Ever since the holiday season, the White House has made a variety of vague assurances that ISIS recruitment is ramping down, the flow of fighters into the Islamic State has been choked off, and the weakened terror state is on the run. This is certainly a development to be hoped for, but it does not seem to have happened yet. A burst of news reports over the last few days state that, on the contrary, ISIS recruiting is still going distressingly well, both in the Middle East and West. The Pentagon has also conceded that ISIS is expanding into Afghanistan, with some success at convincing Taliban groups to swear fealty to them.
The bad news about ISIS “drawing a steady stream of recruits,” in spite of the U.S. bombing campaign, came from an Associated Press exclusive on Tuesday:
The U.S. 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, U.S. 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 in testimony prepared for delivery 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 Center, 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.
U.S. officials fear that some of the foreign fighters will return undetected to their homes in Europe or the U.S. 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.
This report prompted Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) to emphasize the urgency of passing his Expatriate Terrorists Act, which would ensure those Americans who went overseas to train with ISIS and swear allegiance to the terror state are not permitted to return to the United States and become hometown terror threats. As the AP report noted, quoting the testimony of FIB Assistant Director for Counter-terrorism Michael Steinbach, tracking the movements and activities of American expatriates who reach Syria is extremely difficult, as the U.S. embassy in that country is closed, and the CIA has no permanent presence on the ground. It’s foolish to take chances on allowing any of these treasonous fighters to return to American soil when we have no real idea of what they did while serving ISIS, or what kind of training they might have received.
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, described the ISIS and al-Qaeda coalition in Syria as “the largest convergence of Islamist terrorists in world history.” No former American should be allowed to return from such a jamboree of murderous evil.
Unfortunately, some of them might have done so already. When asked about this possibility by the House Homeland Security Committee, NCC director Rasmussen replied, “We know what we know, but we understand there is intelligence we don’t have,” while FBI assistant director Steinbach admitted “this is a number we don’t know about.” Those aren’t the answers America wanted to hear.
Not only would the returnees pose incalculable security threats, they could become potent recruiters for ISIS. In an interview with CNN last week, Steinbach warned of “individuals who are inspired by the message of terrorist groups, and they encourage family members, including their children, to follow that path.”
He said the common term “sleeper cell” was actually too simplistic to describe the threat of these recruiting networks and the unknown number of people who “have been in communication with groups like ISIL, who have a desire to conduct an attack.” He also mentioned that ISIS was experiencing remarkable success at using social media to recruit women, and children as young as 15.
Even as foreign manpower continues to bolster their armed forces, the Islamic State is expanding its operations into Afghanistan, taking advantage of the withdrawal of American troops from that country. A report in The Hill quotes Pentagon officials pronouncing themselves “greatly concerned” about this new tentacle of the Islamic State, which is “nascent” and “relatively small” at the moment, but harbors big ambitions – perhaps not just for Afghanistan, but also the tribal regions of Pakistan as well. It is said that some Taliban groups have actually rebranded themselves as units of ISIS (or “Daesh,” a derogatory term the Administration has occasionally deployed because it supposedly annoys the terrorists and punctures their image.)
This admission came after a drone strike was employed to liquidate Adbul Rauf, a former Taliban commander who was sprung from Guantánamo Bay and returned to the field as an ISIS commander and recruiting expert. “He and his associates were targeted, because we had information that they were planning operations against U.S. and Afghan personnel there in Afghanistan,” explained the Pentagon. Well, maybe it wasn’t such a hot idea to let him out of Gitmo, then.
The threat of ISIS and al-Qaeda cooperating with a re-energized Taliban is enough to make at least one former Obama Administration official, under-secretary of Defense for policy Michele Flournoy, recommend the Administration “re-examine the pace and scope of the drawdown” in Afghanistan, “in light of what we’re going to need in the future.” In other words, instead of being “decimated and on the run” or “degraded and destroyed,” ISIS is enough of a threat to make American advisers reconsider the long-planned, much-touted withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.