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20,000 foreign fighters head to Syria: US
By Dan De Luce
Washington (AFP) Feb 11, 2015

Obama asks Congress for Islamic State war powers
Washington (AFP) Feb 11, 2015 - President Barack Obama on Wednesday asked Congress to back a global war against the Islamic State group, albeit with curbs on his ability to send in US ground forces.

Tantamount to a declaration of war, the authority would provide Obama political cover at home and a firmer legal basis on which to prosecute the fight.

In a letter to lawmakers, Obama said granting him war authority "would show the world we are united in our resolve" to defeat jihadist militants who now control swaths of Syria and Iraq.

Since the mid-2014, the US military has been conducting a campaign of airstrikes against IS in Iraq and Syria.

But the request signals a ramping up of pressure on IS as the Iraqi government prepares for a major ground offensive, expected within months.

IS "poses a threat to the people and stability of Iraq, Syria, and the broader Middle East, and to US national security," Obama said in the letter.

"If left unchecked," he added, IS "will pose a threat beyond the Middle East, including to the United States homeland."

With the death of US hostage Kayla Mueller and the killing of three other US hostages, Obama has been under pressure to re-examine his strategy and step up the fight.

But in order to win the backing of the Republican-controlled Congress, and overcome jitters within his own Democratic party, Obama placed limits on his power to deploy the military in both form and scope.

The proposed legislation "does not authorize the use of the United States Armed Forces in enduring offensive ground combat operations," the draft sent to Congress read.

That does not rule out special forces or hostage rescue operations, but does preclude a ground invasion or peace enforcement mission.

The authorization would also "terminate three years after the date of the enactment of this joint resolution, unless reauthorized."

Obama will also have to report to Congress every six months.

But there is no geographical limit on the scope of military actions.

With the 2016 elections approaching and the bitter arguments over previous wars still seared in US political memory, Obama was quick to make clear this would not be a sequel to Iraq or Afghanistan.

The text, Obama said, "would not authorize long?term, large-scale ground combat operations like those our nation conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Local forces, rather than US military forces, should be deployed to conduct such operations."

Bipartisan backing for the measure could help head off divisive party splits over the issue.

Republican Senator Bob Corker, who chairs the Senate foreign relations committee, said he would "quickly begin to hold rigorous hearings" on the authorization, which he supports.

Foreign fighters are flocking to Syria at an "unprecedented" rate, with more than 20,000 volunteers from around the world joining the Islamic State or other extremist groups, US intelligence officials said Tuesday.

The foreign fighters have traveled to Syria from more than 90 countries, including at least 3,400 from Western states and more than 150 Americans, according to the latest estimate from the National Counter-Terrorism Center (NCTC).

A majority of the foreign volunteers who arrived recently have joined forces with the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq, it said.

The estimate of the total number of foreign fighters flocking to Syria was up from a previous estimate in January of roughly 19,000, according to NCTC.

No precise numbers are available "but the trend lines are clear and concerning," Nicholas Rasmussen, NCTC director, said in prepared remarks for a congressional hearing on Wednesday.

"The rate of foreign fighter travel to Syria is unprecedented. It exceeds the rate of travelers who went to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, or Somalia at any point in the last 20 years," he said.

The volunteers come from a range of backgrounds and "do not fit any one stereotype," Rasmussen said.

"The battlefields in Iraq and Syria provide foreign fighters with combat experience, weapons and explosives training, and access to terrorist networks that may be planning attacks which target the West," he said.

Western governments have voiced increasing alarm over the flow of foreign volunteers heading to the Syrian conflict, particularly in the aftermath of jihadist attacks in Paris that left 17 dead.

In the months-long battle for the Syrian town of Kobane near the Turkish border, large numbers of foreign fighters were among the jihadists killed, according to US officials.

Kurdish forces, backed up by US-led air strikes, eventually succeeded in fending off an attempt by the IS group to seize Kobane.

- Propaganda appeals -

The IS militants are able to recruit new volunteers partly because of their savvy use of propaganda on social media, producing videos and appeals in a range of languages, Rasmussen said.

Apart from grisly images of murders of hostages and battlefield executions, the group also tries to reach alienated youth by promoting images of a welcoming, "bucolic" life in their self-declared caliphate, he said.

Catering to a younger, thrill-seeking audience, the IS jihadists employ references to Western brands and popular video games, he said.

"They have also coined pithy 'memes' such as, 'YODO: You Only Die Once. Why not make it martyrdom?'"

Al-Qaeda and its branches in the Middle East and Africa have never displayed such an acumen with propaganda, he added.

The NCTC director's prepared testimony for the House Homeland Security Committee, which holds a hearing on Wednesday, was released to AFP on Tuesday.

There was no single route the foreign fighters travel to reach Syria, but most eventually pass through Turkey "because of its geographic proximity to the Syrian border areas," he said.

The recruits have taken advantage of Turkey's visa-free travel arrangements with about 69 governments, including with European Union states, the director said.

Turkey has bolstered its effort to stem the flow and deny entry to potential foreign fighters. The country now has a travel ban list that includes some 10,000 people.

But while Turkey and other European countries have strengthened border controls and taken other steps, "significant work remains" to prevent volunteers from heading to Syria or to stop them from returning, he said.

In the end, the only way to counter extremist threats and the IS group is to "diminish the appeal of terrorism and dissuade individuals from joining them in the first place," Rasmussen said.

In a statement for Wednesday's hearing, the Republican chairman of the House committee, Michael McCaul, said he was "worried about our ability to combat this threat abroad, but also here at home."

The threat of homegrown extremism, in which individuals inspired by Islamist propaganda are motivated to launch attacks, also remains cause for concern but has not intensified, he said.

The NCTC believes the annual threat of homegrown violence could result in fewer than 10 "uncoordinated and unsophisticated" plots in the United States from a pool of up to a few hundred people, he said.

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