100-plus Americans fight with ISIS — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Wednesday that more than 100 Americans are fighting with Islamic State militants, the first time the Pentagon chief has put a number on U.S. citizens aiding the terrorists.
Hagel cited the Americans aiding the jihadists to illustrate the threat that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria poses to the United States. “We are aware of over 100 U.S. citizens who have U.S. passports who are fighting in the Middle East with ISIL forces,” Hagel told CNN, using the U.S. government’s preferred acronym for the Islamic State. “There may be more. We don’t know.” U.S. intelligence officials have said that as many as 300 Americans may have joined forces with the Islamic State. “It makes you sick to your stomach, but it again reminds you of the brutality and barbarism that is afoot in some places in the world.”
Vice President Joe Biden used stronger words Wednesday during a speech in Portsmouth, New Hampshire: “We will follow them to the gates of hell.”
President Barack Obama employed more restrained language. “Those who make the mistake of harming Americans will learn that we will not forget,” he said from the NATO summit in Estonia.
— From wire reports
PARIS — New laws make it easier to seize passports. Suspected fighters are plucked from planes. Authorities block finances and shut down radical mosques.
In cyberspace, Silicon Valley firms are wiping extremist content from websites, such as video of the recent beheading of two American journalists. And Western intelligence agencies are exploring new technologies to identify returning fighters at the border.
Governments from France to Indonesia have launched urgent drives to cut off one of the Islamic State group’s biggest sources of strength: foreign fighters. At the heart of the drive is mounting concern that the organization is training the next generation of international terrorists.
Those fears have gained urgency from the group’s horrific methods: A British militant is suspected of beheading two American journalists, and a Frenchman who fought with the Islamic State group is accused in a deadly attack on a Jewish museum in Belgium.
With each video that ricochets around social networks, the militants gain new recruits.
“If neglected, I am certain that after a month they will reach Europe and, after another month, America,” Saudi King Abdullah said Friday, calling for a strong international response to the onslaught in Syria and Iraq.
After video emerged online of the killing of an American journalist last month, tech companies drafted plans to scrub the web of such content, and implemented them this week after a second beheading, a Silicon Valley insider said Wednesday. YouTube and Twitter accounts are among those shut down unusually quickly. According to terms of service, violent content is cause for suspension.
Islamic State militants who have migrated to Diaspora, a decentralized social network, are in many cases greeted with banners saying they are unwelcome. But they will find newly sophisticated ways to get a message out, according to Jamie Bartlett of the Demos think tank.
Britain has taken a particularly active role in censoring content deemed to break the country’s strict rules against extremist propaganda. U.K. officials recently revealed they have been granted “super flagger” status on sites such as YouTube, meaning their requests to remove videos with grisly content or that encourage terrorism are fast-tracked.
Over the past four years, an Internet-focused counterterror unit of London’s Metropolitan Police instigated the removal of 45,000 pieces of content, the force said last week. Islamic State militants, however, have just as quickly found other, more decentralized platforms.
In the United States, officials are trying to identify potential jihadis by comparing travel patterns with those of people who have already joined the fight, a counterterrorism official said, speaking only on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss intelligence matters.
A French law to seize passports is being fast-tracked through parliament, and the government is ramping up arrests of increasingly young teenagers making plans for jihad.
That can mean last-minute arrests at the airport, as happened to a 16-year-old girl and her alleged recruiter trying to pass through security in Nice on Saturday, and to a man at Australia’s Melbourne Airport who was pulled off a flight last week carrying tens of thousands of dollars in cash and the Islamic State group’s black-and-white flag in his luggage.
Britain proposed laws Monday to let police seize the passports of those suspected of having traveled abroad to fight, while the Netherlands is making it easier to strip people of Dutch nationality and go after Internet providers that spread propaganda.
In Bosnia, authorities carried out a major anti-terror sweep on Wednesday. They detained 16 people suspected of fighting in Syria and Iraq and recruiting Balkan men to join Islamic militants there.
Anti-jihadi efforts are being ramped up in traditionally Muslim countries as well: Indonesia is breaking up meetings of Islamic State supporters and seizing T-shirts and other items promoting the group, and Tunisia is shutting down mosques and suspected financiers.
For the radicals who have already reached Syria, the focus of European spy agencies is on trying to identify them when they return. That can mean scouring social media sites for photos of foreign fighters or electronic intercepts for hints of terrorist activity abroad.
The concern is that returning fighters will launch attacks at home. Australia draws on lessons from Afghanistan a decade ago, saying of the 25 citizens who returned to Australia after fighting against Western interests there, two-thirds became involved in terrorist activities back home.
A compilation of government estimates shows more than 2,000 people with European passports have fought or are fighting in Syria and Iraq — with most looking to join the Islamic State group.
But measures taken so far to keep Europeans from leaving have had no noticeable effect, said Trond Hugubakken, spokesman for the Norwegian security service PST. “It has an effect on some individuals, but if that’s permanent or just delaying their traveling is hard to tell.”
Britain, home to an estimated 400 fighters in Syria and now Iraq, had been emphasizing outreach to universities, religious centers and prisons. On Monday, the government said it hoped to bolster laws to block returning fighters from re-entering the U.K. and strengthen monitoring if they do.
Those proposals, like those under consideration in France and the Netherlands, marked a hard-line shift.
Over the weekend, influential imams in Britain issued an unprecedented fatwa against Islamic State militants, calling the group “a heretical, extremist organization.” The religious decree banned British Muslims from joining and said they have an obligation “to actively oppose its poisonous ideology.”
There has been little outcry in France — which has sent Europe’s largest contingent of jihadi fighters to Syria and Iraq, estimated at 900 — to plans to seize passports of would-be jihadis and make it easier to shut down websites.