The flow of foreign fighters into Iraq and Syria has dropped from roughly 2,000 a month down to 200 within the past year, according to the Pentagon, which says the waning numbers are further proof of the Islamic State’s declining stature.
The declining number of fighters is a direct result of strikes that have targeted the terror group’s infrastructure, Air Force Maj. Gen. Peter E. Gersten, the deputy commander for operations and intelligence for the U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State, said Tuesday.
The Pentagon’s assertion lines up with other information that has emerged recently.
Last week, the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, N.Y., published an article in its journal, the CTC Sentinel, that highlighted the Islamic State’s financial plight. Documents in the journal, and noted in a report published by The Post, show that the Islamic State is having difficulty compensating its fighters and workers while providing basic amenities such as electricity and fuel. Recent defectors from the group have indicated that many fighters are on half pay and some haven’t received salaries in months.
Foreign fighters within the Islamic State have traditionally received better treatment than their local and conscripted counterparts. As recently as January, U.S. intelligence reports estimated that there were more than 30,000 foreign fighters from roughly 100 different countries within the Islamic State’s ranks. That includes more than 6,000 Westerners. This number was echoed in a December report by the Soufan Group, a think tank, indicating that foreign fighters in Syria had doubled between 2014 and 2015. Western officials are concerned that foreign fighters returning from Syria and Iraq will return to their home countries radicalized and willing to carry out terror attacks within their own borders.
Patrick Skinner, director of special projects at the Soufan Group, said the Pentagon’s recent estimate regarding the dwindling flow of foreign fighters is “probably accurate.”
“Foreign fighter flows are a seriously lagging indicator and the pressure has been on the group and the crossings for a while,” Skinner said. It “would take time to trickle down into reduced motivation to go. … ISIS has band wagon appeal and fewer jump on the losing bandwagon.”
A recent poll by the public relations firm ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller, and detailed in a report from The Post, indicates that 80 percent of Arab teens and young adults rule out any support for the Islamic State, a number that is up from 60 percent in 2015. The poll is based on results from 3,500 respondents ages 18 to 24.
On Monday, President Obama said he would deploy an additional 250 Special Operations troops to Syria. The forces will bolster local ground forces that are fighting the Islamic State. The Pentagon has also announced a number of recent measures that will expand the U.S.-led campaign and help local allies in the fight against the extremist group. This includes the additional deployment of rocket artillery around the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul and into Turkey to provide fire support to forces fighting in Syria.
By Thomas Gibbons-Neff