CIA triples estimate of ISIL fighters
WASHINGTON - Agence France-Presse
A flag of the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (ISIL) is seen on the other side of a bridge at the frontline of fighting between Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and Islamist militants in Rashad, on the road between Kirkuk and Tikrit, on Sept. 11. AFP PHotoIslamic State in Iraq and the Levant militants (ISIL) now have about 20,000 to 31,500 fighters on the ground in Iraq and Syria, the Central Intelligence Agency said Sept. 11, 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 ISIL, a U.S. intelligence official told AFP.
The figures were revealed one day after President Barack Obama vowed to expand an offensive against ISIL extremists, a plan which foresees new air strikes against ISIL in Syria, expanded attacks in Iraq and new support for Iraqi government forces.
"CIA assesses the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant 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.
Senior U.S. officials have voiced concern at the presence of foreign fighters among the Sunni extremists who hold Western passports, potentially enabling them to return from the battlefield prepared to carry out terror attacks in Europe or the United States.
ISIL militants have seized large swathes of territory in Iraq in recent months, displaying brutal tactics and releasing videos of the grisly executions of two American reporters.
The White House has insisted that President Barack Obama is authorized to strike ISIL in Iraq and Syria under a law passed by Congress after the September 11 attacks in 2001.
However Obama learned Sept. 11 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 to destroy ISIL radicals.
Also on Sept. 11the Pentagon announced that U.S. 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 ISIL jihadists.
The use of Arbil air base reflects the broadening U.S. offensive, though attack helicopters already have been flying out of bases in Iraq.
The announcement came on the 13th anniversary of the September 11 attacks in 2001 - a day that fell, in a trace of bitter irony, only hours after Obama's remarks steeling Americans for a battle against Muslim fanaticism in the Middle East.