WASHINGTON (AP) — As the U.S. and other countries shift their focus to growing security threats from China, Russia, North Korea and Iran, the world must not become complacent in the fight against violent extremist groups, the top U.S. military officer warned on Tuesday.
Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a conference of more than 80 international defense chiefs that easing pressure on al-Qaida and the Islamic State group will give them time to reconstitute. And while he said that terrorist attacks have declined in number and severity in recent years, the groups are adapting, using the internet and other communication to inspire attacks from remote locations.
Dunford also issued a call for nations to find a way to deal with the growing number of detained insurgents being held by U.S.-allied Syrian rebels.
There are now about 700 detainees from more than 40 countries, but only a few dozen have been returned to their home nations.
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“The progress in returning these fighters home for prosecution has been delayed by political considerations and inconsistent legal frameworks,” said Dunford. “We need to find a way to address this challenge and prevent these detainees from becoming the leaders of tomorrow’s extremist organizations.”
Early this year, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis urged reluctant allies to take responsibility for their citizens who have been captured. During a meeting of allied defense ministers in Rome and later at a NATO session, Mattis pressed allies to use diplomatic, legal and other means to take back citizens detained in Syria to make sure they don’t return to the battlefield.
So far, however, there has been little progress. And Dunford said that while he brought it up during his meeting Tuesday with the defense chiefs, none of them were able to commit to doing something about the problem.
Brett McGurk, the special U.S. presidential envoy for the global coalition to defeat the Islamic State, told reporters the legal challenge for repatriating detainees has been significant, but they are making progress. He declined to give details on which countries have taken fighters or may be willing to do so in the future.
But he said the U.S.-led coalition is making sure the fighters are housed in a way that does not allow them to comingle and fuel future threats. He said the U.S. is asking allies for additional help to make sure the detainees are housed safely and securely and have access to humanitarian agencies and other resources they need.
More broadly, Dunford pushed to keep counterterrorism at the forefront, even as the U.S. and others turn their attention to Russia’s increasing aggression, China’s expanding military and the nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea.
A new national defense strategy unveiled in January by Mattis made clear that great power competition — mainly countering China and Russia — is now the U.S. military’s top priority, outpacing the threat of terrorism.
Dunford said that while there has been significant progress in the fight to counter violent extremism, al-Qaida and IS have been taking steps to adapt and regroup.
“Perhaps the greatest challenge facing us today is the danger of complacency,” Dunford said as he kicked off a daylong conference of the defense chiefs at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland. “A misreading of our progress to date and a misunderstanding of the character of the threat may cause political leaders to lose focus on violent extremism while they turn to other pressing challenges.”
He said the nations must work together to improve military, intelligence and law enforcement cooperation while also finding ways to erode the ability of the extremists to use cyberspace to recruit followers and inspire them to attack.