On 12 September, a CIA assessment revealed that ISIS ranged has the capacity to muster between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters across Iraq and Syria. This number is three times higher than the previous estimates, which indicated that there were approximately 10,000 militants fighting for the group. According to the CIA, the sharp increase is the result of stronger recruitment after ISIS conducted a battlefield campaign across northern Iraq, gaining a large swath of territory and declaring a caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
The information released from the report does not appear to specify who is considered a ‘fighter’, such as women or youths. Mowaffak al-Rubaie, a former Iraqi national security adviser and current parliament member said that ISIS is targeting youths “as young as 8 and 9 years old,” giving them AK-47s and brainwashing them with “this evil ideology.” Al-Rubaie added that this was similar to the method that al Qaeda in Iraq recruited in the past, but on a larger scale.
The CIA report does not suggest whether the fighters are actually members of ISIS, or militants currently fighting against the Syrian government, but could be called upon to fight with ISIS. According to the report, approximately 15,000 foreign fighters have joined the militant group, representing some 80 countries. The number includes as many as 2,000 Westerners. Al-Rubaie estimates that among foreign fighters, Iraqis and Syrians comprise over 70%, adding that “thousands” of Iraqis joined ISIS after their capture of Mosul in June.
It is believed that many fighters have crossed into ISIS-controlled territory in northern Iraq through Turkey. It is expected that they could permeate the borders of Lebanon, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, causing elevated national security threats in those nations.
The revised estimate of fighters comes after a series of unmanned reconnaissance flights over the region. The US has increased the number of surveillance flights to nearly 60 per day over Iraq, in order to gather intelligence regarding whether and where to launch airstrikes in the region. The Pentagon has also announced it would begin “armed and manned” flights for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance purposes. The crafts would fly from the Kurdish regional capital, Erbil, as supplements to the unmanned flights.
Pentagon spokesman, Rear Admiral John Kirby, said the increased estimates will not alter how the United States approaches ISIS, stating,” We’re not just simply about degrading and destroying … the 20 to 30,000 (ISIS fighters). It’s about degrading and destroying their capabilities to attack targets, particularly Western targets. It’s about destroying their ideology.” One unnamed US official said the military can launch airstrikes at any time if there is a ‘target of opportunity’. The US has already conducted over 150 airstrikes against ISIS. Additional tactics would involve targeting the group’s leadership, which the US has not yet done.
A coalition of nations has been assembled with the aim of eroding the power of ISIS, and eventually destroying the group. Nearly 40 nations have joined the coalition; however it is unknown what specific roles each nation will play. In large part, members of the coalition have agreed to send equipment and/or humanitarian aid, or conduct surveillance missions, but none have committed to putting boots on the ground. Those who are willing to engage in ground battle include Iraqi Kurdistan’s Peshmerga forces and other indigenous forces from Syria and Iraq, including trained Syrian rebels, Iraqi forces, Kurdish forces and Sunni tribes.
Within the regional vicinity, Turkey is working to cut the financial flow to ISIS, and has denied entry and deported ‘several thousand foreign fighters heading to Syria to join the extremists’. Jordan has agreed to provide intelligence to the West. It is thought that Saudi Arabia, which has already provided $500 toward UN humanitarian efforts, will also host anti-ISIS training camps. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt have been urged to use their television networks to spread anti-ISIS messages as well as encouraging clerics to speak out against the group. The Egyptian government has met with US Secretary of State John Kerry to discuss the “critical role” Egypt will play in countering ISIS ideology, however no public details have been released. Last week, Egypt’s grand mufti, the highest ranking Islamic scholar in the land, condemned ISIS and underscored that their actions are not in line with Islam. Qatar has conducted a number of humanitarian flights.
Iran has declined to join the coalition. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei tweeted that he rejected cooperating with the United States “because (the) US has corrupted its hands in this issue.” Khamanei has vocally accused the United States of planning to use military action against ISIS to “dominate the region.” The absence of Iran in the coalition may put other nations at ease; Iran has been in conflict with Turkey, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia for years.
Nations outside of the Middle East that will join the coalition include Australia, the UK, France, Germany, Canada, Italy, Poland, Denmark, Albania, Croatia, New Zealand, Romania and South Korea.