ISIS militants drawing steady stream of recruits

2015-02-12 05:00

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Washington - The US bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria has failed to slow the pace of foreign fighters flocking to join the Islamic State and other extremist groups, including at least 3 400 from Western nations among 20 000 from around the world, US intelligence officials say in an updated estimate of a top terrorism concern.

Intelligence agencies now believe that as many as 150 Americans have tried and some have succeeded in reaching the Syrian war zone, officials told the House Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday. Some of those Americans were arrested en route, some died in the area and a small number were still fighting with extremists.

Nick Rasmussen, chief of the National Counterterrorism Centre, said the rate of foreign fighter travel to Syria is without precedent, far exceeding the rate of foreigners who went to wage jihad in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen or Somalia at any other point in the past 20 years.

US officials fear that some of the foreign fighters will return undetected to their homes in Europe or the US to mount terrorist attacks. At least one of the men responsible for the attack on a satirical magazine in Paris had spent time with Islamic extremists in Yemen.

Officials acknowledge it has been hard to track the Americans and Europeans who have made it to Syria, where the Islamic State group is the dominant force trying to overthrow the government of President Bashar Assad. The US Embassy in Syria is closed, and the CIA has no permanent presence on the ground.

"Once in Syria, it is very difficult to discern what happens there," Michael Steinbach, the FBI's assistant director for counterterrorism, told the committee. "This lack of clarity remains troubling."

The estimate of 20 000 fighters, from 90 countries, is up from 19 000, Rasmussen said. The number of Americans or US residents who have gone or tried to go is up to 150 from 50 a year ago and 100 in the fall.

Representative Michael McCaul, the Republican who chairs the committee, said the Syrian war had created "the largest convergence of Islamist terrorists in world history." Sustained bombing by a US-led coalition has not stopped the inflow, he noted.

McCaul's committee staff compiled from public sources a list of 18 US citizens or residents who joined or attempted to join the Islamic State group, and 18 others who tried to or succeeded in joining other violent Islamic groups.

The list includes three Chicago teens and three Denver teens who were radicalised and recruited online and were arrested after attempting to travel to Syria to join Islamic State fighters. It also includes Douglas McAuthur McCain, 33, a Californian who died in August while fighting with the Islamic State group near Aleppo.

US intelligence officials do not make public their estimate of how many Americans currently are fighting in Syria and Iraq. In September, FBI director James Comey said it was "about a dozen".

Francis X Taylor, who heads the Homeland Security Department's intelligence office, said intelligence agencies are "unaware of any specific, credible, imminent threat to the homeland".

However, he said, officials are concerned that Americans who join violent extremist groups in Syria "could gain combat skills, violent extremist connections and possibly become persuaded to conduct organised or 'lone-wolf' style attacks that target US and Western interests.

"We also have become increasingly aware of the possibility that Syria could emerge as a base of operations for al-Qaeda's international agenda, which could include attacks against the homeland."

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