that is most important to make sure that the success that we’ve had to date – and it’s real and it’s quantifiable – but to make sure that the success that we’ve had to date is enduring.”

More than 700 foreign fighters from more than 40 countries are in the custody of the Syrian Democratic Forces; Dunford said the challenge in sending many of them back to their home countries rests with “not only political issues, but there’s legitimate legal framework issues for addressing this in many of the countries.”

“Although we have been successful in returning some, there are still many more that have to be returned,” the general noted. “I think we all recognize that many of the individuals that led ISIS in the early days had been detainees at one time or another, and so what’s very important is that we address this properly, and particularly where appropriate return them home for prosecution.”

McGurk said the foreign fighters aren’t being housed together to avoid forming “kind of a nucleus for a future threat” while waiting for repatriation. “We’re calling on the coalition to help with the burden-sharing of this because it truly is a multinational problem,” the envoy added.

Dunford said “some success in cyberspace” against ISIS was discussed, as “among the many things we need to think about as we look at violent extremism to the future, their ability to leverage technology, cyber capabilities, information operations, and for that matter remotely piloted vehicles and other capabilities, is one of the things we need to anticipate and be out in front of.”

“Among the many things we need to think about as we look at violent extremism to the future, their ability to leverage technology, cyber capabilities, information operations, and for that matter remotely piloted vehicles and other capabilities, is one of the things we need to anticipate and be out in front of,” he said, stressing that “we’ve been doing this too long to be complacent.”

The chairman said officials have witnessed “increased communications between al-Qaeda and their affiliates in an attempt to broaden the network of individuals who can plan and conduct attacks elsewhere.”

“We’ve seen linkages from al-Qaeda in West Africa to al-Qaeda in Syria, to al-Qaeda in South Asia. So in my judgement, they are trying to regain relevance.  Regain relevance by increasing their network and conduct attacks,” Dunford continued. “…We also want to make sure that where appropriate we can help local forces deal with challenges they have that could become connected to a broader transregional terrorist organization. And that’s what we see al-Qaeda trying to do, is leverage groups in various areas that are disaffected and try to rebrand them with an al-Qaeda brand.”

Dunford said it’s “not a surprise” that “the enemy has adapted” over the past couple of years.

“This was anticipated by the intelligence community. And, frankly, the word the intel community is used is atomized. They’ve become much more dispersed in terms of their command and control. And so when we talk about the success we’ve had to date, we very quickly qualify that by saying we’ve had success to date in dealing with this particular manifestation of ISIS,” the general said. “But we’re under no illusion that we’re dealing with a long-term challenge when it comes to violent extremism, and they will try to adapt.”

Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera and SiriusXM.

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