WASHINGTON — The threat of “lone wolf” acts of terrorism inspired by the Islamic State will persist in the West, a senior Obama administration official said Tuesday, even as the extremist group loses battles and territory in the Middle East.
Brett McGurk, the U.S. envoy to the anti-Islamic State coalition, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the Islamic State has always sought to strike the United States and other Western nations. But the group is now acknowledging it may be unable to hold onto ground in Iraq, Syria, and Libya, blunting its quest for an Islamic caliphate. So the Islamic State has changed its message and its recruiting tactics, he said.
“‘We’re still going to be around, still join us,'” said McGurk, describing what he called the Islamic State’s propaganda. “And they’re trying to inspire these lone wolf attacks around the world.”
McGurk’s testimony comes two weeks after a single gunman who pledged solidarity with the Islamic State killed 49 people and injured 53 at an Orlando nightclub. McGurk said no direct link has been found between the Orlando gunman, Omar Mateen, and the Islamic State. He also said these types of attacks are extraordinarily difficult to prevent.
McGurk offered a bullish assessment of the coalition’s efforts to dismantle the Islamic State as lawmakers raised concerns over the pace of the operations. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., seized on McGurk’s statement that the anti-Islamic State coalition embarked on a three-year campaign plan to degrade and defeat the extremists.
“When did the three-year clock start?” Johnson said. “Because President Obama declared our goal of degrading and ultimately defeating (the Islamic State) 22 months ago.”
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McGurk said the campaign started in September 2014. It took a significant amount of time to pull together local forces capable of taking on what was then “the most formidable military force on the ground,” he said.
“We’re not going to defeat them within 14 months are we?” Johnson asked.
“I wanted to go a lot faster than that,” McGurk replied.
McGurk said the Islamic State’s days in Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, are “numbered.” The Islamic State remains firmly in control of Mosul, which was once home to a million people. Iraqi leaders have pledged to liberate Mosul this year. But McGurk said the U.S. won’t put a timeline on the Mosul operation.
Morale inside the extremist group is plummeting, McGurk said, as the forces arrayed against it are gaining momentum.
“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,” McGurk said. “We know from other sources, as well, that (IS) 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.”
Five weeks after a military operation began, a senior Iraqi commander on Sunday declared the city of Fallujah in Iraq had been “fully liberated” from the Islamic State, giving a major boost to the country’s security and political leadership in its fight against the extremists. Fallujah was the first city to fall to the Islamic State group more than two years ago.
McGurk said that stabilizing areas after the Islamic State has been removed can be even more important than clearing them in the first place. He said it’s encouraging that no significant territory liberated by coalition-backed forces has been reclaimed by the extremists.