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Mattis Announces New DoD Authority to Act Quickly Against ISIS, Focus on Killing Foreign Fighters

ARLINGTON, Va. -- As local forces have been squeezing ISIS toward defeat in the group's Iraqi and Syrian capitals, the Pentagon announced a similar strategy for the U.S. to accelerate its campaign against the Islamic State.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford told reporters Friday that the flow of foreign fighters to the Islamic State that peaked at about 1,500 out-of-town volunteers per month in the caliphate's heyday has gradually declined to fewer than 100 per month.

The Syrian Democratic Forces -- an anti-ISIS, anti-Qaeda, anti-Assad coalition composed of more than 50,000 fighters, female and male commanders, Arabs, Assyrian Christians, Kurds, and other minority ethnic groups such as Circassians, Turkmen and Armenians -- launched the Wrath of Euphrates operation at the beginning of November. Since then, the SDF has liberated more than 5,000 square miles of territory in the surgical advance to encircle and choke off Raqqa before moving in.

Last week, after fierce fighting with the SDF in which about 100 SDF fighters were killed, ISIS lost al-Tabqa, a city 35 miles west of ISIS' capital Raqqa that includes a critical dam on the Euphrates.

Brett McGurk, the State Department's special envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition since 2015, said he recently met a leader from al-Tabqa, who "described to us the thousands of foreign fighters from as far away as Trinidad and Tobago who terrorize his community, enslaving women, brainwashing children and committing public executions."

"He also said he believes that most of these foreign fighters are now dead. And he's working to organize demining initiatives and ensure the streets are safe for people to return and enable the people of Tabqa -- the local people of Tabqa to restore their community," McGurk said, adding Raqqa "will be no different."

More than 60 countries have been contributing to an INTERPOL database information about citizens known to have fought for ISIS. McGurk said the list is up to 14,000 names "and continues to grow."

Defense Secretary James Mattis said the U.S. is going to focus on killing remaining foreign fighters in the Islamic State. "Because the foreign fighters are the strategic threat should they return home to Tunis, to Kuala Lumpur, to Paris, to Detroit, wherever. Those foreign fighters are a threat," he said. "So by taking the time to deconflict, to surround and then attack, we carry out the annihilation campaign so we don't simply transplant this problem from one location to another."

"I'll leave that to the generals who know how to do those kind of things. We don't direct that from here," he added. "They know our intent is the foreign fighters do not get out, I leave it to their skill, their cunning, to carry that out."