WASHINGTON — The head of the nation’s counterterrorism efforts told Congress today that the flow of foreign fighters pledging their allegiance to ISIS not only poses a threat to the U.S., but “momentum and competition” with other terrorist groups has ramped up the danger as well.
House Homeland Security Chairman Mike McCaul (R-Texas) warned that, with the Islamic State swallowing enough territory to equal Belgium, “we are no longer talking about terrorist groups — we are talking about terrorist armies.”
“More than 20,000 fighters from over 90 countries have made their way to the battlefield to join al-Qaeda, ISIS and other extremist groups, making this the largest convergence of Islamist terrorists in world history,” McCaul said.
Up to 5,000 of those are Westerners, raising concerns about their ability to move back and forth from the Islamic State to their homelands. “And more than 150 American citizens have attempted to or succeeded in getting to the battlefield, and we know that some of them have already returned to our shores,” the chairman noted.
McCaul recently wrote President Obama out of concern “that we still have no lead agency in charge of countering domestic radicalization and no line item for it in the budgets of key departments and agencies.”
“I’m also concerned that the few programs we do have in place are far too small to confront a threat that has grown so quickly,” he added.
The chairman was “very disappointed” that the State Department sent no representative to the hearing.
National Counterterrorism Center director Nick Rasmussen, in his first appearance before a congressional hearing since his confirmation, told the panel the rate of foreign fighter travel seen in recent years is “unprecedented,” exceeding “the rate of travel and travelers who went to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen or Somalia… at any point in the last 20 years.”
McCaul and Ranking Member Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) announced they’re forming a six-month congressional task force focused on how to disrupt the travel flow of Islamist fighters.
On the propaganda front, Rasmussen said ISIS has published more than 250 videos and publications since Jan. 1 with “translations into an ever-growing number of additional languages.”
Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), a former CIA officer, asked how the administration is countering the social media proliferation of ISIS as they use Facebook and Twitter to recruit and spread their P.R. materials. “Twenty percent of any counter-insurgency is cutting off the head of the snake, 80 percent is addressing the underlying concerns,” he said.
Rasmussen said the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, the Department of Justice and NCTC are trying to be as “seamless as we could, I think, almost possibly be in terms of our work together.”
The question is, he said, is scale: “Are we doing enough of it? Do we have enough reach into all of the parts of the country where this is a potential problem? And I would not argue to you that we’re there yet on that score.”
Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) asked the counterterrorism chief if al-Qaeda is still “alive and well.”
“They certainly pose a significant terrorist threat,” Rasmussen replied.
“So we shouldn’t take our eye off the ball with just focusing on ISIS and think of this globally and not get hung up on the 50 shades of terrorism,” Duncan said, referring to groups including AQAP, Boko Haram, and Al-Shabaab and to the S&M movie opening on Valentine’s Day.
Officials acknowledged that most of the foreign fighters going into Syria are crossing the Turkish border.
“Success in the counter-ISIL campaign or any effort we’re engaged in to try to stem the flow of foreign fighters into and out of the conflict zone requires a functioning, effective partnership with the Turks across the whole range of issues — intelligence, law enforcement, diplomacy, all of that,” Rasmussen said. “It’s also true, though, that Turkey will always look at its interests through the prism of their own sense of self-interest, and how they prioritize particular requests that we make for cooperation doesn’t always align with our prioritization. And that’s just a simple fact.”
He added that the State Department, which pulled a no-show at the hearing, could have given a better picture on that complicated relationship.
“There are areas where we receive profoundly effective cooperation from our Turkish partners and it’s tremendously useful, and yet from our perspective, we think there’s more to the relationship that we could get more that we need from the relationship to effectively address our concerns,” the NCTC chief said.
Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.) asked how the U.S. government is working with Internet companies “to help combat the use of the Internet and social media to spread…radical Islamic idealism.”
“This partnership has a number of elements. It’s in part exposing them to the information about what is happening on platforms that they control so they understand it. And if they can understand when terms of service violations are taking place that they should intervene and take steps to block certain content,” Rasmussen responded.
“But it’s also to — again, to deepen a partnership and make sure that they understand that we need to be partners with them in going at this more systemically, not simply in response to a single video or a single YouTube posting or something, but actually to think about what kind of relationship between the federal government, law enforcement and these companies makes sense if we’re going to tackle this phenomenon that’s creating a serious homeland security vulnerability.”
YouTube takes down videos showing violent content, and some ISIS users on Twitter have gone through many account names to reassert their presence after the social-media site shuts down one account.
“They try to follow the terms of agreement, and certainly, if they see individuals violating those terms, those service agreement contracts, they shut them down. But when you’re talking with that volume, it’s a challenge for them. So I would say they understand our problem,” Rasmussen said. “We continue to work with them to get them to develop process technology to help us out. But that’s just one part of it.”
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) said she hopes the committee will “ramp up the dollars that will intervene in that radical heinous ideology.”
“I, for one, would like to be engaged in the writing of the legislation and/or to find out more in an instructive manner, how do we stop the radicalization of our young people for something as heinous as what ISIS represents,” Jackson Lee said, throwing in a special thanks for Jordan’s King Abdullah II for his offensive against ISIS.
Rasmussen said one thing “particularly concerning about the ISIL phenomenon is that ISIL has now decided it needs to move beyond Syria and Iraq — and so you have extremist organizations in North Africa, Algeria, in Egypt, in Libya, who now have raised the flag of ISIL and claimed affiliate status.”
“And again, that creates a sense of momentum and competition among extremist jihadist groups that ultimately adds to our threat concerns, doesn’t subtract. Even though you like to see your enemies fighting amongst each other, but actually, it’s creating competition against each — among — amongst each other as they try to one-up each other in efforts to go after us.”