- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The threat of Islamic State-inspired terrorist strikes in the U.S. and Europe will persist for years despite steady territorial and troop losses at the jihadis’ base in Iraq and Syria, the Obama administration’s lead official in the fight said Tuesday.

Brett McGurk, President Obama’s envoy to members of the anti-Islamic State coalition, told a Capitol Hill hearing that Islamic State officials are telling recruits in the West to stay put and conduct attacks at home rather than travel to the Salafist group’s base in Syria, where its control is increasingly under threat.

Speaking just hours before an apparent suicide bombing killed at least 32 people and wounded scores more at the international terminal of a major Turkish airport, Mr. McGurk said he had seen little change in Iran’s behavior in Syria under the international nuclear deal announced last July. Mr. McGurk said Tehran remains a strong political and military supporter of Syrian President Bashar Assad, whom U.S. officials insist must step down as part of any final settlement of the country’s bloody 5-year-old civil war.

“I have not seen a significant change in Iranian behavior,” Mr. McGurk said. “They are fighting [the Islamic State] from time to time, but they’re primarily working to prop up the Assad regime.”

He said Iran is supporting some Shiite militia groups in Iraq that are operating outside of the central government’s legal authority — an act that is “threatening Iraq’s own sovereignty.”

Several lawmakers said they saw a disconnect between the Obama administration’s claims of progress against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and the persistence of terrorist strikes beyond its base, including strikes in Paris, Brussels, Orlando and now Istanbul.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, Tennessee Republican, said the U.S. military response to the Islamic State “does not adequately reflect the direct nature of this threat to the United States.”

“I think many of us grow frustrated when the administration’s optimistic rhetoric often does not match the results,” Mr. Corker said.

Mr. McGurk said the U.S. military and its allies are moving as quickly as possible to regain important territory.

He noted that the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, has not been able to reclaim any significant territory liberated by coalition-backed forces.

“We are moving at a tempo that I believe will lead to the ultimate defeat of ISIL,” he said.

Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, was one of several lawmakers voicing concern that as the Islamic State loses territory, it will try harder to inspire attacks such as the shooting this month in Orlando, in Mr. Rubio’s home state, that killed 49 people and injured 53 others.

German concern

The concerns aren’t limited to Capitol Hill. German Interior Minister Thomas De Maiziere on Tuesday welcomed the U.S.-led coalition’s territorial gains but said they were not diminishing the risk of attacks in Europe.

“We fear that Islamic State will externalize, transfer its activities to Europe, especially because of military losses in the region,” Mr. Maiziere said.

Germany has been on high alert since the Islamic State attacks in Paris in November and Brussels in March.

Mr. McGurk said “lone wolf” attacks are not new and are “extraordinarily difficult” to stop. But challenging the Islamic State’s control in Syrian and Iraqi cities can help undermine the more sophisticated attacks like those in Brussels and Paris.

He said the overall terrorist threat will last for years but won’t stop the drive by the U.S. and its allies on the ground and in the sky to retake Islamic State-held land. Mr. McGurk said recent advances have produced intelligence about potential agents abroad, simultaneously slashing the Islamic State’s morale.

“Whereas [the Islamic State] once promised lavish pay for recruits and free services in its ‘caliphate,’ it is now slashing pay, cannot provide services and is facing internal resistance,” the envoy said. “We know from other sources, as well, that [Islamic State] fighters are panicking on the battlefield, foreign recruits are now looking to return home and leaders are struggling to maintain discipline, even despite the threat of execution for disobedience.”

Mr. McGurk testified that the Islamic State has lost 47 percent of the territory it seized in Iraq, vastly reducing the size of its self-declared caliphate. The hearing was held just days after the Iraqi government announced the liberation of Fallujah from the Islamic State, which held the city for more than two years.

Mr. McGurk said the Islamic State’s days are numbered in Mosul.

Though he would not put a timeline on Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city after Baghdad, Mr. McGurk said plans to retake the city are underway. Once the operation against the Islamic State-held city of Manbij in northern Syria is complete, forces can move on to overcoming Raqqa — the militant group’s de facto capital in north-central Syria.

“We will push them out of Mosul, and we will push them out of Raqqa,” Mr. McGurk said. “The Manbij operation, it’s ongoing right now. It’s hard fighting. Once that is done, that sets the conditions for Raqqa.”

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