'30,000 outsiders now in Syria' to join ISIS

Volunteer numbers double in past year despite bid to stem flow; 250 Americans join militants

Spanish police in Gandia city arresting an 18-year-old Moroccan suspected of recruiting other women for ISIS via the Internet earlier this month.
Spanish police in Gandia city arresting an 18-year-old Moroccan suspected of recruiting other women for ISIS via the Internet earlier this month.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE- PRESSE

WASHINGTON • Nearly 30,000 foreign recruits have now poured into Syria, many to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group, a doubling of volunteers in just the past 12 months and stark evidence that an international effort to tighten borders, share intelligence and enforce anti-terrorism laws is not diminishing the ranks of new militant fighters.

Among those who have entered or tried to enter the conflict in Iraq or Syria are more than 250 Americans, up from about 100 a year ago, The New York Times, quoting intelligence and law enforcement officials, reported yesterday.

It said President Barack Obama will take stock of the international campaign to counter ISIS at the United Nations tomorrow, a public accounting that comes as US intelligence analysts have been preparing a confidential assessment that concludes that nearly 30,000 foreign fighters have travelled to Iraq and Syria from more than 100 countries since 2011.


A year ago, the same officials estimated that flow to be about 15,000 combatants from 80 countries, mostly to join ISIS. Reports said at least a thousand Asians made the trip last year, a third of whom were Indonesians and Malaysians.

The grim appraisal of new ISIS recruits coincides with the scheduled release tomorrow of a six-month, bipartisan US congressional investigation into terrorist and foreign fighter travel, which concludes that "despite concerted efforts to stem the flow, we have largely failed to stop Americans from travelling overseas to join jihadists".

Other parts of the Obama administration's policies on Syria and for combating ISIS have also suffered significant setbacks, The New York Times said.

A US$500 million (S$714 million) Pentagon effort to train rebel forces to take on ISIS in Syria has produced only a handful of fighters.

Russia has defied US attempts to block Moscow's build-up of a new air base with warplanes in Syria - a topic that Mr Obama will discuss with President Vladimir Putin of Russia at the UN today.

And in a break in continuity for the mission, retired four-star general John Allen, who since last September has served as the diplomatic envoy coordinating the coalition against ISIS, has told the White House that he will step down at the end of the year.

The focus on shortcomings in the global effort to combat ISIS is playing out as tens of thousands of refugees flee strife in the Middle East and North Africa, including many seeking to escape the violence in Syria and oppression in areas under the control of ISIS.

A year ago, Mr Obama and other top US officials spent a great deal of diplomatic capital rallying support for a legally binding Security Council resolution that would compel all 193 UN member states to take steps to "prevent and suppress" the flow of their citizens into the arms of groups that each country considers to be a terrorist organisation.

But this month, Ms Tina Kaidanow, the US State Department's top counter-terrorism official, offered a sobering summation of the foreign fighter problem.

"The trend is still upward," Ms Kaidanow said, blaming this mostly on ISIS' unprecedented ability to recruit and to radicalise followers over the Internet and on social media.

Given the region's porous borders, US officials emphasise that their figures on the flow of foreign fighters are rough estimates, not precise headcounts, based on allies' reports on citizens' travel and other intelligence, which vary by country.

"By now there is a 'network effect', where friends, family are taking along other friends and family," Mr Daniel Byman, a counter-terrorism expert who is a professor at Georgetown University and a fellow at the Brookings Institution, was quoted as saying.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 28, 2015, with the headline ''30,000 outsiders now in Syria' to join ISIS'. Subscribe