ABOARD A MILITARY AIRCRAFT — As the Islamic State (ISIS) loses its safe havens in Iraq and Syria, the U.S. military is looking to ensure the group does not find new ones from which they could plan and coordinate attacks on the U.S. and their allies.
One of those places is the Sinai Peninsula, linking Egypt to the Middle East, where Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said there has been an “uptick” in ISIS activity. Last week, the terrorist group was behind a bombing of a mosque in Egypt that killed hundreds, including women and children.
“There’s certainly an uptick in activity in the Sinai, and I just don’t want to speculate on the numbers themselves, and we are working closely with Egypt on how they can best defeat this common threat,” he told reporters traveling with him to the Middle East.
Mattis said there was also “increased concern” across Africa about ISIS seeking safe haven.
“Certainly across Africa, we see increased concern about this. I spoke yesterday with Prime Minister Fayez Serraj of Libya, where we’re promoting unity of Libya and how we put together a Friends of Libya effort that supports them to deny Libya as a direction [ISIS] can go,” he said.
He said although ISIS was collapsing in Syria, “You can’t simply move them out of one area and not help the other areas around it. We’re doing that right now, but again, by, with and through allies.”
Mattis on Friday embarked on a trip to Egypt and Jordan where he will meet with top civilian and military leaders to discuss efforts to defeat extremism, among other regional security challenges. He will then go to Pakistan and end his trip in Kuwait where the U.S. has a large presence of troops.
In Pakistan, Mattis will discuss efforts to end the war in Afghanistan.
The Trump administration’s strategy to end the Afghanistan War calls for a tougher stance on Pakistan and for the country to do more to stop Afghan Taliban terrorists from escaping into Pakistan as well as convincing them to come to the negotiating table with the Afghan government.
The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. John Nicholson, said this week that he has not seen any changes from Pakistan yet since the Trump administration announced its new strategy in August, but he said it is only about 100 days in.
Mattis said he expects Pakistan’s leaders to match their words and policies.
“We have heard from Pakistan leaders that they do not support terrorism, so I expect to see that sort of action reflected in their policies. They have said that they do not support havens for any terrorists,” he said.
“Pakistan has taken significant casualties — both innocent people and their armies — significant casualties from them, so we expect them to act in their own best interests in support of peace and regional stability,” he said.
As far as what leverage the U.S. had to persuade Pakistan to do more, Mattis said there are areas of bilateral cooperation between the U.S. and Pakistan, and between other nations and Pakistan as well.
“Remember that 39 nations have their boots on the ground in Afghanistan, fighting this enemy,” he said. “Those are 39 very important nations if you look at their roles on the world stage, their economies, their military capabilities, so we’re looking to make common cause.”
Mattis said the trip to Pakistan — his first as defense secretary — is an effort by the American administration to go in and “set the conditions for future collaboration that leads to reconciliation in Afghanistan, and a denial of safe haven for any terrorist group that would attack anyone in the region or elsewhere in the world.”