Foreign fighters are flocking to Iraq and Syria, as the militant group also recruits from areas under its control.
- By Seán D. NaylorSeán D. Naylor is the intelligence and counterterrorism senior staff writer for Foreign Policy. He previously spent 23 years at Army Times, where his principal beat was special operations forces. He is the author of Not A Good Day To Die – The Untold Story of Operation Anaconda and the forthcoming Relentless Strike – The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command.
The United States and its allies may be killing thousands of Islamic State militants from the air, but the Islamist extremist group is recruiting at least as many fighters for its war in Iraq and Syria as it is losing, experts say.
Those recruits include foreign fighters from across the wider Middle East and beyond, jihadis from the areas of Iraq and Syria that the Islamic State controls, and other militant groups in both states that are pledging allegiance to the group.
And focusing on the enemy body count ignores other trends that are pointing in the wrong direction for the U.S.-led coalition, according to the experts.
U.S. officials have recently boasted the cost that the coalition’s airstrikes are inflicting on the Islamic State, but have used a series of different numbers to make their case. “We’ve taken about 13,000 enemy fighters off the battlefield since the September-October time frame,” Gen. Hawk Carlisle, head of the U.S. Air Force’s Air Combat Command, told reporters at a June 1 Air Force Association breakfast in Arlington, Virginia. Two days later, Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken told a French radio station that the strikes had killed “more than 10,000” Islamic State militants. On June 5, Lt. Gen. John Hesterman, the senior U.S. Air Force officer in the Middle East, told a Pentagon press conference that the air campaign was “removing over 1,000 enemy fighters a month from the battlefield.”
But all these figures are matched or exceeded by the number of fighters the Islamic State is recruiting, according to some experts. “The strength of ISIS continues to grow, so they’re getting more in from recruits than they are losing through casualties,” said Rick Brennan, a former U.S. Army infantry officer who was a civilian advisor to the U.S. military in Iraq from 2006 to 2011. Brennan, now a senior political scientist at the Rand Corp., said he was basing his opinion on intelligence estimates that have been made public.
Not all analysts were convinced that the Islamic State’s recruitment was outstripping its losses. “It’s turning out to be about even,” said Harleen Gambhir of the Institute for the Study of War. Daniel Byman of the Brookings Institution said the data he has seen did not allow him to judge whether the air campaign is reducing the Islamic State’s overall strength, or just its rate of growth. But either way, an examination of the group’s operations “does not suggest that they’re running desperately low on cadre,” he said.
The Islamic State’s largest source of new militants is the flood of foreign fighters that is pouring into Iraq and Syria. The air campaign has apparently done little to stem that flow.
“Recent months have seen an incredible eruption in terms of foreign fighter flow into the Middle East in support of ISIL and its affiliates,” U.S. Army Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command, told a May 19 conference in Tampa, Florida.
There are “an increased number of foreign fighters flowing through southern Europe,” U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Gregory Lengyel, who commands the special operations component of U.S. European Command, told the same audience. “We have a lot of fighters that have been flowing through southern Europe into Syria.”
Spokespeople for the two generals did not respond to emailed requests for the data that underpinned their statements. Gene Barlow, a spokesman for the National Counterterrorism Center, said he had no unclassified information to share on the numbers of foreign fighters heading into Syria and Iraq, nor on the numbers of troops the extremist group was recruiting within the borders of its self-declared caliphate. “The most recent estimate that I have is that ISIS is gaining about 1,000 foreign fighters a month,” Gambhir said.
President Barack Obama has underscored the importance of interrupting the foreign fighters’ influx. In addition to forming local Sunni security forces in Iraq, “the other area where we’ve got to make a lot more progress is on stemming the flow of foreign fighters,” he said June 8 in remarks at the G-7 summit in Germany. “We’ve made some progress, but not enough. We are still seeing thousands of foreign fighters flowing into, first, Syria, and then, oftentimes, ultimately into Iraq.”
Better coordination with Turkey along its border with Syria would go a long way toward reducing the numbers of foreign fighters filling the Islamic State’s ranks, according to Obama. “If we can cut off some of that foreign fighter flow then we’re able to isolate and wear out ISIL forces that are already there,” he said, using a common U.S. government acronym for the Islamic State. “Because we’re taking a lot of them off the battlefield, but if they’re being replenished, then it doesn’t solve the problem over the long term.”
The Islamic State also recruits from territory under its control. However, Gambhir said, these recruits appear to be getting younger and younger, to the point where the Islamic State is now recruiting teenage men and children. Some of these locals are volunteers, while others are forced to take up arms on behalf of the Islamic State, she said. The group assigns some of these recruits responsibility for security in their own neighborhoods, while it sends others to one of at least eight to 10 training camps the Islamic State runs in Iraq and Syria, according to Gambhir. The training period for recruits at these camps is about four to six weeks, after which the Islamic State will issue propaganda photos or videos of the graduating class. Based on these images, each course graduates about 30 to 50 fighters, Gambhir said. That would mean that the group is graduating between 240 and 500 fighters every four to six weeks. But she cautioned that these numbers do not tell the whole story, as the Islamic State probably has other training camps that are more secret and not issuing propaganda videos.
In addition, not all new arrivals would be required to attend such a camp. The Islamic State likely sends fighters who are already hardened combat veterans — Gambhir cited Chechens as an example — straight to the front lines. The local security forces who are expected to enforce the Islamic State’s rule in their own neighborhoods might not be required to receive combat training, either.
Other insurgent groups that pledge allegiance to the Islamic State constitute the organization’s third major stream of new manpower. This is happening in Syria “as ISIS is pushing further and further toward the Syrian central corridor and to the western coastline, and becoming more involved in the ongoing fight that [al Qaeda affiliate] Jabhat al-Nusra and the Syrian rebels are undertaking,” Gambhir said.
But the tendency of individuals and groups to back the Islamic State as the winning horse in Iraq and Syria could also prove an Achilles’ heel, according to Byman.
“A lot of their recruitment stems from being winners,” he said. If the group hunkers down to avoid taking casualties, it risks “losing recruitment, because part of the excitement of what you do is that you’re bad-ass and you go take the fight to the bad guys,” he added. “So I actually think the Islamic State has a lot of vulnerability on this score, because so much of their reputation is built on being a winner and that’s not something that always stays true.”
However, “they’ve done well by it so far, I have to admit,” Byman said.
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