The U.S. government is tracking and gathering intelligence on as many as 300 Americans who are fighting side by side with the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria and are poised to become a major threat to the homeland, according to senior U.S. officials.
Officials say concern is widespread in Washington that radicalized foreign fighters could return to the homeland and commit terrorist attacks with skills acquired overseas, according to officials who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the information. Those concerns were heightened by the disclosure Tuesday that a California man was killed fighting alongside militants with the group, also known as ISIS.
“We know that there are several hundred American passport holders running around with ISIS in Syria or Iraq,” the official said, offering a figure well above widespread reports of about 100 such fighters. “It’s hard to tell whether or not they’re in Syria or moved to Iraq.”
Supporters of the Islamic State group have worked to cultivate anxiety in the United States over the threat they might pose domestically.
Among photographs posted to Twitter in recent weeks is one that shows the Islamic State flag unfurled in front of the White House at night. Another photo taken in front of a high-rise building in Chicago features the message: “We are in your state. We are in your cities. We are in your streets. You are our goals anywhere.”
The Secret Service is investigating the incident in front of the White House, and the FBI and Department of Homeland Security last week issued bulletins to local law enforcement agencies urging them to be alert but not identifying any specific threat.
The militant group’s supporters have also pursued a more subtle propaganda campaign on social media against Mr. Obama’s policies. One post includes a photo of Mr. Obama on the golf course with insets of U.S. soldiers in combat and American flag-draped coffins. The caption reads: “O American soldiers! Obama sends you to death and he just goes to play golf.”
In even some Western countries, the tactics appear to be gaining traction. London-based polling firm ICM Research conducted a survey in Britain, France and Germany to test whether people were aware of the Islamic State and in favor of the group’s radical actions.
At least 15 percent of the roughly 1,000 French citizens polled responded favorably to the group’s terror tactics, according to Russia Today. ICM conducted the poll on behalf of Russian news agency Rossiya Segodnya.
The poll was conducted Aug. 19, the same day a videotape surfaced showing a member of the Islamic State beheading American journalist James Foley. It was unclear whether the poll was prompted by Foley’s killing, which his executioners said was done to send a message to President Obama and the U.S. military.
“You’re no longer fighting an insurgency. We are an Islamic army and a state that has been accepted by large number of Muslims worldwide,” Mr. Foley’s executioner said. “So effectively, any aggression towards the Islamic State is aggression towards Muslims from all walks of life who has accepted the Islamic caliphate as their leadership. So any attempt by you, Obama, to deny the Muslims their rights of living in safety under the Islamic caliphate will result in the bloodshed of your people.”
The threat of radical jihadists returning to the United States is “a new hazard” for the Department of Homeland Security, said retired Army Maj. Mike Lyons, a senior fellow with the Truman National Security Project and a CBS Radio News analyst. As a result, the department must plan for a future where the jihadists leave their Middle East battlefield and trickle back to America, he said.
“If these people have been identified, there needs to be a discussion with regard to how and when they are allowed back in the U.S.,” he said.