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Progress Seen in Stemming Flow of Foreign Fighters to IS

FILE - This image taken from video shows an Islamic State militant waving upon his arrival in Beiji, north of Baghdad, June 17, 2014.
FILE - This image taken from video shows an Islamic State militant waving upon his arrival in Beiji, north of Baghdad, June 17, 2014.

Efforts to stem the flow of foreign fighters to Iraq and Syria may be starting to have impact, though there are concerns some would-be jihadists are now looking to join the battle elsewhere.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence said this week that an estimated 25,000 foreign fighters from more than 100 countries had traveled to take part in the conflict, including more than 4,500 from Western countries.

Both numbers are up from the previous estimates, released in March, when intelligence officials said there were more than 22,000 foreign fighters, including at least 3,700 from the West.

Still, officials and analysts believe the increase in the numbers is partly a result of improved intelligence, including information from countries working with the U.S., that's helping to give a more comprehensive view of the problem.

“There’s been a real effort to share intelligence information among Western countries and countries in the region,” former National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen told VOA in an interview before the latest estimates were released. “That’s paying off now, and it’s going to continue pay dividends down the road.”

Officials point out that while the number of Americans looking to take part in the conflict in Syria has also risen — up to more than 250 — the estimate includes people who were stopped from making the journey or who are being monitored after having returned to the U.S.

Turkey also is increasingly getting credit for cracking down, arresting a growing number of would-be foreign fighters as they fly into the country.

Slow loss of capacity

Such efforts, along with what analysts say is a high rate of attrition among foreign fighters, seem to be helping to slowly eat away at the capacity of terror groups, like the self-declared Islamic State.

“It’s not operating at the same capacity that it was a year ago,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a counterterror analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “It’s lost territory. It seems to have lost money.”

The latest U.S. intelligence estimates would also suggest the group is perhaps starting to have difficulty maintaining the size of its fighting force, with attrition, the coalition air campaign and some success on the ground by Kurdish forces and others starting to make a dent.

“We assess the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) can muster between 20,000 to 30,000 fighters across Iraq and Syria,” an ODNI spokesperson told VOA.

The figure, which includes a few dozen Americans and hundreds from other Western countries, is down slightly from earlier estimates of 22,000 to 32,000 in March, and follows a series of losses for the Islamic State in northern Syria, including Tal Abyad, a key hub for both foreign fighters and supplies.

“Losing that has had an impact and will continue to have an impact if they can’t find ways to resupply themselves,” a defense official told VOA on condition of anonymity.

Resilience demonstrated

But while Islamic State may be feeling the pressure, observers say the terror group is again showing its resilience.

“That flow is still there,” said Harleen Gambhir, a counterterrorism analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, adding the Islamic State recruits are even coming from places that until now have not been a fertile source of foreign fighters for the terror group, such as Uganda and Sudan.

And she warned that efforts to stop foreign fighters from reaching the battlefields in Iraq and Syria could backfire.

“ISIS has adapted to that and responded by telling its fighters that it is legitimate for them to travel to other places where ISIS and its affiliates are fighting, like Libya and Afghanistan and now the Caucasus,” she said.

According to Gambhir and others, the shift fits in with the Islamic State’s at times pragmatic approach.

“ISIS is trying to foster and grow its affiliates in a way that it can outlast defeat in Syria and Iraq, if it comes,” she said.