June 12 (UPI) -- As forces of an international coalition squeeze the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Western officials said they are bracing for a heightened terror threat by battle-hardened foreign fighters returning home amid the demolition of the IS caliphate.
Robert Gates, a former U.S. defense secretary, said he expects IS to "metastasize" and become "more active and more aggressive in a variety of places in the West."
Three years after racing through Syria and Iraq, IS is on the defensive. Iraqi officials said the area under IS control has shrunk from 40 percent of the country to about 7 percent. A major offensive by Iraqi troops is under way against IS in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul and U.S.-backed forces in neighboring Syria are preparing for an attack on the jihadist headquarters in the city of Raqqa.
Close to 70,000 IS fighters have been killed in recent years, U.S. officials said. U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Michael Nagata of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, as part of a panel convened in April by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington said about 40,000 foreign IS fighters from at least 120 countries had been identified. He spoke of "the largest foreign terrorist fighter challenge the world has seen in the modern age."
Gates said that while a defeat of IS in Mosul and Raqqa was important, it would be wrong to talk about an overall victory because "people leave, scurry away from those sites" to hatch terror plots elsewhere.
"Just as we have seen al-Qaida metastasize subsequent to the killing of Osama bin Laden back in 2011 to Africa and North Africa and elsewhere in the Middle East, I think you will see ISIS become more active and more aggressive in a variety of places in the West, having lost the caliphate and these cities like Raqqa and Mosul," Gates said at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank in Washington.
He said the attack of a suicide bomber in Manchester, in which 22 people were killed at a pop concert, could be a harbinger. A setback for the IS on Middle Eastern battlefields "doesn't mean they're defeated individually or that they've lost their commitment to attacking the crusaders, or whatever they want to call them. It just means they'll change their tactics," Gates said.
The "metastasizing" may have started already in some parts of the world. Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte warned that IS fighters driven from the Middle East could end up in his country. Authorities said a rebellion by IS-related fighters in the southern Philippines is fueled in part by militants from Indonesia and Singapore. Several militants involved in the Paris attacks in which 130 people died in 2015 are thought to have traveled to Syria.
An improved exchange of information about who is travelling to and from IS areas in Syria and Iraq is crucial, Nagata said. Turkey, which shares 807 miles of border with Syria and Iraq, said it has put almost 40,000 people suspected of being potential foreign fighters on a no-entry list. Ankara has deported more than 3,000 suspected foreign fighters since the war in Syria began in 2011.
Efforts to prevent the spread of foreign fighters from Syria and Iraq to other countries highlight the importance of Turkey, which has taken in nearly 3 million refugees from Syria, in the West's counterterrorism strategies. Critics inside and outside Turkey said Ankara gave foreign fighters free rein to reach extremist groups in Syria in the first years of the war, an accusation rejected by Turkish officials.
As pressure on IS mounts, Turkey's cooperation in tackling the foreign fighter problem was crucial, a Western official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said in reference to the country's geographical situation and refugee community. "For that reason alone, America does not want to lose Turkey," the official said.
Relations between Washington and Turkey entered a rough patch after Ankara failed to persuade the U.S. government not to arm Kurdish fighters in Syria. U.S. politicians have condemned the conduct of bodyguards of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who were filmed kicking and beating protesters in Washington during a recent visit by Erdogan.
Nagata argued that, while the broadest possible international cooperation is the best way to stop foreign fighters, quick results should not be expected. "We are not going to end this threat this year," he said at CSIS. "It will take years to solve this problem."
Even though Western officials agreed on the threat posed by foreign fighters fleeing IS areas in the Middle East, some said home-grown extremists in the West are more dangerous.
A senior European security official said during a recent visit to Washington that he had provided his U.S. counterparts with evidence showing that "lone wolf" attacks by people radicalized by IS-inspired messages of violence at home were far more numerous than attacks by returning foreign fighters. "That came as a surprise to the Americans," the official said.
This article originally appeared at The Arab Weekly.