CIA: We have between 20,000 and 31,500 ISIS fighters on the ground
The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group now has about 20,000 to 31,500 fighters on the ground, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) claimed on Thursday, much higher than a previous estimate of 10,000.
Among those in Syria are 15,000 foreign fighters including 2,000 Westerners, some of whom have joined ISIS, a US intelligence official told AFP.
The figures were revealed one day after US President Barack Obama vowed to expand an American offensive against ISIS, a plan which includes US airstrikes in Syria, expanded attacks in Iraq and new support for Iraqi government forces.
“CIA assesses the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) can muster between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters across Iraq and Syria, based on a new review of all-source intelligence reports from May to August,” CIA spokesman Ryan Trapani said in a statement.
“This new total reflects an increase in members because of stronger recruitment since June following battlefield successes and the declaration of a caliphate, greater battlefield activity, and additional intelligence,” he said.
ISIS has seized large swathes of territory in Iraq in recent months, displaying brutal tactics that include grizzly executions.
The White House has insisted that Obama is authorized to strike ISIS in Iraq and Syria – despite the fact that the Syrian government has said unapproved US airstrikes would be a breach of its sovereignty – under a law passed by Congress after the September 11 attacks in 2001.
However Obama learned Thursday that he may have a wait on his hands before Congress signs off on his plan to train and equip Syrian rebels, a key plank in his strategy.
Also on Thursday the Pentagon announced that US combat aircraft will soon start flying out of a base in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq as part of a “more aggressive” air campaign against ISIS.
The use of Erbil air base reflects the broadening US offensive, though attack helicopters already have been flying out of bases in Iraq.
Critics opposed to US involvement in the conflict with ISIS have pointed out that Washington in partnership with its Gulf allies, including Saudi Arabia, played a role in the formation and expansion of extremist groups like ISIS by arming, financing and politically empowering armed opposition groups in Syria.