FILE – In this Jan. 30, 2015 file photo, a Syrian Kurdish sniper looks at the rubble in the Syrian city of Ain al-Arab, also known as Kobani. Foreign fighters are streaming in unprecedented numbers to Syria and Iraq to battle for the Islamic State or other U.S. foes, including at least 3,400 from Western nations and 150 Americans, U.S. intelligence officials conclude. In all, more than 20,000 fighters have traveled to Syria from more than 90 countries, top intelligence officials will tell Congress this week. (AP Photo, File)
By KEN DILANIAN, AP Intelligence Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) — 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.
The testimony and other data were obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press.
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.
Meanwhile, the White House circulated a proposal Tuesday that would have Congress authorize the U.S. military to fight Islamic State terrorists over the next three years. A formal request for legislation is expected on Wednesday.
Also at the White House, President Barack Obama praised Kayla Jean Mueller, the young American whose death was confirmed Tuesday. Mueller died while in Islamic State hands, though the group blamed a Jordanian airstrike.
“No matter how long it takes, the United States will find and bring to justice the terrorists who are responsible for Kayla’s captivity and death,” Obama said.
As for foreign fighters, officials acknowledge it has been hard to track the Americans and Europeans who have made it to Syria, where the Islamic State group is the dominant force trying to overthrow the government of President Bashar Assad. The U.S. Embassy in Syria is closed, and the CIA has no permanent presence on the ground.
“Once in Syria, it is very difficult to discern what happens there,” according to Wednesday’s prepared testimony of Michael Steinbach, the FBI’s assistant director for counterterrorism. “This lack of clarity remains troubling.”
The estimate of 20,000 fighters, from 90 countries, is up from 19,000, Rasmussen plans to tell the House committee, according to prepared testimony. The number of Americans or U.S. residents who have gone or tried to go is up to 150 from 50 a year ago and 100 in the fall.
Rep. Michael McCaul, the Texas Republican who chairs the committee, said in his prepared remarks that the Syrian war had created “the largest convergence of Islamist terrorists in world history.” Sustained bombing by a U.S.-led coalition has not stopped the inflow, he noted.
McCaul’s committee staff compiled from public sources a list of 18 U.S. citizens or residents who joined or attempted to join the Islamic State group, and 18 others who tried to or succeeded in joining other violent Islamic groups. The list includes three Chicago teens and three Denver teens who were radicalized and recruited online and were arrested after attempting to travel to Syria to join Islamic State fighters. It also includes Douglas McAuthur McCain, 33, a Californian who died in August while fighting with the Islamic State group near Aleppo.
U.S. intelligence officials do not make public their estimate of how many Americans currently are fighting in Syria and Iraq. In September, FBI director James Comey said it was “about a dozen.”