U.S. Envoy: 'We're Taking Out' About 1 ISIS Leader Every 3 Days NPR's Kelly McEvers interviews Brett McGurk, special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, about the fight against ISIS in the wake of the Istanbul airport attack.
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U.S. Envoy: 'We're Taking Out' About 1 ISIS Leader Every 3 Days

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U.S. Envoy: 'We're Taking Out' About 1 ISIS Leader Every 3 Days

U.S. Envoy: 'We're Taking Out' About 1 ISIS Leader Every 3 Days

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Turkey is part of the U.S.-led coalition that's fighting ISIS. The president's special envoy on ISIS Brett McGurk says Turkey has already done a lot in that fight, namely serving as a base for air missions to Syria. But McGurk says the U.S. will press Turkey to do more after this attack in Istanbul. I asked him what that might look like, and he talked about an operation that's underway now.

BRETT MCGURK: We call it the Manbij Gap. It's about a 98-kilometer strip of border that ISIL has controlled with Turkey for some years now. And we're working now to close it up. We launched a surprise attack against ISIL about three weeks ago across the Euphrates River. They've now enveloped the city of Manbij. That's important because Manbij is the city in which the Brussels attacks, the Paris attacks were kind of organized.

As we are in the midst of that operation, we are collecting really a bonanza of information about their foreign fighter network, about their external operations planning arms. And that's something that will continue. And with Turkey, we're working with a number of opposition groups to push east to kind of close off this border area which ISIL continues to try to transit. It's a tough fight. We're actually making a lot of progress, but Turkey will be part and parcel of the success of that operation.

MCEVERS: You told Congress yesterday that the threat of an ISIL or ISIS attack like the one in Istanbul here in the U.S. is real, and if that's true, what does that say about the strategy against ISIS up until now?

MCGURK: Yeah. There's different types of attacks. There's the lone wolf attack that they inspire deranged individuals such as - I think we saw the terrible tragedy, the horrible crime most recently in Orlando. But then there's the very sophisticated attacks such as Brussels, such as Paris which are planned in Raqqah, which are organized in Syria and which are launched from there, their kind of phony caliphate.

And it's pretty clear that what's driving so many people to join this movement is this notion of this caliphate that it's a historic movement, that it's expanding and that's why it's so important to show that, one, you're not going to have a safe haven to plan attacks abroad, and, secondly, you're not an expanding movement. You're actually shrinking and shrinking rapidly.

But that said, the numbers of foreign fighters that they have been able to indoctrinate really over the last five years is something that we all have to remain vigilant about. We cannot let up our guard. We can't let up our guard this month, this year and for years to come.

MCEVERS: You say we know that some of these more coordinated attacks were planned from places where ISIS holds territory. But could they not plan those from a basement somewhere else? I mean, this idea of taking territory doesn't necessarily seem to be working.

MCGURK: Well, the network that did the Brussels and Paris attacks was a very sophisticated network of planners, of bomb-makers, of tacticians. That's the kind of thing that actually does take real organization and real skill. And those skills are, you know, in shorter supply than you might think.

So what we're trying to do is identify the networks and really unravel them. That does not mean you'll be able to stop every lone wolf attack, but what we want to be able to do is make it much harder for them to plan a very sophisticated horrific attack such as we saw in Brussels, Paris and appears here in Istanbul.

MCEVERS: President Obama has said it would take three years to defeat ISIS. We're about two years into that process. Yesterday, you told Congress you think this will be done sooner than the three-year mark. So game this out for me exactly. You know, what's next - the Iraqi city of Mosul, the Syrian city of Raqqa? Where are you going after ISIS next?

MCGURK: Look, when we started this in the fall of 2014, there was very few forces on the ground that could stand up to ISIL. And since then, we've taken back about half their territory in Iraq, about 20 percent in Syria. But most importantly, it's not just the landmass. It's the strategic territory. Next on the list certainly is Mosul and then Raqqa. That is the brain and the heart of ISIL. And as I speak at this hour, there's a number of very important maneuvers going on south of Mosul to set the conditions for Mosul.

MCEVERS: How long is it going to take?

MCGURK: I'm just not going to put a timeframe on it.

MCEVERS: Yeah, because, you know, we've talked to people at the Pentagon who say, you know, these are things that could take months. In those months, we have to think that more of these attacks will come.

MCGURK: What we're doing before we move into Raqqa proper is isolating Raqqa entirely. We've cut off all the roadways between Raqqa and Mosul, and we're now in the process of cutting off all the access routes from the Turkey border into Raqqa. In the meantime, there are terrorists in Raqqa who are planning external attacks.

We're trying to find them, and when we do find them, we target them. We're getting more information every single day on ISIL. We're learning who the leaders are. We're learning who they're connected to, and when we find out where they are, we target them. We're taking out about one leader now every three days.

MCEVERS: That's Brett McGurk. He is the White House's point person on the fight against ISIL. Thanks so much for being with us.

MCGURK: OK, Kelly. Thank you so much.

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