National Counterterrorism Center Director Nick Rasmussen said Friday morning that the intelligence community now believes many, if not most, foreign Islamic State fighters will stay in Iraq and Syria and fight to the death.
In a panel discussion at the Aspen Security Forum, Rasmussen, who is a holdover from the Obama administration, said the intelligence community has changed its view over the last several months. It now believes that while some foreign ISIS fighters will flee the conflict zone to their respective countries, it’s likely that a majority of these fighters will fight to the death to protect the ISIS caliphate.
“Our view of this has changed a little bit as an intelligence community in the last several months,” Rasmussen said. “I think at one point we were worried about this outrush, this massive outflow of foreign fighters once the battlefield situation changed in Iraq and Syria—and that western countries, even countries in the region, would be flooded by returnees.”
“I think, speaking kind of broadly, that’s less likely than when we perhaps first assessed if we were talking about this a year ago,” Rasmussen added. “Many if not most of the foreign fighters who made their way to the conflict zone will end up staying, fighting, and potentially dying in order to maintain the caliphate.”
Best estimates place the number of foreign ISIS fighters at around 40,000. A 2016 study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research placed Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Turkey and Jordan as the top five countries where foreign ISIS fighters are most likely to originate. Belgium has the highest number of foreign ISIS fighters per capita compared to any other country in Western Europe.
Rasmussen noted that even if there isn’t a major flood of ISIS fighters returning to places like Western Europe, for example, the quality of the returning fighters and the skills they bring back may matter far more than quantity.
“If I’m sitting in Western Europe in a security service or a law enforcement organization, I’m very, very concerned about some—even small number of foreign fighters from my country—who come back from the conflict zone with a whole new set of skills, a whole new set of contacts, perhaps even specialized skills that go into the areas of weapons of mass destruction, and so quantity may not be the story, quality certainly is,” Rasmussen said.
As noted by The Atlantic in a March analysis, returnees are best categorized into three groups: the disillusioned, the disengaged but not disillusioned and the operational. The reason operational returnees are the most dangerous is because they’re intent on building underground networks, recruiting new members for ISIS and plotting terror attacks. Other ISIS fighters who leave the battlefield may search for the next conflict zone, whether in Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan or some other region.
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