Angry, committed, and ever younger ISIS recruits keep flowing into Syria, despite the Obama administration’s year-long campaign to target ISIS and tighten regional laws and borders against militants.
Like a clenched fist trying to hold water, the U.S.-led coalition is struggling to get multiple bureaucracies to move in unison to hold back the wave of 1,000 fighters a month into Iraq and Syria.
The coalition is also trying to compete with the so-called Islamic State’s popularity by building a creative, coordinated international network of community groups, technology companies, and media hipsters. That’s a tall order for any government bureaucracy that is by its nature the opposite of the organic and spontaneous movement it’s trying to foster.
Meanwhile, American ISIS recruits are getting younger, with more than half of the U.S. suspects pursued by the Justice Department under the age of 25 and one-third of those 21 or under, according to Assistant Attorney General John Carlin.
“It’s different than…the terrorist threat we’ve confronted before,” he said.
Carlin was among the administration officials briefing a small group of reporters in advance of a U.S.-led UN summit Tuesday on combating ISIS and countering violent extremism.
The Obama administration officials touted their success over the past year in rallying dozens of countries to pass laws criminalizing foreign fighters and convincing those nations to share more information on militancy than ever before. The administration officials said they hope to strengthen those measures in discussions this week when they revisit the progress made since the U.S. sponsored a UN Security Council resolution criminalizing foreign-fighter activity a year ago.
“This will be an opportunity for the president to convene 60-plus leaders from around the world…to review progress and get new commitments on our work…disrupting the flow of foreign terrorist fighters,” said White House counterterrorism adviser Lisa Monaco.
The administration will also make some news of its own, announcing the streamlining of the Department Homeland Security’s effort to counter violent extremism under a single official, as well as launching new efforts to fight extremists through community groups and private partnerships.
Carlin said more than 20 countries, including Turkey, had toughened their laws and taken legal action against suspected militants. Information sharing has also increased sixfold since last year, he said, with more than 45 countries sharing 4,000 foreign terrorist profiles via Interpol, which serves as a clearinghouse for information.
But two other senior administration officials, speaking anonymously, said too many other countries in the region had done too little, which is why the flow has continued mostly unabated.
ISIS faces no such bureaucratic or legal constrictions, nimbly using social media to woo millennials to its cause, switching to encrypted communications to avoid surveillance, and then using smuggling routes over still-porous borders to bring the new blood to the fight.
Youth and social media are the two common trends among those who have been investigated or arrested inside the U.S. in the past year, Carlin said.
“It’s not consigned geographically to one part of the country, nor to a particular ethnic or community group,” he said.
U.S. counterterrorist officials estimate that some 250 U.S. citizens have tried to travel to join the fight, with 60 of them formally charged for attempting to travel or traveling to the region and provide support, Carlin said.
In addition, so far in 2015, more than 10 people have attempted terrorist attacks inside the United States “after being inspired by or directed by foreign terrorists,” Carlin said.
From that grim statistic, administration officials take comfort in the notion that their measures to block travel are working.
“As it’s become more difficult for these individuals to travel overseas to join the foreign terrorist fight, ISIL will issue direction for them to attempt attacks here at home,” Carlin said, using the administration’s preferred acronym for the group.
“ISIL has lost a huge chunk of territory in northern Syria and significantly is now cut off from all but 68 miles of a nearly 600-mile border between Syria and Turkey,” said Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken.
He conceded $500 million U.S. program to train anti-ISIS Syrian fighters needs work.
Only a handful of the first class trained are still fighting, and the Pentagon confirmed Friday that a group of recent graduates turned over U.S.-supplied weapons and trucks to al Qaeda offshoot Jabhat al-Nusra in exchange for safe passage.
But he insisted the new legal measures and better monitoring at Syria’s borders are “starting to have a real impact in reducing the flow…of foreign fighters and material into Syria.”
Yet in the same briefing, Monaco said the estimate of 1,000 fighters a month entering the country hadn’t changed, with a total of at least 25,000 foreign fighters in all. Some are traveling to fight on the side of embattled Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad or the Iraqis or Kurds, but most are heading there to join ISIS.
And the U.S.-led bombing campaign has made ISIS harder to track by forcing it to change from fighting like an army to fighting like an insurgency, another senior administration official said.
“They’re not standing on street corners with guns, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t present,” the official said. “Our strategy may have made them more dangerous by driving them to hide in the civilian population.”
And the ISIS movement continues to grow, with cells of fighters spreading to countries including Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan, according to the senior administration official and a U.S. intelligence official who was speaking anonymously because he was not authorized to speak publicly to describe the ISIS campaign.
Little in the current Obama strategy seems close to stemming that flow either, the two officials said.