The United States and its partners are focusing their military might on stopping the spread of the group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and on disrupting IS operations in Syria. Behind the scenes, however, efforts also are underway to prevent the violence from spreading back to Europe and the United States.
The daily drumbeat of airstrikes on the Islamic State target everything from bomb-making factories to bulldozers. Defense officials say the strikes are taking a toll.
The top-ranking U.S. military officer also says the military effort alone is not enough.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey said, "There is a foreign fighter task force that is a group of nations and a group of U.S. government agencies that are seeking to track the flow of foreign fighters into and out of Syria."
At a recent event Dempsey said the effort is one of many. “You would actually like to know that’s working. I know our European allies would like to know that that’s working,” he said.
U.S. intelligence agencies now estimate there are more than 16,000 foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq fighting with various groups, including the Islamic State and the al-Nusra front. That's an increase of about 1,000 since mid-September. Twenty-seven hundred are from Western countries.
The prospect of those fighters leaking back in to western countries and bringing terror with them worries Reuel Marc Gerecht, a senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former Middle Eastern specialist at the CIA.
“The real numbers here, the scary numbers, are the ones that are coming out of Europe. And with the visa-less travel that’s in place between the United States and Europe, obviously if they get past the European security services, the odds of them getting into the United States are pretty good,” he said.
Gerecht said most of the responsibility likely will fall to agencies in Britain and France.
“If those services are overwhelmed and can’t keep up with the necessary surveillance and collection, then I suspect we will have problems, perhaps very severe problems,” he said.
U.S. officials are not saying much as to what extent the foreign fighter task force is helping Europe in particular, but the public focus has been on stemming the flow of foreign fighters to begin with.
Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Richard Stengel said, “One of the first things we want to do is disabuse young men of the vision that DAISH or ISIL [references to the Islamic State] is painting of what it would be like to fight in Syria or fight in Iraq, that it is not the paradise that they paint it.”
U.S. officials are taking to social media and working with moderate Muslim clerics and even former foreign fighters to get that message out.