Did Islamic State really call a convention of nuts and have 15,000 people show up?

November 4, 2014

Islamic State fighter gestures from a vehicle in the countryside of the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani, after the Islamic State fighters took control of the area

Last week, the Guardian reported, “The United Nations has warned that foreign jihadists are swarming into the twin conflicts in Iraq and Syria on ‘an unprecedented scale’ and from countries that had not previously contributed combatants to global terrorism.”

“A report by the U.N. Security Council, obtained by the Guardian,” the story continued, “finds that 15,000 people have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight alongside the Islamic State (ISIS) and similar extremist groups.”

Multiple news organizations picked up the Guardian’s scoop but added little. It seems that none had gotten the report, which the United Nations has not released.

But this is a huge story demanding lots more difficult reporting. Have 15,000 terrorist wannabes really trooped in to Iraq and Syria from what the Guardian reports the United Nations says is “more than 80 countries” to join a group whose major calling card is beheading Westerners for show and otherwise slaughtering nonbelievers?

Islamic State fighters stand along a street in the countryside of the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani, after taking control of the area

That’s a huge number, dwarfing anything we have previously been told about the number of fanatics recruited from around the globe to join Islamic State’s fight.

What information is the United Nation basing its estimate on? Are the numbers real? Are they growing as fast as the Guardian’s story implies?  Who carried out this “report” for the U.N. Security Council? If the recruits are able to be counted and even have their countries of origin identified, as the report implies, why can’t they be tracked and stopped?

Or, on closer look, is the report a vague estimate published to highlight the threat so that the world will pay attention?

Assuming the report’s findings look real, what is motivating recruits from as far afield as the Maldives, Chile, Russia and Northern Ireland? Who are these people?

Has Islamic State’s use of social media and other digital propaganda, including videos of the beheadings, worked so well that the group has been able to convene a convention of all the world’s crazies, arm them and send them out to battle? We need to read and see as many different case histories as reporters can gather.

That, of course, is easier said than done. Trying to get that story from any of those 15,000 recruits could, by definition, be a suicide mission. But reporters should at least try to track down the families of the recruits. The world needs to understand what is going on here.

Then there’s the question of how long the recruits are typically staying and what their leaders’ priority is. Are they being encouraged to come and get trained and then go home to fight? Or are they being encouraged to fight in Syria or Iraq as long as possible and only urged to continue the battle elsewhere once they decide to return home?

Which leads to all the unprecedented security issues — for the United States and every other civilized country — raised by the apparent burgeoning of an indoctrinated and trained army like this.

For starters, should this change the way we think about all the privacy issues raised by the Edward Snowden leaks that revealed the National Security Agency’s seemingly unbounded effort to track people? Should knowing that there are 15,000 trained fanatics roaming the world targeting Western democracies make us more willing to let agencies like the NSA sift through everything and everyone’s lives?

If we know that these recruits are getting into Iraq and Syria mostly through the border of one country, maybe Turkey, should a Western alliance execute a kind of reverse border-control strategy and line up all the forces necessary to block people from leaving Turkey for Syria or Iraq? Could we get the Iranians and Saudis to do the same thing from the east and south?

Are we already trying to do this?

Is there any way we can and should change our passport system — perhaps even by embedding chips in passports — so that we can actually know when people returning home have been in Syria or Iraq? Or other hot spots as they arise?

Finally, what are we trying to do, and what more can we do, to counter what appears to be an increasingly successful image campaign by the world’s worst villains?

In that regard, I’d like to see what my former colleague — former Time Managing Editor Richard Stengel — now under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs — is up to. I’ve read lots of stories, like this one, extolling Islamic State’s social media savvy and referring vaguely to how Stengel and others are trying to counter it.

But these reports have not pinned down what Stengel has been trying to do and whether and why it has worked or failed.

Have bureaucratic or other constraints (the constraints of political correctness, perhaps) limited Stengel? What other, more creative or aggressive measures do private-sector messaging experts suggest we try?

An army of 15,000 (and growing) violent, crazy people — with many carrying U.S. passports or passports from countries where they don’t need visas to come to the United States — should start everyone thinking outside the box. And an army of journalists should be tracking all that.


PHOTO (TOP): An Islamic State fighter gestures from a vehicle in the countryside of the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani, after the Islamic State fighters took control of the area, Oct. 7, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer

PHOTO (INSERT): Islamic State fighters stand along a street in the countryside of the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani, after taking control of the area, Oct. 7, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer

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