By Justin Sink - 09/22/14 11:57 AM EDT
Some of an estimated 100 Americans who have traveled to the Middle East and joined terrorist organizations like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have returned to the United States, a senior administration official said Monday.
At a Monday briefing previewing an administration push for a United Nations resolution to prevent the flow of foreign citizens into conflict zones to join terrorist groups, a senior administration official said that an estimated 15,000 individuals had entered Iraq and Syria to join groups like ISIS and the al Nusra Front. The official said that 2,000 of those foreign fighters were European, and that 100 were Americans.
That number includes Americans “who may have tried to travel or those who have come back,” a second senior administration official said.
That revelation could prompt new security concerns about the prospect that Americans who were radicalized abroad could do damage to the homeland. In repeated video messages, ISIS has threatened to target U.S. sites, including a video last week that included ominous footage of the White House.
President Obama is slated as chairman of a Security Council meeting later this week, when the U.N. will seek a new resolution demanding countries strengthen laws and programs to prevent the flow of foreign citizens to the Middle East to join terrorist groups.
In remarks detailing the ISIS threat earlier this month, Obama said that while the intelligence community did not have evidence of specific plots against the U.S., officials were particularly concerned by the threat from these fighters.
“Our intelligence community believes that thousands of foreigners — including Europeans and some Americans — have joined them in Syria and Iraq,” Obama said. “Trained and battle-hardened, these fighters could try to return to their home countries and carry out deadly attacks.”
One senior administration official said that there was currently a “full-court press across our intelligence” to combat the risk posed by the fighters, including new programs to intervene and prevent terrorist attacks from radicalized Americans.
Those include advanced passenger name recognition systems for air travel, and pilot programs in at least three American cities — Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Boston — where community members look to intervene ahead of radicalization.
The administration is also hopeful that the new Security Council resolution will encourage other nations to strengthen their efforts to address foreign fighters traveling through their countries and improve intelligence sharing between countries.
The resolution will call on nations to adopt new laws and regulations to prosecute and penalize those affiliated with terror groups, prevent the entry or transit of individuals linked to terrorism and target the willful provision of funds to terror groups. The intelligence-sharing elements are expected to be coordinated through Interpol.
The White House is also expected to host a summit on violent extremism and the best practices to address the issue later this fall.
A third senior administration official said that the president’s personal involvement in pushing the resolution was a “rare and significant thing.”
“It sends a very, very powerful signal this is an issue of the highest priority,” the official said.