WASHINGTON – The fight against Islamic State has shifted to “annihilation tactics” to stop potential terrorists who’ve flocked to places such as Iraq and Syria from returning to their home countries to wreak havoc, Defense Secretary James Mattis said Sunday.
In his first interview on a Sunday talk show since joining the Trump administration in January, Mattis provided details of the tactical shift he announced at the Pentagon on May 19.
“We have already shifted from attrition tactics where we shove them from one position to another in Iraq and Syria,” Mattis said on “Face the Nation” on CBS. “Our intention is that the foreign fighters do not survive the fight to return home to North Africa, to Europe, to America, to Asia, to Africa.”
The comments followed a week when the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the May 22 suicide bombing in Manchester, England, that killed 22 people. The alleged bomber was a U.K. citizen of Libyan descent who had returned days earlier from Libya. The jihadi group also said it was behind an attack on Coptic Christians in Egypt that left 29 dead.
“We are going to squash the enemy’s ability to give some indication that they’re — that they have invulnerability, that they can exist, that they can send people off to Istanbul, to Belgium, to Great Britain and kill people with impunity,” Mattis said.
Asked about the potential for greater civilian casualties from the stepped-up attacks, Mattis said such losses “are a fact of life.”
“We do everything humanly possible consistent with military necessity, taking many chances to avoid civilian casualties at all costs,” he added.
Islamic State is now surrounded in Mosul, where Iraqi security forces are moving against them, and Tal Afar, farther west toward Iraq’s border with Syria, Mattis said. An effort also has begun to surround them in Raqqa, the capital of the self-declared Islamic caliphate spanning Iraq and Syria that they lay claim to.
After members of the jihadi group are fully surrounded, “we’ll go in and clean them out,” Mattis said.
“The bottom line is we are going to accelerate the campaign against ISIS,” he said. “It is a threat to all civilized nations. And the bottom line is we are going to move in an accelerated and reinforced manner, throw them on their back foot.”
He said the U.S. plans to “strip them of any kind of legitimacy” and deny any country from providing Islamic State with any degree of protection as well as dry up the group’s fundraising.
Donald Trump, in a May 21 speech in Saudi Arabia during his first foreign trip as president, urged Muslim nations to eradicate terrorism and “send its wicked ideology into oblivion.”
“This is going to be a long fight,” Mattis said on CBS. “The problems that we confront are going to lead to an era of frequent skirmishing. We will do it by, with, and through other nations.”
The U.S. has delegated more authority to commanders in the field but hasn’t changed its rules of engagement, Mattis said. Delegating the decision-making to the lower levels will also improve efforts to prevent civilian casualties, Mattis said.
The retired U.S. Marine Corps general, 66, sometimes known by the nickname “Mad Dog,” said war with North Korea, if it transpired, would involve “probably the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetimes.”
Despite the threats facing the world and the U.S., Mattis was blunt when asked what keeps him awake at night.
“Nothing,” he told CBS host John Dickerson. “I keep other people awake at night.”