The Obama administration’s top counterterrorism official said Wednesday that the number of foreign fighters traveling from the U.S. and other nations to join the Islamic State extremist movement in Syria and Iraq continues to grow — with some 20,000 fighters having flooded in from more than 90 countries in recent years.
Despite months of U.S. airstrikes against the group also known as ISIS and ISIL, National Counterterrorism Director Nicholas Rasmussen told a House hearing that it is “clear that the number of those seeking to go to Iraq and Syria is going up.”
“We assess that at least 3,400 of these fighters are from Western countries, and that number includes also over 150 U.S. persons who’ve either traveled to the conflict zone or attempted to do so,” Mr. Rasmussen said. “They come from various backgrounds, which highlights the need for comprehensive messaging strategies and early engagement with a variety of communities in order to dissuade vulnerable individuals from trying to travel to conflict zones.”
He made the remarks during a House Homeland Security Committee hearing.
Committee Chairman Michael T. McCaul, Texas Republican, said the Islamic State “now controls territory the size of Belgium, governs millions of people, draws on billions of dollars in revenue and commands tens of thousands of foot soldiers.”
“This evolving Islamic terrorist landscape has given rise to the dual threats of foreign fighters returning to the United States and homegrown terrorism,” Mr. McCaul said.
“Extremists do not need to travel overseas in order to become a threat to our homeland,” he said. “Through Hollywood-like propaganda videos and social media and through that means, Islamist terror groups are inciting their followers and potential recruits to wage war at home. Both ISIS, and Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula have called for Westerners, including Americans, to wage individual jihad in their home countries, and it’s working.”
“ISIS social media also gives step-by-step instructions on how to get to the fight and how to return,” Mr. McCaul said.
Mr. Rasmussen told lawmakers that over the past five weeks alone, the extremist group’s propaganda operatives have produced “more than 250 official ISIL products” on the Internet. “The group has shown the capacity to use these products to speak to a full spectrum of potential audiences,” he said.
Countering the flow of Islamic recruits is difficult, Mr. Rasmussen said, because “there is no single pipeline for foreign fighter travel into and out of Syria.”
“Violent extremists take different routes, including land, air and sea,” he said. “Most routes do involve transit through Turkey because of its geographic proximity to the Syrian border areas where most of these groups operate.”
Ahead of Wednesday’s hearing, The Associated Press reported that Mr. McCaul’s committee staff had compiled a list of 18 U.S. citizens or residents who joined or attempted to join the Islamic State, 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 radicalized and recruited online and were arrested after attempting to travel to Syria to join Islamic State fighters. It also includes Douglas McArthur McCain, 33, a Californian who died in August while fighting with the jihadi movement near Aleppo.