The flow of foreign fighters going into Iraq and Syria to join the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) has dropped by 90 percent to nearly 200 per month within the past year, but the jihadist group has managed to double its presence in Libya over a similar period, according to U.S. military officials.
During a Pentagon press briefing Tuesday, Air Force Maj. Gen. Peter Gersten, the deputy commander for operations and intelligence for the U.S.-led campaign against the ISIS, indicated that the number of ISIS foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria had dropped from “between 1,500 and 2,000” per month to 200 within the past year.
Maj. Gersten attributed the decline in foreign fighters to U.S.-led coalition airstrikes targeting ISIS’s infrastructure.
“When I first got here, we were seeing somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 foreign fighters entering the fight [per month]. Now that we’ve been fighting this enemy for a year, our estimates are down to around 200,” he told reporters. “And we’re actually seeing an increase in now the desertion rates in these fighters. We’re seeing a fracture in their morale. We’re seeing their inability to pay.”
“We’re seeing the inability to fight. We’re watching them try to leave Daesh [ISIS]. In every single way, their morale is being broken,” the Air Force major continued. “In every single way, their capability to wage war is broken. In every single way, we will continue to take this fight and eradicate this cancer.”
In early April, Gen. David Rodriguez, head of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), told Pentagon reporters that ISIS’s presence in Libya had more than doubled to between 4,000 and 6,000 in the last 12 to 18 months.
Gen. Rodriguez noted that some jihadists are traveling to Libya from within northern Africa and from Iraq and Syria, while others have switched sides to ISIS from other terrorist groups.
The AFRICOM commander also pointed out that ISIS terrorists in Libya aspire to attack Europe and the United States.
“That’s been their aspirations all the time, and they are continuing with the same threats that ISIS main is making,” he said.
He added that ISIS’s stronghold in Libya is in the port city of Sirte, which is only a few hundred miles across the Mediterranean Sea from the shores of Europe.
Gen. Rodriguez did note that that Libyan militias have limited ISIS’s expansion in Libya.
“They’ve had activities that have limited the growth and the challenges that are out there,” he told reporters, referring to the Libyan militias.
“So you know, it’s uneven and it’s not you know consistent across the board… But they are contesting the growth of ISIS in several areas across not Libya, not all,” added the top U.S. general.
The general emphasized that the limited U.S. airstrikes in Libya have focused on targets “that pose an imminent threat to U.S. interests and personnel.”
According to the New York Times, the Obama administration is considering military options against ISIS in Libya.
As early as February, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper estimated that nearly 36,500 foreign fighters from more than 100 countries had traveled to Iraq and Syria, including approximately 6,600 from Western countries.
Moreover, senior U.S. military officials have been accused by their colleagues of altering intelligence assessments to make it appear that President Barack Obama is winning the war against ISIS.
Republicans in Congress have strongly criticized the Obama administration over its ISIS strategy or lack thereof, saying more military action is necessary to defeat the terrorist group, notes The Hill.
“The administration, though, insists it will defeat ISIS, including outside of Iraq and Syria,” it adds.