National Counterterrorism Center Director: ISIL Is Not Invincible

“ISIL is not invincible,” said National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) Director Matthew Olsen, referring to the extremist organization (known also as ISIS and Islamic State) currently in control of large areas of both Syria and Iraq, during an event today sponsored by the Intelligence Project at Brookings. Yet, said Olsen, the group still “poses a direct and significant threat to us, and to Iraqi and Syrian civilians in the region, and potentially to us here at home.”

Download Director Olsen’s prepared remarks » (PDF)

After laying out the background describing ISIL’s rise and stating that “ISIL threatens to outpace al Qaeda as the dominant voice of influence in the global extremist movement,” Olsen emphasized that “it is important that we keep this threat in perspective and we take a moment to consider it in the context of the overall terrorist landscape. The rise of ISIL can be viewed as one, one manifestation of the transformation of the global jihadist movement over past several years.”

“ISIL has captured our immediate focus,” Olsen said, “but it is only one of the myriad groups that pose a threat to us as the terrorist landscape evolves and becomes increasingly complex and challenging for us.”

The NCTC director then laid out the strategies and tools being used to “confront and ultimately defeat ISIL.” These include engaging with a global coalition of international partners and an “all-of-government approach,” coordinating U.S. and partner military, intelligence, diplomatic and law-enforcement assets, both internationally and domestically.

Olsen focused in particular on the role that a representative Iraqi government must play. “Only a government in Iraq that is representative of all Iraqis,” he said, “and will make the necessary political reforms to unite the country will be effective in combating the group.”

Further, regional and international partners are supplying a range of assistance measures, from military to humanitarian assistance. “A broad international consensus against ISIL,” Olsen said, “will provide the foundation for concerted action to achieve a number of objectives”:

First, we’ll continue to take direct action both unilaterally and in concert with our partners to degrade ISIL’s capacity to wage war and to diminish its territorial control in both Iraq and Syria.

Next, we’ll continue our support for Iraqi security forces and for the moderate Syrian opposition. …

Next, we will also counter ISIL’s extremist messaging campaign by working with partners to emphasize the battlefield successes of Iraqi and Kurdish forces and to highlight ISIL atrocities.

And finally we will continue to enhance our intelligence collection within the region and we will build on established security measures here at home to combat any threat that we see here. This includes working to stem the flow of foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq.

“ISIL and other groups threaten our people and our interest in the region,” he said in conclusion, “and if left unchecked they will seek to carry out attacks closer to home.”

Senior Fellow Bruce Riedel, director of the Intelligence Project, introduced Olsen and moderated an audience Q&A session following the director’s remarks. In response to Riedel’s own question about Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram’s capabilities, Olsen again emphasized the challenge of and need to prioritize resources based on the threat:

The president talked about this at West Point … where he laid out the importance of having to work with our partners and build up the capabilities of some of these countries and seek to develop solutions beyond the U.S. going in militarily. As I look across these countries, the key for me from NCTC’s perspective is to be very precise and careful about identifying the level of threat that these groups pose. And not just putting all of these groups on the same plane. …

So I think the challenge is prioritizing, being clear about the threat, being steely eyed about where we see the need to put our limited resources and then making a really concerted effort to build capacity in international coalitions to deal with these problems.

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Listen to our full audio recording here:

For more Brookings research and commentary on ISIL/ISIS/Islamic State, see also: