By Jeff Seldin
May 07, 2019
Even as the Islamic State’s caliphate was clinging to life
with its last defenders cornered in a small town in northeastern Syria, the
terror group managed to shock those who would eventually see it die.
Instead of waiting out about 1,000 civilians and 300 or so
hard-core IS fighters who had retreated to Baghuz, the U.S.-led coalition
watched for weeks in late February and March, as upwards of 30,000 civilians
and 5,000 fighters, slowly surrendered.
“Very much unanticipated,” a senior U.S. defense official
said at the time, describing what he called “the magnitude of humanity” flowing
out of the terror group’s final shred of territory.
“We continue to be surprised by the numbers,” the official
But when it comes to the Islamic State terror group, numbers
have always been a challenge for the United States and its partners, starting
with their first efforts to measure the terror group’s appeal to would-be
jihadists from across the globe.
Counting IS Foreign Fighters
And it is that same uncertainty that has some officials and
analysts worried that the narrative surrounding the demise of IS foreign
fighters – that the majority are dead or in custody – may be wrong.
“We still have pretty reasonable numbers still in the region
right now that are almost certainly active,” said Seth Jones, director of the
Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“It’s hard to know if some have stayed and given up the
fight,” said Jones, who has been studying the rise of Salafi-jihadist movements
worldwide. “But the fact that they’re still there, just the fact that they’re
free, indicates that there’s a reasonable chance they’re still committed to
Just this past week, those Jihadis got a call to arms when
IS issued a new video of reclusive leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi urging followers
to seek vengeance for the fall of Baghuz.
“The threat persists,” said U.S. Assistant Secretary of
State for Stabilization Denise Natali. "ISIS remains a determined enemy as
evidenced by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's first appearance in years…exhorting his
supporters to keep up the fight despite territorial losses."
U.S. intelligence officials first began raising concerns
about jihadists, or so-called foreign fighters, flocking to the growing civil
war in Syria in early 2014, estimating there were about 7,500 from some 50
Just a year later, the estimated number of fighters in Syria
and Iraq had more than doubled.
And the numbers are growing even now, not from a new influx
but as intelligence services the world over continue to learn of more people,
young and old, who left their homes to fight under the banner of the black
Senior U.S. counterterrorism officials told VOA that at last
count, an estimated 45,000 fighters — a jump of 5,000 from the previous
estimate — had flooded the battlefields of Syria and Iraq, almost all in the
name of IS.
Tracking IS Foreign Fighters
If getting a grip on the number of foreign fighters who
joined Islamic State has been challenging, following them once they joined the
terror group’s ranks has been even more difficult.
To be sure, many have been killed. But at least about 15,000
are thought to have left the caliphate, two-thirds of whom are likely still at
According to an August 2018 report by the United Nations,
another 10,000 fighters were in Iraqi custody.
More recently, U.S. defense officials have said at least 2,000
more are being held by the Syrian Democratic Forces, the predominantly Kurdish
force that liberated IS’ last pocket of territory in the Middle Euphrates River
“We anticipate that number will rise as we work with the SDF
to verify the national identities of ISIS fighters in SDF custody,” said
Pentagon spokesman Commander Sean Robertson, using an acronym for the terror
Still, thousands more are as of yet unaccounted for, the
U.N. report warning that as of mid-2018, increasing numbers were finding refuge
in Afghanistan, “bringing with them skills in handling weaponry and improvised
explosive devices and knowledge of military tactics.”
“Central Asian fighters tend to feel most comfortable
relocating among Afghans of Uzbek and Tajik ethnicity,” the United Nations
Other foreign fighters, perhaps fearing the imminent
collapse of the IS caliphate in Syria, may have made their way back to Iraq by
exploiting vulnerabilities along the Syria-Iraq border.
Some even continued to join the fight.
Coalition officials told the U.S. Defense Department
Inspector General this past January, “the actual number is unknown but
estimated that it is ‘most likely 50 per month.’”
The numbers, and the threat they represent, have resonated
to a degree at the highest levels of the U.S. government.
“We're under no illusions that this issue writ-large has
gone away,” a senior U.S. administration official said this past December when
asked about IS’ staying power in Syria and Iraq.
“In terms of the next phase of the mission, it is continuing
to remain vigilant about the ongoing threat of ISIS,” the official said,
pointing to places like Libya and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, long seen as
potential landing spots for surviving foreign fighters.
U.S. intelligence officials have also warned that foreign
fighters could find refuge with IS branches, or even less formal networks, in
more than a dozen other countries, including Turkey, which for years had served
as a gateway for foreign fighters looking to enter Syria.
With the collapse of the terror group’s territorial control
in Iraq and Syria, such concerns are starting to take center stage.
“We're going to remain very vigilant about potential ISIS
activities and their related groups,” the senior official said, anticipating
this moment. “Across the region and around the world, quite frankly.”