The U.S. government is tracking and gathering intelligence on as many as 300 Americans who are fighting side by side with the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria and are poised to become a major threat to the homeland, according to senior U.S. officials.
Officials say concern is widespread in Washington that radicalized foreign fighters could return to the homeland and commit terrorist attacks with skills acquired overseas, according to officials who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the information. Those concerns were heightened by the disclosure Tuesday that a California man was killed fighting alongside militants with the group, also known as ISIS.
The U.S. government is doing its best to keep track of the foreign fighters, who have been shifting back and forth between Iraq and Syria, according to a senior U.S. official.
“We know that there are several hundred American passport holders running around with ISIS in Syria or Iraq,” the official said, offering a figure well above widespread reports of about 100 such fighters. “It’s hard to tell whether or not they’re in Syria or moved to Iraq.”
The State Department did not respond to a request for the number of Americans traveling in Iraq and Syria.
Supporters of the Islamic State group have worked to cultivate anxiety in the United States over the threat they might pose domestically.
Among photographs posted to Twitter in recent weeks is one that shows the Islamic State flag unfurled in front of the White House at night. Another photo taken in front of a high-rise building in Chicago features the message: “We are in your state. We are in your cities. We are in your streets. You are our goals anywhere.”
The Secret Service is investigating the incident in front of the White House, and the FBI and Department of Homeland Security last week issued bulletins to local law enforcement agencies urging them to be alert but not identifying any specific threat.
“You’re no longer fighting an insurgency. We are an Islamic army and a state that has been accepted by large number of Muslims worldwide,” [American journalist James] Foley’s executioner said. “So effectively, any aggression towards the Islamic State is aggression towards Muslims from all walks of life who has accepted the Islamic caliphate as their leadership. So any attempt by you, Obama, to deny the Muslims their rights of living in safety under the Islamic caliphate will result in the bloodshed of your people.”
The threat of radical jihadists returning to the United States is “a new hazard” for the Department of Homeland Security, said retired Army Maj. Mike Lyons, a senior fellow with the Truman National Security Project and a CBS Radio News analyst. As a result, the department must plan for a future where the jihadists leave their Middle East battlefield and trickle back to America, he said.
“If these people have been identified, there needs to be a discussion with regard to how and when they are allowed back in the U.S.,” he said.
Obama administration officials believe the threat capability of the returning jihadists is limited to small attacks. The foreign fighters are expected to lack the conspiracy planning and organization necessary to commit a larger attack like the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said.
But Maj. Lyons suggested the foreign fighters overall present a greater long-term danger to the United States than al-Qaeda.
“Unlike the 9/11 terrorists, who worked as a team and [carried out] a plan over the course of years, individuals returning from Syria are likely a greater risk to be either lone wolf suicide bomber-type attackers or organizers/recruiters for cells who will conduct a more complex attack than a suicide bomb,” he said.
The British government issued an urgent appeal to the public Tuesday to help police identify “aspiring terrorists” who may be preparing to strike the West as officials work to confirm whether the man seen in the video executing Foley was a British citizen.
“They may be about to travel abroad, have just returned or be showing signs of becoming radicalized,” said Mark Rowley, a top British counterterrorism official. “We appeal to the public to help identify for us aspiring terrorists. High-priority operations, especially against those involved in attack planning or on the cusp, have increased greatly.”