Over 150 US citizens made their way to Syria to join the ranks of ISIS, US intelligence officials confirmed. The American citizens joined another 3,400 westerners as part of a total 20,000 foreigners who sought out becoming part of the Islamist terror group.
The US National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) said that foreigners from over 90 countries have taken up ranks with ISIS. This estimated number rose by over 2,000 foreign volunteer fighters from the previously estimated number of 18,000 made in January, AFP reported.
While precise numbers were unavailable, NCTC Director Nicholas Rasmussen stated that “the trend lines are clear and concerning.” The statement was part of remarks prepared for a Congressional hearing which took place on Wednesday.
Rasmussen said that the current “rate of foreign fighter travel to Syria is unprecedented.” He explained that foreigners journeying to meet up with ISIS “exceeds the rate of travelers who went to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen or Somalia at any point in the last 20 years.”
Rasmussen iterated that these “fighters” do not fit one type of mold. They “come from a variety of background and do not fit any one stereotype,” leading to a very scary conclusion that the message of ISIS is hitting home with a broad range of people.
Even more worrisome, as Rasmussen pointed out, is that “the battlefields in Iraq and Syria provide foreign fighters with combat experience, weapons and explosives training, and access to terrorist networks that may be planning attacks which target the West.”
Rasmussen alluded to the success of the ISIS PR campaign targeting people all over the world via social media in a variety of languages. The group specifically targets troubled youth by portraying an ideal life inside their territory. Additionally the group has created special branding using techniques and slogans that mirror successful Western products or ideologies.
One of the recent MEMEs sent out by the group reads: “YODO: You Only Die Once, so why not make it martyrdom.” In a stark contrast to Al-Qaeda, which has never displayed such strategies, ISIS is continuing to succeed at bringing in young thrill seekers, and alarming governments, primarily in the west.
Other theories as to why ISIS is so successful at recruiting foreigners is that they do not discriminate against foreigners, and even have foreigners as high ranking officials and officers. “They show themselves as the sexiest jihadi group on the block,” said Matthew Levitt, the director of counterterrorism and intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, in an interview last year with Time Magazine.
Rasmussen’s report also noted that while there is no one path that foreign volunteers take to get to Syria and join ISIS, the majority of them travel through Turkey at some point due to the countries proximity to ISIS controlled areas. They are also taking advantage of the fact the Turkey has no visa requirements for 69 different countries, including many from the European Union, making it easier to gain entrance to Turkey.
Turkey, for its part, has attempted to stem the flow and ban potential jihadists from reaching ISIS. Over 10,000 people have been banned from travel once inside Turkey on suspicion of trying to join ISIS. Earlier this week on Tuesday, Turkey detained 14 people attempting to cross the border to join ISIS.
The current belief in the US is that the foreign volunteers will return with more skills and training and begin to launch domestic lone-wolf terror attacks. This concern is shared by other countries as well, and some have refused return entry to any citizen who has gone to fight or volunteer with ISIS.
In Israel, the government is facing a similar but yet more daunting problem. Within the country itself intelligence and counter-terrorism units have already busted several ISIS affiliated terror networks popping up across Judea, Samaria, Gaza and Jerusalem.
Israel has already passed laws making it illegal for Israeli citizens to establish ISIS terror networks in Israel and to travel abroad to become an ISIS jihadist.
In January, a gag-order was lifted on information pertaining to an ISIS terror network operating out of Hebron. Three men were arrested and admitted under interrogation that they were in the midst of establishing an armed wing of ISIS in Palestinian territories.
In Gaza, Hamas is fighting a losing battle against ISIS as the jihadist group is gaining in popularity and attracting a large following. While Hamas has denied that ISIS is operating in the Strip, Palestinian and Israeli security sources say otherwise.
Recently, ISIS networks operating in Israel called for a coup on Hamas and Palestinian Authority leaders in order to seize control of Palestinian territories and expand their reach.
In response to the growing domestic threat of ISIS in Israel’s border, the defense establishment has established a new intelligence unit within the IDF tasked with tracking ISIS’s attempts to recruit Palestinians to their cause.