Some 22,500 foreign fighters have made their way to Iraq and Syria over the past three years to join ISIS and other terrorist organizations, and concern is growing around the world about the "backflow" when some of these fighters return home, Ambassador Tom Krajeski told a roundtable lunch of Directors and International Circle members on Thursday. Krajeski, a 35-year veteran of the State Department and a fluent Arabic speaker, is the newly-appointed Senior Adviser on Foreign Fighters at the Bureau of Counterterrorism, and he said that many of the assumptions originally made about the foreign recruits for ISIS turn out to have been wrong.
"It is not true that the foreign fighters were all unsuccessful in their careers or came from some deprived background," he said. Many of those who left Europe to join ISIS came from comfortable families and had good educations, some with university degrees. They were not pushed to go by their miserable living conditions - on the contrary, he said, they aspired to go "because they were looking for a cause, something bigger than themselves." Some were attracted by the founding of the so-called "Islamic State", or caliphate, which actually controls territory, and some also were motivated to join the fight with Sunni Muslims against the Shiite Muslims of the Assad government and the Iraqi government.
Nor is it true that they are all recruited online or through social media - word of mouth and peer pressure appear to play a significant role as well. "Originally we assumed that it was all online, but often it is the heroic figure, the guy who went to Syria and came back and said 'this is the greatest thing'. Individual recruiters are a very powerful force."
Of the 22,500 foreign fighters, approximately half come from the Arab countries of Morocco, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia, according to Krajeski. The rest come from an array of 100 different countries - 3,700 foreign fighters have come from across Europe. The number from the US is much smaller, estimated to be around 150, mostly Somali Muslims from Minneapolis. It is a risky proposition - the US estimates that of the total number, some 4,000 - 5,000 are already dead, either in the fighting or by becoming suicide bombers.
Nonetheless, foreign fighters from the west get special treatment by the leaders of ISIS - they are given nicer housing than the Arab recruits, and some are given foreign female recruits as wives. "There is a lot of jealousy between the Arabs and the other foreign fighters," said Krajeski. One of the reasons the western foreign fighters are so highly valued is their potential ability to return to their home countries and stage attacks there against their own citizens: "ISIS has said this is their strategy," said Krajeski, adding that he feared "we will have an attack in the US, either homegrown or generated by the caliphate."
Krajeski cited a recent poll in the media in which 68% of Americans said ISIS was the greatest current threat to the US. "I am not sure that is correct, but it does measure the emotional impact of these attacks." He said that ISIS would probably be forced out of the territory it controls in northern Iraq in the next 6 to 8 months, and so would start to crumble - but still did not discount the danger from former ISIS fighters. Research showed that one in nine of the former mujahideen who fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980's continued fighting on their return to their own countries, either in al Qaeda or for some other terrorist group. "One ninth of 22,000 is a lot of fighters."
The US is working with a wide range of countries to enforce the UN Security Council Resolution of last year that requires members to take measures to stop foreign fighters from leaving, and sharing information of people en route - particularly with Turkey, which has become the final jumping-off point for ISIS recruits to get into Syria. This can include passenger manifests of flights heading to Turkey, fingerprint and face recognition techniques, and greater border security. Because of increased surveillance, Krajeski said that ISIS has published a manual online - Hijrah to the Islamic State - which tells would-be foreign fighters what clothes to pack, how to fool Turkish border police, how to dress and shave to avoid suspicion and how to find a contact to get them across the Turkish border into Syria. "Turkey is at the nexus of this problem, and they are doing a lot," said Krajeski.
On Yemen, where Krajeski served as US Ambassador from 2004 to 2007, he said that he did not think the country faced an imminent takeover by Iran, and that the Iranian role in the fight was being overplayed. "This was essentially a tribal fight" - between the supporters of the new president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, the supporters of the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and a group of Shiite tribes, the Houthi, who have recently attracted some aid from Iran. But once the Iranians got involved, the Saudis retaliated with their current bombing campaign, and now the country is in chaos. But even though the Houthis are Shiite, they are from a very different, and more moderate, branch of Shiism than that practiced in Iran. "I don't think the Houthis are beholden to the Iranians," said Krajeski.