UN sounds warning over foreigners fighting in Iraq and Syria

Militant groups in Iraq and Syria have attracted recruits from more than 80 countries who may pose threat for years to come, report says.

ISIL militants parade in a captured Iraqi security forces armoured vehicle in Mosul soon after capturing. AP Photo / June 23, 2014
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NEW YORK // Foreign fighters are joining terror groups in record numbers, with about 15,000 in Iraq and Syria already, and more than 1,000 entering Syria each month, according to the United Nations and US officials.

American intelligence and counterterrorism officials said the flow of foreign fighters to Syria had not changed despite the US-led air campaign against ISIL, the most brutal and successful of the Islamist extremist groups in the country.

“The flow of fighters making their way to Syria remains constant, so the overall number continues to rise,” an official told The Washington Post newspaper.

A UN report this week warned that fighters from more than 80 countries were working with Al Qaeda affiliates in Syria and Iraq and “form the core of a new diaspora that may seed the threat for years to come”.

“There are instances of foreign terrorist fighters from France, the Russian Federation and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland operating together,” it said, according to extracts published by Britain’s Guardian newspaper.

The report, prepared by a panel of experts monitoring Al Qaeda and the Taliban, was submitted to the UN Security Council this week but has not yet been made public.

Worldwide, the numbers of people travelling to join terror groups “since 2010 are now many times the size of the cumulative numbers of foreign terrorist fighters between 1990 and 2010 – and are growing”, the report said.

Britain’s top police officer, Bernard Hogan-Howe, estimated last week that five people a week were leaving the country to fight with ISIL, an Al Qaeda breakaway that now controls of large areas of Syria and Iraq.

Security officials estimate that there are currently about 500 Britons fighting in Syria and Iraq. Dozens have been arrested for preparing to leave to join ISIL or helping others to do so.

France is also moving closer to adopting an anti-terrorism law which would slap a travel ban on anyone suspected of planning to fight with Islamist extremist groups.

The UN warned that more nations than ever face the problem of dealing with fighters returning from battle zones.

The US Central Intelligence Agency said in September that there were between 20,000 and 31,500 ISIL fighters active in Iraq and Syria, much higher than previous estimates. A US security official estimated that there were close to 2,000 westerners among its 15,000 foreign fighters.

The UN report also said the increasingly sophisticated use of social media by ISIL was giving the group a “cosmopolitan” appearance, but it was not clear whether it would rise through divisions in the wider Al Qaeda network to claim dominance of the movement.

US officials credited the slick recruiting campaigns used by ISIL, as well as the relative ease of travelling to Syria from North Africa, the Middle East and Europe, as reasons for the continuing flow of fighters to the country.

ISIL’s sweeping gains in Syria and north-western Iraq and a series of videos it released online of beheadings of foreigners have alarmed the international community.

The United States sponsored a security council resolution in September to battle the growing threat of foreign fighters in terror groups.

It has also mustered an international coalition to combat ISIL that is targeting the group with airstrikes in Iraq and Syria.

The panel behind the UN report was set up to support the council’s Al Qaeda sanctions committee.

* Associated Press and Agence France-Presse