An "unprecedented" number of foreign fighters — some 15,000 from more than 80 countries — have made their way to Syria and Iraq, and their numbers continue to grow, according to a UN Security Council report.
The findings, disseminated on Thursday by the Australian mission to the UN, which chairs the Security Council's al Qaeda Sanctions Committee, warn that "the horizontal reach of the fighters is far broader than seen before," and "includes a tail of countries that have not previously faced challenges related to Al-Qaida."
Most of the fighters in Syria hail from the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe, but the report observed that others have also come from the United States and other parts of Asia. Though it does not detail what nations compose the group of 80, the Security Council says that the presence of fighters from "small and medium-sized states" is "important, given that some of the future frontier of risk relating to Al-Qaida may lie with some of these individuals."
The committee was established in 1999 to monitor the activities of al Qaeda and what it considers splinter groups — a category now dominated by the Islamic State, which is also referred to as ISIS or ISIL.
While the capabilities of al Qaeda's central leadership are not as strong as they once were, the report notes that extremist ideology has become diffuse, spreading via the internet and social media.
The Islamic State has blown past its predecessors in reaching potential recruits through its propaganda arm, the Al Hayat Media Center.
"While ISIL social media feeds include material designed to reach a general audience alongside ghastly imagery of torture and murder, Al-Qaida core continues to produce long and turgid messaging from Al-Zawahiri," says the report, which is reproduced below. "His latest video message was 55 minutes long. Tweeting terrorists with ISIL use 140 characters or less."
"One example of this includes idealized and normalized representations of life under ISIL control, as when extremists post kitten photographs," the committee said in a footnote.
Despite a formal split in February between al Qaeda and its former affiliate, the committee warned against misinterpreting the formal divorce "as a signal that ISIL repudiates the ideology of Al-Qaida."
"Al-Qaida core and ISIL pursue similar strategic goals, albeit with tactical differences regarding sequencing and substantive differences about personal leadership," the committee wrote.
The report cites the al Qaeda cell operating in Syria known among US intelligence authorities as the Khorasan Group as "an example of the organization's continued interest in planning fresh attacks."
US-led airstrikes in Syria in September targeted the cell. The coalition's wider campaign, described as targeting Islamic State locations in Syria and Iraq, has done little to dampen the tide of foreigners joining the group — and might in fact be drawing more to its cause.
The Security Council has in recent months held several sessions on the "foreign fighter phenomenon," including one chaired by President Barack Obama during the September General Assembly that saw passage of a binding resolution requiring that countries take steps to prevent potential fighters from traveling through or from their territory. Rights groups raised questions about the resolution's broad definition, which they worried could potentially allow countries to ignore due process when arresting people who cross their borders.
The report's estimate of 15,000 fighters is similar to assessments by US and British intelligence. Randy Blake, a senior strategic adviser in the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence, noted at a security panel earlier this week that "the rate of travel into Syria [by foreign fighters] is greater than we saw into Afghanistan prior to 9/11."
American officials believe that roughly 2,000 fighters from Western countries are currently in Syria, among them more than 700 from France, 500 from the United Kingdom, and 400 from Germany.
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