Many US citizens and residents who traveled to Iraq and Syria to fight alongside terrorist groups remain a potential threat to the United States and could recruit future generations of extremists, according to a new study.
Nearly half of the 64 Americans who fought with Daesh, also known as ISIL or ISIS, as well as other terrorist groups, are believed to have survived the conflict, raising concerns that some of those militants could return home to wreak havoc on US soil, researchers at George Washington University said.
Researchers examined federal court records and interviewed law enforcement officials and family members of US nationals who joined ISIL and al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria.
“We know that foreign fighters acquire both the military skills and networks to commit more lethal attacks if they return home,” said Seamus Hughes, the deputy director of George Washington University’s Program on Extremism.
The exact number of US-based people who successfully left from the country is unclear. Officials have said only that about 250 to 300 left or tried to leave to join militant groups in Iraq and Syria. And not all of them made it.
Of those who successfully made it overseas, researchers found 12 returned to the US. Most were arrested but three, so far, have not been publicly charged for any crimes. Many also died in combat and 28 others are at large or their status was not publicly available, the study found.
Most of those who left the US to join terror groups in Syria or Iraq were US citizens or lawful permanent residents and averaged 27 years of age, the study found.
Following the collapse of Daesh in the region, American and European counterterrorism officials have scrambled to identify citizens who could pose a threat upon returning home.
“The information we have on people who’ve joined the fight in Syria is gathered from a lot of different places in a lot of different ways and guaranteeing accuracy is very hard,” a US counterterrorism official told ABC News. “It becomes a very complicated endeavor.”
US and European intelligence officials have recently stated that an unknown number of extremists from western nations, including the US, remain unidentified by authorities.
However, the study also found that fears once voiced by US officials of a “terrorist diaspora” seem to be overblown. Of the 64 so-called travelers who fought or otherwise supported Daesh, none have successfully carried out an attack in the United States.
Approximately 350 of the more than known 800 extremists who traveled to Syria from Britain are believed to have returned to the UK since 2012, further complicating security concerns in a country that endured four terrorist attacks in 2017 after a dozen years without any incidents.
Critics say the American government and its allies encouraged the spread of Daesh in the Middle East to create a perpetual war in the region and advance the US military-industrial complex.