President Barack Obama met with military leaders from 20 nations at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on Tuesday, discussing strategies and challenges ahead for the coalition fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
The meeting followed another round of U.S.-led airstrikes in Syria. In the strategic border town of Kobane, fighting between ISIL and U.S. allies intensified. In Iraq, the United Nations says, more than 180,000 people have fled the city of Hit in Anbar province since ISIL took it over.
“The city’s residents are mostly Sunni, but it was also home to, refuge to, a large number of displaced people who fled there from other parts of Anbar province before,” said U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees spokeswoman Melissa Fleming. “It’s really tragic that displaced people who have fled once, twice, three times, even four times are finding themselves having to flee again.”
Throughout the sprawling battlefield, there are what security officials call foreign fighters, militants attracted to the region from faraway places like Europe, North Africa and the United States.
The CIA estimates there are about 15,000 militants from 80 countries in Iraq and Syria. Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and Jordan have each seen more than 2,000 people leave for the battlefield. More than 100 fighters have arrived from the U.S.
Social media like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook play a large role in militant recruitment. One family in the south of France saw the the power of the message firsthand.
Eighteen-year-old Sahra grew up in the village of Lézignan-Corbières. Her family said relations turned sour after she demanded to wear a full Islamic veil. She eventually dropped out of school and, her family said, began locking herself in her room with her computer.
One day she disappeared and wound up in Syria.
“It is psychological kidnapping,” said Sahra’s mom, Severine Mehenni. “I don't know for how long Sahra was indoctrinated. She was spending a lot of time on the Internet. But they must have told her various things and brainwashed her to make her reach this point.”
Sahra says she’s not returning to France. If she does, she could face terrorism charges.
Internet messaging and the flow of fighters from the U.S. to Syria and Iraq have U.S. Homeland Security officials worried.
“The new phenomena that I worry about are the foreign fighters and the threat of violent extremism here at home,” said Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. “I think those two phenomena in particular are new post-9/11 phenomena that our government needs to prepare for."
Nearly three weeks ago Obama met with the United Nations Security Council to address this threat, and the council passed a resolution requiring nations to adopt laws severely penalizing foreign fighters.
Who are these foreign fighters?
Does government dysfunction, unemployment and poverty in their home countries spur their urge to fight?
We consulted a panel of experts for the Inside Story.