The New York Times is reporting that a new confidential U.S. intelligence assessment indicates that as many as 30,000 foreigners from more than 100 countries have flocked to Syria and Iraq to join the ranks of ISIS in the past year, double the number of recruits from the year before. And while the Pentagon estimates that coalition airstrikes have killed roughly 10,000 ISIS fighters, the militant group is having little trouble replacing and expanding its forces, with some 1,000 new recruits joining up every month. Daniel L. Byman, a counterterrorism expert, tells the Times that one exacerbating factor leading to the influx is how there is now “a ‘network effect’ where friends, family are bringing along other friends and family” to join ISIS — in essence, a militant migration toward the conflict zone.
The rough estimates from intelligence and law enforcement officials also reveal that, of the 30,000 newcomers, more than 4,500 have come from Western countries, including 250 Americans and 750 Britons, but efforts to track the foreign fighters’ movements and identities have been hampered by inadequate coordination among international intelligence agencies, as well as the fact that Syria and Iraq have such large and porous borders. And while the Times notes that countries have been passing new laws in an effort to better combat ISIS’s recruiting of their citizens, measures that are too draconian and restrictive may also have a backlash effect, driving would-be militants toward, rather than away from, jihadism.
Also inadequate, according to intelligence officials, have been the international efforts to hamper the travel of the recruits, both to and from the conflict zone. For instance, many countries that would-be ISIS fighters use as way stations to Syria and Iraq do not have effective systems in place to monitor passenger lists in advance in order to screen for potential militants, something the U.S. and other allies hope to address at a U.N. meeting on Tuesday, to which 104 countries have been invited.
One country not invited to that meeting, however, is Iran, which is a de-facto ally in the fight against ISIS, and which the Associated Press reports will now be part of a new intelligence-sharing effort including Russia, Syria, and Iraq, which is coordinating the effort. Russia, which has been ramping up its military presence in Syria in support of its ally, Syrian president Bashar Assad, is itself apparently worried about the thousands of Russians who may have joined ISIS.
In addition, The Guardian reports that French president François Hollande announced on Sunday that France has conducted its first airstrikes on ISIS in Syria, fulfilling a recent pledge to expand the country’s air campaign beyond Iraq, where it has already been involved in coalition airstrikes. France says the new effort is in the interest of self-defense, and it will be conducting its airstrikes in Syria independent of the U.S.-led coalition. The new airstrikes are in response to the thwarted attack by a suspected jihadi on a Amsterdam-Paris train last month, as well as the successful jihadist attacks on the Charlie Hebdo office and a Jewish supermarket in France last January. France has also estimated that some 1,800 of its citizens and residents have now joined ISIS and other jihadist networks.
The only good news to come out of these various reports is that Western officials say that Turkey’s efforts to better combat ISIS via intelligence sharing, border control, and increased detention of suspected militants seem to be helping, and that some counterterrorism analysts believe that international military efforts against ISIS have now contained the group within its existing territory. This suggests that it’s at least possible that ISIS may have reached its high-water mark, though that outcome is surely contingent upon somehow preventing tens of thousands of additional foreigners from joining the group’s cause.