The government is tracking at least 300 Americans who may be fighting with the Islamic State's terrorists in Iraq and Syria as concerns mount that the terror organization could become a threat to homeland security, senior U.S. officials say.
The officials, speaking anonymously because of the sensitivity of the situation, said Washington is concerned that radicalized fighters could return to the United States and put their newly acquired skills to use for domestic attacks, reports The Washington Times.
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"We know that there are several hundred American passport holders running around with ISIS in Syria or Iraq," one official said of the group, also known as the Islamic State or ISIL — more than earlier reports of about 100. "It's hard to tell whether or not they're in Syria or moved to Iraq."
Middle East expert Walid Phares told Newsmax TV
's "America's Forum" on Wednesday that number is "the tip of the iceberg"
and he expects more American jihadists to rise up.
"For every one volunteer who joins ISIS either from the United States or Europe, he or she would be one out of five who have been indoctrinated," Phares said. "Why would others join? Because of the success. The longer we let ISIS develop its strength on the ground, its propaganda, you're going to expect more."
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One such American, Douglas McAuthur McCain, 33, originally of San Diego, was killed over the weekend in Syria, his uncle told CNN.
The body and passport of McCain, 33, originally of San Diego, California, was discovered by members of the Free Syrian Army after he was killed in a firefight with the group.
McCain had been on a U.S. watch list of potential terrorism suspects, American officials said. If he had tried to re-enter the country, he likely would have faced an extra level of scrutiny before boarding any commercial airliner bound for the United States, officials told The New York Times.
Over the weekend, the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI issued an alert
urging the nation's law enforcement agencies to remain vigilant for signs of terror attacks after a series of extremist messages on social media sites that they fear could potentially trigger homegrown terrorism.
Photographs have popped up online, including one of the Islamic State's flag in front of the White House, and another in Chicago that features a threatening message.
Retired Army Maj. Mike Lyons, a senior fellow with the Truman National Security Project and a CBS Radio News analyst, said Homeland Security must plan for the days when jihadists return from the Middle East
"If these people have been identified, there needs to be a discussion with regard to how and when they are allowed back in the U.S.," he told The Washington Times.
But while Obama administration officials are concerned about the returning jihadists, they say their activities would be likely limited to smaller attacks, rather than large-scale incidents like the 9/11 attacks.
Lyons agreed, but said the jihadists could pose a threat over a longer period of time.
"Unlike the 9/11 terrorists, who worked as a team and [carried out] a plan over the course of years, individuals returning from Syria are likely a greater risk to be either lone wolf suicide bomber-type attackers or organizers/recruiters for cells who will conduct a more complex attack than a suicide bomb," he said.
Phares told Newsmax TV that ISIS is already here. Attacks such as the Fort Hood massacre and the Boston Marathon bombing are proof that those who have become radicalized will eventually lash out, he said.
"I am concerned about the networks already present in the United States, on US soil," he said. "Many jihadists who have been indoctrinated and radicalized and recruited here on our soil ... are switching to ISIS. That's where the real threat is going to be."
However, not everyone is convinced ISIS's radicalized fighters pose a threat to the United States.
"We love scaring ourselves," Aaron Miller, a national security analyst and the vice president for new initiatives at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a Washington think tank, told the Washington Times.
"I mean, we've become masters at it. We did it during the Cold War, and we did it in the wake of 9/11. And while our response to Afghanistan was extremely appropriate, look what we did in Iraq," Miller said.
Miller said ISIS is projected to have between 10,000 and 15,000 members, not enough to provoke fear.
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