WASHINGTON — In recent weeks a lot of news surfaced about the Pentagon halting its strategy to equip and train Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State and the Syrian government. While the Obama administration is sending a limited number of Special Operations forces on the ground to advise local soldiers fighting ISIS, the shift in strategy coincides with the constant replenishment of ISIS troops and the ineffective rebel recruitment program.
While covering a committee hearing on Transportation Security Administration reform, a deputy communications director, Matthew Ballard, informed me of a recent report from the House Homeland Security Committee analyzing the unprecedented growth in the number of foreigners traveling to Syria and other terrorist areas across the globe.
The increase is occurring despite U.S. air strikes killing over 10,000 ISIS combatants. According to the report, “When the strikes began, counterterrorism officials estimated the total number of extremists was around 15,000…Today the figure stands at 25,000-plus foreign fighters.”
The flow of foreign fighters continued despite U.S. airstrikes, which numbered more than 5,000 since August 2014. Fighters continue to stream in from Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Western countries including the U.K., France and the U.S.
The number of foreign fighters traveling from America is substantially smaller than a country like Tunisia (with over 5,000 recorded travelers) but also is the group the task force knows the most about. It found that American fighters are largely influenced by the ISIS global branding through its heavy social media presence. ISIS, unlike previous terrorist organizations, uses full advantage of the ability to craft and hone its own message with Twitter, Tumblr and other platforms while editing “Hollywood-style” videos illustrating its violent acts and power in the region.
The report finds that the pervasiveness of this social media effort is not simply ISIS top leaders sending out tweets from Iraq and Syria but that is channeled through its foreign fighters to their home countries, leading to more recruits. The grassroots nature of the foreign fighter recruitment poses an immense challenge for governments including the U.S. to monitor and prevent their citizens from joining ISIS or returning to recruit and carry out attacks in their respective countries.
Online recruitment for ISIS often moves from public to private channels. For instance, potential recruits watch publicly available “seminars” on social platforms are then directed to encrypted services such as Telegram. The government has yet to figure out an effective way to stop the online recruitment other than private citizens, family members and friends who have tipped off 75 percent of arrest cases related to potential U.S.-born foreign fighters.