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Gen. John Allen: Islamic State has lost half of its leaders in Iraq

U.S. intelligence shows that half of the Islamic State’s leaders in Iraq have been killed, but there is still a long fight ahead to render the group irrelevant, the retired U.S. general in charge of the international coalition to counter the militants told Congress on Wednesday.

“We have pretty good intelligence on this matter,” Gen. John Allen said of the number of militant commanders killed. “In the process of tracking the elements within the senior echelons of [Islamic State’s] leadership, we have been tracking and systematically as we are able to find them, deal with them.”

Allen’s testimony follows a meeting in Kuwait this week in which new Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter and a group of more than 30 senior U.S. diplomats and military commanders held a wide-ranging debate about how the militants should be targeted in the future. Allen told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the Islamic State cannot be eliminated entirely, but must be countered and targeted to the point that it does not pose a threat to the future of Iraq.

“We’re not going to eradicate or annihilate ISIL,” Allen said, using one of the acronyms for the group. “Most of these organizations that we have dealt with before, there will be some sort of residue of that organization for a long period of time to come. But we don’t want it to have operational capabilities that create the opportunity for it threaten the existence of Iraq or other states in the region.”

In his prepared testimony, Allen said the last six months “have amply demonstrated that ISIL is little more than a criminal gang and death cult, which now finds itself under increasing pressure, sending naïve and gullible recruits to die by the hundreds.” But under questioning from Sen. Ron Johnson (R.Wis.), he added that the coalition is now tracking more Islamic State militants than ever.

Part of that is because the militants are being monitored in new ways, but the number of foreign fighters flowing into the region is also up because the belief is still there that a Caliphate — a new Islamic nation — run by the militants will be created, Allen said.

“That has created in some respects a magnetism for those elements that want to be a part of this, that want to support this emergence within their own sense of their faith,” Allen said. “And so that has created a recruiting opportunity for ISIL that they did not have before.”

Turning the tide will require showing that the Islamic State does not have the capacity to hold territory. That will take time, and require breaking up their units with military force and reducing the attractiveness of the group to potential recruits, he said.