UN warns of 'unprecedented' number of foreign Islamist fighters

A fire burns in the Syrian town of Kobane during heavy fighting between Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants and Kurdish Peshmerga forces on Oct 27, 2014. Foreign Islamic fighters from more than 80 countries have flocked to fight in
A fire burns in the Syrian town of Kobane during heavy fighting between Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants and Kurdish Peshmerga forces on Oct 27, 2014. Foreign Islamic fighters from more than 80 countries have flocked to fight in Iraq and Syria on an "unprecedented scale", according to extracts of a UN report published by Britain's Guardian newspaper on Friday. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (AFP) - Foreign Islamic fighters from more than 80 countries have flocked to fight in Iraq and Syria on an "unprecedented scale", according to extracts of a UN report published by Britain's Guardian newspaper on Friday.

Around 15,000 people have travelled to fight alongside the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other hardcore militant groups from "countries that have not previously faced challenges relating to Al-Qaeda", said the report.

The number of foreign Islamic militants travelling to fight since 2010 exceeds the cumulative total of the 20 preceding years "many times", the Security Council study said.

"There are instances of foreign terrorist fighters from France, the Russian Federation and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland operating together," it said, according to the Guardian.

Britain's top police officer, Bernard Hogan-Howe, estimated last week that five people a week were leaving the country to fight with ISIS. Security officials estimate that there are currently around 500 British nationals fighting in Syria and Iraq.

Dozens have been arrested for preparing to leave to join the ISIS group or helping others to do so.

France is also moving closer to adopting an "anti-terrorism" law which would slap a travel ban on anyone suspected of planning to wage terrorist attack.

The UN warned that more nations than ever face the problem of dealing with fighters returning from the battle zone.

The US Central Intelligence Agency last month announced figures showing that there were around 20,000 to 31,500 ISIS fighters active in Iraq and Syria, much higher than previous estimates.

A US security official estimated that there were close to 2,000 westerners among the 15,000 foreign fighters.

Previous figures showed there were 7,000 foreign militants fighting in March and 12,000 in July suggesting 1,000 a month were travelling to fight, despite the launch of US air strikes three months ago, although there is a lag of a few weeks in the figures.

The report was produced by a committee that monitors Al-Qaeda, and concluded that the once mighty and feared group was now "maneuvering for relevance" following the rise of the even more militant ISIS, which was booted out of Al-Qaeda by leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Despite the split, the UN concluded that the legal basis for US President Barack Obama's fight against ISIS was justified by its ideological congruence with Al-Qaeda, and considered the two groups as part of a broader movement.

"Al-Qaeda core and Isil (ISIS) pursue similar strategic goals, albeit with tactical differences regarding sequencing and substantive differences about personal leadership," the UN wrote.

Obama has vowed he will not order a large force into combat in Iraq or Syria, relying instead on air power and local forces.

But his "no boots on the ground" pledge is coming under pressure amid growing calls for advisers and forward air controllers to deploy with Iraqi or Kurdish soldiers to help direct air raids and plan operations.

The ISIS group's "cosmopolitan" use of social media, "as when extremists post kitten photographs", was attracting a new breed of foreign fighters who are put off by the more dogmatic communication tactics of Al-Qaeda, said the report.

ISIS leaders recognise "the terror and recruitment value of multichannel, multi-language social and other media messaging", it added.

The UN agreed with the Obama administration that "core Al-Qaeda remains weak", but argued that its demise had only paved the way for more bloody groups, for whom "cross-border attacks - or attacks against international targets - remain a minority".