Ernst Presses Defense Secretary, General on Strategy for Countering ISIS in Asia

“It’s clear that this is a very real threat, and President Obama admitted that we have underestimated the rise of ISIS in the Middle East, and what I fear right now is that we are completely underestimating the rise of ISIS in Southeast Asia.”

WASHINGTON, D.C. –  Today, at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on “U.S. National Security Challenges and Ongoing Military Operations,” Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA), a combat veteran, pressed Department of Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Joseph Dunford on the rise of ISIS in Southeast Asia, and the need for a comprehensive strategy to counter their dangerous actions in the region.

As Senator Ernst noted, “[Islamic extremist groups] are also in Southeast Asia and we are not spending much time talking about that. Groups like Abu Sayyaf – they’re now bonding together beneath the flag of ISIS. Yet, we really, like I said, don’t seem to be focusing on this. The Philippine forces lost 44 of their special police in a single battle to these terrorist groups last year. 15 soldiers were killed in a single battle just last month.

“It’s clear that this is a very real threat, and President Obama admitted that we have underestimated the rise of ISIS in the Middle East, and what I fear right now is that we are completely underestimating the rise of ISIS in Southeast Asia.”

Both Secretary Carter and General Dunford agreed with Senator Ernst’s assessment of the growing threat in the region. Ernst followed by reiterating the critical need “to ensure that we are not taking our eyes off of that region” (see transcript below).

Senator Ernst’s questioning follows her recent remarks on the Senate floor as well as her column in TIME on the spread of ISIS in Asia.

To watch Senator Ernst’s questioning, click here or the image below.

PARTIAL TRANSCRIPT:

Senator Ernst: Secretary Carter, are you concerned with what we see as a rise of ISIS in Southeast Asia?

Secretary Carter: I am, and I’ll say something and then I want to ask the Chairman also if he’d chime in. When I talked about the metastasis of the cancer of ISIL, you’re absolutely right that Southeast Asia is clearly is a place they aspire to be spreading. I talked to our counterparts there who are concerned about it. We work with them. Just next week I’ll be convening then in Honolulu on a number of issues of Pacific security, but one of them is going to be on counterterrorism and countering ISIL. I’d say Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, you mentioned the Philippines, and other places, but those four come to mind. I’ve spoke to the defense ministers in each of those four countries. They have concerns particularly about the possibility that ISIS could establish a foothold there. In some places it’s already troubled in some way and there are places in all those countries, and it could grab hold there, so it is very much on our agenda. Chairman, please.

General Dunford: Senator, I agree with your assessment and concerns. Last week I met with 29 chiefs of defense in the Pacific in Manilla hosted by the Chief of Defense of the Philippine armed forces and we discussed broadly the threat of extremism in Asia and what we need to do to deal with it. To your point, there’s a thousand foreign fighters alone we estimate have come from Indonesia into Syria and Iraq. There are hundreds that came from the Philippines. Other countries as well are dealing with that issue. I think, although it’s not very visible, there’s a significant amount of activity going on to build up the capacity of our partners in the Pacific. We’re trying to work with them to develop a framework within which they can share information, share intelligence, we have a significant maritime domain awareness initiative which will help them understand the movement into the sea. We see, for example, significant cooperation between the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia in the Sulu Sea associated with the movement of people and so forth as part of this violent extremist problem. So, it is a different fight. I call it a requirement for a regional approach in Southeast Asia as opposed to a coalition which is required in Syria and Iraq, but we are absolutely putting pressure on ISIL in Southeast Asia, we are absolutely working very closely with our partners, and frankly the limit of the support we provide is often what they are willing to accept politically. So we’re very keen and we will bring to the President any requests for support, and I think as you know Senator, we are providing some support now to the Philippines—intelligence support—and other support to help them to deal with the extremist problem that they have in the South. 

Senator Ernst: Thank you General. Thank you gentlemen. I just really want us to ensure that we are not taking our eyes off of that region. We seem to focus very heavily—as we should—on the Middle East and Africa but we do have other footholds for ISIS.

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