Director of the US National Counterterrorism Center in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence Nicholas Rasmussen. Photo: AP
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – The US intelligence community has assessed that a large number of ISIS foreign fighters will likely remain in Iraq and Syria instead of returning to their country of origin. They also believe that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is still alive.
“Many if not most of the foreign fighters who made their way to the conflict zone will end up staying, fighting and potentially dying in order to maintain the caliphate,” said Nicholas Rasmussen, the Director of the US National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) at the annual Aspen Security Forum on Friday.
The US intelligence community estimates that some 40,000 foreign fighters have joined ISIS in Iraq and Syria since the terror organization first declared its caliphate in 2014.
“At one point, we were worried about this out-rush, outflows, massive outflows of foreign fighters once the battlefield situation changed in Iraq and Syria and that Western countries, countries in the region, would be flooded with returnees,” he said. “I think now speaking kind of broadly, that’s less likely than we first assessed.”
Rasmussen gave an example that if he were working for a security service or law enforcement organization in one of the countries in which nationals left to join ISIS, he’d be concerned about the return of even a small number of former members.
They would be returning from the conflict zone “with a whole new set of skills, a whole new set of contacts, perhaps even specialized skills that go into the areas of weapons of mass destruction,” he said.
As US-backed Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga forces liberated the ISIS urban stronghold of Mosul earlier this month and Kurdish-led fighters continue their offensive in the group’s de facto capital of Raqqa in Syria, foreign governments have been anticipating the possibility of terrorist attacks on their home front if ISIS militants were to return.
This week the US State Department released its Country Reports on Terrorism data. It showed that year-over-year terror attacks were down nine 9 percent and deaths caused by terrorist attacks decreased 13 percent.
There were fewer attacks being carried out in Afghanistan, Syria, Nigeria, Pakistan and Yemen, although more in some countries including Iraq, Somalia and Turkey.
The majority, 55 percent, of attacks took place in Iraq, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan and the Philippines, and 75 percent of the deaths took place in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Nigeria and Pakistan.
Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi speaks at al-Nuri Mosque in Mosul in July 2014 on video released by Furqan Media. Photo: Furqan Media via AFP
The fate of ISIS emir Baghdadi
Rasmussen said he believes that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who has a $25 million State Department bounty on his head, is still alive amid various recent reports that he had been killed.
“I’ve seen nothing that would lead me to believe that the leader of ISIS has been removed from the battlefield,” Rasmussen said. “We know a good bit. We just don’t have information that would confirm his death and demise.”
US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters in an interview at the Pentagon on Friday that he also believes al-Baghdadi to be alive.
“I think he's alive,” Mattis said. “And that means he would have a role to play, obviously, in the organization that he leads. To define that role, is it operational, is it strategic, is it propaganda, is it spiritual, is it physical? I can't define it. But until I see his body, I'm going to assume he's alive.”
“I’ll believe otherwise when we know we have killed him,” Mattis added. Until that time, he stated, “We are going after him.”
Lahur Talabany, the director Kurdistan Regional Government’s intelligence agency and Counter-Terrorism Group, told Reuters in an interview this week that information shows Baghdadi is still alive.
"Baghdadi is definitely alive. He is not dead. We have information that he is alive. We believe 99 percent he is alive," Talabany said.
"Don't forget his roots go back to al Qaeda days in Iraq. He was hiding from security services. He knows what he is doing."