Army Lt. Gen. Michael K. Nagata, director of the National Counterterrorism Center’s Directorate for Strategic Operational Planning, spoke about the foreign terrorist fighter issue at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here.
Nagata said that some 40,000 foreign terrorist fighters across at least 120 countries have been identified, so far.
That number has “inherent imprecision in it,” he added.
“It is probably the most ethnically diverse, sociologically diverse, non-monolithic … foreign fighter problem we have seen, so far,” Nagata said.
Simply identifying the nature and scope of the problem, he said, is “unfinished work today,” but it is “inarguably the largest foreign fighter challenge the world has seen in the modern age.”
Phase One: Defining the Problem
The general said the world has responded to the problem in two phases. The first, which began four years ago, was “simply recognizing we had a problem.”
“The more we looked at it in those early days, the more troubling just the volume of indicators we had were,” Nagata said.
He said there was “enormous inconsistency” around the world about whether traveling to fight for ISIS was a crime. The United Nations Security Council addressed that issue in September of 2014, passing Resolution 2178, which “urged all nation-states to act against this problem, perhaps most importantly in making it a criminal activity.”
Phase Two: Sharing Intelligence
“The most vivid challenge we now face is ensuring that the information and intelligence about the travel, the plans, the intentions and identities of foreign terrorist fighters are as broadly known as possible everywhere in the world,” he said.
Foreign fighters seek to mask their travel, Nagata said.
“They try to hide within … the free flow of people, goods and services around the world,” he said. “ … So getting information and intelligence about the plans, intentions and travel of a foreign fighter is inherently difficult.”
That is the challenge the world now faces, Nagata said.
“If a law enforcement actor, an intelligence officer, a civil society member somewhere in the world believes they have information or intelligence about a potential foreign fighter, can that information be shared with the widest possible audience to increase the likelihood that someone along their route of travel can prevent them from reaching their destination?” he asked.
Nagata said intelligence sharing has gotten better since the U.N. Security Council passed its resolution.
“We have made inarguable progress in many arenas,” he said. “Is it good enough? No, it is not good enough; particularly when you consider the size, the quantity of this problem.”
The United States has been and still is addressing how to ensure that every part of the government is contributing to the effort to counter foreign fighters, the general said. He noted that effort has been ongoing since 9/11.
Global Terrorism Threat
Secondly, Nagata said, “We had to adapt our thinking, both as a government and as an international coalition, against the Islamic State, about the fact, unfortunately, that the very welcome defeat of ISIS’s army-like capabilities in Iraq and Syria will not bring an end to the global terrorist attack threat that ISIS poses, including by the utilization of foreign fighters.”
Defeating ISIS in Iraq and Syria is a must, he said, and “we are well on the way to doing so, although it will take continued months of very serious effort to do that.”
Defeating the military threat of ISIS will not end the foreign fighter threat, he noted.
“There is still so much more work to do even after we have defeated its army,” Nagata said.
ISIS continues to inspire foreign fighters, some of whom travel to places other than Iraq and Syria to join part of the Islamic State, he said.
“That is related to the original [foreign fighter] problem, but it is different than the original problem,” he said. “We have to grapple with that, as well.”
Nagata said the United States needs strategic patience to combat the foreign fighter problem.
“We are not going to end this threat this year,” he said. “I don’t think we can identify a time horizon within which we will somehow contain and eliminate the ISIS-related foreign terrorist fighter problem. We can, if we do this properly we will, but it will take years to solve this problem.”
(Follow Karen Parrish on Twitter: @dodnewskparrish)