U.S. Counterterrorism Adviser On Brussels: 'There's More Work To Be Done'
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced today that the U.S. had a targeted and killed a senior ISIS lea[der. At a news conference, Carter referred to the man as Haji Iman and described him as the finance minister for the group that's also known as ISIL.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ASH CARTER: The removal of this ISIL leader will hamper the organization's ability to conduct operations both inside and outside of Iraq and Syria.
SIEGEL: Carter did not make a direct link between Haji Iman and the terrorist attacks in Brussels this week. Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that the strike was an important victory for the U.S., but he stopped short of calling it a turning point.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JOSEPH DUNFORD: I think the momentum is in our favor. I think there's a lot of reasons for us to be optimistic about the next several months, but by no means would I say that we're about to break the back of ISIL.
SIEGEL: Earlier today, I spoke with Lisa Monaco. She's assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, and she joined me from the White House.
Lisa Monaco, welcome to the program.
LISA MONACO: Thanks, Robert.
SIEGEL: The man the Pentagon calls Haji Iman is being described as the finance minister of ISIS. How significant is his killing?
MONACO: Well, look, this is very significant. This is another example of our forces and our partnership - working with Iraqis conducting operations against the heart of where ISIL is operating in Iraq and Syria - of us going after their leadership. And this is the second senior leader and member of the ISIL Shura that was killed in the last month. And this is going to continue to add to the momentum that we've been having in the campaign in recent months.
SIEGEL: You know, the International Crisis Group, the NGO, recently argued that the U.S. should actually curb this kind of targeted killing because - and they wrote this; it's a quotation - "movements weather the deaths of leaders, and the replacements that emerge are often harder-line." Wont' ISIS just promote somebody else into the job vacated by killing the number two?
MONACO: Well, I understand that argument, Robert, but what we're trying to do is a number of things - one, go after their leadership, go after the ability to continue to occupy territory, to have a safe haven from which they can plot and plan external operations against Europe, against the West. We're going after their networks that enable and fuel and fund the continued operations of ISIL, no matter who is in the leadership.
SIEGEL: Should we expect - as the coalition and the U.S. score some gains against ISIL in Iraq or Syria, should we expect more attacks like the one in Brussels this week, with ISIS striking out at distant targets?
MONACO: Well, look, I think this is something that we're focused on. We are going to continue to go after the heart that ISIL has in Iraq and Syria, but we're constantly looking for and mindful of the threats that they pose elsewhere, which is why you've seen us go after ISIL's leadership in Libya. We're very conscious of the intent, the stated intent of ISIL to expand its caliphate into other areas, even as, Robert, we are focused on the continued threat that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula poses.
SIEGEL: In following the events in Brussels this week, have you found yourself struck by an intelligence failure on the part of the Belgians, or is it just the breaks that they didn't manage to prevent this one?
MONACO: Well, look, I think the Belgians themselves have acknowledged that there were missed opportunities. And it's very early, and there'll be time for full analysis of what happened here, and that's good, and that should happen. What we're focused on right now is helping the Belgians and our other partners in every way we can to go after the perpetrators, bring them to justice, to identify other cells. But it's certainly true that there's more work to be done. We know that before Paris. We knew that before Brussels. And the Belgians knew that as well, which is why we deployed a foreign fighter surge team to help them work through a number of information-sharing issues, and we did that just in recent weeks.
SIEGEL: But as Americans learn more about the network or the cells of ISIS operatives in Belgium around Brussels, can you assure us with any confidence that there aren't networks of that size and of that - of that ilk operating in the United States?
MONACO: Well, first, it's early days in terms of what the networks look like in Brussels. What we do know and what is clear is that there are connections between those attackers in Brussels and in Paris and that those networks overlapped and had similar facilitation and support. I do think that the threat that we faced here in the United States is different. We have hardened borders and very adept and expert intelligence, law enforcement and homeland security officials. What we do worry about, what we are very concerned about, in addition to a foreign fighters coming back to Europe, coming back to the West, is ISIL's ability to inspire individuals to violence. Here and elsewhere, but certainly in the homeland, that is a particular threat that we face. And indeed, those individuals don't have to travel in order to get their direction. They can be inspired online, and it's one of the reasons we have focused so hard on addressing the issue of ISIL's inspiration on social media.
SIEGEL: would it be easier to combat a network of people, some of whom have been fighting in Syria and come back, than it would be to prevent a couple, like the couple in San Bernardino, to just arm themselves and start killing people randomly?
MONACO: I think they both pose real challenges. The latter, however, of inspiration online and identifying who those individuals are I do think poses a particularly unique challenge and one that we are very focused on. But at the end of the day, Robert, those solutions are going to have to come with communities and from communities because we're not going to be able to delete our way out of this problem.
SIEGEL: Lisa Monaco is assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism. Thank you very much for talking with us.
MONACO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.